Requiem for an Art Form: Why Modern Composers Are Fighting a Losing Battle

By Duchen, Jessica | The Independent (London, England), November 11, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Requiem for an Art Form: Why Modern Composers Are Fighting a Losing Battle


Duchen, Jessica, The Independent (London, England)


War has always inspired great music, says Jessica Duchen, but since 9/11 classical has fallen behind pop in a world racked by conflict

If music represents the most beautiful pole of human experience, war represents the most horrific. Yet classical music's responses to war regularly count among concert halls' best-loved offerings, so strong and so universal is their message. From great musical juggernauts such as Britten's War Requiem or Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, down to solo songs by Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, war and the emotions associated with it crop up time and again among the finest creations of this art form.

It is intriguing then that today, though 24-hour news coverage follows contemporary conflicts around the globe in unprecedented detail, the classical music we hear that responds to war still comes, chiefly, from the past. While pop music has engaged much more directly with issues sparked by the wars of today - take PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning album Let England Shake - classical "art" music seems altogether more recalcitrant about it.

The baritone Simon Keenlyside has just recorded a CD entitled Songs of War. It includes Butterworth's poignant song-cycle A Shropshire Lad, based on poetry by AE Housman, plus music ranging from Vaughan Williams to Kurt Weill. Its most recent composition is a setting of Walt Whitman by Ned Rorem, dating from 1969.

Keenlyside suggests, by way of explanation, that before film and photography were widely available, perhaps poetry and music served their purpose; they provided a response to the human tragedy of war, though not often a depiction of it.

"Many of those poets and soldiers didn't write about the horrors they saw," he says. "Whether that's because they didn't want to, or they wanted to push it away from them, a lot of war poetry is actually about life and about life-affirming things."

Offset by our own awareness and hindsight - for instance, knowing that Butterworth was killed in the Battle of the Somme, at the age of 31 - that life-affirming imagery makes the point by contrast even more effectively.

On the one hand, news coverage on television may have shouldered music and poetry out of the picture. On the other, while televised war reports can draw accusations of being antiseptic, music has a different function: that of connecting directly with the emotions. Should there not still be a role for classical music here? Where are the war requiems for the early 21st century?

In the decade since 9/11, war has never been out of the news. But contemporary composers do not seem to be flocking in droves to tackle its issues. It may be a while before they do. Difficult emotions can require time to process. Earlier this year the premiere took place of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11, a work for string quartet and tape responding to the terrorist attack on New York's twin towers. Reich's family lived close to the site and had a narrow escape - the renowned American composer has acknowledged that he only felt able to address the event in music years later.

That is not always the case, of course. Shostakovich finished his Seventh Symphony and witnessed its premiere while the siege of Leningrad was taking place; Prokofiev wrote his Piano Sonatas Nos 6, 7 and 8 - his War Sonatas - between 1939 and 1944, expressing in apparently abstract music his private emotions regarding Stalin's regime and the German invasion of Russia. And in a way, the predominance of Modernism after the 1940s - the abandonment of traditional tonality and structure - was a response to the Second World War.

Composers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Pierre Boulez turned away from the principles of pre- war composition, rejecting the culture of an era that gave rise to the atrocities they had seen pictured, or experienced first hand, in their formative years.

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