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)

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