Where's the divide between 'light' and 'serious' music?

Mark BebbingtonThu 11th April 2013

Listen to an excerpt from Mark Bebbington's new Reginald King recording

'You have something, Reginald, that no-one else has.' Edward Elgar

Amongst the literary achievements of author Anthony Burgess, there is his wonderfully provocative critique of the best English novels of the twentieth- century, Ninety-Nine Novels. Burgess here cautions his readers against literary pretension and in selecting Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger as one of his personal choices, he writes: 'It is unwise to disparage the well-made popular. We must beware snobbishness.'

Burgess’s summing up of literary merits finds echoes in music, too. How do we define what is 'good' or 'bad' within music and where, for example, is the divide between so-called 'light' and 'serious' music? Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924) is a prime example of a work that changed the face of symphonic programming; here was tin-pan alley meeting the sobriety of a traditional piano concerto and in so doing, re-writing what was acceptable to play and hear in the concert hall.

Debussy and Ravel are two composers who were also quick to absorb popular culture and piano works such as Debussy's General Lavine – eccentric (1912) and Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso (1904) further blur the divide between concert music and, as Ravel later described it 'music of the street.'

Reginald King (1904-1991) was an unknown name to me until August, 2011, when I was visiting Siva Oke and her husband (both owners of Somm recordings) to discuss possible future repertoire ideas and session dates. King's publisher, Barry Ould at Bardic Edition, had already been in contact with Siva, expressing enthusiasm for Somm to record some of King's piano miniatures.   

I was immediately charmed by the craftsmanship and melodic freshness of these 'light' piano pieces and didn't feel that recording this repertoire would clash with the grittier world of other areas of British music I had previously explored with Somm, for example, Rawsthorne, Bridge, Ferguson etc…but would others disagree and perhaps feel this 'branching-out' akin to a kind of dumbing-down…a grasping at a popular culture, just for its own 'cool'’ sake ?

Back to the music itself, though. The style is akin to that of Billy Mayerl (a contemporary of King) and I had come to know Mayerl's miniatures from sheet music in my grandmother’'s collection; in Reginald King's music, however, I found both the rhythmic swagger of Mayerl, but also a greater melodic range. 

King himself presided over a successful career as composer, pianist, band leader and orchestrator and, at his hight between 1929 and 1964, he gave over a staggering 1500 BBC broadcasts with the Reginald King (RK) Orchestra – popularity indeed!

With the arrival of television and so-called 'pop' music, however, King began to see a waning in his profile and he dedicated much of his later life to his two lifelong passions – gardening and vintage cars.

Although RK was a 'king' of light music during his lifetime, his classical background and training at the Royal Academy of Music (he was elected a fellow in 1936) set him apart from most of his light music contemporaries. Most of his piano works consist of miniatures averaging between three to four minutes in length and many have evocative titles eg Prayer at Eventide – which seem to echo the music's yearning for a bygone era. 

A lingering question that remains for me is whether it is 'acceptable' – as a concert pianist – to include this lovely music in a 'serious' piano recital programme. Can 'serious' and 'light' music sit happily together in the context of the concert platform? And are a group of King's miniatures 'easier' listening – and therefore less worthy – than, say, a group of Grieg's Lyric Pieces or Debussy's two Arabesques…? Or are such considerations unnecessary in the open-minded, pluralist musical times of 2013…?

Listen to the title track from Mark Bebbington's new recording of Reginald King's piano music, on Somm. Click the link below to buy.

Mark Bebbington

Mark Bebbington is a leading pianist with an international reputation for his recordings and performances of British music. His latest CD release, Piano Concertos by Doreen Carwithen, Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Williamson is on Somm label (SOMMCD254) and released in October, 2014.

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