Long read ahead. Get a cuppa.
The other day I went to Pembrokeshire to do a Ghost Variations concert with Viv and Dave, and came back to discover that an intriguing Twitter discussion had been taking place about what's now known as 'the canon': aka standard concert repertoire. I'd missed the chat, so have been mulling over some of the points involving the music we hear in our concert halls, the notion of greatness, the value judgments on what is worth hearing and what is not, the judgments people pass on one another over having the "wrong" personal taste in music, and how we can change these matters effectively to make the concert world more inclusive.
One of the nicer things about reaching middle age is that one can develop a healthy perspective on change. It may look as if "we" worship great composers as deities (I'm not convinced we do, actually), that great music that is performed a lot is an immovable mountain range. As if nothing can invade those mountains if it is not perceived to be as good as the 'Hammerklavier' et al, and as if it's got that way because people in charge are determined to keep out anyone who is not a dead white male. But it ain't necessarily so. It's not immovable. It's not impossible to change things. It's quite doable, actually - we just have to wake up and do it.
If I look back on the musical world of my teens and student days, the "canon" has changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - and it is all to do with changing attitudes, outlooks that morph into different states according to the world around us. Here are a few things that were definitely going on in the early 1980s when I was a teenage piano student and heading for Cambridge.
At the piano we faced paradoxes. Anything that was not "pure" was out. Transcriptions? Heaven help us! The only person I remember getting away with a Liszt transcription at the Royal Festival Hall was Daniel Barenboim, who played the 'Liebestod' as an encore sometime in the late 1970s. I tried to be suitably aghast that a great artist had devoted time to practising such a horror, until my piano teacher, who knew him, gently told me that probably he hadn't: being Barenboim, he could just look at it and know it. The point here was that I was about 13 and what the heck did I know? Nothing. I was just parroting attitudes I'd been absorbing by osmosis from people around me and, probably, Radio 3, which was on in the house from morning til night. Yet remove transcriptions, remove Liszt except the B minor Sonata which was a Serious Work In Sonata Form, and you lose a great biteful of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, learning Bach was vital. Bach holds the core of the technique a pianist needs - physical and mental - to play anything. But back then you weren't allowed to perform it. If you did, you were playing it on the Wrong Instrument. The "authenticists" would string you up by your guts if you weren't careful.
As for contemporary music - a few doughty souls played some, but thereby hung a whole sackful of problems. You could tackle Boulez, but it might take you ten years to learn the Second Sonata, or there was Stockhausen and Cage, but they were a little bit scary too, and chances were that your teachers wouldn't know what to do with them, let alone put stones and stuff inside the piano to "prepare" it, so they probably wouldn't set them; or you could play the Messiaen Vingt Regards or the bird pieces, but they just weren't enormously trendy. I learned one of the Vingt Regards, as it happens, for my BMus recital - we had to prepare a full-length programme and the examiners would ask for half of it about a week before. From my list they chose Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. Leaving behind Bach (of course), Schumann, Fauré and the most challenging thing I'd ever learned in my life, the Messiaen 'Premier communion de la Vierge'. Ligeti hadn't yet written his Etudes, not Philip Glass his, and I had a friend who wanted to do her thesis on Steve Reich and had to fight the faculty for the right to do so. It's so long ago that I can't remember whether or not she won.
Those were the days in which the arrogant public-schoolboy first-years would stride around the faculty declaring "Prokofiev's rubbish" before photocopying their nether equipment (this was before mobile phones), and if you dared to think Rachmaninoff was any good you'd be laughed out of town (another problem back in the piano studio in London). You'd also be laughed out of town if you preferred Pablo Casals to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or if you were a woman and you wanted to compose music. Oh yes indeed.
And historical inevitability determined that if you did want to compose music, you could only write serialism - or, once again, you'd be laughed out of town. Historical inevitability had a lot to answer for.
What everyone forgot about historical inevitability was that time moves forward. It only ever moves forward. It does not and cannot move backwards, however much certain groups would like it to, and neither does it stand still. The historical inevitability of historical inevitability is that historical inevitability as a concept was bound to become obsolete.
Things change. But they only change when we change them.
One thing that changed because people changed it was the nature of orchestral programming - and not always for the better. A large swathe of music that used to appear regularly in concert programmes has vanished. When did you last hear Mozart's Symphony No.29 in an orchestral concert? Haydn's No.102? Schumann's Second, Beethoven's First, Schubert's Third, a Bach Suite? There is a vast wealth of repertoire that is assumed to be in the "canon" - being by dead white men - that is of sterling quality but is hardly ever played because thinking has changed. Somehow the notion has got a grip on us that this music has to be played by only period-instrument specialists. It's one way to hear them, sure. But how did it ever become the only way?
It's become a problem, because it's pushed that repertoire into a ghetto, where it's in danger of gradually disappearing from view altogether. Now it needs to be brought out and given a good scrub-down for the 21st century. It may take Simon Rattle himself to change this and bring these fabulous pieces back into the concert hall where they belong. I once asked for a piano score of The Magic Flute for my birthday so that I could play it myself - I'd given up hope of ever hearing a performance of it again that was listenable. But I recently watched on the Digital Concert Hall Rattle's concert of the last three Mozart symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic and it was heaven. Now hope springs eternal.
There's nothing wrong with playing Mozart, Haydn, Schubert etc on original instruments, of course. It's an admirable thing to do, fascinating and educational at best. But it should never have happened at the expense of playing them on anything else. Why not? Because the audience misses out. Because the larger audiences plod dutifully to yet more Mahler, yet more Shostakovich, another anniversary of X, Y or Z, and they no longer know Schubert 3. Authenticity, as I recently commented in my 'Hammerklavier' piece, is in the soul. No amount of original instruments will help you if that isn't the case. And if it is, then the instrument doesn't really matter.
Today playing Bach's Goldberg Variations is a badge of honour for any pianist. Rachmaninoff is adored the world over, as he always was, but he is also appreciated as a composer of splendid technique. Liszt transcriptions pop up regularly. And nobody I run into these days could possibly consider Prokofiev rubbish, because it patently isn't. How had people ended up thinking that way? They'd been taught to. They're trying to please parents, teachers, peer groups, etc, often by trotting out opinion that they don't even realise is "received".
Change happens because people make it happen. Musicians make it happen, by having the courage of their convictions. In the case of the period-instrument movement, and the Women Can't Compose people, this did, I'm afraid, involve in the 1980s a certain amount of bullying, which is what I consider was done to me and my friends in the Cambridge music faculty in one way or another. But out in the wider world, it wasn't necessarily so. A small handful of pianists went right on playing Bach on the piano and simply ignored the critics and the handwringing. They have won. The beneficiaries are the audience and the next generation. If you've missed Beatrice Rana playing the Goldberg Variations, don't miss it any longer - you're denying yourself a whopper of a treat.
More changes. When I did my dissertation in 1987 almost nobody had heard of Korngold except my supervisor, Dr Puffett, who had a brain the size of both the Americas, and the person who introduced me to Korngold's music, Eric Wen, who did too. Today Die tote Stadt is becoming standard opera repertoire almost everywhere except Britain. And the Violin Concerto is much played because violinists hear it, love it and want to play it.
Likewise, nobody had heard of Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Gál, Miklos Rozsa, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and many more. A whole generation of composers that was murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis. Devoted musicians and researchers have thrown their energy and resources into resuscitating this music and those voices are now starting to be heard in earnest. Recognising that some who turned to film music did so not out of choice but necessity, to save their own and their families' lives, has been an important part of this, because having escaped racial persecution, those exiles soon found their work buried alive because they were writing The Wrong Things. Film music? Gasp! Insupportable!! Oh please. Otherwise they'd be dead. Did anybody bother to notice?
The current wave of composers-buried-alive to emerge are women. Not only those writing today, but those appearing out of history. Francesca Caccini. Fanny Mendelssohn. Pauline Viardot. Lili Boulanger. Rebecca Clarke. Louise Farrenc - and these are the better-known names. Indeed, just the other day, I heard someone talking about Farrenc with the remark "Of course, she's known...", which was a startling but fantastic piece of news to me. But how many of us have heard the music of Grace Williams? How much do you know by Elizabeth Maconchy? Get out and hear some - it is simply wonderful. Just think about it: why should we have to go to Mahler 2 yet again, listening through the angst for new nuances, when we could be discovering all of this? People are making change happen - people like the Southbank Centre, like Radio 3, like Bangor University (the conference in September was terrific and full of all-but-unknown musical marvels). And the music will win through because it is good. And it will stay with us, with people wondering "Where has this been all my life?"
What about the issue of racial diversity? There is nothing, but nothing, to stop great violinists from learning the concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the African-British composer who worked himself into an early grave in Croydon in 1912. It's an absolute beauty. Philippe Graffin recorded it ten years ago, in Johannesburg. Tasmin Little has recorded it. Others have too. It needn't be a rarity. If you don't think it's as good as the Bruch, fine, but so what? That doesn't mean we wouldn't enjoy it. And you might get a surprise. You might find that actually it is as good as the Bruch. You just didn't expect it to be.
Meanwhile, heard anything by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Tremendous stuff. Influenced Mozart. Today Errollyn Wallen is one of the finest composers in Britain and her music should be totally mainstream. These are just the three most obvious names - imagine the amount of music out there waiting to be played, heard and enjoyed. And this, too, is starting to change - but only because people woke up and did something about it. Chi-chi Nwanoku has created the Chineke! orchestra and Chineke for Change foundation. The Kanneh-Mason family has captured the hearts of British music-lovers - don't miss cellist Sheku's debut album, which is coming out this month.
And perhaps the thing to question is not the "greatness" of the music of "dead white men" - nobody is going to take Beethoven away from me, thanks very much - but to remember to look at things in context, with healthy perspective, with curiosity and an open mind, without blinkers. And not to remove that music, but to add to it. Not to say "No, but..." but "Yes, and...". Not to regard long-established "greatness" as a prerequisite for exploring music - I mean, Beethoven's early piano sonatas are great music, but they're almost never played in concert because people assume the late ones are greater (when did you last hear Op.31 No.3? It's amazing!).
The whole issue of expectation, of music competitions, of ambitious teachers, of commercial power, all these things have a big role to play in what becomes standard repertoire, what promoters think they can sell. That needs a piece to itself. Everything is connected, though - every level of what makes the musical world turn has a profound effect on every other level...
So the "canon" is not an immovable feast. But it does take some effort to shift it. Things can and do change, when there's the will for it. What happens now will be change for our own time. In 20 years things may look very different, and they'll be changing again, assuming humanity still exists.
Thanks very much and have a nice weekend.
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