The Concert of the Present

  • Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Today's festival director has gone from administrator to creator; impresarii are as involved as their artistes in developing individual events. A leading festival director will discuss what is wrong, and what is right, with the modern concert premiere.

Download Transcript


The Concert of the Present


Professor Piers Hellawell


Every lecture of mine at Gresham has dwelt upon the ways in which the position of music in our society is different from that of earlier societies. For a start, we now listen to their music a lot more than we do to our own, something that would have astonished earlier listeners. That preponderance of old music and the loss of mass ownership of what is new are, in part, because some of what we hear for the first time is not much good; worse, because some of the least durable stuff gains the highest exposure, the public perception of what is 'new music' in the classical stream is often shaped by an unrepresentative sample. The only cure for this is time; who now listens to the music of Monsieur Grebus? That old friend of Gresham, Samuel Pepys, did:

"October 1st 1667 All day busy at the office. Pleased mightily with my girl that we have got to wait on my wife…. Took coach alone, it now being almost night, to Whitehall and there in the Boarded Gallery did hear the music with which the King is presented this night by Monsieur Grebus [Louis Grabu], the master of his music - both instrumental (I think 24 violins) and vocall, an English song upon peace; but God forgive me, I was never so little pleased with a consort of music in my life - the manner of setting of words and repeating them out of order, and that with a number of voices, makes me sick, the whole design of vocall music being lost by it. Here was a great press of people but I did not see many pleased with it; only, the instrumental music he had brought by practice to play very just. So thence late, in the dark round by the Wall home by coach; and there to sing and sup with my wife and look upon our pretty girl, and so to bed."

Monsieur Grabus must be one of the least-known of the Masters of the Royal Music, yet many a listener in that "great press of people" might have gone home muttering about 'the kind of stuff people are writing nowadays', if we believe Pepys' jaundiced picture. Whether their belief in new music was bolstered in subsequent years by the appearance of Henry Purcell is doubtful, for new music of individuality is in the minority at any time; as Stravinsky commented, "Of course most new music is bad. It always was." Musical history is of course littered with tales of poorly received premieres of great works, and rapturous receptions for works of no lasting moment, and I do not intend to revisit these - for today I am more interested in the frame than the picture, so to speak.

It seems to me that much can be learned about our attitude to new art music from the way in which our musical society presents it. The very idea of a 'public concert', a venture which took root only a hundred years after Pepys' account, was in a way a signal that the meaning of music was changing: being made available on the open market, music was being acknowledged as of value for a wider listerner-ship than merely for distinguished courtiers like Pepys, in the index to whose Diaries the word 'concert' does not appear, though 'consort' - the playing of music in an ensemble - does, on many occasions. The great diarist himself was in a sense a modern listener, showing in his perceptive criticisms a tendency to active listening that goes far beyond the entertaining pursuit of a memorable tune. His criticism of the underlay of the words, and of the vocal texture that disguised them, show a keen seriousness that elevated the process of listening in his experience, whatever his scorn for the content. It would be good to learn from Pepys the royal demeanour at musical performances: the arrival of the public concert by no means ensured active listening on the part of royal personages. George II, of course, sprang to attention for the Hallelujah Chorus, allegedly mistaking it for his own National Anthem, and a later monarch, slumbering through a performance of 'The Wreckers' by Dame Ethyl Smyth in 1901, exclaimed 'That's the third time that infernal noise has roused me!".

What I think is conspicuously missing from Pepys' account, and from numerous others of the performances of new music in bygone times, is reverence. You might expect me to lament this, but in fact no manifestation of the isolation of art music today is more insidious than reverence - the feeling that the artefact, even if not reaching out to one as listener, must be momentous simply because it is in the programme. This is insidious because it exonerates the listener from the sort of critical response, however brief, given by Pepys. A listener who, with whatever disclaimers about their expertise, says after a concert 'I did/did not enjoy that work because, for example, it did/did not create an atmosphere that was compelling', is for me fulfilling their role in the execution of a contract between the parties that provide, perform and consume live music. The listener, who went to hear a Romantic symphony, and affects to ignore, and remain untainted by, the unwanted new work in the programme, is for me violating that contract and is hastening the decline of live performance.

One of my favourite examples of this, perhaps sentimentally, is a fictional one from the second series (2) of the television drama The West Wing: President Bartlett has to attend a concert by the Iceland SO, and is compelled by circumstances to remain for the second half, in which a new work by an Icelandic composer is played. Having vented his prejudices about Schoenberg and music after him on the way to this prestigious event, the President, much moved by the premiere, gives a luminous verbal appreciation of the new work and its expressive terrain afterwards, and writes this to the composer. Probably I like this example just because it is fictional; away from Planet Bartlett we have no state leaders of any cultural seriousness. As Yeats wrote, 'the best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity' - and all we can hope for is to be left alone by the politicians.

The views of other concertgoers, however, are very welcome, the more so when informed by detail and criticism. I am a fan of something that hardly ever takes place, the post-concert talk, in which the composer talking before the performance, is replaced by the listener talking after it. Reverence, though, is not a helpful addition to musical reception, apart from of course reverence for the performers themselves, and for the ceremony of performance. I recall that when I had my first job, as a 'composer-in-residence', an acquaintance use to drag me round parties saying 'Piers is a com-POSER', although I never once saw her at a new music concert. Yet in the era of prurient biographical snooping, with its 'revelations' that this or that writer was a complete so-and-so, there is no sign of our refocusing upon the artefact itself - not when artists themselves are just so damn - interesting.

The rise of reverence is clearly in direct relation to the rarity of its objects; Pepys wasted no time by bowing down before the new music he heard, because it was a weekly encounter, and this left him free to concentrate on its substance. I think every one of us who works under the broad umbrella of artistic production is united by a desire to recreate the wider need for artistic objects, thus bringing more of the everyday to these encounters. We really believe that this deepens the experience of people, whether it is the work of the LSO in the Barbican or the art of Jodie Fraser and her colleagues in Caol Primary School near Fort William, who have won such attention for their own artistic seriousness. However we are to present new art, I believe it must involve a drawing-in process, rather than an elevation to a pedestal where it can safely be left and ignored. Nonetheless, this process of invitation is itself full of pitfalls, and it is time to consider these and their effect on new music's reception.

In the art music scene of the late 20th Century two approaches to presenting new work abound. One reflects the secession of modernism that we have discussed in earlier lectures, wherein the 'true' avant-garde retired to high ground, so as to remain untainted by the process of turning art into commodity that they saw as inseparable from capitalism. The other strand is in reaction to this one, and seeks to reintegrate the new work into the existing concert framework - perhaps rather as the tramp who stumbles into the church is urged by the true pastor to take a pew, and to find a hymnbook, even as respectable worshippers either side of him shift away in distaste.

The former of these saw the avant-garde in Europe after Schoenberg grouping to share its new music in a forum that was quite distinct from the mainstream concert - the new music festival. The other approach, in which non-avant-garde composers like Strauss and Rachmaninov must have continued to present work, was to include new pieces among the reassuring programmes of familiar repertoire.

Obviously neither of these approaches, the hothouse concert of premiered works nor the classical programme-plus-sore-thumb, is satisfactory unless a lot of thought goes into the detailed content. I believe the ideal framework in which to hear a new work is on its own - that is, as a concert in its own right. This is of course hardly ever practicable, not to say economic, but the more usual approach of surrounding the unfamiliar with what is proven by time does release resonances that are predominantly confusing and distracting. How, I wonder, can we assess our response to what comes from outside our experience, when taking it alongside the Quartet of which we know every note? Inevitably the new listening is by comparison uncomfortable, and a bumpy ride in which our view is incomplete. Art is often intended to be uncomfortable - or, at least, is not intended to be comfortable, which is not the same thing - but familiarity will disguise that from even so disquieting a work as Brahms' C minor Piano Quartet, which then attains, once set alongside a new sound-world, an illusion of comforting familiarity (merely because it is tonal).

EX Brahms' C minor Piano Quartet from (i)

The most unusual premiere I can recall attending was in a time-honoured venue for music making, the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, when I was a student. It was not part of a concert, but was the concert itself. As I dawdled next door in the library of the then Music Faculty, a fellow student-composer grabbed my arm and said 'come next door to attend a world premiere'. When I protested, he assured me it wouldn't take long, and he was right. Next door, in the empty hall, were a young composer, not known to me, and a saxophone player. The composer announced Three Pieces for the Eve of Armageddon, after which there came the most ear-splitting wailing of which the soprano saxophone is capable. I heard a number of new works there over the years, but it is no accident that this is the event whose details I can relate now, and not on account of special musical merits. The performance became an event, because it was not received amid the layers of comparative listening that the normal concert involves. My own ideal, therefore, in a game of fantasy concert-promotion, is a confrontation between listener and music uncluttered by resonances, unexpected comparisons, reassuringly familiar landmarks or intrusive stage management (3). For me this is the only impassive presentation of new work.

But of course the traditional programme context can be constructive, if thoughtfully done. For example, if a work is preceded by another that influenced it (rather than the principle of 'better do a blockbuster to make up'). An advantage of the traditional programme is that those attending to hear what is familiar have no baggage about the unfamiliar; better a resistant listener than a jaded one. It is a cardinal rule of promotion for me that new music should be aimed at those not expecting it, in the hope that its listener-ship be widened; anything else seems terribly complacent. I do nonetheless share the weariness of many of my colleagues in the field at the absolute refusal of many classical audiences to progress beyond the museum repertoire. The corollary of this battered idealism is a tendency to go for the niche - to accept that swathes of listener-ship are not interested, and to reach out to the interested few. This is good practical maths and, in fact, common sense, but there is room for idealism and evangelism as well.

It may be the feeling that audiences will turn out for events in bulk, or that it is efficient to organize numbers of events together, rather than in isolation - but our musical life has in recent years been overrun by festivals. While in the 50s the great names, Edinburgh or Aldeburgh, stood like cathedrals above the parish of concert series and recitals, there is hardly a market town without a festival today - Bury St Edmunds, Exeter, Reigate, Ryedale, Buxton. The British Music Yearbook (4) is a Betjemanesque parade through Merrie England: a recent edition lists 23 festivals for London alone, even when omitting some newer ones, while the national list for England has 134, from Abbotsbury to York - enough to have their own Association. On the face of it this is a glorious burgeoning of participation, and it is no doubt presented as such in some political green papers. Yet such a profusion indicates an unprecedented chase for funds, in one direction, and for sated audiences in another; not only have all these events to be funded somehow, but support has then to be justified in terms of attendance. This in turn puts pressure on programmes, and their artistic direction, to attract and sustain audiences - a subtly different aim from the purpose of providing art not otherwise available in an area. The effect of this is, of course, likely to be felt on the presentation of new work.

So there may be a debate to be had about whether festivals and their budgets are there to offer society what it cannot otherwise see, or to reflect what it sees on the box, or both. I do not want to pour cold water on a trend toward greater, or even different, participation: change is endemic in our lives. It could also be pointed out that a ruinous proportion of local arts subsidy already goes on orchestral activity! But if it should be that there is a pull toward events reflecting popular culture, which attracts crowds and advertising, I think this should be noted - for it may remove something not otherwise available. The point is that popular culture is widely catered for and funded elsewhere.

The entry of television-led entertainment into 'arts' festivals is an obvious product of the need to generate good news statistics, not in all festivals but in some of the large ones. One current festival has 120-odd professional events: of these 14 are 'stand-up' comedians and 8 are rock band, DJ or singer events, while there is one visiting string quartet and one piano recital. The huge range of events in this example includes no concert by a visiting orchestra, though the same festival hosted, within my memory, shows by the Leipzig Gewandhaus, along with individuals like the Beaux Arts Trio, John Ogdon and Kyung Wha Chung. Noting this shift in what our festivals mean for art might sound a blimpish reaction from me in the face of the new, except that two of the more expensive events in this programme are Nana Mouskouri and Status Quo - not exactly once-in-a-lifetime risk-taking explorations. The 'risk-taking' that is so much vaunted in arts planning less frequently operates within the sphere of classical music, though I say that today's guest is a distinguished exception.

A popular stratagem from the mid-1980s onwards in unifying disparate events is the introduction of themes in programming. Clearly there is nothing new about trying to unite a large festival with a thread, but today it is hard to find a series promoted without them. Furthermore, they have now spread their diaphanous tentacles around ordinary concert planning: twice within a fortnight lately I have had conversations with orchestral management about forthcoming series 'whose theme will be' this or that. Presenting music in musical combinations is apparently not enough.

This trend concerns me a bit, because these musical connections may be on stronger artistic ground than are tenuous connections of circumstance. Attending a concert of symphonies by Beethoven and Mendelssohn recently, I was drawn to the possible influence of the one on the other by the pre-concert speaker. Yet there is no link other than genre, and contemporary practice, to unite them. They made a superb comparison for strong musical reasons. Nowadays they might as easily have been part of a tenuous theme, however: for another orchestra has told me of protracted, 2-year contortions to fit a programme into 'Love and Seduction' for the Lucerne Festival. The result: Dvorak's 8th and Beethoven's 4th, given to a poor house. Branding like that really is on a par with the meaningless labels, invariably stuck to rock band tours today, that end up on the back of T-shirts: 'Melting Giraffe Tour 1999' and so on.

There is no harm to come from themed programming, perhaps, so long as it enhances content above sponsorship or advertising needs. I only chafe when it dictates, not only programming but even commissioned work, for I believe the essence of patronage is to identify the practitioner you want, then enable them to do what they do. The fact that patrons historically have wreathed artists in bonds that they then had to transcend does not, for me, make that the best route to durable art.

My impression of continental festivals not specialising in new or old music is that they are - pace Lucerne - more of a free-for-all. Nordic programmes delight in mixing not only styles and periods, but even ensembles in one programme. A recent premiere of mine - clearly directed as to its medium, but free as to the content - had string works by Handel and Walton preceding it, and a recent concerto for four saxophones to follow. Such festivals tend to be united by featuring a living composer and, maybe, a visual artist, rather than by any overarching principle. The result is a feast of unexpected resonances between old and new that is at least as stimulating as thematically conceived fare (5).

Maybe this is part of a philosophical division between views of art - either seen as an organism with coherent trends and patterns, or else as a glorious anarchy, without any theme but its own diversity. If it is indeed the latter, then I have doubts about attempts to impose logic upon its output. Both of these, nonetheless, are honourable views, and both can muster any amount of evidence. If the thought behind The Concert Of The Present is not always so high-minded, it most certainly should be.

Now that I have convinced myself that the role of a festival director is absolutely impossible, this is a good point at which to introduce my guest, who juggles all these issues with positive gusto.



© Piers Hellawell, 12 November 2002




1 Pepys, Samuel, ed Latham and Matthews, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, VIII 1667, Bell (London) 1974, p.458

2 Channel 4 Television, 2001.

3 Staging, by the way, is a factor often overlooked in presenting complex modern scores in concert, for many require particular stage-layouts, even for orchestras. The sort of non-musical theatre that Cage satirized in 4'33" has survived into more recent times: I heard of a premiere that involved, before the piece commenced, nine people leaning into a grand piano to alter its strings, while the audience waited for ten minutes with mounting frustration. Such protracted preparations, hopefully positioned in the interval, are unavoidable in concerts, but can easily be interpreted, once the theatrical novelty pales, as part of a conspiracy to insult those listening.

4 ed Rich, F The British Music Yearbook 1998, Rhinegold 1998 pp 237-244.

5 One difference behind this is that artists at such Nordic festivals, rather than fly in for three hours, are often invited for a week, during which they make music in new partnerships in a way their normal schedule does not allow. This allows them to unwind and become familiar to audiences, while the results are thrilling and often funny - when late-night events allow great players to 'let their hair down'. This, to my mind is the festival spirit, for it is led by the presence of artists, rather than by the abstract events for which performers are transient facilitators.


This event was on Tue, 12 Nov 2002

piers hellawell

Piers Hellawell

Professor of Music

Piers Hellawell is a composer, writer and photographer. He is Professor of Composition at Queen's University in Belfast and was the Gresham Professor of Music...

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.