Do we Value our Composers?
In November 2002, Winston Churchill was voted the 'Greatest Briton' of all time. This was the culmination of over a year of vote-collection by the BBC; the public's favourites were whittled down first to the top 100, then the top 10 and eventually the live, two-hour programme at the end of which the Great British Public voted for their 'Greatest Briton'.
How did our great composers of past and present fair in this cavalcade? After all, we can offer a fine range, alphabetically from Thomas Arne and Benjamin Britten, through Frederick Delius and Edward Elgar, to Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. In the final top 100 however, the sole representative of the field of classical music was Edward Elgar, and he was at number 60, just behind Julie Andrews and Freddie Mercury at numbers 59 and 58 respectively. Not that the field of music generally was under-represented – 12 of the top 100 were musicians. Other British composers who could have figured in the list include Malcolm Arnold, Gustav Holst, Gerald Finzi, Hubert Parry and arguably the greatest of them all, Henry Purcell.
Deeply suspicious though I am of the value of vox populi – you can get any poll result you want, so long as you ask the right question – if I were to go out onto the streets of Britain tomorrow and ask people to name a British composer, living or dead, whose names would I hear? On the basis of the BBC poll, I should indeed expect to hear Elgar, Britten and Vaughan Williams. I suspect I would also hear Handel – German born, but something of an honorary Briton, although he was 27 years old when he settled in London for the rest of his life. When these men were alive they were fêted; when they died, the nation mourned them.
But how long, I wonder, would I have to wait before a member of the Great British Public gave me the name of a living British composer? Try it yourself – how many can you name? Hmm, thought so. Are there no great composers of classical music any more?
Of course there are, but they carry on their work relatively out of the limelight. They're no longer the superstars their predecessors were, and we, the Great British Public, seem to be content with that, if we even bother to acknowledge their existence at all, outside of the concert hall.
The men and women who carry the baton of musical progress today, are for the most part professional composers, working to commissions from orchestras and musical foundations around the world. What seems to have passed is the composer who writes music either for the sheer pleasure of it or, even more simply, because they can – what might be termed the Master Composer. And I don't equate this with the demise in the second half of the 20th Century of persons of independent financial means with the spare time to devote to composition; composers have always been working musicians.
So who are these present-day torch-bearers of the stave? I would cite Sir Michael Tippett – an extract from whose oratorio 'A Child of Our Time' was used as a test piece in the recent BBC television series 'Maestro'; Sir John Tavener, whose work is deeply influenced by Eastern traditions and by the Greek Orthodox Church, of which he is a member, and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the present Master of the Queen's Music, whose work is informed by the Orkney Islands that he has made his home. Until earlier this year, my list would also have included the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, who sadly died in March. I could also mention Oliver Knussen, who in April 1968, at the age of only 15, made his debut, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his own First Symphony. Then we have Mark-Anthony Turnage, the European première of whose Chicago Remains was given at this year's Proms. Mention should also be made of the composer/scholar brothers Colin and David Matthews.
Off the concert platform and onto large and small screens, there is Debbie Wiseman, whose music for films and television programmes ranges from Jackanory and Channel 4's science programme Equinox to the series Judge John Deed and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. Staying with the fair sex, there is Rachel Portman, composer of the music for the films Chocolat and The Cider House Rules.
So why don't we value these people in the way we used to? I attribute it to the fact that for a prolonged period in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, classical music buried its head in musical aesthetism, alienating and ignoring the listening public. They yearned for something they could whistle in the street and instead were 'challenged' by The New Music such as John Cage's 4' 33" – four minutes and 33 seconds of silence (for piano). The Great British Public could not attribute hero status to these composers and moved their allegiance to other figures.
However, the good news is that our concert halls are well-attended, and by a wide range of modern society. The superstars today are the conductors – people like Sir Simon Rattle, who turned the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from a good provincial orchestra into a premium world-class unit, before moving on to take over the famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Not that superstar conductors are a new phenomenon; they have always enjoyed a cult status.
Who knows, perhaps a new über-composer will emerge and triumph in some future Great Briton poll. Let us hope so.