What a relief, that for a month now, the BBC Proms have been back. Not only that, there has been an audience in the Royal Albert Hall, although, with the subdued lighting across the auditorium, you would hardly know. Aside from the stage, the hall is in darkness. Sir Simon Rattle evidently thought so too. Twice I saw him put a hand to his forehead as if to shield his eyes as he peered out into the abyss, to see if he could see anybody. His all Stravinsky concert, with the LSO, was magnificent. Fortunately, though invisible, the audience, ever attentive during the music, made its presence felt with applause and cheers. The Proms audience has always been appreciative, but never more so than now, as it has been starved of live music for nearly a year and a half.
A month ago today, on the first night, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed Vaughan Williams’ setting of words from The Merchant of Venice, The Serenade to Music.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
How true! And yet, perhaps somebody cursed with the blight of tone deafness might take me to task for such prejudice. Add to ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, snobbery, and xenophobia, the charge of “atonalism”. We might organise a Prom especially programmed for the harmonically challenged, in order to “level up”. A celebration of discord. Some might argue that contemporary classical music is precisely that.
I can’t remember the last time I heard a contemporary orchestral work that was greeted by the audience with enthusiasm. Usually the response is in the form of a polite smattering of applause. The world première becomes a world derrière. I can remember the last time I heard a contemporary work being greeted with catcalls and boos, and a shout of “Rubbish!”, and it was during a Prom in the Albert Hall. It was a work for percussion. Pleiades by Iannis Xenakis. I have to admit I whispered to my neighbour, “Life’s too short” and took myself off to the bar, not because of the discord, but because of the sheer volume.
Of course there are plenty of works, initially incomprehensible to the audience, which have become standard repertoire. Bach’s music was too complicated for his church congregation, Mozart’s too elaborate for the aristocracy (“Too may notes, Mozart!”), Beethoven wrote one of his string quartets “for a later age”, everybody thought Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was just bonkers, Cesar Cui thought Rachmaninov’s First Symphony came from a conservatory in hell, and wrote a crit so damning it nearly sent Rachmaninov over the edge, there was a riot at the première of The Rite of Spring, and so on. Even Charles Ives’ Three Pieces in New England (Proms, August 8th), its middle movement a soundscape of shifting cacophony, has become mainstream repertoire. I love the atmosphere of the third piece, The Housatonic at Stockbridge. So you never can tell. Yet it would be good if somebody wrote tuneful music. I think it would be greatly appreciated. Yet, despite the fact that people hunger and thirst for a tune, composers and critics seem to have turned their noses up to the sound of melody, as if melody were banal and naïve. Malcolm Arnold, a great tunesmith despite being a troubled man, began to lose popularity in the 1960s precisely because he wrote melody. At least the Proms performed his fifth symphony on August 27th. A revelation.
Contemporary composers take themselves very seriously. “In my work Concatenations, I wanted to capture in sound the idea of a series of ideas bouncing off one another and causing reverberations that ripple to the horizon and return once again to re-interact with one another in a metamorphosed form and shape.” Give us a break. Rodgers and Hammerstein never had to explain Some Enchanted Evening like that. Ronald Reagan once remarked that if you have to explain yourself to the electorate, you’ve already lost.
(Don’t Google Concatenations. I just made that up.)
Still I try to keep an open mind. Maybe the next time I hear a première I will be blown off my feet. So I will return to the Royal Albert Hall full of buoyancy and hope.
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears.
Talking of the sound of music, last night I greatly enjoyed, not the family von Trapp, but the equally numerous and prodigiously talented family Kanneh-Mason play Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. The Swan was beautifully played. I heard Sheku Kanneh-Mason play the Elgar Cello Concerto a couple of years ago at the Edinburgh Festival. My neighbour in the Usher Hall whispered, “He’s not quite ready for it.” But I reckon he just meant that Sheku didn’t sound like Jacqueline du Pré. I thought he was magnificent. Like Kiki Dee, he has the music in him.