A tale of two continents
Listen on-demand (until March 15) to today's BBC Radio 3 Music Matters review of Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise book. Morag Grant, who teaches at the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, describes it as the "Donald Rumsfeld view of music history".
Don't shoot the messenger, that is what the lady said. There is new music from the old world here and from the new world here.
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But a copycat post on Sequenza21 misrepresents the Radio 3 criticism. It wasn't just about the poor coverage of British twentieth century music. And even if it was the "done Peter Grimes, done British music" argument is somewhat myopic.
(still working through Ross' book; it would help if the pages did not keep falling out)
But Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès, Peter Maxwell Davies, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Malcolm Arnold, Jonathan Harvey 'should, by the sounds of it, have been composed in the 19th century ?????
These 'my country's music is better than your's' arguments are pointless and redundant.
There is fine and not so fine twentieth century British, American and Estonian music.
Let's celebrate it, warts and all, all together with Alex's book, not start behaving like soccer fans.
There were six 20th-Century British composers of supreme importance: Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. Only one of those composers--Elgar--had his roots in the 19th Century, and much of Elgar's music has a distinct 20th-Century sensibility.
From the second half of the Century, there are many other quite honorable names in addition to those mentioned by Pliable: Oliver Knussen, Lennox Berkeley, Robert Simpson, Humphrey Searle and Nicholas Maw are only five names that immediately come to mind.
The flowering of British music in the 20th Century is one of the most astonishing music developments of the last hundred years. I hate to see it disparaged.
1. The book exhibits a remarkable bias towards American music above all else (more words on Copland than Debussy and Ravel combined is the comparison made - not much British flag waving there!)
2. The musical discussion is extremely thin, with most of the book taken up with personal anecdotes about each composer and very little about the notes they composed
3. There is almost nothing on the last 20 or 30 years of music, despite the book purporting to be a survey of the whole of the 20thC
4. Ross's understanding or recent trends in European music is extremely scant, leading him to make generalisations about German music in particular that have little to do with the music that is performed 'on the ground' as it were (this is the source of the Rumsfeld comparison)
This last point is also expressed in the Obsever review Pliable links above:
"But Europe's self-destruction is halted just in time by America. ... The new country has a levelling influence on the deified artists who arrive on tour: Strauss gives a concert in a New York department store, Mahler rides on the subway. It all sounds uncomfortably similar to Francis Fukuyama's 'end of history', with the dialectical opposition between left and right resolved in the triumph of liberal democracy and the market economy.
Commenting on Stravinsky's negotiations with Walt Disney and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, Ross hails the United States as 'a marketplace in which absolutely anything can be bought and sold'. At times, his grand narrative paraphrases the messianic imperialism preached by George W Bush. As Ross sees it, Messiaen brings God back to earth during a tour of America's national parks, whose geological radiance he transcribes in From the Canyons to the Stars; Bartok, having migrated from Budapest to Manhattan, plans his Concerto for Orchestra as a 'parting gift to his adopted country - a portrait of democracy in action'. It's a shame that rich America disregarded the offering and left Bartok to die in misery."
These are views that are shared by many involved in new music who have read Ross's book, and it is good to hear this alternative approach to the book in contrast to the gushing praise that has characterised its reception so far.