The British Are Coming
by Steven Stucky
Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella program, February 2003
American composers might be forgiven for gazing longingly across the Atlantic, eyeing with envy the seemingly greener pastures of Great Britain. As seen from here, a large fraction of the brightest young talents in composing seem to come from there, and they seem impressively well served by a superior publishing, concert-giving, and broadcasting infrastructure. It’s not that simple, of course: in some respects, the Brits also have reason to envy us. And yet it is true that, over the past two or three decades, Scottish and English composers have dominated the international musical scene to an extent far out of proportion to the modest size of their island. With the exception of Finland (a country that, at the moment, must boast the highest per-capita production of compositional genius in the world — only think of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, for a start), it is hard to find another source of so many astonishing prodigies.
Ever since a precocious Benjamin Britten burst onto the international scene about 1930, Britain has never lacked for unusually gifted young stars. First came the generation of Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Harrison Birtwistle, still going strong. Then the likes of Oliver Knussen, Simon Bainbridge, Colin Matthews, Judith Weir, James MacMillan, and George Benjamin. And now yet another, still younger wave comprising Julian Anderson, Simon Holt, Thomas Adès, David Horn, and many more. Infrastructure must be part of it: good, early teaching, the vigorous support of the BBC, serious music publishers such as Faber Music and Boosey & Hawkes, path-breaking ensembles such as the Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. (Even so, under the rubric of “it’s not that simple,” we should pause to note that the inventive and widely influential group The Fires of London went out of business more than 15 years ago, and that the London Sinfonietta, still world-beaters artistically, have in recent years been far from immune to financial crises and box-office disappointments.)
Whatever the mechanisms responsible, though, the British catalog of new music is remarkable in its variety and power. There is no one national style; even in the days of Holst and Vaughan Williams or of Tippett and Britten, the best composers’ voices were more different than similar. What does unite most of the current composers I have mentioned, though, is a combination of high technical facility, sophisticated structure, and clear, attractive content. Julian Anderson describes Oliver Knussen as “that rare thing in contemporary music: a composer whose music is both complex and aurally coherent.” Yet, in British music at least, this combination is not so rare. It is what Adès calls “a new music that is truthful, and that gives people succor without giving them lobotomies.” This stance puts Adès, Weir, MacMillan, and their colleagues squarely in the best tradition of Western music: not a stark choice between consolation and confrontation, but instead the luxury of having both at once.
We are often told these days that the old virtues of “classical” music are obsolete, and signs of the takeover of our daily musical environment by the mindless and the disposable are all around us. And yet Adès and Weir and MacMillan stand proof otherwise. So does our presence, yours and mine, at these concerts.
© Steven Stucky