Whatever happened to the composer's duty?

Benjamin Britten spoke of “the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings”. Yet it is a paradox of twenty-first century classical music that activism only becomes a priority when times are bad and livelihoods are threatened. It was not always so, and Britten’s War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral, is a passionate statement of the composer’s pacifist beliefs. More recently John Tavener spoke to his fellow human beings with his lamentably overlooked ecumenical Requiem commissioned for Liverpool’s 2008 tenure as European City of Culture. But commission's like the Tavener Requiem are rare and contemporary classical music has largely abandoned site and event specific works in favour of more modest and new media friendly projects. Lack of funding is, of course, the main reason for this. But money has not disappeared entirely, and composers should take note of how the mantle of social engagement has passed to other art forms, notably the visual.

My photographs show the Abolition of Slavery Memorial in Nantes, France which follows the bold path of social engagement pioneered in 2001 by Daniel Libeskind’s deeply moving Jewish Museum in Berlin. Nantes, with its deep water quays on the Loire, was France’s largest slave port and one of the leading transshipment points for human cargos in Europe. Following the abolition of slavery in France in 1848 cynicism and a guilty conscience wrapped the subject in a cloak of silence for more than a century. But in the 1990s the city of Nantes chose to actively face up to its shameful history; one of the results was the commissioning of the Abolotion of Slavery Memorial as, and I quote from the memorial website, “an urban, a political, and an art project".

The memorial, which opened in 2011, is the work of the Polish born and US domiciled artist Krzysztof Wodiczko whose work expresses his committment to human rights and the plight of migrants, the homeless and the oppressed. Wodiczko worked with the architect Julian Bonder whose creations exploit the relationship between memory and public areas. Together Wodiczko and Bonder have created a meditative space from the quay where the navire négrier – the slave boats seen in the accompanying archive illustrations – departed with their human cargoes. An underground space evokes the holds of the slave boats, while the sunlit upper promenade overlooking the Loire evokes the boat decks and is studded with more than two thousand glass blocks – see my photos – engraved with the names of the boats and their destinations in Africa and America.

I visited the Abolition of Slavery Memorial a few months after seeing Israeli artist Dani Karavan's memorial to the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin in the Catalan town of Portbou. At the centre of the Walter Benjamin memorial is his famous quote “It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned”, a challenge that Benjamin Britten with his musical Requiem, and Krzysztof Wodiczko, Julian Bonder, and Dani Karavan with their visual Requiems, have risen to magnificently. All four are creative artists are noted for the engaged nature of their work. Perhaps more proactive social engagement by contemporary composers would result in commissions for the musical equivalents of the Nantes and Portbou memorials, thereby creating a virtuous funding circle. My photo essay on the Walter Benjamin memorial is here.

This article is a contribution to UK Black History Month, October 2012. Photos are © On An Overgrown Path 2012. Any other 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.


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