December 1998

1940s-1980s: 'Forty years of madness'?

Nicholas Kenyon, Controller BBC Proms and Millennium Programmes, gave the inaugural Belle Shenkman Memorial Lecture at the Royal College of Music on 22 October 1998. This is a revised extract.

We know that there's a problem in contemporary music because we have been told so by a performer with the wide name-recognition of Julian Lloyd Webber. I've talked through with him his speech at the World Economic Forum where he dismissed the ‘forty years of madness from 1945 to the early 80s' ...and in spite of his protestations that he does value and play some contemporary music I still think that the speech was monumentally stupid. 'Classical music turned its back on the audience and shot itself in the foot... composers who had pursued a logical development of the music of the great masters were increasingly disparaged and derided by the new führers of the classical music establishment for whom tonality and harmony had become dirty words.'

The best one can say of this is that it does reflect what a lot of people felt, but that doesn't make it true. The fact is that if the 'logical development of the music of the great masters' has indeed disappeared – and I believe that one thing our century has brought is a totally new attitude to tradition, influence, continuity and development – it has disappeared for much bigger cultural reasons than that a few pseudo-führers wanted it to be so. This attack is particularly distasteful because it is aimed among others at William Glock, who totally revitalised British music in the 1960s and to whom we are all permanently in debt. He did what he did because much important work was being neglected and overlooked in the British musical life of the 1950s, when the BBC, faced with a proposal to broadcast a concert of Webern, Henze, Berio and Nono, did so on the grounds that 'to broadcast a few of their better works would not damage our reputation for acute critical assessment'. My feeling, and I'm ready to be proved wrong by history, is that the heady days of post-war serialism, just like the strident early days of the authenticity movement, were a time of absolutely inevitable and necessary rejection of the part, an act of reaction to the biggest turmoil in European history, from which a few really valuable pieces emerged among much that was tedious and didactic.

The avant-garde thought they were creating the future, and they were wrong. That doesn't matter: composers rarely do what they believe they are doing, which is one of (few) things that keeps critics and musicologists in business. But to dismiss as 'forty years of madness' a period which includes, if nothing else, Britten and Tippett operas, is a nonsense. Looking back on it, British music has surely never been so rich, so diverse and so thriving as it has been in the half-century since that extraordinary moment when Peter Grimes burst on the post-war scene. Lloyd Webber is right that something happened in the 1980s, which was surely among other things the acceptance that there wasn’t a single way forward, that diversity was welcomed. It wasn't the death of the avant-garde. It was the absorption of the insights of the avant-garde onto a much broader musical canvas where they could co-exist with more traditional elements and more far-off influences. It was the reintegration of contemporary music.

What this reintegration has enabled is the re-emergence of some British composers who had indeed been partly sidelined in previous years but had stuck to their idiomatic guns, as it were. And the incredible renaissance of British music has continued through the 90s: think of the first performances in John Drummond's Proms of the early 1990s – James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Screaming Popes, the late masterpieces of Michael Tippett, the Fifth Symphony of Maxwell Davies; and I don't think we’ve done too badly in the last three years with John Woolrich's Oboe Concerto, David Sawer's ...the great happiness principle... and Julian Anderson's The Stations of the Sun. Yes, I know it's invidious to single these out, but these are pieces that made a huge impact on me, and each has been heard by many thousands of people in the Albert Hall and on radio. But the most important thing is that in none of these works do I hear history hanging heavily: they have re-found a vividness and directness of communication which can reach out to all.

The BBC is mounting a series of concerts of Classics of British music since the war, Endless Parade, at the South Bank Centre from 31 March to 28 April 1999, as part of the culmination of BBC Radio 3's 'Sounding the Century' project.

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester