I’ve just been re-reading Amiscellany, the punningly-titled memoir by the broadcaster, administrator and critic John Amis which was published in 1985. I know John a little – one of life’s enhancers, he will celebrate his 90th birthday next year – and it has been rewarding revisiting his multi-layered, meandering career. He seems to have known and befriended every important figure in the classical music world from the early ‘40s onwards.
One thing that struck me, despite our many shared enthusiasms, was his admiration for several composers with whom I have either a complete lack of empathy or only a partial appreciation: Lutyens, Tippett, Nono, Bartók and Hindemith - ‘the music of the day, as he describes it. And that got me thinking why it is so difficult to admit to fellow critics and pro musicians one’s composer likes and dislikes. Amis reminded me that the eminent critic and Wagner bore Ernest Newman (1868-1959) started out by hating Mozart, a view he later changed, transferring his loathing to the person of Liszt. He was by no means the first critic to have had his blind spots: Shaw and Brahms, Hanslick and Wagner, and so on.
It is always a risky business admitting one’s musical preferences to anyone other than family and close friends. Making up compilation CDs (or cassettes as we used to do - or playlists as the young presumably do now) for new acquaintances of your favourite pieces can reveal more about you than you realise or intend. Neither is it always sensible or appropriate to admit your musical dislikes to fellow professionals, especially influential arts administrators as I once found to my cost. We had been having a perfectly agreeable conversation about other musical matters with which we were entirely in accord. So much so that I thought it would be mere mutual back-slapping to admit my antipathy to all things Birtwistle and Boulez. The person gave me a wan smile and quickly closed down the encounter. It was as though I had suddenly admitted being a Tory while being interviewed for a safe Labour seat.
On the other hand I don’t know whether to praise or envy the likes of Andrew McGregor or our own Rob Cowan (blessings be upon him) and James Jolly (may he live forever) who seem to genuinely enjoy and appreciate everything they play on their BBC Radio 3 programmes. And I mean everything in all genres – anything from Lassus to Ligeti, Stockhausen or Stenhammar, ocarina music from Mexico or another helping of Eine kleine nachtmusik. They are so positive about it all. There appears to be no composer whose music they are not completely in love with, no single work or movement that is without merit. But if it is the norm to enthuse on air about any particular composer and piece of music, why is it, equally, verboten to say ‘I am going to play X piece by so-and-so. I personally can’t stand it for this reason and that, but I know many of you disagree, so here it is, see what you think.’ Would it be professional suicide or refreshingly different? Perhaps broadcasters feel constrained, that it is not part of their remit to share with listeners what their own likes and dislikes may be, just as it would never do for radio and TV political commentators to reveal their personal political allegiances.
The point is not to have a go at McGregor, Cowan and Jolly (all of whom I respect enormously) but to say how difficult it is for critics, reviewers, broadcasters and others who make their living from writing about music to admit their blind spots. I remember having dinner many years ago with one distinguished critic. The subject came up of which composers we could live without. When the name of Ludwig van Beethoven was mentioned my chum lowered his voice, leant across the table and said the only work of Ludwig van he would vote to save from the bonfire was the Pastoral Symphony. At a pinch, he’d rescue the Fourth Piano Concerto and perhaps the Appassionata. He found the old boy too relentlessly tub-thumping and point-making. ‘Give me a break, Ludwig,’ he growled. ‘Stop challenging me all the time!’ OK, we had had a few drinks, but I did think it was a courageous confession. It is not one he could ever have expressed in public (by ‘public’ I mean a gathering of his fellow professionals): he would have been black-balled and railroaded out of town. And the thing is, I did not demur. Though I would vote for rather more of his works to be salvaged than my friend’s trio, Beethoven is certainly not my favourite composer. To most musos he is an untouchable genius who can do no wrong. Criticise his music at your peril.
We all have our favourites about whom we become very protective. I have met a few people who have said they cannot appreciate Mozart. They simply don’t like his music. It’s an opinion they are perfectly entitled to of course, but I know it is unlikely that we shall ever have a deep friendship. Not that I would ever say it to their face, but I feel sorry for anyone who does not love the slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto, admire the ingenuity and exuberance of K488, K491 and the Jupiter’s finale, the heart-tugging emotion of ‘Dove sono’, the sublime...no, the list is far too long to continue. And there are many lesser composers to whose defence I will spring with equal vigour: Hummel, Alkan, Moszkowski, Raff and Korngold to name but a handful.
Another hugely knowledgeable friend who works in the classical music industry cannot understand my passion for second division composers of the 19th century nor my fervour for the first-rate talents of Liszt and Rachmaninov. He makes me feel that one day I shall grow up, grow out of them, develop some respectable tastes and then have something interesting to listen to. I, on the other hand, cannot quite believe that he gets as much enjoyment as he says he does from Stockhausen, Carter and Babbitt, nor that he can’t abide Puccini, Verdi or, for that matter, any other 19th century Italian opera composer. I think he talks nonsense. He feels the same about me. It’s just as well our (lively and amicable) debates are held in private. I remember the reaction I got from some of my fellow critics a few years ago when we were debating the merits of a recording of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Adès is an awesomely gifted musician but his opera did not float my boat at all. To the others it was a modern masterpiece. To me, the word setting was perverse, the whole experience disengaged the listener from the story and emotions of Shakespeare’s play, and, in a nutshell, was not likely to claim the affection of the general public. Sometimes you can feel like the mother watching her soldier son march by on the parade ground: ‘Oh look!’ she cries. ‘Our Johnny’s the only one in step.’
So, leaving aside the non-mainstream works of Harry and Max and Sandy (don’t you just puke at the casual over-familiarity from people who have never met them – Ben, Lenny, et al?), is there a single composer whose entire output is not your tasse de thé? One classical composer whose complete works – without any exceptions – you would be quite happy never to hear again. For me, there are several contenders: the dreary, over-rated Frank Bridge – but then there’s The Sea which is rather wonderful; Richard Wagner – but I could not be without the opera overtures, preludes, Liszt’s piano transcriptions of them, and the Siegfried Idyll; Schoenberg? No – there are Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder to redeem him.
There is one, though. A composer whose works I have listened to, considered and tried again. I simply don’t get him. And at some stage one just has to admit defeat, life being too short and all that. I have pretended to like various works of his when quizzed and, because of all the reasons above, have not been able to own up. But now I am coming out. The composer who I shall be eager to never encounter again is Leoš Janáček. It was brought home forcefully a few weeks ago after the Prom performance of his Glagolitic Mass. What a mess of a work it is (not helped by the tenor on that occasion struggling to deal with an uncomfortably high tessitura): four vocal soloists, two of whom hardly get to open their mouths, massive forces full of sound and fury signifying nothing, an organist kept under wraps until an unidiomatic cadential solo towards the end, all sung in a language which few people speak. Add to that Janáček’s depressing solo piano works (In the Mists, Along an Overgrown Path) and the ‘Intimate Letters’ String Quartet, works which hoist on to a perfectly contented, innocent listener all of Janáček’s personal torment, neuroses, grudges and unmitigated misery. The operas? I’d rather have my teeth drilled without an anaesthetic.
Come on. Admit it. It’s not all as wonderful as we pretend it is. I don’t believe there is a serious music lover alive who doesn’t have his or her personal blind spot, but I do wonder why so many of us are afraid to admit it. Name the composer you can live without according to the criteria above – and see who wins the most nominations.
Let the comments commence!
Let us know your thoughts about Jeremy's article - and composers that you struggle to like - in our Forum. Click here.