Geoffrey Wheatcroft is too pessimistic. Thanks to small record companies such as Naxos, there is plenty of new music even if it's not very modernby Edward Pearce / October 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a fine piece on music in Prospect’s last issue. I agree with much of it, but some of his despair seems misplaced. He is right to say that the BBC and critical opinion have pretended beyond the point of credibility that modernism/atonality/shock music in all its forms has a public only waiting to be enlightened. This is hooey-and arguments about early resistance to Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky hold no water. Difficult composers of the past have taken with the broad public. Followers of Schoenberg, on the other hand, have had 60 years of prominence and something like 40 years of debenture-holding at Radio Three, but the audience for their music is still derisive. Composers for whom the drum was beaten have not survived the chorus of how challenging and exciting they were.
This echoes a wider political argument. Should music be purely market-driven, governed by the demands and responses of classical music lovers? Or is it some higher, didactic abstraction whose guardians must show us the way? The small record companies offer a middle way. The great disseminators of new music have been, inter alia, Nimbus, Koch Swann, Marco Polo, Hyperion, ASV Chandos and Naxos, with its 10 per cent share of the market.
New music? What new music? In 1945, when a single composition by Vivaldi existed in sheet form, he was new music. Stanford and Parry, promoted by Chandos, are new-they weren’t heard 15 years ago. So are Leopold Hoffman, Friedrich Kuhlau and Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, among those from Naxos; Othmar Schoeck from Novalis and Robert Fuchs from Marco Polo. So, for that matter, are the composers of early music-a grievous lacuna in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article. What more wonderful means of breaking out of the fixed and certain classics than to turn, say, to the mid-16th century Media Vita of John Shepherd?
New music for most people has to be lateral: finding things which we didn’t know existed and which the organisers of performed and recorded music themselves didn’t know even a few years ago. The small record companies are both scholarly and commercial. They are run by people such as Mike Dutton and Ted Perry who love music for itself. But they have to stay in business, if not to become new EMIs.
Against the benign commercialism of the small companies, based on a decent regard for a hungry but literate market, comes the other commercialism, illustrated by the large record companies or the Kenwood concerts (near Hampstead Heath). Five years ago Kenwood ran four-piece programmes-fairly familiar, but substantial; orthodox concert programmes. The audiences looked pretty good to me. Then the management set out to maximise profit; it has added to the light repertoire until tinsel overwhelms everything. We now have 12-item concerts, nothing much above seven minutes, nothing to hurt your head. And where it always had a Viennese night, and very welcome too, it now has an Andrew Lloyd Webber night…
Things are better than Geoffrey Wheatcroft acknowledges because we have access to what we had lost. But, between the cranks and the wideboys, if we are not at the end of music, you can’t say that the people in charge haven’t been trying.