• BBC Music Magazine ‘The Great Composers’

I don’t have it in for the BBC Music Magazine, I really don’t, even if it sometimes gets its knickers in a twist (last year, the December issue came out in October).  But I can’t help reacting to the special supplement that comes with the current May 2012 issue. Two days ago, I had a long train journey home, so I had plenty of time to read BBC Music Magazine presents The Great Composers.  It doesn’t get off to a good start when the fonts, quill and distressed MS paper are bog-standard code for an outdated perspective on classical music.  The MS paper is so distressed that the staves offer six lines for the price of five (pace any guitar-playing readers).

The big question, however, is raised by the concept.  OK, any compilation of ’50’, ‘100’ or ‘x’ will propose disputable lists, so the compilers (I assume they are plural in this case, though no details are given) are never likely to satisfy the demands of the individual or even of a broader audience.  This particular exercise, whether worthy or foolhardy in intent, seems designed from the cover to appeal to a very basic understanding of greatness, itself a dodgy yardstick.  As to the word ‘essential’, it has been so traduced, not least by Radio 3’s appropriation since its revamp last autumn, that it is now meaningless.  And what exactly is implied by ‘biggest names’?  Biggest in which sense(s)? Is the name now more significant than the music?  Or should I just accept this as inherently empty promotional puff?

Take a look at the nine names that have been highlighted.  Are they ‘in no particular order’, as heard on TV talent shows when they read out stage winners?  The list hardly inspires confidence that the remaining 41 composers will break out from an ultra-safe, tired popular-classics notion of ‘great composers’/’biggest names’. The final information tells us that there’s a ‘Foreword by Katie Derham’.  I always thought that a Foreword was intended to bring new insights, an interesting perspective on what follows.  Not here. Nothing of any substance whatsoever. The two volumes of the child-friendly Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers (1969) were pitched at a higher level.

There is an inevitable discussion to be had on this selection of composers.  There’s hardly a mainstream name that isn’t included, but that doesn’t mean that every one of the 50 is ‘great’.  There are also some threads that skew the selection.  Eight British composers, not including Handel, garner 16% of the total coverage: Britten, Byrd, Elgar, Gibbons, Holst, Purcell, Tallis, Vaughan Williams.  Barber, Bernstein and Copland represent the USA.  In both these cases, and elsewhere, questions can be raised as to the international significance of some of the ‘names’ when set against their compatriots or (near) contemporaries.  There is Gibbons but not Gesualdo, Rimsky-Korsakov but not Mussorgsky, Barber but not Ives.  There’s Grieg and there’s Sibelius, yet no Nielsen.  A slightly desperate case is made for Saint-Säens, partly because of his high standing during most of his lifetime, but of how many other composers could the same not be said?  Notably, none of the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – is represented.

The greatest disparity emerges when considering the number of entries for composers born before 1900 with entries for those born in the 20th century.  There are only five of the latter (10%): Copland (1900), Messiaen (1908), Britten (1913), Bernstein (1918) and Pärt (1935), who is the only living composer among the 50.  I need hardly elaborate on the glaring omissions, such as Ligeti, Lutosławski and Stockhausen among the deceased or Birtwistle, Dutilleux and Reich among the living.  [This observation ties in with the imminent launch of Tom Service’s contemporary music guide at The Guardian online (starts next Monday), with a taster article today ‘The five myths about contemporary classical music’ (what, only five?), which has already elicited a sizeable response.  Definitions of ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern classical’ have been doing the rounds in anticipation; see Tim Rutherford-Johnson‘s short but telling contribution to the debate.]  What is patently clear in The Great Composers is that there is barely any inclusion of music that is more than mildly challenging on a stylistic or (a)tonal level.  The game is given away in the ‘5 Essential Works’ side panel for Bartók: ‘Listeners who fear Bartók’s music may be too astringent for their taste …’.  For heaven’s sake, this is 2012, not 1962 or 1912.

Fortunately, things get better with the 50 composer profiles themselves.  The magazine has called on some of the best English-language writers on music (39 in all), including Nicholas Anderson (Bach, Handel), David Cairns (Berlioz), Misha Donat (Bartók), Erik Levi (Grieg, Shostakovich), Roger Nichols (Debussy), Curtis Price (Purcell) and Michael Talbot (Vivaldi).  Stephen Johnson (Bruckner, Mahler, Schubert) and Bayan Northcott (Haydn, Holst, Wagner) contribute three entries each, while Jessica Duchen writes four (Chopin, Fauré, Liszt, Schumann).  There are some interesting pairings, such as the composers Hugh Wood on Brahms and Colin Matthews on Elgar.

Each entry is c.900-1000 words long, with two summary panels as additional parts of the format: ‘A Life in Brief’ (5 dates) and ‘5 Essential Works’ (each with a recommended recording).  It’s not clear if these panels were written by the named authors.  I rather doubt that the ‘5 Essential Works’ were, as they show a surprising editorial slackness. We learn that there are only preludes in Bach’s ’48’, that Brahms’s Piano Concerto no.2 is ‘deeply humane’ (meaning what exactly?), that Britten was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, that Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is ‘operatic rather than a stilted work for the church’, and that the word ‘mixture’ is plural (entry on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony).  And that’s not to mention clichés such as ‘achingly beautiful’ or slip-ups like ‘paen’ and ‘coersive’.  Sad.

The composer profiles, however, are very readable and range from composer portraits to polemical essays.  Some take a straightforward chronological approach, especially where the pre-1800 composers are concerned.  Some of these are nicely creative, such as John Tyrrell’s opening gambit with an illuminating incident from late in Janáček’s life.  Matthews takes the prize, however, for his opening one-liner: ‘Imagine Elgar without his moustache’.  Some feel that they have a case to make for their subject.  Where Humphrey Burton tries valiantly to persuade us about Bernstein, but doesn’t quite convince, Levi’s entry on Grieg will encourage many to pursue the composer’s music further.

There are essays focusing on reception, such as Cairns on Berlioz, or those that take a main theme and pursue it through selective repertoire.  Stephen Johnson does this with Bruckner (a sense of place), Northcott likewise with Haydn (humour and radicality) and Holst (four reasons for gratitude: ‘music, the Cotswolds, RVW, and having known the impersonality of orchestral playing’).  Christopher Cook muses on Puccini and gender inequality, while Gerald Larner explores arguments about Ravel’s mental condition through a discussion primarily of Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

For me the star turn is Gerard McBurney’s essay on Tchaikovsky.  Eschewing the chronological, ‘let’s mention the principal works’ approach, McBurney focuses solely on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.6.  He gives a brief but coruscating example of how the composer was viewed in the mid-20th century, following this by tackling the now generally debunked ‘suicide note’ interpretation of the symphony and its finale.  What he brings is real musical evidence (including the sketches), based on Russian folk genres of the melody-lament (he acknowledges Nancy Ries’s work in this field) and the (unrequited) love song.  Together they shape the finale as a ‘love-lament’ (my inverted commas).  McBurney’s entry, although at one end of the spectrum of approaches taken by the 39 authors, is a model contribution and I shall listen to the symphony’s finale with fresh ears.

Editorial concept and execution ✭✭
Individual composer profiles ✭✭✭✭

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