Following Dr Maxwell’s letter questioning whether BMS should feature reviews of living composers, three members have responded below with their views:
I was pleased to see Dr Maxwell’s letter in the December E-News, not merely because it is so rare that we receive any letters for this column from our members, but because it raises some interesting points regarding the original formation of the British Music Society.
I will address his main point, which is the more recent inclusion of articles and CDs about living composers. CD reviews do not come under my purview, though I am able to throw some light on the articles under discussion. I have no particular complaint or problem with the policy of including material relating only to composers who are deceased, which seems as good a starting point as any when forming a new Music Society such as ours. Though, as I will describe below, sometimes a little flexibility may be desirable as circumstances permit.
Indeed my own contributions to the E-News started as an obituarist – not a role I particularly sought myself – though Stephen Trowell for one called me the society’s “obituarist” as it became apparent that that was mainly what I was doing. I used to ask the advice of valuable former colleagues such as Andrew Burn, or current members such as John Turner, who best should be asked to contribute a really interesting obituary; it should be someone who knew and worked with the composer who could cast a light on the many personal and professional aspects of that person’s work – something that members would find interesting and which was, of course, totally beyond my own grasp. In this way, I remember first class notices on the late Francis Jackson and the late Peter Dickinson among many others.
After a while, I was introduced eventually to the American composer Jack Van Zandt, who wrote to me enthusiastically about some of the British composers with whom he had studied over the years. He was a walking catalogue of information and he was very kind enough to offer to write extensive articles about his experiences for publication by the Society. Such a treasure trove was not to be passed over, and I was looking for something substantial to give some weight to the normal E-News format. We began with an article on Professor Alexander Goehr, which was timed to mark his 90th birthday. As it happened, Jack was completing his biography of Goehr, which has since been published and was launched recently at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. This was then followed with a similar tribute to Thea Musgrave on her 95th birthday. Both articles were fixed more permanently in the Society’s annals by being reproduced in the “Printed News”. And at the end of last year, these were followed by a further article about someone almost forgotten these days by record companies and broadcasters, Peter Racine Fricker. We hope that Jack will follow up these memoirs later this year with tributes to both Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies on what would have been their 90th birthdays.
I should add that I have no personal axe to grind about any of these composers, except, perhaps, to point out that they might be considered as examples of the kind of musician which would have been avoided by the Society at the time it was established, and who, in the main, went on to make their own individual important contributions to the history of British music in the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps it is time for the Society to move its “date-line” forward a little – when the occasion presents itself – without neglecting the pre-1950 period which was one of its first principles. I am certainly not “implacably opposed” to that, as a guiding model. In fact, I am not “implacably opposed” to anything, and I do recognise a good opportunity when it jumps straight out of the computer at me!
In the end, we received very kind, appreciative messages from both Alexander Goehr and Thea Musgrave who were very pleased to have been remembered – and who had not (presumably because we had deliberately overlooked them over the years!) even heard of the BMS. They are now busy passing copies of the relevant “Printed News” among all their friends.
This project also brought back memories of the very minor connections I had with both composers in my younger years: I was present in Leeds Town Hall for the premiere performance of “Sutter’s Gold” (a bit hard going for a 14 year-old! In fact, it was a bit hard-going for everybody else, too…) and Thea Musgrave and I had lunch together during a weekend of music studies at University which I remember very well as we discussed at length a subject on which I was writing a thesis at that time – British Film Music.
With the passing of the years, it is sad to reflect that, in the normal course of events, both of these estimable composers will – happily, I hope, for Dr Maxwell – have entered the realm of those musicians who are now eligible to be considered by the BMS. And I also think that “sufficient time has elapsed to enable an objective perspective on their achievement.”
As a composer myself I know how important it is to have your work noticed and reviews by the BMS are part of that process. I know though that reviewing discs by John Dowland and Henry Purcell for example would be considered a bit ridiculous and 20th century composers are also well represented unless they are figures say like Pamela Harrison whose music I reviewed last summer and who deserves to be better known.
Personally I feel what we do is fine and although I cant do as much as some of you I find it a real education to discover what is being written out there and how it fits into the overall picture of British Music and I think that needs to be communicated as we are not a museum subject.
I suppose I don’t have very strong feelings either way now: like others I originally joined as part of an interest in what we might loosely describe as the “Lyrita” generation of neglected British composers, and back then in the 90s there was a steady stream of new recordings (Chandos/Hyperion/Naxos/ Dutton etc) to consider. Now there are far fewer, and so if we ignored recordings by living composers we’d be on pretty thin rations.
However, I am concerned by the quality of some of the new music we’re offered for review – not a few recent issues have smacked of vanity publication, self-funded recordings by composers who are frankly unremarkable, and I’m not sure that taking them seriously does our cause any good. But I suspect in the end it will all come down to making the best of whatever’s out there…