Unbearable madness of modernity

Malcolm Hayes, composer and critic, wonders whether the competition can overcome audience prejudice
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The Independent Online
When exactly did modern music start turning audiences off?

For many would-be listeners today, the music written in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and especially the early works of those serial revolutionaries Schoenberg, Webern and Berg marks the point at which classical composers started sounding seriously "modern", i.e. mad.

However convincingly Sir Simon Rattle may seek to justify classical music's move to modernism in his Sunday evening Channel 4 series, Leaving Home, there seems little doubt that, in leaving behind the comfortable "home" of tonality, many of this century's leading composers have left most of their potential audience behind as well.

But all may not be lost. Another landmark of musical modernism was the first performance of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913. The result was the most famous riot in musical history. Yet, eight decades later, managers of London orchestras will tell you that The Rite is one of the handful of 20th-century masterpieces that will fill a concert hall.

The very same work whose primitivist violence so outraged its first audience has now become a crowd-pulling classic.

That said, much other music composed this century (not least the 12-tone scores of Arnold Schoenberg and his school) still meets with stiff resistance even from dedicated concert-goers.

Not that style wars are the only way of deciding which works enter the repertoire and which don't. Elgar's music is cherished by its admirers (and Last Night Prommers) as quintessentially English, i.e. tonal, traditional and reassuring. Within a year of its 1908 premiere, Elgar's First Symphony, for example, was played over 100 times in England and abroad - especially in Germany. Then came the First World War, and Elgar has been virtually unplayed in Germany ever since.

By contrast, Mahler, whose works are now among the surest of symphonic crowd-pleasers, was largely excluded from British concert halls until less than 30 years ago.

Given these bizarre and ambiguous messages from 20th-century musical history, can a newly created composition prize change anything?

Enter John McLaren, a director of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and former diplomat, whose passion for music in general is matched by a concern about widespread audience unease with 20th-century music in particular. The result is Masterprize, a competition to whet the appetite of every composer on the planet.

But will it make any difference? John Casken, the Yorkshire-born composer who was also chairman of the jury of the composing competition for the BBC's Young Musicians 96 said: "What matters about competitions is what comes after. The four winning composers in Young Musicians have all been commissioned to write something else for performance by the BBC. The razzmatazz of competitions may be exciting, but you really need this element of further development.

"In that respect, the idea of giving plenty of exposure to all the short- listed works in Masterprize is a good one. It really will draw attention to what composers are trying to do in an increasingly difficult and in many ways hostile world."

Would he hazard a guess as to how many might enter? "With a pounds 25,000 prize, it'll be interesting to see if there's anyone who doesn't !"

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