Monday, July 18, 2011

Classical music beyond Twitter


Yesterday's BBC Proms performance of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony confirmed that history has passed fair judgement on the work. This is honest music that certainly deserves to be heard and full credit should go to everyone involved in the concert. But this is by no means great music and, given the cost and complexity involved, the thirty-one year gap since the last professional London performance does not seem unreasonable.

Yesterday I quoted Peter J. Pirie as saying it is "difficult to make an objective assessment of [Havergal Brian's] work", and this point is worth dwelling on. Another post highlighted the prominence being given to Twitter reactions on the BBC Proms website, a development that is not conducive to making objective assessments of the featured works. Because, as Tweets Law states, if you give one hundred chimpanzees instruments, put them on a concert platform and broadcast the result, 95% of Twitter users will give the performance a rave review. Which means classical music must beware of programming for the Twitter audience.

Controversy over Proms programming is, of course, nothing new. William Glock's reign at the Albert Hall created the 1970s equivalent of a Twitter storm, and this is eloquently summarised in Robert Simpson's book The Proms & Natural Justice, seen above. Published in 1981, it attempts an objective assessment of composers neglected during Glock's tenure at the Proms and makes interesting reading in light of the social media frenzy surrounding yesterday's Gothic Symphony performance.

First, Robert Simpson's list of composers who between 1960 and 1973 did receive Proms performances, but of less than one hour duration:

Arnold Bax, Richard Rodney Bennett, Ernest Bloch, Havergal Brian, Alan Bush, Ferrucio Busoni, Arnold Cooke, Aaron Copland, Luigi Dallapiccola, Peter Racine Fricker, Alexander Goehr, Arthur Honegger, Elizabeth Maconchy, Bohuslav Martinů, Darius Milhaud, Anthony Milner, Albert Roussel, Edmund Rubbra, Humphrey Searle, Ronald Stevenson and Karol Symanowski.

And these are the composers who received no performances in the same period:

Richard Arnell, Niels Viggo Bentzon, Stephen Dodgson, Benjamin Frankel, Berthold Goldschmidt, Vagn Holmboe, Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Francesco Malipero, Frank Martin, John McCabe, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Max Reger, Franz Reizenstein, Hilding Rosenberg, Franz Schmidt, Gerard Schurmann, Nikos Skalkottas and Bernard Stevens.

Music fashions change, a few of those names are no longer neglected and some deserving composers are missing from Simpson's list. But that still leaves an awful lot who deserve an outing at the Proms before Havergal Brian comes around again.

The BBC are to be congratulated on programming the Gothic Symphony. But as their current love affair with the social media rages unabated let us remember the generous funding of the Proms is not just about audience numbers. It is also about providing the opportunity for lesser known composers to be objectively assessed, and that means looking beyond Twitter.

Robert Simpson's The Proms & Natural Justice (ISBN 0907689000) is published by Toccata Press and is still available. Background image source Wikipedia Commons. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

6 comments:

Pliable said...

And the child consumes the father...

This post is starting to go viral via this eloquent tweet -

"If you give 100 chimpanzees instruments, ... and broadcast the result, 95% of Twitter users will give ... a rave review" http://j.mp/pxM4N2

http://twitter.com/#!/musikFabrik/statuses/92896031045464064

Frank H Little said...

Glock may have suspected many of the composers on both lists of not being "serious", by virtue of writing for films or other popular media. Reizenstein wrote for Hoffnung, as well - the "Concerto Popolare", which the BBC is currently trailing.

Even some of the modernists, like RR Bennett and Humphrey Searle, may have incurred disapproval from the Herr Doktor, because of this dabbling.

Pliable said...

Quite so Frank. But did not one very much Glock approved composer write the Accompaniment to a Film-Scene (Begleitungssik zu einer Lichtspielszene), Op.34 ?

Steve Freeman said...

I don't mind the Twitter thing so much, and this sort of rare event is the perfect target for building up a buzz.

What I am missing, I now realise, is some Tippet. It's almost 30 years since we saw The Mask of Time at the Proms, a much more significant piece.

Time to build up an online campaign?

Pliable said...

Steve, you are right, and the neglect of Tippett's Symphonies is also puzzling - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2009/11/tippett-in-focus.html

Carl said...

I listened to the second half on a a freeview television set. It was interesting to note that the BBC's screen text gave the name of the piece and the composer and a plug for the proms website but did not mention any of the performers - not even Martyn Brabbins whose control of the vast forces was simply astonishing.
However the blurb did single out one important name for special mention. On a page all by itself it said "presented by Tom Service". What a strange sense of priorities!