Classical music's televisual bleak midwinter
In the Bleak Midwinter is the title of Tony Palmer's new film portrait of Gustav Holst which was premiered on BBC TV over Easter weekend. And In the Bleak Midwinter is also prettty good summary of where the film stands creatively.
The new film, which received much sycophantic pre-broadcast hype, is an anachronism. 1971 would be a more appropriate production date than 2011, except that forty years ago the film's many production flaws would not have been tolerated. These include clunky editing, an obtrusive low frequency rumble on many of the purpose recorded music sequences, poor colour matching between disparate footage, lack of establishing shots showing both conductor and musicians in performance sequences, and presenter Stephen Johnson repeatedly glancing off camera as if to seek reassurance that someone is still watching.
In the Bleak Midwinter is a televisual conflation of Karajan's 1970s Unitel films, Ken Russell's Malvern Hills period, and Palmer's own idiosyncratic mixture of music, talking heads, and library footage of concentration camps and fast moving clouds. Quite who the film is targeted at is a mystery. Yes, the Thaxted background is illuminating and the Imogen Holst archive footage priceless. But those who know Holst's music will find little else new and much to annoy. Those who do not know his music, and that includes many from a generation that speaks a new televisual language born from computer grapics, will find the two and a quarter hour long film as unappealing as a reheated dinner.
Classical music has perfected the art of blaming everyone but itself for failing to engage new audiences. If lack of funding cannot be blamed try changing demographics, poor music education, or the collapse of the record industry. But never ever blame classical music's self-interest and creative myopia. In the Bleak Midwinter makes the point that Gustav Holst's Planets Suite has probably reached more new listeners than any other classical music. But that it achieves this by taking its audience on a journey from the security of the familiar to the challenge of the new was missed both by Tony Palmer and those who commissioned his film.
In the Bleak Midwinter represents yet another missed opportunity for classical music. Whether we like it or not we now live in a culture where the visual takes priority over the aural. Classical music needs to leverage the new televisual language, as it does here, if it is to extend its reach. Where are the directors who can achieve this? How can we make new audiences see the music?
* Doth the blog protest too much? After writing the post above I checked today's traffic stats for On An Overgrown Path. They show a massive peak in readership for my 2008 article A Hero's Life Overshadowed. The subject of that article? - Imogen Holst. Now how about a biopic of Imo? That could be very interesting.
** Other Holst resources On An Overgrown Path include a feature on both Holst's Planet's and American composer Kyle Gann's contemporary take on the heavenly bodies. The linked podcast includes extensive extracts from the four hand piano version of the Planets featured in Tony Palmer's film. Elsewhere A vintage year for blasphemy and heresy covers Holsts' gnostic Hymn of Jesus, an important work that did not make it into Palmer's film. There is a rare photo of Holst with his pupil Edmund Rubbra in another post.
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