Monday, April 30, 2007

What Makes the Music British?


Donald Runnicles, conductor
   Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance Marches No. 1 & 4
   Mark-Anthony Turnage: Three Screaming Popes
   Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
   James MacMillan: Brittania
   Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
Thu/Fri/Sat, 26-28 April 2007, 8:00pm
Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
[Review is of the Thursday performance]

What exactly is "British" about British 20th-century music? Donald Runnicles, who has a personal proclivity for speaking to the audience from the podium, suggested in his verbal notes that listeners put away any attempt to find audible commonality in this evening's music with identifiable "Britishness" of style that might uinte them. That may be true if one tries to take a snapshot of the whole, frozen in time, without chronological reference. But once heard, it is possible that this program offers a thread to follow out of that darkly enigmatic labyrinth of British national identity, and reveal it as discernable in light of 20th-century history.

Donald Runnicles' chose to open and close the evening with popular Elgar: two of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, No. 4 and No. 1 respectively, and despite his own caution spent a few moments lauding Sir Edward Elgar as the pinnacle of British composers. On the other hand, I've often heard said that Benjamin Britten was the most significant Brit composer since Henry Purcell—but perspectives obviously vary.

The Pomp and Circumstance Marches offer an audible experience Elgar's world as the dawn of the 20th-century—the end of the Victorian age, the beginning of the Edwardian, before the First World War and subsequent events intervened upon the assurance that "all is well with the Empire," and that the Sun shall ne'er set upon it.

The opening March raised the curtain with exactly that feeling, where one is enjoying celebration of a culture which is rather settled, solid and certain of itself as the lawns of Oxford University. "Simply plant the seed, water it, then roll it every spring for the next 900 years," says the matter-of-fact groundskeeper to the American wondering at the secret behind their care. In that day, the attributes of Britishness may have seemed obvious to Elgar's fellow countrymen.

But the program takes a sudden turn with three more-or-less iconoclastic works from the other end of the century, by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Peter Maxwell-Davies, and James MacMillan, which reveal a remarkable sonic and aesthetic commonality at their core. (All three employ the "slapstick" among the percussion— a most curious British compositional affinity which probably emerged from the era of Sir William Walton.)

Three Screaming Popes (1989) by Turnage was inspired by paintings of Francis Bacon (not the English philosopher-statesman of Elizabethan times, but the Irish iconoclastic figurative painter of the 20th-century), specifically the bold, grotesquely distorted, and often harrowing studies based upon Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1650.

Turnage himself does not believe his music sounds particularly "British." As did the Beatles, he has long held strong interests in American popular music, particularly jazz and soul, as well as blues and rock, with plenty ofearly exposure to it while growing up "on the wrong side of the tracks" in London's East End.

While Turnage originally intended Three Screaming Popes to be "a piece which distorted a set of Spanish dances as bacon had distorted and restated the Velázquez." Instead, he goes on to say, these dances ultimately became submurged in the work's other textures so as to become almost imperceptible. And indeed, the complexity of textures necessitates the very simplicity of form which underlies the work. (A lesson for aspiring avant-gardists: complexity in one set of elements can benefit from counterbalancing simplicity elsewhere.) There is an overall intensity, but with some expressive contrasts which are relatively peaceful by comparison; concluding, of course, with an obligatorily raucousness.

While both Turnage and MacMillan were born within a year of each other, Peter Maxwell Davies is one generation their elder, and was an influence on MacMillan.

Born outside of Manchester, England, Davies discovered the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland in the 1970s, moving to Hoy—hence, as series of Orkney-inspired works. One of these, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, is an aural painting or "postcard" of reveries of an all-night Scottish wedding reception, with whiskey, even unto a sunrise replete with bagpiper heralding the dawn, walking down the aisle from the back of the hall to the stage. (Obtaining enthusiastic applause from both those of Scottish descent and others attracted to the perceived novelty.)

One of the mild difficulties, for those who are not Celtic folk-musicians, is the "Scottish snap," a rhythmic element which, if played correctly, imparts the appropriate style to the music. Otherwise, there is struggle for an orchestra to not allow the music to drift into a sound not entirely unlike a kind of Copland-ish Americana. The ASO's rendition too frequently threatened to pull away to fiddling with that far more familiar genre, despite any steering on course by Runnicles own Scottish heritage.

James MacMillan's Brittania follows more closely as an heir to Davies music than does the Turnage. It is full of quotational references, including "God Save the Queen," popular tunes and fanfares, and musical allusions to familiar elements of "very British" culture, both traditional and popular. It would be easy to compare the music with that of Charles Ives (who was a musical iconoclast long before any of these three composers were alive), but especially in the case of Scottish-born MacMillan, one might make better by describing it as a kind of "Monty Python's Flying Symphony" of sorts. Much like the Python troup, the comedy and Britishness of MacMillan's music has a dark side, even forboding elements, the impression that is left in this listener by Brittania's conclusion, after all the exhuberant mania.

A comparison to British black comedy, whether the Pythons or veterans of the somewhat less-remembered radio program The Goon Show such as English actor Peter Sellars, whose multiple-role comedic presence was felt in dystopian comedic films such as Dr. Strangelove and most touchingly in his final social commentary, Being There.

And there you will find a "British" commonality to all of the music on this program. Something serious happened to the United Kingdom over the course of the 20th century, and to the whole world from the British perspective.

Benjamin Britten's life spanned the middle of this century of change. The Second World War, and anti-war sentiment, holds prominent place among Britten's works, including the Sinfonia da Requiem, premiered in New York in 1940, after Britten and fellow life-traveler Peter Pears had come to America, like many artists of the time who were escaping the encroaching European theatre of warfare, but believing he would be destined to settle here permanently.

"I am certain that North America is the placeof the future," Britten is quoted in the program notes, "... & though certainly one is worried about the lack of culture, there is terrific & vitality in the place."

Sinfonia da Requiem, fully instrmental but assuming the pretenses of three sections of a Requiem mass (Lacrymosa, Dies irae, and Requiem aeternam), addresses his deep concerns about the war and the "lessrosy" picture in England. Nevertheless, Britten and Pears, homesick, returned to England only two tears later in the midst of the war.

The Sinfonia begins darkly lyrical, turns passionate, then urgent, deliberate, and in an almost Fauré-like catharsis, conjures celestial lyricism toward the end, as if to literally say "luceat eis."

The program concluded with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, the most familiar one to most of the public with its
"graduation theme," which Runnicles took at a rather quick pace. This tempo, frankly, added to the disturbing feeling that however restated the world of Elgar might be at this juncture, his music could not restore the confidence of the Empire, but only offer a longing memory to a nation whose identifiable certitude had given way, as did the Empire itself, to a late 20th-century world which no longer moves "round a common centre" (W.H. Auden) but a social iconoclasm beyond our control which makes us wonder, like a Monty Python movie, not whether we ourselves have gone crazy, but have instead gone utterly sane in an increasingly crazy world. ■

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 30 April 2007

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