Something for every occasion

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Occasional music was up for discussion in Music Matters on Radio 3 on Saturday. What is it, and does it still exist? All music was once occasional, in the sense that today's product, in restrooms and shopping malls present always and everywhere, clearly is not. Strangely, Ivan Hewett and his team of consultants barely touched on this aspect, though they traced the history of the genre and offered a variety of opinions.

The journey rambled, but the scenery was often delightful. Lawrence Dreyfus had some interesting thoughts on those one-off pieces par excellence, the Bach cantatas; interesting, that is, if like me you'd always wondered why Bach composed more than 52, quite enough to last a year of Sundays. Though never published, each annual cycle was intended to be reused, and Bach's prolific bent to compose several was that of the born perfectionist.

His instrumental works, the sonatas and partitas, pushed in another direction: posterity. The trend continued with the decline of ritual as social adhesive and the rise of the solitary artist. For Victorians, the occasional piece became a vehicle for sheet-music sales; commercial gain linked to great occasions in a manner worthy of modern sports broadcasting. Taking time out from London's Players' Theatre, light-music expert Dominic Le Foe mentioned a polonaise for the Charge of the Light Brigade, and piano pieces for the discovery of X-rays, the opening of the Circle Line, and (with bagpipe effects) the relief of Lucknow.

But Sir Harrison Birtwistle would have none of it, washing his hands of music for state occasions, with a swipe at Faith Minimalism and a hint that he'd be happy writing something to open the new Tate Gallery. It was left to the ebullient Roderick Swanston to present a modern blueprint: not Hello magazine in D major, he thought, but a piece that told more of the truth, like Anthony Williams's portrait of the Queen, should be the ideal for modern musical pageantry. Hindemith's Trauermusik, written on the death of George V, was a model; something worth dying for, if only temporarily.

Yet another kind of occasional music cropped up over the weekend in the form of pieces written for this year's Lloyds Bank Young Composer Workshop, part of BBC Young Musicians 96. Rather than a trophy to hang on the wall, the reward for the 12 finalists was a weekend session in Manchester last February, performances of their works and, for a quartet of lucky ones, commissions from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

Three of the orchestral pieces can be heard tomorrow afternoon on Radio 3. A film of the workshop, screened last Saturday on BBC2, gave an impression of mature collaboration with minimal competitive stress. One composer was warned to stop using computers, though the pastiche he'd produced with them sounded pretty good; surely a case of the well-known syndrome involving calculators and maths exams. Another, Stuart Macrae, called the kind of detailed scrutiny his music had received from the judges and conductor Martyn Brabbins the "icing on the cake", though there were lessons he'd bear in mind when writing his next opus. As one of the four prizewinners, he'll be well placed to tell us how. Was this the cue for a further programme?

NICHOLAS WILLIAMS

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