A tribute to Walter Becker

(This post, written in 2017, was originally published elsewhere)

I’m trying to remember where I was when I first heard Reelin’ in the Years.  Probably in my parents’ bedroom listening to the radio.  This was a place more or less guaranteed to be unoccupied during the day, and therefore free from the fierce disapproval of my father, who hated pop music.  This would be about 1973, I think.  I have been listening to Steely Dan and therefore to the work of Walter Becker, whose death was announced yesterday, for nearly 45 years.

Thanks Walt.  To say that Becker’s death leaves a hole in the world of music would probably not be true, since the years between 1972 and 1978, when Steely Dan released the six albums at the heart of their output, are decades in the past and their work still lives.  But it’s sad all the same.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls, and all that.

Such is the pleasure their music has brought me, I once reflected that amongst the downsides of death would be that I would no longer be able to listen to it.

Unlike many great songwriters, Becker and Donald Fagen’s material doesn’t travel well to other artists.  Almost none of their best songs have been covered by others, partly because they were so brilliantly realised by the odd mix of Becker and Fagen themselves, regular players like Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias, and a coterie of session wizards; but perhaps more pertinently because the material was so idiosyncratic and so obviously a consequence of their own hipsterish personae. 

Becker and Fagen liked jazz as well as rock and roll, and the idea of the Sonny Rollins-loving cool cat with the black polo neck, the pallor of late nights, the succession of cigarettes and the copy of The Naked Lunch in the pocket oozes from their work, and from the way they presented themselves.

Although enthusiastic about jazz, it’s hard to imagine Becker and Fagen being in favour of much else. A rich vein of cynicism courses through their stuff, and if they ever considered charting the obvious emotions it rarely shows.  There’s little doubt that this was what Becker and Fagen were really like – there are interviews online which display their mordant humour to good effect: it wasn’t a front.

They were sceptics at a young age.  Whilst still students at Bard College, New York, they quickly grasped that the 1968 Summer of Love was a sham.  “I heard it was you“, Fagen sang on Only A Fool Would Say That a few years later, “Talking ’bout a world where all was free / It just couldn’t be / And only a fool would say that“.   Cynicism and irony can be overdone however – they are good responses to some aspects of life, but other emotions are useful too.  Becker and Fagen sometimes struggled in their personal lives, and Becker’s descent into heroin addiction was one reason for the long hiatus in the pair’s collaboration which followed Aja in 1978. 

Nevertheless, some of their best work displays a wonderful tenderness and subtlety.  Their songs are musical short stories.  I read Gaucho as a monologue by a man who returns home to find his gay lover with a young Hispanic.  Glamour Profession may or may not be the tedious boasting of a Hollywood driver-to-the-celebs.  Kid Charlemagne recounts the panic stricken flight of LA drug dealers.

And all these songs are set to a dazzling variety of jazz inflected stylings – ballad, rock and roll, gospel, waltz, reggae, disco, funk and blues.  Some – for example Your Gold Teeth II and Home At Last – seem to invent a new genre all of their own.  For me, it’s no accident that the pair’s most popular tunes – Reelin’ in the Years, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Deacon Blue, Do It Again – are the ones whose subject matters veer closest to the mainstream (they could have made a lot more money if they’d wanted).  Coincidentally or not, female Dan-heads are in short supply.

And yet I also feel that Becker and Fagen saw the limitations of jazz.  They worked very hard and spent huge sums of record company money to find soloists who could add something other than virtuosity – although there was plenty of that – to their material.  They were aware of the possibility of empty note-spinning, and of the blandness of jazz-rock fusion.  Music always says something, and a good deal of the genre seems to devote itself to saying, “Look at this F sharp 7th chord suspended over an A/G diad“, or “Look how many million notes per minute I can play“.  Not in Becker and Fagen’s hands.  The writer Richard Williams described Steely Dan recently as “clever” above all else. Not so.  Yes, they were clever.  Smart arse if you like.  But they never allowed cleverness to be the goal.

Becker was a decent enough bass player and rather underrated guitarist, who also played a bit of keyboards.  Like Fagen, he preferred others to play on the band’s records, and only performed himself when he had to.  Although he never sang on a Steely Dan record, those who bought his first solo album, Eleven Tracks of Whack, were surprised at the strength of his scratchy baritone voice.  With Donald Fagen, he mined an art form with results that can induce dizzying pleasure, and charted the underbelly of the American (and human) condition with rueful wit.  Thanks again Walt.


So Farewell Then Sir Harrison Birtwhistle

When Sir Harrison Birtwistle was 80 an article appeared on the Guardian‘s leader page praising the old controversialist.  Sir Harrison was apparently a “profoundly British composer“, perhaps even “a natural successor to composers such as Elgar, Holst and Delius . . .as powerfully distinctive as that of any composer alive today“.

It won’t surprise my friends and enemies to learn that I am not a Birtwistle fan. I tried listening to Earth Dances again when this article appeared, and, after the marvellously effective opening low brass and percussion notes had begun to blend and criss-cross each-other I found myself thinking, “this is actually quite boring”. It took about a minute and a half.  I felt as if I were being beaten over the head with a rubber truncheon.  For me, Birtwistle has never learned that it is not what you say – everyone has something interesting to say, and most of us can come up with the profound from time to time – it is how you say it. Art is a mediation of experience, and we won’t persist with it if it doesn’t mediate in a way which generates pleasure.

But this is of course just a personal view, even if it’s one which is widely shared in Britain. The Guardian‘s comparison with Holst, Elgar, Butterworth, RVW is instructive.  I have been a musician for about fifty years, soberingly, and in truth I have never once heard anyone say, “Did you hear that piece of Birtwistle’s on the radio last week?” or “I’m playing some Birtwistle at the moment”, or “I really like that piece of Birtwistle’s”.  And of course I couldn’t whistle anything of his, nor have I ever met anyone who could. Neither have I ever met anyone in all this time in and around the profession who was interested in Birtwistle’s music.

What was really striking about Birtwistle is that, notwithstanding that the Guardian‘s leader writer (probably Andrew Clements) thought he was of a similar stature to Elgar et al, he is almost totally absent from British musical life. He is our most celebrated recent composer, but almost no-one involved in the business (whether as a listener, and amateur or a professional player) pays any attention to what he does. And this despite the many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money that, over the years, has been pushed in his direction (much of it via the Royal Opera House, the biggest recipient of Arts Council money in the UK).

In the year after Elgar’s First Symphony was premiered it received over one hundred performances in Britain.  That’s because people like Elgar’s music and were willing to pay to hear it. Other of his pieces have entered the national consciousness, so that even now most British people will recognise Nimrod or the Pomp and Circumstance marches; and those with an interest in classical music will have listened hundreds of times to or performed the symphonies, the Cello Concerto, Gerontius, the Serenade for Strings and the Introduction and Allegro (I could of course go on).

The same is not quite true of Holst and Delius, but it’s much truer of them than it is of Birtwistle. The Planets is a work which every musician, like it or not, recognises as a ubiquitous part of the cultural fabric of British life. The same goes for the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending with RVW.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, Birtwistle has ever written has come remotely close to entering the consciousness of the British people. His music hasn’t even entered the consciousness of those charged professionally with the task of delivering it to the public. I once asked a professional orchestral player if she had ever played any Birtwhistle? She thought she must have; after all, she’d been in the business for twenty years. But if so she couldn’t remember anything about it.

How then have we got to the stage where, despite this strange absence from British musical life, Birtwistle can merit leaders in the papers on his 80th birthday and glowing obituaries now he has gone?

The short answer is that the broadsheets are not short of the kind of people who admire people like Birtwistle; but there’s more to it than that.

Birtwistle was very fortunate when, in 1959, William Glock was made controller of Radio 3 and decided that the cow-pat school of British music was outdated. What the public really needed, Glock thought, was a good dose of European total serialism. This rejection of the politer art of the old school tied in rather well with the working class revivalism – and desire to scandalise the bourgeouisie – which followed Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), and it must have helped that Birtwistle was a Northener from Accrington.

At any rate Birtwistle was taken up by Glock, as was Peter Maxwell Davies, and their two careers flourished accordingly. Birtwistle in particular became a poster boy for the kind of “challenging” and “edgy” art whose advocates felt divided them from the safe and suburban Mr and Mrs Concert Goer, arriving in a coach party from Frodsham. “But it hasn’t got a tune“, these tedious provincials wailed, bolstering the hipsters’ sense (already pretty strong) that they themselves were breathing an altogether more rareified atmosphere.

So Birtwistle over the years came to be not just a purveyor of music that almost no-one wanted to listen to, but a symbol (for both sides of the argument) of the idea that avant gardism was not so much paving the way for the masses to follow as constituting an end in itself, a kind of super-art that only a certain tiny percentage of society was intelligent enough to “get”.

Of course the fact that the masses were paying for their pleasure did not trouble the elite (nor, apparently, Sir Harrison).

So actually Birtwistle was really a British composer only in the sense that the British have paid for him to become what he was. He might be more accurately described as a European composer, firstly because his music owes much more to the European influences which took root on the continent and which, pre-Glock, British composers regarded with some suspicion, and secondly because the idea that a self-appointed elite should sit at the apex of a system, political or cultural, is one which has more parallels in recent European history than in Britain, with its long democratic traditions.

Ironically then, Birtwistle’s eminence speaks much more eloquently about British cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century than his music ever has to British people.  In this sense, and only this, is Birtwistle “a profoundly British composer“. His pre-eminence tells us something important about British society.

This is not an argument against public subsidy in art. Still less is it an argument that what the masses like must by definition be good. It involves instead a recognition that between Birtwistle at one end of the continuum and Karl Jenkins at the other there exists a great body of composers whose music the public might have liked if it had had a chance to hear it. It says that while it may be legitimate to use public money to pay for something for a bit to see if it catches on, there comes a point when the public’s distaste becomes clear.

That point was reached with Birtwistle many decades ago.  But, as so often, the people who dish our money out knew better.

Leaving Quarantine

Just about everyone who’s had more than ten minutes conversation with me over the last five years will know by now that, yes, I have been writing an opera. When it’s catch-up time and we’ve got past “How’s work?” and “How are the kids?”, it’ll be “How’s the opera coming on?” Well, it’s now finished. I put off doing it for as long as I could, because I didn’t know if I could write two and a half hours worth of music, but in the end Jim Crace’s Quarantine, the novel on which the opera is based, had got its hooks into me, and I gave into its demands. Crace himself couldn’t have been more helpful – when I asked him for permission he was happy to agree to the adaptation as long as he didn’t have to be involved himself. That suited me fine.

How do you go about adapting a novel for the stage? Well, I broke it down into a series of events, and then tried to work out how I could shape and order those events in a way that made musical and dramatic sense. The last bit was easy, because if the novel didn’t make dramatic sense it wouldn’t be a great book (which it is). A novelist doesn’t have to worry about an interval however, and I spent a long time thinking about how to make the first half end in a way which was satisfying but would leave the audience wanting to find out what happened next. Then there was the issue of pacing – how could I make the conclusion work when the most dramatic event takes place offstage (no well-adjusted person goes to the theatre to watch one actor pretend to rape another) well before the emotional and psychological resolution which, while less horrifying, is the story’s real climax? That requires an acute sense of timing and, of course, the ability to write the kind of music which feeds the requirements of the narrative. There are times in an opera when the characters are singing about stuff which is fairly quotidian (what my wife calls “Pass the salt” music), but other times when the composer is fiercely aware that now, at this moment here, the audience needs invention which goes to the heart of the dramatic situation in a deeply expressive way.

Who wrote the libretto? I did. Well, that’s almost true. I adapted it from Crace’s novel. I can’t think of a novelist alive who has a better command of language – he is expressive, vivid and flexible without ever being florid. Although there isn’t much dialogue in the book, there is a great deal of interior monologue. Most of what I needed could be lifted almost straight from the novel; I made very little up, and only occasionally changed a word, perhaps for one which had a better rhythm, or better vowel sounds for the singer. Mostly it was a matter of excising what I didn’t need.

What’s Quarantine about? God, religion, greed, lust and death, off the top of my head. A handful of pilgrims – one of them is a young man called Jesus – go into the desert, roughly 2021 years ago, where they encounter a ruthless merchant and his put-upon wife. The story concerns what happens when these half a dozen individuals collide. It’s by turns horrible, funny and touching. All of them are changed, most for the better. The merchant, Musa, is a monster – charming, charismatic and violent – diabolic even. He is one of the great villains in fiction, I think, and I loved writing for him.

In the last forty years or so my principal recreation has been mountaineering, and I am well used to the idea of standing underneath some implausibly tall peak and, ignoring the totality of the task ahead, simply taking the first step uphill. And then another. That’s what I did with Quarantine. I wrote the first scene and found I really enjoyed doing it. Then I wrote a couple more and found that I was half way through the first Act. When I had done Act I I reflected that all I needed to do to finish the job was to keep writing and live long enough. For the last five years I have been very careful crossing roads. Now perhaps I can play chicken a little more recklessly.

It may turn out that the hardest part of writing Quarantine is either getting it put on somewhere or living with the failure to do so. I’m under no illusions, I think, about the difficulties which lie ahead, but also have no regrets about having written the piece. You have to do something with your life, and I always went to work with a will. I was well aware that I was writing something, during Covid, which had at least a titular resonance with the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether opera companies will have any interest in reminding audiences about a bleak time for all, or whether they will all be playing Gilbert and Sullivan for the forseeable (nothing wrong with that).

Whatever, barring a bit of editing, Quarantine is done. Small-talk will have to move on to pastures new.

Remembered Music and the avant-garde

Amidst the generally kind reception given to Remembered Music, the wonderful Zelkova Quartet’s CD of my quartet pieces, one comment stuck out.  It was from the Gramophone‘s reviewer, Pwyll ap Sion.  

Mr ap Sion, a lecturer at Bangor University, wrote, “Sympathetic listeners will no doubt identify with Simpson’s unfussy tonal style; others more willing to embrace modernist ideals and the spirit of the avant-garde may well dwell ruefully on the rather perverse notion that, as a point of comparison, James Dillon’s String Quartet No 2 was being written at almost exactly the same time as Simpson’s String Quartet in C.”  

A fair point.  I don’t know Dillon’s Quartet No 2, but I have heard some of his work, and I believe he is bracketed by musicologists with “new complexity” types like Brian Ferneyhough.  So, not much like me then, for sure.  What lesson can we draw from ap Sion’s faintly purse-lipped observation?

I could say lots of dusty things about modernist ideals; and if the avant-garde are to be judged by their self-description and the quantity of their followers among the paying public, they have proved to be singularly inept Pied Pipers.  However the broader point is a good one.  To what extent is one obliged to follow the cultural mores of the time? 

I would argue not at all.  For one thing, the great attraction of composition (and of art generally) is that it offers the opportunity for almost complete freedom.  You really can do whatever you like, provided you don’t hurt anybody.  I have chosen to respond to modernism by more or less ignoring it.  I don’t feel it offers a plausible account of the world.  In classical music terms I prefer to respond to the great masters writing between 1650 and 1950.  That’s my prerogative.  It’s the tradition I inherited, and there’s so much admirable about it that I prefer to try and build on it rather than junk it altogether.

But there is a more localised point too.  I have coined the term cultural foreshortening to describe the effect that the availability of so much centuries-old art at the touch of a button has on our way of experiencing it.  In the same way that the top of a building or mountain seems closer than it really is, when we have a machine which will play us the Beatles, or Kylie, or Monteverdi within a few seconds of our request, the old stuff seems contemporaneous with the new.  The idea that we should judge what we hear by the date of its conception is one mostly for musicologists.  Whenever it was written, we either find music (or art generally) gripping or we don’t.  And the more that art recedes into the historical past the less anyone cares whether, for example, my C major quartet was written in 1994 or 1934.  A well-created work of art constitutes its own world – it either persuades on its own terms, in which case we accept those terms and open ourselves to the experience it offers, or we don’t.  In which case the art deserves to be forgotten.

Fortunately we no longer live in a time in which there is “a style” and all must conform to it.  There was in western music a fairly serious attempt in the second half of the last century to impose such a style – the “great serialist terror”, something accomplished by preventing performances of composers who didn’t conform – but those days have to some extent gone, and so it’s a little easier for people like me to poke our heads out into the sunlight.  And given the slow proliferation of musics out there, who is in any event to decide which is the dominant stylistic trope to which we should respond?  The reviewer seems to think it might be James Dillon and his ilk.  But it’s a mark of their failure to grip our collective imagination that their work often provokes little more than a shrug.

And there are plenty of other dominant stylistic tropes I’ve cold-shouldered too – Mr Dillon isn’t alone.  For example, at the time he and I were writing our quartets Wet Wet Wet sold so many copies of Love is All Around Us that in the end they got fed up of it being at Number 1 and withdrew the record.  You will have worked out by now that, despite the millions it sold, I ignored Wet Wet Wet as well as the disciples of “new complexity”.  What kind of rebel am I?!

Sibelius 1 – at last.

I’ve written elsewhere of my discovery, courtesy of Wythenshawe Public Library, of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2, a revelation that made me want to become a composer and led to a lifetime’s admiration for and immersion in the work of the Finnish master.

Aged 11 or so, opportunities to hear more Sibelius were limited.  I had only pocket money, and this was the period when Sibelius’ reputation had not recovered from its slump in the 60s and 70s.  Performances weren’t common.

Someone once said that Sibelius was the first composer saved from obscurity by the long-playing record – the public had access to his music even when critics like Adorno derided it and conductors didn’t want to programme it.  Eventually, perhaps flush with birthday money, I went out and bought, without having previously heard it, a copy of the First Symphony.  This was surely a composer so good that his music demanded working through in a systematic way; might as well start at the beginning.

I’ve been lucky enough to conduct several Sibelius symphonies – Nos. 2 and 5 several times, No. 3 just the once – but the 1st eluded me until last Saturday.  Orchestras tend to want to play the popular ones, and the 1st is not a bums-on-seats piece.  Almost no one in the Halifax orchestra had played it before, and hardly any of them knew it.

Everyone I spoke to afterwards was blown away by its quality.

Sibelius is not famous for his startling innovation.  He isn’t a modernist, and it’s what he does with his – quite conservative – musical language that is distinctive, rather than the language itself.  The first two symphonies and the Violin Concerto which followed owe a lot to Tchaikovsky.  Nevertheless, the 1st is a richly enjoyable piece and, when you put aside its derivative aspects, points unequivocally forward to the mature composer.

The opening, in which a keening clarinet solo plays out over a timpani roll, is a new sound in music; utterly Sibelian, it places us in an unfamiliar landscape.  Similarly, the curious triplet rhythm of the first tutti statements has little obvious connection with received ideas of melody.  In the development section of the first movement there’s an extraordinary passage, the woodwind sliding chromatically downwards in turns over subterranean volcanic rumbles in the cellos and basses; extraordinary because it is mobile and yet utterly static at the same time.

This mastery of musical movement, so characteristic of later Sibelius and reaching its ideal in the 7th Symphony, is evident in the slow movement too, where a Tchaikovskian lament in muted strings over a harp pedal point grows quickly yet naturally into a full-blooded Allegro.  How does he do this?

The muscular scherzo, with battering-ram brass and timps sandwiching a trio section of surprising delicacy and tenderness, gives way to a finale which plunges us straight into a passionate restatement of the symphony’s opening clarinet theme.  The movement which follows alternates between a broad Slavic-Romantic Big Tune and shadowy quick music where the orchestra exchanges ideas in scurrying fragments.

One of these quick sections is brought to a halt by a gesture of brilliant simplicity – a high held note in the violins teetering downwards in a cascade of diminished-seventh semiquavers.  An orchestral full stop of the utmost confidence and panache.

Sibelius’s brass writing is of course wonderful; but he was not the first composer to write well for brass, and awesome as the rising blocks of sound are at the symphony’s conclusion, the thing which struck me was how much its emotional power derives from its economy.  It is a terse symphony with not a note wasted.  As always, Sibelius shows an acute awareness of how each part of the piece relates to and balances with the other parts.  Where other composers might have wanted to luxuriate complacently in their invention (a defining characteristic of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov), Sibelius’s economy makes every utterance vital.  You might say the symphony is laconic.

No sooner have we heard the finale’s yearning andante for the second time than, ruthlessly, a change comes over the music, a corner turned into a bitter wind, and we are back in E minor, heading for a conclusion we would scarcely have believed possible less than a minute ago.  The symphony’s abrupt close reminds me more of Brahms’ classicism (particularly the Fourth Symphony, and not just because of the shared key), than the Russian Romantics that are more obvious influences.

This surely is the key to Sibelius’s distinctive genius, and to the maturity which follows the Violin Concerto.  Sibelius is not a Romantic composer.

The question thus begged – what sort of composer is he? – is one for another day; although after nearly fifty years of enthusiasm I’m not sure it’s one I can answer.

Verklarte Nacht and Mahler 5.

I don’t think I’ve never heard Verklarte Nacht played live before.  It’s the acceptable face of Schoenberg, predating his shift toward – invention of? – serialism.  The BBC Phil, under some Venezuelan wunderkind, did a decent job as far as I could tell; but I was glad when it was over.  You can absolutely see why Schoenberg felt he had to get away from that sort of lush, over-ripe language: the music is forever pushing chromatic passing notes into what are already four or five note chords.  No wonder he wanted so badly to find a way back to something more astringent and spare.  Half an hour is way too long for a strings-only piece like this.  The ear notoriously tires of wind and brass much quicker, but lovely though strings are, and ingeniously though Schoenberg strives for variety, I’d had enough after twenty minutes.  Verklarte Nacht made me realise how wonderful are the Elgar Introduction and Allegro, RVW’s Tallis Fantasia and the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak Serenades.

I have a theory that every Mahler symphony could be improved by docking 25% of its running time.  Listening to the 5th after the break confirmed the impression.  The piece makes a very plausible journey from the darkness of the opening Funeral March towards the light of the Finale, stopping off at the Adagietto on the way.  The Adagietto is sui generis, a piece of wonderful inspiration, unimprovable.  I particularly like the way Mahler makes the final cadence the actual end of the piece, something quite difficult to do without sounding commonplace (something Elgar also achieves at the end of Nimrod, and Sibelius in the middle movement of his own 5th).

My only contact with Mahler 5 as a conductor has been depping for someone else in a rehearsal.  You can’t help but admire the way he handles the orchestra (although I think too often the large forces are just used to make the music louder rather than more varied – The Planets uses a big ensemble much better, and Shostakovich 5 is more expertly paced).  But too much of the second and third movements sound like filler to me – as if Mahler is writing something because he can, rather than because it’s essential to the musical and psychological argument.  And as for the Finale, one waits for the closing chorale in a ritual of tease and denial.  The first time you hear it this is effective, but I find repeated listening unbearable.  I found myself trying to identify the point at which I started to find Mahler’s modus annoying.  It came two iterations from the end: that’s to say on two occasions when he interrupts the apparently inexorable flow of the music towards the big tune I found myself thinking, “O for Christ’s sake get on with it”.  That meant enduring two more sections of Mahler’s orchestral babble before – at last – we got to the D major grand finale.

I admire Mahler more than love him, and though I think his view of life is skewed – it is not as heaven-stormingly joyful, catastrophically awful or swooningly romantic as he suggests – I would still have given a finger to have written a piece as bad as his 5th Symphony.  When put beside classical music’s realists however – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms and Nielsen – Mahler’s music looks overwrought and self-indulgent.  I would have given my right arm to have written the Inextinguishable.  I’ve written elsewhere that it’s strange that Mahler’s music should have such currency a hundred years after the death of the romantic movement which spawned it.  We live in a narcissistic age however, and God knows Mahler is the narcissistic composer par excellence.

As Roger Scruton once said, criticising someone else’s taste is merely to assert one’s own.  I’m not saying Mahler is wrong.  I’m saying I don’t like some of the choices he makes, and I think those choices reveal a lot about him as a composer and as a man.  I’m reminded of Jean Sibelius’s slightly priggish dictum – “The others offer cocktails of various hues.  I only have cold spring water”.  After this programme I could have done with some of that.  My personal taste is for composers who understand that the audience always need to be reminded of the possibility of silence, who let the light shine through in much the same way as watercolour painters who exploit the whiteness of the blank paper.  There wasn’t much of that here.  In fact part of the relief of hearing Mahler’s glorious closing chorale was that it one of the only musical statements in the entire concert which sounded plain, simple and true.

Britten’s national opera?

(Originally posted 2009)

I was reminded yesterday of an uncomfortable fact by a gushing review in the Guardian of a new ENO production .

I don’t like Peter Grimes.

This is close to heresy for a British musician, and I apologise for transgressing.

To be clear, I love the Four Sea Interludes, so it’s not the music that’s the problem. It’s the story. To understand Grimes it helps to grasp that Britten and Pears were interested in George Crabbe’s poem because its protagonist was an outsider in his community, The Borough, in much the same way as they felt themselves to be sexual outsiders in post-war Britain.

Early drafts of Montagu Slater’s libretto make it clear that Grimes is a violent monster, responsible by negligence at the very least for the deaths of the three apprentices under his charge.  But Britten changed the libretto as he went along to make Grimes a more ambiguous figure, so that we never know to what extent he is responsible for the first two deaths, and the third boy dies when scrambling down a cliff to Grimes’s boat.  The audience sees no violence (although Grimes does threaten the boy).

According to the Graun‘s review, in the new ENO production, the boy dies when Grimes, distracted by a vigilante crowd from The Borough, lets go of the rope holding him.  So here Grimes has tried to safeguard the boy, and The Borough is partly responsible for his death.

This just won’t do.  One reason I find sitting through the opera so tedious is that no-one in it is terribly sympathetic.  Grimes is horrible.  The Borough are all hypocrites.  The boy is a cipher (he doesn’t even sing).  Only Ellen Orford gets to sing two minutes of the most poignant music.  Now I accept that it may be too much to ask that all art depicting human relationships should have someone nice in it somewhere; but life is short, and three hours in the company of unpleasant people is not something you should have to pay for, however good the music.  Moreover, the opera portrays a whole society, and how many societies are entirely made up of the thoroughly disagreeable?

But it’s not just that.  The drama is fundamentally unbalanced.  We are asked to believe that Grimes is both a victim and a creation of The Borough, and that, according to the Graun‘s reviewer, they are “hypocritical . . . . a totally dysfunctional community, fuelled by religious bigotry . . . ”  Well perhaps, but even these are nicer people than Grimes.  Grimes is a twisted self-hating bully, whereas they are just hypocrites.  Who would you rather get stuck in a lift with?  Ah yes, reply Britten enthusiasts, but Grimes is twisted because the Borough hates him.  It’s all Society’s fault.  Well I don’t buy that.  Give me the Borough any day.

This curious moral blindness reminds me of something Frank Kermode once said.  He found that when teaching Camus’ The Outsider he was always amazed by how readily his students identified with the existentially tortured murderer; yet almost none of them were interested in the anonymous Arab victim.

Yes, it’s true: for artists, there’s no crime worse than provincial conservatism.

Celebrity Composers

(Originally posted 2009)

It was perhaps predictable that, after posting a month or so ago about the forthcoming performance of Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival, my wife would buy a pair of tickets and insist we go. “I’ll be miserable”, I protested. “Either it’ll be brilliant, in which case I’ll be jealous, or it’ll be dreadful, in which case I’ll be furious”. But my objections were in vain, and off we went last night to the packed Palace Theatre.

Actually Prima Donna was neither brilliant nor dreadful, and I was neither jealous or angry. Wainwright is clearly a very talented guy, and about a quarter of the opera worked really well. OK, a lot of it sounds like Puccini, but perhaps better so than Birtwhistle, and there is after all a lot of Haydn in Mozart. A lot of other bits reminded me of no-one at all.

As for the remaining three quarters, the word which sprang to mind was amateurish. Wainwright cannot write a climax and does not know how to make the music move forward. He doesn’t always know how to write music which underscores and amplifies the (fairly melodramatic) story, often serving up the bland at what should be the most gripping moments (the suspended dominant chord when the heroine may or may not be about to chuck herself from the window ledge perhaps the most memorably dreary example). Some of his writing for voices is leaden and unsympathetic (just because tenors can sing high doesn’t mean you have to make them sing high all the time). It came as no surprise to read in the score that Wainwright had needed the assistance of an “orchestration assistant”. I read this as meaning, “Rufus doesn’t know how to score for orchestra, so we’ll get a guy in who does”.

The truly depressing thing about Prima Donna is not that it is no good at all, but that all these superbly professional people – the singers, designers, producers and orchestra all aquit themselves honourably – had been put at vast expense at the service of someone who is essentially an inexperienced amateur. Why? Because Wainwright is famous; the fact that he is famous for doing something else does not seem to have bothered the people who commissioned his piece. This is exactly the same mistake as that made routinely by the chairmen of football clubs, who appoint managers thinking that because they were good at football they must also be good at management. Bobby Charlton, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne and many others tried it and failed. The best managers in the English league on the other hand in the last few years – Fergie, Mourinho and Wenger – were all average or worse as players. The gifted player like Mark Hughes who makes a good manager is an exception.

So now as well as celebrity managers we have celebrity composers. Is Leona Lewis writing an opera? Not so far as I know. But her agent should get onto it as soon as possible, because I’m sure that the organisers of some arts festival somewhere would like to hear from her. I am available if she needs an orchestration assistant.

Alan Green at the Proms

(Originally posted 2009)

As the umpteenth Proms season grinds its way to a close, I find guiltily that yet again I have failed to listen to more than a fraction of the concerts. There are several reasons for this. The pressures of family life. Being away on holiday. Not liking some of the programmes. And, it must be admitted, reluctance to face the sobering reality, experienced annually by the vast majority of British composers, that one’s own music does not feature. Again. This chilling douche makes the Proms as much a horse-syringe sized injection of humility as a great music festival. Attendance can be as painful as it is enjoyable.

The Proms and I go way back. As a student I queued for hours outside the Albert Hall to hear Rattle conduct Mahler, or Elder with the NYO doing bits of Valkyrie with Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde (quite the loudest singer I have ever heard). It was there that a performance of Nielsen’s fifth left me speechless for a full ten minutes. And after the concerts we’d literally run down the street to the Queen’s Arms to get two pints in and somewhere to sit before the crush of listeners and orchestral players arrived, arguing the toss about the music we’d just heard. Later, when I was working near Chancery Lane, I’d get the Tube to Marble Arch and walk across Hyde Park in the evening sunshine to meet my wife outside. It was a thoroughly civilised and invigorating thing to do, and now, ten years after having left London, it is still the only thing I miss about living there.

Notwithstanding all the concerts missed this year, there were still some great performances. Maris Yanssons doing Sibelius 1 with the flair and conviction of a great conductor at the top of his game. The Lebecq sisters playing the Poulenc Double. And has there been a more arch performer since Liberace than the uber-charismatic Lang Lang? For all his eye-rolling and gurning at the piano, he made the Chopin F minor concerto look really easy, and played with all the grace and finesse you could ask for.

To the downside, I didn’t like any of the newer stuff. I caught bits of a Xenakis piece which sounded truly dreary, and there was something by Louis Andriessen which did nothing very much before lumbering and stumbling to the finishing line. Did Roger Wright really have to commission Goldie, the former electronica luminary, a man who does not even read music, to write an orchestral piece?

And the BBC TV coverage was infuriating. Yes, no-one else would do this – and thank God for the BBC generally – but did the pundits have to be so bland? Not all performances were great, and neither was all the music. Strauss’s Alpinesinfonie is a monstrosity. The English singers in the otherwise wonderful John Wilson prom were wooden and lacklustre. The programme of the Gustav Mahler youth orchestra concert was a turgid fin-de-siecle Viennese-fest in which the lightest item was the Kindertotenlieder and rows of empty seats were clearly visible behind the presenter. You wouldn’t know any of this from the coverage, because in this the best of all possible worlds everything was great, the audiences loved it all and classical music was in rude health.

Does it have to be like this? I was reminded by contrast of the BBC’s football commentries, and in particular of Alan Green, a fearless Ulsterman who tells it like it is. The BBC no doubt pays him handsomely for his efforts, and pays handsomely for the right to broadcast those efforts to us. But Green couldn’t care less. “This game”, he’ll tell listeners, “is rubbish. The standard of football has been woeful. I’m doing my best to stay awake, and thank goodness it’s nearly half time”.