Musical Times

Remastering the past

Remastering the past

Witts, Richard

‘Renewal’ in recent British music

RICHARD WITTS is worried by a backward tendency among some senior British composers

LAST YEAR the Halle Concerts Society of Manchester gave the world – nay, the cosmos – a new ending to Gustav Holst’s eighty-year-old symphonic suite The planets. It commissioned Colin Matthews, composer and Executive Administrator of the Holst Foundation, to add an eighth movement. Entitled Pluto: the renewer,1 Matthews’s six-minute finale took its creative impulse from the fact that the farthest planet in our solar system was discovered only in 1930. This took place thirteen years after Holst had completed his ambitious `suite for large orchestra’. Holst might have added a movement for Pluto himself had he not died in 1934, it was implied.

Although Matthews was happy to undertake the commission, he was careful to distance himself, Pluto-like, from this theory of realisation. He knew that Holst, in the four years before his death, had never professed a desire to complete the set. In any case, there are more compelling – musical– reasons why the suite, as Holst conceived it, stands alone.

For example, the opening and closing movements (`Mars the bringer of war’ and `Neptune the mystic’) mirror each other by distinctive means: the opening bass pedal on G of ‘Mars’ is echoed by the high G pedal of Neptune’s concluding chorus entry, and both sections are united by the metre of five beats to a bar. ‘Neptune’ itself presents the most advanced and abstruse harmonies in the suite, mutated from those of ‘Mars’, and the wordless female chorus retreat with them into aural infinity The suite is therefore rounded-off.

Yet the most obvious reason why it makes no sense to add Pluto is that the work is not at all driven by astronomy, but by astrology The order of the movements -‘Mars’, ‘Venus’, ‘Mercury’, Jupiter’, ‘Saturn’, ‘Uranus’, ‘Neptune’ – does not follow their solar sequence (which would put ‘Mercury’ first), but instead emulates the succession of the relative psychic powers which they ‘bring’ to us earthlings. At the centre of musical operations stands Holst’s human protagonist, upon whom the planet signs cast their supernatural biases.

This Romantic character is hardly a hero in the manner of Mahler’s Titan or Wagner’s Parsifal (although the chorus of females – at the first performance, schoolgirls – are surely stepsisters of Klingsor’s seductive flower maidens). Holst’s figurant represents humanity exposed to the occult powers of the unfixed stars as they orbit through the twelve astrological houses of the zodiac. This places the work’s conceptual premise at the cross-roads between the late-Romantic (Strauss’s wilful Zarathustra, who rose again in the Alpine symphony of 1915) and the neo-classic (Stravinsky’s doomed Oedipus), which is where the composition, composed in 1914-16, happens to sit chronologically.2

Holst, by the way, is not the human in question, for he tells us through the cipher of four notes which opens the penultimate section that he is Uranus the musical Magician. He spells himself in the German system as befits his name (the ‘von’ of which he understandably dropped in World War 1).3 Moreover, Holst’s signature is played on the instrument by which he earned his living, the trombone. Idiosyncratic elements like these permeate this singular work, as we shall see.

While each movement comes over as self– contained in the style of a conventional concert suite, Holst allows the presence of the two closest planet signs, Mars and Venus, to mediate their complementary astrological powers through the others as the work proceeds. He achieves this by giving elemental motifs to `the bringers’ of war and peace: Mars is represented by a semitone in the bass register and Venus by a wholetone in the treble.

Even ‘Mars’ contains within itself a ‘shadow’ of Venus: the wholetone in the violins which heralds change and which is spelt in the disfigured manner of a diminished third (bars 28-34). ‘Venus’ is itself conditioned by its adversary near its close when the wholetones ascend to strike ‘Mars’-inflected harmonies (bars 126-29). Cryptic notational play of this kind is something one might expect from a composer who called astrology his `pet vice’.4 Indeed, the five-in-a-bar of ‘Mars’ can be accounted for by the fact that five is the figure astrologically linked to that planet; in the finale of ‘Neptune’, the metre recurs as a trace of ‘Mars’. It also explains the varieties of fives firing ‘Jupiter’.

Thus in ‘Mercury’ (`the youth at puberty, swiftly flashing’, according to Aleister Crowley5), selected instrumental pairs are divided equally into the keys of B6 or A. This semitone gap represents an aspect of Mars, and through it the ‘Venus’– toned harmonies sprint along. The tune of the trio (guilelessly stolen from the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird, as Peter Warlock pointed out at the time6) is also linked to `the bringer of peace’. Most striking of all is ‘Saturn’, where from the very start the wholetones of ‘Venus’ toll in the woodwind while the semitones of ‘Mars’ climb and swell menacingly in the double basses. The first half of the movement is coloured sombrely by Mars (bars 1-104), the remainder lit radiantly by the planet of peace.

So, in sum, here is a work duly motivated by astrology in an assortment of major and minor ways. Yet we were asked by the Halle Concerts Society, in its observance of the Millennium, to regard the suite as a portrait of material entities, as though it were a space-age rival to Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The commissioning body even employed a composer who, although associated with the Holst estate, was willing to promote this corporeal notion, telling the public that, while he knew of Holst’s psychic ‘vice’, he himself was ‘a thorough-going sceptic as far as astrology is concerned’. Matthews added: ‘I suspect that Holst’s interest too was pretty peripheral’.7 Hoist, however, might also have considered that opinion the mark of an Aquarian.

ON looking back a century at the motivations of composers like Holst, we now tend to be embarrassed by their attachment to the metaphysical. There is, for example, Satie’s rosicrucianism, Scriabin’s theosophy (shared for a time by Holst), Ives’s transcendentalism, and Schoenberg’s cabbalism, which directly stimulated his twelve-tone innovations. It is the same unease felt, say, within literature, over Conan Doyle’s spiritualism or Yeats’s fidelity to the occult, in which we observe the intelligentsia seeking the means to distinguish themselves from others in their social position, especially by the adoption of ‘hidden’ knowledge. Yet our current discomfort may not be the only reason why astronomy supplants astrology in the Halle’s Pluto commission, because there are other examples of living British composers actively rewriting their fatherland’s musical past.

The most publicised instance has been Anthony Payne’s 1997 ‘elaboration’ of Elgar’s Third Symphony.8 This is a remarkable business. Payne’s terrific aptitude as a pasticher of Elgar’s self– taught writing overshadows the fact that this ‘symphony’ is of no musical significance whatsoever. It is lacquered rubble, thrown together from sketches over which Elgar was entirely right to tell his friend Willie Reed in 1933, `Don’t let anyone tinker with it’, and, finally, ‘I think you had better burn it’.9 Reed, with a stake in the manuscript’s survival, did no such thing.

After the composer’s death a year later, Reed sought to justify his disloyalty in a memoir by which he dramatically inserted a sequence of pause marks between Elgar’s instructions He put them there to insinuate that Elgar was overwearied and not right in the head when he forsook the sketches. These dubious marks were reproduced in Payne’s own essay on his composition in 1998, which is sensationally entitled Elgar’s Third Symphony as though the work actually exists.10

Even in 1932, when the BBC gave Elgar his commission fee for the Third, it was known within a circle of supporters that the playwright George Bernard Shaw had concocted the scheme in order to defray Elgar’s debilitating poverty. Whatever hopes for a new symphony there were, they were grounded in a nostalgia for an Edwardian milieu, last evoked in Elgar’s Second Symphony of 1911.11 That his Second was widely classed as a failure did nothing to restore Elgar’s confidence in the medium,12 but twenty years on, under impertinent duress from the Daily Mail, the Gramophone Company, his publisher, traditionalist music critics and a Reithian BBC, he mustered sketches from other unfinished works, such as an overture and an oratorio set aside since the Edwardian era. Why, then, would it be considered today a significant achievement to confect a delusive symphonic fudge out of them? Before we consider this, however, there is yet another concert premiere to mention.

On 6 May 2001, Peter Maxwell Davies conducted the Philharmonia orchestra in what he promised would be his last symphony This was his eighth, entitled the Antarctic symphony, and called so in direct reference to Vaughan Williams’s well-known work of the early fifties, the Sinfonia antartica. The British Antarctic Survey had commissioned Maxwell Davies back in 1997, with the intention of commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s score, which first appeared in 1948 as music to the film Scott of the Antarctic; it was five years on that Vaughan Willams constructed his seventh symphony out of the cinematic material. In any case, although Maxwell Davies’s ultimate homage meshed with neither the 1998 nor the 2003 symphonic anniversary, this is far less important than the coupling of the two British composers and their shared, colonial, subject.

It was a condition of the commission payment that Maxwell Davies should visit the Survey’s base near to the South Pole: `By sending a composer there we might get a new dimension of interest in our work at the Antarctic’, claimed the Survey’s director.13 The composer’s experiences were recorded for posterity on a website: . Vaughan Williams had not been expected to undertake this fact-finding mission half a century before, but then the commercial film he wrote for was less concerned with this physical landscape than with comradely sacrifice amongst Captain Scott’s ill-provided crew and the shift in human disposition from avarice to stoic resignation. It might further be argued that his subsequent symphony critically reflected the Cold War more than it did the cold earth.14

Nevertheless, Maxwell Davies was not asked to portray reckless adventurism but instead a well– managed geological probe.15 He became his own Scott and made known his concerns with the comment, `The ice makes so many different noises… You couldn’t hope to reproduce this, but you can give an impression’.16 Although his symphony is divided like Vaughan Williams’s into five sections, he produced not an evocation of the elder composer’s soundworld but instead the natural timbres Maxwell Davies heard for himself, from `the fierce cracking of ice… to the eddies of wind which become almost subliminal’.17 Apparently the symphony moved beyond the solely representational when came ‘a warning about global warming in the final chord’, according to BBC Radio’s presenter Christopher Cook after the premiere’s relay18 In addition, the work was unified by a thread of Christian plainchant Mum complerentus dies pentecostes’), though surely not all has yet been revealed about what such a device signifies for this non-conformist composer.

So, to sum up, here are three examples from the last five years of senior British music– makers – Matthews, Payne, Davies – forming ostentatious contact with their national `old master’ inheritance of Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Three secondary elements tie these projects together: the living composers are veterans of the British `contemporary classical’ scene,19 their pieces are made for symphonic concert use,20 and the peer composers with whom they claim association were themselves established when these projects were, or could have been, realised.

Theorists from disciplines outside of music might well stifle a yawn and tell us that this sort of thing has been going on for some time: it is a typical example of post-modern practice. They would point here to the acquisition of preexisting material, the extraction of the initial musical intentions and the substitution of fresh contexts, the `game-playing’ about conceptual ownership, the reformist ‘scientificity’, and the superficial audacity of the undertakings. Though there is this case to be made, what the trio has done in each instance is distinctive and sober and not at all like Michael Nyman pottering about with his bits of Purcell. Their music does not appear to be post- anything of that kind.

Colleagues in the fields of literature and film will likewise draw our attention to the vogue for sequels and prequels based on works written by others long after the involvement of the original author. Yet these things take characters and plot– lines in new directions. This is not the concern of our composers here: Matthews adjoins an original, Payne fabricates an original, while Maxwell Davies euhumerises one, by turning the mythical into the illustrative.

However, it surely correct that the three composers are dealing with a contemporary tendency – not of style, but of status. They represent a generation for whom professional prospects seemed never better. Government subsidy for the performing arts, established during World War Two (and enlarged by Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964), enabled institutions such as concert halls or arts centres, and producers like festivals and full-time ensembles, to commission and present with satisfactory preparation the works of living composers, who themselves benefited from the comparatively recent copyright protection measures and royalty collection agencies, buoyed by the steadfast commitment of the BBC to modern musical trends and the creation of self-interest organisations such as the Society for the Promotion of New Music (1942) and the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain (1944), which launched the British Music Information Centre in 1967.

Today these bodies maintain their activities, as do the orchestras, the music institutions, and indeed the entire subsidy system, mightily augmented since November 1994 with funds from the National Lottery. Yet the cultural scaffolding, on top of which composers once expected to rise as socially-respected exemplars of a consummate creative profession, has been dismantled. For the most part the composer has now become one component in the production and circulation of commodities which are (for example) nowadays removed from the customs of live performance, those to which royalty earnings have been traditionally tied.

This loss of public, economic and specialist status has been faced by other creative vocations, too. Many British architects, for instance, forfeited their pre-eminent rank to building managers in consequence of the inflation crisis of the Seventies and its Thatcherite legacy By alert institutional campaigning (involving the Arts Council, among others) they regained their hegemony to ensure that the National Lottery was established and directed exclusively to capital schemes of which they were the prime beneficiaries. Composers have not been so clever, and while even poets have gained press and public attention in reforming the job of Poet Laureate, near to no-one can name the Master of the Queen’s Musick, nor care much who carries this quaint label.

It is in this context of acute disendowment that we can best understand these forlorn, atavistic claims of affiliation made by living British composers on their `old masters’. Though we recognise in this an attempt to recapture a prestige and legitimation since lost, at the same time it displays a tactical need to secure through blatant marketing a conspicuous place in the concert repertory by peer association. The first of these strategies addresses social rank; the second, economics.

That a trio of instituted living composers should need such contrivances speaks volumes about the lean condition of British `contemporary classical music’ for the generation aged over fifty.21 If any of them were hoping that gimmicks such as Pluto: the renewer would help to renew their visibility and gain some kind of distinction for them, then the news that astronomers have since declared Pluto not a planet but a mere asteroid stuck out on a limb, may at last galvanise them to look more to our present than to their past.


1. The premiere took place on 11 May 2000, at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano.

2. The first complete public performance was not given until 15 November 1920.

3. G-u-S-t-A-v H-olst: Es (or S) stands for E6, H for Bi.

4. Imogen Holst: Gustav Hoist: a biography (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1938), p.43.

5. Aleister Crowley ed. Symonds bt Grant: The complete astrological writings (London: Duckworth, 1974).

6. The Sackbut (December 1920), pp.371-72. The review was penned under the Ortonesque pseudonym `Barbara C. Larent’. See also Barry Smith: Peter Warlock: the life of Philip Heseltine, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994), pp.171, 315.

7. Programme note, Hall Concerts Society (11 May 2000).

8. First performed on 18 October 1997 at the BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis.

9. WH Reed: Elgar as I knew him (London: Gollancz, 1936), pp. 114-15.

10. Anthony Payne: Elgar’s Third Symphony (London: Faber & Faber, 1998).

11. Dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII.

12. Elgar noted that ‘many of my friends did not dare come [backstage] after the first performance of [the symphony in] E6, they were so disappointed’,

as quoted in Robert Anderson: Elgar (London: Dent, 1993), p.340.

13. BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’ interview (4 May 2001).

14. In its use of a keening soprano soloist and in its harmonic scope, the Sinfonia antartica

is connected to the composer’s third symphony, Pastoral (1921), which was similarly influenced less by landscape than by the human desolation within it, in this case of World War One.

15. Playing the two symphonies in the same concert was proposed, but finally the Maxwell Davies premiere was placed in the neighbouring nationalist context of Walton and Elgar. 16. BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’ interview

(4 May 2001).

17. BBC Radio 3, concert interval interview (7 May 2001).

18. BBC Radio 3 (7 May 2001). 19. A formal description of genre recently adopted by the Arts Council.

20. Commissioned respectively for the Halle, BBC Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras.

21. The British Music Information Centre’s database lists 615 active British composers (and arrangers) aged over fifty (preceding October 2001), although the register’s birthdates are incomplete. The author is most grateful to Daniel Goren of the BMIC for his help.

Richard Witts is Visiting Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2001

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