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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


It is difficult to understand what composers are for now. They seem to have lost all respect from performance bodies that once held them in great esteem and for whom they delighted to work, usually for a fee of course, but also for the sheer joy of pleasing them. A new symphony that was once a great achievement for the composer was celebrated -- often admittedly sometimes with a struggle, but in the end being recognised for its craftsmanship, appreciated as an accomplishment, assembled by one with a special gift.

Composition now seems to be something of an eccentricity if taken quite so seriously, either by the so called composer and certainly by most performers. Unless the composer is among those few who have been nationally or internationally approved to invent music, the creative work attempted by the rest is of very little consequence.

The reasons may largely be found under the heading of 'market saturation', that dreadful consequence of grooming a great stylistic achievement for the popular bazaar. It happened in the past -- but on a smaller scale, and at a higher quality level. As Haydn became popular, many minor composers wrote sonatas and symphonies after his accepted model under his name; Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner all invited imitators because of their influence; after Stavinsky refused to write film music for a Hollywood director he was asked to give his name to the work of a staff composer 'who can do your style perfectly'. (Was that a compliment or what?)

Some of this imitation was quite good, and most followed an ambition to excel in the craft, to base their work on a firm, if uninspired, technical foundation. But during the later 20th century it seemed to many pretenders to the thrones that there was little evident technique. This ignorance began to spawn a brand of mediocre production, and its acceptance as advanced thinking by equally mediocre and often self-appointed pundits alienated audiences, devalued accepted craftsmanship and diminished the regard we had previously had for composers.

Commercial interests have forced a broad swathe of more seriously intended music further into a state of mediocrity. Composers of interest to a broader public are those who play (after a fashion) sophisticated studio software and impress film, TV and advertising executives. Major orchestras, ensembles and soloists now define composers, in the main, as the high profile dead. Not even the low profile dead get much of a hearing. As for the living -- well what's the big deal? Anyone can do it -- can't they? Ten-a-penny, and the best are the highest paid.

Copyright © 31 January 2006 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Colin Oakes

My response to Mr Standford is that the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. His statement can be reformulated into an equally damning stab at musicians:

'It is difficult to understand what performance bodies are for now. They seem to have lost all respect from composers that once held them in great esteem and for whom they were delighted to work, usually for a fee of course, but also for the sheer joy of pleasing them.'


From: Kelly Ferjutz, USA

Well, of course, I can but agree that composers should certainly be paid! Of course, I'm of the same (I think) opinion that you are, to wit, music should be composed, not constructed. I get very tired of 'well, that was so many bars of quiet, now let's have, oh, half that many louder, then we'll slow down a bit, throw in a big cymbal crash and then, well ...'

Okay, maybe that's an over-exaggeration, but that's what it seems like sometimes! I realize it's terribly passé, but I do like a melody or a tune, every now and then. Loud is good, too, sometimes, but not just for effect, and hardly anyone utilizes soft any more. Perhaps it's because they've made themselves deaf on extra loud rock music?

Some years back, I made the rash statement that I was going to compose a particular piece of music. As I recall, it was to use a sonnet I'd written, and would be for tenor voice with bassoon, and piano. My word! You'd have thought I'd expressed the desire to build a new Sistine Chapel or Buckingham Palace or Louvre or something similar. All by myself, in the backyard, at that!

'Oh,' they said. 'I didn't know you'd studied composition. What school did you go to?'

When I admitted that I hadn't studied composition, although I had studied piano, organ, French horn and voice for a good many years, my questioners were astonished! 'But how could you compose anything if you haven't studied harmony or theory?'

I was dumbfounded by this. I mean, I wasn't proposing to practice medicine or build a nuclear reactor! I was only admitting to wanting to try my hand at putting organized little black specks of ink on a few sheets of white paper. After all, Mozart didn't study those topics, either. Fortunately, I didn't say that out loud. (No, I'm in no way comparing myself to any Mozart, living or dead.) No animals or children would have been harmed in the process! Honest! I'm still thinking about it, some twenty or so years later. In fact, the first line, which I actually did put down on paper (now long lost) still runs through my head at the oddest times. It is, after all -- a tune. A melody. One of those strange entities that goes from here to there and back again, and nary a cymbal crash anywhere!

Hmmm. Now where's that music paper I saw last month?


From: Anthony Wakefield, UK

I do not profess to be intellectually aware enough to help in answering your submission. I am a composer (of sorts) and I am selling my music.

All I can contribute therefore is how I see 'modern classical music, jazz, and rock etc' in my own simple terms and observations.

In a word, I blame Margaret Thatcher.

She helped (maybe correctly so) to get the country off it's backside. Our prices were far too high to compete with the likes of India, Taiwan etc. So as a result we all learned (or most of us did) to work harder for our bread and butter. This took away leisure time and family life to some degree. She also started to reduce the amount of grants to the arts councils.

She also made the BBC buy 25% of its transmission output from independent production companies. More and more film, radio, and TV produce became sought after. Therefore everyone who had their eyes 'in the stars' jumped onto the band-wagon. Therefore standards dropped. Probably more so in the field of composing (or should I re-phrase that to writing, or even producing) music. It really is so easy these days to write a simple tune and to have it used in the media. It then becomes recognised as art because the producers are becoming ever and ever atuned to continuing what they have learnt in school -- the synth/keyboards, the guitar, the drums and perc. These are to a lot of schools the only instruments the kids know about. These kids are now adult music producers in all aspects of music production.

Twenty years ago I was part of a TV music arranging team for a Royal Variety Performance. The producer forgot all about music and what this entails -- piano rehearsal taking in key setting and form and duration. Passing the sketch to the arrangers. Having it copied -- no computers then. More piano rehearsal, then band rehearsal and timing checks etc. In the two weeks lead up to recording all music arrangers and copyists, and rehearsal pianists were working pretty much 24/7. They earned a fortune.

So in simple terms I blame Margaret Thatcher. And Education, and the 'educationalists'. May MT soon depart from this world!


From: John Kenneth Graham, MT, USA

Remarks in agreement with Patric Standford:

The notion that music need not communicate and in fact is so absolute it actually expresses nothing of itself, has led to a breakdown between the musical elite (especially in the US) and the listening public. While much complaining is done on the basis that the audience is simply 'not sophisticated' enough to understand much modern music, the problem is actually the other way around. The same problem exists in the visual arts, where abstract expressionism is generally now regarded as both passé and patently phony. The situation has persisted for so long, that presently there are composers being performed whose music most folks either don't understand (or think is tripe), and composers whose works are practically never played whose music is interesting, engaging and communicative.

It is not so much the academic mentality past World War II which has brought this about, but rather a new understanding of talent with respect to tradition. If the ultimate goal of the composer is to work past tradition (whether anyone understands his music or not), then of what value is talent? Thus, there exists the dilemma of either playing works which are 'modern' but aesthetically stink, or playing 'the classics' which the 'modern' composer abhors. It is the non-traditionalist know-it-alls which have brought this situation upon themselves, and they had it coming.




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