Friday night I went to a concert at the Bishopsgate Institute, that odd little tucked away venue in the heart of the City. The concert was Czech piano music played by William Howard and included some preludes and fugues by Pavel Zemek Novak, part of a huge piano work over an hour and a half long that William Howard has championed here.
There was a pre concert talk with David Matthews, an old pal of mine, and it was remembering his enthusiasm for Novak’s music that attracted me to the concert. Novak is very interesting, despite his very sober and rather shy appearance: he has a preoccupation with unison writing, and an interest in trying to erase dissonance both horizontally and vertically – he tried not to have the ‘melodic’ line travel in seconds or sevenths even.
The music is not without tension though, but has an unusual freshness and energy all of its own. Intriguing was the word that came into my mind. In the pre-concert talk I asked Novak what the music world in Czechoslovakia had been like after the war, given that so many musicians had died in Terezin or had fled the country. Did the composers that were left look back, or did they try and create something entirely new? Novak spoke very sympathetically (and with a lot of emotion) about two composers, Miloslav Ištvan, and Miloslav Kabelác who were subject to virtual house arrest by the Communists after the war, and not allowed to travel, nor have many performances.
I think I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit shame-faced that I hadn’t heard of them, or heard their music. He spoke with passion also about the different sorts of folk music in Czechoslovakia, and about national feeling. Afterwards I thought how different it is to live in a country that was not invaded, and how it has allowed us to be incredibly complacent about our own cultural identity. Can you imagine anyone ever asking me in a pre-concert talk about national identity? - I always feel that if I have used British folk music I have to be a bit apologetic, or risk looking either very conventional or worse, fascistic.
I wonder how we would feel about 20th century composers like say Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, or Malcolm Arnold, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy et al if they had been carted off to death camps, or forced to leave everything behind and flee? The last time British composers came under any real threat was the Reformation, and their music has come to represent a kind of essential Englishness, and along with choral evensong it encodes an extraordinary national identity.
The other day some dimwit in a major newspaper talked about how few great composers Britain has produced, and was the usually disparaging idiot about contemporary music. When I was a student it was absolutely forbidden to like the sort of music known as ‘cow pat music,’ (a term coined by Liz Lutyens!) as if national identity was something to be utterly despised.
Then as now to some extent, professors in music colleges prefer a European model to a native one. We have no experience of what it would be like to lose our cultural exponents in the way most European countries have, and have become unbelievably careless with our own culture. Maybe one day it will all be taken away from us, and then we will talk, with tears in our eyes, like Novak, of the treasures we had and lost.
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