They've never had it so good: Bayan Northcott surveys the changing prospects for young composers in the light of two upcoming celebrations of new work

WHEN the Society for the Promotion of New Music invited that dedicated radical Elisabeth Lutyens to address one of its regular young composer sessions in January 1960, it probably expected an inspirational endorsement. Instead, she went on the attack. 'I feel that artists should, as Cocteau has said, 'live in the shadows' - whereas this society has boasted, so I believe, of discovering 300 new composers. This sounds like an incubating machine; under the glare and light of publicity, embryo works are hatched before their time and the society is in danger of becoming a factory for the artificial insemination of the young.'

How could she say such a thing when she had herself spent the best part of three decades on committees and what- not trying to secure commissions and performances for younger composers - to no advantage of her own? How could she say it just at the point when the BBC, the British promoters and publishers, and even the public seemed at last to be getting interested in the latest developments? Was it simply envy of a new musical generation that had never had it so good? And, if she were yet living, a cantankerous 86, how would she greet the coming week? For, tomorrow afternoon, the SPNM brings its 50th anniversary celebrations to a head with a South Bank concert duly including four recent novelties. And from next Monday to Friday, the Royal Academy of Music is mounting a tight-packed festival, entitled Da Capo: From the Beginning, featuring works by over 60 of its past and present students and incorporating, in assocation with this newspaper, a competition for young composers under 20.

To be sure, the origins of the SPNM as a self-help operation in the darkest days of the last war could hardly seem more remote. Yet the resilience with which it has somehow survived vast changes of musical culture, to say nothing of internal wranglings and financial crises, suggests it still fulfils a need in offering emergent composers those vital first professional hearings - whether under the glare of publicity or not. As for the RAM: an institution whose creative output ranges from a whole gaggle of current students to 82-year-old Minna Keal, by way of such alumni as Nicholas Maw, John Tavener, Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Nyman and John Dankworth, is entitled to some pride - even if Holst, Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Britten and, indeed, Lutyens, all happened to attend the rival Royal College. Meanwhile, the most convinced opponents of competitions would have, at least, to concede they have become a fact of musical life.

Yet behind Lutyens's apparently perverse little speech of 1960 - subsequently printed by her friend William Glock in his influential music periodical The Score - lay some genuine concerns. As an artist who had only found her mature manner after many years of trial and error, she was acutely aware of how easily the tender individuality of the young could be stunted by compromise with Establishment values or diverted by fashionable peer pressure. Now, with young-cult notions and marketing methods beginning to insinuate themselves into the world of serious composition, she not only feared that such individual dangers could be vastly intensified, but that the whole ideal of composition as a calling could be subverted by the connivings of composition as a career. No wonder she began telling her would- be pupils: 'If you simply want to become a composer, give it up - there are far too many composers. But if you cannot stop composing, come what may, then I shall try to help.'

The question that might profitably hover behind the coming week's junketings is to what extent Elisabeth Lutyens's forebodings have proved justified over the last three decades or, on the contrary, how far the prospects, freedoms and attainments of younger composers have advanced. In her own young day before the war, there were still few commissions, fewer interested publishers and no SPNM; she and friends had to found the Macnaghten Concerts in the 1930s to get a hearing. Above all, the English Establishment, with its cult of the amateur, still viewed the Modern Movement, and particularly the Schoenberg school, with suspicion - an attitude which was actually to intensify after the war as such Continental youngsters as Boulez and Stockhausen strove to take the serial revolution further.

Yet, by the time the confessedly provincial 19-year-old Nicholas Maw had come up from Lincolnshire to study at the RAM in 1955, the climate was rapidly changing - at least a little thanks to the growing influence of Lutyens herself. One of the earliest composers to believe that, after the modernist cataclysm, the serial technique of Webern opened the way to a new universal language of music, she had already guided Maw's fellow-student, Richard Rodney Bennett, whose effortless brilliance, together with the avant-garde savoir faire of Cornelius Cardew he found most daunting. For much of the next five years, Maw struggled to submit his natural musicality to a post-Webernian rigour, finally giving up in an explosion of erotic passion for the 1962 Proms entitled Scenes and Arias - neither his most ambitious nor perfectly achieved work to date, but arguably still his most inspired. At the time, its recension of a late-Romantic richness and rhetoric were widely criticised as reactionary; the general assumption was still that, whether one liked it or not, music was inexorably heading towards an ever more modernistic future.

Through the 1970s, however, a younger generation was beginning to hail Maw's masterpiece as a courageous early step towards a freer post-modernism. Freer from the diktats of Darmstadt, perhaps, though today's aspirants are likely to find themselves just as subtly pressurised in other ways. Under the influence of that ambiguous criterion 'accessibility', the smarter trends seem all towards a sophisticated primitivism: ritualistic chants, minimally varied repetitions, machine-like pulsations on common chords. Since the combination of such devices with the machinations of marketing has promoted a few figures - John Tavener trailing clouds of incense; that cute post-minimalist Michael Torke - to a ubiquity undreamt of by any serious composers of Maw's generation, let alone that of Lutyens, the temptation to settle early for a few easily recognisable mannerisms must seem all the stronger - and never mind how these may inhibit longer-term development.

For composers who regard music essentially as a means of conveying or accompanying something else - sacred revelations, political protest, simple conviviality - the current circus may seem to offer a world of possibilities, especially if the alternative view of composition as an autonomous, self-justifying activity can now be dismissed as a mere historical hangover from the era of bourgeois idealism. But for those who continue to believe with Schoenberg that 'music can say things that can only be expressed by music', that the furthering of composition can offer a life-long progress towards greater understanding, integrity today may mean rejecting commissions that come with any temptations to compromise.

Let us by all means flock to the SPNM and the RAM and support the continuing emergence of genuine talent - but also question a bit our unthinking urge to spot 'stars'. Let us perhaps agree that Maw's Scenes and Arias - too little heard in the concert hall, too long deleted on disc - retains its power to move not as some historical turning point, but as a radiant musical resolution of a long individual struggle. And let us just occasionally reflect on Elisabeth Lutyens's sermon, after half a lifetime helping the young: 'I have come at last to the conclusion that the best art does seem to flourish at times when things are a little bit more difficult.'

SPNM 50th Anniversary: tomorrow, 3pm, QEH, box office 071-928 8800. RAM Festival, 8-12 March (071-487 2763)

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London