The Proms Must Be A Broad Church, Not Simply A Temple Of Music


London's Royal Albert Hall, home of the BBC Proms
London’s Royal Albert Hall, home of the BBC Proms

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance. Glastonbury has a tradition of guitar music […] I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.

Noel Gallagher, 2008

With every year comes the BBC Proms, and with every year a spate of articles and blogs about the state of the festival. This has been my first season as a classical music blogger, and I have been exposed to a fuller spectrum of debate than before, particularly on Twitter.

I have been struck by some negative reactions to so-called Prom ‘gimmicks’: the Pete Tong Ibiza Prom being a prime example. Debates about maintaining the purity of highly esteemed cultural events are not confined to the classical world, as the quote above demonstrates. Just as Jay-Z’s Glastonbury set was well received, so the Ibiza Prom seems to have been a roaring success.

I’ve also been struck by the fact that rearing its head again is the debate about clapping between movements, which prompted a rather despairing tweet that seemed to chime with a lot of people. Another related complaint seems to be the decision of the BBC to broadcast spoken introductions between movements of pieces on TV, rather than play them all the way through.


Many people fear for the integrity of the Proms for a variety of reasons, including the increasingly uncertain future of the BBC itself. I wanted to put down a few thoughts about the festival and what it says about current classical music culture in the UK.

Firstly, it should go without saying, but we in Britain are extremely fortunate to have the Proms. Ibiza and Doctor Who notwithstanding, it is eight weeks overwhelmingly dedicated to traditional classical music making, in a spectacular venue, widely broadcast across multiple channels, subsidised by a nationwide license fee that helps make tickets very affordable. It’s the kind of tradition that could so easily not have happened, but which has accrued a loyal following from having done so. It has also gained the sort of ‘national cultural treasure’ status which a wider set of people who are not core classical listeners respect, and which will attract them to occasionally pay attention. In that context, complaining that the odd concert is given to music you don’t like kind of seems lacking in perspective.

My response to the announcement of an Ibiza Prom was ‘not my cup of tea, but fair enough’. When I saw the footage and the joyous reactions, I wished I had been curious enough to give it a go. But in any case: if any festival can test the boundaries of inclusiveness, it is surely the Proms. Its huge scale ensures it remains an overwhelmingly classical affair, and the fact that the BBC’s backing means it can afford to risk dabbling in new areas – with no guarantee it will pay off – undoubtedly means that it should. If you think that combining Pete Tong and an orchestra is the wrong kind of experimentation, then you’ve missed the point of experimentation.

As for clapping between movements, the reason that debate is so turgid is that it is unsolvable. You can’t reconcile the desires of those who want reverential silence with those who want to show appreciation after a rousing end of a movement. The two are mutually exclusive and neither inherently right. I default in defence of clappers because I’d rather err on the side of allowing people to behave by instinct rather than by adding social codes to the concert experience, and asking the audience to refrain from showing too much appreciation would feel contrary to the inclusive spirit of the festival. Of much more concern to me, as my tweet above outlines, is how continual debate of such relatively trivial matters make the classical music world look out of touch and a bit ridiculous. Particularly when there are elephants in the room like the fact that the Proms still, in 2015, marginalises music by women.

As for broadcasting commentary between movements, if it is insightful commentary that helps people to engage with the music at these key markers then I think it could be a very good thing indeed. You can certainly argue about how it should be done (cutaway to a talking head or just subtitles during the music?) but those of us who are already well-versed with the classical repertoire should remember that guidance like this could be a gateway of discovery for somebody who isn’t. There is a greater public service broadcasting argument for helping people approach the music rather than simply providing an in-house concert experience for people who are already regular classical listeners.

It’s not that I don’t have my own bugbears. I find the traditions of some Prommers shouting ‘heave, ho’ before a piano concerto embarrassing – the only point of these rituals seems to be to show others that you’re in-the-know. But not being able to have everything your own way is a sign of the festival’s broad appeal. It’s undoubtedly a good thing that the Proms attracts enough people that there are some there who don’t share your values. For example, it still amazes me that there are listeners who are genuinely upset when there isn’t enough Mozart. I wonder how they’d react to my idea of doing an experimental Proms season where no composer gets more than one work performed…

My main concerns with the Proms are about how much more it could be doing. For new music, for music by women, for non-Western classical music and for the richness of our home-grown heritage, for collaborations across art forms. In many, many ways it does a fantastic job already, but it’s absolutely right that we demand it aim still higher.

But what is also surely right is that we are not entitled to a license-fee funded festival of this scale reserved for a purist ‘Temple of Music’ experience. It needs to be a broad church that engages widely and in a variety of ways. My personal ideal for the Proms is to have more risk, more diversity, more creativity about realising the potential of classical music to be relevant to everyone, while exploring interesting connections. Of course it should retain its remit as a festival primarily of classical music, but having diverse appeal within that remit is, in my view, the best way for to be defended against any future squeezes on BBC spending.

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus.


Through The Looking-Glass: Alice Mary Smith, And What The Victorians Did For Us

Alice Mary Smith
Alice Mary Smith
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

News that 17-year old student Jessy McCabe has started a petition for the examination board Edexcel to include women composers on its syllabus has led to me tweeting quite a lot about the women composers issue recently. Regular readers will know it’s a topic I feel strongly about.

The twitter response to the petition shows, yet again, that there’s a lot of support for hearing more classical music by women. One tweeter correctly noted the gap between BBC Radio 3’s ambitious programming for International Women’s Day and the still-lamentable dominance of men at this year’s BBC Proms. I don’t know how much dialogue exists between the management at Radio 3 and the Proms, but it seems to me that this is an issue that cannot simply be ignored any more.


Regular readers will also know that I have a particular interest in British music, so it was serendipitous to discover the Victorian composer Alice Mary Smith (1839-84) in my continuing exploration of classical music by women. Taught by two other neglected Victorians – George MacFarren and William Sterndale Bennett (whose name sounds so perfectly Victorian it must surely be made up) – she composed music which, like theirs, is indebted to the Austro-German Classical tradition. Indeed, after her death from Typhoid fever at the age of just 45, an obituary described her music as ‘marked by elegance and grace…her forms were always clear and her ideas free from eccentricity; her sympathies were evidently with the Classic rather than with the Romantic school’.

It is absurd that, as a music graduate with an interest in British music, I should discover Alice Smith through the algorithmic prompts of the YouTube related videos sidebar – as absurd, in fact, as an all-male music syllabus. But I was very pleased to stumble upon this, her symphony in C minor, which was written at the age of 24. It is a charming, well-crafted work with memorable melodic themes.

Aside from being a woman, Smith – like Sterndale Bennett, MacFarren, and even Parry and Stanford – suffers from a widespread neglect of British Victorian music in the concert hall. While the perennial Gilbert and Sullivan have an emblematic status in our understanding of Victorian Britain, concert schedules still give the impression that our symphonic music began in 1899 with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. (The cloistered world of Anglican choral music is rather different, where ‘Stanford in B Flat’ and ‘Stainer’s Crucifixion’ are whispered among choristers like the pupils at Hogwarts discussing spells.)

Why such neglect? These composers were eclipsed by the flowering of a more distinctive and varied school of composition in Britain in the twentieth century. But I have never believed that we should hold the date of composition against a piece of music – Smith’s symphonies were not breaking new stylistic ground, but that shouldn’t matter if they have musical merits. What certainly should be celebrated is the fact that she succeeded as a woman to write accomplished music against a prevailing patriarchal culture. Britain should show some pride in her and give these works the respect of being performed.

Even Smith’s male counterparts, writing music in a similarly conservative style, nonetheless form part of our musical heritage, and illustrate a time when Britain was developing real civic pride as a musical nation: founding the music colleges, orchestras, and festivals which in many cases still define our musical landscape today (the Proms itself was founded in 1895). The stories of composers like MacFarren and Sterndale Bennett need to be told in Britain, and their contributions acknowledged, alongside the Romantics from abroad. That is not to say they are only of historical interest – their music contains much to enjoy, and indeed Sterndale Bennett’s music was admired by Schumann.

The opposing attitude, which sees music history as a succession of Geniuses Of Great Men to be revered, is one of the reasons our concert repertoire is so narrow. This was demonstrated by a lecturer at my university dismissing Parry and Stanford as ‘dead wood composers’: i.e. hopelessly derivative. Naturally I beg to differ: for example, I particularly love Parry’s music for its heart-warming charity of spirit and prevailing optimism – it’s also often simply very beautiful. Furthermore, in his ‘Cambridge’ symphony I can detect an emerging musical Englishness, a mellifluous lyricism that pre-echoes the later writing of his pupil Vaughan Williams. If Parry is dead wood, then remember that a dead tree supports more species of life than a living one.

Before a recent Proms concert, I went to hear the ‘Proms Extra’ talk in the nearby Royal College of Music. It turned out to be a discussion with two writers about Alice In Wonderland on its 150th anniversary. It was fascinating, but having nothing to do with that evening’s music I wondered why it had been held here, and not in one of the BBC’s many outlets for literary programming. Moreover, it was a baffling missed opportunity to shed light on the music we were about to hear, including the long overdue Proms premiere of Vaughan Williams’ rarely-performed Sancta Civitas.

I still love the Proms for their many virtues, so I don’t want to be overly negative about the festival. But how long will it be before I hear a Proms Extra discussion about the Alice who was not the figment of a male imagination, but a real human being with considerable musical achievements? When that happens, and performances of her music follow, it might also be the time to stop petitioning exam boards. Because everyone doing a Music A-Level will be learning about inspiring, accomplished women composers – as she was. We might even hear about some of our other distinguished Victorians too.

I live in hope.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

‘The Impassioned Pursuit Of An Idea’: Elizabeth Maconchy And The String Quartet


‘The Impassioned Pursuit Of An Idea’: Elizabeth Maconchy And The String Quartet

Plaque in Shottesbrook, Boreham, UK. Picture is shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.
Plaque in Shottesbrook, Boreham, UK, taken by Sludge G. Picture is shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Last year I wrote about my embarrassing ignorance of music by women composers, and my vow to educate myself. I mentioned that even a short time spent searching YouTube had revealed lots of surprising and brilliant classical music by women, and that the string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94) had immediately stood out as revelatory. Now I want to return to these works with a blog of their own.

The YouTube videos came from what is, shockingly, the only commercial recording set of these 13 quartets yet released. While listening, I was immediately struck by Maconchy’s compelling writing; here was a razor-sharp musical intelligence completely inhabiting a musical medium. In fact it is remarkable how easy it is in these works to forget that you are listening to a string quartet. The instrumentation is totally synthesised into the musical message – Maconchy plays to the natural expressive strengths of the instruments without drawing attention to their limitations with excessive demands.

The first movement of her second quartet, composed at age 29, demonstrates her mastery. It builds from a low drone, the parts twisting and turning around each other with gathering momentum like the evolving shapes of a bonfire taking hold. No instrument takes centre stage; instead the parts work together in a tightly knit argument of motifs, ebbing and flowing in fascinating ways while effortlessly driving a sense of drama. Maconchy always keeps you guessing, resisting any sense of resolution until the final tentative major chord. I find it utterly compelling and – if perhaps unconventionally – beautiful.

In 2007 the On An Overgrown Path blog posted an insightful and lovingly-written advocacy of Maconchy and her quartets, which I encourage you to read. The author describes the ‘conundrum’ that she poses: ‘vital and astringent music combined with an unassuming personality’. There is certainly an enigma to these works, a fascination deriving from the combination of their expressive qualities with a restless abstraction. Maconchy’s notes to her sixth quartet offers an insight into her approach:

Writing music, like all creative art, is the impassioned pursuit of an idea […] in my view everything extraneous to the pursuit of this central idea must be rigorously excluded – scrapped.

The thirteen quartets span over fifty years of composition. The remnants of traditional tonality in her second quartet do not survive into her late works, which are more brutal in their dissonance and often more reticent in their textures.  Her ’impassioned pursuit of an idea’ seems to have given way to a landscape which is much more fractured and complex. This evolution was not confined to her string quartets, as Maconchy’s daughter Nicola LeFanu – a composer in her own right – described in these comprehensive biographical notes about her mother:

She had left behind a harmony based on familiar tonal or modal hierarchies, for a language that is more exploratory. Her melodies became more expansive and her sensitivity to timbre, notable from her earliest work, was strengthened […].

It’s a considerable change of style, but Maconchy was perhaps moving with the times: the eleventh quartet was composed in 1976, and has an uncompromising strangeness, a resistance to being easily understood which to this day seems to be a default setting in so much new classical music (contrast this to the serenely beautiful late quartet of Rubbra I recently wrote about, which was composed the following year).

Sadly, the severe neglect of Maconchy’s works that On An Overgrown Path highlighted in 2007 has barely changed 8 years on, with performances few and far between. Yet when she is performed, reactions tends to be positive: her two chamber operas The Sofa and The Departure got aired in that centenary year to good reviews, her third quartet made an appearance at the 2013 Proms, and another quartet outing in 2012 had one unsuspecting tweeter summing up my reaction to hearing her music for the first time.


In considering Maconchy’s neglect, perhaps a useful comparison is Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). Just four years older than Maconchy, she excelled in another abstract form: sculpture. I’m a music graduate, yet I was aware of Hepworth’s work long before I was aware of Maconchy. Why? Because I saw her sculptures in galleries. I didn’t need an art degree to pick up a sense that she is considered important – Britain’s cultural establishment told me so. As if to illustrate my point, there is even a whole exhibition dedicated to her work at Tate Britain right now.

There are limitations to this comparison of course, but it nonetheless illustrates something. Tate Britain has a free collection in central London dedicated to Britain’s heritage in visual art. A public institution of equivalent stature to promote Britain’s contribution to classical music is both sorely lacking and sorely needed. (Maconchy was Irish, though having lived and worked for most of her life in England was undoubtedly part of Britain’s musical landscape). I’m not sure what form such an institution should take. But as I argued on St. George’s Day, no one will look after our music if we don’t.

And inevitably, Maconchy’s marginal status raises another question. Does classical music fail its women of the past even more than other art forms? To me it certainly looks like it. Radio 3’s long overdue Women’s Day showed how much fabulous music there is by historic women composers, yet this is not remotely reflected in concerts. It’s partly bound up in the bigger problem of our repertoire being too narrow across the board, and as such, it’s hard to unpick how much the neglect of someone like Maconchy is down to her being a woman, or her just not yet being a bankable name. But it’s certainly interesting that all the bankable names still seem to be men.

So what does it take for a composer like Maconchy get the same kudos as Hepworth? For all the disruptive potential of social media and blogs, it’s still establishment institutions and the mainstream media that hold the most sway over the public’s sense of what, or who, is important. Their decisions can significantly change perceptions – the BBC’s recent decision to give the women’s football world cup much more prominent coverage is a case in point.

But even without institutional support, it does surprise me that more string quartets haven’t seized on Maconchy’s works. The first seven quartets in particular should hold no fear for audiences fed on a seemingly limitless supply of Shostakovich. And the more I listen to Maconchy, the more fascinating and brilliant she becomes: respecting the intelligence of the listener without ever trespassing on his or her patience, never striving for the monumental, but producing superbly crafted music of real integrity. Her music doesn’t need a gender gap to justify being championed, but the fact that we have one – one so stark and persistent – surely makes not doing so unjustifiable.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

The Call Of The Wild


Standing Up For Classical Music: Why I Love The BBC Proms

I’ve dished out a fair bit of criticism of the BBC Proms on this blog before, in relation to composers whose works they tend to neglect. But nonetheless it is a festival I love to attend, and I generally do so every year. So in the spirit of fairness I have written for Classical Diary on why I love the tradition of ‘Promming’, and why I think it is in some respects a superior way to listen to live music. You can read my post here.


Our Narrow Repertoire is Holding Classical Music Back

Arnold Bax.

holsthousezoom     By Simon Brackenborough.

It’s safe to say that I was never a conventional teenager. Some time around the age of 15 or 16, while my peers were obsessed with Radiohead, I discovered a profound affinity with the music of half-forgotten British composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953). I became absorbed in his epic symphonies, chamber music and tone poems. So In 2003, aged 18, I wrote to the then director of the BBC Proms to ask why a Bax symphony hadn’t been programmed for the 50th anniversary of his death. His reply was that the last time one had had a Proms performance, the attendance had been one of the lowest in memory. His memory, that is: the fateful Prom was in 1984, a few months before I was born.

Many classical fans have their own favourite neglected composers, or works of music that haven’t received their fair due. In most cases we rarely, if ever, get chances to hear them performed live. And yet at the same time, we live in a golden age for access to recorded music. Thanks to YouTube, there is now more classical music available to hear than you could listen to in a lifetime, much of it by composers you’ve never heard of, and all for free.

But taking time to explore this amazing resource can be a daunting prospect, and that’s why last year I started a blog specifically to share some of this rarely-performed music with a wider audience, and explain why it means something to me. But I don’t want to argue that Bax or anyone else join an elite canon of great composers. Mostly I avoid the whole concept: the words ‘great’ and ‘masterpiece’, while fine as expressions of admiration, are actually some of the least informative descriptions you can give. In fact, they are often a way of not exploring what the music means.

The idea of timeless ‘greatness’ is also ahistorical. Even Bach’s music needed a revival in the nineteenth century. However proud we may be of our discerning ears, we all underestimate the role that expectations play in our perceptions, and studies have shown this to be the case from art to wine tasting. That isn’t to deny that some works have a wide and enduring appeal, but it is to acknowledge that music can be different things to different people at different times, and for different reasons. And this is no bad thing: in fact, I argue, it opens up a much more interesting conversation to have with new listeners.

Because – crucially – we need to look at the current marginalisation of so many brilliant and individual composers as a microcosm of the bigger marginalisation of classical music within society. Both are symptoms of a failure to fully realise, and adequately express, the basic relevance of the music. That’s why I believe that if we can invite the public to hear a Bax symphony, by finding ways to engage them in who he was and what makes his music distinctive, we will increase the pool of listeners who come to hear Beethoven too.

It’s not about whether enough people will like Bax. But by confidently confronting the question of why he produces both obsessive fans and sniffy detractors, you have exactly the opportunity to engage people that the Proms should have seized with both hands. Disagreement, after all, is a sign that an art form matters: a repertoire of limited risk is a repertoire of limited relevance. The industry will be in a healthier place when concert-goers are less sure that they will enjoy the experience, but are willing to pay to find out.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a huge untapped curiosity about classical music in the wider population, but with busy lives, listeners need to be given a route in. The success of the TED movement shows a popular hunger for learning which can be met with a smart, co-ordinated effort to feed that curiosity. Similarly encouraging is that my two most recent blog posts, looking at music through the theme of St. George’s Day and natural wildness, both had a great response from people who are not classical fans, but for whom I offered a musical connection to subjects they were already interested in. And in these contexts, an obscure composer can be just as relevant and revealing as any other.

A lateral, interdisciplinary, magpie approach surely holds more fruitful opportunities for classical music than what I call the ‘connoisseur culture’– that rather cosy preoccupation with the finer points of interpretations of core repertoire which too often seems to be the default setting in parts of the music media. Even as a music graduate I find this cliquey and uninspiring, so goodness knows how new listeners must feel. Just look at the average concert brochure today, and how little information is given on why you might want to hear anything on offer. The assumed knowledge of the repertoire suggests an industry content with preaching to the converted.

Of course, I understand that there are commercial calculations in programming pieces that are proven to sell tickets and that performers are already familiar with. But the canon, like any hierarchy, is also a way of preserving the status quo, and the status quo always benefits those with power. For people at the top of the classical industry, unfamiliar repertoire challenges the expertise on which they have built their authority. Yet as the comic writer and lifelong classical listener Armando Iannucci observed in this fantastic speech to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2006, new listeners are blessed by not knowing what is deemed to be worthy. I sometimes think we would be better off with people running the show who know nothing about the music at all.

If it were up to me, finding ways to connect people to the ideas and themes of the music would have a much bigger role in how performances are conceived and marketed; an over-priced concert programme that you have to read in a hurry just doesn’t cut it. A good example of a step in the right direction was the heavily-conceptualised The Rest Is Noise festival at London’s South Bank Centre. Discussion of themes can even form part of the event itself, as with the Orpheus Sinfonia’s ‘Beneath the Score’ concerts, which combine biography and analysis with performance. But these forward-thinking examples are still too rare.

Steve Jobs once said of his rival Bill Gates that ‘he’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.’ Now I’m no Apple-worshipper, but it’s clear that their phenomenal success is not just down to computer science, but understanding aesthetics, intuitive design, and consumer psychology. In contrast, we have a classical music industry that produces incredible musicians but is pretty woeful at telling the world why all their years of training, and all the amazing music they play, actually has anything to say. Even worse, it often doesn’t seem to care.

Of course I’m not the first person to make these sorts of arguments, and I won’t be the last. I particularly recommend this typically insightful post from the excellent On An Overgrown Path blog,contrasting the growth of Mahler’s popularity with that of ever-neglected Malcolm Arnold. But the arguments need continual revisiting, reconsidering, and refreshing. Because too often, classical music looks like it’s stuck in a dead-end job: one of comfortable routine that just about pays the bills, but whose narrow scope and dull repetition prevents any hope of reaching something greater.

Perhaps, in fact, the classical music world is sometimes guilty of forgetting just what an amazing resource a musical score is. Each one is a repository of years of learning, soul-searching and toil, and yet look at how we treat them – the majority gather dust while a select few grow dog-eared through overuse. This is nothing short of an artistic tragedy. The fact that scores are the starting point for classical music is what makes the art form so special, and it’s vital that they are at the heart of where it goes next.

That does not mean that all pieces offer something equally compelling. But, to borrow from George Orwell, it is to remind us that each reflects a composer seeing, feeling, hearing, and understanding the world. Quite simply, for every artist who lies forgotten we miss a unique perspective of what it means to be human; our culture carries one mind less, one world less. That is the essential truth that classical music needs to remember in order to thrive. We’re all here just trying to make sense of being alive. And through the incredible richness and diversity of our music, that’s all we should be trying to do.

This post originally appeared on Frances Wilson’s blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. 


Happy Birthday Edmund Rubbra


Today is the birthday of composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-86). In January I wrote an extensive blog post about Rubbra’s music, using his eleventh symphony as an example of why I love his work. But given the sheer scale of Rubbra’s neglect, I wanted to take the opportunity of his birthday to mention him again.

I recently re-discovered the fantastic speech that comic writer and lifelong classical listener Armando Iannucci gave to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2006, in which he passionately argued we should all talk more about what music means to us. This blogger obviously could not agree more. But in it Iannucci also related his discovery of Rubbra’s music, despite it having fallen out of fashion:

When I first heard Rubbra, was I unaware that his music, along with the music of many English symphonists of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, had been critically banished from the airwaves and concert halls because they were deemed embarrassingly traditional. So I had no idea I wasn’t meant to like it.

Sadly, that banishment has lasted for a long time. But as for being embarrassingly traditional, I think the perfect response to such a superficial judgement came from Rubbra himself:

It is not musical style that matters, but the thought behind the style; it is the stature of the thinking that gives music substance.

I include below two examples of the stature of Rubbra’s thinking: the first movement of his wonderful piano concerto that gave this blog its botanical name, and one of my favourite of his late works: the fourth string quartet. The latter piece, like the eleventh symphony, shows the fascinating evolution that his music underwent in his later years, becoming at the same time more condensed and more liberated. Its soft and serenely dignified ending is also, in my view, one of the most moving passages in his whole output.

Should that not be enough, these two pieces also feature on an introductory playlist for Rubbra’s music that I have compiled from what is available on YouTube, which can be found here. And as a final thought as to why I think this man’s music matters so much, I can only repeat what I said in my previous blog:

I maintain hope that Rubbra’s time will come. There is too much quality in his work, in its craftsmanship and its distinctive voice, for it to forever remain in the shadows. Even if you don’t share Rubbra’s religious faith (and I don’t) the essential goodness in his music surely has something important to say to our cynical times: its patient optimism, beautiful organic patterning and deeply felt spirituality are a welcome antidote to much of modern life.

So Happy Birthday, Edmund Rubbra. Here’s hoping you won’t have too many more before you get the recognition you deserve.


The Call Of The Wild


holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Last year, the Guardian columnist and environmental writer George Monbiot tweeted that he’d been struck by the discovery of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus – a ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’, which uses recordings of birds living near the arctic circle in the composer’s native Finland.

Having read Monbiot’s book Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, it’s not hard to see why Cantus Arcticus appealed. He writes with an infectious enthusiasm for nature, combining deep knowledge with a child-like sense of wonder. Feral is a passionate polemic for the concept of ‘rewilding’: allowing spaces both on land and sea for natural ecosystems to grow unhindered, with the reintroduction of native species previously wiped out.

The magic of Cantus Arcticus is its vivid sense of this kind of ecosystem; the unfamiliarity of a place that has not been cut up and cultivated to service human needs. Chaotically flying woodwind lines accompany the calling of vast flocks of birds, and the music blossoms into a broad sweeping melody, suggesting the grandeur of wide Arctic spaces.  I am not normally a great lover of taped samples in classical music, but there is a kind of alchemy in the way the recordings of birds interact with Rautavaara’s orchestral writing that makes it powerfully compelling.

There is, of course, a long tradition of music written about man’s awe in the face of natural wonders, from Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture to Strauss Alpine Symphony. The Alps also played a role in the poetic tradition of the Sublime, where nature’s magnitude inspired a sense of fear and horror. This fear was perhaps an acknowledgement of our ultimate irrelevance to the vast age of the earth, and the limits of our power to fully understand and control it.

But it is not just the colossal that can terrify; in nature the small-scale can equally baffle and disturb. Last autumn I was walking on Greenham Common in Berkshire when I was astonished to come across a gorse bush almost entirely cocooned in what looked like an enormous spider web, and covered in what appeared to be a dense cluster of tiny red eggs. I later learned they were in fact a colony of gorse spider mites. Each only half a millimetre long, they had performed an impossible feat of collective construction, with a result that was fascinating but creepily unreal.

Gorse spider mites
Gorse spider mites

Nature in its unmanaged state seems to be a double-edged sword: it can enchant us with its richness, but this very complexity, when married to phenomenal powers of growth, scares us too. The idea of the overgrown as dangerously alluring was explored in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a passage from which inspired an orchestral tone poem by Scottish composer John McEwen (1868-1948).

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in…

Shakespeare’s setting may be fantastical, but the underlying fears are very real. The ‘snake in the grass’ is of course a proverbial symbol of hidden danger, but it is where he invokes ‘weed’ that we see the human distaste of what is not useful to us having an agenda of its own: part of a lexicon of hostility that also includes ‘pest’ and ‘vermin’. When nature’s fecundity does not conform to our needs, we show a strong disliking for it.

McEwen’s Where the Wild Thyme Blows opens with a softly ambiguous rising string figure and plaintive calls on bassoon, the harmony eerily static, yet dissonant enough to create a feeling of creeping unfamiliarity. The use of atmospheric orchestration and relatively restrained expression throughout suggests a landscape that fascinates from afar, but is best not explored in depth.

Undoubtedly, there are sometimes good reasons to fear the wild. The dark primordial woods that once blanketed the UK found their way into our oldest folk stories and fairy tales as places of danger, and these would have contained some of the most intimidating animals that our ancestors encountered – before they hunted them to extinction. A few months ago I wrote about Arnold Bax, a composer fascinated by human and natural wildness: both of the pagan past, and the tempestuous Atlantic coastlines he loved to frequent.  His third symphony, perhaps his most inspired creation, seems to evoke a world of primeval savagery and glistening, unspoilt landscapes. Bax was a late-Romantic with a gift for sweeping melody, but in the symphony’s opening he almost abandons conventional tonality altogether, taking an atonal motif in the bassoon and building it over layers in the woodwinds one by one. In doing so he sets a scene of something irrational, overgrown, and unwelcoming: a dense forest of strange voices.

Breaking down the structure of tonality is undoubtedly an effective means of expressing a lack of human control. A good example of taking this principle to its logical conclusion is Gondwana by the French composer Tristan Murail (b. 1947). Gondwana was a super-continent that existed 200 million years ago, a time of dinosaurs and other unfamiliar beasts. In Tom Service’s Guardian blog he describes Murail’s ‘spectralist’ approach to composition, rooted in the physicality of sound itself and the colours of its overtones. Though modern in its means, this dazzlingly strange music helps us make an imaginative leap into a world that existed long before the first human heartbeat.

Sadly, you don’t have to travel back as far as Gondwana to find amazing lost ecosystems. Feral describes how those English hills in my header image would once been home to wolves, lynx, bears, elk, and beavers – even bison, hippos and elephants. And we should all be alarmed, because we are still living in a time of huge species loss and habitat destruction, something seen acutely in Rautavaara’s Arctic, which scientists recently warned is entering into a new phase of its existence. The question of how human prosperity can be achieved without catastrophic climate change and ever-increasing depletion of ecosystems is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and in this context, engaging ourselves with the natural world is a huge moral imperative for all of us. I believe the arts can, and should, have a big role to play in this.

But Feral also has an inspiring message. Monbiot’s knowledge, curiosity and sense of adventure in wild places (he kayaks alone several miles into Cardigan Bay to watch dolphins) demonstrates the possibility of a different way of living, one more in tune with our hunter-gatherer past in its awareness of what surrounds us, and its physical interaction with the land and sea.

I haven’t bought a kayak just yet, but since reading Feral I’ve started something I’ve meant to do for a long time: learn about foraging. And I’ve quickly found that once you start the practice of observation, your experience of nature becomes much more meaningful. We may not have wild bears and bison in the UK any more, but we still have amazing riches right on our doorsteps, from the spooky architecture of spider mites to this unexpectedly beautiful ‘Amethyst Deceiver’ mushroom I found last year.

An amethyst deceiver
An amethyst deceiver

I originally set up Corymbus as a place for discovering unjustly neglected music, but there is a strong parallel to discovering nature too. In both cases the question is: how often do we look closely at what we don’t already know? Because with enough time and curiosity, we can all enjoy the benefits of beginning to rewild ourselves.

And finally, some good news. With beavers recently reintroduced in Devon, and applications made to reintroduce the lynx in the UK too, our world could soon be getting that little bit more fascinating and colourful right where we are.

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.


Parochialism is Universal


holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Sometimes, the best way of telling new stories is to reclaim old words. The word “parochial” might be a good place to start. “All great civilisations are built on parochialism,” wrote the Irish poet 
Patrick Kavanagh in 1952. “Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” Parochialism is universal: it sounds like a contradiction, but only if you don’t fully grasp its meaning. “Parochial” literally means “of the parish”. It denotes the small and the particular and the specific. It means knowing where you are. It can also mean insular and narrow-minded, but it doesn’t have to, any more than “cosmopolitan” has to mean snobbish and rootless.

Some years ago, in my late teens, I cycled from my Hampshire home out to the village of Ashmansworth. I had recently discovered the wonderful music of Gerald Finzi (1901-56), and realising that he had lived not that far away, I was curious to visit (although the 45-mile round trip sure was far enough by bike.) What I didn’t know is that Ashmansworth is the highest village in Hampshire, and I was greeted by spectacular views as I climbed the North Wessex downs. It’s a beautiful and at times eerily quiet area that feels lifted above the cares of the world, and it’s all too easy to imagine these idyllic surroundings providing inspiration to a composer who was a master of music of deceptive gentleness and expressive subtlety.

The quotation above comes from Paul Kingsnorth’s brilliant recent essay England’s Uncertain Future in the Guardian. ‘The small and the particular and the specific’ would probably have been familiar to Finzi, an avid rambler who cultivated rare breeds of apple. (By coincidence, Kingsnorth’s excellent book Real England contains a chapter charting the demise of England’s orchards, and the extraordinary number of apple varieties that went with them).

It’s often said that music is a ‘universal language’, but I’ve always felt that this is only half the story. Music can be universal, and it can be abstract; but it can also be personal, local, and national. During my own awakening to the joys of classical music, I found myself drawn to composers from my own country, particularly those from the early twentieth century. Not exclusively, but disproportionately. I discovered Vaughan Williams, became obsessed for a while with the music of Arnold Bax. I later developed a deep fascination for the music of Edmund Rubbra.

So taking leave from Kingsnorth, I would like to reclaim another word: Nationalism. It’s St. George’s day, the patron saint of England, and ‘Nationalism’ in England is generally associated with the political far-right. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about Nationalism: no political wing owns the concept of nationhood. Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter and author of The Progressive Patriot put this very well during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. My Nationalism is one that is against monarchy, colonialism, and sceptical of the powerful. It is instead an appreciation for the enchanting, fascinating and often bewildering richness of my country – its history, its landscapes, its people and its art – balanced with a keen awareness of its flaws and injustices, past and present. It’s an inclusive Nationalism, that welcomes outside influences, accepts the need for change and resists romanticising the past. (Confusingly my country is England, but also Britain. I am English, but do not feel that Scotland and Wales are entirely foreign either. Such is the untidy nature of nationhood in these islands.)

It has, therefore, always seemed natural to me to take a particular interest in composers from my country. Not because they are better, but because these composers spoke the same language, lived in the same cities, looked at the same landscapes, lived with the same climate, shared much of the same history. Listening to English music enriches my understanding of where I am.

For me, it is about making connections. Many of my favourite composers were finding inspiration in the folk-songs, literature and landscapes of England and Britain. So my interest in English music has led me to discover the poetry of George Herbert, Matthew Arnold, AE Housman, Humbert Wolfe. It’s taught me a host of beautiful folk tunes, and I have developed a musical layer to my mental geography of the UK.

I can’t possibly do justice to the whole sweep of English music in one blog post. But I want to demonstrate some of the ways music has contributed to my sense of Englishness. If you watched the BBC’s recent adaptation of Wolf Hall you may recall that it opened with a piece of lute music. That was an arrangement of William Cornysh’s wistful 3-voice song Ah, Robin, Gentle Robin.  It’s a very simple but beautiful song, that ends with an early version of what became known as the English Cadence, such was its popularity with Tudor composers: a harmonic movement with a bittersweet combination of both minor and major modes. Now I am sceptical about assertions of ‘national character’ but that gently bittersweet quality, that slightly sunny varnish of melancholy, is a strain that crops up quite often in English music. And it was a mastery of this quality in Finzi that led me on that 45-mile bike ride, his heart-rending Eclogue for Piano and Strings being a superlative example of this sensibility.

By taking note of the music of our history, we can understand it on a more instinctive level. Shakespeare – England’s cultural colossus– died on, and was possibly also born on, St. George’s Day. What school children don’t tend to learn, however, is that his was not just a golden age for English drama, but also English music. Beautiful settings were even written for the songs in his plays, Twelfth Night’s O Mistress Mine, Desdemona’s Willow Song, or this lovely lullaby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And one of my favourite ever composers, Thomas Tallis, composed for every monarch from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, changing his style according to the shifting religious affiliations of the time. Even though Tallis was Catholic, his pared-down English-language masterpiece If Ye Love Me, written in the reign of Edward VI, beautifully symbolises the changed outlook of a young Protestant church. Later on, and we can feel the confident splendour of the Elizbethan age in William Byrd’s consort song Rejoice Unto The Lord, which with dashing contrapuntal ingenuity pays tribute to the Virgin Queen:

The mercies of the Lord our God pour’d down upon this land
Doth far surmount in quantity the number of the sand
So that the people Israel did never feel nor see
More certain tokens of God’s love in their delivery
Than we of England whom the Lord hath blest these many years
Through his handmaid Elizabeth, in peace from foreign fears.

This idea of making connections was recently demonstrated in a fascinating essay by the landscape writer Robert MacFarlane, The Eeriness of the English Countryside. It’s a wide-ranging survey of the way that rural landscapes have held a presence of creepiness and potential violence in literature, music and art. As is often the case, classical music was left out; but he might have included Holst’s quietly unsettling tone poem Egdon Heath, or the sinister foreboding of the Suffolk coast in Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.

MacFarlane’s essay shows how a landscape can have many different meanings. In Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, he set poetry by Matthew Arnold that describes the rural surroundings of Victorian Oxford that are in many ways unchanged today. Based on fragments from The Scholar-Gypsy and Thyrsis, the poetry is narrated with an intoxicatingly-scored accompaniment of orchestra and chorus. The poetry is about place: a countryside full of botanical detail and name-checked landmarks, haunted by ghostly visions of local legend and dreamy recollections. But it is also about loneliness, and the grief of lost friendship. Combined with sensual and evocative music, Arnold’s words powerfully charge the landscape with rich layers of associations, and the exquisite ending, over which the narrator addresses his dead friend Thyrsis and the hills they loved to roam, is one of the few things in music that can bring a tear to this emotionally-reserved Englishman’s eye. In my mental map of the UK, Oxford has never been the same since.

But I should be careful here. English classical music is too often characterised as bucolic, elegiac and introspective, but that’s far from the whole story. Not for nothing did the conductor Thomas Beecham once mischievously quip that ‘the English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes’:  we do bombast very well, from grand oratorios to heavy metal. If you want to see a different side to Vaughan Williams, a great example is the little-known Fantasia on the Old 104th. Indulgently scored for piano solo, choir and orchestra, it is a rollicking celebration of England’s choral tradition, taking a stout hymn tune and teasing out of it an eccentric rhapsody, culminating in overblown baroque counterpoint for full choir and orchestra. With amazing energy and daring for a seventy-seven year old, it’s completely bonkers, and all the better for it. It would go down a storm at the Last Night of the Proms, and could sit proudly alongside the other roof-lifter that avoids unreconstructed jingoism: Blake’s Jerusalem, which I adore for Parry’s perfectly-wedded music, and its inspirational, uplifting sentiment.

But ultimately, we should be aiming for more than this. A better form of Nationalism would ensure that the full glorious range of Britain’s classical music heritage is performed and taught alongside classics from abroad, so that people know not only Purcell, Elgar and Britten, but Rubbra, Malcolm Arnold and Elizabeth Maconchy too. Not because this music is better than anybody else’s, but because it is ours, and nobody else will ensure it is heard and understood if we don’t. In fairness, there is an annual English Music Festival in Oxfordshire, which is a noble undertaking. But it’s not enough. What we need is either a public body to fund performances of Britain’s classical heritage, or a cultural shift within the industry: to seeing the continual support of national musical heritage as a crucial task.

There could be unexpected benefits to this approach. Everybody says they want to find new audiences for classical music, an art-form that can seem distant and insular. One way to bridge that gap is surely to make connections between music and the country and culture that people have grown up with. And it can be done without quarantining English music away in niche all-English concerts, which too often happens today. The native can offer illuminating links to the foreign too – Vaughan Williams and Ravel, Arnold and Shostakovich, Bax and Sibelius are all natural pairings. I think this approach would reap benefits; after all, it’s no coincidence that English works claimed three of the top five spots in this year’s Classic FM Hall of Fame poll. Parochialism is universal.

We live in an age of great travel, but at the same time as there is more outward exploration, so there seems to be more inward. A national approach to music would be tapping into what Kingsnorth acknowledges as a trend. St. George’s Day is marked far more now than it was when I was a boy. Both MacFarlane and Kingsnorth have themselves contributed to a wave of new books feeding a growing interest in English (and British) history, traditions, and identities. This is not waving flags to Elgar, but in its own quiet way it is Nationalism just the same, and that is no bad thing.

Contemplating the power of globalisation to distance us from our surroundings, Kingsnorth talks about ‘the slow, messy business of getting to know a landscape […] if a nation is a relationship between people and place, then a cultural identity that comes from a careful relationship with that place might be a new story worth telling’. Reading those words I think of Finzi, quietly tending to his rare apple trees high up on the Hampshire downs. Perhaps our classical music culture has something to learn from that.

Happy St. George’s Day.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

Music of Ecstatic and Contemplative Qualities

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. 


The Rogues’ Gallery of the Chamber Music World

Yesterday morning BBC Radio 3 played Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto. The piece has the gentle, archaic and bucolic qualities of a Samuel Palmer painting, using only a string orchestra to accompany the oboe, a delicate sound-world perfectly suiting the gorgeous spring weather. It was introduced as ‘one of the most commonly performed oboe concertos’ – a statement that raised an ironic laugh from me, such is it damning with faint praise. Because let’s face it, how often do any concertos that are not for piano or string soloists really get a look in?

It is interesting to ponder why, but whatever the reasons, strings and pianos rule the concerto roost. But equally, they hold disproportionate sway over chamber music too. The standard chamber ensembles are various combinations of strings and/or piano.

It’s in this context that I wanted to declare my love for the strange beast of chamber music, one that exists in complete defiance of the prevailing instrumental hierarchies. It’s a band of outcasts, it’s a rogues’ gallery. It’s…the wind quintet.

Normally comprising flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, the wind quintet is notable for the highly varied timbres of its instruments, through the different ways they make sound: oboes and bassoons through a double reed, clarinet through a single reed, flutes ‘edge-blown’, and the horn through lip vibration.

The big three composers of the so-called ‘Classical’ period – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven –  advanced the tradition of the string quartet and piano trio, but they showed relatively little interest in the wind quintet. This is also the period more than any other where we commonly hear the least variety in terms of whose music is played today, so much do these three names dominate.

The wind quintet, on the other hand, gives you a very different slant on this period of music history. Here you will find works by less familiar names, such as the twenty-four quintets by Anton Reicha, (1770-1836), the nine from Franz Danzi  (1763-1826), and three from Guiseppe Cambini (1746-1825) among many others; showing how much our classical repertoire is bound up in tradition of forms of writing. The bold contrasts, lightness of touch and sense of humour in the Classical style suits the colourful palette of the wind quintet brilliantly, so if anything it is surprising that more composers from the period didn’t take it up.

Writing for wind quintet seems to have waned somewhat in the later nineteenth century. It’s not obvious why, but perhaps in the age of Romantic sensibility such a jauntily contrasting ensemble was less appealing for composers wanting to express something of their innermost selves. Nonetheless there are a few examples, and a delightful one is by French flautist-composer Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844-1908).

But then the wind quintet underwent an extraordinary renaissance in the twentieth century, perhaps in no coincidence to the growing stylistic diversity of the time. Nielsen, Françaix, Barber, Holst, Hindemith, Malcolm Arnold, Villa-Lobos are just some of many who contributed works for the ensemble. Schoenberg even composed an atonal quintet. It seems the potential expressive range, from playful quirkiness, murky strangeness, to delicate lushness, found a broader appeal in a more modern sensibility. There’s much to delight and surprise in the wind quintet repertoire, and I’ll leave with you with a few more examples of composers discovering the endless possibilities of writing for this motley crew of instruments.


After The Success of #WomensDay, The Real Test Begins

Judging by the responses on twitter at least, BBC Radio 3’s #WomensDay was a huge success, with the notable exceptions of a few grumblers who just can’t cope with women encroaching onto male turf, the poor dears:

But thankfully, most of the comments were surprised and delighted with the music by women being played. Many expressed the view that we should be having some music by women on Radio 3 everyday. I hope that will be the case – we’ll have to wait and see.

However, the commentary from Radio 3 staff around this are still somewhat reticent on the topic of female composers from history. See this piece in the Telegraph by Edwina Wolstencroft. Like Sara Mohr-Pietsch’s blog that I profiled in my last post, she is mostly interested in exposing the historic barriers that prevented women becoming composers, and positioning contemporary female composers as the hope to solving the problem of imbalances. Nothing wrong with promoting contemporary composers of course, but this does again read like a defensive reflex: Radio 3 should focus on the fact that they, like the industry as a whole, and like most classical fans – including me – have not done enough to investigate and promote the music of women from history, and that on this front there needs to be a permanent change.

But there are ramifications beyond music written by women. In contrast to Radio 3’s previous big promotions – the whole days of Mozart or Schubert etc. – this was by its very nature a non-canonical exercise, and as such it demonstrated a broader truth: that there is much to be gained in exploring classical music from unfamiliar names, male or female. Effectively, Women’s Day demonstrated the limitations of what we consider the core repertoire, and in light of this it will be interesting to see what Radio 3 choose to give a big push to next.

Anyway, I want to end on a positive note, and what could be more positive than this exuberant and tuneful Piano Trio no.2 by Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929), the first movement of which I leave you with here. I think it’s a delightful piece, and hopefully you’ll agree. If you know someone in a Piano Trio, do point them in its direction.