On #IWD2015, Let’s See The Women Composers Problem For What It Is

Credit where it’s due. Last year, BBC Radio 3 disappointed with their lack of any significant coverage for International Women’s Day – see my blog post here – but they’ve really gone for it this time around. They’ve not only dedicated IWD to music by women, but have been giving special focus to women composers and musicians throughout the week too. It’s great to see and has been fascinating to listen to.

But what happens next? A day dedicated to women’s music is very much overdue, but as Jessica Duchen reported in this excellent article:

The composer Judith Bingham keeps tallies of how many pieces by women the station plays each week, trawling through listings in the Radio Times. “If you’re lucky there may be one; sometimes there’s nothing,” she says. “It’s like women just don’t exist.”

In the same piece, Radio 3 Editor Edwina Wolstencroft says “I think we’re going to continue the momentum” after IWD. She explains:

People are becoming more vocal about the neglect of women’s voices in all parts of life, and there seems to be a huge boost to women expressing themselves creatively and politically. We have to lift the lid on women composers who have been neglected in many, many respects and shine light on them.

I couldn’t agree more. And I really hope the momentum is continued. However, I can already sense an attempt to downplay expectations. Here’s Edwina again on her Radio 3 blog about IWD:

We as a station can’t solve the imbalances of the classical music industry – which inevitably reflect historic societal attitudes to women generally – but it’s very important to take the time to explore the issues.

If we want a more balanced repertoire – if we really want one – we can do more than explore the issues, essential though that is.

So how far does Radio 3 want to go? Presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch’s blog in the Huffington Post spends a good deal of time justifying why the estimated 6000 female composers throughout history are currently excluded from ‘the canon’. And while she makes some good points about the barriers that prevented women getting elite musical education and building a career, she then drops this disappointing generalisation:

While these women wrote good music and their stories need to be told, they mostly didn’t write masterpieces. If you’re going to re-write the canon, you need to be able to furnish it with works that are as magnificent and life-changing as those written by Bach, Beethoven and the boys.

Of course Sara has not listened to every piece by those 6000 composers: nobody has. But in any case, the ‘canon of masterpieces’ idea is problematic. The Berlin Philharmonic’s recent Sibelius cycle in London is a case in point: he was a composer who was once considered beyond the pale in Germany. Even Bach needed a revival in the 19th century. And I don’t know about you, but some of my most-loved pieces of music are not ‘canonical’ at all, and may well never be. The whole point in starting this blog was a desire to share fantastic, interesting music that is barely played, with the view that we badly need a repertoire that is richer and more varied in all sorts of ways. A repertoire not based around a received idea of ‘quality’, but qualities.

Radio 3 is lucky that, being funded through the license fee, it doesn’t rely on performing familiar names to get revenue. If the momentum is to be continued, then it can – and hopefully will – ensure that some music written by women is played every day. Perhaps it could even have a minimum quota of pieces by women. It wouldn’t have to be an ambitious number to be an improvement on the current situation. 6000 composers after all, before we get to the contemporary ones: there’s clearly no lack of material, the only limit is how much will there is.

And that question must call on everyone who loves classical music. Do we resign ourselves to the overwhelming maleness of the current repertoire? Do we explain it away, and hope contemporary women composers will gradually fill the gap? Or do we re-frame it not as a regrettable result of history, but as an unjustifiable continuing neglect? Something that can, and must, be changed?

That re-framing is scary for a conservative art form that, more than most, labours under the weight of tradition. For those who have spent their lives embedded in the industry, the human reflex to rationalise the status quo is understandable. But once this shift happens, it opens up new possibilities. Imagine a future where playing classical music written by both women and men was the norm, not the exception. You would look back on what was being performed in 2015 and marvel that the near-total dominance of music by men persisted into the 21st century. And yet: here we are.

As I recently wrote, I have embarked on a self-education spree to overcome my embarrassing ignorance of female composers. It’s incredibly easy to start – check out these YouTube playlists for example. For me the results were immediately revelatory, making it clear that there is plenty of fantastic music out there by women from history that I’d never heard of. I had simply never thought to look before, and that is precisely the problem.

Because the historic circumstances that held women back are only part of the story. Ignorance, unconscious bias, and sometimes outright sexism continue to ensure they remain in obscurity. By acknowledging this, we can all play a part in encouraging a more rounded, richer repertoire. That’s why I’ve resolved that, as I delve deeper into the works of women composers – living and dead – I will feature them regularly on this blog.

I couldn’t resist leaving you with March of the Women by Ethel Smyth. If you’re unfamiliar with Smyth, read about her extraordinary life, including being imprisoned for her role in the suffragette movement here. And on that note of optimistic determination, I wish you all a very happy International Women’s Day.


Music of Ecstatic and Contemplative Qualities


holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I was talking to a friend recently – a music graduate with eclectic tastes – and he expressed the view that classical music was really quite a niche art form, and that the most exciting music was being made elsewhere.

This comment reminded me of a man I met on a train a few years ago. Seeing he was reading a music score I struck up conversation, and he turned out to be a classical pianist who taught at a music college. We chatted for the rest of the journey, and he told me how doing folk music ensemble playing with his students left everyone with a ‘buzz’ that was simply lacking with, say, Mozart.

Or as an acquaintance once pithily put it: classical music is colourful, but it doesn’t have Adrenalin.

Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Standing in the arena at the BBC Proms and hearing Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony last year was exhilarating. Mars from the Holst’s Planets Suite remains for my money one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written, its dementedness satirising the insanity of war yet at the same time thrilling us with its savagery. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that excitement can be found in dark places.

But in light of these comments, I wanted to write about a little-heard piece of music by one of the least exciting composers of the last fifty years – and I mean that in a good way – the late John Tavener (1944-2013). His 2003 work Mahãshakti for violin, string orchestra and tam-tam is described as follows:

The Sanskrit word ‘Shakti’ signifies a celestial Feminine Energy that allows man to enter into contact with the Divine […] According to Hindu metaphysics, the Mahãshakti is the supreme Shakti, and only through her can man aspire to the infinite. The solo violin represents both Shakti and Mahãshakti, and should express in its playing (as should the strings), both ecstatic and contemplative qualities. The music is both rapturous and hieratical – rapturous in the passionate and gentle lines, and hieratical in the ritual striking of the very large tam-tam.

The first movement, Shakti, is contemplative and beautiful in a calm, rarefied way, with soft string chords and solo violin lines shifting meditatively. It’s very quiet, so I recommend listening on good speakers that are turned up. The second movement, Mahãshakti, is more florid, and builds in waves of intensity.

But the language of the quote above is telling: ‘ecstasy’ and ‘rapture’ in their spiritual senses are of a different quality altogether to everyday excitement. I wrote recently about how Rubbra’s Eleventh Symphony suggests the process of meditation, and the second movement of Mahãshakti similarly creates a sense of an inward spiritual journey. Nearing the end, its rapturous waves dissolve into a kind of magical stasis, an oscillation between strange string chords. It is one of the most bewitching examples of mysticism in music I have heard.

The static, ritualistic qualities of Tavener’s most famous works form a kind of monastic sanctuary within modern classical music, one that he shares with Arvo Pärt. The fact that both have found considerable appeal beyond the core of paid-up classical enthusiasts is a useful reminder of the important role music can play in providing calm in people’s lives. There is more to life than excitement, after all. Stimulation is everywhere in our media-saturated world, and the growing interest in yoga and mindfulness in the West is surely an indication of an increasing awareness: that cultivating quiet space brings huge benefits to personal well-being, even if you feel little affinity for the spiritual traditions of those practices.

Furthermore, while excitement can be a joyous thing, our craving for it dovetails worryingly well with the pervading short-termist consumerism that has produced so many problems – the destruction of ecosystems, climate change, an atomised human society afflicted by continual perceptions of dissatisfaction and inadequacy. In this context, the value of any art that encourages contemplation and stillness – whether spiritual, intellectual or simply relaxation – is surely raised.

Or, to put it more simply: it’s great when music is exciting. But when it isn’t exciting, it can nonetheless still be valuable.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

‘His Poetry Has Always Meant More To Me Than All The Music Of The Centuries’

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.


‘His Poetry Has Always Meant More To Me Than All The Music Of The Centuries’

Arnold Bax
Arnold Bax
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The title quotation – referring to the poetry of W.B Yeats – is, you might think, a pretty extraordinary thing for a composer to say. But Britain has been blessed with many extraordinary composers, and Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was one of them.

Bax, (1883-1953) was born in Pendennis Road, Streatham (now part of South London) into a well-off family with a private income. Never having to rely on paid work, he lived a life of enviable privilege, free to pursue his creativity with an uncompromising selfishness. Having grown up playing through Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on the piano, Bax’s musical inheritance was that of mid-European late Romanticism, but as a young man he discovered the poetry of Yeats (particularly the epic folkloric poem The Wanderings of Oisin) and this proved to be an epiphany. In his memoir Farewell, My Youth Bax describes how: ‘in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed […] his was the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth, and his the finger that pointed to the magic mountain whence I was to dig all that may be of value in my own art’. He took it upon himself to travel around Ireland and fell equally in love with Yeats’ homeland, seeking out the most isolated islands off its turbulent west coast, teaching himself Gaelic, even writing poetry and prose under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne.

The gestures and shapes of Irish music found their way into Bax’s composition, but he retained a late-Romantic musical language, dripping with chromatic harmonies and orchestrated with a sophisticated Impressionist’s palette; his affinity to Yeats’s poetry, and to Ireland, was something that ran deeper. Throughout his life Bax frequented Atlantic coastal landscapes, staying repeatedly at Scotland’s Morar and Donegal’s Glencolmcille, both remote villages at the ocean’s edge, and a holiday visit to Tintagel on Cornwall’s north coast inspired his most often-performed orchestral work of the same name. The magic of such places loom large in his work, with their strange half-lights, furious storms, dizzying cliff-drops and mesmerising sunsets over the sea. The shifting atmospheres translate to an array of emotional states, while forming a back-drop to musical story-telling with an epic quality. It’s not surprising that Bax was an admirer of Sibelius, who translated his response to Finland’s great forests and lakes into music. Bax even dedicated his fifth symphony to him.

Bax with the concert pianist Harriet Cohen, who was a champion of his works. The two were also lovers for some time.

The single-movement Quintet for Harp and Strings of 1919 encapsulates Bax’s style beautifully. It opens with a restless theme whose development flows at a fast pace, with rapid shifts of texture and harmony. But soon this dissolves and a gorgeous lilting tune emerges over strummed harp chords. Clearly in the spirit of Irish folk music, with inflections of the mixolydian mode, it then blossoms into a passionate song with a rippling scale pattern in the bass.

This is typical of Bax’s style: the quicksilver inventiveness and feverish mental energy of a highly sensitive Romantic, giving way to a window into a world of dream-like fantasy, here a shiningly lyrical one. Yet just as often that vision is something more inscrutable and strange; at the centre of the work is a tranquillo section of grey, muted mysteriousness. After the recapitulation of the first section’s themes, the piece ends on the subdued hush of a minor chord.

It was the dizzying variety and intensely felt qualities of Bax that led me to a teenage obsession with his music. Here, particularly the epic symphonies, was a seductively powerful and finely detailed world I could immerse myself in, with a thousand fascinating and beautiful shades. Listening to Bax is a rich experience, one that at first hearing can be difficult to digest, but which rewards repeated listening. Some people find his music too meandering, though the great conductor Vernon Handley (a lifelong Bax champion) always emphasised the underlying form in his works. But Bax is not Brahms, and nor does he need to be. The surface sensuality and the rapidly shifting moods are part of his singular artistic vision. Incidentally, there are fascinating parallels between Bax and his contemporary but now-somewhat-forgotten British novelist John Cowper Powys (1872-1963). Both had a highly personal style drawing on a deeply felt, even mystical response to the natural world. Both were fascinated by coastal landscapes and the pagan Celtic past. I don’t know whether either was ever aware of the others’ work, it would be very interesting to find out.

Like Edmund Rubbra, whom I blogged about recently, Bax was no trailblazer; but he was an artist who determinedly trod his own path and produced music with an authentic voice. Such artists don’t fit easily into our understanding of the sweep of music history, being hard to categorise and market to an unfamiliar audience: like Rubbra, Bax’s music is scandalously rare in our concert halls. Having said that, it’s hard not to conclude that Britain has done a terrible job of engaging with the full diversity of its classical musical heritage, leaving many genuinely distinctive composers like Bax and Rubbra out in the cold. We should be grateful then that at least a few record labels – particularly Naxos and Chandos – have taken it upon themselves to record their works, often resulting in good sales and critical acclaim, showing that there is an appetite to hear this music.

So with that positive in mind, if you’re new to Bax I recommend exploring the third symphony, a work in which his ‘Celtic wonderland’ is most lucidly realised. Its closing ‘Epilogue’ is genuinely some of the most hauntingly beautiful music I have ever heard. By contrast the sixth symphony is a rigorously powerful work, a searing cauldron of emotion whose magnificent final movement reaches, after a long-fought battle, a hard-won reconciliation. But most of all, I recommend that you give his music time. It does not give up all its secrets at once. We may have few opportunities to hear Bax in concert, but the many musical riches of this unusual and complex man are still there, waiting to be discovered.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

A Kaleidoscope Symphony: Edmund Rubbra’s Path To Transcendence

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.


Classical Music and the Problem of ‘Default Man’

Last year the artist, cross-dresser an all-round National Treasure Grayson Perry guest-edited the New Statesman, and wrote a fantastic piece called The Rise and Fall of Default Man.

Perry explained that Default Men are ‘white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged’. Crucially, while this only describes 10% of Britain’s population, Default Men ‘dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest […] they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media’. Perry adds that ‘Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!’

Classical music is disproportionately populated with varying degrees of Default Man, and I must admit that I’m 10 years away from a full-house in Default Man Bingo myself. Look at Tom Service’s recent blog about the continued male dominance in classical music: Christina Scharff of King’s College London surveyed 40 orchestras, and women made up 1.4% of conductors and 2.9% of artistic/musical directors. Of the players, 1.7% were from a Black and Minority Ethnic background. And that’s before you even get to the composers. As I blogged recently, if you don’t think the female composer gap is a problem, then that’s part of the problem.

A few things I’ve read have made me mull over this state of affairs. This story from 2012 by Alexandra Coghlan has stuck in my mind ever since I read it:

I was attending the concert with a university-age girl […] A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one –  “You dirty bitch” – was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing).

Then yesterday, I read this article from New Yorker Collier Meyerson, who had the audacity to be at the Opera while being young, female, and black. Called ‘disgusting’ and forced to move seats because her hair was getting in the way of a Default Man’s view, she wryly observed: ‘in a lot of ways, he’s lucky. There is no moisture in the air. I slept the night before in braids.’ (To top things off, it was a production of Aida, and Collier makes excellent points about the production’s completely nonsensical representations of black people).

Finally, my attention was drawn to an astonishingly rude series of tweets from a conductor and founder of a well-established ensemble to a young female blogger. Unhappy that she had tweeted a lot about a performance she had enjoyed, he wrote: ‘you’re a twenty-something student…I’m interested in opinions but…’ going on to muse whether the volume of her tweets amounted to ‘pathological self-importance and obsession’. I won’t name-and-shame the conductor only because I don’t want to embarrass the woman (though she needn’t be, she rightly gave him the short shrift he deserved). He went on: ‘what I object to is the mixture of childish enthusiasm for [the main performer] and his charms followed by pseudo music criticism’.

This is hugely patronising, and yet if you read young feminist writers like Laurie Penny who have a big online presence, it’s sadly not surprising. Women are subjected to all sorts of hostility online when they dare to have a voice in male-dominated areas – computer games are a well-documented example. The conductor’s tweets reveal the irritation of seeing someone outside of his Default Man tribe presuming to use such a voice. Of course he is under no obligation to follow her twitter account, but as Perry said, Default Men impose their values and preferences on the rest: how dare she be a young woman tweeting so many opinions on his art-form that don’t meet his approval? Perhaps to self-rationalise his threatened supremacy, he dismissed her enthusiasms as ‘childish’, her prolific tweeting as ‘self-obsession’; but tellingly he felt a need to tell her this, and put her in her place. Just like Alexandra Coghlan’s friend who had no right to be there. Just like Collier Meyerson having no right to be in Default Man’s view, with her hair ‘sticking straight out of [her] head like that’.

These examples illustrate the ingrained attitudes that will have to be overcome to make classical music a place that genuinely values diversity. Not every Default Man acts with such nastiness, but these examples are the ugly tip of an iceberg of privilege and unconscious bias. As my blog post detailed, Radio 3 simply didn’t think to do a whole day on female composers for International Women’s Day, but they did think, in the same week, to play a whole day of Ravel for his 139th birthday. And as I concluded, there is a lack of imagination about how much richer and more interesting classical music would be with more female voices, and that goes for non-white and younger voices too. This is surely because too many middle-class, middle-aged white men are running the show while thinking of themselves purely as enterprising individuals, neither acknowledging nor addressing the enormous advantage their Default Man status confers on them.

One final note: I couldn’t write about this without mentioning the spat that emerged this week when the Shadow Minister for Culture Chris Bryant made a call for more diversity in the arts, naming the old Harrovian pop star James Blunt as an example of too-common privilege. Blunt, demonstrating Perry’s individualist maxim, wrote a rather bad-tempered reply detailing how his unlikely rise to the top was down to hard work and determination. In a sense, it was unfair to single out Blunt, because the problem is not with him per se, it’s much wider. But I did enjoy one person’s pithy tweet on Blunt’s sense of indignation: couldn’t Bryant see that he had succeeded despite the astronomical bad luck of his privileged background conferring no advantages?


A Kaleidoscope Symphony: Edmund Rubbra’s Path To Transcendence

‘Oak Forest’ by Tom McNamme. Shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that the highest function of music is to release one from personal pre-occupation in order to know something of the Divine forces that shape all existence. To achieve this, the composer must have a faith that man is NOT the end of all things, that man is NOT unaided, the sole arbiter of his destiny, that he is an instrument, even if a weak one, of a purpose that, even if beyond our understanding, is immovably present at each point of time.

It was in 2001 that, at the tender age of 16, I went to my first BBC Proms concert. That year the BBC marked the centenaries of the births of two British composers – Gerald Finzi and Edmund Rubbra – and the programme began with Rubbra’s fourth symphony. It was the first Rubbra symphony I had heard: music of measured expressiveness and dignity, with a magical opening of floating woodwind chords and long string lines, creating a sense of hypnotic stasis.

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Edmund Rubbra (pronounced like ‘rub’), but he died in 1986 having written eleven symphonies, several concertos, and a considerable body of chamber and choral music. A practising Catholic, he had (in the words of the critic Wilfrid Mellers) ‘rather a peculiar spiritual make-up’, something the quotation above demonstrates. His music is infused with the well-being of a patient faith. In fact, it surprised me to learn that Rubbra greatly admired Shostakovich and Stravinsky, those two great proponents of musical irony, as irony is one thing completely absent from Rubbra’s work. Perhaps because Rubbra was unusually spiritual, he was also unusually straightforward and sincere.

Musically Rubbra was in many ways conservative, neither taking up the modernist flight to atonality, nor borrowing much from other musical cultures. His clean diatonic melodies and modal inflections sometimes create a pastoral atmosphere; this and his mystical leanings might draw comparisons to Vaughan Williams, but Rubbra’s ethos in his instrumental music was more rigorous, more preoccupied with the contrapuntal development of ideas. Part of his unique style is the remarkable emphasis on continuity and being ‘through-composed’, a trait that connects him right back to the masters of the Tudor age. His lines often proceed by step up and down scales, making his music naturally mellifluous; it tends to flow and flower, even in its scherzos.

Marrying his idiom to the structural requirements of large-scale forms seems to have been a key challenge in his symphonies, one that elicited various responses. Sometimes he would offset a section that develops a theme in a methodical way with a sudden, bold shift into something new. But he was also adept at subtle transitions, turning the music in an unexpectedly beautiful direction with a pivotal key change.

His middle symphonies are the most outwardly attractive – the sunny breeziness of the fifth, the colourful sixth, with its magical slow movement and rousing finale, or the seventh, with its magnificent, moving passacaglia – but I want to start (paradoxically) at the end, and look at Rubbra’s final symphony: the single-movement eleventh. Written in Rubbra’s seventies, it is – as Leo Black describes in his excellent book Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist – ‘a maverick, and, like most mavericks, totally fascinating.’

By the time of the eleventh symphony, Rubbra’s works had become more condensed in length but more liberated in their construction, with a more spontaneous and improvisatory character, and in my view this late stylistic turn resulted in his most interesting music. He had also begun to experiment with using musical intervals (ie the gap between two relative pitches) as a structural device. The eighth symphony seems to have been a turning point, of which he had said:

I gradually became aware of the dramatic and expressive values inherent in intervals as such, and in the new symphony the play of interval against interval, rather than of key against key, provides the motivating force behind the argument.

Like the fourth symphony, the eleventh opens with two contrasting elements creating a hypnotic sense of space: low strings and harp descend down by step B-A-G sharp while the horns slowly oscillate by intervals of a perfect fifth. The fifth is perhaps the most fundamental interval of all: it is the backbone of every major and minor chord, and Leo Black tell us that Rubbra attributed to it ‘almost mystical qualities’. The maverick approach is that Rubbra uses movement by step and the fifth to create (in his own words) a ‘kaleidoscope’, ‘transferring the elements all the time […] that is to say shaking them up’. There are no memorable ‘themes’, whose development can be followed by the listener. Instead, these two utterly generic features of tonal music slowly unfold and evolve across all the colours of the orchestra.

Rubbra’s great skill is that he takes such a vague starting point and yet produces music of assured progression. In the words of composer Robert Saxton, ‘every detail […] leads the argument onwards naturally. One feels that one is being told a tale by a master story-teller.’

Indeed, Rubbra intuitively shapes the symphony with a dramatic arc, leading to a thrilling climax over a long E pedal note just past the halfway mark. There are moments which writer Ralph Scott Grover identified as having a ‘strangely visionary quality’, a passage for celesta and strings being the most spell-binding. At other points, judicious touches of xylophone and tubular bells add an extra dash of colour.

This certainly is a fascinating re-imagining of what a symphony might be. I think the comparison to a kaleidoscope is very apt, but I have another angle on this work. It’s been documented that Rubbra took an interest in Buddhism, and I think that this symphony has strong parallels to the process of meditation; the breaths of this music, its natural but unstructured progress both evoke a meandering mental path, and its visionary passages are like moments of altered consciousness. Its curious emptiness of conventional themes gives it a sense of having transcended the world of ideas into a more rarefied realm.

The ending is one of the strangest, yet also curiously moving of any of Rubbra’s symphonies, with a glorious climax that suddenly dies away to a series of horn chords, leading to an enigmatic hush in the strings, and a perfect fifth softly intoned by muted trumpet then clarinet and harp. Robert Saxton wrote: ‘[it is] perfunctory, but this is intended, as the true essence of the symphony lies in its quiet ending on an enigmatically spaced and scored chord of C major. During the course of the work, we have been led into a world of inner peace and beauty’.

I find the eleventh symphony both beautiful and, like Leo Black, utterly fascinating. It is music that overflows with a gentle wisdom, but also an elusiveness that evokes the presence of a deep mystery: it seems to peer further into that ‘purpose’ Rubbra spoke of beyond our understanding. Rubbra, calling it ‘a culmination of all my symphonies compressed into one movement’, surely knew it might be his last (though he began sketches for a twelfth), and he suffered a stroke during the period of its composition. Could it also be that by dissolving his symphonic craft into one fluid statement, the ageing (and ailing) composer was trying to reach for a more profound articulation of his spirituality, something that moved even beyond the paradigm of structured comprehensibility?

I couldn’t write about this work without a final mention of Rubbra’s neglected state. In the 13 years since that Proms concert I’ve come to cherish much of Rubbra’s output, for which I am indebted hugely to the complete symphony recordings by Chandos which, like that Prom, were played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the late great Richard Hickox. Yet since then, no major Rubbra orchestral work has appeared at the BBC Proms, and I don’t know of any other performances at all of his symphonies – anywhere – after the centenary passed. I might have conceivably missed one somewhere, but the general rule remains: Rubbra is invisible on the orchestral music scene of his own country. This is a shameful state of affairs for a British composer of his achievements.

Nonetheless, 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. He just needs a champion of suitable standing to bring his symphonies back to Britain’s concert halls. 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. I was pleased to hear that comic writer Armando Iannucci included Rubbra’s eighth symphony in his choices for Radio 3’s Essential Classics last September. Such big-name advocates can only help more people discover this wonderful music.

The eighth is a good starting point for further listening, a work of strange and beautiful mysticism written in homage to the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. Two other works from Rubbra’s late period that I would particularly recommend are the fourth string quartet and the third violin sonata, pieces that balance playful inventiveness with a beautiful serenity. It may be 13 and a half years and counting for me, but here’s hoping that we get to hear some of these wonderful works in concert soon.

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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.

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