Thursday, June 26, 2008

Die Meistersinger von London, aka...

...the Worshipful Company of Musicians, which rather remarkably invited me to their gala Midsummer Banquet last night and asked me to make a speech on behalf of the guests.

For the benefit of our friends overseas, I should explain that the City of London's Livery Companies date back to the 15th century if not earlier, and were a form of early trade union. The musicians' organisation started off as a Fellowship of Minstrels (read about its history here). These Companies still exist and range through everything from Stonemasons to Water Conservators; each has its own tradition of medieval pageantry and ritual, and you kind of have to be there to believe it's true.

The evening was held in Stationers' Hall - an exquisite building tucked away behind St Paul's Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1680s after the Great Fire. It was an astonishing affair - like something straight out of Die Meistersinger, complete with ceremonial robes, a fanfare to play us all in, a sung Grace, extremely good food and a Ceremony of the Loving Cup. During the course of the evening we enjoyed a fine performance by two extremely gifted young musicians - soprano Laura Mitchell and guitarist Milos Karadaglic - and the Master, Leslie East, presented the Company's Gold Medal to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Among the other guests we were delighted to encounter such distinguished beings as conductor Stephen Barlow and his absolutely fabulous wife Joanna Lumley, violinist Madeleine Mitchell, conductor Ronald Corp and a number of the musical philanthropists who help to make the musical world go round - part of the Company's raison d'etre is to help fund scholarships for young musicians.

In his own excellent speech, Leslie speculated on the way that, in 300 years' time, researchers looking into the history of the Company might discover a report on a blog by a novelist and music journalist describing the evening in terms not so far removed from that which graced reports of its dinners three centuries ago. And perhaps not much has changed.

So - if you're reading this in 2308, a very warm greeting from us all here in the 21st Century! And a huge thank-you to the Company for a truly splendid evening.

Here's my speech.

Master, wardens, aldermen, liverymen and fellow guests!

It’s a great honour to be here tonight and to speak at such a sumptuous dinner.

It’s a special delight, too, to see Sir Richard Rodney Bennett here as the Company’s special guest. Like all of us, I’ve been enjoying his music for many years in all its shapes and forms – he must be one of the most polymorphous composers working today. And his presence is a wonderful excuse to take a very brief look at what it means to be a composer at all, but especially now, in the first years of the 21st century, an era of extraordinary change.

It goes without saying that if it wasn’t for composers, none of us would be here tonight, because western classical music wouldn’t exist. Music may be a God-given gift, but it’s also a man-made art: every tune you whistle, every mobile phone jingle you hear, every song you sing with your kids in the car, has at some point been thought up and written down by a composer. It’s so easy to take music for granted these days that it’s equally easy to forget what an extraordinary phenomenon the ability to compose good music really is.

It’s peculiar enough to create a substantial piece of work in any medium. Writing novels can feel like an insane undertaking at times, especially when you find you have to research 80 years of Hungarian history, but at least words and language are everyone’s staple diet of communication. Writing music is a more extreme sport, because music begins where words end. To create music means working with a raw material that is much more elusive yet also much more direct in the way it reaches the audiences’ emotions. That’s why composers often leave me feeling quite simply awestruck.

For about two minutes, when I was about 17, I thought I wanted to compose. Actually I was put in a corner at metaphorical gunpoint and ordered to write a setting of a psalm for a big school event. But when I got to university, it started to look like a less appealing option. This was the mid Eighties. First, I was a girl, and the rather monastic atmosphere around the composer cliques left one in no doubt that one was not precisely welcome. But even if you got past that, the resistance to the idea of melody or harmony was another matter. A composer friend knocked on my door one day badly in need of tea – his teacher had just told him he ‘thought too much about the way his music sounded’. I know there’ll be resistance and dispute over this, but I am speaking according to my own experience and observations: a quarter of a century ago there was a distinct feeling that there were party lines to toe. We were all in thrall to a perceived sort of historico-political imperative to write serialism, modernism et al, and if you didn’t, you were A Bad Person. The fact that not many people wanted to listen to the results didn’t seem to be a problem, because Beethoven was misunderstood in his day and alienated his audiences, therefore if nobody likes your stuff, you are obviously the next Beethoven... Fuzzy logic, perhaps, but certainly the secret was to épater les bourgeois. Shock those dreadful middle classes out of their appalling complacency!

Anyway, the bottom line was that I had no talent. So I gave up and sat back to see whether this new batch of would-be Beethovens would be Beethoven. Most of them weren’t. My friend who needed tea ended up appropriately enough in China... learning to play folk instruments. I’d loved his music and it still breaks my heart that he – and innumerable others – were so alienated by their supposedly educational experiences that they fled the country, or composition, and sometimes music itself. It wasn't serialism or modernism that was to blame, of course - some of the greatest composers of the 20th century used these - but rather the stranglehold they were permitted to exert over all possible alternatives. Living composers desperately need support, and prime among that support must be open ears and open minds on the part of the people who make the decisions.

Meanwhile, everyone seemed to have forgotten that while 'epateeing' les bourgeois may be fun, les bourgeois are on the whole the ones who buy the tickets. And sooner or later, they vote with their feet – and their wallets. Musicians, contrary to popular opinion, are human beings and have to eat.

In the last fifteen or twenty years, there’s been a radical shift in the new music world. First, if you’re a girl, it’s not such a problem any more. The roster of women composers is growing fast – while the Judiths Weir and Bingham have blazed an inspiring trail in this country, younger composers like Roxanna Panufnik, Errollyn Wallen and Tansy Davis aren’t far behind. Meanwhile the range of styles available to composers has never been greater. Back in the seventies and eighties, composers with the versatility to range from jazz to classical to film to pop used to keep their activities strictly separated. That’s no longer the case.

One of my special passions is the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who started off as a child prodigy in Vienna a hundred years ago and ended up becoming the founding father of the Hollywood film score. He once said: “Music is music, whether it is for the stage, screen or rostrum. Form may change, the manner of writing may vary, but the composer needs to make no concessions whatever to what he conceives to be his own musical ideology.” He was speaking in 1946, but even if he was right, the attitudes of the time didn’t perceive it that way. He was dismissed as ‘a Hollywood composer’ – back then a deeply damning term – because his serious music sounded like film music; although the truth was actually that film music sounded like Korngold, who invented it in his own personal style.

It took decades to break down that barrier, but Korngold’s best opera, Die tote Stadt is now firmly back in the international repertoire and will have its UK stage premiere at Covent Garden in January – an indication that those proscriptive attitudes have relaxed. So, how did this change happen? First, the Minimalists in America essentially went back to the drawing board and created a new, basic and accessible language which caught something of the eighties and nineties zeitgeist and achieved a huge impact with audiences; secondly, the fall of the Iron Curtain meant that composers from the eastern bloc could come to the west and we could explore the richness and spirituality of their works; thirdly, cheap air travel has – while it lasts – meant extraordinary ease in exchanging ideas with a wealth of musical traditions around the world. And information is so easily available on the internet, in print and in person that the range of potential influences open to a composer is infinite.

We’re poised, I reckon, on a kind of communicative cusp – our means of disseminating information and art is changing faster than we are, and part of the challenge for any creative artist is simply keeping up and making the new mediums work with you rather than against you. Youtube is just the beginning and ten years from now it will look antiquated. Probably two years from now it will look antiquated. Finding a personal voice in the face of an world that’s so fragmented and varied may never have been harder – but as ever there’s nothing that stimulates creativity so much as a challenge. Maintaining artistic individuality in the face of globalisation isn’t easy. But as ever, the ones who will succeed are the ones who can meet the challenges of their times head on in the strongest way and with the greatest integrity.

All this is really just a long way of saying that music remains the greatest gift and the greatest miracle of human creativity. Therefore musicians are a worshipful company indeed. It’s a joy to celebrate with you tonight the art that we all love so much.

So, on behalf of your guests I am very grateful for your hospitality this evening and I would ask my fellow guests to join me in a toast to the Company!