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Renewing Musical Tradition

A paper given at the conference 'Redefining Musical Identities' in Amsterdam on 31 August 2002

In thinking about tradition, I want first briefly to consider the somewhat erratic history of music in England. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, English polyphonic music was as rich as in any other part of Europe, and Tallis and Byrd are the equals of Josquin and Palestrina. In the seventeenth century there were a number of fine composers and one outstanding individual genius, Purcell. The eighteenth century was dominated by Handel: whether he counts as English I'm not sure, but if Conrad is an English novelist and curry an English food, then I think he probably can. I do feel that the melodies of Messiah for instance have an English character which is hard to define but easily recognizable (you find the same in Purcell). We missed out almost completely on the Classical and Romantic periods, and apart from Arne who wrote the national anthem and 'Rule Britannia', there are no English composers to speak of from Handel until Elgar, who finally was able to write the great English symphony and concerto (two of each) and also - which is not always acknowledged - the first great English string quartet. Not opera, however: this was left to Britten, and then Tippett, both of whom also wrote first-rate string quartets, and Vaughan Williams and Tippett some first-rate symphonies. It was of great advantage to twentieth-century English composers that there was no national tradition of the symphony and string quartet to inhibit them, and so they were able to make substantial contributions to both of these forms.

Britten in some ways might be seen to be something of an outsider in relation to an English tradition. He began by rejecting all his English contemporaries except for his teacher Frank Bridge and, interestingly, Delius - both of whom looked more to continental models than did either Vaughan Williams or Holst. As a teenager, under the guidance of Bridge, Britten was influenced first by Debussy and Ravel and then by Schoenberg - some of his teenage music is almost atonal. This was a passing phase; in his early twenties he came under the influence of Mahler, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók and Shostakovich, and out of all these, his earlier immersion in the music of Beethoven, and his own natural originality, he formed a very personal, firmly tonal style - perhaps the most confident use of tonality, in fact, in the mid-twentieth century. He made settings of poetry in French, Italian, German and Russian as well as English. All of which goes to show that eclecticism seems rooted in the English character - it can also be observed in Purcell, Elgar and Tippett. Despite Britten's interest in setting foreign languages, it is his settings of English words, in which he was influenced both by both Purcell (a composer he performed and edited) and by folksongs (of which he made many settings) that most clearly define him as an English composer.

Like Elgar, Britten became a popular composer in his lifetime, largely because of his gift for melody, which seems quite unselfconscious - a rare gift in the twentieth century except among popular composers like Gershwin and Irving Berlin. (The operetta Paul Bunyan, by the way, shows that Britten could have had a career writing Broadway musicals.) His opera Peter Grimes demonstrates this gift for memorable melody to a high degree and this was one of the chief reasons for its immediate success. Both Britten and Tippett took a very different approach to the characteristic modernist one of standing aloof from one's audience. This was partly from political conviction - they were both socialists (also incidentally pacifists). Both of them were insistent on the composer playing an active role in society as a communicator. Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time and Britten's War Requiem are both large-scale public statements on issues of war and suffering and individual conscience, written in a highly communicative musical language. Both works have affected large numbers of people while making no artistic compromises. Are such works possible nowadays in our different cultural climate? It is difficult to say a definite yes, because there seem no longer to be composers of stature who are using the kind of comprehensive musical language they did, and there also seems to be a shying away from large-scale statements by mainstream composers.

The majority of British composers since Britten and Tippett have rejected their influence, but a few have not, for instance Nicholas Maw and Judith Weir, and also myself. When I first began to compose in the 1960s it was unfashionable among my generation to compose tonally, but I was encouraged in my belief in the continuing validity of tonality by the achievement of Britten and Tippett, and I was also impressed by the way they had taken traditional forms such as the symphony and string quartet and vitally renewed them. As a composer, both these forms have been very important to me. During my lifetime I have seen a dramatic shift back to tonality by many composers, but it appears to me that all of them practise a narrower form of tonality than that used by either Britten and Tippett, which continued to employ such essential devices of classical tonality as modulation and a properly functioning bass line. I should like to quote here a passage from my essay in the book Reviving the Muse:

"Most contemporary music is static; but stasis, it seems to me, is ideally a condition to be achieved, as for instance in Beethoven's last piano sonata where the static, contemplative slow movement is heard as a consequence of the dynamic drama of the first movement. The dynamic use of tonality will involve both modulation and the rediscovery of dissonance as a disruptive force. Although one can no longer easily define the difference between consonance and dissonance, it is still possible to conceive of harmony as either stable or unstable. Unless there are real harmonic contrasts in a piece, it cannot have dynamic movement. Perhaps, because our most frequent experience of movement nowadays is as a passenger in a car, train or plane, observing the landscape speeding by while we ourselves remain still, most fast movement in contemporary music, whether tonal or atonal, is merely rapid motion without any involvement of physical energy. Fast music in the past was related to the movement of the body, walking, running or dancing." [1]

Dance and song are the fundamentals of music. That should hardly need to be questioned, yet in the twentieth century, while dance and song naturally stayed the basis of popular music, the doctrines of post-Second World War modernism tried to eliminate both dance and song from serious music and to create an irrevocable gulf between serious and popular music. This was a costly mistake. In the past, serious music had always stayed closely in touch with the vernacular language of popular and folk music, until Schoenberg renounced the use of the vernacular at the start of the last century. At first, he and a few others were very much on their own; other modernist composers such as Stravinsky and Bartók continued to base their language on folk music. Both Tippett and Britten had a creative relationship with folk music. In Tippett's early music the melodies are derived from folksong in a similar way to his predecessors Vaughan Williams and Holst; later he substituted the more contemporary vernacular of African-American blues and jazz, but the idea of a vernacular language that stood behind his music remained important for him, as it did for Britten. Britten's musical thinking was grounded in the idea of song, from his earliest childhood when his mother sang to him, and later when he accompanied her singing at the piano. Although he rejected the kind of nationalistic attitude to folksong exemplified by Vaughan Williams, Britten, as I have noted, made many highly original settings of folksongs, from Great Britain, France and the USA.

Classical sonata form included a dance movement, originally a minuet, then the scherzo which was at first a speeded-up minuet and then became a form in its own right. Contemporary scherzos often have little connection with dance rhythms, and it has seemed to me that composers should try to restore this lost dance element back into music. We need a contemporary archetype to replace the minuet, and it should be a popular form, known by everyone. Contemporary popular music ought to provide one, but rock music, which has abandoned the formal dance and, as Roger Scruton showed in his paper, has also largely abandoned vital rhythm, may not be of much use here. But the tango seems highly suitable: its rhythms are infectious, and erotic - as both the minuet and the waltz were once considered to be, though time has now dulled them. The tango already has a historical place in European music: composers who have written tangos since the 1920s, including Stravinsky, Martinu and Schnittke; it also has its indigenous South American tradition, and there are the many tangos by Piazzolla which are attempts to create a kind of folk art. But as far as I know the tango has not been used before in a symphony or a string quartet. In my Fourth Symphony I made the second of its two dance movements a tango, written in simple ternary form, and in my more recent Ninth Quartet there is a more complex tango which I should like to play for you. This movement contains three successive tangos, the second of which is also a development of the first, and the third a derivation from the first. This is followed by a recapitulation of all three tangos played simultaneously. So there is a connection here with sonata form, as in some of Beethoven's scherzos.

The post-war modernists, in their general renunciation of everything to do with the past, rejected the idea of repetition and development, aiming instead at a heightened sense of the moment. So that the traditional conception of a piece moving through time on a journey towards a destination was abandoned. The experiment produced some interesting results: for instance Boulez's cummings ist der Dichter, which is constructed rather like an artichoke where one gradually removes the leaves one by one to reveal the heart, the most precious part, within. But sonata form, which is based on the ideas of statement, development, repetition, and contrast, and which is the most sophisticated form for conveying the idea of a journey through time, seems to me to offer a far richer musical experience. Sonata form also seems an inexhaustible archetype. Like the sonnet, it is familiar to all educated people. The moment of recapitulation in a sonata movement offers a particular opportunity for innovation because of all the precedents that will subconsciously be in the minds of the audience. I can suggest here as a general principle that the more familiar a device, the more chance one has to confound expectation, which is what real innovation is. The moment of recapitulation was greatly heightened by Beethoven in his symphonies, culminating in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony where we feel a whole new world being revealed, familiar but also totally different. There is another superb example of an innovative moment of recapitulation in the first movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, where the music as it were gathers itself together and finally makes a very clear statement, as if everything before had been hidden in mist and the sun has just appeared. Recapitulation cannot really operate without tonality, which is perhaps why Schoenberg more or less abandoned it in favour of continuous development. But development cannot make its full effect unless there is a return to stability.

The finale of a symphonic piece, if one is using a multi-movement form, is a problem: it has been since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Of Bruckner's many attempts to solve the finale problem he only succeeded absolutely once, I think, in his Eighth Symphony, and he spent the last years of his life trying in vain to complete his Ninth. We cannot now, it often seems, sum up decisively and comprehensively, perhaps because we no longer feel the confidence of composers in the past. It is probably better to end on a less serious level, as many Classical works do. I am only raising this problem to state it, not to offer solutions; but it is something that composers of the future can go on profitably addressing. I can however point here to one very successful solution to the finale problem in Britten's Third Quartet, which was almost his last work, and in which you feel that his whole life's work is at stake, if he fails to provide the right ending; but he does, and his finale is both a resolution and a new departure towards the door that he did not open.

In their string quartets, Britten and Tippett make use of old contrapuntal forms. Britten uses the chaconne form in his Second and Third Quartets, while Tippett's Second and Third Quartets contain fugues - the Third Quartet has no less than three fugal movements. The history of the fugue since Beethoven, whose fugues are the most remarkable in all music apart from Bach's, is somewhat patchy: there are few outstanding examples of later nineteenth-century fugues, and many are somewhat perfunctory - for example Liszt's - though there is a splendid culmination of the nineteenth-century conception of the fugue in the first movement of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. In the twentieth century the Bachian fugue was revived by neo-classical composers, but it often sounds rather artificial and unconvincing. Tippett, on the other hand, who undertook an exhaustive study of fugue and counterpoint with a notable teacher at the Royal College of Music, R.O.Morris, took up the challenge of the dynamic, Beethovenian fugue and had remarkable success with it, especially in the Third Quartet and the finale of the First Symphony, which is modelled on the finale of the 'Hammerklavier' Sonata. Can anything more be done with this much used form? Contemporary composers would appear to think not, but I have recently turned to the fugue in my Eighth String Quartet and have also composed a series of fifteen fugues for solo violin, some of which are in four parts - Bach does not go beyond three - and which contain some formal experiments, such as a slow fugue with a fast coda, and some textural ones - a pizzicato fugue, for instance, and a tremolo one which is also palindromic. I have come to the conclusion that there are still plenty of things to be done with this challenging form (and it is extremely challenging as one cannot help putting oneself in hopeless competition with Bach).

I have used the chaconne form myself, notably in an orchestral piece called simply Chaconne, which in fact consists of two chaconnes played consecutively and also in contrapuntal combination. It also has a programmatic connection with a sequence of poems by the contemporary English poet Geoffrey Hill about our first civil war, The Wars of the Roses, in particular one especially bloody battle in that war, the Battle of Towton. My piece is partly a meditation on the sombre mood of the poem sequence and partly an evocation of the battle. I'd like to play you the last few minutes of the piece, which consists of three consecutive sections. The first is the battle scene, which I hope illustrates my point about dissonance as a disruptive force: it is deliberately dissonant and intended to be quite shocking because it evokes painful events, but the level of dissonance here is markedly higher than in the remainder of the piece and therefore makes a more telling effect within the whole. The second section is a melody for solo viola over quiet but still dissonant harmonies; again, I think the language is appropriate here because this is intended as a lament; lastly comes a passage for strings which is an attempt to provide consolation; it's much less dissonant, and I feel that the counterpoint here is itself the vehicle of consolation and a more effective one than a simple harmonised melody would be. More than anything else, counterpoint enables you to raise the expressive level of your music. In fact if I had one piece of advice for a young composer it would be: learn how to use counterpoint, and I would qualify that with a remark of Busoni's: make your counterpoint melodious.

[1]    Peter Davison, ed., Reviving the Muse: Essays on Music After Modernism,
Claridge Press, 2001