Alexander Goehr: Our institutions must be protected and cherished

From a lecture by the composer to mark the 60th anniversary of the Society for the Promotion of New Music
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The Independent Online

I suspect that nothing would have surprised the founders of the Society more than the fact that it would last long enough to celebrate its anniversary this year. In those dark days, the war raging all around, it is surely a remarkable thing that musicians in London should have been able to concern themselves with matters so apparently beside the point as the provision of a platform for trying out the often earliest attempts at writing music by young composers. But for all the blackout, the dangers and fears of 1943, it was a hopeful time. Music did not die in the war.

The SPNM had a great deal to do with the way New Music is regarded now. What was then a kind of mutual assistance venture, over the years contributed to a real change in the way artistic expression in the very young is evaluated. Then the best the founders hoped for would have been to help inexperienced composers by enabling them to hear their efforts and have them criticised - still a most important aspect of a composer's education. Coincidentally, new voices might be (and many were) discovered. But over the years, with the decline in belief that composers have traditional tasks - to write memorable tunes and to fill forms such as sonatas and symphonies - the new voice, the original, virginal expression, the child's first reaction to the world, has for better or worse come to be seen as significant in itself.

But panta rei - everything flows. Perhaps what we are describing as "today" is already yesterday, and what I feel more than anything in our dangerous world is that our institutions must be protected and cherished. When William Glock became Comptroller of the BBC, he remarked that now that the "enlightened" point of view had won the day, there would be no more need for the relatively small but previously influential organisations like the SPNM. How wrong he was! I wish the SPNM a long continuing life.