This year and next see the centenaries of the births of several exceptional British composers, whose music has – it seems, naturally – suffered almost total neglect since their deaths, seemingly going the way of almost all posthumous flesh. They were very different composers with regard to the language and expressive aims of their compositions, but they were each men of considerable artistic integrity, and I knew them all.
The oldest was London-born Peter Racine Fricker (pictured) – a descendent of the French poet. At the time of my own musical awakening – late-1940s & -early-1950s – he was becoming widely regarded as the composer to watch.
Peter was born in 1920. In the 1955 edition of their indispensable book The Record Guide Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor commented “Peter Racine Fricker may well prove to be the most important British composer of his generation.”
Well, of course, it didn’t work out that way, but it doesn’t mean they were wrong – after all, there was a handful of significant British composers of that generation, born in the four or five years immediately following World War One, each of whom – in varying degrees – made their mark around the same time: Richard Arnell, Fricker, Robert Simpson, Malcolm Arnold and Iain Hamilton.
With the possible exception of Arnold, the major works of all of them – each exceptionally gifted – has fallen into neglect. Why should this be so? Well, there are many reasons, almost none of which has to do with the quality of their music, which remains the same since the day it was written.
Sackville-West and Shawe-Taylor were not fools. Their ears were finely attuned to musical quality, and they were not alone in their praise, not only of Fricker but also of his contemporaries, as well as of older, more established figures whose music is also, today, almost never heard.
In those days, of course, there were classical record companies – principal of which were EMI and Decca, both British, long-established, whose artists were almost exclusively native musicians, or those whose reputation was made or significantly enhanced by appearances in this country – before, during and after World War Two.
One only has to consider Herbert von Karajan, whose career was made in Britain in the decade following the War, or Otto Klemperer, whose reputation burgeoned when he came to settle in London – in so far as his recordings and concerts were concerned.
Both great conductors were exclusively associated with one of the greatest orchestras in the World at the time – the Philharmonia, which had been formed in 1945 essentially as a recording orchestra in the wake of the decimated ensembles. In that regard, the Hallé in Manchester should always be excepted – but its ‘provincial’ base, as perceived at the time, detracted from its international standing.
Today, those great companies, with their incomparable artistic legacies – including regular monthly complete opera issues, recordings by the greatest singers, conducted by the finest and most experienced musical directors of the opera-house – are no more, the great names of EMI and Decca at best forming small parts of major international ‘media’ conglomerates, with often less-than-wholly-admirable artists recording the same repertoire over and over again, with the same dispiriting sales figures: we need another set of Beethoven Symphonies as much as General Custer needed more Red Indians.
Well, that’s how it was, and there are (for those who have managed to survive) many reasons for looking back to the first few decades of the post-war period through rose-tinted spectacles – yet I wonder if, in sixty or so years’ time, record companies (if they still exist) will be able to draw on broadcast performances from the BBC with the same guarantee of musical excellence as our memories and surviving LPs and CDs attest.
The BBC now has five symphony orchestras, each with its individual management and artist-and-repertoire structure. In one sense they appear to be competing with one another, as it’s all pretty much the same old, same old with a smattering of something a bit different – actually, more ‘fashionable’, giving the critics something to write about – not for their readers, but to convince their sub-editors that a column on ‘classical music’ is worth printing because of its ‘wide appeal’ – and not rather than being so often subjected to the ‘delete’ button.
The removal of music as a subject from the National Curriculum a few years ago by Michael Gove was the worst and most offensive act of artistic barbarism by any government since the War. The notion that ‘music’ can be studied by playing guitars or drums after school hours is the attitude of a profoundly uncivilised individual. What was removed was the history of musical art – Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Elgar, Britten – and Malcolm Arnold – from the experience of the country’s young people.
I am not suggesting they should be sat in a school hall listening to a String Quartet by Haydn or Bartók (though, today, our general musical ecumenicism may produce some surprisingly successful results were that to happen) – but to remove the subject entirely from the experience of children was cultural vandalism on a nuclear scale – more so, as it had first been placed there by a National Government during World War Two.
Children, and adults too for that matter, can hardly be expected to express an opinion on something with which they are never given the opportunity of coming into contact – all art, including drama, literature, painting, and classical music, is their heritage – and it’s free. It is not something that should have been subject to the whim of a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politician.
Classical Music remains – just about – part of the country’s aesthetic heritage, and not because a thirty-something Scandinavian conductor has been appointed to a BBC Orchestra. No-one can reasonably expect a conductor of such provenance to have knowledge of British music of the last 100 years – other than Britten, or a bit of Peter Maxwell Davies or Harrison Birtwistle, with – may be – a smattering of Richard Rodney (not Robert Russell) Bennett – of whose names they may have heard in the course of their recent studies.
As I said earlier, the music of those British composers, born 100 years ago, remains the same as the day the ink dried on their manuscripts. Fricker’s music inspired two of the greatest British critics of their, or any other, generation, to put their reputations on the line, and to become subject, as we all are, to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We owe it to ourselves – and to our children – to investigate just what it is in Fricker’s music that so moved those musical commentators sixty-five years ago. The music hasn’t changed: it’s us – or have we?