Tuesday, April 05, 2011


All this week here on JDCMB, some of the stars of British musical life share their firm conviction that musical education should be available to all children, regardless of wealth. They offer their personal memories and gratitude for the opportunities that were open to them, without which they might not be where they are today. And, just as the Big Noise of Sistema Scotland releases some truly astonishing statistics about the impact and beneficial effects of its programme at Raploch - eg, 100 per cent of parents reported their children's confidence increased by music-making - they remind us that music does more for the soul than can ever meet the eye...

Today we hear from James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss. Over to you, guys...

"Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Mozart, et al, are and always will be the musical equivalent of Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer. To make cuts in our education system that will make music-making and even music-listening the preserve of the wealthy is an appalling indictment of our society. As a child I found it was these great composers that offered a rare glimpse of something bigger and brighter than the rest of my educational world. Being able to torture my teacher with my dire piano playing, listening to Peter and the Wolf, watching a talented ex-pupil play Chopin on stage - all of these things were vital and extraordinary experiences that in some way moulded and shaped my desire to immerse myself in music and, perhaps more importantly, gave me the feeling that there was something infinitely more exciting than my rather one-dimensional and painful schooldays. 

"To cut or remove classical music from the curriculum would be tantamount to substituting Shakespeare with Grisham - a cheapening and eroding of our cultural heritage that will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Accessibility is a vital part of education. In the land that gave us Britten, Elgar, the Proms and Cheryl Cole, surely music education is a right and not a privilege. The success of El Sistema in Venezuela and the global inspiration it has produced should provide a clear message - the life-changing power of music is something to be treasured and supported. Music will always survive; far better it does so because of our government rather than despite it. "

"I was nine years old when, walking along my street in Tottenham, North London, holding my uncle’s hand, I confided that I heard music all the time in my head which I didn’t know what to do with. It was my Uncle Arthur who suggested that I might be a composer.

"It has been a long and winding road towards acquiring all the education and skills I needed but without the good start I had – a wonderful music teacher, Miss Beale, at our state primary school in Tottenham who taught everyone in the class to read and write music at the age of nine and who encouraged me to write my first ensemble composition for the class – Frogs and Toads – it would have been an even harder journey.

"I’ve just finished a day’s work on what is my eleventh opera. I still hear music all the time in my head and am full of plans for the future. I am never without a commission.  My music has been, on a NASA mission, to outer space.

"Every single day I give thanks for the musical education which made my career as a professional composer possible.  I believe that everyone who wants to, regardless of their background, should have access to the tools of this most remarkable trade."

"The days of considering music to be a mere hobby for the rich, a luxury, something of no intrinsic value, are surely over? Or are they...? Children of all ages are fascinated and stimulated by sound. They are 'wowed over' when they watch a virtuoso, thrilled when they experience a symphony orchestra. Given the chance, they're eager to pick up an instrument and ‘have a go’ - to engage, to 'create'.

"Budgetary cuts affect music education disproportionately.  Students are still being taught the full school curriculum but instrumental teaching is being slashed. It is obviously the funding structure which should be amended, so that when cuts have to be made, the basic building blocks of music education are not annihilated overnight.

"The Longfellow quotation, 'Music is the universal language of mankind', may sound like a cliche, but, can we, as a society, deprive children the chance of experiencing this 'language'? The benefits of music education are numerous. It has a multitude of applications physical, artistic, cognitive, creative, social, therapeutic, intellectual...  No matter who we are, it is a major force in our lives. 

"It would be a sad indictment of our society if we not only ignore the benefits of music education, but if we deny a generation the chance of experiencing even a few of the wonders music has to offer. Music itself is a great survivor, but the route of passing it on to others has rarely been more fragile."

Monday, April 04, 2011


Music education in the UK is facing a shaky future due to financial cutbacks. Despite an apparently positive response from central government to Darren Henley's recommendations in his official report, local authorities have already begun to slash their music services and budgets for music teaching. Some are putting fees for instrumental tuition up to levels way beyond the recommended MU rates, pricing the non-privileged out of the market. This discrepancy between apparent central intent and what's really happening "on the ground" needs to be recognised and spotlighted. And it needs noticing now. 

I, for one, don't want to see music-making in the UK barred to those who can't afford to pay for lessons. Yet while authors jumped forward with alacrity and tough words about the iniquities of closing libraries, and were instant fodder for headlines, even the most prominent musicians seem to lack suitable outlets to speak out. An entire musical country has therefore been feeling voiceless and hopeless. 

Enter JDCMB. I've asked some of the prominent British musicians I know to please consider voicing their concerns via my site and I'll be running their responses throughout the week ahead. Today we begin with no less a team than Tasmin Little, Barry Douglas and Julian Lloyd Webber. 

"My point is short and far from sweet.  If we do not keep music education high on our agenda, it is not just the current generation of children who will be deprived of profound experiences which can affect their whole lives, but future generations, who will wonder why they cannot understand emotions which lie deep within themselves.  

I have had so many experiences of the power of music on children of all ages, nationality and social background - from kids with communication disabilities in UK, to groups of Chinese children who have never heard a note of any live music, to young Zimbabwean children whose animated faces at their discovery of music will never leave my memory.  However, a teacher in Yorkshire emailed me recently and her words sum it all up for me:

“I also teach minority ethnic children English, and thought you would like to hear this story:  one of these children had selective mutism, and it was only when I took my guitar in to her English lesson and gave it to her to hold that she said her first sentence to me, which was 'I'd like to learn the violin'!  From that point she has begun speaking, and after I arranged violin lessons for her, it turns out that she has musical talent and is doing well.  This is the power of music!”

"We like to define society by the expressiveness and achievement of its people. OK - fine.  But in this era of cutting mercilessly, it's not 'just about the economy, stupid!' The wealthy class always hold all the cards and the rest try 'their best'; and here is an amazing example of, potentially, a whole generation of young people being barred from the fulfilment and delight of music and the arts. When all other European countries except Ireland are freezing or increasing funding, the one-time hub of the music world is cutting and imploding.  How short-sighted and how cruel. Even when I was growing up during the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the concerts, festivals and music education available helped sustain us. Think again, please, for the sake of your children and grand-children." 

"It is extremely frustrating when the Coalition has given its support to the importance of music in schools – having recognised the huge social benefits music brings both to children and their communities - to then discover slash-happy local authorities lagging far behind in their thinking. It is so easy to make a knee-jerk ‘cut’ to provisions for music and so hard to reinstate it later.

"Music is a universal language which brings people together and which provenly enhances children’s skills in so many other ways. There is no better way to build a ‘Big Society’ than through music – one thing EVERYONE can share together."

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Let's hear it for Karlowicz and co...

I was pleased to turn to my music column in this month's Standpoint and find it has been illustrated with a picture of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. He was a deeply romantic and humungously gifted Pole who was killed at the age of 32 in an accident in the Tatra Mountains. You might have heard of him from two fabulous recordings of his exquisite, romantic, memorable, singable, adorable Violin Concerto, made respectively by today's two leading British violinists, Nigel Kennedy and Tasmin Little. But in a concert hall?...

This piece ought to be standard repertoire and yet live performances still experience the constant domination of Brahms, Beethoven and Bruch. Great music, but after however many decades it is, I do know by ear every single note of them. It can start to feel like reading a very, very good novel for the 1000th time. Yes, for while you're happy noticing new nuances and trying out new interpretations for size, but after this many goes, something not so much in the brain as in the soul can sometimes start to atrophy. Here is the article, complete with the suggestion that A Very Good Orchestra could do worse than hand over two or three concerts to Hyperion Records to programme...

Meanwhile I've just this morning received a communication from the English Music Festival - not a magazine, but a gazette, if you please. Norman had a go at these guys a few weeks back for being too, well, English. Assuming most music lovers are more interested in what a composer wrote than in what they personally happen to believe he stood for, that's a pity. We need to hear more of all the immigrant composers Norman mentioned. We also need to hear more York Bowen, whose music is fabulous. We need to hear more of a heck of a lot of stuff beyond the same-old same old. The EMF is one of scandalously few who dare to programme some.

As for Holst, Tony Palmer has just made a film about him that is being televised at the Easter weekend. I'm assured it will reveal the composer of The Planets to be anything but a tub-thumping patriot... I'm not exactly a tub-thumping patriot myself, but I don't see why the likes of Bowen shouldn't have a chance to be heard - and truly he's not getting that chance in many other outlets. Danny Driver - another excellent pianist from, you guessed it, Hyperion Records' stable - is playing some of his piano music in this year's EMF.

Here is Nigel playing and talking about that Polish Spirit album, with extracts of Mlynarski and Karlowicz and some thoughts on their neglect. But if the efforts of Nigel and Tasmin between them are not enough to resurrect Karlowicz's concerto to the mainstream, then what on earth will be? Korngold's has made it, so it can be done... We "just" need promoters to take some risks now and then.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Look what I found today - not a joke

A Friday historical with a twist: here is something I have never heard before, namely Vladimir Horowitz playing Faure. This recording comes from a recital that the great Russian pianist gave in Ann Arbor in 1977. It is Faure's last and darkest Nocturne, No.13, written in 1921 and completed not long after the death of Saint-Saens. Horowitz gives short shrift to the misleading legend that late Faure must sound obscure, restrained and difficult: he draws out all the emotional devastation in the death-haunted heart of this music and its concentration and power come bowling out with immense impact. I find it breathtaking. You?

(Update, 5 April - there's been some to-ing and fro-ing over whether or not this recording was in fact commercially released, but I'm now assured by the owner of this Youtube channel that it wasn't. Please see the comments boxes!)

Breaking news: Monteverdi invented the "leitmotif"

An extraordinary new light was cast upon the late works of Claudio Monteverdi (left) last night, when the Amsterdam University scholar Dr Pieter van der Oeugewalt revealed at last the startling result of secret research work he has been undertaking for the past five years.

The academic has issued a statement as follows:

"Monteverdi has long been regarded as the founding father of modern music. I believe that my discovery will prove that he was precisely such, yet in a more pervasive manner than we had hitherto imagined.

"Studying his opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea of 1642-3, I became fascinated by the presence of a recurring figure, a simple pattern consisting of a falling fourth followed by a one-tone dip below and return to this note. A close examination of the libretto reveals that this theme - as simple, skeletal and strong as any motif by Wagner - is associated on every recurrence with Poppea's greed and unstoppable ambition. Having checked and double-checked this association, I find it to be consistent and unfailingly so. Monteverdi's music sounds as modern today as it must have on the day it was written: this composer would spare no experiment in his determination to reveal through music all the secret depths of the human heart. There is no conceivable reason why he should not have thought of developing a means to associate a musical motif with one of the philosophical themes that drives the opera's action. It appears that we could now say, with 99 per cent certainty, that Monteverdi was also the father of what we term the leitmotif.

"I have spent years researching in the great libraries of the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua and in the Basilica San Marco of Venice. In November 2010, a letter came to light in the most extraordinary manner. Restoration work in the library at Venice, aimed at protecting this valuable collection from the likely rise of sea level in the years ahead, revealed a secret cubby-hole high in the wall in which several priceless documents had been stored to protect them from floodwater, possibly as long ago as the 18th century. Among these documents was one in a familiar hand and bearing unmistakeable content: a letter written by Monteverdi himself that has remained unread ever since its sequestering therein. Regrettably the date and addressee are not present, and where they should have been the paper bears what appears to be the marks of teeth belonging to a small rodent. But having authenticated the watermark and signature, and dated the document as 1643, I am pleased to offer my translation of its contents.

Monteverdi writes:
"My opera is done, and my life's work. I do feel my passion spent, my intellect drained of energy, yet sated also with the satisfaction of bringing to the sensibilities of my fellow man the vision that lay within me, calling for release: the message that love must triumph and even over death itself. To such an end I have implanted in this opera a new idea that doth unite the message with the music in a manner ne'er before attempted. Th'association hence between the notion of the theme and the theme itself shall not be divided. It is not an invention to boast thereof, yet I do believe it shall melt into the world of musical composition as if imperceptible and if applied with the power of which I do feel it capable, one day it may come to dominate the conception of many great men of the theatre. Others may have interfered with Poppea, adding or subtracting or otherwise mathematically manipulating its content to their own ends for the expedience of flamboyant performance. Nevertheless at heart the opera remaineth mine own, and above all this introduction of a quality that is novelty yet not mere novelty, seeming simplicity yet nothing simple. I commend my opera to thee and sign my name: 
Claudio Monteverdi."