11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 46


Never jam today

Peter Phillips

Iam beginning to wonder whether any- thing written before 1950 was actually composed for the classical symphony orchestra as we know it. Or whether any composer of opera in the 19th century really wanted their music to be heard in the large opera houses fashionable today. Of course composers of the last 30-odd years have written for singers and orchestras as we have them; but they have done so in the belief that these sounds have always been the bricks which composers have built with. When modern composers choose tone colour, they do not choose between a violin made in 1850 and 1980, or a voice with no, little or massive vibrato, they tend to choose between different combinations of what is standardly available. I conclude that the first composers ever to have written for the orchestra which for decades was considered essentially to be Beeth- oven's were those born around 1920.

This point of view is brought into focus by a recent volume of essays from OUP entitled Authenticity and Early Music (£8.95 paperback, £25 hardback). This title is regrettable, because it is both dull and inaccurate, since most of the authors come to talk about performing music of the last 150 years. I realise that the words 'early music' have generally become synonymous with attempts to perform pieces as the composers might have heard them, and that originally this quest was centred on music before 1750; but now, to judge from the content of this volume, pre-1750 is old hat. The front line has rolled forward to swallow up Beethoven and Berlioz, and has Wagner and Brahrns in its sights.

It seems that there is no stopping the

advance, which for one contributor to this volume of essays, Robert P. Morgan, is caused by something more fundamental than curiosity and moral disapproval at making everything sound overblown. He believes that present-day composition is so directionless, so devoid of a central core, that everyone involved in music, from composers through conductors to concert- goers, is turning to the past. By this theory our motives for doing this are mixed, but nostalgia and a search for novelty within tradition are at the bottom of it. Since composers are today 'deprived of an in' digenous language• that is truly their, and their public's, own, they try out and discard new styles and techniques with remarkable alacrity'. He goes on to say that one style which has caught on to the, extent of reaching 'epidemic proportions' is the desire to write 'music that inten- tionally conjures up the spirit of the past—and of at least one, but possibly several, former composers'. Stravinsky's neo- baroque and neo-classical periods and compositions like Dumbarton Oaks were just the beginning. It is not difficult to understand that the familiar search for novelty and this desire for cultural stability have combined to promote the authentic revival in music" making. Nor is it difficult to see that if this revival runs its full course there is going to be a shattering of the established way of doing things. Professional musicians of the old school (which is still most of them) have for a while been wary of this turn of events, loudly complaining that baroque specialists resort to old instruments be- cause they cannot play modern ones, and when that fails to stick, as it no longer does, they try the line that old styles result in anodyne performances. Such remarks sound more and more hollow. Already modern concert orchestras dare not plaY Bach and Handel and are careful with Haydn and Mozart. Soon it will be a matter of general concern that Berlioz disliked La Scala because he thought it too big for singers to be heard in every part of it without distorting their voices and Wagner built his own smaller opera house so that the words, in particular of the second Act of Tristan, could be clearly heard, It is an extraordinary twist that if what I say in my first paragraph is true (that recent composers are the only writers to have used the modern symphony orchestra for how it actually sounds, given that instruments are continually evolving), and if Dr Morgan's diagnosis of an epidemic is also accurate (in the sense that composers are increasingly looking to the past for inspiration), then our hallowed Western tradition is in the hands of people who have been misled at their point of depar- ture. Put like this, the modern performing tradition becomes a travesty. The next step is unclear. Some composers have turned to the authenticated sounds and methods of the older masters whom they wish to

emulate. Others have taken up ultra- modern sounds, for instance electronic ones, which put their music beyond the scope of this argument. All in all we seem to be in need of truly modern sounds or genuinely old ones, and the 20th-century sYmphony orchestra is rapidly being heard not to provide either.