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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


A DECEIVING MIRROR

by Arthur Butterworth

 

Despite the altruism and self-sacrifice of many saintly beings, there is a fundamental instinct in all living things to seek for themselves the best place in the sun. The most insignificant weed that grows struggles towards the light, trying as best it can to overcome other growing organisms in its way. The lowliest of animal life seeks to overcome its siblings and other rivals. Humans, perhaps most of all, are acutely conscious of this basic instinct for self-promotion so that it is perhaps worth pondering the lines written by Philip Massinger (1583-1640):

.......... "View yourselves in the deceiving mirror of self-love

Many years ago, having written the programme note on the occasion of the premiere of the First Symphony at the Cheltenham Festival, a performance which first brought recognition as a composer, I was taken to task the following morning by a distinguished critic who, whilst praising in the most lavish terms, the work itself and the excellent performance it had received, commented: . .. " It is not seemly for a young composer to tell us how astonishing his last movement is, that is for the listener to decide; a composer ought not to praise his own work"....

I took this to heart and have tried ever since to avoid as far as possible. the use of the first person singular when writing or commenting on music of my own creation. Since self-praise is no honour, few things are more tedious to others than to read or hear, people talking about their own achievements ..... "My first string quartet...."I wrote my second opera"... ..."My harmonic language",...etc. The expressions "I", me", "my", "mine" can be the most irritating and boring words in the language, and perhaps ought to be avoided like the plague.

Whether he or she be a thrusting, go-getting politician seeking approval from the electorate, autobiographical writer, television personality, football star, media correspondent, celebrated opera singer, concert pianist (or even a mere composer), it seems far more modest and less self-seeking if what needs to be said can be expressed in an impersonal way. So that instead of writing (say):

..... The first movement of my quartet is in sonata form ...

better to write instead:

... "The first movement of this quartet is in sonata form"...

Over the years, since the premiere of the First Symphony, from time to time people have shown an interest in this and the other symphonies that have followed. Composers often feel ambivalent about explaining how they came to create their music. There is obviously a desire to express something of how they feel and this is the prime reason for creating their music in the first place, but going further than that and trying to enhance or clarify their meaning further by the written word is both a natural urge, yet paradoxically no little matter of feint embarrassment at having to be specific about deep personal emotions too. Yet composers are so often asked to provide the first programme notes of a new work. Perhaps it would be better if someone else should always do this for them.

There is a parallel here with composers conducting performances of their own music. Berlioz is reputed to have disdained all other conductors of his music, asserting that none of them knew better than he, just how his music should go. Certainly Berlioz himself was a most technically competent and inspired conductor in an age when the art of conducting was a relatively undeveloped technique.

In a later age with the rise of the truly "professional" conductor - the musician specialising in directing performances by others rather than actually singing or playing himself - the composer-conductor, perhaps, seems less necessary. Despite this, there would still, on the face of it at least, seem to be a good case for composers directing their own music: for who can know better than the composer himself how a work ought to be interpreted ? Some composers have indeed been capable conductors - Berlioz himself, probably most of all — along with Mendelssohn, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Hindemith, Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar, Walton, Britten and many others. If none of them have been so-called "professionals" in the sense that conducting has been their prime musical accomplishment, they have certainly known the niceties and conventions of working with other performing musicians; able to be effective, inspiring "personnel managers" as much as head-in-the-clouds creative artists.

However, there is another side to all this. Like the composers writing his or her own programme notes (after all who knows the work better than he or she?), is the composer invariably the best person to interpret his or her own work? On the face of it, the answer would seem to be "yes", but on closer consideration it might seem otherwise. Composition, like any other creative function is by its nature subjective, so that one cannot get outside oneself to see how it really appears to others. The composer writing his or her own programme analysis, or directing the performance of his own work cannot be other than subjective, unable to see the wider, objective view of it. Another person — the professional conductor — is often, though not necessarily, better able to interpret and thus be able to communicate to other performers what the essence of a work really is; able to bring it out more effectively than an inward-looking, subjective approach that can only be that of the composer himself or herself. On a more practical level, the composer can often feel peculiarly embarrassed when trying to persuade others, as it were, to enter his own very personal emotions, whereas when he directs someone else’s music - and composers often are excellent, equally competent professional conductors in this respect - he has no inhibitions in exhorting performers to give of their best. Conducting one’s own music can lead to a feeling of exploiting one’s performers and wallowing in self-preening - looking into that "deceiving mirror of self-love" that Philip Massinger so perceptively remarked on. Better to eschew "I", "me", "my" or "mine" whenever possible.

© Arthur Butterworth

80th Birthday Celebrations 2003

Congratulations to Arthur on being 80 years young.
Concerts
22 October 18.30 Symphony 5 (world premiere) BBC Philharmonic Manchester Studio 7
9 November 19.30 Ragnarök Sheffield Philharmonic St Marks Broomhill
15 November 19.30 Mill Town (world premiere) Huddesfield Philharmonic Town Hall
23 November 19.30 Concertante Haffner Orchestra St Martin's College, Lancaster
29 April 19.30 Concerto alla Venezia (Trumpet Concerto) Orchestra of Opera North Huddersfield Town Hall

 



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