Composers in lockdown
by Graham Wiffen
We were beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. Life was beginning a gradual return to normal but the dreaded second wave of the coronavirus has seen cases rise by the day, hospital admissions increase and the inevitable rising death toll bring heartbreak to families throughout the nations and regions of a land where people were still trying to find their feet in the aftermath of the first wave. Consequently, on 31 October 2020, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson told the nation that a month long lockdown would be introduced in England (following similar measures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and, once again, we were told to “stay home, protect the NHS and save lives”. Where we will be by the time you read this piece, I cannot say. All we can know is that our world will never be quite the same.
On 23 March 2020, Prime Minster, Boris Johnson announced the first so-called ‘lockdown’ (just one of many new terms that would come into common usage during the months ahead). Theatres, concert halls, museums galleries and other venues, large and small closed virtually overnight. Musicians, actors, dancers and other performers suddenly found themselves unable to perform. Indeed, nearly everyone working within what we have learned to call the creative industries experienced an unparalleled crisis as the cameras stopped rolling, the printers ceased printing and recording studios were forced to close. Performers’ crammed diaries suddenly emptied as the nation was told to stay home to protect the NHS and the men and women whose skill, craft and creativity combine to enable us to experience the magic of performance found themselves without an outlet for their talents and without an income.
But surely authors can write, painters can paint, musicians can still play and singers sing? They can but the underlying structure that supports them temporarily ceased to exist. It was against this background that I found myself asking the question: what do composers do in such circumstances? I am indebted to six distinguished composers and one performer/composer, some of whom will be familiar to English Music Festival attendees and, of course, readers of Spirited. My thanks to Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Cecilia McDowall, Richard Blackford, Paul Carr, David Matthews, Ian Venables and Roderick Williams for taking the time to share their thoughts and feelings in answer to a series of questions, during a difficult and challenging period in their personal and professional lives.
Though most people will not have experienced anything like the coronavirus in their lifetimes, pandemics have been with us throughout history. Writing in The Guardian on the day before the Prime Minister’s announcement, Andrew Dickson author of The Globe Guide to Shakespeare, explored the question, “Did Shakespeare write King Lear in lockdown?” Certainly, the playwright’s life was directly affected by the Bubonic plague: “As an infant, he was lucky to survive the disease: Stratford-upon-Avon was ravaged by a serious outbreak in the summer of 1564, a few months after he was born, and up to a quarter of the town’s population died. Growing up, Shakespeare would have heard endless stories about this apocalyptic event and kneeled in church in solemn remembrance of townsfolk who were lost. His father, John, was closely involved in relief efforts and attended a meeting to help Stratford’s poorest. It was held outdoors because of the risk.” Meeting outdoors – sounds all too familiar today. Dickson points out that, “We know the play was acted in front of King James I on Boxing Day 1606, the first performance on record, and it’s a decent bet that it was scripted that year or the year before. As the theatre historian James Shapiro points out, there was a major plague event in London in summer 1606, which led to the Globe and all other London theatres being closed.“Between 1603 and 1613, when Shakespeare’s powers as a writer were at their height, the Globe and other London playhouses were shut for an astonishing total of 78 months – more than 60% of the time.”
Writing again in The Guardian just a couple of weeks after the lockdown had been imposed, Ed Prideux explored the importance of music during pandemics: “Fearing contagion, all religious gatherings have been banned. But when it comes to their faith – and, importantly, their music – nothing can stand in the people’s way. Following a call to “go to church in spirit”, they launch a collective act of social and musical defiance. Windows are opened, doors unlocked and balconies perched on as thousands of men, women and children start to sing.
“No, this is not Milan during the coronavirus lockdown. It’s the summer of 1576, and the plague of Saint Charles has devastated much of the Italian north.” Similar scenes were played out across Europe. Here in the UK the ‘Clap for Carers’ initiative was started by Annemarie Plas who, originally from the Netherlands, got the idea when she saw applause happening there. In addition to the clapping and the banging of pots and pans, musicians also took to the streets to entertain their neighbours perhaps most memorably the Kanneh-Mason family in London. And there were other musical responses to the lockdown, many of them online. Based in his well-appointed garden shed ‘the nation’s choirmaster’ Gareth Malone established the Great British Home Chorus on YouTube bringing together up to fifty thousand people for his virtual rehearsals and lifting their spirits after the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing. Founding Director of Consort of Voices
and Associate Conductor of Ex Cathedra, Tori Longdon created the ‘Stay at Home Choir’ a global initiative which involved more than 14,000 people.
Just over a century ago, the influenza epidemic (often referred to as the Spanish Flu) had wreaked havoc around the world taking the lives of some fifty million people with 225,000 deaths in Britain alone. An article in The New York Times suggests that, despite the devastation wrought by influenza, the effect on the nation’s musical life was limited: “Millions of Americans were sickened and 675,000 died in the 1918 pandemic, among at least 50 million deaths worldwide. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the effects on musical culture in the United States ended up being relatively mild: merely a few weeks of delayed and canceled concerts. One of those who was affected was Sergei Prokofiev who at the age of 27 reached New York from a revolution-torn Moscow on September 6, 1918. The composer and performer hoped to make a name for himself in America over the course of a four-month stay, but the influenza’s outbreak soon derailed his plans, delaying the concert season in New York and, therefore, his hopes of instant success. As far as we know, Prokofiev never came down with the flu, but the situation’s irony was not lost on him: “To fly from the Bolsheviks to die from Spanish flu! What sarcasm!” He did, however, compose The Love for Three Oranges during his time in the US.
Other significant works were composed during the influenza epidemic. Igor Stravinsky found himself stranded in Switzerland, where he conceived L’histoire du soldat during this time as a small-scale, mobile theatrical production with the potential to tour around the country. As we will see, today’s composers are also having to consider how their works might fit into a transformed performance structure. Bela Bartok was in the process of composing his score for a ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, when he had to take to his bed due to a particularly bad bout of influenza. He eventually recovered, continuing work on The Miraculous Mandarin for several months over the remainder of 1918 and 1919, and later orchestrating the work in 1923. Another victim of influenza was Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. In the spring of 1918, Respighi had fallen ill with the influenza and been confined to bed for the greater part of two months. When he finally recovered that summer, he set about composing again, creating La Primavera. By December he had completed La Boutique Fantastique. “Throughout the piece, the music shimmers with colour and life, overt emotions falling by the wayside in favour of ebullient melodies and whirling waltzes, the perfect balm in a post-war, mid-pandemic world.” There have been more recent viruses such as SARS, also highly infectious and potentially life threatening, but the overall death toll was tiny in proportion to Spanish Flu. In a piece entitled When Pandemics Arise, Composers Carry On, Tom Huizenga, writing for National Public Radio in the United States said: “The world faced a more modern kind of plague in the 1980s. HIV/AIDS had claimed more than 32 million lives, according to the World Health Organisation. Along with all the loss of life comes another parallel between that pandemic and today’s crisis. In the 1980s, many blamed the Reagan administration for not confronting the virus quickly and honestly enough just as similar criticisms continue to be
leveled at both the British, U.S. and Chinese governments. In the face of death and adversity, sometimes react with rage. That’s surely the case with American composer John Corigliano and his Symphony No. 1, sometimes referred to as the AIDS Symphony.”
Yes, composers carry on. During all such pandemics and medical crises, creative people have continued to create and the many works by composers created during these events or inspired by them are a testament to the human spirit. Even two World Wars could not stop composers writing music though too many of their lives and careers were cut short and, of those who survived, the psychological impact of war on can be heard in many of the compositions they created at the time. The impact of the two World Wars on British composers is well documented including in Spirited. Like the music composed during the influenza epidemic, some of that music is reflective, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 written between 1938 and 1943 for example suggesting the composer’s need to produce something uplifting in the face of such destruction.
Have the six composers who are the subject of this article ‘carried on’? They most certainly have! I began by asking how they had been affected both personally and professionally by the coronavirus. Thankfully, I am pleased to report that none have fallen victim to Covid19.
Chairman of the English Music Festival’s Board of Trustees, Richard Blackford established his reputation as a successful composer of film and television scores. He now concentrates on music for concert performance music which has frequently responded to external events around him such as the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, for which he composed Not in Our Time. He and his wife Clare have been sheltering at their Oxfordshire home where he said he works “normally”. Working “normally” has resulted in the completion of a major orchestral piece for BBC National Orchestra of Wales called A Gaudí Symphony, to be premiered (hopefully) in June 2021. “Now I’m making a new orchestration of the Verdi Requiem for The Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Chorus – it’s for two pianos, organ and one percussion, and is designed for use when either social distancing does not allow full orchestra, or for when choirs do not have the budget for orchestra. It’s going to be very exciting and loud!
“In some ways the peace and quiet and lack of engagements has helped me to focus more on the composition projects. I felt a need to keep as fit, if not fitter, than I have ever been, so a combination of walks, swims and the cross trainer have become regular features of our days here. During the glorious sunny days, it has been wonderful to take all our meals outside and I noticed immediately that the quality of birdsong was richer and much louder than before.”
Another composer familiar to EMF audiences is Paul Carr whose Stabat Mater was heard at the last live Festival in 2019. He too has welcomed the opportunity of “the unusual
quiet the lockdown brought to the country for those of us not suffering the actual effects
of the virus, either directly or indirectly.”
“However, I had six major concerts booked this year, including four premieres, and I was directing three opera productions (one in the UK and two in The Netherlands) – fortunately everything has been postponed indefinitely rather than cancelled. Just as lockdown came into force I received two commissions for large-scale choral works, and that has kept me occupied, with the first just finished and hopefully being recorded in September. “When Boris announced the country was going into lockdown, my first thought was that we were all in the same position, and we needed to do whatever necessary to rid thecountry, the world, of this devastating virus. While so much was being cancelled, at least, as composers, we can still write music.” But a private commission just as lockdown began, from an elderly couple did give him pause for thought: “They wanted a full Requiem Mass, and having already composed Requiem For An Angel, I wasn’t really feeling particularly in the mood to be writing another Requiem at
this time of pandemic – however, it has proved an enormous help in keeping me sane
and busy during lockdown, and I found my creative energies relishing the task. I didn’t want to disappoint the commissioners and I don’t think I have.”
Cecilia McDowall has received many awards and in 2014 she won the British Composer Award for Choral Music. Much of her choral music is performed worldwide, as well as her orchestral music. The extended lockdown has brought considerable personal challenges that will be all too familiar to people at this time. Her response to the PM’s announcement was heartfelt: “On a personal level these months have been challenging as I have been making a 40 mile round trip a few times each week to keep my 101 year old mother and her carer in ‘essential supplies’ and, at the same time, trying to keep my mother in buoyant spirits. It was particularly poignant for my mother in the first few months, that entering her house would be off limits, so she and I had our conversations at a six foot distance, outside and inside, in which I tried to keep my mother positive (but not that kind of positive!) All a bit tricky, but then we were just so grateful that we were not dealing with a heartbreaking care home situation.”
Professionally, “the realisation that concerts would be cancelled/postponed, travel would become impossible and recently finished commissions transferred to a date in one- or two-years’ time gradually became apparent. To begin with, there seemed hope that some engagements would survive but ultimately all would be swept aside by our present situation. Fortunately, my commissions, have all stayed in place (just a matter of writing them!) And, of course, I’ve been so aware of the devastating impact the ‘new normal’ has had on my fellow musicians. Just awful.”
An award winning composer of the younger generation, Cheryl Frances-Hoad combines classical tradition (she trained as a cellist and pianist at the Menuhin School before going on to Cambridge and King’s College, London) with diverse contemporary inspirations including literature, painting and dance which have contributed to the development of a major creative presence. On her website, her compositional style is described as “intricate in argument, sometimes impassioned, sometimes mercurial, always compelling in its authority” (Robin Holloway, The Spectator), her output – widely premiered, broadcast and commercially recorded, reaching audiences from the Proms to educational workshops – addresses all genres from opera, ballet and concerto to song, chamber and solo music. Describing herself as “relieved” when the lockdown was announced though concerned about living in a heavily infected area and worried about vulnerable family members, Cheryl feels that she is lucky: “None of my commissions have, as yet, been affected badly. Performances may be delayed etc, but I still have a lot of work to complete. I had three months off at the end of last year, so even things like performances haven’t been badly affected – I have had three choral premieres cancelled so far but no large-scale premieres were planned in this period. So, I feel very lucky, compared to what lots of other musicians are going through.” “I work full time as a composer based at home – so, life has remained virtually the same. I miss trips to London and going to the gym down the road, but these are such minor concerns! Obviously, I am not oblivious to the tremendous suffering being endured around the world and feel terrible about what is happening . . . and I feel guilty that I’m (currently) so unaffected. It’s been very hard to concentrate, particularly in the early weeks of lockdown – but, as a composer, I am used to just ‘having to concentrate’ and blocking worries out and just getting down to work – so am very lucky to be well-equipped mentally to carry on working.” Like so many others, Cheryl Frances-Hoad has been grateful for the solace provided by her garden. When asked if there had been any positive effects of the lockdown, the importance of access to gardens and countryside to keep fit was a common theme, as Ian Venables attests: “On a personal level, one of the good effects of this lockdown is that I have been taking more outdoor exercise. As the lockdown regulations eased, I began taking long walks in the wonderful Worcestershire countryside. I’ve been discovering more of its secret history and hidden places. As landscape has been an important influence on my music, these recent experiences may well have some positive effect on my music in the future. We will have to see!”
Another composer whose work has featured both at the English Music Festival over the years and on discs produced by EM Records, Ian Venables has been described as “…Britain’s greatest living composer of art songs…” (Musical Opinion) and ” …a song composer as fine as Finzi and Gurney…” by BBC Music Magazine. On hearing about the lockdown, Ian’s concerns were for others: “My first thought was, what will all this mean for the performing arts and to my friends who work freelance. How will they survive?” He said that “on a professional level, the current crisis has been, as with so many of our musician friends, devastating. All the recent and near future concerts and recitals that were to feature my music have been either cancelled or postponed. These included a much-looked-forward-to performance of my new Requiem with Merton College Choir, Oxford at this year’s Worcester Elgar Festival and a song recital in Vienna.”
With a body of work spanning some six decades, I do hope that David Matthews will forgive me if I describe him as an ‘elder statesman’ of British composers and so it is hardly surprising that he too has remained at his home by the sea in Kent with his wife, the distinguished psychotherapist, Dr Jennifer Matthews. From 1989 until 2003 he was Artistic Director of the Deal Festival and he is another familiar face at both the English Music Festival and the William Alwyn Festival at Blythborough. Early in his career, David Matthews worked with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s unfinished tenth symphony and, for three years, was assistant to Benjamin Britten. Since that time, he has composed music ranging from songs to symphonies (his publisher Faber, lists some 217 works at the time of writing) but when I spoke to him, he was “getting near the end” of composing his first opera on which he had been working on for the past two years.” Like the other composers to whom I spoke, David Matthews has relished the lack of interruption to his composing routine and has been working harder than ever. But, with such a substantial work as an opera David said it has “become more and more difficult to hold the whole thing in my head so that I can take the next step. I’m constantly looking back and thinking about what I’ve done but I have actually written the last page, so I know where I’m headed!”
He said that the announcement of the lockdown had taken him by surprise as, perhaps based on his greater experience, he thought “it’s going to be one of those epidemics that has happened in the past and not going to be that serious and not something that is going to demand special treatment but suddenly, in just a week, it all changed.” He too felt the great sense of peace that lockdown brought and, as a birdwatcher and one who has always been interested in the natural history, not having cars on the road enabled him to enjoy the spring in a way that his diary had not allowed in the past. An early riser, David walks before breakfast and, when we spoke, he had been at his desk all morning, working in pencil as he has always done, on the full score of his opera before an afternoon preparing programme notes and a biography for a forthcoming CD. Indeed, he said that he has accomplished far more than he would have done living his ‘normal’ life in London. I asked David and the other composers whether they had written anything during the lockdown period that had been influenced by the pandemic and its consequences and, if so, whether the resulting works would reflect society’s fear and anxiety or would they be intended to be soothing and/or uplifting. His answer was no, but although he had been writing a piece for oboist Nicholas Daniel to perform which he began before Christmas 2019, he had ”never really been a composer who has been much affected by what is going on” though he did express great concern for the future of the planet: “My music has always had a strong connection with natural world and I think my music has a connection with the possibilities of renewal in nature.” Despite his concern about the destruction wrought by industrial agriculture, David Matthews remains positive about the possibility of change, hoping that the reduction in pollution that was evident during lockdown might encourage more people to press for solutions to the world’s environmental problems – problems that have been highlighted by the Extinction Rebellion movement and the young activist, Greta Thunberg.
CeciIia McDowall suggested that, “to a greater or lesser extent, creators absorb or are affected by what surrounds them.” She had not written anything in direct response to the pandemic: “it still feels too ‘present’. But when composing there are some outside factors which can be influential. In one choral commission, for the Glasgow School of Arts Choir, I set words created by the poet, Seán Street, about the remarkable founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, just after the Civil War. Seán took some words from her diary and absorbed them into his poetry. I was writing this work, Angel of the Battlefield, at the time of the killing of George Floyd (the black American whose death sparked the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement – another issue that dominated the news during the summer of lockdown). I had already decided to use a spiritual in the work itself (taken from around the time of the American Civil War) but I now found myself having to justify the use of this song in case there were any accusations of ‘cultural appropriation.’ Interestingly, the song has its roots in a Wesley hymn and began life in this country until it was taken up by and shared with the Afro-American community in the 1850s.”
Ian Venables said initially that he had been quite dispirited by what was happening to the country and to his friends and didn’t really wish to compose anything. However, he had before the lockdown, been commissioned to write a short choral work and was looking for a suitable text. “After some weeks of research, I eventually found what I was looking for. As is often the case, the words seem to find me or perhaps with the current situation uppermost in my mind I was simply drawn to them. For whatever reason, I found Psalm 67. The words jumped off the page and seemed to have such a resonance with what is happening to our world. In the opening lines, the psalmist implores God to return health to the nations and after praising God the earth will be ‘… rejuvenated and bountiful again…’. So, in a strange way this epidemic has most definitely influenced my music” with the creation of a work where “the music is generally affirmative and it is, I think, also consolatory.”
Richard Blackford said that he had undertaken “two ‘Covid’ projects as gifts for two artists I admire very much. The wonderful saxophonist Amy Dickson, for whom I wrote the saxophone obligato in Pietà, asked me to write her a solo sax piece that she could record and put on her YouTube channel. It’s called A Season of Stillness. Then the violinist Madeleine Mitchell asked me to write a piece for her for an album to raise funds for musicians. So, I wrote Worlds Apart for her.” “The two pieces,” he said, “contain elements of anxiety, frustration, fear, but also tenderness, longing, and appreciation of the peace that we have experienced.”
Paul Carr also said that he had no desire to write anything in relation to the pandemic: “In fact, quite the reverse, which is probably why I struggled with writing the Requiem in the beginning. My second commission is for a large-scale choral work based on Piero della Francesca’s painting of The Flagellation of Christ, set to words by Euan Tait, and I’ve just started that as lockdown eases – but no, I don’t want to compose anything to do with Covid-19 directly, just as I never wanted to compose anything to do with AIDS in the 1980s.”
For Roderick Williams OBE, the lockdown has brought with it both the frustration and the peace to which others have referred. He is, as his Grove Management webpage proudly states “one of this country’s most sought after baritones who is constantly in demand on the concert platform and in recital, encompassing a repertoire from the baroque to world premieres.” He has recorded several discs of English song with Iain Burnside and recently appeared on Those Blue Remembered Hills (EM Records EMRCD065). But Roderick Williams is also a composer whose compositions have been performed at venues including Wigmore Hall and the Barbican. Like so many other performers, his life as a singer came to end with the announcement of the lockdown, his diary has been wiped clean of engagements with just a handful of post-lockdown concerts online and some limited recording projects his only work this summer. He said: “The uncertainty during that initial period of lockdown has been replaced to an extent by a realisation that this is going to be a very lengthy process.” However, there has been a positive side to lockdown for Roderick Williams and consequently for us. “I have a main career as a performer and a secondary career as a composer. I stopped singing almost straight away, partly, for one thing, to take advantage of the enforced career pause to let my vocal muscles rest properly for the first time in many years. I also didn’t feel much like singing when there was nobody for me to sing to.” “On the other hand, I realised that something we really seek as composers is peace and quiet, a lack of distraction and time. These were suddenly available in abundance in a way I have never experienced before. What I was losing in terms of my singing I was gaining in space to compose. To be fair, I spent much of my time early in lockdown type-setting much of my early compositions that were previously only in manuscript. These had long been on my ‘to do’ list and I finally got round to them.”
He explained that the pandemic had not influenced his composition partly because the commissioning briefs that he had received were agreed on before the pandemic had begun. Though ‘social distancing’ has had an impact: “Some of the smaller-scale work I have been doing, especially arrangements for isolated recording, have had to take into account of the practical considerations of that recording process.” The economies around the world have suffered enormous damage because of the pandemic. The arts have suffered and will continue to suffer as a result. If people cannot come together there are no audiences. But there has been much discussion about what might happen when, and if, the coronavirus pandemic is finally brought under control. What will be the ‘new normal’ and what will be the place of composers within it?
Seeing himself mainly as a performer rather than a composer, Roderick Williams, was clear that the immediate outlook was bleak, and the bottom line was how could he earn a living? He said,
“If I can complete some of my outstanding commissions, I will at least be able to look forward to receiving payment for them, which is a professional engagement at a time when I am pretty much unable to earn money from my singing career. I am still receiving commissions, for performance this as well as next year, so I am realising that, in the short term, my writing could be a more stable source of income than my singing!” For Paul Carr, the future was also uncertain: “As a composer of much choral music, without choirs (both professional and amateur) being able to come together for some time, is utterly destroying for me, and for them; people need to sing together, to play together, to be together and even if some form of light mask has to be worn in order to sing, then so be it. The world needs to sing again and a ‘new normal’ without it is not a happy thought; it’s not a reality for me. No.” Cheryl Frances-Hoad expressed similar frustrations: “The whole situation is utterly terrifying and it’s so easy for things to seem completely hopeless. It’s important to carry on creating. Actually, to be honest, and, if it were not for my deadlines, I suspect I’d find myself thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ a lot. “Obviously, I am convinced that there is a point to creating music, now and in the future and, as a composer, I’m probably best placed to adapt. After all, composers can write pieces for just one player. Perhaps one useful thing we can do is to be open to creating music that will work in the ‘new normal’. I never thought I’d have to plan my instrumentation around social distancing rules etc, but this is what I’m doing for a big project scheduled for premiere in 2021. I think if we can be flexible, adaptable, and create music that is performable in the next few years, we could be of help.” Cecilia McDowall also expressed both concern about, and hope for, the future and particularly “for young musicians emerging into this unhealthy, bleak landscape. Some have found ways in which to engage via technology in most resourceful ways, others have found work helping and supporting society in the most generous of ways. The audience situation is a challenging one as the demographic tends to be in the upper age groups. But I see vital signs of musical life . . . orchestras are beginning to open up again, albeit socially distanced (though that’s going to be immeasurably tough economically), and choirs are tentatively beginning a socially distanced approach to singing together. But who knows, this could all change tomorrow.”
Ian Venables, was also hopeful: “At the present time it is difficult to know what this so called ‘new normal’ will look like. Everything depends upon whether an effective vaccine can be discovered that will largely eradicate both the spread of the virus and prevent further outbreaks. If this can be done in the short term, then there’s every hope that the world of live music will recover and concerts and recitals can resume. If this happens, then I do not foresee any change in my work as a composer. Hopefully, new commissions will come my way and that they will be performed as they were before the crisis.” Richard Blackford said “I’m sure that many dear musician friends will endure severe financial hardship before long and some may even have to give up their careers and re-train. I feel lucky to be reasonably secure, and the commissions I have are long-term. Of course, it was disappointing to miss several performances that had to be cancelled this year, but what I lost was nothing compared with many of my colleagues.”
David Matthews expressed his concern about “the relationship between the composer and society and the way in which, for many years, successive governments have not considered contemporary music to be of any great importance to the culture and the general public don’t either, because it’s seen as a very minority thing. Although we don’t know how many people listen on the radio it’s just not given as much publicity as it used to be. I’ve just been reading Stephen Johnson’s book on Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910 (ISBN: 9780571234943) in which he describes the circumstances of the premiere in a 3,500 seat auditorium in Munich which had two completely sold-out performances on consecutive days. Now, you cannot imagine a contemporary work attracting 7,000 people from all over Europe today and it being considered a terribly important cultural event. The last time I remember this sort of thing happening was Britten’s War Requiem and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again. We don’t seem to care that much about our own music as other European countries do. I feel it’s partly the fault of composers because a lot of them don’t seem to have much concern for writing music that people like. So often it is sound for sound’s sake and it’s devoid of all those qualities that I like in music such as melody or something that you can actually remember, that you can hold in your mind. It is changing but it mustn’t change too far in the direction of pop. There’s a balance there that has to be kept.”
In addition to learning new terminology during the pandemic, many of us have had to improve our IT skills in order to work and to communicate with friends and family. Throughout the lockdown and post-lockdown period, many thousands of people found themselves working from home offices at best or on the edges of beds or the kitchen table where space was tight. Parents were forced to come to terms with ‘blended learning’ and their children with home schooling and online classes. In October, many university students returned to their colleges only to find that the face to face classes they had anticipated would now take place virtually. Suddenly, a previously little- known platform called ‘Zoom’ (other platforms are available) would become ubiquitous as office meetings, choirs and conferences took place in virtual reality. Our social lives also changed as meeting in groups was prohibited and our principal source of human contact often took place on screen. Even the English Music Festival took place online in May. So, I asked whether our composers were using technology to assist their work and whether as a result they had become more adept at using it.
Richard Blackford again: “I use technology all the time and couldn’t manage without it. But because of the virus, I decided I needed to also master film-making, in order to create promotional films and high quality video messages. So, I bought a high definition camera, downloaded editing software and have just completed my first seven-minute film. It was a steeplearning curve, and I was surprised by how well it was received. Now I’m planning the second and third films.”
A long-time user of Sibelius, the music notation software used by composers, arrangers, publishers and educators, Paul Carr also enthused about Zoom meetings to communicate with friends all over the world and even to participate in a once fortnightly quiz night! He said that English Arts Chorale had been learning his new work for St. Edmundsbury Cathedral on-line, using Zoom. The premiere which was to have been in October, has been postponed to May 2021 but, he said, “at least they can all see each other and rehearse in some form together, and I think this has been so important, especially for amateur choirs.” This view was shared by Cecilia McDowall: “I have done many Zooms with choirs, performers and conductors during lockdown. I’ve been impressed with the way in which conductors have had to rethink how they continue with choir rehearsals and know many have involved composers talking about their work in weekly rehearsals. I have ‘met’ many choir members this way and enjoyed answering questions about my work and finding how this situation has been affecting the singers themselves.”
Cheryl Frances-Hoad has designed her own website and actively uses ‘social media’ but is now writing her first piece involving what she calls ‘proper’ electronics. “I’ve always taken the attitude that to succeed nowadays, you need to be relatively good at all this sort of thing whether you like it or not. But I often feel, the less technology the better. My favourite piece of software is Freedom, which is software that blocks the internet, so I don’t have any temptations to get distracted when I’m composing. I’d go back to ‘dumb-phone’ tomorrow if it wasn’t for the BBC Radio App and audio books!” Also a Sibelius user for typesetting scores and Zoom for long distance interviews, Ian Venables felt that if in the future live music has to be streamed online, then he would have to become more adept with some of the more recent forms of online communication. David Matthews still uses “the very ancient Sibelius programme that I first had more than 20 years ago” but believes that writing in pencil is very important “because there’s something really nice about a manuscript.” But David has also given talks on Zoom! At the other end of the spectrum, as a performer, Roderick Williams has learned how to use audio and video software to produce content: “Principally I use Garageband and iMovie and I have learned how properly to multitrack and mix audio. I am in the process of converting a dedicated room to be a recording studio and composing workroom as I am realizing that I am likely to be spending more time doing both of those things from home in the coming months.” In addition to using technology increasingly to communicate with others, we have also come to rely on the technology to fill the void left by the cessation of live performances and I concluded by asking whether our composers had worked with particular musicians to encourage the performance of their music. Roderick Williams said that he had typeset one of his student pieces, a duet for two cellos. “Once it was completed,” he continued “I sent it to a couple I know, a husband and wife who are both professional cellists. Of course, they were grateful to have new repertoire that they could practise and perform while in lockdown and they even featured my music as part of one of their online concerts. I was delighted and flattered that they considered my student efforts worthy of their efforts… but perhaps they really were starved of other repertoire!”
Richard Blackford was less enthusiastic about the trend towards online performances: “Whereas I admire the many virtual musical events and rehearsals that have had to replace live performance, I don’t believe it can be sustained indefinitely. People can only take so much of concerts streamed on their computers or TVs, often with very poor picture quality and sound. That is why it’s essential that the government supports the performing arts to their absolute maximum, not only financially, but by working hard to do research on how soon it is safe and practical to have at least some level of live performance before the musicians, concert halls and theatres go out of business forever.” Cecilia McDowall has worked with both singers and conductors when asked to make short videos to go with virtual performances. Cheryl Frances-Hoad has had two existing pieces performed live online, and she has written two pieces for online performance. “I’m incredibly grateful to the artists who have supported my work during this time,” she said.
As I suggested at the beginning of this article, with the coronavirus pandemic now seemingly moving towards an unstoppable second wave, it is impossible to measure the impact that Covid-19 will have on any of our lives. Since the lockdown was announced in March, the UK government has made large sums of money available to help to sustain the cultural sector and, at the time of writing, many museums and galleries were again open to visitors, a virtual and severely truncated Proms season took place in the late-summer, and more recently orchestras, musicians and singers were returning to our concert halls for performances though, in many cases, in empty halls devoid of audiences. But freelancers and the self-employed have suffered enormously as opportunities to work simply dried up and they struggled to access any form of government support.
On 6th October, a 400-strong ensemble of freelance musicians played outside Parliament to highlight the plight of the music industry during the current pandemic. Conductor David Hill led the performers in a short segment of Mars (significantly, the bringer of war), from Holst’s The Planets, before the attendees held a two-minute silence. A concurrent protest took place outside Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. The events were organised by the Let Music Live campaign, and supported by the Musicians Union, which represents more than 32,000 performers in the UK. Designed to put pressure on the government to give more support to self-employed artists the event was supported by violinists Nicola Benedetti and Tamsin Little, and Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis also attended to support to the performers, and uploaded footage to social media.
Against this backdrop, I approached the six composers and one performer/composer at the end of October to see how their lives and careers had been affected in the intervening months since Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced the national lockdown.
Now alone at home with his wife and dog, following the post-lockdown departure of his three children to jobs and university, Roderick Williams suggested that the pandemic had highlighted the extent to which the arts, for which this country is famous, have operated on a shoestring for so long. “As an acquaintance of mine pointed out several months ago, it exposed the fact that many freelance musicians had always been only about two weeks from bankruptcy all their lives. It has always been a precarious profession. I’ll do what I can to help those around me, especially through the Momentum initiative created by Barbara Hannigan (see http://momentum-now.com/) and hope that the opportunities that come my way can be shared around. I hope also that society will recognise that our way of life, especially in the arts, is under an extraordinary threat, that it is worth preserving, and that we need to think quite radically in order to do so.”
Williams said that the pandemic had reminded him that music is best when it is a live experience especially, but not exclusively, classical music: “Despite all the innovations of streaming and digital dissemination to a potentially wide and new audience, the best way to experience the music I love most is to be in the same room with it. That conviction has not changed because of the pandemic. It has only been reinforced.”
EMF Chairman, Richard Blackford has been as busy as ever currently writing a cello concerto for the brilliant American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. But he was also deeply concerned that many fellow performing musicians were already suffering hardship, their incomes having disappeared overnight. “I am also a very active trustee of The Bach Choir, Music For Youth, and the Aberystwyth Festival, as well as the English Music Festival, and have had numerous Zoom conferences exploring ways of mitigating the effects of the pandemic. “I can’t see anything particularly positive emerging from this pandemic for classical music, whereas I can see much good for people who will manage to work partly or entirely from home instead of time-wasting and stressful commutes to work. My gloom is further fed by the disastrous implications of Brexit, which will limit and make more costly travel for classical musicians, both their ability to travel to Europe and for European musicians to travel to the UK. Whereas virtual concerts and recitals have achieved a certain degree of activity and given some pleasure, I cannot see them as having a long-term appeal or remotely replicating the experience of live music-making. Socially distanced concerts also have a degree of success, but, unless the government is willing to commit long- term emergency funding, they cannot be sustained economically in the long term. The only good thing I can think of that has emerged is the realisation that online lessons, summer schools and high-quality music video projects can, by using the digital platform, reach unlimited international audiences. Whereas the live experience is still lacking, it means that top British teachers and tutors, who have an unparalleled reputation, can reach students around the globe.”
On the positive side, he also said that he was “taking more time, composing more slowly than before, since I spend less time travelling and recording, so I may as well put extra hours into whatever I’m working on to squeeze the maximum value from the material. “I was asked to write two solo pieces during the early part of the lockdown: a solo saxophone piece for Amy Dickson (available to view on YouTube); and a solo violin piece for Madeleine Mitchell called Worlds Apart that was recorded as part of a CD to help raise funds for musicians experiencing hardship. I’m an optimist by nature, but realise that this pandemic and Brexit will devastate the classical music world, and its recovery will take years. Whereas it’s particularly hard on young musicians, many I have encountered show a resilience, determination and creativity that’s very heartening.” This view was shared by Cecilia McDowall: “I have found that orchestras and choirs are being more daring in these difficult and challenging times which is most encouraging. I am continually impressed with the lengths musicians have been going to in order to bring music-making back to life. In lockdown, I have been delighted to listen to virtual concerts, there are so many excellent ones.”
Cheryl Frances-Hoad also expressed concern about the impact on young musicians of what Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage has called the ‘coronacoaster.’ “I have a great deal of faith that the music industry will come through this – it’s just all the individuals who are currently without work, and without any financial support, that I’m worried about.” This view was echoed by Ian Venables: “In the short term, there are likely be many more casualties such as the closing of music venues and the smaller concert clubs up and down the country” and he urged concert promoters to look into ways of providing online events so that they can keep in touch with their regular concert supporters to prevent losing their core audience.
David Matthews also said that he had been impressed by the number of online events that are taking place – for instance Wigmore Hall Concerts and festivals such as Presteigne, Deal and Leicester (in which he had an oboe and piano premiere played by Nicholas Daniel and Anna Tilbrook). “If these continue and people are prepared to pay for watching them, then at least that will be some money coming in. I very much enjoy watching these online concerts – as good in their way as the real thing (no audience coughing or noisily eating sweets!).” The Live from London festival of choral music presented by Voces8 would appear to support the view that there is indeed an eager audience for high quality online music performances by attracting over 40,000 paying ‘digital’ seat holders. On the day Cheryl Frances-Hoad replied to my follow-up questions, Fenella Humphreys was due to perform the premiere of a work by the composer (https:// chilternarts.com/whats-on) Sadly, she was not going to be able to attend: “I’m not going, which is quite miserable, but, in my circumstances (all my close relatives are at risk) it’s just not practical for me. Fenella was incredibly understanding, but it felt awful telling someone who had commissioned a piece from me that I wasn’t coming. Still, if that’s the worst I’ve suffered as a result of this pandemic so far, well, I am coming off incredibly lightly.”
Primarily a performer, Roderick Williams has many plans for performances in the coming weeks, months and years, but like everyone else, the future for him is full of uncertainty: “Some plans have been created to replace work in my diary that had already been cancelled. We have learned to be very flexible in putting such projects together. The second lockdown has forced some of those plans to change or be postponed and, of course, there is no guarantee that those for December will be allowed to go ahead, or even into the first few months of next year. That doesn’t not stop me making those plans, though. I continue to look to the future and do what I can to find and generate performance opportunities. “I’m not especially concerned about my compositional work being performed; there will be plenty of time for that in the future and the most important thing is that music and musicians are supported through the present crisis, right now.”
Paul Carr expressed concern about the future of the arts in general and the hospitality sectors: “But I’m not sure they’ve suffered anymore that the thousands of people who have lost their entire business due to the pandemic, and while we will be the last to return to any form of ‘normal’, arts and music will absolutely return, whereas others may not. He also believed that the pandemic had highlighted a need for change: “Watching some of the Proms on TV this year, I was appalled to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra in white tie and tails (particularly so in an empty Albert Hall; but I was delighted to see the London Symphony Orchestra in dark suits and collar-less white shirts, with Simon Rattle in plain black. How smart and modern they looked – so much better than the stuffy Edwardian dress-code of the BBC. Why do orchestras feel the need to resort to this outmoded form of attire? Music is for now, not for the past. “Likewise, I don’t want to go to the opera in a dinner jacket and black tie…. why? When music is trying to address fresh new audiences, why do some institutions insist on living in the past? The larger institutions will need to scale down and make themselves far more cost-effective. There are vast amounts of money going to waste in the wrong areas (in my view) and some artist fees are way over the top (Don’t start me on football!). Some of the best concerts I’ve been too have been the simpler ones, and almost all the best opera productions I’ve seen are the ones where budgets are small or almost non- existent.”
There can be no conclusion to this story but I will end with these words from Paul Carr which reflect the emotions of composers, performers and audiences at the present time. Earlier, Paul
mentioned that he had been commissioned to write a requiem. Despite his reservations he did it and “I loved doing it, and a few weeks ago it was recorded in Dorset, in Christchurch Priory for EM RECORDS (hopefully to be released before the end of 2020). We recorded it over three days with rehearsals in the early afternoon when the church was open, with recording at 5 p.m. once it was closed to the public. The work is in 13 movements and scored for chamber choir, with soprano sax, cello, harp and organ. We recorded with 14 wonderful young singers and four outstanding instrumentalists, including the BBC Young Musician of the Year, Rob Burton, on saxophone. It was really quite something, and very emotional as it was the first time in seven
months any of these musicians had played with others. During the afternoon rehearsals, many visitors to the church would just sit and listen, and I’m told some even cried. So, this was an extraordinary happening, and a wonderful thing to have been a part of it.”
Some common themes have emerged from my conversations with composers. They spoke of the adaptability of arts organisations and of the creativity, versatility and resilience of artists. They called for a change in attitudes of both government and the public towards the arts but recognised that they too would be forced to change and adapt to a ‘new normal’. Music has the power to excite and to calm and, as Paul Carr reminds us, to bring people to tears. For now, we can only look forward to a time when concert halls and other venues will reopen to real audiences and that we will have the opportunity to hear the music that has been created during these extraordinary times.