There is a different post or several to be written on the fact that the mainstream of classical music has shifted in the last hundred years or so from being chiefly music written in the previous few decades to excluding it almost entirely; how this comes to be, and what its impact on performers, composers and audiences might be. But I’m not going to write that today at least.
Suffice to say then that playing new ‘classical’ music is a relatively rare experience for most performers, and that when such (whether new is world premiere or 20 years old) does happen, it is in a context determined largely by much older compositions.
The Philip Sawyers concerto premiered at my last orchestral gig could even be said to be not getting a fair hearing, since it was more of a dry run (with an amateur orchestra, albeit a very good one, and a correspondingly – middlebrow perhaps? – audience) before being performed with the orchestra involved in the commission. Nonetheless, what is interesting is that it went down very well, certainly with the orchestra and as far as I recall and could tell with the audience as well (though the audible response of British traditional classical audiences is a difficult metric for their actual feelings).
So what made the piece work? It certainly wasn’t a neoclassical or populist throwback – while the programme notes claimed an identifiable key centre of D minor for the first movement, there were no key signatures and most of the structural motifs were derived very closely from chromatic scales, the most direct route to atonalism open to Western pitching.
Evident virtuosity is an appealing musical feature, and the technique and possibilities of a soloist using a modern valved trumpet but with the mastery of register and high range implied by also performing as a soloist on the natural trumpet were used widely in the true concerto tradition. But I think there were more structural and essential musical features to the piece that won over its hearers and indeed players.
Mood is one. Chromatic melody, atonal harmony and the musical trappings of post/modernist composition are no bar to emotional expression, and each movement of this piece had an identifiable and sustained emotional positioning (with some internal shifts). Allied to this somehow – at least to the notion of consistency and sustained expression – is the presence of ongoing, largely stable, musical movement; and I think the presence of (meaningful, non-token, not often-changing) time signatures in this piece is as key to its nature as the absence of key signatures.
Finally and controversially, structure. Of course, neither most audience members nor most players sit working out a structural analysis of a piece in their heads as they hear or play it. But I would argue that they are nonetheless aware of a structure being worked out, if it is reasonably evident – and that the lack of any perceptible structure is therefore disconcerting or off-putting, even if at the same sort of subconscious level. The Sawyers concerto has identifiable thematic units (mostly very short cells, but they are there) and passages which it is not inaccurate to label as exposition, development, recapitulation and so on. It would in fact be reasonable to consider its three movements as being in recognisable – albeit not tonally dependent and genuinely modernist – versions of respectively sonata, ternary and rondo forms. And this creates another level of accessible para-narrative, alongside mood and pulse, which hearers and players alike succeed in following, and therefore in finding satisfying.
As a complete outsider to the teaching of composition, and an ignoramus of Sawyers’s career to date, I am intrigued to know how much of this is taught and how much discovered, and what approaches to putting music together are in fact advocated in advanced composing tuition – if there is any uniformity or trend whatsoever. Not that it makes much difference to my work, except that a piece will be played better, and stand more chance of being communicated to its audience, if all of the players ‘get’ it – classical players may be slaves to ‘the dots’ in some senses, but it would be a bad mistake to assume we are human MIDI controllers who don’t benefit from involvement in the music.