Despite its support for contemporary classical music, the Proms ignores some very important names
In the last week there’s been chatter on the Gramophone forum (you can catch up with the unfolding machinations here) about where modern composition might have reached circa 2012. Who are the composers that matter? A composer’s ‘importance’ is based on what exactly in a world where Helmut Lachenmann and Karl Jenkins both write something called ‘contemporary music’?
I had to leave my own forum arguments hanging, journo deadlines being what they are. But pondering the debate since, I realise that there are answers to that ‘whither New Music 2012’ question there for the hearing at this year’s Proms. Lachenmann and Jenkins have never been programmed at the Proms. Jenkins is presumably considered too (on a good day) featherweight; Lachenmann too esoteric and politically problematic (although reviving Rattle and the Berlin Phil’s 2011 pairing of Lachenmann’s Tableau with Mahler 9 is surely a Prom waiting to happen). Fundamental questions are raised about the new music that is ‘allowed’ to be heard on a summer’s evening in South Kensington, and music that clearly is not.
Roger Wright’s inbox must overflow with ‘advice’, sometimes unsolicited and often unwanted, about what he ‘should’ be programming, and I’m pleased I’m not the guy contractually obliged to politely arbitrate between fans of Lachenmann and Havergal Brian. But mining the BBC’s own online archive to phish for evidence, and realising that the Proms has never – ever, not even once – programmed a gnat’s crotchet of Lachenmann, Kagel, Spahlinger, Hespos, Donatoni, Murail, Flammer, Globokar, Dumitrescu, Rădulescu, Klaus Huber, Beat Furrer, Nicolaus Huber, Niccoló Castiglioni, Pierre Henry, Aldo Clementi, Gerhard Stäbler, Walter Zimmermann, Clarence Barlow, Georg Friedrich Haas, Bernhard Lang, Peter Ablinger; that Nono hasn’t been programmed since 1986; Sciarrino since 1989; Maderna since 1992; Hans Zender since 1978, is that a whiff of conspiracy I smell?
Following a week in which work by Pierre Boulez dominated, threaded through Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven symphony cycle, my implied complaint about the neglect of central European music might feel disingenuous, plain wrong-footed even. But Boulez, with his unique ‘grand old man’ presence, is a rule-proving exception. Steve Reich (deservedly) celebrated his 70th and 75th birthdays at the Proms. Elliott Carter is on the ‘yes’ list too, I suspect for similar reasons to Boulez. But you’ll look in vain for American composers like Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, James Tenney – no Roger Reynolds since 1997 – who chose to frame tricky questions about the nature of musical material.
My complaint is thus bigger than one of mere Euroscepticism; my charge is that the Proms has difficulty with difficulty. Any festival that makes the right mood music about taking modern composition seriously but has consistently overlooked Lachenmann, Kagel and Sciarrino – or neglected to programme a single work of Nono for just shy of 30 years – is getting the mood of new music wrong. I’m not saying that the Proms should evolve into a European new music festival. But it is fair comment, I feel, to question how a whole movement of European composition has somehow fallen behind the aesthetic sofa. I’ve interviewed three senior conductors recently – Harnoncourt, Chailly and Rattle – who all, without any prompting from me, mentioned Georg Friedrich Haas as the name to watch. And if you’re thinking, yes, but you can hardly blame Proms HQ for not picking up on this, er, rising young star, Haas is 60 next year. Nono, who died in 1990, is the looming, inescapable presence that central European composers have to engage with (even if ultimately to reject him); and Lachenmann, Kagel, Sciarrino aren’t far behind him. But it’s like they’re non-composers who write non-music, not for the likes of us…
One feature, surprisingly little discussed, of this year’s Proms does merit a pat on the back however. Embedded within the season is a mini-festival of ‘avant-garde’ classics – from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (August 12), Pierrot lunaire (August 27), Five Orchestral Pieces (September 4) and Ives’s The Unanswered Question (August 1) to Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, Ligeti’s Atmosphères (August 30) and Poème symphonique (August 14), Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (August 4), Cage’s 4’33” (August 14) and Berio’s Sequenza V (August 14) – pieces that are true markers in our understanding of how music has evolved over the last hundred years.
Want to know what makes new music ‘important’? Any of these pieces – all by composers prepared to wrestle with language to refresh the poetics of music – can tell you that. Lachenmann and Sciarrino, too, understand that the duty of poets is to grapple with the stuff of language. And that’s why their music has sting, but anyone gullible enough to buy a Jenkins CD has merely been stung.
This is perilous terrain though. Within the context of a mainstream classical music festival, how are we supposed to respond to the deeply strange psychology of Pierrot lunaire and Le marteau sans maître? Or the concept-driven Poème symphonique (a bunch of metronomes unwind at their own rate, creating a randomised rhythmic counterpoint) and 4’33” (Cage’s blaring loud ‘silent’ piece?) Why did Ives in The Unanswered Question want to make tonality and atonality collide? Why did Ligeti de-emphasise harmony in Atmosphères? How come Messiaen grabbed tonality back in Turangalîla, then repurposed all the rules? Re-connecting with what makes any ‘great’ and ‘revolutionary’ music great and revolutionary is never easy, but pieces like these demand to be stripped back to their material essence and heard within their historical context.
And yet without models for how today’s composers are grappling with language and form, that process is academic. It’s safe to programme these pieces now because they’ve been buffeted by history; they can be sold as ‘classics’. But just imagine the incredulity that would rightly flow from a season of 20th-century film that, via some institutional quirk, weirdly filtered out Fellini, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog et al. That would be to impose a false narrative through exclusion, pretending that the film directors who matter don’t, softening the bite of modern cinema with cosy, easier-to-digest alternatives. And therein the cul-de-sac into which New Music at the Proms has been driven. I know that criticising the Proms is like whinging that your free Christmas presents, bought with love and attention to detail, aren’t up to scratch. But all I’m asking is that a clear wrong is righted. To paraphrase John Lennon, I say – give pieces a chance.
For further information on this season's Proms concerts click here
UPDATE: A few readers have tweeted/emailed asking me to recommend some listening for the composers I mentioned. This I'm happy to do. Try these for starters:
Mauricio Kagel - Die Stucke der Windrose (Winter & Winter 9101092)
Helmut Lachenmann - String Quartets (Kairos CD 0012662KAI)
Georg Friedrich Hass - In Vain (Kairos 0012332KAI)
Franco Donatoni - Chamber Works (Stradivarius STR 3315)
Luigi Nono – Risonanze erranti/Post-prae-ludium Donau (NEOS 11119)
Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.