Modern Music vs. Good Music

I noted this week that one of my former professors in composition and orchestration died last spring. It was not unexpected, after suffering a stroke in 2013.

I met James Wishart on my first tour of the university and listened to a presentation he delivered on composition. On that occasion he had forgotten to bring a CD of his own music and so I had no opportunity of knowing his style, namely what he called good. I could not have guessed how ghastly his modernistic compositions sounded. Instead, I heard him speak of being a grand encourager to every young composer and I looked forward to his support in starting my own career.

My own experience was very different. He ridiculed the first composition I presented to him in front of 25 of my peers, during our weeks of getting acquainted. During two years of supervision (in both composition and orchestration), he invited me to one tutorial to discuss the progress I was making in my coursework. And, when I arrived, he cancelled it because he had a headache.

As a class, we made allowances for our professor out of pity because of his immense size. We even opened the windows before every class to minimise the aroma. In other words, we made allowances. But he did not meet us halfway. He made no rapport with any member of my class and seldom made eye contact, especially with female students.

How did we expect to learn anything when communication skills were so entirely absent? By osmosis of greatness to students? Hardly. For James Wishart was not great. His potential had been recognised but stalled along the way. He was in a cocoon at the university but he was not setting any example, let alone supporting young composers.

It is deemed unbecoming to speak ill of the dead, but my respect to James Wishart was demonstrated by not making these reflections while he was living. He did not show similar respect to a late Prime Minister of the U.K., Margaret Thatcher, in 23 Songs for a Madwoman.

Wishart’s name will forever be twinned with his satire on Margaret Thatcher, which he published 7 years before her death. It is a bitter, angry work, made all the more poisonous by employing the grotesque lie perpetrated against King George III by Peter Maxwell Davies in his own “Mad Songs”.

You do not need to be a fan of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to see that the crudeness of Wishart’s 23 Songs for a Madwoman was as vicious as it was futile. If music can and should be used for such ends, it was too late.

There is mental havoc wreaked on the young mind by having someone like James Wishart in a position of authority who fails to nurture and instead causes harm. It took me years to recover my musical balance. It is not just about the notes that we put on the page, although Wishart did his best to make me afraid of writing any music. It is the bullying that can take place in any walk of life and is more paralysing when it is connected to something as personal as musical composition.

Validation in the sphere of classical music comes through being adopted by people like James Wishart, who can induct a new composer into the respectable circle of modern music. Take, for example, Marco Galvani. When he was just a boy at my father’s school, I answered his questions about writing music for film. But he did not need me. He was already taking classes with Emily Howard, who led him to have classes at university with Robert Saxton (who had also taught Emily Howard and himself had been taught by Benjamin Britten). By something less than a miracle Galvani was offered a publishing deal by Edition Peters and receives commissions from reputable performers to play in musical palaces.

By comparison, those of us who found the chain to greatness broken - by men such as James Wishart - have to submit, be rejected, tout for work, handle criticism and prove ourselves with every job. We were not “called” so we are not deemed to be artistic.

I no longer regret that the road which opened before a composer like Galvani remained closed to me. Had James Wishart been more interested and more supportive, I might have been tempted to join his world of modern music, thinking to change it when of course it would have changed me. And I would not have been able to laugh, with Denis King (composer of the theme for Black Beauty) at the total absurdity of modern music and the tragic folly of the people who believe in it.