Bleak future for young composers

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN MAY never again produce composers of the stature of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, or even Harrison Birtwistle. The young men and women who should be stepping into the shoes of Tippett and Nyman are discovering it is almost impossible to make a living out of classical music.

According to Michael Berkeley, chairman of the board of the Royal Opera House, artistic director of the Cheltenham Music Festival and a leading composer: "The future for young composers is bleak." Lack of money is also making it impossible for British music festivals to work with the world's top composers although European rivals can, he told the Independent on Sunday last week.

A cut of up to 80 per cent of Arts Council money for new commissions in the past five years has left even well-established composers struggling to attract work. Indeed, their financial difficulties are about to be compounded by new rules at the Performing Rights Society, which will slash their royalties.

Mr Berkeley said he was particularly concerned at the impact on young composers, who might be lucky to get pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000 a year for a couple of commissions with accompanying educational workshops. "It is absolutely ludicrous that, as we're about to go into the new millennium, we're probably facing the worst situation for young composers for the past half century."

Mr Berkeley said the cuts meant that figures such as this year's composer- in-residence at Cheltenham, Mark-Anthony Turnage, were not receiving the recompense they deserved. And he added: "I can't even begin to commission the great 20th-century composers like Kurtag, Ligeti or Henze."

Mr Berkeley is to raise the problem with Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, tomorrow.

The Cheltenham Festival has a strong tradition of introducing new works to the British public. But now it must rely more on pieces already premiered overseas to maintain the policy.

Whereas in the past it commissioned a new small-scale opera every year, this is now possible only every other year. Of three new commissions this year, only one has received any public funding.

Mr Berkeley said the BBC had been left as virtually Britain's only patron of new works with its annual commissions for the Proms concerts. "We used to have pounds 10,000 or pounds 12,000 as a festival to commission, but we're lucky to get pounds 3,000 now."

Nobody is saying a classical piece of music was better than a popular piece of music, Mr Berkeley said. "But on balance, writing a piece for symphony orchestra takes two years because of the complexity and you can't compare that with a two- or three-minute pop song. Not all composers are able to do things like film work to subsidise their work." Mr Berkeley said contemporary music had to "find its way" but there were not many stages on which to put it.

He appealed to the Arts Council for a public declaration of support. "The Arts Council needs to say, `We believe in commissioning,' and make it possible for festivals like Cheltenham to commission."

An Arts Council spokeswoman said the amount of money available had greatly decreased because of the standstill in funding. "There has been an increase in funding for this year and all our development funds (which include commissioning) are being reviewed." But she added: "It is unlikely there will be a major increase in the way the Arts Council supports commissioning at the moment."

The issue of royalties, to be raised by an alliance of classical music publishers and composers with Chris Smith tomorrow, stems from a Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) report in 1996 into the Performing Rights Society (PRS), which collects and distributes royalties.

The MMC asked the PRS to demonstrate the fairness of its distribution and the society decided it could no longer justify the pounds 1m-a-year subsidy that classical composers have received for the past 50 years.