Music: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
THE TALE of the youngest ever composer at the Proms is bitter- sweet. This season shows no trace of him, and there hardly ever is, though a couple of sightings occurred two years ago when he had a significant anniversary. He once had the world at his feet and went on to make his fortune in the United States, yet he quickly dropped out of currency in concert halls and opera houses and even now is the subject of fierce support by a minority of partisans rather than inclusion in the broader scheme of things.

Far from your typical great British hope, over-commissioned in his twenties and dropped when everybody has heard enough, this was the revered Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He was 15 when Henry Wood conducted his Schauspiel overture in 1912, a veteran of four years' survival in the international spotlight after his ballet The Snowman caused a sensation. The facts are now better known than the music, so when both works turned up on Radio 3 in Tuesday's studio concert by the BBC Philharmonic, the curiosity factor was high.

No doubt about it, the boy knew his stuff. The Snowman (to Korngold's own story about Pierrot) makes him sound more accomplished than Mozart at the age of 11, and apparently as fluent, since this half-hour was just from the ballet's first act. The Schauspiel overture is even more impressive. The music has flair, a sense of large-scale proportion, a genuinely expressive atmosphere and an astonishing ear for orchestral sonorities and colours.

Korngold had picked up plenty from the then-new music of Lehr and Richard Strauss: waltzes, sensual melodies, and near-quotes from Der Rosenkavalier. But all composers learn that way and Korngold - aided by his teacher Alexander Zemlinsky - had digested the models into a well-formed style.

What the historians say is that he never found a voice of his own. Film buffs disagree - it was Hollywood that supported his later years - and so do opera fans who have encountered the very mature achievements of his later teens. Anyway, what about the other essentials? Everybody plays and loves the symphony by the young Bizet, which is a systematic rip-off of symphonies by Gounod that he had been arranging for piano duet to earn his living. There surely has to be a place for any music in which vitality, warmth and skill loom so large.

At the same time, Classic FM was having one of its adventurous nights. In the case of Herbert Howells and Ruth Gipps that means rather more adventurous than Radio 3, which is relaying bucketfuls of worthy living Brits from the Cheltenham Festival as if the clock had gone back 40 years. Had you ever heard any of Gipps's music before she died this year? This is not to exaggerate the case for her Symphony No 2, played in its first recording by the Munich Symphony Orchestra, but it's a vigorous and well-wrought work in the British farming-and-seafaring style that flourished mid-century, full of references to Vaughan Williams, Bax and Holst, with a determined mindset of its own.

There's a parallel with Korngold here. You can imagine Gipps similarly learning her trade surrounded by those flourishing and energising creative presences in the repertoire. It's an attitude to composing as craft that went away with the desperately competitive search to be original, yet all the evidence is that one generation's deliberate originality is the next generation's faded fashion. It's hard to visualise beginners being inspired in the same way by what they hear from Cheltenham. Does anybody out there want to sound like Birtwistle or Turnage?