Asked rather less often than the tiresome, “Who is your favourite composer?”, people do occasionally pose the more entertaining, “Who is your least favourite composer?” It’s an impossible question to answer because, while it is astonishingly easy to list pieces of music one never wants to hear again (strange how much easier it is to compile this list than one of pieces one could not live without), every composer whose music appears on that list can salvage their reputations with at least one moderately acceptable musical offering. We do not write a composer off for writing a few bad pieces; even if we are happy to describe a composer as “great” on the strength of one or two really good works (can one claim every single Bach Chorale Prelude to be the work of an absolute genius?).
Usually at this time of year, if anyone asks me which work I’d like never to hear again, I’d have no hesitation in pouncing on Lowell Mason’s banal Joy to the World, possibly the most irritating and overblown of all Christmassy melodies. (I find it incredible that there are still sadly deranged people out there who believe this piece of musical drivel to be by Handel: you have to be pretty ignorant of Handel’s genius to recognise any connection.) But even then, I would never write off Mason as my least favourite composer (he did, after all, compile some rather nice tunes in his many song books for children), and I live in hope that I might one day see the light and recognise what this Christmas tune has that justifies its ceaseless exposure for around two months of the year.However, this year even Mason’s music has an allure, largely because it is not by Ludovico Einaudi, a composer of whom I had never heard until I attended a piano recital last week.
I hope you will, like me, on hearing this name instantly ask; “who?” I must confess that when I saw his name on the recital programme my initial reaction was that it was a spoof. After all while the given name is Italian-ish, there is something suspiciously concocted about the family name, which could loosely be translated as “One who hears oneself”, and when I heard the piece performed – called Divenire – it sounded suspiciously like a basic improvisation using simple chords which, after a predetermined period of time, stopped dead in its tracks. The “programme note” with the recital, and I put it in inverted commas because it conformed to none of the criteria one would normally expect in a recital, was of use only if you had the score in front of you (which even the pianist did not), since it merely suggested points of reference in specific bars. It was dreary, aimless, unstructured and served no point other than to fill a bit of time. I left convinced it was a very feeble attempt to hoodwink a gullible provincial audience.
But then, during the week, two students presented the same work to me and I began to wonder. None of the performances convinced me it was anything other than a pointless waste of time and (admittedly minimal) effort, but clearly the students were under the impression it was serious music, and in fairness to them and to Einaudi, I tried to find out more. I came across an article dated April this year from the London based Daily Telegraph in which a nicely impartial reporter wrote; "The music of Ludovico Einaudi may defy definition – you could call it pop, classical, minimalist, easy listening”. What dread such a statement engenders in my heart. We do like to categorise things, and I am the first to accept that defining music in such terms is dangerous and misleading. But there are limits. It’s a bit like suggesting a certain drink defines definition – "you could call it wet or dry, sweet or sour, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, tasty or bland" - there have to be some basic perameters. I am reminded of the time André Previn was supposed to write a new work for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music. In charge of writing the programme notes, nothing I did could get Previn to respond to my request for some description of the new piece. In the end, the Festival Director wrote to him direct and received this matchless description of the new work; “It may be long, it may be short. It may be fast or slow. It is scored for a flexible ensemble which probably includes a piano.” As the Director deduced; “He hasn’t bloody written it yet!”
The Daily Telegraph piece also suggested that Einaudi has legions of “quietly fanatical fans” (whatever they are), and further trawling through the dark recesses of cyberspace, one encounters some of these in full (quiet) voice; “So cute. I love him!” writes Hailey Lytle (albeit beside a picture of a boxer dog, so to whom she is referring remains a mystery). The more verbose and deeply perceptive Mohammad Nabeel describes Einaudi’s music as “Very very. Very. Very nice”. Thornham10 has a very clear view; “Just amazing this sing cleanses the mind” (of both grammar and spelling, it seems), while of the 6 million (I kid you not!) who have viewed a performance of Divenire on YouTube, Nick1309 is a little obscure in his comment; “it makes me come the frissons!!”, although his fellow-listener Petr Kolář has neither any reservations nor the need to hide behind pairs of exclamation marks; “this is masterpiece. I love that”.And if the impression is that Einaudi’s fans are about as eloquent in English as he is in music, here is something rather more substantive from Adarsh Rao; “I live and die for this piece of music. Ever since 2009 I've heard this song on almost everyday of my life. I'm learning to play this on piano and will learn to play it on violin too. I ll play this on every occasion of my life and can't go by a day without listening to it and I hope my family plays this on my funeral”. The piece which poor Mr Rao’s family must by now be heartily sick of is I Giorno, which is almost as dire as Divenire. What is it about this aimless, drivelling and pointless music which gets so many people so (quietly) excited? It passes me by. Are people’s emotions so superficial that this adequately reflects their mood or fulfils their need for the intensity of experience which only music can provide?
I would hope that one of Einaudi’s quietly fanatical fans will be able to explain what his music has that I fail to appreciate, but unless and until they do, he remains the best placed candidate for my Least Favourite Composer.