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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Unwilling Grown-ups

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Without wanting to sound too much like the egregious Prince Andrew, I can confidently say that I remember pretty clearly what I was doing and what I was not doing half a lifetime ago, on the evening of September 4th, 1989. I had been living in an uneasily shared low-rent house in a suburb of Coventry and had spent the afternoon packing up my few worldly possessions, ready to take them round to my girlfriend's flat once she got back from work. They would all fit comfortably into the back of a single taxi. I was nervous at the prospect of my first experiment in adult cohabitation and far from certain that I was doing the right thing.

As it happened, everything could not have gone more smoothly. The cab ferried me swiftly across the centre of the medieval city and, with my girlfriend's help, I was fully installed and unpacked within minutes. I felt altogether better about the whole thing - euphoric, even, - as we ventured out hand in hand into the glowing Autumn dusk for a celebratory pizza.

And I didn't get to listen to the broadcast of that evening's Prom...

At least, not until 31 years later, when the BBC repeated it as one of the historic concerts dragged out of the archives to make up the covid-affected Proms Season just passed. The reviews I read over subsequent days (classical music was slightly more generously covered in the papers back then) made it clear that something special had happened in the Royal Albert Hall that night and so, belatedly, I can attest.

There are some classical music enthusiasts whose idea of a great concert is one where a leading conductor directs a top international orchestra in superlatively polished readings of canonical masterworks. I have been lucky enough to enjoy a fair few experiences of that kind over the years, but what I prize more is music-making driven by a spirit of curiosity and exploration. Offered a committed introduced to something unfamiliar, or hearing the familiar in stimulating new contexts, I will willingly forego several degrees of refinement. The concert I failed to catch on that memorable night in 1989 was right up my street - a huge programme from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, including two substantial, highly contrasted premieres, together with two early modernist masterworks and a rare 19th century curio. The conductor was the 37 year old Oliver Knussen, whose own Flourish with Fireworks acted as curtain-raiser.


***


I had first become aware of Knussen in my late teens, as a composer whose highly developed sense of lyricism and command of harmonic and instrumental nuance marked him out as perhaps the most prodigiously gifted musician of his kind to have emerged since Britten. Of his early output, the Second Symphony, Ocean de Terre and, particularly, the ravishing Rosary Songs - chamber settings of Georg Trakl, conjuring a beguiling range of colours out of a tiny instrumental ensemble - made a strong impression. All featured grateful writing for soprano voice and a vivid responsiveness to poetry. This assured, yet highly personal - even vulnerable - music combined a questing modernist aesthetic with a warm sense of communication and obvious joy in the creation of beautiful sounds.

But the triumphant career it promised did not develop as expected.

In later interviews, Knussen said that the creative crisis that overcame him in his mid-30s was the result of exhaustion after the sustained effort he put into Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty, Piggelty, Pop!, the two one-act operas derived from Maurice Sendak picture books that preoccupied him from 1979-85. In fact, it is clearly anticipated, if not enacted, in the major work immediately preceding them - the thrilling, frustrating, Third Symphony.

Also the result of a lengthy gestation, this was first given at the 1979 Proms. In advance statements, Knussen had led listeners to expect an expansive three movement design, but what was finally revealed was a 15 minute structure of two uneasily linked halves. After a brief slow introduction, the first of these erupts into a riot of swirling colours and textures culminating in a shattering Mahlerian catastrophe, dominated by a receding twelve note chord (shades of the Austrian master's 6th and 10th symphonies). The ensuing slow passacaglia proceeds in more orderly fashion, its variations building to an eloquent climax in the horns before subsiding into silence. Behind the symphony hovers the tragic figure of Shakespeare's Ophelia, the First Movement depicting the wild chaos of her mind, the second the watery consummation of her death. The kaleidoscopic orchestral invention throughout is spectacular, and the transformation and integration of material intricately impressive. The emotional range traversed is wide. Yet I have never found the whole completely convincing. Knussen reworked a planned central movement as a spectral chamber orchestra piece under the title Ophelia Dances, feeling that it didn't belong with its companions. I am not sure, however, that they make complete sense without it. As it is, the apocalyptic sounding of all notes at once at the symphony's central point seems to announce the end of the composer's fluent early period. There would be no more orchestral works of this density to come.

I need to reacquaint myself with the two Sendak operas that followed. They are certainly distinguished contributions to the late 20th Century operatic repertoire, but it has never seemed clear to me whom they are intended to appeal to, their sophisticated idiom being decidedly challenging for a child audience unlikely to pick up references to Mussorgsky and Ravel. Whilst writing them, Knussen also revised and expanded a short work from his teens, Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh, which he described revealingly as "a sequence of snapshots and reflections by an unwilling grown-up". The former prodigy was saying a protracted farewell to the enchanted world of childhood. The adult world he was belatedly entering would be one in which composition become slower, sparser and impeded by an intense perfectionism. By the time the operas were completed, it had become apparent that his primary efforts were going into conducting.

That Knussen possessed unusual authority on the podium had been apparent ever since he stepped in at short notice to direct the premiere of his precocious First Symphony in his mid-teens. As a conductor, he combined a calm mastery of technique - I twice witnessed his trick of beating triple time with one hand whilst sustaining compound time with the other, towards the end of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto - with a boundless curiosity, especially in relation to the high modernist tradition of which his own music was not so much a continuation as a late celebration. Many of his performances gave the impression that he was travelling through the music as an alert, informed observer, rather than trying to impose an "interpretation". I can remember being present at the Barbican in the mid 90s where, as part of a weekend devoted to the music of Charles Ives, he conducted the London Sinfonietta in a short programme of orchestral miniatures. After playing one of the rarest - The Gong on the Hook and Ladder, an extraordinary minute or so of aural imagination from the Connecticut insurance man - he turned to the audience. "That's such a strange and remarkable piece", he exclaimed, "and I don't think I've ever heard it before. I think I'd like to hear it again." With which he treated us, our ears now primed, to a second performance.


***


But back to September 4th, 1989...

Knussen's own brief Flourish was to become his most familiar and popular work, though actually it is a poetic, rather than a rambunctious opener, it's technicolour explosions feeling as though they are taking place behind an impressionist gauze. For all its close modeling (down to specific timings and proportions) on Stravinsky's early Fireworks, it tips it's hat at least as much to Debussy's Feu d'Artifice, and it would be with a supple, deeply felt performance of Debussy's L'Après Midi d'un Faune that things proceeded, it's sensual languor perhaps a ploy to settle the audience before something that would really shake the air - the first complete public performance of the Symphony, Op. 3, by Minna Keal.

Born Mina Nerenstein, to a Yiddish-speaking East End family with a strong literary background, Keal had just celebrated her 80th birthday, though she was not quite the late starter many assumed. Hers is an inspirational story of mature fulfilment. Having studied at the Royal Academy in the 1920s, she was forced by the pressures of work, family life and political activism (she was a Communist Party member) to relegate music to the status of an occasional hobby. It was not until her mid-sixties and an encounter with the composer Justin Connolly that she slowly, but purposefully, returned to composition. I have not heard the works of her student years. Their idiom is apparently conservative, but their craft and distinctiveness impressed Connolly sufficiently for him to offer her lessons and eventually she came to the attention of Knussen. The labour of five years, the Symphony is the crowning centrepiece of her small but impressive output and far more than a mere oddity. Somehow, her distinguished mentors had led her into a brave new post-Schoenbergian world whilst, crucially, persuading her of it's expressive possibilities.

For expressive the Symphony undoubtedly is. Perhaps too expressive. Some might think a certain naivety lurks behind the attempt to squeeze a heroic/romantic narrative through a dissonant, atonal philtre. At just under half an hour, the work is possibly too long to sustain its fairly unremitting turbulence and harmonic violence, though it could also be argued that it is too short to allow its teeming ideas properly to breathe. Still, from its bold opening gestures, the force and integrity of this music can hardly be denied. The four linked movements grow in scale and complexity, building towards a Finale that satisfactorily incorporates earlier material before resolving into a crashing final crescendo chord, followed by a subdued tremolo after-shock in the double basses. The hefty orchestral style throughout, with wide-arching twelve-tone string unisons, dissonant brass pile-ups and forward percussion, is vaguely reminiscent of Carl Ruggles' Suntreader, the magnum opus of another composer who wrote little, but with strength. Like Ruggles, Keal appears to be marshalling all her rhetorical resources into a defining statement, as though making up for lost time. No wonder that, after the Proms performance she said she felt as though her life "had burst around her like a thundercloud".


***


Post-interval, the concert continued with what for many would have been seen as its main event - the world premiere of John Tavener's The Protecting Veil.

As a teenager, I thrilled to Tavener's early music. Pieces like The Whale, Ultimos Ritos, the Celtic Requiem, Little Requiem and Canciones Españolas had the feel of instant classics, though I suspect that the things I most enjoyed in them - their technical showiness and pop-mysticism - are the very features that make them feel dated today. The vast Ultimos Ritos especially disappointed when I heard it again after a gap of many years. What had once overwhelmed with its feverish expressionist intensity now came across as an unappetising stew of obvious ingredients - pretty much what I had always thought about his overwrought but theatrically static opera Thérèse. This last had a troubled Covent Garden production, which seems to have been the catalyst for the most decisive of the various shifts in style and outlook that marked its composer's career - the realignment of his Christian faith from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, with its concomitant adoption of a more austere compositional language.

I must admit to having been somewhat dismayed by this at the time. The rather gloomy run of "transitional" works appearing in the immediate wake of Thérèse (such as the Akhmatova Requiem and The Immurement of Antigone) suggested a figure whose creative panache was at least temporarily knocked out of him. The ecstatic manner he had arrived at by the mid-1980s was certainly more appealing but had, for me, something defensive about it. As the distinguished critic Andrew Porter argued, it was as though Tavener were devoting his very real and distinctive talents to artistic ends that somehow pre-empted criticism.

Porter, in fact, took a particularly hostile position on Tavener's later work, describing The Protecting Veil as "soupy" and "odious". I wouldn't go that far, though I do have a problem with it, and it isn't a problem I have with the work of other openly religious modern composers. Taverner seems to demand a form of total surrender that figures like Olivier Messiaen and Jonathan Harvey stop short of. There is, for me, something queasy - slightly disingenuous, even - about his heady combination of showmanship, sanctimony, and faux-simplicity. On a purely musical level, it can be seen that he was actually grappling with the same dilemma as Knussen - arriving late at the modernist table, whilst being reluctant to adopt a "post-modern" manner. The cataclysmic discord that blasts out at the start of Ultimos Ritos is the equivalent of the twelve-note chord in the younger man's Third Symphony - an acknowledgement of the tonal (or, literally, atonal) pressures that work against stylistic clarity in an age where all notes of the scale can sound at once. (Keal, by contrast, was freed by her liberating late life "discovery" of a post-tonal language from the urge to test its limits.)

If I can't quite bliss-out to The Protecting Veil , I can respond to it as an exercise in a kind of intimate virtuosity. Steven Isserlis, for whom its solo 'cello part was written, championed the use of gut, rather than the more usual steel strings, on his instrument. Their sweeter, gentler tone suits Tavener's sustained stratospheric lyricism to perfection. Much of the orchestral string accompaniment consists of soft, static, trance-like suspensions. As Knussen said he came to realise whilst studying the score, the conductor best serves this timeless meditation by doing next to nothing. The premiere performance has a real sense of drama and occasion despite, or perhaps because of, the strain sometimes evident in Isserlis' projection. This is one of those pieces that benefits from sounding hard.


***


And there was still more to come...

First an unexpected palate-cleanser in the form of Mussorgsky's Intermezzo in Modo Classico; the sort of delightful brief (but far from trifling) rarity that has largely disappeared from modern concert programmes. In this context a small token of Knussen's respect for a composer whose bell-haunted Boris Godunov is an underlying presence throughout much of his music. How nice to hear it. And what an engagingly strange piece, rather specifically anticipating some of the neo-classical pastiches of Ravel. Was the orchestrator of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition aware of it, I wonder ?

And, at the last, Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, its knowing orientalism served up with suitable glitter and brio and no sign that orchestra or conductor were in any way tiring after the demanding music they had already played. The final soft trumpet solo was not the usual soporific fade-out but carried a real sense of frisson against the gentle rocking of the strings.


***

So, a pretty momentous concert. But, finally catching up with it after all these years, I must confess it carries significances for me beyond it's intrinsic interest. Coming (like the collapse of the Berlin wall a few months later) at about the half-way point of my life to date, and with Keal, Tavener and Knussen all no longer with us, it is tied up in my mind with many feelings about time and mortality.

After the triumph of her Symphony, Keal had two more splendid pieces in her - Cantilation for Violin and Orchestra, and a fine 'Cello Concerto - before putting down her pen in her mid-eighties. Would this "gritty granny" (as the media dubbed her) have had a major career with earlier encouragement? Maybe, but her late-flowering, though sadly brief, was exemplary.

For Tavener, The Protecting Veil would prove a way out of what had seemed a slough - a solid step towards his enthronement as Knight of the Realm and "national treasure". But I shouldn't mock. Though I must admit that certain of his later works - notably his evening-length, drone-grounded Apocalypse - bore the pants off me, it is hard not to be impressed by his capacity for re-invention across a large output, the confidence of which is all the more remarkable considering the crises of faith and health that beset him throughout his life.

Knussen continued to develop his career as conductor and teacher, with notable compositions appearing all too infrequently. Perhaps the most notable of these were the compact Concertos for Horn and Violin and the Songs for Sue, a chamber-scale secular requiem written in memory of his wife. (Striking how much of his music consists of a singing line - either vocal, or instrumental - and accompaniment. Is this where he found an unexpected affinity with Tavener?) He was a huge, top-heavy man of somewhat shambolic aspect, softly spoken and more often than not hiding behind the shy gent's fulsome beard. It was impossible for those of us with a passion for musical modernism not to develop a special affection for him. During my time working in Waterstone's in Birmingham, where he frequently worked, I sometimes spotted him in the street or the bookshop and on one occasion got to tell him that he had conducted one of the most memorable concerts I had ever attended (music by Carter, Abrahamsen, Takemitsu and himself, with the London Sinfonietta in 1982). He seemed genuinely overwhelmed by my admiration; I am glad that at least once I got to express it to his face.

His early death in July 2018 attracted far less media attention than that of Tavener five years previously, or than tends to be accorded these days to the passing of the most minor TV celebrities or pop performers. Yet his "legacy" is precious to those who care. Even if he didn't quite fulfill his promise as a composer - generously displacing his own creative career onto those of the many contemporaries whose work he championed - his smallish oeuvre is exquisite in craft and sensibility. And then there are his many wonderful archived and commercially recorded performances, of which I especially prize Carter's Sinfonia, Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas, and Henze's Heliogabalus Imperator - the latter a rousing affirmation of his continuing commitment to a master who had fallen gravely out of fashion. There should have been more, but we should not be ungrateful for what we've got.

I began, some four thousand words ago, by telling you about how I moved in with a girlfriend. I conclude by telling you that, predictably in retrospect, things didn't work out and we soon separated. This was not as sad as it may sound. We were not really suited by interest, temperament or ambition and I can see now, all to clearly, that I was at that stage myself an "unwilling grown-up", resistant to the adult steps my partner wished to take. She and I remained in intermittent contact however until, two years ago, she unexpectedly called me to say that she was dying of a particularly aggressive cancer.

I got to see her before the end and was struck by her courageous stoicism, aided no doubt by the knowledge of how much she had crammed into three decades marked by a love of travel and a strong commitment to issues of social justice. There are so many ways that a life can be well lived.



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