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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Lost Art

By Norman Lebrecht / August 13, 2003

Next Monday will be a night of shame for British music. It marks the first performance in London of a work by a Finnish composer, Kalevi Aho, his ninth symphony. Aho is 54 years old, a former lecturer at Helsinki University who broke away from the national fixation with Sibelius-like sonic clarity to pursue Gustav Mahler's messier idea that 'the symphony is like the world - it must embrace everything.'

Aho has just completed his 12th symphony. I have heard most of them, up to and including the 10th, and I have grown to admire his mastery of large ensembles and varied themes. His 10th, for instance, contains elements of commentary on Mozart's 39th and Bruckner's ninth symphonies, asserting its own place within an important living genre.

Living, that is, anywhere but in Britain. The British symphony is dead, its life support system switched off some years ago by concert managements and public indifference. No active British composer has achieved 12 symphonies. The few who have struggled over decades to maintain the heritage - chiefly Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies - have been cruelly sidelined by administrators who prefer minimalisms and classipops to daunting works of real substance.

The only UK citizen still making big symphonies is the Scot James MacMillan, whose latest score, subtitled 'Silence, was commissioned and premiered in Japan. Introduced to a Proms audience last month, MacMillan's third symphony was dismissed by critics for its 'pseudo' Asiatic effects. The British mind is not presently receptive to any musical idea larger than a Lloyd Webber soundbite.

The demise of the British symphony is a long-running national tragedy. Its story began with Edward Elgar whose first attempt, in 1908, was hailed by its German conductor Hans Richter as 'the greatest symphony in modern times - and not only in this country'. Others before Elgar had timidly tinkered but Elgar's was the first to assert in the key of A-flat major a swagger of Edwardian confidence, capturing the spirit of his time. In its first year, the symphony received close to 100 performances around the world.

Elgar followed up in 1911 with a second symphony in E-flat major, more subdued and premonitory. He left a third unfinished at his death with instructions for the sketches to be burned. The BBC, in violation of his wishes, commissioned a completion in 1997 from Anthony Payne, an exhumation that has been almost universally extolled despite its obvious ethical and thematic poverty.

Fired by Elgar's success, a rush of would-be three-Bs - Bax, Bantock, Havergal Brian - upped British symphonic production to an industrial scale, with Brian turning out no fewer than 32. William Walton's first symphony in 1934 was so eagerly anticipated that BBC performed it incomplete in three movements, unable to wait for the finale. The benchmark for the British symphony was Ralph Vaughan Williams whose third symphony of 1922 eulogised the world destroyed by the First War and whose fifth, in 1943, reflected the mood of another war. VW fulfilled for, wartime Britain, much the same role as Shostakovich did with his 15 symphonies in Soviet Russia. More than mere composers, they were chroniclers of the nation's fate.

The decline set in with Benjamin Britten, who was never comfortable with the form and added four oddities to the canon - the Simple Symphony, Sinfonia da Requiem, Spring Symphony and Cello Symphony. As avant-gardism grew dominant in the 1960s, other composers were actively discouraged by programme controllers from wasting time on epic works when they could be creating exquisite little mathematical conundra that squeaked like mice.

The few who persisted with symphonies were progressively barred from the BBC and concert halls. Malcolm Arnold, whose nine symphonies include both riotous entertainments (the 5th) and brooding contemplations (the 7th and 9th), was dismissed by the powers-that-were (and in many cases still are) as a jumped-up film composer. Benjamin Frankel (8 symphonies) Andrzej Panufnik (10), Jonathan Lloyd (4) and the rather simplistic George Lloyd (12) have been entombed along with many other symphonists in an unreachable BBC vault, never to be allowed the oxygen of a Proms performance.

The first symphony by the impeccably modernist Peter Maxwell Davies, finished in the year of Britten's death, was premiered by the cub-like Simon Rattle in 1978, presaging possibilities of revival. It was not to be. Max has since written seven more symphonies with diminishing returns, announcing last year that he will write no more. So devalued is the stock of the British symphony that 25 years have passed since the recording of Max's first and only this month have Decca seen fit to release it on compact disc.

It would be easy to blame the BBC, independent orchestras and indolent conductors for this appalling neglect of an indigenous art form. All have gravely erred but the prime responsibility for the decline belongs to the British composer. With the honourable exceptions of Arnold and Max, eminences of the past three decades have shirked the symphonic challenge, knowing that it takes less creative effort to spout a jazzyy overture or concerto. While Aho in Finland, Henze in Germany, Dutilleux in France and others all over the civilised world sustain the chain of symphonic tradition, British composers go for the lazy option, the cheap applause, and show no regret for the dying of an art.

Do not for one moment buy the proposition that the symphony is dead. Henze's tenth, premiered last summer by Rattle in Lucerne, is rich in ideas and experience. Aho's ninth, as you may hear next week at the Proms, is artfully constructed around a ribald trombone.

Like the narrative novel, the symphony is regularly pronounced dead, only to defy the morticians when an intelligent strand of the purchasing public demonstrates that it will settle for nothing less than an idea which is too large to grasp at first encounter, but which rewards the persistence of prolonged exposure. Most of the symphonies discussed in this article are obtainable on small-label recordings for the price of a paperback novel.

The big novel has never been bigger. Especially in a soundbite era, many consumers deliberately choose depth and breadth over instant plots. The symphony, too, has more followers and creators than ever before. Everywhere, except here.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001