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Classical: On The Air

COMPOSERS HAVE always been capable of responding to a blast from the past. Haydn's vision was newly focused by the overwhelming experience of hearing Handel in Westminster Abbey from a choir of totally unauthentic size; Bach's counterpoint immeasurably enriched the work of Mozart's late years; Beethoven responded as powerfully as did Haydn to the music of Handel, who was by then even more distant in historical perspective. The list is endless, and includes most creators of genius. Indeed, the ability to respond in this way without being overwhelmed is perhaps one of the characteristics of creative vigour.

In the present century, the opportunities for such influential experience have increased a hundredfold. Haydn would not have had to wait until his old age before hearing Handel - a radio or CD player would have served his needs decades earlier - although that is not to say that his hearing Handel did not occur at just the right time in his creative development. But that is another story. The point is that the incredible amount of music, going back to the dawn of cultural time, which is now available at the turning of a knob or insertion of a disc poses a crucial problem; and composers from Stravinsky onwards have had to go through torturous stylistic hoops in order to preserve their creative integrity in the face of an increasingly available past, whether embodied in a Beethoven symphony, a Bach Passion or a Machaut Mass. We live in an era that is obsessed with the past, a fact not unconnected with that past's well-nigh exhaustive documentation on disc. Post-Stravinskian composers are becoming increasingly aware of a greatly extended cultural heritage that somehow has to be dealt with.

It has led to a number of them writing music about other music, rather than dealing with primary thought and emotion at first hand. The resulting vision is most sophisticatedly layered, as in the Scenes from Schumann by Robin Holloway, broadcast live from Belfast last week as part of BBC Radio 3's Sounding the Century, but there exists the ever-present danger of becoming psychologically crippled by emotional dependence.

There are many different ways of falling into this trap, and often fascinating music results, as in the case of Berio's Sinfonia, but danger still lurks. In Holloway's case there is abundant invention and brilliant compositional virtuosity, as he sifts, reflects upon, refracts, distorts and reworks ideas from Schumann's songs. There is, indeed, an exhilarating reclamation here of Romantic expression after his Constructivist earlier pieces, but allusions to a previous zeitgeist, rather than recognisable quotations, might well have been a healthier response to his needs.

Jonathan Harvey, whose deeply stirring Passion and Resurrection was broadcast half-an-hour later on Radio 3's Hear and Now, showed equally sophisticated links with a grand tradition stretching back through the centuries. The austerity and concentration of Heinrich Schutz's Passion music had been a nourishing presence during the work's conception, not to speak of the high drama and spiritual intensity of Bach's Passions.

However, while Bach's processes may have been pressed into service - those halos in harmonics that crown Christ's sayings, for instance - quotation is not part of Harvey's compositional armoury. This superbly sustained church opera, directed with wholly committed concentration by Martin Neary, maintains a respectful distance from its models, allowing self-reliant creativity its head.