IF HANDEL WERE ALIVE TODAY...
The arrival of Handel in 1710 was a turning point for music in the UK, and the opportunities that London offered the composer where unparalleled. Italian opera was rapidly becoming the entertainment of choice among the fashionable classes, and Handel, having recently spent several years working in Italy, had both the skills and the experience needed to satisfy the market.
Such an import of compositional talent reflected the cosmopolitan status of the capital in the 18th century. Haydn also received a warm welcome, and London can be justly proud of the relationships it fostered with both composers as it celebrates their respective anniversaries in 2009.
But in the intervening centuries, the image of the UK from abroad has apparently lost its appeal; a few successful commissions in the 19th century (Weber’s Oberon, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Dvorak’s 7th) are the notable exceptions in an otherwise downward trend in British patronage of international compositional talent. If the young Handel was alive today and was seeking a major cultural centre to establish a career as an opera composer, London would be an unlikely choice.
Yet the tradition of musical performance in the UK has been continuously strong since Handel’s day. The lack of continental composers in London in the 19th century contrasts a continuous influx of celebrity performers, especially opera singers, for whom Covent Garden has remained a focal point on the world opera scene. And parochialism seems an unlikely cause for the UK’s lack of international composing talent; it was, after all, the appetite for Italian opera that created a niche for Handel. A benign nationalism linked to the pastoral movement turned England’s musical perspective inwards in the early 20th century, but the move to a more cosmopolitan outlook after the war was achieved without significant help from abroad.
Many European composers in the 20th century found good reason to leave their native lands, but the potential cultural benefits of this exodus have largely passed the UK by. The favoured residences for expat composers in today’s Europe are Paris, Hamburg and Amsterdam. Each city has a range of amenities that help to explain their attraction; Paris has IRCAM, Hamburg a healthy music publishing industry, and Holland a vibrant new music scene with a reputation for valuing imported talent.
Immigration restrictions are an inevitable proviso to the welcome offered to an artist in today’s political climate. As in Handel’s day, friends in high places can prove a benefit. When Handel applied to become a naturalized British subject in 1727, his links with the Royal household were already firmly established through his position as music master to the royal princesses (daughters of George II), making the paperwork a formality. By contrast, when the Russian composers Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova arrived in the UK in 1990, their immigration status was far from certain. But they found a powerful support in David Mellor (classical music’s only advocate in the cabinet since Ted Heath?), who secured them a three-year residency permit. Although still unjustly neglected in their adopted country, this husband and wife team have made a significant contribution to music in the UK, writing for many British ensembles and between them taking teaching appointments at Keele, RAM, RNCM and Goldsmiths.
The support offered by publishers in the UK to incoming composers has been variable, but the industry’s reputation in this respect has benefited from the activities of its largest player, Boosey & Hawkes. The company has thrown its considerable weight behind a range of composers arriving in the UK in the 20th century. Andrej Panufnik, for example, was able to more or less pick up where he left off after his defection from Poland (although securing the rights to his earlier works from the Polish state publishers proved a fraught task). Both Elena Firsova and the Devon based Russian Vladislav Shoot have benefited from Boosey & Hawkes’ tradition of support for Russian composers (dating back to their distribution agreements with the Soviet state publishing houses). Berthold Goldschmidt also benefited from the support of Boosey & Hawkes, albeit not until the 1980s, when he had already lived in the UK for some forty years, but the signing was an important step in Britain’s belated adoption of the composer, which helped to spur his final creative period.
The BBC has a chequered record with expat composers in the UK. Goldschmidt worked for the Corporation in the late 1940s, as Musical Director of the German Section of its European Service, but their support of his creative work stretched only as far as incidental music. Another victim of the prevailing conservatism of the day was Roberto Gerhard, a talented serialist and Catalan exile from Franco’s Spain. His serious music was of little interest to the UK establishment, but he was able to make ends meet by writing music for BBC films in a folksy Spanish style. The resentment of this proud Catalan at having to act Spanish is reflected his pseudonym for this work - Juan Serralonga – after a Catalan freedom fighter of the 17th century.
From the late 1950s, the radical music policy review at the BBC by William Glock had the effect of leap-frogging many foreign composers who were active in the UK. Goldschmidt, whose music had previously been considered too exotic, was now too conservative to attract the Corporation’s support. Panufnik’s music was also sidelined for being too melodic, having previously faced more serious censure in Poland for not conforming to their state policies of accessibility. Today, the Corporation takes a more diverse view of the nation’s musical culture, and composers of foreign birth to have benefited from commissions in recent years include Vladislav Shoot, Elena Firsova, Fung Lam (originally from Hong Kong) and Jennifer Fowler, hailing from Australia but based in the UK since 1969.
The relationship between British musicians and Australian composers is currently in a process of reconciliation following the underwhelming tenure of Malcolm Williamson as Master of the Queens Music. At the time of the appointment in 1975, many thought the job should have gone to Malcolm Arnold (Walton famously opined that they “had got the wrong Malcolm”). Political motivations were suspected, the UK having recently joined the Common Market and the Crown Appointments Commission was apparently keen to bolster Commonwealth ties. The situation was not helped by Williamson’s distaste for the work and his reluctance to deliver music for state occasions – the basis of the job. Today, musical connections between the two countries are maintained by a stream of aspiring Australian composers travelling to the UK to study, with Luke Styles and Alicia Grant among the most prominent recent graduates. A tradition has also been established of British composers travelling to Australia to teach, the most significant in recent years being Roger Smalley and John McCabe.
Teaching positions are a traditional motivation for migration among composers, but the staff lists of music colleges in the UK include precious few foreign names. One inspired appointment was Mátyás Seiber to the staff of Morley College in 1942 (a move engineered by Michael Tippet). Seiber was originally from Hungary and maintained an impressively open attitude to diverse musical cultures throughout his career with interests in folk music and jazz as well as serialist modernism. Joseph Horovitz has held a chair in composition at the Royal College of Music since 1961, but although born in Vienna, he has lived in the UK since he was twelve. As a composer, his work has been almost fully assimilated into the country’s traditions, as demonstrated by his substantial body of work for the brass band. Similarly, the Belize-born Errolyn Wallen holds a teaching post at Trinity College of Music, and while she is undoubtedly broadening the horizons of the new music scene in the UK, she is very much doing so from within, having lived in the UK since she was two.
The most intriguing import in terms of composition teachers in the UK is Stephen Montague, also on the Trinity College staff. Montague was born in New York and spent his first thirty years in the US. His passage to Europe (initially to Poland) was the result of a Fulbright scholarship. His artistic outlook is in the Fulbright spirit of trans-Atlantic communication, influenced as much by John Cage and the American minimalists as by the electro-acoustic innovations of Cologne and Paris. Among Western European nations, Britain has been the most resistant to American influence in new music – visits from composers like Cage, Glass, Feldman and Reich have been more warmly received in Holland, Germany and even Ireland than in London. In recent years, Stephen Montague has proved a pivotal figure in Britain’s belated acceptance of American musical innovations, especially in his advocacy of John Cage, whose expansive conception of music is an important challenge that the UK has been slow to face.
The USA also provides a complex and not wholly exemplary demonstration of how a country can benefit from the influx of composers from abroad. For every success story - Menotti, Stravinsky or Almodovar - there has been a Zemlinsky, a Schreker or a Krenek, well known in their native countries but sinking without trace on arrival in the States. Nevertheless, America is (or was) a land of immigration, with a culture almost wholly derived from existing cultures abroad. As its music infrastructure has developed the opportunities it offers has increased, especially for composers who are also virtuoso performers (like Kreisler) or skilled conductors (for example Esa Pekka Salonen). Funding for the arts remains an issue, and the reputation of the US abroad, like that of the UK, suffers from the suspicion that financial motivations run close to the surface of cultural activity.
If Handel were alive today, America would be an unlikely beneficiary of his mature output, but the UK would seem equally unenticing. Paris may be an option, a city with more than its share of expat composers and with a healthy appetite for opera. His early years in Rome could credibly be transported to modern times, it having attracted composition students as diverse as Kenneth Leighton, Reginald Smith Brindle and Peter Maxwell Davis. But a base for a successful composing career? Surely Saxony, his native land, would top the list. With major centres of classical music and opera in Leipzig, Dresden and nearby Berlin, engaged (if critical) audiences and press, and generous state subsidy to keep it all afloat. The attractions of foreign lands would pale. Britain’s loss would be Germany’s gain, a sobering thought as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the UK’s most celebrated composer.
© Gavin Dixon 2008