Is "English" Classical Music dead???

Steven Pollard, of the TimesOnLine wrote an article "The day English classical music died" He starts off by siting a couple of fairly unknown composers, and then a couple more only slightly more known composers - then goes on to speak about Ralph Vaughn Williams as the last great English composer.

He justifies this statement by speaking to the direction composers post Williams took in terms of music. He derides them for writing for small clique audiences who were/are more interested in music theory than they are in melody. (Ok, certainly the Darmstadt School and Serialism took a turn away from popular music toward more intellectual forms) However, I would suggest this was a natural evolution of music - albeit not one I find particularly successful, but still, one that was a necessary direction as composers and musicians strive to find something new in a world dealing with the aftermath of 2 world wars. As the Europeans moved further in this direction, American composers moved toward minimalism, which occasionally sounds more tonal or melodic and yet, was just as eager to explore new sonic worlds as their European counterparts were with serialism.

Of the composers Mr Pollard mentions in the opening salvo, Peter Maxwell-Davis is recognised world wide for his works. Maybe the non-classical music listeners don't necessarily know his name, but I doubt many of them would be able to distinguish between music written by Beethoven or Mozart. They may know the names, but don't really know the music, so not knowing the name of Maxwell-Davis isn't all that strange. It's also a mistake to think of Maxwell-Davis music as non-melodic or written for a small clique audience. Perhaps his music isn't to the taste of Mr Pollard, but that doesn't make in non-melodic.

Mr Pollard mentions Benjamin Britten whom Pollard feels is "the only contemporary (read modern - as Britten is dead) composer who had anything close to Vaughan Williams's recognition" - and yet Britten's Opera's are perhaps the most performed of any composer in British history. Michael Tippett isn't mentioned in the article, which is unfortunate. While Tippett didn't get the recognition of Britten, he does have a certain amount of international fame. Brian Ferneyhough is also not mentioned and yet is recognised as leader in a new movement of music (the father of New Complexity). That's a fairly major contribution (IMHO) and Ferneyhough is still writing music. Judith Weir (another omission) has several works performed regularly world wide.

Another reason Mr Pollard suggests English music died with Vaughn Williams is because Vaughn Williams was the last composer to sound English. Well, at the end of the Classical era (Mozart and Haydn), there was a move in music to create a "universal" sound, less regionally distinctive. Toward the end of the romantic era the shift moved back toward incorporating regional sounds and folk music to create something that had cultural character. Shifting between universal and regional music is probably something music will continue to do for centuries to come. New generations of composers will always strive to sound different than those before them; this is natural

At the end of Mr Pollard's article, he mentions James MacMillan and Thomas Ad├Ęs as a new generation of composers looking to reconnect with the audience. Yes, both of these composers are gaining world wide recognition and both tend to write music that is melodic. However, both of these composers owe a great deal to those composers before them for without their experimentation, the intricate sounds and challenging rhythmic weaving of these new composers wouldn't be possible. Schoenberg remarked that nothing new is composed without leaning heavily on the past.

While agree with Mr Pollard, music may have taken a wrong turn for much of the twentieth century, I think he is unfair to say it died. There are more composers than just Vaughn Williams to give credit to British music (note: MacMillan is Scottish and it would be as unfair to call his music English as it would be to call Vaughn Williams Scottish). Only twenty years ago the music of Elgar and Vaughn Williams was considered slushy and overly sentimental. So, the tastes of the music listening public shift as well. There has been a great deal of good British music composed over the past fifty years (since the death of Vaughn Williams) and it will probably take another fifty years before we can really determine what works and what doesn't.

Note to Mr Pollard: I hope to be included in your list of emerging composers some time in the future.


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