> A REPLY TO NORMAN LEBRECHT AND ARTHUR BUTTERWORTH by Evan Tucker






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BRITISH MUSIC

A REPLY TO NORMAN LEBRECHT AND ARTHUR BUTTERWORTH

For the past 300-plus years British music lovers have faced a most unfortunate predicament. They have looked across the channel to the "Continent Club" with terrible envy. The ancient and ever evolving musical traditions of countries like Germany, France and Italy have consistently produced composers of universal and immortal acclaim while almost every British composer between Purcell and Arthur Sullivan has been relegated to the dustbin of history, give or take the occasional Boyce, Arne or Parry revival. Even in their strongest recent century, the 20th, Britain did not produce a composer accepted the world over as truly great. They have produced candidates with champions across the world: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, while more recently Walton and Britten. But while each of these composers have had staunch champions, they have also had detractors across the world who criticize their music with equal zeal.

With a literary tradition second to none, British writers have argued unceasingly and often (though certainly not always) persuasively for the merits of their composers. But due to whatever reason, be it continental snobbery or impartial rejection, their efforts have to some extent fallen upon deaf international ears, though they are certainly not complete failures. One could argue, in most cases correctly, that reading about music is an experience inferior to listening to it, and consequently no amount of championing of these composers in writing will sway an audience unreceptive to the music. However, I cannot help but think that British music writers would be more successful in their efforts if they changed their tactics.

For those of us who have been reading British music polemics in the past few months, it would seem that even the British themselves cannot agree on whom in their numbers ranks among the great composers; let alone present their cases convincingly to an international public. Reading the ever-provocative Norman Lebrecht’s article about the "death" of William Walton’s talent, I was struck by how much Lebrecht presents his own opinions and perceptions as indisputable fact (not that it surprised me, given his track record).

As Adrian Smith pointed out quite correctly in his rebuttal to Mr. Lebrecht’s remarks, "Belshazzar's Feast is better to sing than to hear" is certainly not an opinion shared by all listeners or singers. Furthermore, Lebrecht’s assertions that "The Viola and Cello Concertos are thematically meagre;" or that "the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith are a weak reprise of Hindemith's symphonic metamorphoses on a theme by Weber." would be disputed by any number of musicians and music lovers inside and outside the Isles. Of course, Norman Lebrecht is a human being too (something we often tend to forget) and consequently he is entitled to his own opinions. I only wish he would present his opinions as if they weren’t shared by myself and the entire rest of the world.

One can look through virtually any article by Mr. Lebrecht at all and find an excerpt of writing that is at once so beautifully written and at the same time so ridiculous in its content that one cannot help but laugh at the possibility that both the form and the content came from the same writer. In this particular article, the conflict of intelligent writing and unbelievable ignorance occurs when he attempts to assess Walton’s personal life and decides that Walton‘s mediocrity stems from his preference for personal comfort over artistic vision.

"One can almost detect a Faustian pact being made with his inner self, a swap of vision for venison, fiery art for fireside celebrity." This is only the last sentence in a two paragraph tour-de-force of brilliant writing coupled with insubstantial content. In addition to the fact that most writers would kill to be able to turn a phrase in the way he does, Mr. Lebrecht makes a pronouncement that flies in the face of most every historical fact about composers who are both rich and talented. History abounds with examples of composers who lived in comfort and prosperity and still made work that was of no less quality. Certainly Richard Strauss lived in ever-growing personal comfort as his work was performed more and more; the output of neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg diminished as their quality of life increased; Debussy was said to enjoy life’s delights as much as any composer; Wagner certainly never had wont for comfort during the second, post-Rienzi, half of his life; Gluck and Handel were paid astronomical fees for their compositions and nobody ever complained about the quality of their work; etc. If Walton truly killed his own talent, there are far more complex reasons than Mr. Lebrecht is willing to provide for us in a truly inadequate analysis of the situation. Consequently, as usual with him, all that is left is an unsubstantiated and provocative claim most likely designed for maximum effect and maximum controversy.

As icing on the cake, in order to ensure that British music writers take up arms against Lebrecht, he provides further ammunition in his final, two-sentence paragraph. "His weakness could have been calamitous, setting British music back by a generation. Happily, Britten was there to resist complacency and redeem the future of art." Thus he ensures a division in the press between those who love Walton and those who love Britten, keeping his own name in print and the cause of British music further still from the international concert halls.

But as of this week Mr. Lebrecht will become an editor and his particular brand of musical Gonzo Journalism will vanish from the papers. I, for one, will miss him sorely. Music journalism is a much more boring profession without him.

Shocked as I was by the arrogance of Lebrecht’s pronouncements, I was still more shocked to read a response by Arthur Butterworth that if anything transcended arrogance and moved into the realm of the offensive. Mr. Butterworth’s article leaves no doubt as to his sympathies, but I was deeply shaken by the manner in which he expresses them. I only care to comment on one paragraph of Mr. Butterworth’s article. Had he not included this particular paragraph the article would not be worth mentioning. Without this particular paragraph the article would be a rather charming appraisal of his own feelings about the two composers. However, in the aforementioned paragraph Mr. Butterworth provides an aside about Britten’s homosexuality and homosexuality in general that is truly inappropriate and offensive.


Granted, one would have to be a complete fool not to see the homosexual subtext that pervades a good deal of Britten’s work. However, to refer to "that morbid obsession Britten had with other men," or to "this ‘male victim’ gush that seems to go like an ineradicable thread through his music," is an appraisal excessive to the point of being offensive. But to add to this appraisal that homosexuality in general is "un-natural" or that "they seem to be warped in some way" is an assertion I find absolutely appalling. I was particularly appalled because I did not read this in a magazine published by the Religious Right or a hate-group, I read this in a Music Journal! If the subtext of Britten’s work impedes on Mr. Butterworth’s enjoyment of the music, he can merely say so instead of launching into a paragraph-long diatribe against homosexuality in a general sense. I am not homosexual, but I do consider myself sensitive to their issues and my personal sense of morality was offended by Mr. Butterworth’s statements.

I was particularly shocked that such comments came from a man like Mr. Butterworth. From everything I have read by and about this man, these comments seem entirely out of character and unworthy of him. By all accounts I have read he is a distinguished elder statesman of British music. He would also appear to be a composer of distinction, though I have not heard any of his music. He is an entertaining writer and if he is half as charming in person as he generally is in his articles I would very much like to meet him. He appears to me to be a sort of "Anti-Lebrecht" because he does not seem to have a sensationalist bone in his body. It would seem very much against his character to make broad, sweeping, "Lebrechtian" generalizations. I would expect such a person to at least have the tact, and perhaps even the moral fibre, to avoid making such hurtful statements about such a contentious issue.


In both of these articles, the dominant theme is negative. Both Mr. Lebrecht and Mr. Butterworth seem to feel it necessary to try to hurt the reputations of a particular composer. If British music lovers want one or both of these composers to represent them, without any overseas objection, in the Canon of Classical Music, then their writers must discuss the positive merits of these composers and never resort to slinging mud at the reputations of their composers through oversimplified generalizations (a la Lebrecht), or subjective slander (a la Butterworth).

Evan Tucker

etucker82@cs.com


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