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The Churchill Society

. . . . shall all be proved again unteachable
and we have to learn again for a third time in a school of war,
incomparable, more rigorous than that from which we have just been released.
The dark ages may return,
the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of science,
and what might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind,
may even bring about its total destruction.

Winston Churchill.



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Is the BBC doing its duty by living English composers? Or even dead ones if you consider the way Benjamin Frankel,one of this country's finest composers and teachers has been neglected. One is bound to ask the question after listening to so many works of dubious merit on the air and knowing that superior works are being ignored, if not actually rejected.

This is a question that has even been raised on the hallowed wavelengths of 'Music Weekly' itself.

Without credibility with the BBC, a composer has credibility nowhere, because a commission from an orchestra, or any other source, is dependent on recognition by the BBC, a not unreasonable criterion. So why is it so many really first-rate composers get shown the door - unless they sneak in through the back door by having work broadcast as part of an international festival, or suchlike?

The BBC is financed by public funds. As in effect, it is the sole custodian of contemporary work, it has a public duty to bring that work before the public. That means any work that is not downright incompetent.

As it is, the selection of works rests with that shadowy body known as the Music Reading Panel. Doubtless some of them are people with the highest credentials; equally some of them are people whose own work is not beyond criticism. Any form of criticism is subjective, Even Hans Keller, in his day one of the stanchions of the BBC establishment said that all critics are amateurs requiring no credentials other than their own opinions. Keller himself, a man of the utmost erudition, devised a system of musical analysis whereby homogeneity of material identified a master work. Almost any work ever written can be constrained within this straitjacket. It maybe accounts for Keller's own often uncertain aesthetic judgments.

This malaise is not peculiar to this day and age. Schubert's major works were never considered until years after his death. J. C. and C. P. E. Bach were idolised by the cognoscenti while their dad was consistently ignored.

Both Berlioz and Debussy were turned down for the Prix de Rome - until the former wrote an inferior work especially to please the judges. Britten failed to win the Mendelssohn Scholarship but, apparently, he is now up for re-assessment.

Then there was, in their day, the contentious issue of Mozart and Salieri. Examples of misjudgements are legion.

In any case, how does one make an aesthetic judgment from the cold pages of a written score? Anyone can learn to write a perfect fugue. It takes J.S.B. to make a creative masterpiece out of it. This may or may not be apparent from the printed page. But the issue becomes much more contentious when considering the complexity of a modern score. It is difficult to judge in any circumstances except by a few exceptionally gifted people. But when one hears the phrase so often delivered by musical pundits on the air that 'the notes on paper mean nothing' or 'you cannot tell from the score', or similar, can one have any confidence in their ability to assess the creative quality of a work?

There is a further point.

Hilaire Belloc said that mediocrity could never recognise genius. I would go one further and say that when mediocrity does recognise talent it will go to any lengths to suppress it - we are back to Salieri.

The problem here is that the BBC's music reading panels, in the absence of any objective guidelines, are susceptible to 'received opinion' which means they tend to recognise certain stereotypes - of work, personality, dicta - which happen to be flavour of the month. If the composer does not conform then God help him, he does not stand a chance.

Some while ago The Observer ran a profile on that talented young conductor, Mark Wigglesworth. It was concerned with the progress of his career since the sumptuous packaging provided by his management. (Classic headline -'Government seeks compassionate image'; what is wrong with compassion itself?). This sums up the scene today. It is all a question of image making and salesmanship. Anything so nebulous as talent, especially for composition, becomes a minor consideration. This applies also to some of our illustrious names who sell themselves on gimmicks and ego-trips. One has only to listen to the comments of orchestral players after being condemned to some of the most spurious but highly-toted work of today. A top composer said recently of one of his shorter works, 'It is one of the few pieces of mine in which I can justify every single note'.

One further point before concluding this brief malediction, There is no room in this country for versatility, except in a dilettantish sense. Leonard Bernstein, even with his flair for self-promotion, (and, it should be recognised, essential humility in contemplation of his material), would doubtless have been consigned to a dusty shelf had he been a British national attempting to work in this country - which means, through the BBC. foreign composers are well received, however slight their gifts; but foreign credentials won by British composers count for nothing because it brings the assessment of our own arbiters into question.

And there the matter must rest until we get some enlightened direction from the Beeb.

James Stevens, a composer, studied with Benjamin Frankel, Darius Milhaud, and Nadia Boulanger. As a student he won the Royal Philharmonic Prize, Mendelssohn Scholarship, and Lili Boulanger Memorial Award.

A musician of extraordinary versatility, he was the only British composer represented at the 50th anniversary Festival of the ISCM in 1973, the same year as his 'pop single' Exploding Galaxy had great success.






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