Sunday, May 24, 2009

A sporran too far

On a morning like this - sun blazing, birds singing, cat purring - little old England looks gorgeous, even here under the Heathrow flight path. You start to understand what might have attracted three out of the four anniversary composers of 2009 to spend time here, ranging from a little (Haydn) to a lot ("Haendel"). And dear Felix too, wandering around Burnham Beeches with Miss Lind of a weekend.

But is that a good enough reason to have to watch Charlie, the BBC's classical music pet presenter, singing 'Auld Lang Syne' in a kilt, complete with close-up of sporran? If I hadn't just spent the whole of yesterday writing about Haydn, I might have given up. I did learn something new, though: apparently Haydn arranged around 400 Scottish folk songs to a commission from a publisher. Nice ££s. Waste of artistic time, though - just think, we could have had at least 3 more symphonies.

You can watch BBC2's series The Birth of British Music on the BBC iPlayer, here. At least, you can if you're in Britain. Of course I'm thrilled that four big-time composers have been featured on a mainstream BBC TV channel at prime-time, and, sporran or none, the programmes are beautifully made, filmed in the perfect locations and with the music generally well played. There's so little non-dumbed-down classical music on TV that the series is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Or I hope it is.

But...and I'm sticking my neck out here because I do have a BBC Big Four anniversary blog devoted to Mendelssohn, whom I roundly adore. But doesn't it seem the most extraordinary act of cultural arrogance to swoop in on four terrific composers who all have anniversaries this year and decree that what's special about them was that they were the founding fathers of British music? Purcell was the only Brit, and seems to have been a flash in the pan. Indeed, most of the best British music was written much earlier, by the Elizabethans. For Handel, it's a fair point - he did settle here, wrote more good and lasting stuff than any other Brit-based composer of his time, and got everybody singing. Haydn and Mendelssohn were feted to a fabulous degree, and of course deserved every second of that acclaim.

But as far as this country was concerned, these supercomposers had to be adopted as honorary Brits for one very simple reason: there were no decent British composers around. We had to grab the visitors instead.

Beyond encouraging the oratorio tradition (where did that go? Hiawatha? Gerontius? A Child of Our Time? and then... er...) what influence did Britain absorb from these distinguished visitors? What encouragement resulted from their visits for music here? What high-level schooling for musicians was initiated? What regard was granted to gifted composers? What support was made available to get them writing (OK, there's a Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, set up by Lind. That's another story, as you know. Anything else?) And where, oh where, were the crowds of eager, idealistic young composers clustering at the great men's feet desperate to absorb their lessons and form their own new musical worlds?

Let's face it: it was a very long time before any Brits began to write world-class music. They all had to fight against their Britishness in one way or another as their backgrounds were more of a hindrance than a help (with the possible exception of RVW who was fortuitously related to Darwin). Elgar was an aberration; so too, to some extent, was Britten. Delius fled to France. Walton was desperate not to have to go back to Oldham and wound up on Ischia. I don't hear much influence from any of the Big Anniversary Four in RVW, Walton, Britten or Coleridge-Taylor (this latter drew more on Dvorak, who did come here but doesn't happen to have an anniversary in 2009).

The 2009 Big Four's lasting influence in Britain is limited to the encouragement of choral singing, which of course is great and wonderful and to be much applauded. To suggest that they were responsible for 'the birth of British music', though, is contrived, insular and really rather daft. It doesn't give us the measure either of their real achievements or of what music in Britain was about then, before or since, and as nobody has mentioned the names William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons or Thomas Tallis (unless they did so after I switched off the programme about Purcell) - well, what can you do.

Four great composers on British soil...and the possibilities of real follow-up and true influence could have been so much greater. The opportunities were squandered, ignored or simply not spotted while the Brits got on with their usual hunting, shooting, fishing, drinking, not putting their daughters on the stage and making sure that nobody got ideas above their station. Other composers faced with British smog, soot, cold, rain, food and philistinism got out as fast as they could, especially poor old Chopin. But...ah, it's Chopin's anniversary next year. More then.

One more point before we open the floodgates: personally, I was born within the sound of Bow Bells, I love Britain and I think London is the greatest city on earth (OK, maybe second to Paris). And I am very fond of British music. That's why I feel so sad that there isn't more of it, why I wish that we had been a more musically productive country through the ages - which would have meant cultivating a more open-minded and less insular mentality - and why I tend to be sceptical about attempts to make more of British music than can rightly be made.

Next week: Mendelssohn hits prime-time Saturday night TV. Fasten your seatbelts.