Malcolm Arnold: A Life In Symphonies

Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall, unknown photographer.
Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall, unknown photographer (with thanks to Tom Hammond).
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

‘Why do you want to be a composer? You’re the best trumpet player in England.’

So asked the ageing composer Vaughan Williams to a 27-year-old Malcolm Arnold. The story is related in Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, a superlative biography by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Malcolm had played in the London Philharmonic when Vaughan Williams conducted the premiere of his fifth symphony. Three years on from that probing question, he would stand in the Festival Hall in London, newly opened in the 1951 Festival of Britain, and conduct his own first symphony.

On the tenth anniversary of Malcolm Arnold’s death, it is worth visiting Meredith and Harris’ superbly researched and beautifully written book, which provides a riveting account of a man whose life story is both little known and completely extraordinary.

Malcolm Arnold was born in 1921 in Northampton, the youngest of five children. His family were proudly upper-middle class, but behind the respectable front not all was well. Shoe manufacture was the family trade, but Malcolm’s father, an emotionally volatile man, had founded a rival firm to his grandfather after a falling out. The family also had a history of mental illness – two of Malcolm’s aunts had ended their lives in a mental hospital, another had committed suicide.

There were other tensions too. His sister Ruth was a rebel against the prevailing norms, a feminist and poet who was expelled from school and had her own mental health problems. It was through her record collection that the young Malcolm discovered jazz, inspiring him to take up the trumpet. Seeing Louis Armstrong perform in the flesh while on a holiday in Bournemouth would cement his desire to master the instrument.

The Arnolds were a well-off musical family, and with plenty of opportunities for joint music making Malcolm also took up piano and violin. But it was when a local organist gave him music theory lessons that his unusual talent became obvious. He showed an astonishing speed of absorption, and a voracious appetite to learn about all the latest musical developments.

Malcolm won a place at the Royal College of Music where, alongside trumpet, he studied composition and conducting. At the same time, the shy teenager came out of his shell. He developed something of a reputation for his extra-curricular hijinks and promiscuity – keenly encouraged, if not embellished, by Malcolm himself.

But it was not all fun and games. By this time, Britain was at war. Tragedy struck when his brother Philip, a pilot in the RAF, failed to return from a mission. It would be eight agonising months before the family received official confirmation of his death. Malcolm, sharing the progressive sympathies of his sister Ruth, registered as a conscientious objector.

Malcolm was meanwhile developing a flair for composition. A string quartet entry to a Cobbett Phantasy competition won him second prize, despite being written in just five days. But at the same time a streak of unpredictable behaviour emerged. After an argument with a tutor, he ran off to Plymouth with a young woman from a nearby art college. Scandalised, his parents had to hire private detectives to find them, before he could eventually be coaxed back to his studies – his bad-boy reputation no doubt greatly enhanced.

Eventually Malcolm left college without qualifications, and took on a trumpet vacancy in the London Philharmonic. He would travel the length of the country on tour, part of a wartime effort to boost public morale. It was relentless and repetitive work, but on a visit to Sheffield he met a young woman, Sheila, who would become his first wife.

Sheila was a steady, no-nonsense Yorkshire girl who was studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite her being previously engaged, within six months of intense courtship she and Malcolm were married. But while Sheila quickly fell under colourful young man’s spell, she would soon became aware that he had problems.

An early breakdown seems to have occurred in 1943, though details are sketchy. Shortly afterwards he composed his first orchestral work, the comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt. It was a vibrant score that would soon enable him to showcase his abilities and unlock the door into film music – and with it the vital income that could enable him to compose full-time.

A second sign of erratic behaviour occurred when, contradicting his pacifist views, Malcolm suddenly decided to enlist. His reasons were never clear, and the reality quickly turned to farce. Not long into his training in Canterbury, he shot himself in the foot to escape his ill-thought-out plan. It was just months before Germany surrendered.

After the war, composing for films soon become lucrative enough for him to give up orchestral playing. But if being a top trumpet player was not enough to satisfy his ambitions, neither was composing for documentary reels about tractors and factories. He wanted to make big artistic statements. Between films, Malcolm found time to compose his first symphony.

In 1948, now living in Twickenham, Sheila gave birth to a girl, Katherine. She was pregnant with their second child when, in 1950, Malcolm underwent a serious episode of mental disturbance. He was shouting and brandishing a knife, and Sheila managed to call the police. He was put into a mental hospital for three months, and underwent ‘Insulin Shock’ therapy – effectively inducing a coma, a form of treatment that has since been discredited.

Malcolm was released a few days before the birth of their son, Robert. Thankfully the treatments had not affected his musical abilities, and he soon composed his first set of English Dances for orchestra, a piece that would become one of his most popular.

Those long hours sat counting bars in orchestras had helped Malcolm develop a feeling for orchestration and clarity of colour. As he recalled, speaking about the first symphony:

When you sit in the orchestra, as I have, you can’t help seeing and being disgusted with the waste of players’ energies and talents on mountains of useless padding.

The symphony starts as if Malcolm is announcing his arrival as a serious composer – an insistent statement on brass and strings. The second movement shows touches of melodic charm, but is assaulted by outbursts of brass, while a grotesque military march in the final movement suggests his disillusionment with war. It’s a complex emotional landscape, from a mind in the run-up to a breakdown. But it also shows he was not setting out to easily win people over.

Some critics were hostile – terms like ‘disconcerting’, ‘wanton harshness’, and ‘self-consciously truculent’ were bandied about. Others were more positive, but it would only be the start of a fraught relationship with establishment opinion.

Meanwhile, Malcolm’s film career was blossoming. He was working hard, playing hard, and drinking hard. Sheila, trying her best to create a stable domestic environment, convinced him to take a break from film work and compose a second symphony. With a first movement of pastoral sunniness, a vibrant scherzo, and a roof-raising finale, it went on to be a huge hit. It shows Malcolm at his most charmingly extrovert, making a case that a symphony can be that rarest of things: fun.

Nevertheless, the slow movement is a lonely and desolate landscape, haunted by sinister bird-call figures on the piccolo. It betrays an underlying disquiet that cannot be totally forgotten. Nor would it be banished for long.

Malcolm’s professional reputation was now in the ascendency. He was popular with musicians, and known for the amazing speed of turning out film scores – often under huge time pressure. His ability to perfectly capture the mood and spirit of a commission was invaluable.

With all this success he was becoming wealthy, even famous. It may be hard to imagine today, but this was a time when classical music was regular prime-time television material, and in 1952 Malcolm was broadcast twice with the LPO. He was also growing rather fond of the high life, despite all his left-wing ideals. But in his spirited socialising he was becoming equally as careless with money as alcohol, dishing out enormously generous tips – much to Sheila’s chagrin.

An important friendship would come about when Malcolm met a young man called Gerard Hoffnung. Hoffnung, who played the tuba, was making a name for himself as a cartoonist and radio broadcaster. He shared Malcolm’s larger-than-life personality and sense of humour, and the two got along famously. Hoffnung interested Malcolm in his plans for a live music festival combining orchestral music and comedy. The resulting collaboration would produce one of the works that has most perpetuated Malcolm’s reputation as a ‘fun’ composer: the Grand, Grand Overture, featuring vacuum cleaners, floor polisher, and rifle – naturally dedicated to US President Hoover.

The festival was a huge success, with instant plans for a repeat. The Arnolds became close friends with Gerard and his wife Annetta.

Perhaps as an antidote to these comic pratfalls, the third symphony would be a work of deep seriousness. In 1957 Malcolm and Sheila attended the Prague Spring Festival, where they were sobered by the reality of life under communism, and met Shostakovich, a composer Malcolm much admired.

The symphony was written soon after their return, and shares some of the intensity of the Soviet composer. Malcolm was also processing the early death of his mother, who had died on his 34th birthday, and the result is a work of much darker tone and more rigorous argument than the second symphony. It is an impressive and powerful piece, and one that reveals a fascinating glimpse of the composer he might have become, if his natural curiosity had not taken him on a different path.

Critics, meanwhile, were mostly confused. How to square this with the vacuum cleaners, the tuneful film soundtracks? In fact, Malcolm was now at the top of his game in the cinema world – in 1958 he won an Oscar for his score to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and in the same year he composed for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The amount of work he was taking on was prodigious. For the second Hoffnung Festival he contributed a satirical piece called United Nations, which involved six bands playing across each other.

It all took its toll. When Malcolm was commissioned to write music for Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer, the realistic depictions of an asylum in the unscored footage greatly disturbed him. It must be a terrible thing, to fear for your own sanity out of lived experience. Soon enough Malcolm would have another breakdown, and another trip to hospital in a straightjacket. He underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) – a procedure that uses electricity to induce seizures. Mankiewicz’s score had to be completed by Buxton Orr.

In this period, his marriage was under enormous strain. Not only did Sheila have to contend with alcoholism and mental instability, but Malcolm had been having affairs too, and was often carelessly indiscreet about them. Then they were struck by further terrible news. Gerard Hoffnung had died of a brain haemorrhage, aged just 34.

In the fourth symphony, completed in 1960, Malcolm explored wider musical and political sympathies, augmenting the orchestra with exotic percussion. He was a huge fan of West Side Story, whose London run had begun in 1958 and which featured its own large percussion section. The tale of white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York had prescience, as in the same year West Indian immigrants were attacked by white gangs in the Notting Hill race riots – events which Malcolm later revealed had dismayed him.

In the first movement, outbursts from the percussion rub alongside a melody of twee banality, more like lush ‘Muzak’ than symphonic material. Malcolm, an early admirer of Mahler, shows us something of his idea that the symphony must ‘contain everything’, high-brow and low-brow, a cross-section of the conflicted world he finds himself in. It is an intriguing juxtaposition, and reveals the formation of a distinctive symphonic personality.

The premiere was enthusiastically received by the audience, but the critics did not shine to his musical tourism. Malcolm was now in no-mans-land: too wayward for conservative writers, but not avant-garde enough for the progressives. It also wasn’t hard to detect a snobbery at the cinema tunesmith: one sneered at ‘facile climaxes of routine film music’, another dismissed his ‘film music slush’. For all of his professional success, the lack of critical acceptance would hurt, and eventually harden into bitterness.

Fortunately, he still had admirers. A commission for another symphony arrived from the Cheltenham Festival. But in January 1961 came yet more shocking news. His eldest brother Aubrey had been found with his wife Wyn, both dead in their car, asphyxiated in a suicide pact. Aubrey had recently resigned from the family firm and was out of work.

At age 40, Malcolm had now experienced more than his fair share of bereavement. He would explicitly explore these feelings in the fifth symphony. In particular he chose to memorialise Gerard Hoffnung, using musical ciphers – a device where notes spell out letters. Gerard would be G and B (B denoting H in German notation), with A and B representing his widow Annetta. Furthermore, the opening theme is constructed from the notes signifying the home keys of all his symphonies up to this point, which seems to have been a kind of defiant statement to his critics.

The second movement forms the emotional heart of the work. Given Malcolm’s gift for melody, it is surprising that this is his only symphonic slow movement to centre around a big, romantic tune. But it is worth the wait. Growing out of Annetta’s initials on hushed strings, it is a meltingly gorgeous theme, full of tender compassion for those left grieving. Perhaps there was regret in there too. Annetta had lost a husband, but at this point Shiela was losing hers as well – their marriage was all but over.

The third movement treats us to another pop diversion; a bluesy interlude over glitzy string chords. Then, at the climax of the finale, comes a masterstroke. With a magnificently paced transition, Annetta’s theme suddenly returns in glory, sung out triumphantly on soaring strings. It is a genuinely spine-tingling reprise, and it overflows with emotion and goodwill. But just as we are set for a rousing finish, that erratic streak returns. The harmony slips, an unexpected minor chord blazes out instead. We suddenly lapse into a fade-out, with Gerard’s cipher softly chiming on tubular bells.

It was a stunningly audacious ending, but it worked. The audience at Cheltenham gave him a five-minute standing ovation. Meanwhile the critics, increasingly unsympathetic to melody and everything Malcolm stood for, would be ruthless. The composer had poured his heart out, and worst of all, won adulation for it. He was now a ‘tub-thumper’, who had ‘thrown the last shreds of discretion to the winds’.

Following his separation from Sheila, Malcolm met a young Scotswoman, Isobel Gray, twelve years his junior. They married in 1963, and Isobel gave birth to a son, Edward, the following year. By this point Malcolm was living in Surrey, but in 1965 the family decided to start a new life in Cornwall, where Malcolm had already spent happy summer holidays with Sheila and the children.

While Malcolm made plenty of new friends in the pubs around his new home near Padstow, his alcoholism and mood swings were getting worse. A trip to conduct at a musical summer school in Austria, attended by his daughter Katherine, resulted in the mortifying sight of him falling off the podium drunk, while conducting a rehearsal.

Then came more awful news. Ruth was dying of cancer. She was the sister who shared his artistic streak, his progressive ideals, the one who could understand his mental illness better than anyone. Malcolm later claimed that her death ‘nearly destroyed me. I nearly went mad. I didn’t know what to do’. Whatever his reasons, he would not visit her. There are many confounding moments in Malcolm’s life, but his failure to see Ruth before she died is one of the most difficult to swallow.

With all the critical barbs thrown his way, Malcolm felt increasingly insecure about his status as a composer, but he nonetheless began a sixth symphony without a commission. His relationship with Isobel was now stormy, and young Edward had been diagnosed autistic, which he found difficult to take. The ending of the fifth would become something of a turning point – it had climbed to an apex of passion, and then suddenly crashed to despair. It was almost a perfect encapsulation of his conflicted personality, but – in his symphonies at least – the mood would never fully recover.

In the first movement of the new symphony he credited the influence of the Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist who, like him, had struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. His homage to bebop takes the form of short phrases stabbing around against strange chords, while the eerie second movement includes a section imitating a 60s pop band. The galloping ebullience in the finale seems a defiant attempt to escape the stricken mood of the preceding music, but it continues to be haunted by it, and the bombastic close fails to convince that all is well.

Efforts to get the work performed proved that Malcolm was sliding further out of favour with establishment opinion. The appointment of arch-modernist Pierre Boulez at the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a sign of the times, and Malcolm could no longer hope for a premiere in London. The BBC Northern took it on in Manchester, but an internal BBC memo reveals the attitudes he was up against: ‘it’s better than his last symphony – though I still wouldn’t describe it as good’.

If Malcolm couldn’t win over the classical music establishment, he could still be a fearless champion of music for the people. In 1969 he conducted the premiere of a Concerto for Rock Group and Orchestra by Jon Lord, a founder member of Deep Purple. It turned out to be an ecstatically successful evening in the Albert Hall. Malcolm’s input was vital: assisting Lord with the scoring, and through sheer force of personality winning over the snootily sceptical orchestra. It cemented a lasting friendship.

All the while he was still drinking heavily, and spending heavily too. By the early 70s his finances, despite the significant film royalties, were in a mess. Eventually the family decided on a move to Ireland, where he would enjoy tax benefits, and where his daughter Katherine was now happily working. Here, in the village of Monkstown to the south of Dublin, Malcolm once again lost no time establishing himself in the local pubs, and made many friends, predictably including various younger women. One would prove a life-saver when, calling in on him by chance, she found him slumped over in the hallway, unconscious from an attempted overdose.

Malcolm’s seventh symphony would be one of his darkest, and perhaps the most disturbing. He claimed that its three movements depicted his children – Katherine, Robert and Edward respectively – and used ciphers for their names, along with Sheila and Isobel. But this is far from a loving family portrait – the music seems to be much more about his own mental turmoil. It is a powerful work with a tendency to violent outbursts, particularly in the menacing percussion of Robert’s second movement. The finale, however, takes a strangely upbeat turn with an episode mimicking Edward’s favourite Irish folk band, The Chieftains.

Malcolm’s alcoholism reached the stage where he was frequently drinking spirits at 8am, and he was not in a state for regular composition. Worse, his drunken mood swings were turning violent. Friends noticed Isobel had bruises, and they feared for her and Edward’s safety. Something had to give. One morning while Malcolm was out of the house, Isobel quickly packed bags with Edward and fled for the airport. They boarded a flight to London.

After further spells in hospital and another suicide attempt, Malcolm was coaxed back to London in 1977, where he could be supported and continue psychiatric treatment. A breakdown in 1978 saw him back in hospital, and he was given various anti-psychotic drugs. Later that year he would return and undergo more ECT. But by September he was on day release, and he began work on a surprise commission from America: his eighth symphony.

The eighth is a brighter work than the seventh, but its spring-like colouring is deceptive. Malcolm recycled a jolly marching tune he had composed for a film score of The Reckoning in 1969. It is pure Arnold: a highly whistleable, beautifully constructed melody. But he assaults it with stark dissonances, creating at times an uncomfortably bitter sarcasm. A strangely muted second movement is followed by a scampering, almost manic finale whose harmonies slip about in unexpected directions.

Malcolm’s final years in London turned into a slowly unfolding nightmare, with his mental illness spiralling out of control. Refusing to accept his marriage to Isobel was over, a campaign of harassment for access to Edward resulted in a restraining injunction taken out against him. A breakdown during a weekend of conducting a recording with EMI saw him once again arrested and sectioned. Clearly, there was a danger of irrevocably damaging professional relationships and setting back the case for his music. His family applied for his affairs to be put under the Court of Protection – meaning that he was deemed incapable of controlling his own money and it would be looked after for him. It was granted.

In October 1979 Malcolm was moved to a private psychiatric hospital, St Andrew’s, in his home town of Northampton. His first stay lasted four months, but he relapsed upon release. His second stay would last nearly two years, much of it under medication and with Malcolm deeply depressed.

This pattern could easily have repeated itself, with Malcolm probably drinking himself to death. But in 1984, now out of hospital, one of the most important relationships in his life would begin. His business manager called on Anthony Day, a 34-year-old who had worked as a carer to a retired stock broker. At this stage Malcolm had been given perhaps two years to live, with a brain scan that showed possibly significant damage. In fact he would live for another two decades, and what was originally intended as a short-term solution to look after him would see Anthony become Malcolm’s carer for the rest of the composer’s life.

If Malcolm was fortunate that the Court of Protection could afford a full-time carer, he positively struck gold with Anthony. Openly gay and openly fond of older men, his relationship to Malcolm became an incongruous partnership of incredible devotion to the (very much straight) composer. Living together in Norfolk, Anthony would bathe him, cook for him, take him to public engagements and even on foreign holidays. There were no days off. Such compassion, particularly from a non-family member, is difficult to comprehend.

Malcolm was still volatile, with a tendency for sudden flashes of nastiness, but it soon became noticed how Anthony developed an amazing knack for managing him. In 1986, on Anthony’s birthday, Malcolm began writing a symphony dedicated to his new companion. He told him it was the story of his recent life in Northampton and his move to Norfolk. It would also be his last.

When his publisher Faber were shown the completed score, however, alarm bells rang. There were so many empty staves. So much repetition. Was it unfinished? Had his musical abilities deteriorated from the years of alcoholism and ECT? Faber tried to convince Malcolm to look at it again. He refused. It was as intended.

Such was the unease around the symphony, it would not be given a concert performance for a full five years. When a premiere was eventually organised, it was conducted by Charles Groves. He understood there was something in the work, and argued that it needed to be performed ‘for Malcolm’s sake’.

The sceptics were well-intentioned, but they failed to see that Malcolm had created a piece that was distinctive and deeply moving. His diminished faculties, if anything, had resulted in enforced clarity. Gone are the ciphers and the ironic juxtapositions. The music is pared down and pure, with an unflinching gaze.

Unlike all this other symphonies, the ninth is dominated by a disproportionately long, slow finale, music of simple and eloquent bleakness worlds away from the furious energy of his early work. At times static strings chords gently hover, as if the music were wishing itself into non-existence. As if he were testing the patience of us all: conductor, orchestra and listeners.

Malcolm had spent a lifetime making a case that tonality and melody still had a role to play in classical music. It had won him both admiration and derision. Now, in parts of his last symphony, he would distill his music down to its very essences. The movement that haunts me the most is the second; a lilting allegretto in which a plaintive melody is repeated, over and over, in carefully varied colours and the barest two-part writing. This slowly circling pageant of sadness could not be better expressed by more sophisticated means – its very minimalism is its beautiful and painful truth.

Given Anthony’s undivided attention and care, Malcolm was able to enjoy much of his old age, including the honours accorded to elder statesmen of music. He attended celebratory concerts for this 75th and 80th birthdays, and in 1993 he received a knighthood. In remarkable defiance of his decades of heavy drinking, he was a month short of 85 when he died, on 23rd September 2006.

The highs and lows of Malcolm’s life are such that most of us cannot imagine. The issues his story throws up are difficult, and sensitive. But it is encouraging that in recent years progress has been made in lifting the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry and James Rhodes have talked frankly about their own experiences, the latter also on the role music has played in helping him. Channel 4 produced a documentary looking at the significant problem of alcoholism among classical musicians. Malcolm’s story has a part to play in illustrating these issues.

Having said that, we must resist defining his life solely by these struggles. Perhaps we can never fully disentangle his mental illness and alcoholism from his character, which undoubtedly had its flaws. But we can acknowledge the enormous complexity of the man and the psychological richness of his music, which stands alone on its own merits but which, in many cases, his biography can illuminate further.

Further to all this, Malcolm’s symphonies are a fascinating document of the twentieth century. From the very first, which he stood up to conduct in the newly opened Festival Hall, they seem to be hewn from the landscape of post-war Britain, the thrusting angles of its architecture, the warm glow of its neon lights.

The symphonies also touch on key questions about what we value, and why – questions of tonality and atonality, of cinema and concert hall, of the often marginal role that contemporary classical music still plays today. His detractors perhaps did not understand that there are many different ways to make music that is meaningfully of its time. With his feet firmly planted in jazz and film – two of the century’s defining art forms – Malcolm’s music grew out of the vibrant, confusing world he saw and heard around him.

Today his legacy feels belittled by omission, too often typecast by the jolly-hockey-sticks film scores and japes with domestic appliances. The lighter music is a crucial part of his repertoire, but it is the symphonies that afford the more penetrating insight into the man. They are challenging works, riven with contradictions: extrovert and withdrawn, humorous and stark, tender and angry. But they reward our attention.

As for Rogue Genius, I find it hard to imagine giving a stronger recommendation for a composer biography. Meredith and Harris evoke a rich sense of time and place, with a wealth of fascinating and entertaining anecdotes from those caught up in this extraordinary life. Quite simply, it should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in twentieth-century classical music.

Malcolm’s most famous quote is about music itself: he said it is ‘a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. And at the very end of that bleak finale to the ninth, we finally come to rest on a quietly luminous major chord. It is, perhaps, a light at the end of the tunnel.

‘Why do you want to be a composer?’, Vaughan Williams had once asked him. Yes, he had been the best trumpet player in England. He had worked with the biggest names. He had run away for a carefree month in Plymouth. He had shot himself in the foot. The horrors of the straightjacket, the convulsions of electric shocks through his brain. He had won an Oscar. He had made Hoffnung’s audience roar with laughter. He had basked in a standing ovation in Cheltenham. He had failed two women who loved him.

The long, silent hours in a Northampton hospital. Across town, the young Ruth played him her jazz records, all those years ago.

‘Music is a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. At that final major chord, it feels like we have weathered a storm. But as we try to take it all in, we could be forgiven if a little doubt remains. How can such an exhausting journey just resolve itself like that? How can it bear the weight of everything that came before?

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Applauding Audiences

A concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, at the former Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1937. Source.
A concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, at the former Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1937. Source.
Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14         By Kate Romano

Around two years ago, from the relative obscurity of a small soap box in a teaching room in Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I announced ‘I’m not going to chase audiences any more. I don’t like this kind of implied arrogance that I programme music and then try to persuade people to come. I don’t want to put on stuff if people don’t want to listen to it’.

A student said: ‘So are you going to make things like X Factor?’

‘No’, I said. ‘But I’m going to look hard at people, about where they go and what they do, how they get there, what they enjoy. I’m going to put audiences at the very heart of what I do’.

It was all very noble, and it turned out to be far less straightforward and far more interesting than I had imagined. ‘Who is your target audience and how will you reach them’? said every funding application I have ever submitted. Who and How indeed? If music is (arguably) organised and contained sound, then an audience is (arguably) organised and contained people. I’m not too attracted to that rather static idea. I’m not too attracted to the word ‘target’ either if I’m honest. But something akin to military strategy is what we seem to have adopted. From the oldest, largest and greatest cultural organisations to the smallest, most innovative start-ups, everyone has a finger firmly on the Audience Development pulse. As my ideas about music expand, so do my ideas about audiences.

How much of a contemporary thing is ‘actively seeking an audience’? I love to think of the packed Victorian Music Halls, the Sunday Band concerts held in London in the 1850s, attracting crowds of 14,000. That same decade, 86,000 people apparently attended an open-air concert held in Victoria Park and 15,000 were at a concert on Newcastle’s Town Moor. An estimated 20,000 heard the Penhryn Choir in 1897 at a charity concert to raise money for striking quarrymen. By 1914 there were over 75 Competitive Music Festivals in the UK with estimates of up to 60,000 musicians taking part, let alone audiences. And it wasn’t just about trailblazing numbers: there were attempts in the 19th century for music to act as a ‘social cement’ and bring together people from different backgrounds. In 1857 the Mayor of Leeds, John Hope Shaw, told the audience at a local ‘People’s Concert’ that it was ‘impossible that all classes of society could mingle with each other week after week as at these concerts without feeling their mutual regard for each other strengthen and confirmed’.

There is no doubting that Victorian and Edwardian Britain was an intensely musical place. But dig a little deeper and you find some remarkably familiar themes.

Audience development and outreach? Those music festivals of the 1900s weren’t all about elite competition: many placed musical education at the forefront believing that their good programming was creating ‘an audience for serious music’. And there was a particular emphasis on taking music into rural areas where Hubert Parry felt the minds of people were too often ‘troubled and dull’.

Education and underfunding? In 1870, the Education Bill excluded music in schools from grant aid and a long-term battle for recognition of music as a subject of any importance began.

And what of inclusivity? Despite the best efforts and persuasive rhetoric of John Hope Shaw et al., it was never possible to engineer rows and rows of perfectly mixed patrons. The poorest were excluded due to a lack of money for tickets and respectable clothes to turn up in. Music Hall audiences in the mid 1800s tended to be male and upper working class or lower middle class. Victorian and Edwardian musical organisations largely reflected class divisions and class tensions.

So whilst I may share and empathise with many of the idealisms of a 19th-century concert promoter, I wonder if aspirations of achieving a large and truly inclusive audience are as much a chimera now as they were then?

‘I’m not chasing audiences any more’ I said to my friend, the composer Nicola LeFanu. ‘I’m going to create musical events that there is genuine hunger and thirst for’. ‘But Kate,’ she said, ‘people don’t always know what they want…’

I grew up thinking that people knew exactly what they wanted, a premise that took root on an estate in a suburb of Sheffield built in the 1960s. I lived in one of around 120 identical bungalows – at least they were identical when the developers conceived of a simple set of sturdy family houses backing onto woodland. My walk to school took me past almost every one of those 120 bungalows and I was fascinated by what the occupants did to them. By the mid-80s, many displayed uneasy cubist extensions protruding from a multitude of flat available surfaces, the unassuming little red brick homes coaxed into some quite startling forms to suit needs and tastes. Others remained more modest with but with quirks of their own: leaded windowpanes, louvre paneled shutters, stone cladding, Victorian conservatories. Truly, no two are alike today. I still love a blatant and carefree display of taste. I enjoy the triumph of human spirit and a demonstration of freedom to choose. The simple message I took away was that people rather liked a framework in which to express their ideas and tastes.

X Factor may be many things, but it is also a framework in which to express ideas and tastes. And even for those not expressing themselves directly in that frame – the audience – there is still ample opportunity to give an opinion and they don’t hold back. Standing ovations and spontaneous mid-performance applause are commonplace. Tears flow freely – usually brought about by big emotional performances of songs with big emotional melodies (often supported by a big emotional back story). In terms of musical content, it is in fact a pretty good display of what Richard Hoggart called the ‘Gracie Fields Switch’  – a seamless and unquestioned freedom of movement between different types of song and genre. My grandfather typified this. An Italian café owner, living in the heart of London, he sang constantly. A typical selection of repertoire would flow without pause from If You Were The Only Girl In The World through The White Cliffs of Dover to an aria from what he loosely called ‘Neapolitan Opera’. They all had lovely melodies, always ‘a good tune’. Emotionally expansive, sentimental, open-hearted, the only cohesion in his eclectic repertoire was constant emotional expression.

But not everyone displays such an ease and confidence in their musical and aesthetic tastes. Richard Hoggart’s masterly book The Uses of Literacy (1957) includes a chapter dedicated to those who made a shift from working to middle classes. He describes them as ‘the uprooted and the anxious’. Artist Grayson Perry recently summed up the middle classes as ‘the class that does not know its place’ and consequently one riddled with the most anxiety about what they do, where they go, what they spend their time and money on. In Perry’s Bafta-winning documentary on taste and class we met Jane who bought the Show Home on the Kings Hill Development because all the choices were made for her. ‘You don’t know what you want ‘til you see it’ she said. She had a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ in a place where taste rules were shared and brands seemed to give some security and clarity of meaning.

Brands are of course available for purchase in music too: Glyndebourne, Grimeborn, Streetwise Opera, OperaUpClose, Opera for communities, for children, for the homeless, for prisoners, for sex workers, Proms, Proms-in-the-Park, Family-Proms, Pop-Proms, Proms-Extra, Late-night Proms. We can select from plenty of ‘aspirational products for an aspirational class’ (Perry’s description of brand culture). We can stick with what we know; tradition, ritual, ‘old’ music. ‘Maybe upper class taste seems like good taste because it is old?’ wonders Perry, neatly accounting for most of the challenges we have in trying to remove the ‘posh’ tag from classical music. Or we can express our individualism through edgier alternatives. Perry notes a further middle-class trend: the desire to be different. There’s something for everyone.

King's Hill housing estate, photo by Hywel Williams. Source.
King’s Hill housing estate, photo by Hywel Williams. Source.

Or is there? In an interview in 1990, Hoggart observed ‘cultural stratisfication’ in society. ‘At the top’, he said, ‘we find finer and finer provision for tastes which are to some degree trained and specialized’. Below this level, ‘the rest of the population are put into a much more coagulated mass’. 120 years earlier Matthew Arnold criticized indoctrinating of the masses; ‘plenty of people will try and give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper’. He argued that ‘culture’, by its very nature should be above this, seeking to ‘do away with classes’ and advocate equality. And in 1934, Lewis Mumford’s penned the much-quoted aphorism ‘every culture lives inside its own dream’. Mumford is widely regarded as the leading 20th century authority on cities — their history, design and communal purpose. He drew his ideas directly from the vibrant network of human relationships that he observed. He put people at the heart of his work by starting from a point of observing where they go and what they do, how they get there, what they enjoy. His influence was profound and his thinking inspired the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn close to where I now live.

What do post-war housing developments have to do with concert audiences? Well, quite a lot if you are intrigued by the idea of simultaneously exploring two concepts of culture: something to do with the arts and something to do with ordinary ways of living. I have begun to understand my own strong pull towards art and ideas that straddle this no-mans land; one eye on the art itself, one on those who use and receive it. Art that makes the common-place and ordinary seem extraordinary just by looking or listening hard. Art that makes transparent those aspects of society which are ‘difficult’ or that we’d rather keep out of sight. (I first came across this type of work in Orwell’s brilliant 1946 essay Books vs. Cigarettes.) Many of those ground-breaking and thoughtfully conceived utopian post-war towns tackled design-and-function, product-and-purpose head on and simultaneously. They had a symbiotic flow between those who created a culture and those who lived in it and responded to it. The best and most successful models were vibrant, not static, allowing culture to create culture.

We can learn from them too. Sadly, many struggled to maintain or build on their ideals and dreams. Constructing a community isn’t easy. The town designers seemed to go roughly in one of two ways: 1) offering bold, immediate, pioneering new ways of living (Park Hill, New Ash Green) or 2) standing back and allowing communities to evolve in rather more spacious, soporific and neutral surroundings (Harlow, Welwyn, Milton Keynes). Those that stuck out their experimental necks with innovative walkways in the sky, shared balconies, clustered homes and interconnecting pathways seemed to be doing well. Their success was based on a process of continual evolution borne out of a close relationship between designers and residents. Failure eventually came from neglect and mis-management – both of which might have been avoided.

On the other hand, the attempts to create a single-environment-to-suit-all (based largely around gapingly-open neutral vistas) appeared to create an atmosphere of ambivalence and apathy. Welwyn, post-war Plymouth and Milton Keynes have all been variously described as having a type of lethargy: ‘fatefully low-energy with no bustle….the surfeit of space saps energy’ notes John Grindrod, in his superb book Concretopia, a journey around post-war Britain.

Like the residents of a new town, audiences are not a fixed blank canvas. They may come together for a common purpose, but they are no tabula rasa upon which to imprint a single set of pre-packed tastes. Audiences are people who want reassurance and people who want adventures. People who want to be ‘taken out of themselves’ and people who want to preserve tradition and routine. They are people who seek intrigue, escapism, stimulation, challenge, shock, joy, relaxation. They are people who want to be part of a group, to not be part of a group. They may want their aesthetic preferences confirming and they ‘might not know what they want ‘til they see it’. They could be all these things in one person. And they may feel differently from day to day.

Only one thing is clear: people will always take things offered to them and transmute them into terms of their own culture, as I have done in researching and writing this blog and you have done in reading it. This is surely the active process and spirit that we need to embrace and keep alive; a situation that allows people to ‘use ideas as it [culture] uses them itself – freely, nourished, and not bound by them’. To avoid, at all costs, a passive, neutral, bland acceptance of art, of music, literature, where no one ever asks a question or there is never any change. ‘Nothing to engage with’ says Richard Hoggart, describing the impact of the popular literary press. ‘Nothing….to be reacting to. Since nothing is demanded by the reader, nothing can be given by the reader’.

I often end my blogs thinking ‘we’re not doing too badly, actually’ and this one is no exception. I’ve persuaded myself that my long-held instinct to keep choice and variety alive in the arts is vital. And of equal importance is a constant two-way flow and interplay between what we are making and how it is being received. Too right that I don’t have a foolproof plan to bring together the widest, largest and most inclusive audience you ever saw; many far greater minds than mine have tried and failed.

But this is not the job of a single person. I am a cog in the machine of a much broader cultural picture. And collectively, we may in fact be providing a good set of answers for the wrong set of questions: the audience is perhaps not the target. The target is to avoid a dull, passive and static cultural society where a limited amount of art-that-suits-all is delivered and dictated and little attention paid as to how it is received. The target is to create and maintain a world that stimulates, challenges, invigorates and inspires through landscapes, images, words and sounds. I’m applauding not only our brilliant, unpredictable, individual audiences, but all of those in the arts whose vision and determination results in a rich choice of where to go, what to do, how to get there and what to enjoy. And that’s how we can put audiences at the very heart of what we do.

Read more by Kate Romano on Corymbus:

On Neglected Music

‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at


From Darkness To Light

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 07.48.24
The Seventh Plague of Egypt, by John Martin, 1823.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The psychological journey of Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) 5th symphony, from its declamatory 4-note motif to its uplifting C major conclusion, is often referred to as a traverse ‘from darkness to light’.

Darkness here represents the emotional unease initially expressed, an emotion that is organically developed and ultimately resolved in glowing triumph in the last movement.

That light encompasses connotations of general positive emotions is a longstanding idea. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): ‘Light is most pleasant and delightful; it has become the symbol of all that is good and salutary […] the absence of light immediately makes us sad, and its return makes us feel happy.’ Similar projections can be read in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s (1749-1832) theory of colour, where light and brightness are associated with warmth and action, as opposed to darkness’ association with coldness and distance.

Empirical studies paint a similar picture. For instance, research in colour psychology (see here and here) demonstrates that brightness, either directly perceived or imagined, is associated with positive emotions.

Still, as much as jumping between differing forms of sensory information requires multi-layered considerations – alas, light is a visual stimulus, and therefore not technically musical – the representation of light in music is more complex and intriguing than to suggest a straightforward pleasure-emotion principle.

Notably, light can represent in music a religious, quasi-spiritual dimension, not least because of the relevance and prevalence of light in depicting Deity. Of many available examples, the biblical book of Revelations describes the New Jerusalem as following: ‘And the city had no need of the Sun, neither of the Moon to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it […] And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there’.

Dante and Beatrice Gaze Upon The Highest Heavens, from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to The Divine Comedy, 1892.

Accordingly, references to light appear commonly in sacred music, and are often adopted to represent religious purity. The Catholic Requiem Mass (a Mass for the dead), for instance, has imageries of light presented in multiple occasions.

The Communion section Lux aeterna (Eternal Light), preceded by the often gloomy Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) provides an antidote of serene peace. The deeply felt Requiem by the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) proves a suitable example.

While György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Lux aeterna was composed almost half a millennium later than the Requiem by Victoria, the spirit of ethereal peace resonates through the ghostly echoes of webs of sound.

The text is provided below.

Let everlasting light shine on them, O Lord
with your saints for ever:
for Thou art merciful.
Eternal rest grant them, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
With your saints for ever
for Thou art merciful.

Reference to Deity through light is prevalent beyond formal mass settings. In his late masterwork The Creation, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) creates a glowing imagery of the creation of the world in the stately section ‘And God saw the Light’, following descriptions of a chaotic and dark world in ‘The Representation of Chaos’. If this reminds us of the darkness-to-light motif of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, this may be no accident; in both works, darkness, represented in C minor, is resolved in the luminance of C major.

In another example, Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Urlicht (Primeval light) of his 2nd Symphony, titled ‘Resurrection’, is a psychological depiction of a man’s encounter with heaven in the moment of death. This encounter, located between movements of morbid tension and spiritual transcendence, provides a purgatory of peace and contemplation.

O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

Another common association with light is the notion of catharsis, a spiritual transformation (from the Greek katharsis, which translates as ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’). Thus when the American architect Louis I. Kahn suggested that ‘light releases the energy trapped in matter’, he was perhaps referring to an experience that would emancipate spirits beyond the tethers of matter, and that would utterly transform the subject of experience. In other words, light can be used as a symbol of enlightenment and epiphany.

In musical contexts, such powerful transformations are often conveyed through depictions of sunrise – light that awakens the still of night. Perhaps most iconic is the timpani-pounding opening of Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Nietzsche-based tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Nevertheless, of the works of Richard Strauss, I find the use of light most effective in his epic mountaineering tone poem An Alpine Symphony. The works starts with a hair-raising announcement of sunrise after a mysterious night. Through exhilarating episodes involving the ascent and descent of the large rocky mass, the work concludes back in its calm incipience.

In some cases, the moment of sunrise does not occur until the latter part of the work, which perhaps maximises its impact. This scenario is amply presented in the last movement of Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). After the nocturnal movement The Pines of Janiculum, The Pines of the Appian Way puts into music the spirit of Roman soldiers marching into Rome during sunrise. With time, the music gains in confidence and majesty, and ends in blazing glory.

A more serene picture of sunrise is painted in Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) Helios Overture. In his Nordic voice of translucent orchestration and restrained expression, Nielsen’s depiction of sunrise of the Aegean Sea is both spirited and delighted without traces of bombast, rendering perhaps a deeply-felt human transformation. Despite the lack of obvious fire power, in the silence that follows the last note the listener finds oneself transported to a place quite different from where it all started – the transformation is completed. Nielsen provides the following depiction of the score:

Silence and darkness,
The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,
It wanders its golden way
and sinks quietly into the sea.

A further observation of light’s depiction in music can be made in account of recent cross-modal psychology research, which report a positive relationship between visual luminance (brightness) with pitch height among non-synesthetes. While these studies mostly used simple psychoacoustic tones instead of more complex stimuli such as music, it is possible to ask why this shouldn’t be the case for music. In the aforementioned pieces, where the appearance of light is depicted or implied, this is usually represented through an ascending pattern of notes.

Sometimes it is not only about the expression of light within the piece, but also about the lighting of the environment the listeners are in. The prelude to the first Scene of Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Das Rheingold presents a strong case. As the physical stage of Wagner’s mammoth Der Ring des Nibelungen starts to light up from darkness, Wagner’s mystical world is created and proclaimed – all while a sustained rumbling plane of bass notes gives a platform to tides of rising notes. Here, Wagner’s theatric as well as dramatic genius comes into light.

As such, light’s representation in music paints a fascinating picture. Beyond a mere allegory of positive emotion, light is often presented in reference to biblical terms, spiritual transformation, and high pitch.

Importantly, I believe that the aforementioned representations of light in music are related to each other in the end.

The Last Judgement, by Jean Cousin the Younger, late 16th-century.

That is, height often shares semantic associations with transformation or purification, as can be detected in words as ‘elevation’ or ‘sublimation’ (sublime, in Latin, implies rising motion). Furthermore, height’s religious connotations cannot be dismissed; in numerous cultures, the physical location of divinity is often found in high locations (e.g. Olympus, Paradise, Swarga etc.) including the sun (e.g. Ra of Ancient Egypt). In light of this, it may not be accidental that a large number of altars are located in high planes, as is the case for the Acropolis in Athens, and that many of the high gods often embody light. In Korean, Chinese and Japanese, the word ‘숭고/崇高’ (sung-go/ chónggāo) which is used to describe feelings of sacredness and similar high emotions, is literally translated into ‘high and high.’

Links between divinity, light, height and the likes thus share substantial meaning and emotions, which in turn enhances our understanding of how light is represented music.

Importantly, light in itself may not be sufficient. Just as great height requires the presence of great depth, salient light necessitates immense darkness. It is perhaps in this spirit that Edmund Burke, when describing the sublime – ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’ – wrote: ‘mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind… a quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light, has yet a greater effect.’ All that is sacred, powerful and delightful must necessarily be surrounded by the dark base of lowness, in order to have itself properly shown.

Ludwig van Beethoven in his Study, by Carl Schloesser, 1811.

Returning to Beethoven’s 5th symphony, his work is then not only a journey between negative and positive emotions, but also a process of spiritual redemption of a personal triumph, of a sense of elevation, and of a quasi-religious experience. Even if Beethoven never explicitly stated any reference of light regarding his symphony, the piece’s intrinsic pulse is of a glowing nature. That the rugged darkness that is initially conjured later transforms to fulfil a psychological vision of bright illumination is a logical and fitting conclusion.

Read more by Young-Jin:

Of Illness and Creativity

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). 


Sounds of Horror: The Gothic in Classical Music

By Joseph Camilleri

An ancient family curse, a castle haunted by a skeleton monk, the inexplicable and deadly appearance of a giant helmet – these are just a few of the unlikely plot elements in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. First published in 1764, this is widely (if not uncontroversially) considered to be the first Gothic novel, setting the blueprint for a dark literary genre obsessed with terror, death and the otherwordly.

The Gothic is generally portrayed as a peculiarly English literary movement, although its defining elements can also be found in Continental literature of the period. Indeed, the increasing popularity of the genre in the 19th Century is better understood in the wider context of European Romanticism, with which it shares several ideals and concerns. Such recurring Gothic tropes as the individual pitted against a conservative and patriarchal society or the genre’s awe at the ‘Sublime’ (generally represented by the untameable forces of Nature) are also hallmarks of the Romantic movement.

The Gothic sensibility – this fascination with ‘the ghostly, the ghastly and the supernatural’, as Dale Townshend succinctly puts it– was not limited to the literary world, and much has been written about the genre’s close relationship with art and architecture.  In my opinion, however, the influence of the Gothic on composers of classical music has been largely underestimated. This might be because music is generally seen as being too abstract to successfully engage itself with literary themes. However, a closer look should reveal that Gothic fiction, particularly its supernatural themes, was a rich source of inspiration for composers of the past two hundred years.

One can broadly distinguish between two areas of music where Gothic sensibilities were clearly influential, especially since the start of the 19th Century. On the one hand, there are theatrical and dramatic works, such as operas and ballet, whose subject matter increasingly tended towards dark themes. There is then so-called ‘programmatic music’ – that which is consciously descriptive or inspired by an extra-musical subject, where themes which could be considered Gothic were more frequently explored. Attempts to represent the horrific, the supernatural or the otherwordly often led composers to explore new sounds, providing a pretext and incentive for experimentation beyond conventional parameters.

The Birth of the Gothic

The birth of the Gothic coincides with the height of the Enlightenment – a rather surprising twist, considering that its concerns seem to be the very opposites of the ideals of logic and reason so central to the philosophy of the age.

This contrast can be keenly felt in the earliest examples of the genre. Ann Radcliffe achieved a compromise of sorts with her brand of ‘rational Gothic’ where, as in Scooby Doo cartoons, most of the seemingly otherworldly occurrences are eventually given a logical explanation. As for Walpole, he sought to distance himself from his wild creation by presenting the Castle of Otranto as an alleged adaptation of an Italian medieval text supposedly discovered in the collection of a Roman Catholic family in the North of England. Encouraged by the positive reception of the ‘anonymous’ first edition, Walpole later revealed that this frame story was merely a literary conceit, whereupon the novel was slated by the very same critics who had praised it at its first appearance. The Castle of Otranto is further striking in its alternation of horrifying scenes with comedic passages, reminiscent of the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet, which appear to mitigate the more gruesome aspects of the novel.

The same ambivalence is reflected in a major musical work of the same period – Mozart’s opera Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished or Don Giovanni) of 1787. There are few more chilling moments in opera than the scene where the eponymous rake is marched off to Hell by a statue come to life. Yet these shocking events are presented against the backdrop of an opera buffa (comic opera), making them palatable to genteel 18th Century audiences, and the work concludes with a sparkling, if slightly incongruous, comic finale. Interestingly, changes in taste meant that some later productions chose to cut the work short, giving it a tragic ending. Mozart himself leaves us in little doubt as to the centrality of the ‘stone guest’ scene – the very opening of the overture foreshadows the music which accompanies the ghostly entrance of the haunted statue, set in dark D Minor and coloured by scurrying string figures.

Romantic Gothic

With the advent of the Romantic period, the excesses of the Gothic novel became more and more attuned to the spirit of the times. The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis adopts elements found in the works of Walpole, Radcliffe and Clara Reeves and unapologetically takes them to unheard-of extremes: evil clerics, ghosts, shapeshifting demons, diabolical rituals, torture and violence are all thrown into the mix. But this licence to shock was also a sign that the genre sorely needed to reinvent itself.

Indeed, rapid industrialisation and changing social mores would soon give rise to new anxieties which would in turn be channelled into innovative expressions of the Gothic. Thus the novels of the Brontë sisters – such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – abandon fantastical medieval castles and transpose their brand of terror into a domestic context. The ‘urban Gothic’ of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (Bleak House comes to mind) discovers horror in the dirty streets and oppressive fog of the city, whereas Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein explores what it means to be human at a time when science seems close to discovering the mystery of life. In the same period, examples of the terrifying and the uncanny can be found in American literature (the works of Poe and Hawthorne) and in Continental European literature (for instance, Goethe’s Faust, Schiller’s The Robbers and E.T.A Hoffmann’s stories, some of which would inspire Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann).

It should therefore come as no surprise that similar themes should also haunt the music of the period. One of the leading examples is Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber. One of the landmarks in German Romantic opera, it recounts the tale of a rifleman who strikes a deal with an evil spirit in order to obtain magical bullets. The most original part of the score is possibly the ‘Wolf Glen’ scene where the very texture of the music, especially its use of the lowest notes of the orchestra, evokes a feeling of supernatural dread. It has been described by the influential opera critic Gustav Kobbé (1857-1918) as ‘the most expressive rendering of the gruesome that is to be found in a musical score’.

The pact described in Weber’s opera could be described as ‘Faustian’, an adjective itself derived from a German legend about a scholar who exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge. It is a story with strong Gothic elements which has been reworked by various writers including Marlowe, Goethe, Mann and Bulgakov. The same legend seemed particularly attractive to the composers of the Romantic era. Major works of the period inspired by this supernatural legend include Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1857), Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-1853) and perhaps, most famously, Charles Gounod’s grand opera Faust (1859).   

There are of course other operas of the period whose plots are coloured by supernatural events or elements of terror – Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth (1847) and Rigoletto (1851), Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (1843), to name but a few. But, there are other Gothic operas which, just like the novels of Ann Radcliffe, rely less on the otherwordly for effect and more on dark settings and borderline psychological states. Thus, in French and Italian opera of the early 19th Century, it became quite customary to include a ‘mad scene’ where one of the protagonists would descend into insanity. From a dramatic point of view, these scenes satisfied the audience’s thirst for extreme emotion; musically, they gave the opportunity to singers to display their vocal technique.

The best-known example is probably Il Dolce Suono (The Sweet Sound) from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor. Donizetti’s score originally had a part for glass harmonica, the unusual instrument’s eerie voice heightening the sense of normality breaking down.

The Ultimate Gothic Work?

The visual element in opera and ballet made them a suitable vehicle for the treatment of Gothic themes. Yet, in my opinion, the greatest attempt to express a Gothic sensibility in music is not to be found in any of these dramatic works but in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Berlioz very helpfully provides a preface and detailed programme notes for each of the work’s movements. It reads like the plot of a Gothic novel and ticks, one by one, a mental list of the genre’s tropes. The protagonist, a young musician afflicted by melancholy and ennui, falls obsessively in love with an ‘ideal woman’ whose image haunts him everywhere, whether in the tumult of the city or in the natural surroundings of the countryside (cue the idea of ‘Sublime’ and the distant sound of thunder). His attentions unreturned, our hapless hero takes an opium overdose and has nightmarish visions of his own death (at the scaffold) and of his subsequent participation at a witches’ sabbath presided by his beloved.

All this is expressed in graphic music of almost garish intensity which does away with the then-prevalent musical conventions. The symphony is in five movements (rather than four) and is scored for a gigantic orchestra. It is also the first to follow a detailed programme, and its structural coherence is based not on traditional forms but rather on a so-called idée fixe or recurring motif (representing, in this case, the not-so lucky object of the protagonist’s morbid attention). It is, indeed, a worthy musical companion to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk – for a taste of its sound-world, go directly to its finale – Songe d’une nuit du sabbat – with its quasi-blasphemous appropriation of the Dies Irae chant.

If the excesses of Berlioz’s musings are not to one’s taste, a suitable – but equally Gothic – antidote can be found in Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) of 1828. A cycle of 24 songs originally written for tenor and piano, this intimate work would seem to be worlds away from the Symphonie Fantastique. Yet, its subject matter explores similar ground, providing us with the melancholy image of a solitary wanderer, unlucky in love, adrift in a desolate wintry landscape. In the final song, the protagonist finds a soulmate in a poor hurdy-gurdy man, an outcast growled at by dogs, whose music no one wants to listen to.

The Gothic goes (inter)national

In the later 19th century, there was an interesting development in the Gothic, which is perhaps more evident in music than in any other art form. Several composers – especially in Central and Eastern Europe – combined supernatural themes with a nationalistic agenda, turning to supernatural legends and myths of their countries for inspiration for patriotic works. This development might possibly reflect the 19th century’s growing interest in anthropological research, which led to the study and publication of national sagas, myths and legends. Composers of a nationalistic bent might also have tapped into these ancient, often macabre legends in order to seek homegrown subjects predating their country’s perceived colonisation – whether political or cultural – by foreign powers.

Be that as it may, composers associated with national musical schools seemed most inclined to portray dark and supernatural themes, generally in works tinged with elements of folk music. This is evidenced by compositions such as Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga (1891-1904), and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867) and Mlada (1890). Antonin Dvořák’s tone poems also fall within this category – The Wood Dove is inspired by a dark tale in which the spirit of a murdered man, manifesting itself as a forest bird, returns to haunt his unfaithful widow.

Survival of the Gothic

Although the heyday of the Gothic was in the 19th Century, the genre has shown a particular hardiness and adaptability to changing tastes and norms. 20th and 21st Century horror and ‘weird’ literature would have been inconceivable without the Gothic. The genre has also been hugely influential on new art forms, particularly cinema.

Similar themes have also recurred in music and, just as the early Gothic was primarily a British genre, so 20th Century British composers have seemed particularly attracted to supernatural subjects. John Ireland, a fan of the folk horror of Arthur Machen, wrote his Legend for piano and orchestra (1933) in response to an alleged close encounter with fairy folk. Benjamin Britten masterfully adapted Henry James’s supernatural novella The Turn of the Screw (1954) in his opera of the same name.  Closer to our time, the ‘ghost-opera’ The Lighthouse (1979) by the much-missed Peter Maxwell Davies is a dark tale of religious mania and (possibly) supernatural goings-on set in the bleak landscape of the Outer Hebrides – it is a worthy addition to the tradition of music with a Gothic inspiration.

Interest in dark and macabre themes does not appear to be flagging either. The BBC Proms recently featured a performance of the Poe-inspired orchestral work Israfel (2015) by Mark Simpson who, incidentally, is also the composer of a critically-acclaimed oratorio inspired by Victorian seances (The Immortal).

This year also saw the premiere of The Devil Inside, an opera by Stuart McRae set to a libretto by Louise Walsh. The opera effectively transposes a Faustian short story by Robert Louis Stevenson – The Bottle Imp – to a contemporary setting, reworking it into a critique of late capitalism. The opera’s deserved success is, in its own way, a vindication of the Gothic. Variously treated with disgust, condemned as unwholesome and lampooned for its excesses, this genre’s concern with the ghostly and the ghastly can be as relevant today as it was in Walpole’s time.

Joseph Camilleri is an amateur organist and occasional chorister.  He regularly writes articles and programme notes to accompany concerts, opera productions and CD recordings. He has presented radio programmes on classical music and for a number of years served on the Board of Directors of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. When not musically occupied, he can often be found reading books, generally of the ghostly type. He tweets at @joecam79.


Wine of Summer

Green Grass In The Forest by Lisa Fotios. Original here.
Green Grass In The Forest by Lisa Fotios. Original here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In 1895, Britain was scandalised by a series of sensational trials. Oscar Wilde – writer, wit and flamboyant star of high society – was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts, and sentenced to two years of hard labour. The origin of the trials had been an accusation by the Marquess of Queensberry, who was in fact the disapproving father of a man who had been Wilde’s lover: the young Lord Alfred Douglas, sixteen years Wilde’s junior.

This episode in Wilde’s life, and his early death in Paris in 1900, is relatively well known. The life of Lord Douglas (1870-1945) is less well remembered – even though he was a poet and author himself. He has been described as ‘the Yoko Ono of Victorian literature’.

Douglas, who went by the nickname ‘Bosie’, was a man of many flaws. His life story reads like a soap opera of squandered privilege, marred by dysfunctional relationships, bitter feuds, and an alarming number of court cases. In the years after Wilde’s death, Douglas repudiated him utterly; converting to Catholicism, marrying, and renouncing homosexuality (he reportedly told a court that Wilde had been ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years’). He attempted to sue Arthur Ransome (later the author of Swallows and Amazons) for passages in a book on Wilde, but lost. In the 1920s, further darkness emerged: his publication of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, alleging sinister links between Winston Churchill and Jewish financiers, landed him with a six-month jail sentence for libel.

Lord Alfred Douglas, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1903
Lord Alfred Douglas, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1903

Perhaps chastened by his experience of prison, Douglas seems to have lived a quieter life after his release. It must have been some surprise when, in 1937, the 67-year-old Lord received a letter from one Havergal Brian, asking permission to set to music Wine of Summer – an obscure poem he had written 40 years previously.

Brian was only six years younger than Douglas, but their backgrounds were worlds apart. Born into a working class family in Staffordshire, he was a former church organist who was self-taught in composition. A career as composer had once seemed possible: in 1907 his English Suite and overture For Valour were performed at the Proms. For a while he was even financially supported by the patronage of a wealthy businessman, in order to dedicate himself to composition. But despite this stroke of luck, opportunities never significantly progressed. Brian soon had to work a series of other jobs.

And yet, undeterred by circumstance, Brian embarked upon a most extraordinary artistic shadow-life. He threw himself into composing large-scale works, without any prospect of hearing them performed. These included a three-act opera, The Tigers, and – as if to mock the hand life had dealt him – one of the biggest symphonies ever written: The Gothic, a work lasting nearly two hours and requiring enormous forces. It was an absurdly ambitious first step in perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all symphony cycles.

Havergal Brian c. 1900.
Havergal Brian c. 1900.

Brian’s style is somewhat hard to define, but that will to compose against all odds is not difficult to hear. His music breezily sets about its own idiosyncratic path; a development of ideas highly contrasted, colourful and unpredictable. An early formative musical experience was hearing Elgar’s cantata King Olaf, and the big-boned sound of massed forces was clearly influential. His orchestrations are often rugged, with brass and percussion frequently deployed, and marching passages haunt the pages of his scores.

Wine of Summer however stands out for its more understated, impressionistic approach. The poem describes a midsummer day in a wood, a vision of natural paradise that progresses to melancholy rumination over the author’s lost loves. Brian set it for orchestra with baritone soloist, and it became his fifth symphony.

In a mysterious introduction, softly snaking violin lines evoke a heat haze. Douglas’ scene-setting becomes low and ominous with the lines ‘In the soft air the shadow of a sigh / Breathes on the leaves and scarcely makes them sway’. It may be summer, but the wood is full of shadows.

Brian’s music is driven by the poetry throughout – it ebbs and flows around the baritone solo, delicately orchestrated and with a haunting strangeness. Particularly magical is the scoring of a passage that itself invokes ghostly music:

The soft faint whispering of unnumbered trees.
Mingle with unreal things, and low and deep
From visionary groves,
Imagined lutes make voiceless harmonies.
And false flutes sigh before the gates of sleep.

Over forty years earlier, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun used lush strings and drooping lines to convey languid summer heat. So too did Gershwin’s Summertime from his 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Heat comes with many associations – sensuality and eroticism, but also energy-sapping idleness. And idleness, with its requirement of leisure time, touches on the question of class. In Lord Douglas’ case class is clear enough, whereas Gershwin’s lullaby comes with a layer of cultural irony – ‘the livin’ is easy’ and ‘your Daddy’s rich’ sets the scene in the poor black community of Catfish Row.

Douglas was apparently delighted when he met Brian and heard his setting played through on a piano, though it would not be performed in the Lord’s lifetime. Happily for Brian, he lived long enough to enjoy some belated recognition. His music came to the attention of the young BBC music producer Robert Simpson (later a prolific composer himself) and many of his symphonies were finally performed in live radio broadcasts. In 1961, the gargantuan Gothic had a concert premiere in London.

In retirement, as if making up for lost time, Brian became astonishingly prolific: he composed 14 symphonies in his eighties, and 7 in his nineties. The final count of 32 is truly remarkable, and yet – with cruel irony – today his name is generally remembered for just one: The Gothic. The notion of an eccentric outsider toiling over a monster opus is appealing – less so the more complicated truth. But then Brian’s life, like his music, never followed the expected script.

Wine of Summer is a good departure point for a more rounded appreciation of his legacy. As a single movement of 20 minutes, it marks the beginning of the condensed approach that characterises the symphonies of his later years. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its abrupt ending on a thundering climax. ‘My dreams go out like tapers – I must hence / Far off I hear Night calling to the sea’. Cymbals crash like waves, before the orchestra is suddenly snatched away from the singer. Chris Kettle has noted a similarity to Michael Tippett’s setting of W.B. Yeats’ Byzantium, which also ends on ‘sea’ – ‘both Brian and Tippett […] leave the vocal soloist hanging onto the word – its drawn-out vowel-sound opening onto an unknown and measureless infinity’.

As for Lord Douglas, his final years seem marked by a poignant sense of what might have been. His marriage had long since broken up – though they never divorced – and his only child spent most of his adult life in a mental hospital. In 1940 he published Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up, a more sympathetic assessment of the man he had once fiercely renounced – a testament perhaps to his greater maturity, but also to the long shadow still cast by his former lover, whose literary reputation outshone his own.

It is a shame that he did not live to hear a performance of Brian’s work. This maverick composer was able to breathe strangely beautiful new life into a relic of his youthful summer. One of the symphony’s impassioned climaxes coincides with perhaps the poem’s most memorable lines. They might have resonated in his old age:

Sweet with faint memories,
And mellow with old loves that used to burn
Dead summer days ago, like fierce red kings.

This article was powered by caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.


Of Illness and Creativity

Thomas Mann in Munich, 1932. Shared under Creative Commons License.
Thomas Mann in Munich, 1932. Shared under Creative Commons License.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) makes an interesting observation when he writes in his youthful novella Tonio Kröger: ‘A property constituted, healthy, decent man never writes, acts, or composes.’

Here, Mann states that artistic creativity belongs to an inherent sickliness of the creator.

While Mann would continuously revisit the theme of illness and its important role on creation throughout his career (e.g. The Magic Mountain), it is in his Faustian masterpiece Doctor Faustus where a decisive commentary on musical creativity is made. Here, a fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn contracts syphilis through the devil, an act which results in the composer’s unleashing of unworldly creative powers.

‘If it is healthiness that you are after – well, with mind and art it has not got much to do, it even in a sort of way opposes them,’ prophesises a character in the book.

On the one hand, one can dismiss Mann’s preoccupation as a form of eccentric and degenerate fantasy. On the other hand, the inverse relationship between a healthy body and musical creation can be found commonly throughout history.

For example, Demodocus from Homer’s Odyssey is portrayed as being ‘gifted’ a physical impairment for his musical ability (‘the squire now came, leading their favourite bard, whom the Muse loved above all others, [al]though she had mingled good and evil in her gifts, robbing him of his eyes but granting him the gift of sweet song.’). Similarly, when the Indian saint, poet and musician Surdas decides to devote himself to the creation of devotional songs, he does this by voluntarily imposing upon himself blindness.

The 14th century poet Eustache Deschamps (1340-1406) describes poets and musicians as fumeurs (smokers). Bodily irregularities and ill health are commonly observed in these individuals, and this phenomenon can be seen as a case of biological determinism in artistic creation.

Suffering of a physical nature plays a crucial theme in the story of the Greek god Dionysus. Born from a mortal mother, Dionysus undergoes physical annihilation (‘the fragments of the body […] boiled in a great cauldron, and made impious banquet’) until only the soul is preserved. Through Zeus Dionysus resurrects, becoming the god of wine, religious ecstasy, and in many cases, music.

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, Dionysus’ physical suffering and consequent spiritual emancipation is set as the ideal model for music of greatness. ‘The whole world of agony is needed in order to compel the individual to generate the releasing and redemptive vision’, writes Nietzsche.

Bacchus (Dionysus) by Paulus Bor

These examples demonstrate how physical malady becomes an ingredient for great musical creations. But is there any truth in this Faustian trade-off? If so, one would at least expect a certain rebirth of musical creativity after the onset of a severe illness.

Is there a composer more well-known than Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) for physical ailment? Beethoven’s infamous deafness reached clinical levels by 1815, significantly discouraging him from public performances as well as spoken communication. Signs of jaundice and a perilous lung disease started to emerge by 1820.

Around this time, Beethoven’s musical language undergoes a radical change to enter what we know as the ‘late period’. If Beethoven’s earlier works are breath-taking for their heroic passions and engulfing drama, these late works breathe an air of wondrous serenity and reflection. A timeless quality pervades in Beethoven’s late style, and this can be heard in the late string quartets. Was this the sound that Beethoven heard, in his silent isolated world?

Notwithstanding contextual gaps, there are large similarities between the late string quartets of Beethoven and those of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). The late Beethovenian spirit of serene abandon is especially pronounced in Shostakovich’s 15th quartet. By this time, Shostakovich had experienced multiple injuries (e.g. crippling injuries to his writing hand and both legs) and heart attacks, and records inform us of the composer’s increasing awareness of his own mortality.

In six dirge-like slow movements, the music unfolds through quiet intensity; it is as if the composer internalised his trademark style of angular expressivity into a voice of inward-looking meditation. This is what the composer had to say about the work’s performance: ‘play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom.’ The overall impression of the work suggests a feeling both terrifying and soothing.

Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) 9th symphony was conceived in the midst of a series of strokes, a condition he battled for the last 13 years of his life and which left the composer’s entire right side of the body paralysed. Written with his weaker left hand, the difficulty the composer had to bear in writing this work is unimaginable. Unlike Schnittke’s usual incorporation of polystylism – where different styles and genres are exuberantly juxtaposed to form a strange tapestry of musical memories – the 9th symphony has an uncharacteristic solemnity and brevity, as well as stylistic coherence. Underneath the struggle, it is as if Schnittke found a deeply enclosed personal language, no longer in need of quotations from distant places and times.

Allan Pettersson’s (1911-1980) career as a concert violinist came to an end prematurely through rheumatoid arthritis. Upon finishing his 9th symphony, nephritis (a kidney condition) forced extensive hospitalisation. Desperation over such physical hardship is expressed remarkably and brutally in his 10th symphony; Pettersson eliminates his usual hallmark of religious undertones, represented by sublime choral sections. Instead, the music expresses a mortifying state of resignation and disappointment. In parts where the musical logic seems to point to an optimistic plane, hopes are bitterly exterminated, an effect most devastatingly felt at the very end.

As if to secure such a message to his listeners, Pettersson provides an introduction:

The angel of death is a hypocritical poetic figure. Death has nothing to do with mercifulness, because he casually randomizes the strong relation between sadness and sickness, especially when the antipole, the strength to live, is weak. The aim is life, not death. When he comes, he comes like a national decree. I cannot accept him, he doesn’t go together with my will to live. Death, my constant shadow, is stronger yet than I. Or is it He himself, God, with whom I as a man experiment in another life form?

Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) late works are hardly late by the standard definition, given the untimely death of the composer that came at the age of 31. Yet there is little disagreement on the unique autumnal soundscape that Schubert draws from the year of 1823, where symptoms of syphilis appear, until his death five years later.

It would be no exaggeration to claim that the late style Schubert finds root from the disease. Various letters show Schubert’s lamentations over his own ill health (e.g. ‘I am the most unhappy and miserable person in this world… my health will never improve, and in such despair, things will only become worse instead of better…’) coincide with themes of death becoming increasingly frequent in his musical output.

There is a youthful vitality that struggles underneath the detrimental progression towards the composer’s physical non-being, which altogether makes the resigned undertones of Schubert’s late works sound bitter and morbid, yet also with a warm dose of humanity. These characteristics stand out in Schubert’s last group of songs, compiled posthumously as the Schwanengesang (‘Swan Song’).

As if to approve Mann’s observations on illness and creation, these works demonstrate a creative outburst that largely finds causality in physical deterioration. Moreover, the transformations imply a strong pulse of originality and deeply personal contemplation.

In a sense, one can view sickness as a gateway into life’s wisdoms otherwise unobtainable, through which an elevated aesthetic language is created. This view is verified in Mann’s own words when he said ‘the concept of illness and death, as a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life.’ Here, Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) worldview, where threats of physical annihilation of the self are seen as a necessary condition of an ‘eternal, peaceful, knowledge subject’, is strongly echoed.

Alternatively, although the life of the mind which transcends the ‘merely’ tangible is all important in the intangible world of music, is it not an able body that provides a minimal agency for thought? Subjugation of the body to a sickly force, therefore, is a powerfully humbling experience, whereupon an individual realises and accepts his/her limits, and consequently becomes a source for spiritual, à la musical, reinvention.

Notwithstanding the fascinating logic, however, there are some inconsistencies. Consider, for instance, composers who stopped composition after the onset of health issues (e.g. Haydn) or whose most radical inventions happened during good health (e.g. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg). These stands directly opposed to the scenario of Adrian in Doctor Faustus.

Moreover, the biblical story of David healing Saul through the powers of music demonstrates the Christian ideal of music being intrinsically linked with health, a reference that can be found in various texts throughout history (e.g. Abraham Cowley’s Davideis of  1650). Also, the Roman senator Boethius illustrates the notion of musica humana, a spiritual link between ably proportioned and functional bodies with musicality. Ancient Greek theories of music (e.g. the Pythagorean ratio) similarly saw a certain continuity in music, harmony and health.

Saul and David, by Rembrandt.

These examples may deem Mann’s preoccupation as somewhat forced. Still, one cannot deny the strange appeal towards the myth of ill health-based musical creativity, something that captivated the minds of people throughout history. It is inconceivable, as long as humans continue a healthy capacity of high imagination, to expect an end to this fantasy any time soon.

Ultimately, however, I intend to conclude positively. When, for instance, Beethoven is seen from the public as a Heroic Overcomer, there is as much ennoblement and acknowledgement of his courage as his physical suffering. In reality, the overall message, I hope, is a life-affirming one.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur on Corymbus:

Silence: A Fertile Soil

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.


Connection and Perfection: Social Media in Classical Music

profile pic            By Annabelle Lee

With over a decade since the launch of many of today’s mainstream social media sites, and around 2.22 billion social network users worldwide this year, the impact the social media industry has had – and is continuing to have – on classical music cannot be ignored. As professional classical music performance is becoming ever more of an overcrowded market, platforms like YouTube can give artists an additional boost of income and a growing number of musicians are implementing public crowdsourcing sites, such as Kickstarter and Patreon, to fund their artistic visions; take the success stories of concert pianist Emmanuel Vass and Baroque cellist Emily Davidson. In conjunction with traditional marketing materials, artist agencies are fully aware of integrating social media as a free or low-cost form of promotions for an overall PR kit, and now there are agencies dedicated to digital marketing of classical music, such as 21C Media Group in New York.

Against a media-generated backdrop of a ‘classical music crisis’, classical music presenters have also been able to attract wider audiences. In June 2014, the Facebook Insights of the Metropolitan Opera indicated that its most ‘Engaged Users’ were aged 25 to 34 years old, while London’s Wigmore Hall has become renowned for its inimitable, quirky, and boundary-pushing style of tweeting, increasing its follower count by 400% within two years as a result. What is more, Twitter and Tumblr are being used by people of all different ages, generations, backgrounds, and countries as a way to form like-minded communities or fandoms, daily and passionately messaging each other about their favourite art form, performers, and composers. I would like to think that the resources for such interactions may have been somewhat limited forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago, as many individuals with a deep love of classical music are rejected or bullied by their peers during their childhood, school, and teenage years.

But as social media has gained effectiveness, popularity, and momentum within the classical music industry, it seems that within the last few years or so there has been a striking irony to this social media optimism. Technology is now so much part of our everyday lives that it is all too easy to take what we see on the computer screen, phone, or tablet for granted, real life, or at face value. Yet the mechanics of social media explicitly motivate a culture of what the website Millennial Rules has termed ‘social perfection’.

In social media land, everything is always meant to be positive, interesting, and ‘perfect’. Combined with today’s Internet-savvy culture, people are, more than often, posting up all the ‘best bits’ of their lives and carefully thinking about what to say and show in their messages. Social media have become the online equivalent of a glossy fashion magazine, and photo sharing network Instagram, along with Facebook (their corporate owner), have latched onto this aspect, deliberately encouraging users to put filters on their selfies ‘to make them prettier. . . [and] brighten their reality so as not to “drag down” those around them’.

Social networks can, too, feel more like a popularity contest as the online metric systems influence users and organisations to strive for more likes, shares, followers, and comments than they already have. Indeed, it appears that Wigmore Hall has been able to additionally augment its follower count by following lots of Twitter accounts that would likely take an interest in the concert hall’s activities – it currently follows 46,700 and has 47,600 followers. Add into the mix the art of classical music, where the standard is usually perfection (e.g., in performance), and it is no surprise that all of this digital noise can be too much and make us feel inadequate compared with the superstar music virtuosos and other types of people within the classical music world. In fact, a recent study from Anxiety UK reports that over half of respondents regularly using social networking sites saw a negative change in behaviour, and there were further factors at hand, including negative self-comparison with other people, and trouble disconnecting and relaxing.

Why then are artists, organisations, and audience members issuing their social media messages and what is actually happening behind the corporate marketing, shameless self-promotion, reblogged five star concert review, glamorous yet filtered Instagram selfie, post from the classical musician’s practice sessions, night at the opera, post-concert party, or digitally extroverted thread among classical music tweeps, i.e., the façade or persona of social media? Is the regular classical concert-goer tweeting about all the wonderful performances he/she has seen a critic who is actually being paid to review the events or, alternatively, an artist agent who is seeing one of his/her clients on stage? Has a company told the performers to take an orchestrated backstage selfie with their musical celebrity colleagues – something which tends to say a lot about the artists themselves, their status within the industry, and their bank of personal connections as characteristic of the inner workings of classical music performance?

In fact, celebrity brand endorsements on social media have become something of a lucrative market – and, no less, in classical music – so there could be other reasons why our favourite artists frequently post out a casual product placement. Concert pianist Stephen Hough has tweeted about his promotions of the Chicago-based hat seller Optimo Hats, subsequently giving him and the business more reputation and influence.

Social media can offer many distinct advantages in a classical context, for instance as a new business model for musicians and companies, and there are people regularly using these sites who are aware yet genuine and authentic about what they put up in the face of ‘social perfection’. For now, I cannot envisage a sudden shutdown of the social media landscape, although who could have predicted the closure of Bebo in 2010 and reports of stunted growth in Twitter usage earlier this year?

Social media are neither the ‘be-all and end-all’ and nor are they for everyone. According to John Gilhooly, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Wigmore Hall, there are classical music audiences in London who do not use a computer. Of course, there are plenty of ways to experience, appreciate, and enjoy classical music without relying on digital technology – like walk-in visits to a concert hall, booking in person, and taking away a copy of the shiny print brochure of event listings. Personally, I am someone who needs to limit the amount of screen time that I have but I do not feel that I am completely missing out on the latest news, promotions, or indeed, what a particular concert artist had for breakfast this morning before preparing for the big performance ahead.

Annabelle Lee is approaching her final year of a PhD in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, where her studies have been funded by an AHRC Doctoral studentship. Her thesis is about social media marketing of classical music. Prior to her PhD research, she read an honours degree in Music at Durham University and an MSt in Music (Musicology) at the University of Oxford, where her Master’s thesis focused on the Facebook and Twitter marketing of Wigmore Hall. 


On Neglected Music

Photo by Kate Romano
Photo by Kate Romano
Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14         By Kate Romano

‘Neglect’: its a strong word. To abandon. To fail to care for properly. It’s a label we bandy about a bit in classical music and attach variably to a mixed bag of repertoire, often when we want to draw sudden and urgent attention to it. It tends to crop up in the contexts of anniversaries, themed concert series and in conversation every April, when the new BBC Proms season is revealed.

I love the Proms; I especially love the Proms online archive listing every single  programme in 121 years from its Queens Hall beginnings in 1895 to the present day. I also like the alphabetical Proms roll of honour: 2260 composers who have featured in this great Festival. The archive also tells you the number of times that their music has been played as part of the Proms.

2260 different composers sounds pretty good – but hang on…that’s an average of just less than 19 composers a year. And there are 49 Proms in each season – that’s nearly 6000 concerts, maybe 20,000 individual pieces of music? The Proms archive is not, of course, a paradigm of musical parity, but a story of taste and fashion. It’s a historical treasure trove depicting a century of behaviours and trends in concert programming. A portrait of changing times, society, policies and testimony to what works well in big resonant spaces. Inevitably some things get more attention than others. Beethoven (1486 performances), Brahms (823 performances). No surprises there. Tradition and Nationalism play a part; Elgar (879 performances), Parry (133 performances). Composers we rarely hear of today – (Graham Peel, 81 performances) – fared well in the early 1900s when people flocked to the Proms to hear popular parlour songs performed by super-star singers. But of those 2260 Proms composers roughly 45% had just one single performance of their music and 72% have had fewer than 5 performances.

I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I’m guessing that those ratios might well be a fair representation of the wider musical picture today. Lots of one-offs, premieres, isolated occurrences. Fewer second, third and fourth performances. Classical music largely represented by a tiny minority of the composers who ever lived. The vast majority of composed music is destined to be ignored or forgotten – ‘neglected’. Our available repertoire grows exponentially year by year as new works are written and ‘new’ older ones are unearthed.

Who are the custodians of this mountain of silent music? All of us who care are custodians. The public. Performers. Conductors. Publishers. Concert programmers. Festivals. Teachers. Students. Classical music needs this large dedicated team of talented, driven people to make it happen at all and never more so than in the 21st century. And because we care, our perception of ‘neglect’ becomes a personal, subjective thing determined largely by how much we sense an emotional attachment to a composer. It is less about quantity or frequency and more concerned with guilt and failure to support things that we cherish. Some composers seem to have permanently branded with the word ‘neglect’: Tippett (99 Proms), Bridge (100 Proms), Rubbra (21 Proms). I didn’t think anyone could call Mozart (1335 Proms) ‘neglected’, until an article by Martin Kettle appeared in the Guardian in 2012, motivated by the fact that there were just 4 Mozart works featured that season and calling for an urgent review of this Mozart ‘symphony famine’.

Two months ago I met the composer Erika Fox. Erika is an astonishingly vibrant, energetic, and stylish 79-year-old. To know Erika’s music you need to go to her house and listen to it – on cassettes. It is not on the internet. It is not published and not held in archives. It is in Erika’s house preserved only on hard copies and in handwritten scores. And it is REALLY good! Erika has a burning curiosity for sound and a theatrical imagination. Her music is resourceful and intelligently crafted. It takes a bit of rehearsal and is always idiomatic. It would stand up in any concert of 20th century music. There is absolutely no artistic reason why Erika’s music shouldn’t be better known. So I asked her why she thought this was so. ‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘I guess I’m just not good at promoting it…’. Erika is not so much neglected as simply not known. Rubbra could (should?) be a giant amongst Symphonists, yet he is not and perhaps that’s the crux; ‘neglect’ means that somewhere along the line we feel we have failed to do credit to a compositional output that we know exists.

Erika Fox
Erika Fox

Can a composer do anything to ensure that his or her music is not neglected? Composers today are often forced to shout loudly and develop their own high-level marketing expertise in order to get their music heard. Those supported by dedicated and proactive publishers tend to fare better. But only a very small handful of composers (past or present) experience anything like consistent performances of their music. I know many composers in their later years who predict dryly that their next big splash will be a posthumous one. Even some of the most performed composers have had ‘hot and cold’ moments when circumstances are not favourable. Owen Wingrave was Britten’s least performed opera for some time. It was conceived for television and was premiered on BBC2 in 1971. Perhaps this factor deterred directors from taking it onto the stage. But recent performances seem to view this more as a creative challenge and an opportunity to see it afresh. Owen Wingrave just had to wait a bit.

In 2006 The Daily Telegraph ran a feature on John Foulds, described as ‘the neglected composer who joined Vaughan Williams to Ravi Shanker’. The article was written to draw attention to the new release CBSO recording of Foulds’ Dynamic Tryptich, an extraordinary work written in 1929 and discovered by Malcolm MacDonald many years later in the British Library. There must have been a frisson of excitement for MacDonald when Foulds’ daughter took him to see two coffin-sized boxes full of sketches and manuscripts in the garage that she had been left by her mother. A short-lived frisson – unfortunately, most of the manuscripts were damaged by rats and ants. Foulds nevertheless leaves a reasonably sized body of work but remains a marginal name. Sakari Oramo believes that Foulds’ drawback as a composer was also his greatest strength: he was simply interested in ‘too many things’ and his music can be a bit hit-and-miss. Yet his best is marvelously bold and distinctive.

I’m becoming increasingly persuaded as I write that ‘neglect’ is not an especially accurate or helpful label for music that is not as loved, known or played as it might be. It can’t be quantified or qualified and there is something very negative about tarnishing a composer in this way. I cannot imagine Tippett et al ever shaking off the tag. But I am very interested in the idea of neglect in music and the Arts. For all our self-berating and admonishment, ‘neglect’ in the arts is currently rather fashionable which makes for a curious tension.

We seem to find beauty in temporal things that, through our own lack of input or care, have begun to decay naturally. And we rise heroically to the challenge of hanging on to things that weren’t especially designed or intended to last. I have photography books on my shelves containing poignant shots of crumbling concrete buildings, temporary civic structures with a shelf life of 10 years that attract emotive campaigns for their renovation and salvation. I have books about London’s neglected stations and the forgotten overgrown paths of former tram tunnel systems. I went to an exhibition about loved, lost, damaged and destroyed public art from the post-war period. Last week I watched a wonderfully engaging documentary, Elektro Moskva, about the Soviet Electronics age. With a backdrop of artfully shot derelict warehouses and flea markets, it revealed an underground world where the passion and trade for these unreliable junk-made electronic instruments has never died. Old and obsolete technology is as covetable as new. Today, vinyl records, analog cameras, and print books sit happily side by side with streaming music, smartphones and ebooks. It seems that transience, nostalgia and the ecology of decay and disintegration has a firm place in our hearts.

So we like old. But we seem to like our old to look old, feel old – and even sound old if the shutter effects on digital cameras are a barometer of current taste. The desirable ‘old’ of the 21st century is a little bit shabby, needy and non-perfect – rather like us, perhaps? But music is not an object. We can’t play decay. We can’t perform the visceral, numinous quality of something which has been untouched for 150 years, or maybe just 20 years. In the hands of a living musician, a lesser-known piece from the 16th century is no more ‘decayed’ than one from the 1950s. Popping a ‘neglected’ orchestral piece into a concert is, by and large, an instant and (relatively) cheap and quick restoration project. Maybe we don’t quite have all the period features intact, but contemporary trends dictate that we can and should fill the gaps imaginatively where we don’t have the historical bits of the jigsaw. And this convenience, this ease into which something ‘neglected’ can slip so effortlessly into modern times means that it also remains largely disposable and can be instantly forgotten again. ‘Neglected repertoire’ is no eye-sore, no greying concrete blot on the landscape. It is not a health and safety matter. It is not a financial drain whether we keep or dispose of it. We can put it away until the next centenary and no harm will be done.

How can we keep an impossibly huge expanse of music alive and vibrant? How can we prevent each new generation of composers facing even greater barriers to hearing their music played? Some thoughts….

We can write our own histories – the music of the mid 20th century, to me, is as vital and valuable as the operas by Wagner and the Cantatas by Bach. No single person can serve every music and every composer. But we can become more fascinated by those who do interest us and we can try to programme them imaginatively in ways that illuminate and enhance their vibrancy and spirit.

Funding and development bodies: can you offer incentives to support imaginative programming? (Sound and Music – you do this – thanks). How about a ‘twinning’ scheme with a living composer and a lesser-played historical composer with the aim of generating some liberated thinking about commissioning, programming and planning for Festivals and events?

Not every composer can have a publisher behind them. But there are a growing number of entrepreneurial people making projects and providing frameworks for composers to work within. All you need is a mobile phone, a website and some good ideas.

BBC Ten Pieces – it’s good, it works. Kids who don’t yet know Classical Music are an absolute joy. They don’t make ‘status’ judgments on composers and they take everything at face value. So – next step – why don’t you give them some Georges Ensecu, Elizabeth Maconchy, Vítězslav Novák, Allan Pettersson, Havergal Brian, Antonio Rosetti, Roberto Gerhard? They’ll love it! And we’ll all get to learn something new. People who set examination syllabi: please also take note. And can we ditch the ‘great’ lists whilst I’m on this one? (greatest composers…greatest women composers…greatest piano concertos…there are even ‘greatest neglected composers’ lists…)

Audiences – please continue to take a punt on things you don’t know. Most of you do this – thank you.

Anyone reading this is likely to care deeply about music and what happens to it. ‘Neglect’ seems too harsh a word in this sense; people who work hard to make things happen do so with an enormous amount of goodwill, passion and regret that they cannot do more for silent music. The sheer volume of un-played music can be overwhelming, but it is no different to the feeling I have when I go into a bookshop and know that I will only ever read a fraction of the books on the shelves. It is no different to the feeling I have of not being able to get to all the concerts, exhibitions, operas and events I would like to. Rather than feeling despondent about ‘neglect’ I’ve come to the end of this blog feeling rather proud for all that we do manage to achieve for music against almost impossible odds. And I’m more determined than ever – as player, producer, listener – to keep enjoying and exploring the rich treasury of music that is out there and so readily available to me.

Read more by Kate Romano:

Applauding Audiences

‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at


Silence: A Fertile Soil

Interior with Ida Playing the Piano, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, cropped. Original here.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

LISTEN to me,” said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head. “The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire. And there is no quiet there, nor silence.”

So starts Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Silence – A Fable. The tale commences with the demon’s successive attempts to frighten a man bearing ‘sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.’ The dark forest of tall primeval trees, the river of sickly hue, the roaring and frightful animals, and a violent tempest do not threaten the man – he shakes in solitude but perseveres. At last, when the demon conjures up an unworldly silence that sets everything to absolute stillness, the man flees in terror.

Poe shows silence as a source of great terror. Indeed, there is an ominous and often frightful aspect to silence. 18th-century English philosophers, including Edmund Burke (1729-1797), would not disagree. ‘All general privation’, Burke writes, ‘they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence.’

The Soviet composer Nokolai Myaskovsky’s (1881-1950) symphonic poem Silence is based on the Poe short story. It depicts the terror and unease with a brooding introspection building up to a violent release. There are moments of great passion, in which the propulsive rhythm draws a graphic and dramatic picture.

While silence as a literary concept often reveals a sense of dread and terror, what are the effects of silence when utilised as a compositional device? And ultimately, what is the relationship between silence and music?

The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was notorious for using silence in his music, to such a degree that his Second symphony was at one point nicknamed the Pausensymphonie, ‘symphony of pauses.’ In fact, this is very characteristic of Bruckner’s compositions. While frequent pauses abruptly disturb the flow of music, they bring out a sense of granite-like monumentality, a rigid architecture. By eschewing smooth transitions between differing musical ideas, Bruckner also achieves heightened contrasts and surprise. ‘You must take a new breath when you intend to say something important,’ he once explained to the conductor Arthur Nikisch.

These characteristics are prominent in his fifth symphony. Slow pizzicatos (plucking of the strings) solemnly and mysteriously open up a spacious canvas, upon which walls of sound build up to stately musical climaxes. In the coda of the finale, the giant work concludes with ecstatic grandeur, again through pause-driven suspense and release.

The second half of the 20th century saw an increasing tendency for composers to identify silence as an important musical language. According to Boulez, the initiation of such a paradigm shift can be attributed to the works of Anton Webern (1883-1945). Boulez writes* in 1955: ‘if one can, in a certain sense, maintain […] that Webern was obsessed with formal purity to the point of silence, it was an obsession that he carried to a degree of tension hitherto unknown in music.’

While ‘pointillistic’, ‘concentrated’, and ‘economical’ are terms often used to describe Webern’s works, such illustrations often overlook the deeply emotional nature of his music. Webern’s unique and potent use of silence allows the listener to hear each individual note clearly, right from the birth of the note to its decay, which gives his music layers of eerie contemplation and introspection. The short duration of his works and radical harmony only add a deeply personal and abstract poetry. Such characteristics are represented well in his terse string quartet, Op.28.

A particular group of composers in New York, led by John Cage (1912-1992), took the element of silence to another plane. It was Cage, with his Zen-like spirituality, who brought silence to the fore through his infamous 4’33’’, where not a single note is played. Cage also left a substantial amount of writing on silence in music. Yet it was the composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) who struck an ideal balance between silence both as a concept and musical language. In his essays published in 1985, Feldman writes, ‘silence is my substitute for counterpoint. It’s nothing against something […] It’s a real thing, it’s a breathing thing.’

In his mammoth, 70-minute piano work For Bunita Marcus, strange repetitions of notes echo between the abysmal valleys of silence. Yet for all its strangeness, there is an atmosphere of calm. It is also noticeable that the music has a spatial dimension, much like the musical architecture of Bruckner’s symphonies. However, Feldman’s unique grandeur never roars or imposes – it merely whispers and gasps.

Feldman infamously wished to be completely dissociated from the Western musical tradition, to be remembered as the first great Jewish composer. Still, if one can hear a strange resemblance to the music of Webern, this may be no accident. Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), the tutor of Feldman, was an ardent advocate of Webern’s music, after all.

It appears that whether loud or quiet, music with ample doses of silence acquires characteristics of contemplation and breath – characteristics well suited for sacred music. The religious music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) lacks no intentions for creating silence as a source of awe and spirituality. ‘Silence’, says Pärt in a recent interview, ‘is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed […] [and] must be approached with a feeling of awe.’ Such is felt in abundance in Da Pacem Domine (‘give peace, o Lord’).

Yet Pärt is no pioneer in this regard. In fact, Pärt’s art of distilling silence in long stretches for the purposes of spirituality has long been practiced and mastered by Renaissance polyphony composers, as can be seen through the works of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517).

Isaac, much like Pärt, uses elements of silence as a crucial form of composition, the difference perhaps being that Pärt was more conscious of his choice of silence. It is fascinating to know that Webern studied Isaac’s music extensively for his doctorate thesis. Could it be that Webern’s paradigm shifting musical language of silence may, therefore, be as old as it is new?

Silence has a long tradition in the thinking of East Asia, and developed independently from various Western developments. The state of emptiness is crucial in the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism. The Japanese Wabi-sabi, furthermore, is an aesthetic discourse that finds grace and beauty in the emphasis on emptiness. Such appreciation of nothingness is reflected in the general aesthetics of East Asia, as can be seen in the following work by the calligrapher Chusa Kim Jeong-Hui (1786-1856) from Joseon (now the Korean peninsula).

Original here.

It is possible to notice the palpable empty spaces in such paintings. Here, emptiness is not the absence of presence (i.e. dead space), but rather the presence of absence, through which one realises the humbling of the physically tangible. It comes as no surprise that such attitude towards silence is reflected in the musical tradition of East Asia. For instance, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) made no secret of their fascination of silence. I present the music of the Buddhist composer Somei Sato (b. 1947). Taken from the album From the Depth of Silence, Satoh, in Kisetsu (‘season’), combines a uniquely East Asian sensibility of meditative vision using a Western orchestra and (relatively) traditional Western harmonies.

It isn’t hard to argue that there can be no music without silence. Silence, after all, is the canvas of music upon which notes are written. Yet is it not also the case that silence cannot exist without music? Is it not music or the presence of sound that allows our realisation of the importance and presence of silence? And the stronger the sense of silence, the stronger the sense of sound. I like to think therefore of silence as a very musical problem.

The experience of music is also the experience of silence, and much like the yin and yang, one cannot be detached one from the other. Once aware of the coexistence of sound and silence, we may start hearing things we never noticed before. And this awareness of the intimate relationship between being and its relative not being may go beyond a physical realisation, to a metaphysical one. Is this the state that James Joyce felt, for instance, when he wrote the following in the dying paragraphs of his short story, The Dead?

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. 

Heidegger’s sweeping metaphysical rumination brings new light:

Let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself. 

* I would like to reserve special thanks to Dr. Edward Campbell of the University of Aberdeen, who helped me find the exact quote of Boulez on Webern.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). 


Musical Borders

Colton Map of Europe, 1855.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder’s postmodern novel about the history of philosophy, the young heroine Sophie is in a woodland cabin with her mentor Alberto, when a thunderous series of knocks is heard at the door. The visitor, unexpectedly, is Alice in Wonderland. ‘I am to give Sophie these little philosophy bottles,’ Alice explains. She hands them to Sophie and runs off into the woods.

One bottle is red, one blue. Both are labelled DRINK ME. With Alberto’s encouragement, Sophie sips from the red bottle. Her surroundings seem to change. ‘It felt as if the lake and the woods and the cabin all merged into one […] everything she saw was one person, and that person was Sophie herself.’

When Sophie drinks from the blue bottle, an entirely different transformation occurs. The surroundings fracture into infinite, dizzying variety. ‘The tiniest twig was like a fairy-tale world about which a thousand stories could be told.’ Alberto explains that the bottles reflect the pantheistic Idealism of the Romantics (red) and the Individualism of the philosopher Kierkegaard (blue). Kierkegaard disagreed with the Romantics, but neither his view or theirs is a strictly correct way to see the world.

This lesson cuts to the heart of a basic question of perception: how much do we see unity, how much uniqueness? It was an issue that briefly surfaced in the panel discussion of February’s Music Into Words event. There was a suggestion from the audience that genres like ‘classical’ were of limited use. Can’t we just talk about music?

I have always found this argument odd. Most of us enjoy music of many genres. But that does not mean that genre traditions are not meaningfully distinctive. All music has something to tell us about the people and the culture that made it.

The idea of ‘just music’ also conveniently ignores the messy business of politics: in an unequal world, musics are not created equal. Whether we like it or not, classical music has a a long history of establishment support and aristocratic patronage. In popular culture it is frequently used as code for refinement, class privilege, and prestige – and however unfairly limiting these associations might be, neither are they accidental.

I can certainly understand a desire to rid ourselves of this baggage – but baggage is part of inheritance. Rather than aspiring to eliminate genres, we could develop a better understanding of where they’ve come from, and what they tell us about where we are today.

Frances Stonor Saunders, in her insightful and moving essay Where on Earth are you? writes about borders both mental and physical:

All borders […] are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become.

To fortify our sense of who we are. On the whole, the traditions of Western classical music are distinctive enough that what it is seems to be pretty well understood. And when musicians experiment across genres, that they are doing so also seems fairly well understood – with music as with geography, borders do not have to mean barricades.

However, for some classical artists who adopt approaches from more popular cultural forms, and in doing so achieve wide popularity, you can see battle lines of identity being drawn. The contempt it is common to hear reserved for figures like Ludovico Einaudi or André Rieu – as representing music supposedly too simplistic, vulgar, commodified – claims the opposite values as part of a supposedly authentic classical music. If Einaudi and Reiu were straightforward pop acts, distancing oneself would not be necessary – they disturb precisely because they occupy a kind of musical ‘uncanny valley’, an uncomfortable proximity. We use borders to mark differences; we use them to obscure similarities.

Thankfully, not everyone is so dismissive. But while some forms of identity are loudly declared, others hide in plain sight. Why is the classical repertoire so dominated by the works of dead white men? There may be many historic factors, but we do not learn about dead white men in music lessons, we learn of ‘great composers’, ‘masterpieces’. We are left to suppose the repertoire is defined by merit, even though the idea of such a purely meritocratic outcome is laughable. Yet this narrative can become so deeply ingrained that when a different story is told it often genuinely upsets people, even (or perhaps especially) when it is illustrated by the most damning of figures.

Can't we just pretend that gender doesn't matter?
Can’t we just pretend that gender doesn’t matter?

But since I’m on the subject of borders, I want to think about what it means that Western classical music, even as it has spread around the world, is European in origin. Particularly at this time when the borders of Europe are such a fraught political issue.

Britain will soon vote on whether to remain a member of the European Union – a project built on redefining the meaning of borders – or whether to pull back to its island shores. At the same time, the enormous humanitarian crisis at Europe’s edges has created tensions around borders on a much bigger scale.

The EU’s mission of a united Europe has echoes in its official anthem – Herbert von Karajan’s arrangement of the prelude to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from the ninth symphony. If classical music is code for prestige, big choral-orchestral works signify might and glory (even UEFA, the European football body, use a pastiche of Handel’s Zadok The Priest for the Champions League Anthem). But Beethoven’s Ode is a glory of brotherhood rather than battle, and in pushing the boundaries of symphonic form it represents the spirit of progress, of building something bigger than before. It is also, of course, so familiar and renowned as to be iconic of classical music as a whole. And while Karajan’s arrangement is instrumental, the unifying sentiments of Schiller’s words inevitably hang about it in the air:

Your magics join again,
What custom strictly divided,
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

A world away from the halls of Brussels and Strasbourg, these words surely ring hollow at the recent sight of EU member states erecting fences and bolstering border controls. As we witness news reports of crowded boats sinking in the Mediterranean, Schiller’s ecstatic peroration – ‘Be embraced, you millions! / This kiss is for the whole world!’ – strikes a particularly sad dissonance against the calculating prose of contemporary politics.

And yet, despite the undeniable fear of mass immigration and far-right sentiment rising in many parts of Europe, there is plenty of compassion too. The classical music world has responded with charity concerts in aid of refugees. In March, Berlin saw a ‘welcome concert for refugees and helpers’, featuring three conductors and three orchestras. This was no doubt a worthwhile endeavour, but the music was predictably unambitious: Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev. What about the opportunity to start a cross-border dialogue with the music itself?

Back in November, Nicolas Nebout conducted a London concert to raise money for the UNICEF Syrian Children’s Appeal, with a programme including Pheonix in Exile, a work by contemporary Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali. This piece deals directly with the theme of the humanitarian crisis, and combines Middle-Eastern modes with Western classical forms and harmony. The programme note makes clear how Jandali uses the idea of the Pheonix, represented by oboe and violin solos, as a metaphor for the flight of refugees of Syria, as well as his hope for the eventual rebirth of the nation:

The Syrian people, like the Phoenix, will rise from the ruins and rebuild their homeland in a manner even more magnificent than it used to be.

Here it is worth reflecting on how relatively rarely we in the West seem to hear classical music from the non-West. It is not for a lack of it – plenty of music has been written for classical ensembles from countries as varied as Japan, Lebanon, Brazil. Much, like that of Jandali, incorporates non-Western musical elements.

We might conclude, then, that the well-worn maxim of music as a ‘universal language’ is too idealistic. My view is that all music can at some level be universally understood, but it will resonate differently with those who have an existing relationship with the traditions it has grown out of. It was on this point that last year, in Parochialism Is Universal, that I explained how music played a positive role in enriching my understanding of where I live – in my case works by British composers. But there is an important caveat: being interested in what is around you (literally ‘of the parish’) doesn’t mean being closed off to outside influences. In fact I would argue that to really understand where you are, that perspective is necessary.

Similarly, on a European level, it would surely be self-flattering to imagine that Bach and Beethoven speak to eternal human values, that they have transcended their European-ness, even their German-ness. If we know classical music can represent prestige, there is a danger of prestige becoming cultural triumphalism. This idea surfaces in Lucy Cheung’s recent article about an Orientalist attitude in the classical music world. She notes that conductor Daniel Barenboim has made several patronising comments about Asian and African countries he had visited to perform music. It is especially ironic given his friendship with the late Edward Said, leading critic of Western Orientalism.

Such comments should remind us that we can overlay the history of classical music remarkably well with the history of European Imperialism, from the Conquistadors of the late Renaissance to the breakdown of tonality at the time of the ‘Scramble For Africa’, which ended with European powers ruling an astonishing 90% of the continent. For many Europeans, it is our awkward inheritance that our history is also the history of peoples in distant parts of the world – their borders in many cases are our borders, the scars of European violence. These legacies still inform patterns of economic power and migration today, so how much we chose to remember matters. I cannot help but think, listening to the angry rhetoric about ‘taking back control of our borders’, that perhaps deep down rests an uneasy realisation – that the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy is not ours to fence off by any inherent moral right.

With all this in mind, we try to imagine what a classical music suited to the twenty-first century might look like, if it were designed anew. It could take on a leading role in navigating the bustling, multi-perspective world we find ourselves in. It could honour its many European roots, but do more to investigate the way those traditions have been adopted, and adapted, by other cultures. It could spend less time lounging in the historic squares of Vienna and Paris, and more exploring the confusing alleyways of the modern global megacity.

It could also spend more time exploring artistic borderlands. I was fortunate to attend a recent concert at Brighton Pavilion to mark the centenary of events, during World War One, when that pseudo-oriental pleasure palace became a makeshift hospital to injured Indian soldiers who were fighting for Britain. The concert featured English orchestral music by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, both of whom served in that war (the latter fatally), and who were defining a new musical identity drawing on British folksong. Interspersed between these works was The Seasons of India, traditional Indian music scored with orchestral accompaniment by Kala Ramnath. Two different musical cultures were celebrated together as equals.

The Indian soldiers at the Pavilion were caught up in a catastrophic battle of colonial powers they had done nothing to start. We sat in the exact space they had lain hospitalised, and heard readings from letters they had sent home, of their adjustments to being in a strange land, of warning relatives not to enlist. These touching details invited us to consider the memories of places that would have come together under Brighton Dome, to make connections radiating out across the South Downs, past the villages where Vaughan Williams collected folksongs, to the battlefields of the Western Front, to distant British India.

A light show at Brighton Pavilion marks the ‘Dr. Blighty’ centenary celebrations, Brighton Festival 2016. Photo by David B Young, shared under Creative Commons License.

That concert, like the UNICEF fundraiser, was an example of how imaginative programming can illuminate shared history, while acknowledging the painful experiences so often bound up in it. Schiller’s vision that ‘all people become brothers’ is a noble sentiment, but has little precedence to offer us. The poet himself seemed to realise this later in life, describing in a letter to a friend how the Ode was ‘detached from reality’. Whether that is a bad omen for the future of the EU, we will have to wait and see.

Nonetheless, for all its flaws as an institution, I will be voting for Britain to remain a member of the Union. Perhaps I am something of a romantic idealist, but my instincts tell me that, for all our differences, progress more likely lies in partnership and collaboration. I cherish the idea that people can go abroad in search of a better life, whether they be EU citizens or Syrian refugees. But like Sophie, I think we need to drink from both bottles. In music as with politics, our distinctive histories are important to understand, even as we try to remember that they don’t have to define our future. Borders, as Saunders reminds us, are what we cross in search of who we might become.