Have you ever been part of a concert in which all of the music was written by living composers? OK, if not a whole concert, maybe a first half? All right, maybe not a whole first half, but a significant piece in the programme? Or if not, how about a sliver of a work by a contemporary composer?
I’m guessing that the answer to at least the last of those questions is ‘yes’ if you’re a member of an amateur or professional orchestra, ensemble, choir, or chamber group, or if you’re part of the musical life of your community at school or university. But I’m pretty sure that it’s less likely that the answer to all of my first three questions is in the affirmative.
If so, that makes you part of a majority of music-makers in the country, for whom there is often an association between ‘contemporary music’ and ‘that’s not for me’ or ‘it’s too difficult to play’. Why has that happened? Why is there a gap between today’s composers and the repertoires of most of the musical ensembles in the country – which are not the professionals, but the amateur groups of all kinds who are the fabric of our musical life? It’s a situation that’s a historical anomaly in the wider course of the story of music. The clichés about the 18th and 19th centuries are largely true: markets for domestic and amateur music-making were driven by a desire for the new, in terms of what people wanted to play, with hundreds of composers only too happy to write for them.
Music was new music, in other words, and it was a culture of participation, from the piano in the parlour to the organ at church, from the choral society in the assembly room to the orchestra in the concert hall. The newest symphonies, operas and chamber music by composers from Brahms to Tchaikovsky, Gounod to Wagner were performed by thousands of amateur music-makers who played and sang arrangements of operatic showstoppers and busked through symphonies from Haydn to Schumann.
That meant that composers were used to thinking of their audiences not as passive recipients of their music but as potential performers of their works – and that’s exactly what they were. Without the existence of countless amateur pianists who could play their music, there would not be much point in composers writing it or publishers printing it. Composers like Mozart or Brahms, Schumann or Schubert were not compromising their artistic standards in order to write music that people could play, or which they could aspire to play. There was a continuum of participation that connected composers with musicians of all levels, so there was no separation between the producers of musical works and their participative, engaged recipients, who weren’t so much an ‘audience’ as a community of music-makers.
Fast forward to today. Where has that connection gone? In certain contexts, there are ties that still bind composers to amateur performers – especially, perhaps, in choral music, where contemporary composers remain part of the lives of singers up and down the country. But in many situations, those threads have become gossamer-thin, if they exist at all. It’s the flip-side of the specialisation which has produced such brilliant composers and performers in our musical culture, in which professional composers are often trained to think that music that stretches the abilities of the finest virtuosos is what matters the most for their lives, their reputation, and for the art-form. In terms of not diluting their artistic vision, it’s not hard to see how this way of thinking has become the norm. But it is possible – and even more compositionally challenging – for composers to achieve a wider community of music-makers with their works: as Judith Weir has said, it’s one of her missions as the Master of the Queen’s Music that composers should be trained to write music that amateurs have access to as performers and participants, but which remains true to their essential creative voice.
And yet, in Britain especially, there is another history of music in the 20th and 21st centuries. In different but equally profound ways, our major composers – from Vaughan Williams to Holst, Tippett to Cornelius Cardew, Jonathan Dove to Judith Weir herself – have always reached out to communities of participants, writing music to engage amateurs as well as professionals, composing music designed to be ‘ours’, rather than ‘theirs’. Most powerfully, think of Britten in Aldeburgh, or Peter Maxwell Davies in Orkney, and their career-long catalogues of music for young people and whole communities. And thanks to another of the other great British contributions of the last few decades – the growth of education and outreach projects, and their symbiotic connection to our classical music institutions, as well as the place of composition and creativity on the National Curriculum – there is a wider movement to return our new musical culture to its fundamentally participative state. It’s that ethos that needs celebrating and putting back at the centre stage of our musical lives
An extended version of this article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.