Britain’s most influential composing teacher

Robin Holloway will be 75 in October.

As professor of composition at Cambridge, his students have included Thomas Adès, Huw Watkins, George Benjamin, Judith Weir, and Jonathan Dove.

He has received seven commissions through his life from the BBC Proms but nothing much is happening in this birthday year.

Exclusive birthday interview here.

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  • buxtehude says:

    “but nothing much is happening in this birthday year”

    Perhaps, unless you consider the silent ghosts of all the audiences who’ve stayed away especially from second performances of what he and his students have written down the decades. Who can say that they have not gathered in celebration and tribute?

    • barry guerrero says:

      Yep. Sorry, but I’m not terribly impressed with this interview, or with his students. Still, happy birthday.

  • Hilary says:

    A fascinating interview.
    Something rather idyllic about it.

  • Rob says:

    Now, if only Mahler had reached 75.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      . . . it would have been interesting to see in what direction he might have turned. Frankly, I think the ‘great war’ would have broken his idealistic (almost naive) spirit.

  • Simon says:

    Interesting interview of an interesting person and composer!

  • Marcus Paus says:

    “Music should be cornucopian and generous”

    What a lovely quote by an obviously deeply cultured composer.

    I hear great skill, a keen and inquisitive mind, and a uniquely aristocratic ear at work in this music.
    This is highly refined music of a caliber that deserves a larger audience.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I have the best of memories of Holloway from the Cambridge Music Faculty in the eighties. Every wednesday evening he had a ‘free gathering’ of the composition students, unencumbered with professional obligations, generously sprinkled with white wine, dedicated to discussions about music and playing recordings. Once we had Robert Simpson as a guest who uttered his grim expostulations, another time Judith Weir proposing daring feminism in music, but mostly there were mental explorations of the typical problems, indeed: serious problems, of 20C music. His lectures were always interesting, mixing received wisdom with provocations of his own invention which always cut some hard wood, like his playing of a bit of Webern’s Variations a couple of times on the piano but with slightly changed notes and asking whether we heard something odd. A very British man, and an eclectic composer and brilliant as such, with a mixed and sometimes tense working relationship with ‘his boss’ – the head of the faculty, Sandy Goehr, a Schoenbergian mind imprisoning any spontaneous creative invention within a sophisticated collection of rationalistic prejudices.

    Once Holloway, who was never happy with the then established ‘avantgarde’, said that a young composer simply had to go with the flow in one way or another, because otherwise he were in the streets. This revealed his own problem, which he explained at another occasion, that he stood with one foot in modernism and the other in the idea of a revival of music – hence his explorations of new tonality on one hand and his otherwise unlistenable ‘concerti for orchestra’ to please ‘the world’. Which world? To my feeling, his small intimate chamber music is the best, where he could feel away from pressures. My impression is that living his life in the cushioned closures of Cambridge University with all the lecturing work has greatly inhibited him to really realize his potential, by avoiding the jungles and deserts and battles that are inescapable if you understand the catastrophic erosion of music in the last century. Also the British cultural climate of afternoon-tea pleasantness is not the best atmosphere for seriously cutting the cake.

    His book on the influence of Wagner on Debussy is brilliant, except his sadistically killing-off the music of Le Martyre de St Sebastien (1911) with a enthusiastic vigor totally inappropriate for the occasion and giving the impression that he was happy to finally find something less superb in a body of work the independence and profound musicality he envied. (Debussy knew everything about the jungles and deserts and battles.) He wrote, in those same eighties, a cutting-edge article about the atonal avantgarde which exposed its poverty and silliness and which pointed into the direction of a musical revival, but which was published in an entirely innocent local newspaper so that it could not harm his career. I always regretted that, because it was a tekst full of explorative insights.

    A very sympathetic man, very British, gentle and polite, with a whiff of sulfur in the background.

    • Furzwängler says:

      A fine and an interesting analysis. Thank you.

      P.S. re: “… cushioned closures of Cambridge University…” – I take it you mean ‘cushioned cloisters’? (as analagously in ‘Oxford’s dreaming spires)

    • Hilary says:

      “a very sympathetic man, very British, gentle and polite, with a whiff of sulfur in the background.”

      Very fair assessment indeed.
      Another interview with Holloway features in this fine book where he mentions his as yet unperformed comic opera based on the life of Cynthia Payne. https://boydellandbrewer.com/encounters-with-british-composers.html

    • John Borstlap says:

      PS:

      This is Holloway’s tinkering with Schumann songs, mixing two distinct musical worlds / idioms, the one and the other of his feet, so to speak:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diUVYcTm3yk

    • David R Osborne says:

      …”a young composer simply had to go with the flow in one way or another, because otherwise he were in the streets.”…

      Perhaps so, you can’t argue with it. A simple statement bound to be greeted with little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders. But what an indictment.

      • buxtehude says:

        The short of it: composing as an academic industry long since divorced from any audience, underwritten by something vague, a wise & gentlemanly professor, mired himself in the tar pits of 20th century whatever-it-is, presiding over student composers hardly bursting with anything to say, not to the extent of daring to say it.

        When a soi-disant composer has left behind her likely audiences, lost all contact with them, what on earth does she expect to connect with? The Future?

        • David R Osborne says:

          It does concern me that we have people such as said learned gentleman who see the problem, yet not only do nothing, but also counsel others against any hope for change.

        • John Borstlap says:

          All his life Holloway had performances, often by the best of players, and prom commissions. He knew Rattle personally, and every orchestral piece he wrote was duly performed. Although he says that he never had the success as some of his collegues who followed the fashion ‘better’, what success would that have been? More performances than Holloway actually had? Is ‘success’ a matter of performance quantity? And then, how well were these pieces performed? We know that music with some tonality in it, require a different treatment than works where the correct placing of the notes does not count for much. How well was / is H’s orchestral music rehearsed?

          As in the visual ‘arts’, an establishment consisting of academia, writers and critics form a network of shared interests trying to pitch the ‘correct’ new works into public space. This forms a conventional pressure, entirely conformist, in spite of the ‘progressive’ rhethoric. And musical audiences are simply silenced by the shared conventional establishment opinions, in which they have no part.

  • Michael Rupam Makhal says:

    Very nice interview. So much insight of the man and the composer in him. I like to appreciate the music that is finely performed in the interview. A class composition and very delicately performed by the ensemble. Best wishes to Maestro Holloway.

  • Hilary says:

    “composing as an academic industry long since divorced from any audience”
    On the contrary, there appears to be an audience, albeit one which doesn’t include you.

    • Hilary says:

      Meant to be a reply to “Buxtehude’s” sweeping statement above.

    • buxtehude says:

      Doesn’t include me, yes, and I wonder how many others beyond professional or at least highly-trained musicians — who are more likely to welcome “new music” as interesting mathematics or at least a challenge to their technical resources.

      “Sweeping statement” yes since this fake pretend succession to the classical traditions of the past several centuries is helping to sink the whole damn thing. Audience run from it.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Although this comment is phrased in a brash way, it is – in a general sense – entirely true. But there have been lots of compsoers in the last century who did not follow the disruption, but they have been either neglected, or looked down upon (‘Sibelius is the worst composer ever’), or heavily criticized by the modernist establishment (for instance, Britten, about whom Alexander Goehr complained that he never did anything to support the atonal cause).

        But there is a revival underway, as this demonstrates:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bvC0kXrmDM

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWjSJri3NcE

        Nature always restores itself.

    • David R Osborne says:

      Simple way to test it then. Restore some kind of natural balance (as exists in for instance, literature) by mandating that orchestras and opera houses present 85% music composed in the last 30 years or thereabouts . Let’s see then how audiences respond.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    There seems to be both point-proving efforts and exercises in the missing of the point above. In (or at least from) England alone, the mid-1940s brought forth composers as different as Gavin Bryars, Brian Ferneyhough, David Matthews, John Tavener, Michael Finnissy and Colin Matthews as well as Robin Holloway himself; is not such wide diversity a thing to be welcomed and indeed celebrated? “New music” is surely the broadast of churches?…

    • David R Osborne says:

      Broadest of churches? Well, of course the use of the word church is in this case highly appropriate given classical music’s intensely quasi-religious, top-down and change averse structure. And yes, there has been a slight increase since the ’40s in the number of academically sanctioned creative approaches.

      But genuine diversity requires genuine creative freedom, and that simply does not exist in classical music. If we want to see what diversity looks like, we need to look to other art-forms, most particularly literature. New work dominates the best sellers lists. Contemporary fiction is alive and well because it cannot be controlled from the top.

      • Alistair Hinton says:

        OK, forget the “broad church” analogy since you seem determined to misppropriate the latter of those words in order to try to support whatever argument it might be that you are seeking to put forward; let’s just stick to the “diversity” aspect that was – obviously, I’d hoped – the reason for my use of that term.

        I made no mention of “academically sanctioned creative approaches” but, if I had, might you construe from my so doing that all of the work of those seven mid-1940s English composers is as it is as a sole and direct consequence of their slavishly following such approaches? If so, there must be such “diversity” in those “creative approaches” as to throw considerable doubt on whether they’re all “academically sanctioned”, unless their is at lest equal “diversity” in the field of academia!

        Given my list of composers, on what specific grounds so you assert that “genuine creative freedom…simply does not exist in classical music”? (by which you appear to mean “classical music” as a whole rather than just new “classical music”). That’s a very broad brush catch-all statement!

        Whilst not seeking to suggest that there have never been wilful efforts to persuade the gullible and the unwary to conform to what might be deemed to be the fashionable ways in which to go about things at certain points in creative musical history, how effective has it ever been? How much of that kind of thing is there today and where might you find it? Could you perhaps provide some examples?

        Holloway himself clarifies that he put himself through the changes of approach that he felt it incumbent upon him to make as he developed; this seems far more representative of how most composers find their respective ways.

        You write that “contemporary fiction is alive and well because it cannot be controlled from the top”; whilst not necessarily doubting you, could you identify how and why you regard this as so different in the world of new “classical music”?

  • David R Osborne says:

    Exhausting. If I don’t write it I probably don’t mean it. So please, the number of inferences you’ve mistakenly drawn here would take days to rebutt. As would a composer by composer analysis of your list.

    In the final analysis, classical music defines itself through the standard repertoire. In the 73 year period since world war 2, additions to the list have slowed to a trickle. Germany for example, once centre of the classical universe, provided it’s last entry in 1947.

    In opera, there has been no addition in that period from either France, Italy or Germany- the three countries that had previously contributed the bulk of repertoire. It is not unreasonable to suggest that there may be a problem here. Nor is calling for change, an expression of negativity.

    I dealt in quite a detailed way with the literature comparison in the blog post here:
    http://davidrosborne.com/2017/07/27/27-july-2017-berlin-unravelling-the-complexity/

    • Alistair Hinton says:

      “Exhausting”? What is – and to whom? Just to you, perhaps? – but how and why?

      “The number of inferences [that i]’ve mistakenly [in your view, which please explain] drawn here would take days to rebutt”. Really? That’s interesting because, rather than “draw inferences”, I have merely asked questions, so I only assume that, by what you say would take you “days to rebutt”, you mean that my questions would take you “days to ” answer. Ah, well; no obligation just because I asked you. Likewise, apparently a “a composer by composer analysis of [my] list” would take you days to rebutt/answer/comment on or whatever else; I sought no such name-by-name “analysis” but a simple answer as to whether you consider all of those composers’ manners and output to be somehow “controlled” by the same or similar external forces, why and how so and what form these might take.

      “In the final analysis, classical music defines itself through the standard repertoire”. Now presumably that is at least one “analysis” that you would condone, though what form it might take escapes me; what IS “the standard repertoire” in any case and, even if you can define it, would you go farther and suggest that is something that is and has since WWII somehow been set in stone?

      “In the 73 year period since world war 2, additions to the list have slowed to a trickle”. Do have have proof of this? OK, many new works might struggle to secure second and subsequent performances, but has it not occurred to you that this might at least in part be due to the sheer amount of music being composed? For example, just consider the thousands of symphonies (hardly the calling card of the avant-garde) that have been composed in many countries since the close of WWII and how often most of them are performed…

      “In opera, there has been no addition in that period from either France, Italy or Germany- the three countries that had previously contributed the bulk of repertoire”; that comes across – to me, at least – as a most biased and jaundiced view, possibly based at least in part upon a notion of “opera” as of necessity broadly synonymous with what one might think of as the “grand opera” of the past – but, even then, no Henze? no Die Soldaten? no St. François d’Assise?

      But never mind at least some of that; some considered answers to the questions that I put to you would be a good start and, if you’re sure of your thoughts about the subjects concerned, I cannot imagine why it might take you “days” to provide them!

      • John Borstlap says:

        Of the list of composers mentioned above to show the diversity of the field in the UK, two stand out: David Matthews and Robin Holloway, both dipping their toes or feet into more traditional artistic values – Matthews much more so and more steadfast that Holloway; Bryars I don’t know well enough, but the rest – the number can be extended with Ades and others – write things based upon a fundamental break with idioms which would bring associations with ‘the past’ as if this past is some sort of inaccessible country only suited for conservative snobs. Both Matthews and Holloway got their many performances but the qualities of their works have never led to the sort of reputation that Birtwistle, for instance, quite undeservedly received: as the Grand Old Man of British Music.

        Yet, the UK shows a more diverse / pluralistic musical scene than the continent, in spite of the recent bubbling-up of a couple of anti-modernists in France, fighting against Boulezbianism. Not to speak of Germany which is still suffering under the usual postwar moralistic wasteland. The question of ‘diversity’ and dogmatic establishment prejudice is a complex one. In general, one can say that while modernism (in all its forms) and postmodernism (dito), together with pop infested confections, are deemed ‘OK’ by a network of vested interests, while reconnecting with premodernist musical values is treated with the greatest suspicion on the continent but with more tolerance in the UK. The difference in mentality must be twofold: a) England is a much more traditionalist country and b) it was not occupied by the nazis, so the need for morally-uplifting selfdestruction was felt less stringently than on the continent. In the UK, hardcore modernism was more something like a hobby (like the BBC’s William Glock’s), sporting one’s commitment to ‘progress’.

        Interestingly, diversity and pluralism in new music are widely believed to be paramount but the one big taboo: exploration of non-modernist musical values (‘the past’ which is still much present in the regular repertoire and much alive and kicking), is still very much in place. ‘The past’ stands for conservatism while in fact, it stands for beauty, humanism, communication, emotional sophistication and musical complexity which can be experienced in performance without a hearing manual and pep talk.

        In which way is a more humane and musically more effective music excluded from reaching its audience – assuming this is sometimes the case? I happen to know about some composers being rejected by, for instance, an orchestra which found the music ‘too beautiful’ and therefore ‘not reflecting our modern times’, or ‘too much appealing to what audiences want to hear’ (i.e. commercialism, like Beethoven), but not on what was perceived of musical qualities: these never came into consideration. On a (continental) radio station the orchestral programming staff was, some 10 years ago, continually playing a recording of a new tonal piece over the loudspeakers of the office because the staff loved it so much, but they thought it totally unsuited for programming because it was not ‘new music’. When I think of my own experiences with programming staff, my strong impression is that although what they deem ‘contemporary’ may be of bad quality and wholehearteldy disliked by their players and audiences, they prefer it nonetheless because it gives the outward impression of the orchestra being ‘of its time’. So, all kinds of intellectual preconceived ideas take priority over content, which is related to the question: does this new music properly fit within the performance culture of the orchestra? Can it stand comparison with existing repertoire in quality terms? Given that these are much more difficult questions to answer than the consideration whether something easily fits into some kind of superficial ready-made format which has become fahsionably ‘modern’, and given the work pressures staff are under, it is clear why programming of new music has become so problematic.

        Without the idiotic postwar prejudices about ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’, it would have been already difficult enough, both for planning staff and composers.

        • Alistair Hinton says:

          You make a number of interestingobservations here and I agree with what you write about David Matthews and Robin Holloway but I don’t think that they secure significantly more performances than do some other composers beause their output is perceived to be more “traditional” (whatever that might mean, if anything). As I mentioned above, the sheer quantity of music of all kinds being composed today makes it difficult for almost anyone to rely on a plentiful supply of performances. Matthews and Holloway also probably do rather better than some because they’re both pretty prolific but it is the quality of their respective work – master orchestrators both – that has helped in this particular.

          Rumours of the death of overtly tonal symphonic music during the glock era are somewhat exaggerated; Malcolm Arnold survived this pretty well – better, indeed, than Humphrey Searle whose symphonies are not overtly tonal.

          Birtwistle’s reputation surely rests in part on the fact that he’s been around for almost a decade longer than Matthews and Holloway and that he was a part of the “Manchester School” which did much to spearhead not so much a change but a necessary addition to musical life in UK and whose fame also rested on the input of the conductor Elgar Howarth and the utterly extraordinary pianist John Ogdon as well as its three principal composers.

          You write that “Ades and others – write things based upon a fundamental break with idioms which would bring associations with ‘the past’ as if this past is some sort of inaccessible country only suited for conservative snobs”. Adès is of a much later generation (and was a pupil of Holloway), does not in my view write as you say and also has an active and successful career as pianist and conductor in which he plays all manner of music, by no means only that of our own time.

          As for “Boulezbianism”, I might mention that a Canadian musicologist of my acquaintance mentioned to me some years ago that some eyebrows were raised at the appointment of a member of professorial staff because he was considered by some to be too much of a traditionalist, steeped in the old ways of Boulez…

          You write that “diversity and pluralism in new music are widely believed to be paramount but the one big taboo: exploration of non-modernist musical values (‘the past’ which is still much present in the regular repertoire and much alive and kicking), is still very much in place” and that, in the minds of those who consider that to be a taboo, “‘the past’ stands for conservatism while in fact, it stands for beauty, humanism, communication, emotional sophistication and musical complexity which can be experienced in performance without a hearing manual and pep talk”. If that it so – or rather if that is indeed prevalent – why might you suppose that the music of Matthews, Holloway and others is nevertheless willingly accepted and performed by established orchestras and ensembles (although, of course, this is helped by the fact that their preternatural orchestral skills make their work a joy for musicians to play).

          I’m not sure whether the situation in UK differs materially from that in, say, France or Germany (whether or not for the reasons that you suggest), but there is another kind of complexity to the issues involved here. There is, for example, a kind of “neo-Romantic” movement (or at least one that’s become so called) where overt tonal expression is usually king and complexity of expression often rather frowned upon. I don’t wish to make any of this personal, but I write music that is tonal but not usually direct and simple in the outlines of its expression and, as a consequence, is hardly what most people might think of as an “easy listen”; whilst obviously making no claims for it, I hope that, to quote you, it “stands for beauty, humanism, communication, emotional sophistication” of a kind, otherwise I wouldn’t want to write it. In so saying, it’s perfectly possible to “fall beween two stools” here, rather like Busoni who, when his monumental Piano Concerto received is first performances (almost all with the composer eith playing the solo part of conducting), found that the Italians didn’t appreciate it because of what they thought to be its “Wagnerisms” whereas the Germans disapproved of it because of its inclusion of Italian street tunes.

          • John Borstlap says:

            David Matthews and Robin Holloway are hardly played in other countires than the UK, because the taboo is less stringent in the UK.

            I won’t ventilate my opinion about the so-called ‘Manchester School’ because I don’t want all those angry people on the phone again.

            All in all, modernism as an ideology has completely lost any credibility it might have had in the minds of some dull-witted people, but the vested interests are still there and are still active in the educational system. There is no new ‘Grand Idea’ to take its place, fortunately, but in their confusion and ignorance performers merely grab the easiest way out of the programming question and that is regrettable, given so many new opportunities that have opened since the demise of the ideologies. And why should people give credence to the most primitive pop infested stuff that should never ever see the daylight? (like Muti picking Miss Mazzoli for the CSO) All under the impression that new music should somehow sound like current TV commercials, it’s silly and ugly but at least, it’s ‘modern’. And, with all due respect, extremely stupid.

            Recently the Californian ensemble the Salastina Society dropped their Composer in Residence, the best they ever had: Jeremy Cavaterra, to exchange high-quality music for some silly nonsense that ticks all the boxes of social engineering and gender wars, but none related to music:

            “American Mirror reflects on the coming together of cultures in our society, which consists of many generations and descendants of refugees, slaves, and immigrants, and how intercultural collaborations are essential to the well-being of American society.”

            “Hope. Courage. Solace. Joy. Togetherness.
            What do you hear reflected in this musical mirror?
            American Mirror is worth a listen because:
            – it will make you dance. (And maybe cry a little.)
            – Derrick has his finger on the pulse of today’s zeitgeist, and synthesizes this musically in beautiful, sincere, toe-tapping, unpretentious, and highly original ways.
            – Salastina audiences begged for this recording to happen.
            – LACO audiences gave ‘From Here A Path,’ the other piece on this album, a standing ovation two nights in a row at the premiere live performances this past weekend. How often does that happen to a piece of new music?”

            https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/derrickspivajr1

            And how does this reparative music sound?

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRr6EIxu9os

            Cavaterra explores some musical values of former, culturally better equiped periods, and very successfully – he does not imitate but uses older means to express his own, contemporary voice:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq4DZEd_S94

            But Salastina found all this apparently not ‘hip’ enough. Instead of getting more ‘modern’, they sink to the level of populism, and as such a good example of what happens in the field when performers forget where they are for in this world.

            Still a lot of work to do… by the performers.

      • buxtehude says:

        To A Hinton re your replies to David R. Osborne:

        Yes exhausting.

        You seem to have no idea of how exhausting and discouraging your prose is, like a tangle of blackberry brambles obscuring even the path on which you pretend to await the answers you’ve demanded.

        I gather you think there’s much more good New music than David acknowledges, so much in fact that there isn’t enough audience to spread around, hence the paucity of performances. Also that this music is important. I haven’t thought of such an argument and am making a note of it (for the Whack file).

        Surveyors of Russian literature tend to distinguish between a golden and silver age (which still looks pretty golden compared with what was to come), this latter ending perhaps with the death of Chekhov in 1904. In an 1892 letter Chekhov wrote: “Tell me truthfully now, who among my contemporaries … has given the world a single drop of alcohol? … They’re nice, they’re talented, you’re delighted by them, but at the same time you can’t forget your desire for a smoke. … We certainly lack a certain something: if you lift up the skirts of our muse, all you see is a flat area. Keep in mind that the writers we call eternal or simply good, the writers who intoxicate us, have one highly important trait in common: they’re moving toward something definite and beckon you to follow, and you feel with your entire being, not only with your mind, that they have a certain goal, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, which had a motive for coming and stirring Hamlet’s imagination. …”

        Now leaving aside this civic nature of 19th Russian literature, can’t you hear the echo of this for music today, its challenge?

        The crisis today, the lethal vacuum, is the want of charismatic if not great composing, something to bring back audiences. This has to be acknowledged and can’t be addressed by splitting hairs over the value of one obscure composer over another. John’s analyses are interesting and instructive but even his sympathy for many contemporaries can’t obscure the decline from the masters of not-that-long-ago to today’s side-lined relative Lilliputians.

        Composers cannot be appointed by themselves, or by professors or prize committees. They must come from the ranks of kids who can write melodic hits, in the popular idioms that people today understand, and who can be encouraged toward longer forms and procedures developed and tested on audiences over the past 4+ centuries.

        The escape from today’s insular academy will start to happen when the first of these appears, and then just maybe, let us hope, this ruinous academy will vanish like the Wizard of Oz.

        I think continuance of the western tradition depends on this. There!

        • John Borstlap says:

          “They must come from the ranks of kids who can write melodic hits, in the popular idioms that people today understand, and who can be encouraged toward longer forms and procedures developed and tested on audiences over the past 4+ centuries.”

          Melodic hits/ That is all? Primitive film music, pop music à la Beatles (who were good in the own genre)? Are we still talking about classical music as a genre? It is a very cheap comment, with populist overtones. The quality of music does not simply depend upon tunes that simple people can sing.

          Audiences for classical music can understand the sophistication of the regular repertoire – or else they would not come to the concerts. And this music is not a collection of simple tunes. So, there is an audience that is accessible to new music with sophistication in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm. For composers, other audiences don’t count.

          • David R Osborne says:

            Well John you know, great melody can be many things. Some of Beethoven’s for example are as childishly simple if not more so than those of the pop artists you are so quick to disparage. But it can also be the miraculous passage in the Tristan Prelude, far more important and far more the product of natural genius than the little bit of atmosphere that introduces it, the bit that the avant-garde somehow appropriated as evidence of their place in history.

            This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list, but great melody is what made Mozart great, Schubert great, Brahms great, Wagner great and absolutely what made Mahler at his best, great. And if it were ever possible to restrict the ranks of composers to those born with the natural gift for melody we would all be better off, and I for one would be comfortable with that.

          • buxtehude says:

            David has answered this better than I could. I only want to add that I didn’t write that melodic hits are “everything” — rather that a gift for melody is essential in a real composer, and is certified as a gift by its reception with a good-sized audience, hence the shorthand of Hits.

            But as for the H-word — Gershwin came up that way and so did Brahms in part, the later establishing his name with songs and waltzes and very melodic chamber music, building up to the orchestral works. By the time he got there he had an audience waiting.

        • Alistair Hinton says:

          “To A Hinton re your replies to David R. Osborne:

          Yes exhausting.

          You seem to have no idea of how exhausting and discouraging your prose is, like a tangle of blackberry brambles obscuring even the path on which you pretend to await the answers you’ve demanded.”
          Actually, it’s much simpler that you appear to thinkit to be; I couldn’t care less. Enjoy any blackberries hat you might nevertheless be able to pick therefrom.

          • buxtehude says:

            Simple maybe but unreadable nonetheless.

            As for your not caring less, it’s what I suspected but I gave you the benefit of the doubt. Full steam ahead AH! Enjoy the iceberg when it appears.

      • David R Osborne says:

        Standard repertoire: Works that feature regularly in seasons around the world, and for the most part have held that position since they were first performed. All these works share one essential feature: They bring mainstream audiences to the opera house or concert hall.

        So no Henze, no Zimmermann and no Messiaen. Sorry. Get the mainstream right, get back to growing and diversifying our audience, then we can worry about keeping the avant-garde chugging along. On the fringe where they belong. If they’re good and stop ruining it for everybody else.

        And yes, there are way too many composers, a problem that is 100% the creation of the academic imperative, the self perpetuating need to teach.

        The exhausting thing by the way, is being asked to take everything back to first principles, and that is in itself a result of the stifling of debate in the classical music world across generations. Questioning the accepted truths has not only been frowned upon, it has been a short-cut to a very brief career.

        • John Borstlap says:

          In general: agreed.

          But…..

          The works of the ‘regular repertoire’ i.e. which is still finding an audience, is the product of a long history, a complex tradition with lots of bumps in the road, and related to the culture in which the works were written. They were related to a ‘Menschbild’, to a collection of ideas about the human being and its place in the world, which – in general – have been disposed of. The very qualities that makes these works infinitely repeatable (too much so), have disapeared from the modern world. If composers today want to get back to those qualities, they can not simply imitate the gestures, they have to be part of the culture that generated them. So, even composers with melodic gifts cannot circumvent the fact that they live in a very different world, and writing a ‘big tune’ that is authentic, will mostly be a reproduction of what a ‘big tune’ means in the world of today and then we don’t think of classical music. A rich tradition which has been sidelined, ignored, mocked and slandered as no longer being ‘of its time’ is difficult to recreate and requires a type of imagination that let the music be reborn from the interior, and not from ‘the world’. We can not just easily go back to old languages, we would have to become those languages and how to do that in the present culture? I think the challenge is just too great for most composers and hence their falling-back upon cheap solutions that don’t cut wood.

          It seems to me that only the exploration of what the classical repertoire really is, in psychological terms, in relation to the modern world, that a solution can be found and classical music can be liberated from its position of a ‘museum culture’. And I think that the main function of classical music is referring to our interior life, in opposition and as an alternative to the noises and ills of the modern world, and not as an expression of the surrounding world which, to some extent, it was in former times. So, rather like a medicine to an illness than its natural, normal expression, because its natural expression is Olga’s vampyre piece:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmWslEUpf9s

          This is an essay about classical music’s role in the modern world, from which new music might get its bearings:

          http://www.futuresymphony.org/the-relevance-of-classical-music-part-i/

          • David R Osborne says:

            Sure, but we’re still falling for that basic trap of seeing creative direction as something that is decided by some kind of “consensus of the learned”. Ultimately, a way forward cannot come from what composers plan to do collectively, but from unique and strikingly different voices being provided the opportunity to be heard.

            The problem is therefore still the gatekeepers, the weak gene-pool of ideas that informs them, how they are chosen and the interests they are obliged to represent.

          • buxtehude says:

            @David:

            Amen

        • Alistair Hinton says:

          @Buxtehude:

          “As for your not caring less, it’s what I suspected but I gave you the benefit of the doubt. Full steam ahead AH! Enjoy the iceberg when it appears.”
          Climate change will long since have disposed of any such icebergs. The point here is that all we composers must – and some do – write what we want to write and one can only hope that this will continue regardless of what anyone else thinks that they should; it’s not a case of “who cares if you listen?” but “who cares whether or not listeners think that what you do does or does not fit in with current fashions?”.. In the light of this, your “benefit of the doubt” is not required, thanks. For what it might or might not be worth, I take my principles in this from the old one from a long since deceased governor of the Bank of England, namely “never apologise – never explain”, paraphrased here as “never alienate – nver ingratiate”, a principle to which I have always endeavored to adhere to the best of my doubtless gravely limited ability.

          • buxtehude says:

            Oh boy.

            So you’re a composer too.

            This is written after my reply to yet another of yours below.

            This argument hasn’t til now involved your own artistic path &c, it’s been about the general direction. More wind your sail.

            As to your principles of communication, your ability “gravely limited” is right, as your contribution to this thread shows.

            Enough of this.

          • Alistair Hinton says:

            @ Buxtehude:
            “Oh boy.

            So you’re a composer too.

            This is written after my reply to yet another of yours below.

            This argument hasn’t til now involved your own artistic path &c, it’s been about the general direction. More wind your sail.

            As to your principles of communication, your ability “gravely limited” is right, as your contribution to this thread shows.

            Enough of this.”
            More than enough, I’m sure. The “argument” doesn’t involve my “artistic path” now either. If my “principles of communication” are as “gravely limited ” as you seek to claim, be careful what you might or might not wish for in the sense that there are almost certainly hundreds of thousands more composers for whose works you might say the same or similar; you almost certainly know nothing of my work and that’s neither here nor there beyond your lack of wisdom in seeking to base a response upon something of which you appear to have no obvious knowledge, wich seems to illustrate how you operate as a would-be commentator on such matters. So be it, I guess…

          • buxtehude says:

            I’m talking about your writing here, not your music or the music of “hundreds of thousands” you are enlisting in your cause against me. Goodnight

          • Alistair Hinton says:

            @Buxtehude:

            Not my problem, I’m afraid – not least because I have no “cause against you” (or anyone else, for that matter)…

        • Patience Of Job says:

          Verbose, self-righteous, know-it-all pomposity. Err. Why don’t you folk just swap email addresses and move on?

          This post was a celebration of a composer’s 75th birthday if you can remember that far back, and I for one will be buying the new CD which sounds beautiful.

          • Alistair Hinton says:

            I have no idea to which particular contributors you refer here and you do not name names. I can only say that I have myself made several references to the subject, Robin Holloway and I have also endeavoured to respond to some of the issues raised in this thread, not least with reference to Holloway’s own observations in the interview about his early experiences as a composer, his musical tastes and how he found his way, often in the context of other composers past and present. I cannot speak for other contributors here but, I personally do not “know it all”, neither “self-righteousness nor “pomposity” has any place in my thinking or expressions and, whilst “verbosity” might not be to your taste, one can no more sensibly reduce the issues discussed above to a handful of words of one syllable than one can reasonably expect a simple piece in C major from Brian Ferneyhough (who, like his compatriots Gavin Bryars and David Matthews, also reached 75 earlier this year).

            But yes, do enjoy the CD. Holloway is a splendid composer and in his extensive repertoire there is much fine music to be enjoyed; indeed, I hope that this CD will lead you to discover more of it (if you’re not already familiar with it).

          • David R Osborne says:

            And Patience how about if you don’t care for robust discussion, you avoid the SD comments section? Classical music has waited a long time for a forum such as this, good luck trying to shut it down now.

        • Hilary says:

          Messiaen wasn’t the brightest example on your part as his Turangalila Symphony crops up fairly often despite the expense of putting it on: 24 commercial recordings, 13 appearances at the BBC Proms alone, including this year as it happens.
          In my short lifetime I’ve heard it three times live, without making a special beeline for the piece.
          You can’t relate to the composer ( fair enough, though you could probably put a bit more effort in) so make false generalisations about there being no audience for the music.

          • John Borstlap says:

            And then, one cannot use audience popularity as a quality standard, given the historic fact that mediocrity has always been more popular than the best.

            As for the Turangulila: that music is some kind of apotheosis of quasi-modernist-exotic kitsch, it sounds the way Messiaen’s shirts looked. British half-modernist composer Alexander Goehr once said that he attended the premiere of this piece in London and was overwhelmed by it and utterly enhusiastic, because it demonstrated that you could also just throw-in all that sound stuff in the mix completely uninhibited. One can understand that composers, fussing over every little note of their serial constructions, sweating over any tone row that did or did not precisely fit within the grid, were feeling as if for an hour their rationalistic inhibitions were totally dissolved and washed away by the french tsunami of vulgarity, like a frustrated priest landing by accident into a brothel party..

  • Sofia says:

    Very interesting interview. I like the fact that he found his own voice and that he listens to what his “genetic” instincts and preferences are without trying to impress anyone with his music. I also really appreciate the fact that his music is influenced by Schuman. It gives it much more colors, movement and meaning.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    Perhaps the best thing about all of this is that there is som much music being composed and so muc argument of the kind that we’ve read here that the whole shebang might be destined for death after it’s all been pored and argued over as it has been here. Whatever anyone else might say or wishs, there will always be more and m,ore music being written and it will always be of an increasingly vast variety of manners and presentations that there will come to be no norms of viewpoint.

    David R Osborne opines “And yes, there are way too many composers, a problem that is 100% the creation of the academic imperative, the self perpetuating need to teach”. No, not at all 100%, so it’s a much worse situation than he believes it to be because by no means all of those composers are fostered within academia (I’ve never taught, for starters); tens of thousands of them might be so but what about all the other hundreds of thousands who are not? Music and its practice is ever-increasingly available to us all, so the number of composers and would-be composers is always going to increase, second by second. Live with that but please also deal with your thoughts thereon.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    Perhaps the best thing about all of this is that there is so much music being composed and so much argument of the kind that we’ve read here that the whole shebang might be destined for death after it’s all been pored and argued over as it has been here. Whatever anyone else might say or wish, there will always be more and more music being written and it will always be of an increasingly vast variety of manners and presentations that there will come to be no norms of viewpoint.

    • buxtehude says:

      Incoherent.

      Whether or not the whole world is scribbling, it’s the gate-keepers, fund-suckers, critics and in a word, taste-makers that are complained of. They have the “classical” business on a suicidal path, what with the expense of maintaining a hundred highly trained musicians in every venue to play what? for fewer and fewer in a world where public subsidies are under the gun.

      Trump would hardly have to breathe on it. Be careful what you wish for.

      • Alistair Hinton says:

        What I might or might not “wish for” is neither here nor there; the fact remains that more and more people are composing, whether or not as part of some kind of academically based program and they look set to continue to do so broadly regardless of any kind of external pressure to “conform” to any kind of “tradition”…

        • John Borstlap says:

          Like social media, there are now so many voices and many of them entirely insignificant, that any attempt to filtering has become very hard, if not impossible. The good is drowned in the sea of nonsense, with the result that musical institutions (orchestras, opera companies, ensembles) either lock themselves up (museum culture) or only listen to what experts are saying and they see them only in academia. And academia have their own vested interest to keep certain ideas ‘in the market place’, for instance types of music which lend themselves well for teaching (rationalism) and / or confirm the teacher’s position (simile).

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    John Borstlap – you make a number of very valid points in which you write here. In addition it’s worth remembering that this sense of “tradition” has become undermined in all ages but it’s been happening much faster and to a far greater extent during the past couple of hundred years or so than previously; it’s also worth bearing in mind that not only is there so very much more music around today (including the music of the past that has previously been largely sidelined) but also that technological developments have ensured its global accessibility in ways that most of us would never have dreamed possible in the days before recording and broadcasting, let alone the internet.

    The risk of the development of a “museum culture” is nevertheless a very real one; however, not only is society changing faster and to a greater extent than previously but its individual members are doing the same. In such an environment, how are people going to find the time to listen to more than the tiniest proportion of available music? The simple answer is that they are not.

    If all of this is indeed a “problem”, it is almost certain that it is one to which no “solution” is or ever can be possible. Each individual composer is therefore left to find a route to his/her own salvation and the power of institutionalised avant-gardism just isn’t what once it was perceived by some to be. In the meantime, I still see the diversity of aims and approaches between the English composers from the 1940s (including Robin Holloway) whom I mentioned earlier as a significant illustration of composers contemporary with one another each going in their own direction.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed with all of that.

      But the human being itself does not change much, as the news reminds us daily: primitive, archaic urges are fought-out amidst changing cultures. When modern society goes through big changes, the things that are important for this society have to be preserved, if they are thrown-away for entirely inappropriate reasons it is to our own peril.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    That’s very true, of course, but I happen to see that factor as further complicating the issues already discussed; it’s arguably less a case of “plus ça change – plus c’est le même chose” as one which raises the conflict between, on the one hand, ever increasing social and personal change taking place at ever greater speeds and, on the other, the kinds of human constancy to which you draw attention and I have no doubt that Robin Holloway is a conscious of this as anyone.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    @ John Borstlap:
    Hilary (to whose post you responded) made a valid point, I think.

    In observing that “one cannot use audience popularity as a quality standard, given the historic fact that mediocrity has always been more popular than the best”, I don’t think that you are correct in all instances; there are plenty of excellent works that, despite beinge the very opposite of “mediocre”, have earned and retain their places in what their performance, broadcast and recording frequency clarifies as “popularity” – but there’s another issue here, which is that what is “popular” (if “popularity”‘s to be measured by such performance, broadcast and recording frequency) and what travels well will in some cases vary (and indeed has varied) considerably from time to time and place to place; the dictates of fashion, however ephemeral, have determined, for example, that Elgar, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Brian, Tippett and others look to be more “popular” at some times than in others and some of their work more “popular” in some countgries than in others.

    As for the Turangalîla (sp.), you assesment of it as “some kind of apotheosis of quasi-modernist-exotic kitsch” is gratuitously patronising and what you mean by it sounding “the way Messiaen’s shirts looked” I have less than no idea. Your description of Goehr as a “British half-modernist composer” is at the very least puzzling, since not only was he not “British” (by birth or descent), he was never what could reasonably be described as a “modernist” composer, his dalliances with central European “modernism” having barely survived the 1950s. He studied with Messiaen, of course and his first experience of Turangalîla was a performance conducted by his own father. I would take his remark about the composer demonstrating in that work “that you could also just throw-in all that sound stuff in the mix completely uninhibited” with several pinches of salt, though it is clear what he meant from his statement about “composers, fussing over every little note of their serial constructions, sweating over any tone row that did or did not precisely fit within the grid” which, incidentally, reveals more about his problems with “modernism” than it does about Messiaen’s music. A pity, then, that, in suggesting that Turangalìla was somehow representative of the dissolving and washing away of “rationalistic inhibitions”, he sought to justify his argument by reference to a “French tsunami of vulgarity” and then capped this with writing of “a frustrated priest landing by accident into a brothel party”, a notion that he presumably borrowed at least in part from a fellow Messiaen pupil, Boulez in his superciliously patronising dismissal of the work.

    There is a deep connection between Goehr and Holloway, not only in that the latter succeeded the form at Cambridge and was his pupil but in their sharing of a healthy questioning of the outer reaches of “modernism”.
    Whatever anyone thinks of Turangalìla is a matter of personal taste (or distaste, in your case); it is nonetheless a widely admired and respected work that, as Hilary notes, has done quite well in performances and recordings despite its size and the large forces for which it calls; in fact, there was a time when arguably it did rather better in those terms than the Piano Concerto of Busoni which also exceeds an hour in performance and calls for a fairly large orchestra and a male chorus in its finale.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed with most of this, but the ironic comments about Turangulila were not Goehr’s but mine in my comment. Goehr was quite enthusiastic about the piece and always remained positive about it, and about Messiaen. Goehr had lived in France, knew French music quite well, but simply could not understand anything of what made that culture tick. That was why it fascinated him, and hence my metaphor of the priest – which should not be taken too literally.

      Goehr’s lecturing at Cambridge indeed questioned modernism, but in a complex and elliptical way: he rejected the later abberations but kept to the principles of Schoenberg’s works from 1923 onwards: rationalism first, and then hoping that some inspiration would trickle-in of its own accord. Schoenberg was (is?) his God, and students who expressed some scepticism were banned from the university. Goehr was (is?) fascinated by Debussy, the extreme opposite in everything from Schoenberg, and showed often analyses of D’s music, but I don’t think he understood anything of the aesthetics of such composers. At Cambridge he showed himself to be a conservative modernist, in the sense that he still thought the most important things had been ‘said’ by the early modernists, Schoenberg in music, Picasso in painting, Joyce in literature, and the like – the early modernist art that Scruton explains as a reaction against over-popularity of the regular traditions. But he was envious of much older music when composers ‘knew something we have lost’ as he put it, talking about Brahms. I think that was because such composers knew how to compose and had not as yet hit on the idea that rationality in music must come first and that you can delete the dimension of expression, tonality and communication from the art form.

      Holloway was, at Cambridge, very different from Goehr, half-provoking him and in the same time, keeping his one foot within the ‘new music aesthetic’ as confirmed by his Concerti for Orchestra, so that he could not be accused of revisionism and outdated tastes. Goehr as a lecturer was absolutely brilliant in terms of erudition and sharp mind, but I always suspected that he was completely tone-deaf. I must here confirm the correctness of Norman’s grave suspicion about musicology which is intellectual exercise detached from the reality of music.

      • Hilary says:

        Of course audience popularity isn’t a barometer of quality, but it’s tirelessly used as as such by some of the commentators on here so I was using the example of Turangalila as a corrective.

      • Hilary says:

        Agree in part re. Goehr and tone deaf.
        While I would concede that this piece is the musical equivalent of lego it does a brightness of harmony which I’ve never detected in anything else by this composer : https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pu1eHZgc-TE
        A positive direction seemed to be heralded by the Piano Trio.

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