Saturday, 9 November 2013

Voyages of Discovery

One of the highlights of life in my early teens was the trip to the local library where, once you had brought in your stylus to be checked under a microscope, you could borrow vinyl LPs. These days, if you want to explore the work of a contemporary composer, all you have to do is go to Youtube. In those days, it was a question of waiting for a broadcast, going to a concert or finding a recording, before you even had the faintest idea what his or her music sounded like.

One of my early record library discoveries was the music of the British composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971). It struck me as bold, lyrical and original in a way that seemed a million miles from the worlds of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. More recently I've been struck by how it seems to breathe similar air to a lot of British art made during that time. Rawsthorne's wife, Isabel, was a painter and listening recently I was repeatedly reminded of exhibitions I've seen of the work of such artists as Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, to name but two.

One of the first pieces of Rawsthorne's I came across was his First Piano Concerto, first performed in the early 1940s. It's action-packed right from the opening bar. It's shifting harmonies and strikingly-shaped melodies are typical.

Perhaps one reason Rawsthorne's music is not played more these days is that traditionalists found it too "difficult" whereas fans of the avant-garde found it too traditional. I'm neither a fan nor a detractor of Britten's music but often when I see post-war British music programmed,  I often wonder why Britten's music is so highly rated when there were so many other imaginative musical minds around at the same time - Alan Rawsthorne's included.

Much is made of the political pressure under which Soviet composers worked, forced to produce music which met with the approval of the State. Thinking about Rawsthorne this week it struck me as ironic how, although Stalin is criticised for demanding that composers write music people would want to listen to, it is now the case in the West that the audience-friendly music of Shostakovich gets a far wider airing than the music of Western composers working at the same time who were free to compose what they liked!

Why should this be the case? Obviously, what music says cannot be rendered into words. However, one cannot escape the sense that the music that survives historically tells the story we want to hear about our civilisation. The music that fills the "classical mainstream" can,  by and large, be heard as a soundtrack to history as we like to see it. This, I would argue, is at least as important in determining whether music survives or falls into obscurity as whether it is "good" or "bad".  The story that can be read into Shostakovich's music, that of the dark days of the Soviet Union, is, from a British perspective, a safe story - it manages to be dark, dangerous, tragic and exciting (not to mention witty) while telling us nothing bad about ourselves. And the man wrote tunes.

Music is dangerous.  It wields, I would argue, a power on the mind comparable to that of mind-altering drugs. Perhaps this is one reason why, musically, we are less interested in voyages of discovery than we like to think. We might experience almost-real discomfort and be taken to places we don't want to go to - and who can remember where those lesser-known, mid-twentieth century British composers went? If we take the trouble to find out, we'll probably find that they ended up at similar destinations to the artists I mentioned, to the writers and poets working around the same time (Rawsthorne wrote his Elegiac Rhapsody in memory of his friend the poet, Louis MacNiece). We might well discover something enriching, something we're pleased we found.

Another thing is that, although it's heard everywhere, music generally is far less likely to get listened to these days. It really does get used more as a soundtrack and less as something to be listened to in it's own right. Any music that -to use that wry phrase- "repays repeated listening" will most likely end up on the floor of the cutting room of life. Please note I've carefully phrased this sentence to include myself, and if you don't actually want to, then fair enough, but - how many of us, reading a blog-post such as this one, will actually set aside time to listen to the Youtube videos it contains from beginning to end, even if we'd quite like to?

Rawsthorne himself was no stranger to soundtracks and wrote quite a lot of film music. If there is any truth in what I've said about history and soundtracks, it's significant that he's probably best remembered -if in a somewhat anonymous capacity- as the composer of the music to the 1953 film about the Battle of the South Atlantic, The Cruel Sea. It carries distinct echoes of that First Piano Concerto we've, er, just listened to:

If you want to hear more of Rawsthorne's music there's still plenty of it to be had on CD. I've just bought myself one and -it's in there somewhere- the excellent Peter Donohoe's performance of the Piano Concertos is available on NAXOS for a mere six pounds. 

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.


Joanne Noragon said...

I read through twice, just to reread music is heard everywhere but far less likely to be listened to.

When I was in college in the sixties we had many pianists among us and one could sit in the common room and listen to Rachmaninoff or Bach for an hour.

And I did, although the folk revival was my genre. We would take our records and play them for each other and ourselves for an afternoon, a day, absorbing and criticizing the music, the lyrics.

I discovered YouTube several years ago. It was those afternoons all over again, but alone, sadly. I've spent more than one evening, chin in hand, watching and listening and remembering why we thought one lyric or note was more effective than another.

Gwil W said...

Thank God for Britten. He did so much to put England firmly back on the international stage. As for Rawsthorne I know him not but I have listened and I'm not so impressed as maybe I should be; then maybe living in Vienna I'm spoilt. It's hard to believe that Alban Berg, for example, was from an earlier period. You'd have to reverse them to make any sense of it. A wonderful video is Alfred Brendel playing Alban Berg Piano Concert 1. Well worth a view and a treat to listen to.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I started listening to the music before I finished reading your post and thought: this reminds me of Gershwin. Then I read what you said about Rawsthorne having written for films and yes, it all comes together. I really like this piece, thanks for calling attention to it.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

JN: Interesting, the way that by bringing us together in some ways the internet has made us more individualistic in others.

Gwil W: I've an LP of Brendel playing Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, which is one of my favourite concertos. There's a good film on Youtube of Uchida playing it

and another good one of her talking about it:

I think I've posted about these before.

Funny what music impresses us: when I was young I couldn't get on with Sibelius or Brahms. But then, out of the blue, I think I "got it". I've yet to "get" Britten, though I try. I know what you mean by his contribution. My "wow" moment with Rawsthorne was this 1st concerto, and his Sonata for Violin and Piano - the latter isn't on Youtube, sadly, and there's only one recording of it available.

I'd like to see British music from that era getting the sort of airing I've seen British art of the same period getting recently.

N d'A: I'd not thought about that. I'll have to listen to some Gershwin, which I haven't done for a long time.

A Cuban In London said...

I had never heard of this composer so, guess where I went first to find out more about his life... youtube. I find the two pieces I heard full of drama and passion. Thanks for introducing him to me.

Greetings from London.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for that. I've just bought a CD of his Sonata for Violin and Piano. It was one of the first pieces of his I came across and is probably still my all-time favourite. I couldn't find it performed anywhere on the internet.

Sandy's witterings said...

My listening seems to have avoided this chap it seems. Good old ebay though - I now have the piano concertos winging there way to me as well as they can through the Christmas post (as well as violin concertos (no sign of them on YOutube at all) and some other stuff.

Dominic Rivron said...

Great to see someone getting hooked on Rawsthorne. Don't miss the Violin and Piano Sonata - it's my favourite piece of all of his, but I can't find it on Youtube at all. The third movement is definitely on my Desert Island Discs list. It's incredibly difficult - which means the piece hardly ever gets played!