A ruthlessly market-driven broadcasting system

In today's Guardian Nicholas Kenyon speculatively reviews Saturday's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert at the Royal Festival Hall. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about BBC Proms Director Kenyons' Hesse Lecture at the Aldeburgh Festival, and today I received this email:

Hesse Lecture 2007 - Sorry you felt the need to speculatively review this in advance….how odd. As you've written a great deal of interest about the Proms in recent seasons I thought you might like to see the real thing. A shorter version will be in The Guardian tomorrow I believe - Nicholas Kenyon

I'd hate to be thought odd. So here, scooping the Guardian, is the attachment:

Metropolitan, micropolitan, cosmopolitan: the BBC Proms, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the future - given in the Jubilee Hall on Tuesday 19 June 2007 during the 60th Aldeburgh Festival by Nicholas Kenyon.

It’s not given to everyone to invent a word, but you’ll notice that one of the three words in my title is invented. It was Kenneth Clark, I believe, who coined the neat word ‘micropolitan’ in one of the many lectures he gave here this hall, at Aldeburgh in 1951. Clark’s lecture was described thus: ‘A consideration of how much is gained and lost at certain periods by avoiding or ignoring the main centres of art, or working outside the current metropolitan tradition’. He was talking about art, not music, but what he said is actually a very acute characterisation of what the Aldeburgh Festival itself did musically in its early years after the war. That was to create a highly characterised ‘micropolitan’ musical culture centred around Benjamin Britten, in direct opposition to --and surely in tacit criticism of-- the prevailing metropolitan musical culture, which was then most powerfully represented by the Proms, under the emerging populist influence of Malcolm Sargent.

The current Aldeburgh Festival is the 60th, and it is 80 years since the Proms of Sir Henry Wood were taken on by the BBC in 1927; that provides one reason to look at the contrasts between these two musical undertakings, even though they may seem at first sight totally dissimilar in size and scope. Another is to ask whether both are challenged by the huge changes that now face all of us in classical music as we move into a third age of musical consumption and dissemination in which everything about the future seems up for grabs, a vast potential and opportunity in a sea of uncertainty. So I offer this Point Counterpoint partly to get us thinking about the role of performance, the choice of repertory and the history of changing taste in the musical world. If I’d like to leave you wondering about one thing at the end of this lecture, it is simply ‘how was my musical taste formed? Why do I like what I like? How it will be different in ten years’ time?’

The subject of performance history has for far too long been neglected by serious music historians as totally secondary to the history of composition. To take a very relevant example, the story of music in Britain after the war can, and has, been written as the unfolding sequence of new works by Britten after Peter Grimes, the emergence of Michael Tippett after A Child of Our Time, the more ambiguous place of William Walton, as they moved towards their great operatic undertakings of the 50s, the arrival of new works by Rawsthorne, Rubbra, Lutyens, Alan Bush, George Lloyd, whoever. But what was the reaction to these works when they were performed? When and where and why were they performed? Equally important to the musical story of the late 1940s are birth of the Edinburgh Festival, the formation of the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras, the first of William Glock’s summer schools, also 60 years ago, at Bryanston and now at Dartington, the creation of the Arts Council, the popular success of the Proms as they transferred to the Royal Albert Hall, and the thirst for a Festival of Britain that led to the building of the (just triumphantly reopened) Royal Festival Hall. We still live, culturally, in the shadow of that enormously creative period. Peter Diamand of the Edinburgh Festival once expressed the spirit of those times as ‘a healing process’ after the war. But I think we can now see it more as a direct continuation and development of the flourishing of the arts on a truly democratic basis that occurred during the war, as a bright gleam through the years of Austerity Britain that the arts really could be for everyone.

In this picture the new Aldeburgh Festival played a decisive and indeed a prophetic part. Britten more than once referred to it as his most important undertaking. Yet there’s all too little written in the welter of Britten studies about his programming of the Festival, and the light it shines on his creativity. Paul Kildea’s innovative book Selling Britten is an important exception, but whereas he talks about the impact of the festival on Britten’s own music, I want to spread the net a little wider. There are some very revealing sidelights in the recent posthumous collection of Philip Brett’s superb writings, Music and Sexuality in Britten, which includes his Proms lecture of 1997, the Britten Era. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

The origins of every great undertaking become enshrined in myth, and those of the Aldeburgh Festival, like those of the Proms back in 1895, are no exception. Compare these two oft-reported dialogues. Eric Crozier about Aldeburgh in 1948: ‘there was something absurd about travelling so far [in Europe] to win success with British operas that Manchester, Edinburgh, and London would not support. ‘Why not’, said Peter Pears, ‘make our own Festival? A modest festival with a few concerts given by friends? Why not have an Aldeburgh Festival?’ Robert Newman of the Proms in the 1890s: ‘I have decided to run those Promenade Concerts I told you about last year…I want you [Henry Wood] to be the conductor of a permanent Queen’s Hall orchestra…I’ll see what can be done…for I mean to run those concerts.’ And Henry Wood, later: ‘They said there wasn’t a public for great music... But Robert Newman said we’d make a public, and we did.’

However mythological the actual reported speech, it is striking how the constructs, the specific characters of the two undertakings are firmly fixed in those few lines: for Aldeburgh the local idea, with ‘a few friends’, for the Proms the educational impulse and the wish to ‘make a public’. Yet in both cases the motivation was much more complex than this: the aim of the first Proms impresario Robert Newman was more to try and find something to do with the new Queen’s Hall in the summer when the society audience for London concerts was out of town. Hence the masterstroke of clearing the floor area of the Hall for a standing audience paying low prices, which immediately established the egalitarian, socially mixed nature of the Proms that has endured for a century and more.

The motivation was surely equally mixed at Aldeburgh: they may have talked cheerfully of a few concerts for friends, but what Britten actually wanted was control (in the best sense) over how his works were performed by the musicians he chose, in the circumstances he wanted, and how they were received by a sympathetic audience. The experience of collaborating with Glyndebourne on Lucretia had not been a happy one, and the later experience of Covent Garden and the Coronation opera Gloriana, a watershed in Britten’s attitude to the wider world, was to be another. Aldeburgh gave Britten remarkable security in that respect. As the subsequent history shows, ‘a few friends’ were not beyond being sacrificed by Britten to the primary needs of the work in hand, and the localness of the festival is at least open to question.

What was happening back in London? The Queen’s Hall had been bombed and the Proms had transferred, perhaps unwillingly but with enormous success, to the much larger Royal Albert Hall. After the war, and the death of Sir Henry Wood, the BBC acquired a newly proprietorial attitude to the concerts. The emergence of Malcolm Sargent as the darling of the public, fostered by the rise of television during the 1950s, turned the Last Night of the Proms into a TV event for millions. Alison Garnham in the newly published history of the Proms (The Proms: A New History, Thames and Hudson, edited by Jenny Doctor and David Wright) writes tellingly of the BBC’s post-war desire to re-brand the Proms as ‘the Possession of the Whole Nation’. The great symphonies and concertos came together in the programmes to support that allegiance to traditional values (even though that repertory had played far less dominant a role in the adventurous days of Henry Wood). Malcolm Sargent, with his well-known distaste of avant-garde repertory, solidified the belief that the Proms should annually repeat a basically unvarying diet of accepted masterpieces. It was clear that this was a change from Wood’s day: when Sargent told author and promoter Thomas Russell that ‘he no longer regarded it as a responsibility of this series of concerts to present new works’, Russell objected ‘if Sir Malcolm will forgive me, I must say that this discloses a complete failure to understand the meaning of the Proms in relation to our music today’.

So what lies, consciously or unconsciously, behind our planning? For Aldeburgh and in the early days of the Proms, frustratingly little written evidence survives of the planning process. Aldeburgh didn’t even say it had artistic directors, it originally had three ‘founders’ including Eric Crozier, then in 1955 at a time of considerable reorganisation, it had two artistic directors, the next year it had three with Imogen Holst, whose centenary we celebrate this year, which lasted until the beginning of Snape in 1967, then unwisely it had more, and in the hiatus after Britten’s death it had far too many. As an example of Britten’s ingratiating style with his musical friends, I came across a letter to Yehudi Menuhin, I think so far unpublished, from January 1958, when Menuhin was to come and play the year after the tragic death of Dennis Brain. Britten planned a new piece for four horns and strings in his memory; it didn’t get written in time (we’re performing the fragment he did write in the Proms this year on the 50th anniversary of Brain’s death). Instead Menuhin played the slow movement from the Schumann Violin Concerto. But what else was to be in the programme? Britten wrote: ‘I must say you are angelic to agree to all our wild suggestions about the Festival, and I am going to test your angelicness by making even further impossible suggestions…..I have been hunting for a triple concerto not by Bach with conspicuous lack of success except that I have discovered a beautiful A major concerto by Telemann.’ The idea of Britten at that point in his life researching Telemann triple concertos has a slightly surreal air to it. Britten’s approaches to people to include his own music were always charming: to Leon Goossens in 1957: ‘My dear Leon. Would you be interested to come and play at our Aldeburgh Festival next year? What we were thinking of was a chamber concert with you playing the Mozart Quartet, and perhaps my old Phantasy if you like the idea…’

I am sure we can agree that the role of the artistic director is to sense the taste of the times and push it imaginatively forward, as Henry Wood and William Glock did, as Britten, Pears and Imogen Holst did, venturing further out to sea, as Glock once put it, that their own personal preferences might take them. Glock is often portrayed as a manic modernist, but what his Proms were remarkable for, quite apart from the wealth of contemporary music, was the number of first performances at the Proms of classic repertory, the Mozart Requiem, Haydn Masses, Handel, Bach, Machaut and Rameau; and he always considered the need to attract an audience to the adventurous music he programmed: he put Schoenberg alongside Beethoven (and was thus able to claim that the Schoenberg Violin Concerto drew one of the largest audiences of the Proms season) or Elliott Carter alongside Bach.

In this he was following the principle pursued with enormous energy by Henry Wood, which was to embed among works the public would recognize and love new challenges in every season. So in the early years of the 20th century music by Debussy, Sibelius, Mahler, Musorgsky, Rachmaninov, Cesar Franck and many, many lesser figures were introduced to the Proms audience –some faded without trace, among which one has to mention Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, a Wood innovation that he never repeated. Some became repertory pieces, like Debussy’s L’apres-midi or Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. Some achieved notoriety, like Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in 1912: when Wood was rehearsing that work he said to his players ‘Stick to it., this is nothing like you will have to play in 25 years time!’, and how true that turned out to be.

The difference now is that, dealing with a huge range of international orchestras and conductors, we perhaps plan more collaboratively than in the past. In his chapter in the new history of the Proms, Tom Service writes of the last decade as seeing ‘the creation of a new set of priorities for the Proms, a continuous move from a top-down model of programming and decision-making to a vision that resembled a network of connections …a move towards post-modern diffusion’. He writes that with what I read as a hint of criticism, but it exactly reflects what we want to achieve, because we the planners do not know everything, those we connect with have brilliant ideas, and in my view there is absolutely no virtue in forcing works on artists that they are unwilling to perform. The suiting of work to artist is crucial because the greatest performances result from the right marriage of performer, work and audience. I think Britten too had an acute sense of what musicians were good at performing, and suited his choices to them.

There are countless contrasts between the Proms and Aldeburgh. One is that between the highly characterful micropolitan spaces of Aldeburgh and the comparative metropolitan anonymity of London --though I would argue strongly that the arena of the Albert Hall with its extraordinary sense of community is as strong a space as any in which symphonic music is heard. I’ve said before how much I envy the ability of Aldeburgh to be very experimental in its smaller venues; in our vast space we can equally experiment with formats –our 1000 Years of Music in Day, the Millennium Youth Day or our more recent concerts with improvisational elements and young performers, while maintaining a strong commitment both to established repertory and rare works.

But one other fundamental contrast between the pre-BBC Proms and Aldeburgh that I want to think about is that when people first went to the Proms in 1895 live performance was the only way they heard music; they might perform it for themselves at home around the piano, and they went to concerts. That was it. By the time Aldeburgh started in 1948, broadcasting had become central to our lives and recording was just about to. In this, as in so much else, Benjamin Britten was absolutely a child of his time, as we see from the letters and diaries of the 1930s, a passionate consumer of the extraordinary range of live music that the radio made available to him. I’ll mention one example in a moment, but the point is that Aldeburgh, in assembling its very distinctive repertory, could assume that the music in the festival was not all the music that audiences heard. It took its place against the background of a wealth of broadcasting and recordings. Broadcasting didn’t remove the need for festivals, quite the reverse, one didn’t replace the other, any more than TV has replaced radio: the two co-existed and changed each other. Aldeburgh, as you see from the countless record company ads in the programmes over the years, was affected by and contributed to the recording industry: they didn’t stand in opposition. And festivals became a key part of the broadcast year, as Paddy Scannell has eloquently put it, the BBC created in its calendar of annual events, ‘punctual moments in a shared national life’.

The contrast of repertory between Aldeburgh and the Proms is extreme: before Britten’s death the Aldeburgh Festival did not include a single performance of any symphony by Beethoven or Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius, which were then the staple diet of Proms programmes. Of course this was partly due to the size of the Festival venues like the Jubilee Hall, but not entirely. Britten did do Schubert symphonies, and Mozart symphonies, because he wanted to, and when wanted to perform Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the LSO in 1961, still in the pre-Snape years, he did so in Orford Church, which had always been there as a possible festival venue and had been used for Noye’s Fludde in 1958. But where had Britten heard Mahler’s Fourth Symphony? At the Proms in 1930, only the second time it had been done there. (It had actually been introduced to this country by Henry Wood at the Proms in 1905, a couple of years after he did Mahler’s First.) The young Benjamin Britten wrote in his diary in 1930: ‘much too long, but beautiful in parts’ and a later article mentions the ‘slack, under-rehearsed and rather apologetic performance’. But he went on: ‘After that concert I made every effort to hear Mahler’s music and I began a great crusade among my friends on behalf of my new God, I admit with only average success.’ With only a couple of live performances across several decades, it is no wonder that taste changed so slowly.

What then happened was that in the late 1930s, several recordings, including two really fine performances by Bruno Walter, of Das Lied von der Erde in 1936 and the Ninth Symphony in 1939, began to circulate and gained a circle of admirers including Britten, Donald Mitchell, Deryck Cooke, and the process of interest and acceptance started. When the BBC Third Programme started in 1946, one of the early major projects it undertook was to broadcast from November 1947 to March 1948 a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, some from European orchestras, some on disc, and some new performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Adrian Boult had conducted Mahler 4 again in the 1947 Proms. But Mahler 2, with its choral forces, had to wait until 1963 for a first Proms performance, the incandescent one by Leopold Stokowski that’s been released on BBC Legends. [I didn’t realise when I mentioned this performance that the soprano soloist on that occasion, Rae Woodland, was in the hall, and is now President of the Aldeburgh Music Club!] The first Proms performance of Mahler 5? 1968, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Now you just can’t keep them down, there would be three every season if conductors were given half a chance.

Aldeburgh always had what E. M. Forster in his famous account of the first festival called ‘something which is distinctive’, not as he said a festival which is ‘an excuse of overcharging’ and ‘remain at the flower-show level, the amateur-theatrical level, and my old enemy, the Morris Dance, once more comes forth and foots it defeatedly on the tussocks of the village green.’ There’s no greater tribute to the strength of character in the Aldeburgh Festival’s planning that as early as 1951 in the Programme Book, George Harewood could report the remark ‘It felt very like an Aldeburgh programme’. Of course there were programmes which felt a little random in their enthusiasms, of which my favourite, which made me laugh out loud in the hallowed walls of the Britten-Pears Library, has to be the one that started with a Boyce Symphony, continued with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, then Chausson’s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and –anyone like to guess or recall? –Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals. (Actually, thanks to Rosamund Strode’s impeccable pencilled notes in the programme books at Aldeburgh, I see they changed the order so the Wagner came last.)

So how at its best did Aldeburgh characterise itself? It did so by building around Britten’s works a collection of music which both illuminated and contextualised his work. There was music that had an influence on Britten: Purcell, who opened the first festival and was there every single year, with songs which were central to the joint recitals by Britten and Pears; Dowland songs, which Pears performed with Julian Bream; Mozart piano concertos that Britten himself performed long before some of them were fashionable, Bach cantatas, which created the Long Melford spin-off of Bach weekends; and the Schubert lieder in which Britten and Pears excelled. Then a whole range of early music arrived for live audiences at Aldeburgh at the same time as the Third Programme was beginning to uncover it for radio listeners. The first ever complete Bach St Matthew Passion sung in German in this country came from Holland in 1950, thanks to Peter Pears having sung there. George Malcolm and then Britten directed Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in 1951 –astonishing!-- in a double bill with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Peter Pears sang the Evangelist in the Passion settings by Bach’s great predecessor Heinrich Schutz.

Following the arrival of Imogen Holst after working with Britten on Gloriana, and then as an artistic director in the mid-1950s, the revival of early music at Aldeburgh gathered momentum: in every annual festival there would be a series of five or six themed concerts (which the BBC Transcription Service promoted). There would be Venetian music 1500-1750, Flemish Music 1430-1630, English church music from the 15th to the 20th centuries, Magnificats every late night in the parish church, acres of amazing rediscovered repertory. These revivals, made possible by the first published editions of those works, now appear epoch-making in the emerging story of the early music movement in this country. (So I think Paul Griffiths is not quite right to say in his interesting survey of the festival in this year’s programme book that ‘early music was strongly represented, but not the early music movement’ –what Imogen Holst did, in those years, was the early music movement.)

This assertion of difference, as Philip Brett has shown both in his writings both on early music and on Britten, was crucial to the motivation of the whole early music movement. And it was critical to Britten as a composer, in his frequent rejection of conventional performing forces and formats in his own works. And I am sure it was critical to the programming of the festival. In Britten’s case I think it might be worth someone unpicking that there were three different repertories --a composing repertory, those who affected his music; a conducting and playing repertory, those he liked to perform; and a festival repertory, those he was broad minded enough to include in Aldeburgh programmes as long as he didn’t have to perform them or in some cases to listen to them either.

As I’ve said, there is too little evidence of the way of both the Aldeburgh Festival and the Proms were planned. But there is one revealing interview I thought we might listen to a little of. In a 1960 BBC programme, Britten talked about planning the Festival with Lord Harewood, just before the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: HAREWOOD/BRITTEN Transcribed in Britten on Music, edited Paul Kildea pp. 176-7

Now there’s quite a lot that could be unpacked there, and that final reference to Stravinsky is extremely disingenuous: he really didn’t form part of the musical world-picture at all in Britten’s lifetime, and when The Rite of Spring was eventually allowed into the festival in 1974 (!) it was in a student performance in an afternoon concert at Snape, when the main evening concert was David Munr0w and the Early Music Consort! That balance has happily been strongly redressed in the Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades years. But go back to the 17th-century composers Britten mentions, Schutz and Monteverdi. They were enthusiasms shared with Peter Pears, and there could surely be no greater proof of how Aldeburgh correctly sensed the temper of the times, how prescient they were, and how they affected changing taste, then that precisely those two composers became the flagships of the most significant new ensembles in the wider popular early music revival at the beginning of the 1960s. In 1962 Roger Norrington formed his Schutz Choir, with Peter Pears as it were validating that new undertaking by singing the Evangelist in all the Schutz Passions in London; then John Eliot Gardiner launched his Monteverdi Choir, with the historic Monteverdi Vespers performance in King’s College Cambridge in 1964. The rest is history…

As the work is performed in this year’s festival, it’s worth recalling that the Aldeburgh Festival was the place where you could hear movements from the Monteverdi Vespers in the early 1950s. The complete edition of Monteverdi’s works had not been completed by Malipiero until 1942, and there was no practical edition of the Vespers until 1949, and that wasn’t very practical. Walter Goehr mounted his pioneering performances and made his new edition, followed by Denis Stevens and others. The relation between available published editions and performance is another critical factor –in his very interesting article on the English madrigal, Peter Pears identifies the succession of published volumes by Edmund Fellowes as the markers along the road to reviving that repertory. Just because music is on library shelves it does not mean it will be performed, but it is a crucial factor in helping it to happen. And works slowly but surely become standard repertory: those Handel oratorios that Aldeburgh championed, Jepththa, Saul, L’Allegro --we can’t get enough of them today. So the micropolitan culture, highly characterised and distinctive, begins to affect the mainstream metropolitan undertakings, and even the Proms begin to include Schutz and Monteverdi alongside Carter and Boulez.

There are two issues around Aldeburgh’s programming which are a little trickier: one is localness. I think it’s fascinating how carefully Britten articulated this aspect in that Harewood interview. ‘There are enough people who like the things that we like’; he refers to the character and size of buildings and the specific nature of the locality and his personal friends, rather than anything much to do with the local audience. In his famous Aspen Award speech he said ‘I belong home, there, in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival, and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships… I write music now in Aldeburgh for people living there and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it.’ Again that’s very deftly put –the roots and associations are to do with his, Britten’s relationship to the place, which clearly does have such a critical influence on his work, and in the suiting of works to available buildings. But the tastes or needs of a genuinely local audience never really played a part in the founders’ very personal enthusiasms. Theirs I guess was more the contemporary philosophy: ‘build it and they will come’.

As indeed they did in their thousands once Snape was converted in 1967 and then rebuilt after the disastrous fire. But the sense of place was thereby transformed, and while writers like Paul Driver have written very eloquently of the exquisite special character of Snape, the fact remains that since 1967, for 40 out of the 60 years of festival history, you have if you so wished been able to attend events in the Aldeburgh Festival without coming into Aldeburgh at all. That makes a real difference, and I think it was a tacit recognition of that fact that the famous Ronald Blythe Aldeburgh Anthology of 1972, published to support the development of Snape, goes to enormous lengths to reassert the local connections of the Festival and make the links with the culture of the region stronger than ever, because there was a real danger that in the new world they might slip away and become less important.

That was a moment of great danger for the festival, I think, that in expanding it might lose touch with its roots –but somehow the Snape fire, which reasserted the make-the-best-of-it spirit on a truly heroic scale, causing the need to cram Idomeneo onto an improvised stage in Blythburgh, reminded the festival of its real roots, the challenge of cramming A Midsummer Night’s Dream into the Jubilee Hall in 1960, Ossian Ellis staying up all night before the premiere to write the two harp parts into one because there just wasn’t room for two harps. Indeed it was through the classic Aldeburgh formulation of ‘a few friends’, that the festival renewed itself, through Britten’s musical partnerships with Richter, Rostropovich and Shostakovich, and embracing Tchaikovsky, always perhaps surprisingly close to Britten’s heart. In fact the Festival flourished post-Snape. What it almost didn’t survive was the death of its founder.

The second tricky issue is the record with contemporary music, and this is also quite difficult to interpret --once you have accepted that the mainspring of the whole undertaking was the ideal performance of Britten’s own music, you have to question how far non-Britten contemporary music was central to the festival, until it became so quite a while after his death. In the early years there was innocuous new music by friends and colleagues like Arthur Oldham, Martin Shaw. Yes, there was the whole continuing tradition of the English Opera Group, then English Music Theatre: Lennox Berkeley, Malcolm Williamson, Nick Maw. Yes there were the visits by distinguished colleagues, Poulenc and Kodaly. The Society for the Promotion of New Music was allowed (albeit in a morning concert in the Jubilee Hall) to present small-scale music from the younger avant-garde generation, in 1957 Richard Rodney Bennett, Susan Bradshaw, Cornelius Cardew, and three years later Hugh Wood, Maxwell Davies and Harry Birtwistle before any of them had Proms commissions. But I’m not sure how central it was, and as we know Britten drew the line at Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy. (Whether he actually walked out of the premiere is debateable, but he clearly rejected the piece and criticised its lack of links to operatic tradition.) For all his generosity to younger composers, Britten felt increasingly uncomfortable with some of the directions music was taking.

Let’s not be over-critical here, for one thing that Aldeburgh and the Proms of the 1950s had in common with almost every other area of British musical life (William Glock’s Dartington Summer School the honourable exception) is that neither provided any platform for the continental avant-garde. There was nothing here in Aldeburgh, save the famous and not repeated 1954 concert of musique concrete, which actually seems to have arisen from a friendship with the French cultural attaché of the time. This was not untypical: remember that when the BBC eventually and with enormous reluctance broadcast a concert of Henze, Berio and others in 1956, the music department memo said that it had been decided that ‘on reflection to broadcast a few of their better works would not undermine our reputation for acute critical assessment.’

Colin Matthews wrote in the preface to Rosamund Strode’s invaluable Music of Forty Festivals –time for an index of Sixty Festivals now!-- ‘The extraordinary diversity revealed speaks for itself, and as strongly in the music of the present century as elsewhere…The programmes were not restricted to those composers towards whom the artistic directors were themselves sympathetic’ Strictly speaking that’s true, there was of course smaller-scale music by Beethoven or Brahms, for instance, in many festival chamber music concerts. But I would say the programmes were the stronger and more characterful, and the festival the more coherent, the more they were restricted to the directors’ tastes. The really amazing thing you get from Rosamund’s list is that among the works listed under A the first named composer is Johannes Acourt flourished 1400, (who he? Ed), then Agricola, Richard Allwood of the Mulliner Book, Angelus ad virginem from the 14th century, English 15th century motets, Italian 15th-16th century music… It is strange how balanced and consistent in certain respects the central composers of the Aldeburgh Festival turn out to be: not allowing for repeat performances, in the first forty festivals there were about 132 works by Britten, 136 by Bach, and 136 by Mozart, 112 by Purcell, 138 by Schubert. I don’t know how those proportions have changed over recent years, but that sort of gives a fair feel of the festival’s priorities in the Britten years. That is a highly characterised musical cosmos.

As I’ve mentioned the major crisis for the Proms that came on the death of its founder Henry Wood, let us not avoid the crisis for Aldeburgh that came, entirely predictably but all the same dramatically, with the death of its founder. This provoked a crisis of identity that lasted far longer than it should have done. In June 1977 an uppish young critic in the Sunday Times wrote: ‘Britten smiles on the cover of the programme book, but how much of the first Aldeburgh Festival after his death would have given him pleasure?…the opening weekend was devoid of any sense of purpose or direction such as characterised the early pioneering years of the festival … pert wind music, lush Delius part-songs and over-ripe Respighi arrangements… music was reduced to little more than an aural accompaniment to the landscapes of Snape….it would be a tragedy if Aldeburgh became a mausoleum’. Well, I’d wisely left town by the time that review was published, but someone vividly described to me the puffs of outrage in the High Street as people came out of the newsagents that Sunday morning.

Of course as ever there were wonderful individual concerts, thanks to the involvement of Murray Perahia and others (who could forget the chance to encounter the pianist Horsowski at the end of his career?) but the lack of consistent character in the festival was almost painfully visible. After the hiatus of those over-extended years, new music led the way in reinventing the festival’s identity as a home for composers –actually more broadly based than it had ever been in Britten’s own time. Oliver Knussen invited Henze (who had already been welcomed by Britten and Pears), Takemitsu, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, and the younger generation such as Magnus Lindberg, and that has led seamlessly to the remarkable flourishing of recent years. Once again composers have led the way, the early works of Britten have formed another focus as they have been edited and premiered, and Thomas Ades and John Woolrich have created their own new characterful versions of the repertory.

Compared with the emphases of Aldeburgh, what were the comparable centres of gravity of the Proms repertory? Who was by far the most frequently performed composer in the first half-century of the Proms by a very long way? The answer to that usually surprises people: it was Wagner, because of the predilection for bleeding chunks and operatic extracts. The First World War repertory was well characterised in a passage from that little book The Promenade Ticket of 1914: which said that Prommers ‘love the Brandenburg Concertos, and the Mozart symphonies [though only the handful that were then played], and heaps of Handel, and all the symphonies, concertos and overtures of Beethoven, and lots of Schubert, and some Schumann, and all the Wagner it can hear, and a good deal of Liszt, and two concertos and three symphonies of Tchaikovsky, and plenty more.’ Even that reflects a development from the earliest years of the Proms: over the years 1895-1914, the top ten composers at the Proms went Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sullivan, Gounod, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Saint-Saens, and Schubert. (I was surprised not to find Bach, a Henry Wood favourite, in that top ten.)

For 1950-1995, the second half-century of the Proms it is rather different, and based on far fewer works in a programme, a more diverse choral repertory (and no piano-accompanied arias!): Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Elgar, Stravinsky, Haydn, Wagner and Berlioz. The changing Proms repertory is a subject worthy of a full-scale study, but I recently did a quick and basic study of the changing fortunes of the major symphonic composers in the Proms, prompted by Adrian Boult’s waspish complaint in 1946 that ‘the symphonic aspect of the programmes was rather overdone this year’.

CHARTS file attached Or reference The Proms: A New History pp.266-7

If you look at the first chart you can see what he meant: this shows the total number of symphonies by great composers performed at the Proms in every five-year period --and 1945-50 was its height. (Each following chart shows the total number of complete performances of symphonies by individual composers in each five-year period during the history of the Proms. So 1895 on the base line indicates 1895-9; 1900 indicates 1900-4, and so on.) What’s striking is how very little importance was given to symphonies in the opening few years, with then a rapid rise as the educative dimension of the festival becomes established. Then the symphony as a central part of the season tails off after around 1970 as the proportion of new music, early music, and one-work evenings of (for instance) choral music or opera increases steadily. Compare the totals chart with those for the individual symphonists:
Beethoven, overwhelmingly the most popular symphonist, with most symphonies done most years, until it tails off massively after 1960;
Brahms, the smaller numbers concealing that every year all four symphonies were done religiously from 1930 to 1960 or so; Tchaikovsky, a very early staple, chiming with Wood’s Russian enthusiasms, remaining strong until the 1970s;
Haydn, who became a Henry Wood enthusiasm in the 1920s, when he revived many unknown symphonies, and was a Glock favourite;
Mozart, a few symphonies consistently present, again with a peak in the late 1920s (and 2006 not reached in these charts!);
Schubert, the later symphonies consistently strong;
Sibelius, a contemporary runaway success during the Sargent years, then less fashionable under Glock but then reviving in our time
Dvorak became popular, at least his last three symphonies, contributing to the symphonic pile-up of the 40s and 50s.
So what then replaced these central classics?
Bruckner, eventually, after Wood’s early failed attempt on the 7th symphony, becoming a key Albert Hall composer from the 1970s;
Mahler, slowly but surely, reaching its zenith in John Drummond’s complete cycle of 1995; and in recent years the inexorable rise and rise, with audiences and orchestras and conductors alike, of Shostakovich.

I don’t mean to prove too much with these bald charts, except to make the point that taste changes, the canon changes, and the pressures on metropolitan and micropolitan undertakings are very different. A great deal depends on conductors: Pierre Boulez created his own characteristic repertory at the Proms, and what a contrast he and Britten make, as two great composer-conductors who never to my knowledge interacted but who both demonstrated in their programmes exactly where, musically, they came from. Go another generation on, and the repertory of a Esa-Pekka Salonen or a Simon Rattle is based around another centre of gravity, Mahler, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Janacek, Shostakovich, John Adams–another quite coherent line. This is has helped to determine our taste, the influence that these key figures have had on concert and festival programmes.

But I believe the audience is also critical in the process of determining the musical canon; this is not just a recent invention. Of course one always pushes the audience on and surprises it: Aldeburgh was always creating and training an audience just as was Henry Wood in the early days of the Proms. But in the end the audience decides what will survive. The change in taste are formed by a complex interaction of what we want to programme, what conductors want to conduct (and believe me they usually want to conduct pieces that audiences will react to positively), and what audiences want to listen to –and what is going on in the rest of the musical world, what’s on the radio, on CD and now no doubt on iTunes ready to be downloaded onto your iPod. None of these things happens in isolation: gradually, inexorably taste shifts.

And this is where the third part of the story is critical. If you think of the first age of totally live performance, and then the second age where live performance was complemented and challenged and enhanced by recording and broadcasting, we’re now faced with an age beyond that where everything is going to be available to everyone in the most dizzying way, where not only iTunes but mySpace and YouTube and their yet to be invented successors are circulating music and the arts in a qualitatively and quantatively different way. Just as Google is digitising our libraries, quite soon literally the whole history of recorded music is likely to be available to us at a click of a mouse, except that we won’t use them any more: we’ll probably have a chip embedded in our forefinger. This puts choice, and tradition, and the creation of the musical canon, in a totally new situation. It is a truly cosmopolitan view, in that the whole cosmos of music will co-exist at a single moment.

Does it mean that festivals like Aldeburgh and the Proms won’t have a purpose any more? Surely the opposite: the more choice there is, the more we need trusted guides and discriminating alternatives offered to us. And what we will need to do when we look into cyberspace is to rediscover the human scale of the enterprise, and especially to engage with the new generation which understands that new world.

It’s no accident that the superb revival of Aldeburgh following the period after Britten’s death has been so linked to the creation and huge development of the Britten-Pears School, the year-round activities at Snape for (I guess) a much more local audience, the creation of Aldeburgh residencies. With the development now of Snape Maltings which uncannily echoes the plan that Britten and Pears had for the place, Aldeburgh is poised to create a micropolitan culture which really can once again affect the direct of metropolitan and national musical culture in the years to come. At the Proms we too have expanded into new areas for the new generation, very visibly with initiatives like Blue Peter Proms and Proms Out and About (which we did last week for a thousand kids in Brighton), but we’ve also added to the Proms repertory, we’ve brought into the Proms not just many new commissions and premieres but, I was amazed to find when we counted them up, over 1000 pieces new and old during the 12 seasons up to this year, from large oratorios by Elgar, Mendelssohn, and Franz Schmidt to medieval motets, Mozart arias and symphonies, Stravinsky and indeed Britten, non-Western repertory, wonderful riches that for one reason or another the Proms had previously overlooked.

The sort of intelligent, thought-provoking juxtapositions that Aldeburgh has thrived on and I hope, the Proms too have continued to explore, are even more vital in an age where there is so little guidance, so much to cope with, and so little to separate the dross from the gems. The cosmopolitan world will challenge every idea of a musical canon as never before, but it has huge potential. What we have now is: 1.4 million downloads of Beethoven symphonies from the BBC website, a free offer taking the message of classical music to a wider audience some of whom had never encountered it before, stimulating the market and encouraging listeners to buy CDs. In fact Radio 3’s initiative was so successful, that the new BBC Trust, the successor to the BBC Governors, has prevented it happening again. In a recent ruling it has forbidden the BBC to include classical music in any of its free downloads, even short extracts of works, on the grounds that it is distorting the marketplace --thus at a stroke undermining the BBC’s historic commitment to use every enlightened means to make great music available to all. (As the Director General of the BBC has disagreed with that ruling publicly, I reckon I can do so too.)

Fearful challenges to the imagined dangers of new technology will always be with us. Remember that Thomas Beecham and so many concert promoters criticised music broadcasting when it started on the grounds that it would take audiences away from live concerts. Exactly the opposite happened, and because the BBC was active in the new realm of broadcasting, countless more people came to hear the concerts and the BBC became a unique catalyst in our musical life. In the end both the micropolitan and the metropolitan can have a lot to teach us in the cosmopolitan age, because they will show us how to find our way around the vast musical cosmos. As more forces urge us towards a totally pay-per-use world and a ruthlessly market-driven broadcasting system, the free availability to all of great music, there to inspire a new generation, and the widest possible circulation of enterprises of great purpose and value like music festivals, is surely something really worth preserving.

C Nicholas Kenyon 2007. For permission for further use, corrections or comments please contact nicholas.kenyon at bbc.co.uk. Aldeburgh, The Britten-Pears Library

Photos taken by Pliable at 2006 BBC Proms. 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 other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


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