CLASSICAL MUSIC / It was a very good year: Bayan Northcott reports on the contrasting careers of a substantial batch of British composers born 50 years ago

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Was it the portentous drone of the doodlebugs overhead that did it, or the mundane trundle of Music While You Work from a million Bakelite wireless sets? Whatever the cause, 1943 saw the coming to consciousness of an awful lot of British composers. And yet - as if to confound folk memories of a Zeitgeist exclusively compounded of ITMA, dried egg and damp ration books - how bemusingly disparate their subsequent careers have proved.

It would certainly be difficult to think of a composer less like the ultra-complex metaphysician Brian Ferneyhough, born in Coventry on 16 January 1943, than a laid-back experimentalist such as Gavin Bryars, who arrived in Goole on exactly the same day . . . unless it were that electronic transformer of all manner of musics, Tim Souster, born in Bletchley on 29 January - from whom, in turn, the gently polemical conservatism of David Matthews, delivered in London on 9 March, could hardly sound more remote . . . except in comparison with the Francophile, avant-garde purity sought by the sadly short-lived Bill Hopkins, registered in Prestbury on 5 June, or the equally opposite eclectic trendiness of Roger Smalley, born in Swinton on 26 July. Not that any of them attempted to derive music directly from nature study quite like Edward Cowie, suckled in Birmingham from 17 August. As for that arch-anti-trendy eclectic Robin Holloway, who on 19 October first saw, in Betjeman's immortal words, 'the light of the evening star/That shone through the plate glass window/From over Leamington Spa . . .'

Had they nothing in common from the start? Perhaps - in the sense of growing up at a time when school music was still stuck at the dread stage of mass recorder classes, before that vast and now-threatened expansion of the 1960s and 1970s. There was the BBC Third Programme, of course, and later the stimulus of the Dartington Summer School but this was a generation that, to a degree, still had to find its own way into music. Ferneyhough got started, rather surprisingly, in a brass band; Bryars was a schoolboy jazz player; Smalley took impressively to the piano; and Holloway was a St Paul's Cathedral choirboy. Matthews has related how he and his younger brother, Colin - born in 1946 - taught one another, and Cowie how he tried to write little pieces for his friends to play.

Yet the 'Class of '43' was also undoubtedly lucky in coming of age during the relatively favourable 1960s. The striking impact of the immediately previous generation - Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Williamson, Bennett and Maw - had stirred a new interest among audiences, critics and publishers. Holloway, Smalley and Cowie were actually among Goehr's pupils. Meanwhile, William Glock at the BBC was increasingly determined to interest listeners in the latest advances abroad. In due course, Smalley and Souster were to sit at the feet of Stockhausen, Hopkins was to study with Barraque in the Paris of Boulez, and Bryars to Anglicise the indeterministic practices of Cage. Indeed, Ferneyhough found the Continental new music scene so challenging when he first went abroad on a travelling scholarship that he never returned to live in Britain. Teaching instead in Germany and then the United States, he slowly built up an output so difficult and a European reputation so formidable that he has been hailed in certain quarters as our musical king over the water.

Back home, Holloway was probably earliest of all to declare himself, conducting the premiere of his official Op 1 when he was only just 19. But it was Smalley who first attracted widespread critical interest in the later 1960s, with a striking volte-face from an intricate Maxwell Davies-ish medievalry to Stockhausen-style shimmerings - ably abetted by his own polemics. (The teaching of English back in the 1950s seems to have been in rather better shape than that of music, for not only Smalley, but Ferneyhough, Holloway and Matthews have all turned out highly articulate writers on their art.) Soon Smalley was joined by Souster, who had his own interest in experimental rock, in an electronic improvisation group called Intermodulation, impressing Glock so much that he commissioned large-scale pieces from both of them for the 1970-71 Proms. Then suddenly, in 1976, Smalley took himself off to Australia for good - subsequent scores from thence suggesting neo-romantic leanings. Souster has continued to treat and transform a variety of musical materials, but never any one for quite long enough to establish a personal profile.

Holloway in his turn came to equivocal prominence in the early 1970s with a series of scores based upon Lieder of Schumann which were instantly attacked as reactionary by pundits of the avant- garde. These charges were not entirely fair, for though he has continued periodically to epater the pseuds with a vein of Gemutlichkeit, he has also retained a tough line in Constructivism, evident in his tumultuous Second Concerto for Orchestra. This got itself billed at the 1979 Glasgow Musica Nova festival in tandem with Ferneyhough's most labyrinthine score, La terre est un homme. New music buffs anticipated a battle royal of the ideologies. In the event, Holloway proved to quite admire Ferneyhough, who in due course intimated that La terre was a historical turning-point after which music might again become marginally simpler . . .

The composer whom the old leftish avant-garde might more justly have arraigned was Matthews, whose slow emergence gathered momentum in the early 1980s with his espousal of the aesthetics of the New Right. Yet unlike so many composers who have scuttled back to C major under the pretext of Post- Modernism, the best of Matthews's orchestral pieces and string quartets have shown a genuine mastery of traditional techniques. As for the other survivors of 1943: Bryars ranged from modern jazz improvisation, by way of 'realising' Tom Phillips's opera Irma, to 'conceptual pieces' that need not actually be played at all. Whether his more deterministic works aspire to the status of an oeuvre in the old sense might be doubted, though some of his passing textures have proved delectable. Hopkins seemed to aspire in his music to an ultimate and exquisite anonymity; a mystery compounded by his sudden death in his late thirties, since when his tiny output has become the object of a growing cult. Oddest of all was Cowie, whose perfervid, if residually nave, music suddenly got itself taken up in a big way in the late 1970s by the BBC and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic which mounted whole festivals of it, and then as suddenly dropped it in the early 1980s - after which he, too, disappeared to Australia.

So what of the future beyond 50? Will players and listeners continue straining after the meta-musical convolutions of Ferneyhough, or will they lapse happily back with Matthews into the old European mainstream? Will the economics of music-making continue to support vast, all-purpose outputs like Holloway's or only niche specialists like Hopkins? Could a triumph of Green consciousness still sweep Cowie back to prominence; might Smalley and Souster yet benefit from the early instrument movement catching up with such antediluvian devices of 1960s electronics as ring-modulators? Or could they all turn out to comprise an arriere-garde? January 1944 saw the birth of John Tavener, now riding high in a Minimalist world foreseen by none of them except, in his own way, Bryars. Yet nothing can entirely efface the complex musical promise that came to birth in 1943. Maybe it was something the Ministry of Food put in the gripe water.