A Blog about the Wardour Castle Summer Schools 1964, 1965

Composers at School – Meirion Bowen

The 1965 WCSS received a particularly interesting review from Meirion Bowen (written 2 years he first met Michael Tippett). The article is notable for its review of the discussions that took place at Wardour regarding drama in music. It represents an early account of the event and channels the significance of the discussion that took place, even if Bowen would have rathered composers who explored ‘objectively the various issues.’ It’s also an account that aligns with Anthony Gilbert’s comments that the WCSSs were where ‘a whole new set of conventions were drafted’, especially when Bowen comments that the discussion was a ‘search for new idioms’ and a ‘new musical language’.

Composers at School

There is every sign that this Wardour Castle Summer School of Music, now in its second year, is becoming an important feature of the English musical landscape. It is oriented more towards contemporary composition than any other such school, and the usual proliferation of masterclasses in performing music rather recedes into the background. Thus last week’s principal events were performances of selected music by the 50 or so composers gathered there, by leading modern composers and by the school’s directors, Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies – a wayward yet beguiling trio, with great professional acumen.

It struck me, though, that the school’s activities could have been more closely integrated to add to the stimulus.

For instance, two of the concerts included works involving taped electronic sound. There was a ‘Prelude’ for piano and tape (in which the soloist on Tuesday was the distinguished American Schoenberg scholar, Leonard Stein) which doodled along through its many short sections quite amiably but to no specific purpose. However, ‘Philomel,’ written by the archpriest of electronic music at Princeton University, Milton Babbitt, and given its European première by Miss Bethany Beardslee on Sunday, is a stunning realisation for soprano, recorded soprano and synthesises sound of the final metamorphosis in Ovid’s account of the gory myth. The vocal line and accompaniment in this dramatic scena fit together as superbly as those in the five great Schubert songs which Miss Beardslee sang earlier, and I can well imagine a version of the whole tale done in this fashion.

Miss Beardslee also sang intensely in Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ on Tuesday [sic, the performance was on Monday], performing in costume against a sort of backcloth – an enterprising venture, since ‘Pierrot’ was originally heard in a cabaret like this, but unfortunately here the visual excitement was missing; it looked rather a rushed job.

Buried treasure

Now these three works at least should have been heard before Monday’s ‘teach-in’ on the problems of form in contemporary composition, for they give valuable clues as to how to find the buried treasure of a new musical language. All music has a dramatic basis, I submit, whether ritualistic or personally autobiographical, and, in the search for new idioms, a clear dramatic impulse often facilitates the formation of the musical image.

This point was clearly lost on our 50 composers, whose verbal contributions tended to grind personal axes instead of exploring objectively the various issues.

More careful administration should further prevent us from hearing under-rehearsed concerts of both old and new music. I was sorry, for example, that only half of Robin Holloway’s Cantata on texts by Edward Benlowes (a minor Metaphysical poet), reached concert-pitch for its première on Wednesday. Its several little sections, ornate lines and decorative textures came across very effectively.

In his settings of two D. H. Lawrence poems, a former R.C.M. student, Roger Smalley, displays considerable maturity allowing the high-voltage vocal lines to make a powerful impact against the dark, pungent wind and piano textures. Smalley wrote his work for fellow members of the R.C.M. Composers’ Ensemble, who also played music by John Cage, etc., with spell-binding creative exuberance.

I also heard in rehearsal and saw the score of Harrison Birtwistle’s large-scale ‘Tragoedia,’ commissioned and given its première by the Melos Ensemble on Thursday. This imaginative conception stems from the structural facets of Greek theatre, and thus is in several concise movements – Fanfare, Prologue, Parados, etc. Its eloquent thematic material and strong inner growth, and its brilliant scoring for string quartet, wind and harp, make up, I guess, Birtwistle’s finest work to date. It’s the true Director’s work all right.

Meirion Bowen

The Observer Weekend Review, August 22, 1965

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