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The Churchill Society

'Beauty is to Art as Honesty is to Honour'

Winston Churchill.


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The 1999

Christmas Lecture

by the Composer

The composer James Stevens

James Stevens

Head of the Society's Music Department.

Musical Prayers

Cue laughter. Yes, we are living in the 'canned laughter' society. What is more infuriating than those outbursts of synthesised mirth in response to some lame joke on sitcom TV. To utilise a contemporary cliche, it is all 'dumbing down' ( i.e., down grading) of the arts and culture, to say nothing of integrity of society. Cultural standards have gone down the drain. No longer do we respond to aesthetic stimulation from informed opinion and personal experience. Standards, i.e.,- talent and quality have now become irrelevant. Responses are conditioned by the spin-doctors, PR men and vested interests. What have we done to deserve it? The dead horse hung from the ceiling, the half sheep pickled in formaldehyde, the nauseating repetition of an illiterate musical phrase, the compere in a rising crescendo introducing the next 'fabulous' , talentless, but highly touted, pop star on a TV show, or grotesque pop group utterly devoid of any musical ability (or sensibility) - the list is endless but high on it we must include the desecration of the English language - the most beautiful and expressive of them all 'Like wow' seems acceptable as an adequate comment about almost everything. 'Literally' 'is in common use in place of metaphorically ( " I was literally over the moon"). grammar ("There is lots of people . . . ", or "between you and I . . .").

If one regards art as a branch of philosophy, something which should expand the perception of the lay person, then this tendency is truly destructive. Even diversionary entertainment, the means by which authority controls its minions, has suffered.

This is a situation which our Society hopes to redress through the construction of Churchill House in London but specifically, in this lecture I would like to deal with music. However, before I go on let us not forget that aberration 'of' instead of 'have' - 'I would of gone' which unbelievably, I have seen in print. The split infinitive is dangerous ground. It could be argued that 'boldly go' is the infinitive as in 'high kick'. It would be invidious to enjoinder a chorus girl to 'kick high'. And those appalling euphemisms like 'ethnic cleansing' for 'genocide'. O.K. - to the music.

Firstly one has to make this point, that all aesthetic assessments of the value of works of art, are subjective. There are no objective criteria. This applies especially to music which is a non-symbolic art form that has no reference, visual, literal, tactile, whatever, to anything outside of itself except by association or cultural conditioning. 'Music is music is music', to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. Any non musical attribute applies only by non musical attributes such as onomatopoeia (e.g,. rain drops), musical allusions (eg., the national anthem), accepted functions (eg., marches, which by their rhythmic nature are already subject to interpretation, representing military antecedents), dance rhythms (indicating the obvious), and so on. But even here there is still a conundrum. How is it that Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance can be so precisely defined as patriotic that it engenders a lyric to go with it, Land of Hope and Glory?

Having said that, it is no wonder that the arbiters of taste find themselves totally at sea when it comes to the selection of musical material for performance and promotion, and in the hands of the P.R. men and other manipulators. One is obliged to ask, therefore, how the BBC rates in this respect. They are the sole custodians of contemporary music in this country and without recognition by the BBC one has recognition nowhere because managements and concert promoters have nothing to go on except the number of broadcasts a work or a composer receives. The BBC therefore has an awesome responsibility.

Just to regress for a moment, the use of the word 'classical;, so beloved of our commentators to indicate contemporary concert music, is yet another pollution of the English language. 'Classical' went out with the death of Beethoven in 1827. The critic Robert Cowan always puts the word in quotes.

This lecture is concerned with contemporary music, both serious concert music and 'pop', the latter being the contemporary equivalent of those miniature masterpieces by Rodgers, Gershwin, Porter, Arlen and the rest, generally known as 'standards'.

Today's so-called pop music is an absolute desecration of the art. One could almost say it went out of the window after the Beatles. Some of their numbers, both from the musical and the lyric point of view, are highly commendable -

Eleanor Rigby,


She's Leaving Home,

All You Need is Love,


Have You Heard the News Today

- these are numbers that merit inclusion in the annals of musical history, far more so, in my opinion, than much of the work of our highly vaunted serious composers. This group has now been succeeded by a breed of talentless and obnoxious, unpleasant, egotistical so-called bands who drive one to despair, musically, morally, aesthetically. How is it the PR men can sell this garbage to us, and what is more HOW do they do it and why do we, the public, fall for it?

But the serious music scene is not so very different. Provided a composer uses the right trendy gimmicks, makes the right trendy comments, adopts the right trendy image, and so on, then he/she is 'in' with the establishment. Talent is the last thing that is required. In fact who would recognise it if they came upon it? Wasn' t it Arthur Conan Doyle who said that mediocrity recognises nothing better than itself and that it takes talent to acknowledge genius? And we have the comments of the late Robert Simpson, himself a fine composer, in his exposé of the workings of the BBC music department 'The Proms and Natural Justice' which he wrote in defiance of the secrecy oath he was compelled to sign when accepting a post (which he held for twenty-eight years) with them. His famous quote is ' that it is the first time in history a person with no musical gifts of any sort may become known as a composer' . Jeremy Dixon, architect of the new Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, said in a recent interview on BBC 'Private Passions', " Some of the best music never gets to be heard in the composer's lifetime - if at all.

One is obliged to question the authority of the BBC music department. Reading a score is a highly specialised accomplishment, let alone making an authoritative assessment of its aesthetic value. When a person hears one of their self-styled pundits referring to Charles Ives' 'The Unanswered Question', (a seminal work of the twentieth century) thus, For the first few dreadful seconds you think you are entering the wonderful world of Gorecki', one can only throw up one's hands in despair. Apart from the inbuilt contradiction, how dare he compare an innovative genius with an honest, but work-a-day composer who has nothing new to offer, nor anything old of much value? Then again, one of our most highly touted composers talking of his working methods on 'Composer of the Week' , (I will not mention names in this lecture, it would be invidious, but rest assured they are there in the flesh), " I play with ideas like toys until 1 get fed up with them and then discard them" . Yet this is one of our most highly promoted composers. Listen to the comments of the orchestral players when they come off-stage after a performance! Please forgive an anecdote. When the Cleveland Orchestra came to England for the Proms in l994 they played one of this man's works. An English player who had performed in it several times, rang me next morning asking if I had heard it. "Regardless of what you think about the work, it was a jolly good performance, wasn't it?" , he said. "Funny you should say that" , I replied. "a friend of mine in the orchestra just rang to say they were all over the place but it didn't seem to make any difference!". He also told me the conductor didn't think much of the work but played it as a lever to get a high-powered booking in this country. Such are the politics of the 'music business'.

In my own case, I once met a world famous conductor who asked if I had a tape of 'Celebration For The Dead' , the work of mine which won an international award in Tokyo when it was premiered by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Some days later he rang me with rapturous praise for the work saying he would make it his priority to play it on air at the earliest possible moment. A few weeks later, having heard nothing from him, I wrote to him. He told me the BBC had vetoed the work. Why should they do this, you may ask? The answer is very simple. I once observed a BBC score reader at work. He threw out everything that was not written by a friend, a pupil or recommended from on high. I am afraid I made my opinions rather public. Hence I am turned down for completely non-musical reasons. Yet I have won many awards, even the Mendelssohn Scholarship which Benjamin Britten himself failed.

A typical example of this sort of exclusion is the case of George Lloyd, a fine composer who simply did not conform to their pre-requisites. He paid for every recording of his own works, (distributed by his nephew's company, Albany Records). He once told me, gleefully, that he never lost a penny and sometimes even made a small profit. And then, of course, there is the case of Benjamin Frankel, one of our finest post-war composers. How could a Jewish jazz fiddler from the East End ever write real music! But why should this be? Nearer to the heart of this Society we have the example of Rutherlyn's The Churchill Music, a monumental work that has actually been issued in a first-class performance on a Czech CD but, again, is banned by the BBC. I once engineered an 'audience' with the then Controller Radio 3. He told me he was not his own master, whilst his predecessor, on Desert Island Discs, said, " Of course, I know nothing about music" .

Sometimes I think that music should be left to the lay person, Although one may analyse a musical construction, may define the properties of a strong melody, even write a grammatical fugue, it does not compensate for the lack of emotional reaction to a piece of music. It is the business of the composer to speak directly to his audience regardless of their musical qualifications and I am always gratified at the response of audiences to my own, contemporary, music. I am meticulous about the principles of musical composition which doubtless assist getting the message across to the listener. But music is much more than that. There are indefinable qualities that are susceptible to no analyses. What is it about the wordless chorus in Madama Butterfly when she is waiting for the return of her ex-lover, that makes it so poignant? What is it about the chords in Billy Budd when he is being interrogated by the Captain that makes the scene so anticipatory? What is it about so many melodies in Faure's music that are so elevating? Why is the tune in the last movement of Beethoven's ninth so glorious? It is only a succession of adjacent notes? One could go on indefinitely.

So, one comes back to the BBC and the problems it faces. They are financed by the general public and it is their duty to let the public hear everything that is on offer within reason. They should be independent of outside pressures by interested parties. It is easier to sell gimmicks than real quality. Poseurs find it easier to get a foot in the door than genuine artists (and) because the public is allowed so little experience of the real thing that they are taken in. This applies across the board in the art world. It is inconceivable that an unmade bed could qualify for the top award in art, or that a menacing construction dominating the local landscape could command so much public money and be deemed an 'angel'.

At least it is possible to laugh at aberrations like these. But music is another category altogether. Firstly it does not exist until it is heard, and secondly good music can only be appreciated by listening to good music, within the cultural traditions of the listener - be they inherent or acquired.

Music is such a difficult thing to talk about. Sometimes I think all one can say 'literally' is that it is fast or slow, loud or soft, everything else being metaphorical. Even in ancient Greece a high note was one on a tall string which we would call a low note. This is, of course, an over simplification. It is possible to analyse music in purely musical terms, but when it comes to the aesthetic aspect of a work we are in uncharted territory, This is the aspect of music that is outside rational analysis. It was heartening in the recent Music of the Millennium poll on Channel Four, that Mozart should have been voted the most influential  composer  of all time, and, in fact, recent studies prove that his music aids intellectual development, whilst music therapy is a recognised procedure for various forms of psychoses. We have just heard of the case of a convicted murderer who took up keyboards in gaol (thanks to an enlightened governor) and was completely reformed by his devotion to Bach and Mozart. Bohemian Rhapsody (by that gifted pop group called Queen) was voted song of the century, which is not unacceptable in the pop genre, though so many of its gags have been anticipated by serious composers. But the idea of Madonna as the finest female singer of the millennium, and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan being among the most influential musicians, is preposterous. What about Igor Strawinski and Schoenberg? And amongst songwriters, the greatest of them all, Schubert, was not even mentioned. Der Leierman. What an amazing, indefinable, miniature masterpiece! And lady singers - where were Monserrat Caballe, Jessye Norman, Frederika von Stade, not to mention Ella Fitzgerald?

The reader will doubtless be amused (if not outraged) at the result of an opinion poll instigated by HMV, Classic FM, Channel 4 TV, as to who were the most influential musicians of the last millenium. They were in order of importance

1. John Lennon

2. Elvis Presley

3. Michael Jackson

4. Jimmie Hendrix

5. Paul McCartney

6. Robbie Williams

7. Mozart

8. David Bowie

9. Bob Dylan

10. Bach.

The result of these sort of polls is to a large extent the responsibility of the BBC pressured by managements and recording companies, together with the PR men, promoters and the press, but it is only through radio and TV one actually hears the things. Similarly the BBC is responsible for paying out millions of our money to mindless and unpalatable 'presenters' indulging in the most crass apology for wit, and even pays out £20,000 a week to an out of work 'chat-show' hostess for doing nothing. A spring clean is called for.

Pursuing the main thrust of this lecture, ideally any score that is competently written (unlike so many of those by our high-profile composers) should be broadcast. This might be difficult but, if exercised in practise it would give the lay person the opportunity to judge the music. It is to be hoped that when Greg Dyke assumes full authority in his capacity as Director General that he will clear the decks and appoint a new panel of independent qualified selectors untainted by received prejudice, who will give air-time to some of the first class composers we are denied, and give listeners what they are paying for. Finally may we hope that the new Foundation Fund of the Performing Right Society, established to promote neglected composers will operate untrammelled by any vested interests.

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