When I started writing this little blog post, Philip Clark’s article had been live a little over 24 hours. I felt compelled to ‘respond’ with some thoughts of my own. Unable to publish yesterday, there has since been a response in the Guardian by Susanna Eastburn. Her article addresses similar things to what will follow here, but I feel still misses a few important points.
Just the opening tone of Clark’s article smacks of hindsight rather than foresight. Even the wording of the title puts his sights firmly in the past; he could as easily called it ‘Where are the great composers?’ But as it is, Clark is asserting the belief that there are none left, which he goes on to articulate throughout the article.
On a superficial level, it strikes me as odd that someone so concerned with looking for the next ‘great composer’ (I’ll return to this shortly) readily admits that his last visit to the HCMF was over ten years ago. Of course, it is not a forgone conclusion that one will find ‘great (living) composers’ at Huddersfield. But no other British festival specialises in the presenting of new and recent music so unreservedly (perhaps the Aldeburgh Festival comes close).
So what of Clark’s elusive ‘great’ composer? He talks about the ‘profile’ of a ‘great’ composer as if it’s a check-list of prerequisites which in turn demonstrates and confers the status of greatness automatically. This immediately spins us into the idea that a ‘great’ composer fulfills certain expectations. Wherein reality, the composer’s to which we attribute ‘greatness’ tend to transcend their field. Expectations go out the window; it’s the thrill of being surprised which appeals.
Clark’s lack of a proper definition of what a ‘great’ composer is highlights the elephant in the room: Is it really how we think of composers now? George Benjamin discussing Gawain on Newsnight is the sort of thing that would not happen today. Some would say we live in a culturally pluralist environment, which is surely a good thing? But if indeed we do, works like Gawain, The Minotaur, or indeed any other composer’s, are not going to be met with such outcry now as a decade ago. Or perhaps our culture is de-sensitised, and now more than ever we have the ability to turn whatever we want on or off like a tap.
Another aspect which I believe needs to be highlighted is the fact that we are very drawn to ‘great’ performers. A composer can continue being great after their death, whereas until the last century, a performer could not. Now we have a wealth of recordings to allow a performer’s legacy to last beyond their lifetime.
One issue which troubles me is the implication in Clark’s article that a composer’s greatness can only be achieved in their lifetime. We know this is not the case! Two twentieth-century examples that come to mind: Claude Vivier and Jean Barraqué. The former’s music has seen increasing popularity in recent years. In my opinion, Barraqué’s music is on a par (if not perhaps even more compelling?) with the likes of his contemporary and compatriot Pierre Boulez, but even today Barraqué remains an obscure name – even among modern music enthusiasts. Being a great composer certainly does not rest on whether you are recognised at an ATM in Huddersfield…
Since Clark’s and Eastburn’s articles both refer to Thomas Adès and The Tempest, it seems fair to mention this briefly. If success (and/or controversy) are the measure of ‘greatness’ in opera, then it’s worth reminding people that Mozart wrote some 22 operatic works. Today we refer to the ‘great seven’. Of those seven, La clemenza di Tito is often viewed as a lesser work than, say Le nozze di Figaro. But my point here is that Adès has written a single chamber opera, and a single full-scale opera. Perhaps if he had the opportunity to write 22 operas, he too would have seven (or more) operas that are unanimously considered ‘great’? Beethoven wrote one opera, and although it is popular, it is certainly not the work which established him as a ‘great’ composer. And of course, Bach wrote none! So, even through the lens of twentieth-century Britain (with Britten and Birtwistle), opera is clearly no better a way to ascertain ‘greatness’ in Western art music than anything else.
Before concluding, I also feel it’s worth pointing out that – here in Britain – we’ve only really had three stand-out ‘great’ composers: Purcell, Elgar and Britten. This spans centuries. So, perhaps a bit of patience is required before we can give way to Clark’s pessimism.
Eastburn welcomes the shift away from the notion of ‘greatness’ as a way of accessing wider perspectives and allowing art to impact a wider people. This is of course a good thing in many ways. Though, I struggle to see things so black and white as Clark and Eastburn. Clark maintains that there are no ‘great’ composers left, Eastburn almost suggests that we shouldn’t have ‘great’ composers anymore. I feel squarely in the middle: I think there is definitely cause to be optimistic and, even more so, to allow the concept of a ‘great composer’ (whatever that may be – a definition I certainly won’t try to establish) to continue.
As a parting thought, it is an understatement to say we have been so fortunate with the musical diversity and depth brought about in the twentieth-century. We may not witness such a range and rate of musical advancement for another century. (Who knows!?) But the ghosts of Stockhausen, Ligeti, Boulez and others will only linger at places like Huddersfield for as long as we allow them to. We must continue celebrating their music, but we must also look forward.
If this topic isn’t subjective enough, I would like to close with a few opinions: Hans Abrahamsen is a truly remarkable composer. Adès can be too, when he applies himself. Haas is also remarkable. We are lucky to have their music.