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Local girl makes good: Nicola Benedetti brought her trio to last year’s Cumnock Tryst festival to play Brahms and Ravel (©Mihaela Bodlovic)


The British composer can seem an odd beast to our European counterparts. First of all they think we only write “pastoral” music, and they don’t just mean Vaughan Williams and Finzi. They even detect this musical and aesthetic “defect” in the likes of Harrison Birtwistle. I suppose I do too, but I don’t think it’s defective — there is a profound melancholic sigh in much British musical modernism that can indeed be traced back some generations.

But there is something else that we Brits do that the continentals can’t get their heads around — we write serious music for amateurs as well as professionals. From Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies, we have valued the role of the non-specialist in the nation’s musical life. This has led many of our composers to write significant works for amateur choirs, local bands, workers’ collectives and children. Some of the continentals think this is beneath them (they’ve told me so!) and this may explain their dismissive attitude to us as musical dilettantes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Amateur music-making is the jewel in the British crown and is a vital core of the musical ecology of these islands. This can be seen in the composer-led festivals that have sprung up here over the decades. Aldeburgh was established by Benjamin Britten in 1948, and community music-making, including new operas for local children to perform, was an essential ingredient in its blossoming success.

Peter Maxwell Davies created the St Magnus Festival in 1977 and a similar pattern emerged there too. I remember attending some of the early festivals as an undergraduate, trekking up to Orkney with a two-man tent and hardly any money. In church and village halls there would be performances by some of the world’s great musicians, but Max was keen from the start that the local people would have both ownership and input into the proceedings. A Festival Chorus was formed from the people on the islands, and performed alongside visiting orchestras. Max wrote new works all the time, and some of these were for local performers, including his children’s opera Cinderella, the première of which I attended in 1980.

As the years went by and my own creative life developed I sometimes asked myself if I would ever start a similar festival myself and where it might be. One of the most important lectures I ever heard as a student was from the ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies. He asked us that when we returned home for the holidays, we should make a note of all the places in our town or village where music was made. This was a revelation for me as I began to think of the various different functions music had in the lives of ordinary people, in ordinary places.

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