Classical: Music Looks Back to the Future as Manchester Hosts This Year's Festival of the InternationalSociety for Contemporary Music, Bayan Northcott Surveys Its First 75 Years

By Northcott, Bayan | The Independent (London, England), April 17, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Classical: Music Looks Back to the Future as Manchester Hosts This Year's Festival of the InternationalSociety for Contemporary Music, Bayan Northcott Surveys Its First 75 Years


Northcott, Bayan, The Independent (London, England)


Until comparatively recently, of course, Western music festivals were always contemporary. Back in the 18th century, the Three Choirs might programme the odd early piece out of antiquarian interest, but mainly concerned itself with the current state of church music. And as such festivals proliferated in the 19th century they became increasingly international too. While Birmingham and Leeds thrilled to new oratorios from Mendelssohn and Gounod, Stanford's symphonies were easing their way round the German circuit. So when a distinguished gathering of composers at a contemporary chamber music festival in Salzburg in 1922 decided to perpetuate such events through an organisation to be known as the International Society for Contemporary Music, it might well have seemed business as usual.

Except that the bourgeois certainties that underpinned 19th century cultural life had been well and truly shaken by a perturbation we have subsequently come to encapsulate as the Modern Movement - though whether the musical development of the period was anything like so organised might be doubted. Not only were the main instigators driven by very different insights and aims, but split between at least two aesthetic tendencies. On the one hand, there were what might be called the Progressive Modernists, such as Mahler, Richard Strauss, young Schoenberg even, intent on pushing the harmonic and textural discoveries of Wagner to still more elaborate ends. On the other hand, were the more Radical Modernists, such as Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky and, of course, the maturer Schoenberg, seeking to develop new musical languages out of the very basics of timbre, pitch and rhythm.

And just as the musical battle was really getting to audiences, came the catastrophe of the First World War and the virtual collapse of cultural life as it had been known for over a century. So that when those same Modernist composers attempted to pick up the threads after 1918, founding a contemporary concert series here, a new music festival there, they were chastened men. Hence the real differences where 19th century festivals had usually been participatory events, often built around big amateur choirs, those set up after the war tended more towards professional regroupings, attempts among composers themselves to sort out the situation and to find new ways forward. Such enterprises almost inevitably generate artistic in- fighting and the ISCM was doubtless asking for trouble in setting up a system whereby national committees from its member countries are invited to submit annual selections of their best to a specially- appointed international jury - which may well end up pushing its own preferences instead. If the programmes for the earlier years of the ISCM's activities nevertheless sustained a surprising catholicity, at least part of this was probably due to its unexpected choice for its first president of a non-composing English academic. Edward J Dent, sometime Professor of Music at Cambridge, is now best remembered for his work on 18th century opera and his singing translations of Mozart. But he also wrote a classic biography of that visionary pro- modernist, Ferrucio Busoni, and, not least, commanded a dozen languages - enabling him, for instance, to phone Bartok in fluent Hungarian. He also originated, or at least endorsed, two salient ISCM decisions to spread its influence by holding its Music Days in a different city each year, and to select quality "regardless of aesthetic trends, or of the nationality, race, religion or political views of the composer". Surveying ISCM programmes from between the wars in the light of more doctrinaire subsequent trends, one is duly bemused to discover, for instance, that in the Venice festival of 1925, Schoenberg's incipiently 12- tone Serenade was immediately preceded by the archaic modality of Vaughan William's Merciless Beauty or that, in the London events of 1931, Webern's fragile Symphony, Op 21, was (over)heard in the same concert as Gershwin's An American in Paris.

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