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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Playing the listener

It would seem to be a truth widely acknowledged, if it were to be put to scrutiny, that the more listeners that are gathered together in one place to hear a performance, the more conservative and uncomplicated the idiom of that music must be to assure a clear comprehension of the musical material. A crowd of thousands cannot understand intricacy. The messages must be concise and succinct. Musical ingenuity and complexity is a more personal matter, communicated best to an individual listener or a small group, for then can be gathered together listeners willing to become involved with the challenge -- whether it be Art of Fugue or Schoenberg's Wind Quintet.

A composer interested in large scale communication should not normally create music the style of which requires an intimate environment for its presentation to the listener. Haydn knew well the difference in physical environment required for a symphony, forthright and assured, and a string quartet, far more mysteriously interwoven and searching. Tchaikovsky had a masterly skill in communicating with the large audience similar to that of any major political or military leader. And like the persuasive politician or teacher, he would not waste energy on creating such huge gestures when a more gentle and detailed approach with a small student seminar or an individual is the recipient of those thoughts.

There are now, of course, many composers who write with chamber music complexity for a large orchestra which, understandably, expects to play to a large audience. Although disappointing, it is not entirely surprising that they often attract chamber music size audiences. Still during the earlier decades of the 20th century, the greater part of new music seemed to be conceived within the broad terms of this thesis. Chamber music was increasingly the vehicle of the cerebral explorers, whilst the orchestra was used as Stravinsky did in The Rite of Spring with an astonishing and exciting directness.

The formula seems a simple one. The large audience requires the composer to be direct and make clear decisions about what they wish to say. The pop festival books absolutely direct and prosaic items to excite the really vast crowd. The intimate group of chamber music listeners can endure far more intricate discussion -- and even some uncertain waffling!

Copyright © 28 July 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK




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