Music: When Hope fought Death: As Radio 3 launches its month-long 1968 season, Bayan Northcott attempts to recapture the tone of the time

WAS it really all so vital, so hopeful, so different from any other year? The English middle- class students copying their Paris comrades in college and art school protests against 'repressive tolerance' through the summer and autumn of 1968 would have liked to think so. But there was an air of instant mythologising that seemed unconvincing even at the time.

Whatever the bright novelties of Biba or the Beatles, the year's more serious events in the world at large could only induce a cumulative sense of deja vu. As Martin Luther King was gunned down like President Kennedy before him, Nixon rose again from the political dead; it was Bloody Sunday once more in Grosvenor Square and Hungary 1956 in Prague. Meanwhile the horrors of post-colonial Africa and the Far East dragged on; the shadow of the Bomb continued to loom and the avatars of the growing ecology movement were already warning of a second Deluge. That anyone might still be around to celebrate the year a quarter of a century later would have seemed one of the unlikelier prophecies of 1968.

And to celebrate it how? Had radical protest carried the day, the obvious memento would be Henze's 'popular and military oratorio' The Raft of the Medusa. The scandal of the 1816 shipwreck from which the nobs had escaped in long-boats, abandoning 300 ordinary men, women and children to a raft, had not only inspired Gericault's famous painting but helped to ferment the revolution of 1848. By way of signalling his own new-found radicalism, Henze dedicated the score to the memory of Che Guevara and insinuated into his final chorus the 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' march rhythm of the anti-Vietnam war students. In the equivocal event, those same students proceeded to scupper the world premiere in Hamburg on 9 December 1968, raising the Red Flag, under which half the chorus refused to sing, and provoking a brutal incursion of police before a note had been heard. Henze was soon to admit his hope that a performance would lead straight to political discussion and action 'was a utopian and much too optimistic idea'.

So, no doubt, was his dubbing as 'popular' a score largely composed in a fiercely post- Schoenbergian expressionism - though the notion, dating back at least to the Russian revolutionary avant-garde, that advanced art and politics ought to go hand in hand still sustained some credence in 1968 (in the work, for instance, of Nono) as it hardly does today. If The Raft yet comes up in its rare hearings as one of Henze's strongest scores, this is surely due less to its Marxist subtext than to an exceptional focus in his usually indulgent idiom and to the effectiveness of his dramatic scheme of a duel between Hope and Death, with chorus members actually passing across the stage as the survivors on the raft dwindle away. But it was apropos his oratorio that Henze noted surely the dominant aesthetic development of the later 1960s when he remarked: 'I think the most important composer of this century is not Webern, but Mahler]'

For almost a decade, the exclusive rigour of the post-Webernian avant-garde of the 1950s had been yielding to a renewed stylistic inclusiveness. How far the sudden, colossal cult of Mahler was cause, how far symptom, might be argued, but his vast collage-symphonies of 'found' materials - many of them indeed popular and military - evidently provided an irresistible stimulus. Compounded by the still wilder juxtapositions of the newly-discovered Ives, the electronic montages of Stockhausen and the campaign of Cage to break down the barriers between music and random environmental noise, the bias towards 'free-form' and the loosely pluralistic was to continue into the 1970s before the rise of minimalism initiated a swing back to simpler, narrower styles. One cannot, however, resist the rider that where the rigours of the 1950s at least represented an aspiration towards the musically new, such latter-day anti-developments as sacred minimalism breathe an escapist nostalgia for the old.

Back in 1968, the problem of the composer who cleaved to a consistent, tightly defined style was rather how to gain a sympathetic appraisal at all. Dallapiccola's long-cogitated opera Ulisse was received with the respect due to a crowning opus at its Berlin world premiere on 29 September (the composer had, after all, written some nobly libertarian scores in the dark 1930s and 1940s) but without much enthusiasm. Listening to last Wednesday's beautifully prepared and executed Radio 3 studio recording, one could discern why. The opera is less a theatrical melodrama than a humanistic meditation and the austere constraints of Dallapiccola's late style simply had to be accepted if one is to perceive the often exquisite delicacy and bloom of its internal detail.

Yet only a fortnight later, New York enjoyed the tumultuous first performance (if, as yet, minus its finale) of a score more spectacularly given over to the Mahlerian ideal of 'embracing everything' than almost any since Mahler himself. Berio's Sinfonia not only subsumed the serial technique that had sustained Dallapiccola into a musical 'deep structure' by analogy with the then-influential anthropology of Levi-Strauss, plus a Henze-like engagement in its second movement lament for Martin Luther King; but it also took the entire scherzo of Mahler's Second as a container for a riot of other musical quotations topped up with the Swingle Singers babbling Samuel Beckett. Handled with less than Berio's intellectual energy and aural finesse, the concept might rapidly have confounded itself in its own modishness. Yet it survives as perhaps the most comprehensive expression of the collective agonies and ecstasies of its time.

Strictly limiting the survey to 1968, it might be questioned whether any American composer quite matched these large, not to say contradictory achievements of Dallapiccola, Henze and Berio - Carter was not to complete his surging Concerto for Orchestra till the following year. Back home, the motley temper of the time expressed itself less through solidarity with the students than a fascination with mixed media. Tippett's opera-in-progress The Knot Garden was rumoured to have more to do with cinema and group therapy than traditional forms. Britten's Prodigal Son added to the vogue for music-theatre he had helped to inspire with Curlew River four years earlier. Birtwistle deafened Aldeburgh with his skirling Punch and Judy; Maxwell Davies was well advanced on his neo-Gothick period of screaming nuns; and Goehr pulled off an elegant fusion of Monteverdi, Noh theatre and cabaret in his Naboth's Vineyard. But there were also some surpassingly eclectic arrivals: 23-year-old John Tavener launching both himself and the London Sinfonietta with his Stravinskian- cum-pop cantata The Whale (the Beatles duly hailed him as 'underground classical') and 15-year-old Oliver Knussen stepping forth with a frighteningly competent and synoptic First Symphony.

On 12 August, democracy even reached the Proms, when Sir William Glock invited the audience to vote on which of three new British offerings it would like to hear again. But the real issue of the period was what kind of democracy? 1968 has often been construed as the year when the failure of the starry-eyed Left opened the way to the long fightback by the beady-eyed Right. Shortly after the premiere of Ulisse, Dallapiccola found himself having to plead against his more committed critics for the right of the individual artist to pursue difficult aesthetic, philosophical or spiritual themes even in a collectivist age. Today, when the idea of democracy has been virtually degraded to consumerism and the likes of David Mellor can be heard enthusiastically arguing against the recording of any further Henze if it helps to bring down the price of CDs, Dallapiccola's eloquent words read more hauntingly than ever.

Season starts tomorrow, Radio 3, with a discussion of religious thought (5.10pm) and a Free Jazz session (11.25pm). Main music evenings are Wednesdays (next week, from 7.30 to 10.45pm)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor