Frogs, Princes and Proms Commissions

My piece in today’s Independent, looking at why so many Proms commissions are never heard again, has been rather truncated, so here’s the Director’s Cut (and you can also read a super interview by Cahal Milmo with composer Alissa Firsova on the same topic).


Every year the BBC Promenade Concerts feast audiences on a chewy diet of new works specially commissioned from young and established composers; this year as many as 13. Yet after the hotly anticipated first hearing, often a new work vanishes, never to be heard again.

Well, you have to kiss a lot of musical frogs before you find a prince. Occasionally a piece does morph into a shining success; but many others hop straight back to their lily pads. It’s in the nature of commissioning a new piece of music that nobody knows how it will turn out until it is too late.

That’s the case everywhere, but a Proms premiere is an especially dangerous undertaking. It presents unique challenges; and in rising to them composers sometimes trip up. Working in the warmth of prestige, for performance by a top-quality orchestra in a huge hall, there’s an understandable temptation towards over-ambition or impracticality. Works might turn out lengthier than desired, or demand unusual, hard-to-find instruments, or fall foul of the place’s size and acoustics; such matters can hinder their acceptance for performance elsewhere. And when disasters occur, they do so very publicly, since everything is broadcast.

In 2007 Sam Hayden’s Substratum hit the buffers, truncated at short notice with only three of seven movements performed. A slip in the programme read told the audience simply that it had “proved impossible” to prepare the whole thing. Another case was John Casken’s Symphony No.1, ‘Broken Consort’, spanning more than half an hour and including a Gypsy ensemble, cimbalom and all, among the orchestra. Its 2004 premiere received plenty of advance publicity and critical acclaim, but it still awaits another outing. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms in 1995, has now been played many times, but proved, shall we say, rather inappropriate to its premiere’s audience.

Still, the Proms have traditionally been a springboard for contemporary composers ever since the festival’s inception in 1895. Sir Henry Wood, who conducted the concerts until 1944, gave the world or UK premieres of new pieces by countless luminaries, not least Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Strauss and Vaughan Williams.

Newer classics, too, have started life at the Proms. John Tavener’s ecstatic cello concerto The Protecting Veil, first performed in 1989, was an instant popular hit. And in 1990 I attended an unforgettable Proms commission premiere: James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a work of hair-raising power and originality that helped to launch MacMillan’s career as possibly the most important British composer of his generation.

Last year the much-admired Cello Concerto by Unsuk Chin proved to have considerable staying power. With a devoted soloist to champion it (in Chin’s case, the cellist Alban Gerhardt), a fine new concerto has a particularly strong chance of gaining a foothold on the concert circuit. So, too, does any work that is co-commissioned with other orchestras or organisations: if three different orchestras in three different countries chip in, each giving three performances, that piece receives considerable exposure.

Nevertheless, an aura of glamour hovers around the first presentation of, so to speak, virgin music. Afterwards it dissipates; and unless a composer is as popular as John Adams or Steve Reich, the word “premiere” is more likely to put off than attract the audience.

That’s because, even if closer scrutiny reveals otherwise, there’s still a widespread perception among concert-goers that a typical Proms commission is the work of an earnest, young, white, male Brit in thrall to Birtwistle, Britten or Berg. How often have we sat there anticipating a new piece only to hear, yet again, instrumental strata emerging in succession from the space in dissonance after gaping dissonance, topped by a vainly poetic title? We watch our neighbours roll their eyes towards the hall’s acoustic mushrooms and mutter, “One of those.

Why might Proms audiences expect this? A premiere is always a risk, yet could it be that composers who present stylistic risks have not often been prioritised? Some recent commissions have tried to address the shortage of women composers or those from ethnic minorities. But a bigger problem is that the immense spectrum of styles in contemporary classical music in Britain has possibly not been tackled to the same degree. Certain Proms commissions have sounded too alike, espousing establishment-accepted, post-war clichés but lacking in personality, individual voice and engagement with its audience.

It’s interesting to look at those in the past who have not received Proms commissions. Composers as contrasting as Birtwistle, Richard Rodney Bennett, Malcolm Williamson and Peter Maxwell Davies have had numerous return invitations. But Benjamin Britten, considered the world over as the UK’s greatest composer and today often viewed as a reference point for the ‘establishment’, wrote his Piano Concerto for the Proms of 1938, where it was conducted by Sir Henry Wood. Nothing more. They never commissioned anything from him.

In the early to mid 20th century it was usually the mavericks – musical or political – that were conspicuous by absence. Havergal Brian, his music vastly ambitious; Ronald Simpson, composer of 11 excellent yet then-unfashionable symphonies; the Communist Party member Cornelius Cardew; the adventurous and experimental John Foulds, also known for strong left-wing sympathies. They never stood a chance. Britten was a conscientious objector. Such factors could, of course, be pure coincidence, but do beg some questions. Cardew, Brian and Foulds are all on the programme this year, though it’s a little late.

Decades have passed now and politics have changed, but perhaps it’s still not too good to be a musical maverick if you want a Proms commission. Of rugged individualists among living composers, neither Gerald Barry nor Gavin Bryars have as yet been asked to write for the Proms. Nor is it ideal to be too popular: John Rutter, probably the UK’s best-loved living choral composer, has still to be chosen. Michael Nyman, long a household name, was finally booked just last year.

Commissioning music always involves trial and error. Most new pieces are bound to disappear; that has always been the case. But to find new masterpieces it’s essential to keep taking the risks. This year’s commissions include works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Robin Holloway, Alissa Firsova, a violin concerto for Alina Ibragimova by Huw Watkins and a Last Night piece from Jonathan Dove, amongst others. Will there be some transformations? There’s only one way to find out.

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