A little less Shostakovich, a little Maconchy please

Last March, I was stuck in a boring temp job that gave me little work to do. One morning, having made my coffee and logged in, I went on to twitter (where I spent much of my time on this job) and saw that Radio 3 were promoting their newest saturation gimmick: a whole day of Ravel. At least, I thought, it’s only a day, unlike their other gorging sessions for Bach and Mozart. For those of us who like variety in their listening, these stunts are an invitation to switch off.


It was a mild irritation, nothing more. Then I also noticed tweets about the upcoming International Women’s Day (#IWD). Remembering the previous year’s IWD, a lot of journalists, activists, charities and other organisations tweeted using #IWD to promote causes relating to gender equality. So I checked Radio 3’s schedule – were special programmes being laid on? Nope. No doubt some token music by women would be scheduled somewhere, but Ravel Day was the big splash that week.

Now I have plenty of Radio 3 bugbears. They’re always playing Lieder – surely even the Germans don’t play as much Lieder – and they often don’t translate foreign titles, which is unhelpful at best, elitist at worst. But this juxtaposition of #IWD soon spreading all over twitter while Radio 3 indulged us all in a day of Ravel, whether we liked it or not – this made something click. Maybe it was a coffee too many, but the complacent absurdity of it all was suddenly too much. Surely Radio 3 can do better than this? I felt compelled to express myself, so I sent an email to then head of Radio 3, Roger Wright.


Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response. On twitter, I tried to engage with several female classical music writers, to gain their thoughts. Few responded, one who did was sympathetic but didn’t sound overly concerned.

I also made a ranty facebook status (truly I was wired that morning) which eventually received a lot of ‘likes’. Only later did I realise a disproportionate number were from non-muso female friends. Not so many of my muso friends, male or female, bothered to express agreement. It’s hardly a scientific study, but I think it’s interesting. Can those who haven’t been through the instrumental exams, the music degree, who haven’t been conditioned that’s this is The Way Things Are, perhaps more easily see fundamental problems than those whose lives have been closely bound up with the repertoire? There’s a theory in social psychology called System Justification, which describes the human tendency to defend the status quo in order to provide stability, even in the face of good arguments against it. But if you’re not particularly interested in classical music, and don’t listen to Radio 3, you won’t feel much loyalty to that status quo.

On the other hand, if you’re a classical music writer on twitter: well you have a job writing about classical music, that’s a lucky job to have. You might not feel a temptation to ask more fundamental questions.

In truth, I hadn’t thought a great deal about the overwhelming maleness of the classical repertoire before either – I thought it was unfortunate, but put it down to historic gender biases, since the repertoire is mostly various shades of way-back-when. If like me you go through the classical music education system – Grade 8 exams and a degree at a conservative university music faculty (Cambridge) – you may never encounter a challenge to the fact that this is just The Way Things Are (and you’re too busy writing that fugue to notice anyway). I have never studied at a conservatoire, but I imagine it’s similar. The repertoire is white and male like the sky is blue. Both my piano teachers were female, and neither of them (as far as I can remember) ever got me to learn anything written by a woman. And why would they? Where is the repertoire?

Well, that’s an interesting question. Interesting, because I so rarely hear it asked. Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my time as a classical music fan preoccupied by the neglect of music I love by less familiar Dead White Men. Hence starting this blog, with its name taken from the title of a movement in Edmund Rubbra’s Piano Concerto (more on him in a blog soon!). But shouldn’t we be asking? Where is the repertoire?

On twitter, I follow a lot of people writing about gender, privilege, bias, and the way these all shape our view of the world. The great thing about twitter is that it allows people who don’t have a voice in the mainstream media to ask, about any issue that affects them: why is this just The Way Things Are? For all its detractors, it is probably the most powerful platform for challenging mainstream opinion that has yet existed (even as it also enables the spread of misinformation and prejudice), and I’ve learned a huge amount by using it.

Then, while I was thinking about classical music and IWD, I had a moment of shame. I realised that I could name a few female composers, but there was only really one piece among them – one! – which I could honestly say I knew and liked: Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. A lovely piece, quite popular too, but one small choral work? For a music graduate?! Shameful. More shameful than the fact I’ve never heard a Wagner opera live, or that I still haven’t listened to all of Mahler’s symphonies (look, it’s not my fault they’re all so long).

Inevitably #IWD passed, #RavelDay passed, and I went on with life. But these issues continued to brew away in the back of my mind. Then, a couple of months ago, I realised I could do something. I made a resolution: to challenge myself to find classical music written by women, historic and contemporary, and share it both here and on twitter. If there is less music written by women for historic reasons, then that’s an argument to make sure we find as much as we can. And listen to it. Some might be dull and uninspiring, but some might be overlooked gems – you won’t know if you don’t look. I want the performed classical repertoire to be more diverse in all sorts of ways, but its current marginalisation of half of society is its most grotesque flaw. It’s a shameful situation, and spreading the word about great music written by women is one small step anyone can take towards rectifying it.

After all, if you’re serious about classical music, there’s no excuse not to. The internet enables us to easily access practically the whole history of recorded music, and many scores too. So ask again, where is the repertoire by female composers? Is it there but there isn’t much worth listening to? Or is there maybe more good music there than we know, but because of historic biases, we don’t think to look for it? Either way, the answer is surely: get looking.

I’m aware there’s a risk here of sounding like a Equalities and Diversity Officer from a joyless Local Authority office. Some will argue that there’s no problem, so long as we have great music to listen to, and the repertoire has served us well up until now. My view is that if you don’t think there’s a problem, then that’s part of the problem. Have some imagination, for crying out loud. There is a massive opportunity here. The relevance of classical music as an art-form to wider society can only be increased by taking action to include more female voices. It can only be made more rich, more rounded, more universal, if it includes a greater contribution by women. It can only encourage more newcomers – male and female – to think: this is an inclusive art-form that reflects my modern values.

As a side-note, Tom Service has just published an article in the Guardian: ‘Classical music in 2014 – still dominated by dead white men’s music performed by living white men’. Do have a read, it’s good to see some attention being paid to this issue in the mainstream media.

I hope that by making this resolution I will find enough music written by women that I can regularly feature their works on this blog in the future, works that I genuinely rate for their musical qualities. In the meantime, I’m happy to say that I have already discovered one composer who definitely deserves further exploring: Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94), who wrote, alongside orchestral and choral works, 13 compelling string quartets which have been a revelation to me.  I’ll leave you with the first movement of her fourth quartet. In the future, let’s have a little less Shostakovich, a little Maconchy, please?


Lullay my dere herte, myn owyn dere derlyng

Because it’s Christmas, I wanted to share a little bit of festive magic.

In the British Library there is a document called the Sloane manuscript, a 15th-century a collection of medieval lyrics. Within this collection are the anonymous words of a carol written in Middle English, ‘Lullay, my Liking’.

The text, like the more well-known Coventry Carol, takes the form of a lullaby sung by Mary to the infant Jesus, but here it is used a refrain around a description of an encounter with the Nativity. Medieval musical settings of these words are not known, but it has since has captured the imaginations of various composers, including Gustav Holst and Richard Rodney Bennett. The refrain, updated from Middle English, reads:

Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting,
Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling.

It is touching to find an expression of maternal affection from over half a millenium ago (and what a lovely word ‘sweeting’ is!) but the setting I want to share is a modern one, by the King’s Singers’ own baritone, composer and arranger Philip Lawson. Lawson sets the refrain with a tune that is both softly intimate and yet wrapped in the strangeness of the past: the angular fall of a tritone on ‘sweeting’ sounds primeval, and the shifting chords underneath create a spellbinding sense of mystery.

Less cosy than our traditional carols, it is a tingling draught of cold medieval air: an intimation of the hardship that those solstice days must have brought, and the enduring need for comfort and companionship in hard times. It is sung here with stunning clarity and faultless tuning by the King’s Singers themselves, and I hope you find it as hauntingly beautiful as I do. Merry Christmas.


Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and the ‘nostalgia’ problem.

It happened again the other day.

Another piece of English music – this time Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture – casually described by a BBC Radio 3 presenter as ‘nostalgic’.

It’s happens, in fact, quite a lot.  Previously on Radio 3, with Elgar’s Sospiri. A few years ago I saw a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis conducted by Charles Hazelwood, after which he addressed the audience to comment that it was ‘an exquisite piece of damp nostalgia…but of the best possible kind’.

I was going to reserve Corymbus as a place for positive advocacy of neglected music. But I really want to write about this, because the whole ‘nostalgia’ trope is both annoying and misplaced. Worse, a stereotype is being set about Britain’s musical heritage which is selling it short.

I don’t doubt that the nostalgia label is also used for music from other countries, but I hear this trope a lot particularly in relation to British composers of the early 20th century. Even when it doesn’t explicitly use the word ‘nostalgia’, it insinuates it nonetheless. The reasoning, most commonly, seems to go something like this:

The early 20th century was a time that Britain was changing – mass industrialisation, WWI, etc.

The composers of this time wrote music associated with folk song, the countryside, and other things representing ‘old England’.

Their music contains passages that are lyrical, bittersweet, and suggestive of longing.

Therefore this music must be mourning a fast-vanishing England, a pre-industrial, pre-war Arcadia, etc.

In other words, nostalgic.

The first three points are broadly relevant. But the conclusion, though superficially convincing, is in fact sheer speculation – except it is rarely qualified as such.

Now, it’s easy to identify music that most people would agree is in some way sad, likewise music that is jovial. But nostalgia, with its relationship to the past, is something much more particular.

That’s not to say these composers never wrote nostalgic music. In Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, he sets poetry by Matthew Arnold which is quite explicitly nostalgic, and to great effect. It’s an extraordinary, haunting piece that is worthy of its own blog post. But without the evidence of a text, or some other concrete link to the past, we are on tricky terrain ascribing nostalgia to instrumental music.

My key point is this: simply because Elgar and Vaughan Williams were writing in changing times, does not mean they must have been expressing feelings about the past when they wrote music which is wistful. There are many longings of the human heart, and nostalgia is just one of them. Indeed, Elgar’s Sospiri, which is Italian for ‘sighs’, had a working title of Soupir d’Amour – sigh of love.

Furthermore, by early twentieth century, Britain had already been industrialising for a long time, this was not new. And while I don’t doubt the profound effect of WWI on composers, it is surely wrong to conflate a longing for peaceful times as nostalgia. The past then, as now, had plenty of wars and other horrors to offer us. Vaughan Williams, who studied history at Cambridge, would have known this better than most.

In the case of the Tallis Fantasia, Mr. Hazlewood’s label of nostalgia is particularly baffling. It’s true that Tallis’ 16th-century hymn tune, and the characteristically folksong-esque passages in the middle of the piece both represent old England. But to read these inclusions as nostalgia spectacularly misses the point. In genuine nostalgia, you would expect the past to take on an idealised, sentimentalised form.  But both Tallis’ hymn and the folk-like material are in the minor key, by turns grave, melancholic, passionately heartfelt. If there is any message about the past from these passages, it is surely how life’s uncertainties – with all the fear, soul-searching and quiet fortitude they entail – have always been with us. One of the reasons this piece has such enduring appeal is precisely because it isn’t nostalgia, but is actually expressing something timeless and much more truthful about the human condition.

But in any case, why do I think all this matters? Surely it is pretty trivial?

Well ‘nostalgia’ is not a neutral, value-free term. It is belittling to a composer: suggesting that he/she preferred to wallow in the past rather than having the strength of character to look to the future. This is, no doubt, why Mr. Hazelwood qualified his statement with ‘but of the best possible kind’. To encourage the idea that composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams wrote out of a longing for the way things were – however complex and wide-ranging their repertoires – diminishes them as musical figures of continued relevance. It also discourages other readings of why their music might reflect a sense of yearning or longing, among its many other characteristics.

That’s not to say that you won’t find yourself holding feelings of nostalgia during certain pieces of music. That is all within the realm of the subjective experience of listening, and should be acknowledged as such: music has a wide range of resonances. But we should also be aware of conditioning too. For example, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard Elgar’s music set to TV items or adverts which employ nostalgic themes – even if, confusingly, it’s nostalgia for Elgar’s time from today’s perspective! – and this may have a subconscious role to play in how we think about his music.

Britain’s custodianship of its classical music heritage, for a long time pretty woeful, is genuinely getting better. But the sloppy thinking embodied by this ‘nostalgia’ trope is a relic of the attitude among certain parts of the classical music establishment (for want of a better term) of not feeling the need to take figures like Elgar and Vaughan Williams particularly seriously. Much work remains to be done on composers like Bax and Rubbra, and you can be sure this blog will be visiting them.

So it shouldn’t be too much to ask to not project lazy assumptions onto the works of composers – it doesn’t do anyone any favours. If you think a piece of music is nostalgic, stop and ask yourself why. You might find the answer is not so simple, and much more interesting.


Vaughan Williams’ Fen Country

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

There are many musical works suffering from neglect, but Vaughan William’s In the Fen Country surely falls into the category marked ‘baffling’. It’s accessible, beautifully written and characteristic of a popular composer who is often associated – despite his wide-ranging oeuvre – with pastoral music. And yet I’ve never seen notice of a live performance, and heard it only once on the radio.

Perhaps the title of the piece hasn’t done it any favours; ‘Fen Country’ doesn’t set off the most scenic train of thought. In fact, going by how many people tell me they dislike flat landscapes – a common refrain from homesick fellow students when I studied at Cambridge – the fens could be a contender for least-loved rural area of Britain. In his wonderful novel Waterland, Graham Swift describes the fens as “a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing”. For a Hampshire-born like myself, there is something foreign, even unnatural about this dead-flatness; the fens share more in character with the Netherlands across the North Sea than they do with most of England.

And yet, perhaps I’m a little unusual here, but I like the fens for all their strangeness. They have their own peculiar atmosphere. As the picture above shows, there is very little to distract the eye from the sky and the far horizon, and this gives them a kind of fascinating emptiness.

Over a hundred years before me, Vaughan Williams studied at Cambridge, lying just to the south of the fens, and his second wife Ursula told in her biography of the composer how he took part in fen skating in cold winters. Clearly Vaughan Williams was taken with East Anglia: in addition to In the Fen Country, he wrote three orchestral Norfolk Rhapsodies based on folksongs, though only the first was published.

Like the fenland landscape, the music doesn’t impose itself: it starts with a simple quiet melody on the cor anglais. As woodwinds join in, the harmonies become richer. Vaughan Williams expands on the shape of the opening theme with carefully paced contrapuntal momentum, building up a web of long melodic lines that suggest wind sweeping over the fields. In a moment that occurs several times in the piece, a sequence of low brass chords are answered by high violins, evoking dark clouds pierced by shafts of sunlight.

These opening minutes demonstrate an impressively assured craftsmanship and sensitive, atmospheric orchestration. From here the music covers a wide emotional range, from hushed nocturnal stillness to brilliant crescendo. But the kind of cosy, heartfelt warmth of The Lark Ascending,  Vaughan Williams’ most celebrated pastoral work, is absent. Even the sunnier moments are tempered with a coolness, and in its bleaker passages the music shares the haunting melancholy of its East Anglian cousin the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1.

The closing passages of In the Fen Country, however, really deserve a special mention. After the repetition of earlier material, including the opening theme scored poignantly for solo violin, there is a remarkable coda: a series of quiet chords slowly descend as a string melody rises, moving further and further apart. It’s very simple, but the effect is a powerful sense of widening space, as if the fenland skies are opening up to infinity. This expansion reaches its apex in a hushed, widely spaced G major chord, the first of three modal cadences, G major to D minor, repeated in different orchestrations. The major-minor inflection here beautifully encapsulates a kind of deflated melancholy, a yearning for something missing.

Having tilted our gaze upwards, Vaughan Williams evokes the vast unknowable heavens, a timeless source of human questioning, then brings us back to the flat fenland soil which offers no answers, nor much emotional comfort, to our sense of vulnerability and smallness. This is classic Vaughan Williams, combining magical transcendence with a moving expression of human fragility.

In the final bars, the opening theme returns on violas, then viola solo, fading to silence. In the Fen Country ends with a bleak slipping away, as if dusk turns to night and softly clothes the landscape in darkness. We leave those wide eastern skies with a subdued mood, an emotional distance matching the distance of the wide horizons.

Perhaps this close, in its quietly disquieting way, is one reason that the piece has not yet secured a foothold in the repertoire. But if the fens are, as Graham Swift wrote, a landscape that “most approximates to Nothing”, then the strength of In The Fen Country is in showing that nothing – or nearly-nothing – can be compelling, beautiful, sad: even profound.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.