Balancing new and old


5th January 2014

It seems both interesting and curious that whilst our classical concert programmes are packed tightly with music written in the 18th and 19th centuries, the popular literary diet is not! We balance the occasional new pieces in our regular concert repertoire with quite an excess of older pieces from that period. Yet our interest in literature and poetry seems to reflect a reversion of this strange appetite. There is a constant public enthusiasm for new – even 21st century – literature, the latest in crime novels, horror and science fiction, fantasy fiction, modern children's literature, English language writing from outside our own country, and even erotic and avant-garde works. This is in notable contrast to a reluctance and consequent nervousness in placing 20th century music, and particularly the work of living composers, in the programmes. Far more 19th century concerts programmed contemporary music!

Living authors and poets are widely featured in newspapers and providing thoughtful magazine reviews of their own work and that of contemporary colleagues. They seem to find their way onto discussion panels on radio and television to give critical comment to a wide diversity of creative material, and are invited to debate and read current or recent literary work at book fairs and literary clubs. But how often are composers asked to carry out a similar musical function? It is far more probable that the summoned authority is a scholar, a so-called 'musicologist', or simply a celebrity musical journalist or member of a recording or radio production team. It seems to be a carefully considered strategy to avoid placing a composer in a position similar to that in which a contemporary author or poet readily lands. And yet that's where they should be.

The truth surely is that the music we most prefer to hear in our concerts and recitals is written by dead composers. The most effective commentators on the music of the dead must perhaps be those who have read about it rather than those who have had the experience of actually writing it. This is reasonable if it is accepted that the music dominating our concert programmes is of a period and an age in which the literature and poetry is of lesser interest – or at least, of rather more specialized interest. 18th century writers may be studied in appropriate English Literature courses, in which the rollicking novels of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne shine out, John Gay's Beggars Opera or the innovative 'gothic' novels of Horace Walpole are classic, Daniel Defoe still intrigues with tales of Robinson Crusoe, and the poetry of Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Robert Burns is quoted along with the entertaining parodies of Gray's Elegy – which we are expected to know in order to appreciate the jest.

The 19th century of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy stands rather less in the shade against concert programmes dominated by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and it can be well argued that the notable literary characters of Victorian times – Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and Phineas Fogg – survive well. But hardly do they command our literary programming, as do the musical giants. It would be interesting to anticipate the possible effect on commercial ratings if our radio, TV and cinema industry had similar appetites to those of the concert scene.

Yet it is just that same commercial consideration that obliges concert programmers to be careful with their concert presentations, while book publishers are more adventurous. We enjoy the visit of a new soloist or conductor – especially one who has been given celebrity treatment by agents or media – but we would still rather they played (preferably) a 19th century piece for us. If we are to revive Bram Stoker's character, then all the better if it is given a 'modern' treatment, but just as well not present a Beethoven symphony in any 'modern' arrangement – at least, not to the traditional audience. Best to leave it as it has been for over 200 years.
It is a curious contradiction in attitude. If we are to go on exploiting the music of earlier centuries, surely we must ask composers to do something with it (if they want to take time off from their own creations). If not that, then at least get them to do as living authors and poets do, and provide the media with authoritative critical commentaries.