Thursday, 8 September 2011

Prom 70 - what makes British music British ?

For a change, don't run off for coffee in the interval between the first and second parts of Prom 70 (Bridge, Birtwistle, Holst). Listen, instead to Anthony Payne, talking about British music. Payne is a fascinating person, an intellectual with emotional depth and a practical musician too. He's an authority on English music and made it possible for us to listen to what might have been Elgar's Third Symphony. Listen also to the programme that follows the Prom, where Tom Adès is interviewed by Tom Service. If Birtwistle were a talking man, he'd probably chime in too on the theme of What makes British Music British.

As Payne says, it's only in retrospect that we come to think of any piece as "British" because certain thing acquire a non-music identity from being used in ads, social music, movies etc. The music itself is intrinsically neutral. No composer worth anything doesn't write something original to himself or herself, based on what he absorbs from around him. Parry, Elgar, Bridge, Britten, RVW, all influenced by continental European music. So the idea of pushing composers into a ghetto of "Britishness" is a bit of a con.

Britten, especially, didn't relate to the "ghetto" though he was fascinated by Tudor and Stuart forms. Aldeburgh never was insular.  Long before the Festival began, there was Britten, taking his Mum to Vienna, forcing his pals to listen to Mahler in the 1920's, hanging out with the Prince of Hesse and Hermann Scherchen (or rather his son), Scherchen, significantly, was closely associated with the avant garde of his time. Britten wasn't a little Englander. It was he who championed Shostakovich long before Shostakovich was famous in the west. Britten's support of Shostakovich, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was critical, for it protected them from the Soviet Regime. Similarly, Henze wouldn't be Henze without Aldeburgh, tnouugh he was  too naive to realize that connecting to W H Auden in the 50's would mean exclusion from the Britten inner circle.

Harrison Birtwistle is as cow-pat free as it's possible to be. He's his own idiosyncratic self, and more power to him!  I couldn't figure out his new Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, but that's why it's interesting. It's a new direction for the composer, still inventive post 75. It seems to lead to new paths, though I'm not sure where they head. But that's part of the challenge. So what makes British music British? We don't even know what makes Britain British, either.

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