Young British Composers: Will Todd

By Matthew-Walker, Robert | Musical Opinion, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Young British Composers: Will Todd


Matthew-Walker, Robert, Musical Opinion


This is the first of an occasional series in which Robert Matthew-Walker writes about the emerging talents of some of our most interesting young composers

If it is true - as it surely is -- that a composer cannot deliberately hide his or her nationalism in their work, no matter how hard they may try, or be wholly unaware of it in our increasingly common-- place global society, the fact remains that the essential features of the art of any country, or society, are nonetheless discernible to the experienced and attentive music-lover.

If we can identify a composer as coming from such-and-such a place, what does that knowledge actually tell us about their work? If we correctly identify a composer as being French, how does that enhance our perception of the worth of their art? The style or manner of the music in question may help us additionally to date it, in which case we bring our own perceptions to bear on what our experience tells us to expect from such music. For example, if our French composer - whose nationalism has been correctly identified - was born in, say, 1850, we will almost invariably listen out for influences of Berlioz, Bizet, Gounod or Saint-- Saens, with a dash of Massenet thrown in, and, in sb far as our expectations are either met or thwarted, so then will our perception of the worth of this composer be formed.

The first three sentences of this article each begin with the word "If', which presupposes a hypothetical approach to our subject, but, having spent some time listening to and studying the music of the young composer Will Todd, I can find no better way of introducing his music to the enquiring listener than by reference to his background, and relating that to the kind of music, rather than to his chosen subject-matter, that he has thus far composed.

Had Britten not been born In East Anglia, is it less likely that he would have written Peter Grimes or Albert Herring, or changed the setting of Curlew River to that part of the country he knew best? The tragedy of Peter Grimes, the humour of Albert Herring, and the universality of Curlew River could have taken place almost anywhere, and while an opera certainly has to be set somewhere, despite the best efforts of modem-day producers, was it not the catalyst of East Anglia which first sparked Britten's inspiration? It may be that in our changed world East Anglia, Bali or the Shetland Islands are all pretty much of a muchness. For example, the main avenue in Beijing has no fewer than 18 McDonald's hamburger restaurants, but who wants to travel half-way around the world to eat the same hamburger we can get half a mile from our own front door? And what will become of the inherent musical nationalism of those Chinese composers who are increasingly brought up in a westernised China? What difference does it make, and haven't we got enough music to be going on with for the time being?

Not a according to Will Todd, so far as the last point is concerned The difference it makes is that whilst we all have to eat, and get our gastronomical information from increasingly similar sources, such as TV, newspapers and the Internet, who we are, and where we are going, are still individual aspects of our own lives, and in the case of a young man who desperately wishes to become a composer - in Will Todd's case, I would assert, who already is a composer - we encounter an artist who has drawn his inspiration from that part of the country from which he has come.

I refer to Northumbria. That part of north-eastern England which formed one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and which reached its zenith in the arts, scholarship and literature twelve hundred and more years ago. Its roots, therefore, run deep, having survived much turmoil and having become a powerhouse of the British Empire in coal, shipping and ship-building. As the Empire rose and declined, so did the fortunes of Northumberland, the most northern of the English counties. …

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