On Neglected Music

How do we deal with the ever-increasing amount of rarely performed 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