29 February 2012

Last Autumn

After several hours in front of the computer marking and assessing some of the student presentations for my History of Opera course, I felt a short break was necessary, so decided to sit in on the masterclass being given to horn students by Jamie Hersch, the not insubstantial horn player with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. 

 There were two specific reasons for my going, beyond the simple desire for a change of scenery.  Firstly, I used to be a hornist myself and although the lip has long since collapsed, I still can feel the sensations of playing the horn even if I know attempting even a single note would finish me off for good; secondly the masterclass was billed as showing students how to prepare for playing contemporary music with all the rhythmic, technical and unconventional obstacles that involves, and that's a subject which deeply interests me.  True, the two students brought up to play hardly selected ground-breaking contemporary pieces – at 84 Samuel Adler can still be counted a "contemporary" composer but Hindemith certainly can not, but we'll let that pass - but such was the deep fascination of Jamie's presentation that, instead of quietly slipping out after half an hour to get back to the assessments as I had planned, I found I sat through the entire two-hour session enthralled.  How glad I was that I did.

Jamie Hersch has a habit of finishing just one sentence in every dozen, and while this might normally be a major irritant, I found it strangely hypnotic.  As he said acknowledging his inability to reach the requisite number of full stops, "I have so many ideas going round my head, but only one mouth".  It was the strength of those ideas which made this all so compelling.

The two students got barely 15 minutes each, so this was not a true masterclass.  Instead it offered an intriguing glimpse into the lengths some musicians go to realise the creations of their peers.  The main focus was not on the generalities of preparing a performance of a contemporary work, but specifically on Hersch's involvement in a performance of a work by his brother, composer Michael Hersch, which he had recently performed.  Scored for horn and cello, lasting over two and a half hours and comprising somewhere in the region of 42 separate movements, this was not just another new piece to be learnt and played (and probably quickly forgotten), but obviously something much more heavyweight.  To the extent that Jamie had designed and had built a new horn specifically to help cope with some of the music's more extreme challenges and that he had, by his own admission, spent two years learning the work, at one stage devoting 16 hours a day, every day of the week, just to perfect the obviously incredibly challenging horn part, this was obviously an exceptional level of commitment and not one, I suggest, he was recommending to the students in the audience.  Such dedication towards a new work is not normally associated with orchestral horn players (or any other orchestral players, for that matter) but clearly this was not merely because the composer was the performer's brother (although Jamie did confess that "I love my brother to death").  From the extracts he played and from the score he passed around the room, it was clear that this is an exceptional piece of music.

Whether Michael Hersch's Last Autumn needs to be so long or contain so many individual movements I cannot tell; I did feel that when we heard movements in isolation there was a sense of incompleteness, as if there was a very strong connecting thread running through the work.  However, it is certainly full of great musical variety.  A dauntingly challenging movement for solo horn formed the prelude to the masterclass, while we were also given a taste of a taut multi-voiced Fugue in which the cello acted out the four principal voices of the string section and the horn the four principal voices of the brass (Hersch described it as "an octet for two players" – a singularly apt description, it seemed), and a deeply lyrical "Lullaby" full of rich melody and firmly tonal harmony ("You'd never think this a contemporary piece", Hersch suggested).

Had this been billed as a talk about one as yet unpublished and unrecorded work for horn and cello of gargantuan proportions, I don't suppose anyone would have turned up, so it was wise that it went under the title of Masterclass.  But I am eagerly awaiting the promised recording of the work in the near future.  It will never be one of the classics of our time, simply because concentration spans amongst audiences prevent works of such dimensions attaining anything more than minority cult status (look at Havergal Brian's "Gothic" Symphony) and, in any case, 155 minutes of horn and cello create a perceived barrier which keeps the public away even before they have heard a note, but I have a very strong suspicion that this is an unusually worthwhile new work.

27 February 2012

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the 21st century

Lim Yau, until recently resident conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, was back in front of them for Sunday’s Casual Concert.  During the question and answer session he was asked why the orchestra appears on stage dressed in black and white and, in an impressive display of honesty and frankness, he confessed he had “no idea”.  He knew that orchestras used to be dressed that way in the 18th century, but could not come up with an explanation as to why, in the 21st century, orchestras still did.

It took me back to an occasion in the late 1950s when, as a tiny boy attending one of the Saturday morning children’s concerts in London’s brand spanking new Festival Hall, a child near me in the audience asked the same question and received a very similar response from the podium.  The maestro on that occasion knew that orchestras dressed that way in the 18th century but wondered why they still did so in “the middle of the 20th century” (and how modern that sounded then!).
My feeling is that orchestras dressed that way in the 18th century as they were employed as servants and, in a way, nothing’s changed.  They are still servants; maybe not of an aristocratic master (although some are servants of an antagonistic oil company – but that’s another story), but of the music, and by dressing as servants (they dress as do head waiters at an exclusive restaurant) they show a physical act of homage to the music.  That’s my feeling, and I have to say it distresses me when musicians feel they are more important than the music they play.  The only fault I could find after the wonderful SSO concert on Friday was that both conductor Okko Kamu and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor appeared on stage looking very much as if their crowded bus had been late and they had to rush on to stage before getting properly dressed.  Call me old fashioned; call me a dinosaur; but tieless shirts look wrong and inject a wholly unwelcome element of the careless into a formal occasion.  Kamu’s reading of Sibelius 4 was astounding in its visionary breadth while Grosvenor’s immaculate Schumann Concerto was a model of elegance and intelligence; yet they both looked wrong.

Any half-decent choir trainer will stress the importance of the singers dressing the same both to inculcate into the singers and to display to the audience a sense of unity.  Dress may not affect the voice, but it certainly affects the totality of the performance.  If it works with choirs, surely it works with orchestras too.  And by keeping to black and white you not only avoid the risk of visual distraction but also pander to the synaesthetics who associate specific colours with specific tonalities.  How could, say, a modern-day Skryabin accept a D flat minor prelude from a pianist wearing green!
Dress aside, Lim Yau’s comments got me thinking just how little the orchestra has actually adapted itself to the 21st century.  It still sits in the same basic pattern.  True, 100 years ago it developed a habit of always having the violins to the left of the conductor and the cellos to the right, but the gradual erosion of that seating, not least by the SSO itself (not this weekend, I hasten to add, when all concerts resorted to that traditional seating plan) actually reverts to the orchestral layout of the 19th century, so is hardly something new.

It still plays the same music.  Every decade or so a handful of new works appears in the repertoire – newly written ones as well as old ones which have suddenly risen inexplicably back to prominence – while others disappear from view.  Who would have thought, say 50 years ago, that Vivaldi’s Seasons would have attained the ubiquitous place it has in the orchestral repertoire while Luigini’s Ballet Egyptienne should have dropped so spectacularly below the radar?
It still adopts the same format for its concerts.  Overture – Concerto – Symphony with occasional adjustments for the serious ones (Friday’s was Symphony-Concerto-Symphony), and lots of short little pieces and a kindly, humorous, entertaining (if you’re lucky) host for the casual ones.  Dressing up and introducing silly musical instruments for children’s concerts is nothing new – just look at Leopold Mozart’s “Toy” Symphony – and showing off the instruments of an orchestra in concert is as old as the hills; or, at least, as old as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, as hugely popular with children now as it was 50 years ago.

In short, concert-goers have seen little significant change in the last two centuries, let alone in the first decade of this one. 
But is that cause for concern?  Might it not be that the orchestral concert with all its traditions concerning dress, behaviour, repertoire and accessibility is such an ideal format that it needs no modernising?  I don’t see any let up in the number of concerts being given around the world, the SSO gets an enthusiastic and loyal following without resorting to gimmicks as does just about every other successful orchestra in the world, and if audience numbers fall, might that not be more to do with poor playing, silly programming or simply bad management than with a format which, far from being tired and irrelevant, has stood the test of time and is today as fresh and exciting as it was in the 18th century?

22 February 2012

Old Art - Old Hat

Feng Yin, Director of the China National Ballet, made this astonishing comment the other day; “Western audiences have been watching Swan Lake for more than a century, so must be bored and craving for something new”.  What are we to make of that?  Do we automatically discard Shakespeare in favour of Alan Ayckbourn, Dickens in favour of Jeffrey Archer, Mozart in favour of Lloyd Webber simply because the first named are dead and the second named alive?

When I heard that I thought what a peculiarly Chinese perspective on great art it was.  A nation which recognises musical talent only when it appears on the front cover of glossy fashion mags can surely not appreciate the value of those who had the misfortune to live and work in the years before colour photography, scented hair gel and cosmetic surgery.  I well recall the Chinese piano technician who came to tune my 1929 German-built grand piano shortly after it had arrived in Malaysia.  After the lengthy sea voyage from Southampton, three months in a container on the dockside at Port Klang, not to mention being dropped by the team of Indian movers who brought it into the house, it was still pretty much in tune, and I just needed a technician to give it a bit of TLC.  He took one look at it and declared; “Waste of time!  Old piano only fit for scrap heap.  I get you a new Chinese or Korean grand at very reasonable price”.  When I suggested its very antiquity might make it valuable he was aghast; “Nobody want old piano like that”.  Somehow, the very idea that something is old instantly renders it worthless in the eyes of a people whose concept of legacy seems from the outside to amount to burning bits of paper at a grave once a year.

But then I realised this was by no means a uniquely Chinese view point.  Ploughing relentlessly through a tedious novel by Patrick Gale (Rough Music) which I picked up in a pile of remainders at a bookshop last week (on the strength that it was about a part of the UK in which I had once lived and included mention of people and places I knew well, so thinly disguised under a gossamer veil of altered names and details that were anyone to consider libel, no lawyer could possibly argue that the characters in the book were genuinely fictitious), I came across this exchange between a dope-smoking, long-haired, motor-cycle riding American author and a highly respectable middle-aged middle-class English wife with a penchant for embroidering hassocks and playing Skryabin on the piano as they fought over a transistor radio;

“What’s is it?”, she asked. 
“Aretha Franklin. Listen”. 
“I hate this sort of music…That’s not music.  That’s just noise. I’d find you real music only the powers that be have made the signal too weak to reach us down here”.
“You mean spineless stuff.  Polite string quartets”. 

All terribly clichéd (as is just about the entire book) but, as with all clichés, reflecting genuine everyday attitudes.  There are too many lovers of classical music who instantly dismiss anything they don’t like as “not proper music”, assuming a bland statement to sound more assertive and requiring less mental effort than voicing a considered opinion.  Similarly so many of those who dislike classical music feel intimidated into taking the clichéd stance that it is old and irrelevant while their preferred music is real and genuinely relevant to modern lives.  That’s not a Chinese attitude; it’s a human one.

It is frightening, however, when someone who is in a position where their utterances are looked on to have the weight of thought, understanding and consideration, comes up with something as idiotic as Ms Feng’s reported comment.  If audiences find Swan Lake boring, the fault lies with them or the performance, not the ballet or its music.  I, for my part, could never for a moment get tired of hearing Tchaikovsky’s glorious score and while I have certainly attended performances where the choreography did little to endear itself to me, classical music in concerted, balletic or operatic form, is too multi-textured ever to be boring.  The trouble is, listening to it and appreciating it takes effort, and an awful lot of people, Europeans even more than Chinese, have neither the will nor the ability to make any sort of mental effort in the pursuance of great art.

Even more worrying is when directors, who themselves may be devoid of artistic depth, feel that the original needs to be spiced up to make it more readably accessible to those who like to have their art spoon fed to them.  I’m of a generation which suffered the “innovative experimentation” of 1960s theatre directors.  I well remember as an A level English literature student attending a performance of Othello in which all the characters were black with the exception of Othello himself who was, perplexingly, a Chinese Mandarin, and the Tempest in which Ferdinand and Miranda began in full evening regalia and gradually discarded clothes until, with the final scene, they were stark naked.  I haven’t the foggiest idea what the directors were trying to do other than create headlines through their shock tactics, and I have long since grown to love both plays through “boring” traditional performances.
The great thing about western art is that it is timeless.  If you are bored of Shakespeare, Dickens or Tchaikovsky, surely you are bored of life, and there’s not much you can do about that other than swallow a cyanide capsule.

20 February 2012

A Tale of Two Orchestras

2012 may well prove to be a pivotal year in the landscape of orchestral music in south east Asia with two of the region’s principal orchestra adopting very different approaches to their artistic future.

A decade ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic looked to be on its beam ends, artistically, financially and socially.  Five years after the handover to China, it seemed as if this was a dying vestige of colonial occupation, an entertainment for the dwindling numbers of aging British expats and a home for musicians who had either failed to secure decent jobs in orchestras outside Asia or who had lost the ambition to move on.  More than one pundit predicted that the HKPO was on the path to becoming a part-time band, calling in students to boost the dwindling numbers of professionals for occasional concerts.  Then along came Edo de Waart.
Edo de Waart with the HKPO
His appointment caused huge surprise amongst all those who didn’t know the full story.  Why was such a highly-respected conductor allowing his name and reputation to be associated with a lame duck orchestra?  Was it that, approaching retirement, he saw it as a sinecure to while away his spare time before finally handing in his baton?  More cruelly, one player who had worked under him in the Netherlands asked, “Has he lost his reason?”  We could not see how even such a respected conductor could turn around something which was anathema to most Hong Kongers.

But, of course, the appointment of Edo de Waart as Chief Conductor in 2004 transformed the HKPO.  He brought in experienced foreign players who knew and appreciated his methods, he revolutionised the programming to bring great mainstays of the repertoire back to centre stage and place them alongside new and adventurous works, he introduced opera in concert and a whole host of other ideas which suddenly turned Hong Kong into an attractive destination for music-lovers.  He chose not to go down the path of recordings and international tours, which might have brought the orchestra more to prominence overseas, but instead built up the audience at home.  He didn’t go the way of so many and, looking at the greying hairs and balding pates of his audience, strive to drive them away in preference for the younger generation. He understood that it is the mature who have both the disposable income and the time management skills to populate a concert hall, and he built up an audience base of dedicated and committed Hong Kongers, keen, possibly, to be seen as part of the wealthy elite, not always immaculately behaved by western standards, but undeniably enthusiastic and loyal to the orchestra.  He didn’t ignore the young, and encouraged the HKPO to go out and about to schools and to involve itself in pioneering educational projects which have brought classical music into the lives of a very large number of Hong Kong students.  But he realised that, pressures of growing careers and growing families make concert-going an impossible dream for those of a certain age, so had no shame in gearing the mainstream concerts to those who so often get pushed aside in the pointless pursuit of attracting youth.
Jaap van Zweden
Now he has decided to leave the HKPO and fellow Dutchman Jaap van Zweden has been appointed his successor.  This is an exciting and inspired appointment for it not only brings another outstanding international conductor on to the rostrum who will, I suspect, quickly place his own stamp on the programming and range of the orchestra’s performances, but is clearly a sign that they wish to continue and build on de Waart’s legacy.  While some incoming music directors elsewhere have almost gone out of their way to expunge the legacy of their predecessors, one is confident that van Zweden will not do this.  And, as such, the future for the HKPO looks not just assured but exciting as well.

Compare that with what has happened to the Malaysian Philharmonic.
Last week it decided to axe several key players, among them fine musicians who had been with the orchestra since its inception and who are, in their way, almost as iconic a feature of the MPO as the building in which they perform.  Their departure, along with a growing list of key players who have resigned or left when contracts have expired, is leaving a very desiccated orchestra; a miserable ghost of what it once was.  Of course, any orchestra is far more than any single individual, be it a CEO, a musical director or a rank and file second violinist, but such wholesale cuts of valuable personnel sends out a very worrying signal as to the future of this once great orchestra.

The MPO in the Bamert era
Again going back a decade, it’s almost inconceivable how the MPO has changed.  In 2002 it was riding high on the crest of a wave, hailed by many pundits as not just the finest orchestra in Asia but potentially one of the world’s great orchestras.  After a spectacularly successful collaboration with the BBC Symphony in the only BBC Proms to have been franchised outside the UK, serious discussions took place about how soon the MPO could be invited to London to perform and broadcast there.  One British critic attending the KL BBC Proms suggested that a “cigarette paper” separated the quality of the MPO from that of the BBCSO.  And then it all went wrong.

The MPO has always suffered from unusually inept management.  If the management understood the orchestra, it didn’t understand the Malaysians, and vice versa.  To be fair it’s not an easy task for, along with the obvious problems of a perceived “western” art form being housed in the east, there is the added complication of the influence of Islam which, in Malaysia, tends to consider classical music as anti-religious.  But even so, huge mistakes were made.  Experts in the management office were replaced by time servers, and it has long been a standing joke amongst the orchestral community that none of the key management staff of the MPO have ever attended a classical music concert.  Indeed, there is a famous story about how a Marketing Manager actually confessed on radio in the US that he didn’t actually like music. On top of that, the musicians themselves have often failed to understand the sensitivities involved and have done themselves no favours by boorish and insensitive conduct.  All this came to a head and set the MPO on the downwards spiral that has continued with only occasional interruptions for the past seven years when founding music director, Kees Bakels, announced his decision to step down.  In retrospect, it was a premature decision, but at the time, it was handled so utterly catastrophically that the orchestra has never recovered.  A high profile appointment as successor made an even higher profile departure before ever picking up the baton, and Bakels returned as a stop-gap while management looked desperately around for a replacement.  When, eventually, Matthias Bamert was appointed, morale was so low, confidence among players so weak and the climate so hostile, that he was unable to mend the fences that needed to be mended. 
Kees Bakels -
MPO Founding Music Director
On top of that came the abysmal performance of the then CEO who failed spectacularly to respond to political and social criticism of the orchestra’s ethnic makeup (“Why call it the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra when there aren’t any Malaysians in it?” was the appallingly stupid clarion call of the lunatic fringe who took to MPO-bashing).  Instead of the obvious answer – “We provide the best for Malaysians, not the best of Malaysians” – she capitulated and hastened the orchestra’s decline by promising to bring in local players.  Since its creation in 1998 the MPO had been the first and only professional orchestra in Malaysia, so there was no pool of good local professionals to fill the seats, and while Bamert pressed for the creation of a youth orchestra to build up such a pool, he failed to realise that the Mad Mahathir’s inane “Malaysia Boleh” sound-bite meant that all Malaysians believed that if you said something, it was immediately fact.  Even before the MPYO had struck up a note, people were suggesting they could go straight into empty seats within the MPO.

And that is probably what is going to happen now.  Professional, qualified and experienced players replaced by students whose enthusiasm is not matched by their competence.  An orchestra which, instead of fulfilling the late, great Tan Sri Azizan’s dream of showing the world how Malaysia could attract the very best, shows the world how it as a land where native mediocrity is celebrated as the ultimate ideal.
I have a proven track record in getting predictions wrong, so I hope that I live up to my reputation in part here; while I really hope the HKPO will go from strength to strength under Jaap van Zweden, I earnestly hope that the MPO will pick itself up and resume its place among the great orchestras of the world.  Asia needs great orchestras and it needs great people to manage, direct, play in and listen to them.

17 February 2012

Schumann's Women

A discreet poster in a Bangkok music school sets me off into the maze of dark and narrow Sois in the shadow of Ploenchit BTS station in search of the Hullu Gallery.  I land up outside an anonymous looking apartment block and am directed by a bored security guard to the fourth floor.  A dreary corridor opens up when the antiquated lift doors eventually open, but passing through a heavy double door, I enter upon something as wonderful as it is unexpected; gorgeous, model-like women encased within skin-tight minimalist dresses hand out glasses of champagne and, while a huge wrap-around balcony offers the chance to savour the city’s sights from a rare vantage of tranquillity, the magic is really inside where warm and soft lighting illuminates violins dotted about the walls like so many priceless sculptures and large and chunky pictures of large and chunky naked women.  The pictures are intriguing if somewhat primitive, and I learn that their defining feature is that all have been created in a matter of minutes; “That one took 12 minutes from start to finish”, I overhear the artist telling someone.  I’m glad it’s not me that has to respond; I would have blurted out, “It shows”.

Just to visit the Hullu Gallery is pleasure enough, but what lured me there was the promise of a concert entitled “Schumann’s Women”.  I’ve been to fascinating concerts called “Mozart’s Women”, “Brahms’s Women”, “Beethoven’s Women”, even “Tchaikovsky’s Women”, where programmes have been built around works written for or inspired by different women who have played roles in the composers’ lives.  But I’ve never thought there was any mileage in Schumann’s Women; after all we are all fixated on the fact that the marriage of Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck was probably the most significant marital relationship in the history of art, and have never thought of Schumann in relation to any other woman.  Yet he certainly was as profligate with his sexual relations as anyone, and it was his extensive network of female conquests which Herr Wieck used as a weapon to try and stop the marriage.  Perhaps the most important woman in Schumann’s life was not Clara, but the unnamed maid who infected him with the syphilis from which he so spectacularly succumbed at the age of 46.

[As an aside, overhearing a conversation in German at the Hullu Studio, I am sure I heard one man telling another that Schumann had committed suicide because he believed Brahms was having an affair with Clara.  I certainly have never heard that, and have never read anything which would give it any credence at all, but it is a fascinating theory and certainly would explain why it was that Schumann refused to ever to talk to Clara again after his failed suicide bid in 1854.]

As it was, the concert had nothing whatsoever to do with Schumann’s women, and was merely a performance of two of his song cycles which dealt with love as seen from a woman’s viewpoint.  That said, I am still hugely glad I went, not just because of the visual delights of the Hullu Gallery, but because this turned out to be a magical recital.

Swiss mezzo-soprano Liv Lange accompanied by her compatriot Luzia von Wyl may not have offered up flawless performances of Frauenliebe und Leben and Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart - Lange possesses a voice of real strength and with laser-sharp focus, marvellous diction and superb breath control, but largely without real warmth or personality, while von Wyl, playing on a huge piano of Canadian manufacture (it had the word Heintzman emblazoned on the side which brings to mind the famous story of the “most expensive piano ever”), had her left foot so stuck to the una corda pedal that we rarely heard anything more than the desiccated tone of a single-string-per-note instrument, nevertheless revealed uncanny insight and understanding in her reading of Schumann’s deeply sympathetic piano writing - but the strengths of these performances lay in their intensely intuitive and highly intelligent interpretations which got closer to the spirit of Schumann than I have heard for a very, very long time.

In a female-dominated profession (and if you don’t believe me, just attend any meeting of music teachers or look into a class of music students) it is still unusual to have an all-female lieder partnership, and there was something deeply affecting about the gentleness and grace with which these two performers approached music which can come across with a distinctly masculine swagger.  With generous audience applause and spoken commentaries (captivatingly delivered by Lange) between every single song, we rather lost the thread of Schumann’s cyclic writing, but such was the depth of their obvious affection for the music that even the tiniest and most insignificant of the songs quickly created its own little sound world.

This was a lovely recital, beautifully delivered by two good musicians and in a really lovely setting.  Such occasions are all the more precious for being rare, but I would urge any artistically sensitive visitor to Bangkok to root out the Hullu Gallery and its enchanting recital room.  I’ve added the link to the blog for you to find the place and know what’s on.

06 February 2012

A Nice Composer

It is said that everyone who was alive at the time can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of John F Kennedy’s assassination.  I certainly can.  I was in the front room of our house in south London practising for my grade 3 piano exam in a few days’ time.  It was rather a nice piece of Hindemith, which I hugely enjoyed playing, and I was annoyed when my further came into the room – piano practice times were sacrosanct in our house – and told me to stop because President Kennedy had been shot.  I remember asking my father why it mattered so much to him since he never seemed to like Americans.  “This one was different”, he told me.  I didn’t go to see the television in the other room, as Dad had suggested, but stayed where I was wondering why the death of an American President was more important than practising for my grade 3.  It was many years before I appreciated the horror my father and others must have felt and why this particular death has become so ingrained in our consciousness; for years the world had been teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation and it was widely felt that with Kennedy’s death the Russian threat was all the more real to all of us.  History may have taught us that this was not the case, but I realise what a catastrophe Kennedy’s assassination must have seemed at the time.

Other deaths have had a more personal resonance, but there is one other death of a non-family member which I remember so vividly that I can give an almost exact account of the moment in time when I heard news of it.

Sir Arthur Bliss - a Nice Composer
Maundy Thursday 1975 (for non-Christians that’s the Thursday before Easter – which, come to think of it, still doesn’t really help non-Christians) and the final university vacation before the finals exams for my BMus degree.  With my parents I was going to spend Easter with my sister and her family who lived in an idyllic spot in the borders of Scotland.  We had just reached the notorious Gravelly Hill Interchange – Spaghetti Junction – on the M6 near Birmingham and traffic came to a standstill. It was snowing and as I sat in the back seat of my father’s Volvo, I watched as the snow started to pile up on the motorway.  While we sat there not moving the One o’clock News came on the car radio and the newsreader – I don’t think it was the gravelly rasp of the late, great William Hardcastle who had brought us the memorable news of Stravinsky’s death four years earlier – announced the death of Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Musick.

In his youth Bliss could
easily have passed as a film star
Someone had been contacted to assess Bliss’s life.  I don’t know who it was but as I write this I heard 
the voice of Michael Tippett; and I’m sure it couldn’t have been him.  Whoever it was stressed how “nice”, “charming” and what a “consummate gentleman” Bliss had been.  I had met Bliss at a concert performance of his opera The Olympians some time earlier, and the news of his death struck home.  I determined to get to know his music better; apart from The Olympians (not a note of which I remembered then or now) all I knew was the March from Things to Come and the Colour Symphony which we had played in the school orchestra.  Another voice on the radio declared his greatest work to have been Morning Heroes, and when we eventually arrived in Scotland and took a day shopping in Edinburgh, I went straight to the record shop which sat proudly then in Princes Street (it may even have been a branch of the then reputable HMV) and picked up a recently-released LP of it.

From that day to this, Morning Heroes has been one of my dearest and most treasured favourites.  It has always been my desire to conduct it, but I know I never shall and I never could; there’s moment at the end of the chorus in which the great list of heroes killed on the battlefields of ancient Troy reaches “Brave Hector”, which is so impassioned and so frighteningly dramatic that I know I could never communicate the depth of my feeling for this moment to an orchestra or choir.  It also need s fantastic narrator to recite, against the orchestral backdrop, verses from Wilfred Owen, The Iliad and ancient Chinese writings; the LP had the John Westbrook; a rather insipid CD version released some time ago on the Cala label had the wonderful Brian Blessed, but his declamatory style was too Shakespearean to do full justice to Bliss’s work.  To this day, no other recording ever seems to have been made.
So touched was I by the references to Bliss as “nice” that I determined to dig deep into his output.  I started my MA course analysing his Music for Strings and discovered a range of works including a Piano Concerto and a choral Pastorale but somehow Bliss never did again what he did in Morning Heroes and, nice as he was, he does not go down in history as one of the great British composers of the 20th century.
Nice composers rarely do earn a place in history.  Look at the big names we all know; Bach,Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler.  Every one of them a thoroughly nasty piece of work, most of whom one would hope never to meet alone in a dark alley at night.  Haydn seems to have been all right – unless, that is, you look at the disgraceful way he treated his wife, behaviour which is excused by most of his biographers by dismissing his wife as a “simple, dull peasant woman” – and while Bruckner wouldn’t hurt a fly, he certainly was not what you would call a man whose company anyone would have actively sought; and as the father of a pre-teen daughter, I would have done anything to keep him away from my family. 
I am always vaguely amused by those who desperately seek out composers and great musicians in order to be photographed with them or collect their autographs; they invariably get disappointed when their great heroes turn out to be utterly unpleasant people.
I’ve just been re-reading that wonderful piece of fiction by Rose Tremain, Music and Silence, which gives an imagined account of life as a musician in the court of King Christian of Denmark in the 17th century.  A central character in the book is an English lutenist employed as a replacement for a more famous (and real) one who left in some disgrace.  As the King wistfully points out to his new lutenist; “We had your Mr Dowland at court, and he was a man so full of his own importance that his great importance weighed him down and made hi miserable. He made nothing but enemies here.  Yet his music was sublime”.
John Dowland is revered as one of the great figures of English music – yet there is no reason to assume Ms Tremain got it wrong and we can be fairly sure he was a miserable bugger.  Arthur Bliss is all but forgotten even by those who are passionate enthusiasts for English music – yet everyone tells us how nice he was.  Is that mere coincidence?