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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

No composers, thank you!

Sadly, composers have no significant place in our musical life today, led as it is (and has to be, perhaps) by performers, media interests and commerce. These interests force music into a state of mediocrity. Not even the major patrons of today, the film, television and advertising industries, require from their composers the sort of standards once expected by discerning patrons who, in times past, gained as much from who they chose to patronise as from their wealth, their estates and the company they kept.

When King Louis XIV brought Jean-Baptiste Lully into his service, the Esterházy family engaged Haydn and Count Waldstein (possibly against the advice of some of his friends) gave shelter and support to Beethoven, they were reinforcing what was quite evidently work of great value and influence. Posterity is no doubt more than grateful to the young King Ludwig of Bavaria for Wagner's creative survival. Patrons in the early twentieth century like the Princess Polignac in France (Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky) and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in Washington DC (Schoenberg, Copland, Hindemith, Bartók) gave invaluable support to the emerging new and vital voices of composers whose work was valued more for its aesthetic than its marketable value.

Is it perhaps because we are now more culturally excited by the dexterity of attractive young performers playing virtuoso old masterpieces they can hardly understand as well emotionally as they do technically? Or maybe we are better inflamed by a conductor and an internationally acclaimed orchestra playing Tchaikovsky or Brahms or Mahler yet again. Or it could be an overriding academic interest in a newly discovered piece of Corelli, a previously unknown Haydn quartet movement, a fragment of a lost Wagner piano trio, a recently corrected Chopin Nocturne or an edition of some barely remembered Baroque piece in which a learned scholar has now, with authority, dotted all the quavers.

Anything, it seems, to avoid supporting a real composer who may not be inclined to write indifferent scores and sell his work -- and soul -- to the industry. We have not the patience any more to listen unless it is to familiar and easy sounds. The record store will stock fifty copies of a new film score, but will show no enthusiasm for ordering in a new symphony. Composers are not rated unless they are attached to a something far bigger than they are.

Copyright © 28 January 2003 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Alistair Hinton, UK

Patric Standford presents to his readers a most unfortunate state of affairs which would be both appalling and unforgivable were it actually true. All the greater the pity, then, that with but few exceptions it is true ...

From: Lisa Renee Ragsdale

Patric Standford has a point. Another way of painting this picture is to state that the classical music consumers of the current period are able to provide the same role in the 21st century as the Stalin appointed 'critics' in the old Soviet Union who censored composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. If the public doesn't like it, if it isn't easily 'accessible' (whatever that is), or if it comes across as even slightly 'difficult', the composer can hang it up.

From: Michael Mauldin, USA

Patric Standford's estimation of the lot of composers is incisive. The sad state may be largely due to laziness or greed, but I wonder if today's composers, eager to share something of aesthetic value, if not always marketable, also suffer from the sins of their fathers, who may have valued absolute freedom over human connection.

From: Maxwell Steer

Just a brief reply -- to say how sadly myopic and Eurocentric is the viewpoint you express. You seem to bemoan the fact that (y)our tradition has become irrelevant to the general public. Tant pis. Music owes noone a living -- especially not a tradition that has become to introverted that it has lost touch with popular feelings and emotions. Actualy there are many composers well able to connect with the general public -- but you may not like or relate to them. The so-called minimalists, Adams, Reich et al, but also Brian Eno, Stan Tracey and literally hundreds of jazz and popular composers, many from different races, eg Nitin Sawhney and the late Don Cherry, who are addressing the emotional and musical needs of contemporary contemporary Western culture very adequately. For more on such thoughts please see the Music and the Psyche website.

From: Dave Hunt, UK

I found this extrememly interesting and found myself in agreement with many of the points Patric raised. I have a few of my own to contribute to the discussion:

As a composer myself (I hope at 29 I still qualify as a 'young composer!') I have begun the long and arduos journey to become established. I have been lucky enough to have been supported by the excellent society for the promotion of new music (SPNM). The SPNM promotes works by composers (of all ages) throughout the year in concerts, workshops and other events. SPNM is an organisation which stands unique in the international contemporary music community, but as a charity, it has very limited resources. I am one of the lucky ones -- If I hadn't been selected by SPNM for promotion (and many do not, for good reasons), the transition period upon leaving university and working towards becoming a professional musician would be even more difficult (and demoralising). Inevitably, that promotion will end at some time.

While not being able to quit the 'day job' just yet, I (at least) have 'a voice' within SPNM which has helped make this challenge a little easier. However, if we wish to continue to produce internationally reknown composers in this country, we need to (at least) offer some sort of financial support in the early years of an artist's development (when it really counts). This could give them the time to develop their art. The only funding available appears to be for performers, ensembles and music education projects and the pursuit of musicology (all these are, of course, very important).

Why shouldn't individual composers be offered that same opportunity? It's not as if there are that many of us!! We certainly do not train in this highly complex and labour intensive career 'for the money'.

The music of the past offers us facinating insights into the culture and history of the period as well as far too many masterpieces to mention here. The music of 'now' will do the same for the future. We seem to be more fascinated with dissecting old music (as musicologists) than producing new stuff.

The music of 'now' -- surely this is something to invest in and get excited about? If we don't offer it to people, how can they know if they will like it? If we continue to be obsessed with concert programmes full of 'lollipops' from the past, future concert goers will (mainly) be listening to Beethoven 5 and Rach 2 in the next millennium and classical music will exist only in the constant reproduction of the past.

It appears that concert promoters and arts funding bodies (not to mention film producers and TV executives) are too afraid of the 'here and now' to give contemporary composers a chance.

It seems that composers have never needed patronage more than now.

From: Gerald Berg, Canada

Too bad the article was so short for such a deliberate and permanent problem.

I find it laughable what passes for critical and creative thought in classical music. It is apparent to anyone who cares to spend anytime thinking about it that European classical music has long passed being creative and now is in a preservation of interpretation stage. The funny part is that somehow classical music lovers believe they are on the moral high road towards a superior aesthetic. When all it amounts is adjusting frames in a picture show.

Classical music looks like some kind of whacky religious cult. Performing rituals that have long lost their original meaning and are now enacted with talismanic reasoning for greater lost glories. Hoary tales of great men of genius and refined sensibilities to enlighten an all too prosaic reality. A glorious world that would like to pretend that James Brown never existed.

This is not to say that composers (and their universities) have not failed to confront their artistic responsibilities. That is, addressing the world that people actually live in. The preference is to waffle after Utopian visions of a 'new music'. The ideals of 'pure' music and perfect order. Or else cloying nostalgia for the 'stone age metaphysics' of religious fevor. Anything but the actual and always the ineffable.

Perhaps the problem lies with the origins of composing. The church composer and the idealization of a world beyond. It seems to me that composers are all still 'believers' in the cause. Not of religion per se but in the idea of rising above the mucky muck of life. Please tell me, do they all shit like the rest of us?

As for the revolution of music? Well sorry, it already came and the intellectuals weren't invited. We call it the blues.

The blues has spawned an incredible plethora of conversational musical styles and none of it is reflected in composers thoughts except perhaps as grafting onto an otherwise surly new music context.

Is classical music democratic in tone? Can lasting change be implemented from above? Or must it always begin from below and then be understood and framed by intellectuals? Has any of twentieth century political discourse entered into our contemporary composers' muddled but perfectly PhD'd heads?

The beauty of music is simple in that it doesn't take sides and yet can win everyone's heart. It is the perfect politician! But it is this aspect that is so thoroughly lost on those who focus on performance over 'the new'. Or vision over assistance.

Classical music is in a thorough muddle. No question. On the one hand it wishes to claim an elevated level in aesthetics. An ideal that most other arts have dispelled with as chimera. Aristocratic intentions I think is a fair description. And then it complains when the plebeians don't listen. The irony is of course that classical music needs the plebeians more then the plebeians need classical music. It's all very expensive.

Finally we come to the crux for all the wailing. Classical music is so irrelevant that it cannot exist without political support. Art is created from anarchy -- political support is its antithesis.

From: Robert Berger, USA

Patric Standford's opinion piece No Composers is specious, unfair and one-sided. Yes, music from the past is still popular, and why should it not be? But the author completely ignores the countless new works that have been premièred in recent years by numerous composers. There are many composers today who cannot complain that their music is being neglected, and many of today's leading conductors are committed advocates of new music.

I reject the notion that musical life was somehow 'better' in the past. In the present era, a wider variety of music has been performed than ever before in the history of western classical music. How can this be bad? It would be intolerable if nothing but music from the past were performed, but it would be equally bad if we performed nothing but new music. I see no conflict whatsoevever between old and new music; we need them both.





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