It’s important that we champion both composers and those who commission them
This issue’s Recording of the Month is, unusually, a new work. The unusual nature of this shouldn’t imply that Gramophone doesn’t support new music, for we do, very much so: most months see something from the pen of a living composer in Editor’s Choice, and every month brings an exploration of one of today’s leading writers of music in our Contemporary Composer feature.
But the fact remains that most music in the concert hall and on disc is of composers past not present. It’s understandable: such music has had the privilege of time both to work its way into our consciousness and to have become part of the ever-evolving cultural language through which we speak and create. Time, also, has filtered what has reached us (sometimes fairly, sometimes carelessly) so that a programme of, say, 18th-century music, is likely to contain a higher proportion of masterpieces than an 18th-century audience might have heard on an average evening.
To listen only to the music of the past, though, is to miss engaging with a key way that music can reflect our age’s voice, both in sound and subject. Which brings me back to James MacMillan’s Stabat mater. The work, an epic 55-minute setting of the extraordinary meditation on Mary at the foot of the Cross, was commissioned by the philanthropist John Studzinski and his Genesis Foundation. The idea came to him after hearing Rossini’s Stabat mater: in a rather wonderful twist, it wasn’t that the experience brought inspiration but frustration, the setting containing, as he told Gramophone a few years ago, ‘not one element of devotion, faith, hope or humanity’. So he commissioned James MacMillan, whose music couldn’t be more different.
The music world is fortunate to have figures like John Studzinski, as commissioning – let alone performing – new music is an expensive business. But there are different ways individuals can get involved. The American composer Augusta Read Thomas – whose Chicago Ear Taxi festival last year featured 53 world premieres – recently told me about the imaginative ways she’s witnessed music being commissioned, whatever people’s resources. Of her own works, one marking the anniversary of a scientific breakthrough was commissioned by the scientist’s wife; another was supported by a commissioning club of donors.
And then, of course, there are the organisations, without whom the music landscape would be much poorer. Grant-making bodies, orchestras, dance companies, labels, concert halls, choirs, festivals and broadcasters – and, in the case of the Proms of course, both at once: this year’s festival will contain no fewer than 15 world premieres. The Royal Opera House, meanwhile, will next season unveil new operas from both George Benjamin and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
But to do this work, all such people and such organisations need our support, both our voices and our ears (and, for those who are able, our pockets too).
And so even if next month’s Recording of the Month does return us to a genius of the past, as statistics suggest it will, contemporary music will always have an honoured place in our pages – just as it should, I would suggest, in every Gramophone reader’s collection.
Find out more about the May 2017 edition of Gramophone