Is this the greatest piano work of the 21st century?

Damian Thompson thinks Michael Finnissy’s History of Photography in Sound might also hint at a way forward for composers wondering where to go next

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

The award of a knighthood to the composer James MacMillan will have ruined last weekend for lots of unsavoury people: the Guardian arts desk, which decided he’d lost his mojo as soon as he turned his back on the left; Kirsty Wark, whose squawking is mimicked in MacMillan’s Scotch Bestiary; the SNP, which he detests; and, most of all, the Nats’ religious front organisation, the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

OK, enough point-scoring. MacMillan has been honoured because he turns out glorious music. He’s also rare among living composers in having worked out an answer to the question raised when John Cage pushed sound to the point where nothing short of the soloist defecating on stage could shock audiences: ‘Where do we go from here?’

Lots of composers struggle with this. Minimalism was fun while it lasted, but when its creators tried to go mainstream they ran into trouble. Philip Glass’s Heroes Symphony is just Hollywood gloop with added chugging. Meanwhile, younger composers have also sought refuge in the past — which, for someone like Nico Muhly (b. 1981), is minimalism. How the heart sinks when, after two bold movements, the finale of his Cello Concerto turns into a cover version of John Adams’s The Chairman Dances.

Far worse are the impressionist tone poems that open concerts at the South Bank and the Barbican. Is it just me, or is this a speciality of composers from the Far East? I’m sick of hearing cod-Debussy with oriental seasoning provided by a pear-shaped Chinese lute. And don’t get me started on the disgusting cloying harmonies of Eric Whitacre and other neo-romantics…

But, as I say, the question of where to go is a tricky one. Looking backwards is fine; musical taxidermy isn’t. MacMillan has a strange genius for weaving textbook polyphony and raw folk music into his scores. Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and, jumping a generation, Thomas Adès have their own clever ways of fusing past and present, though their styles are so personal that they could hardly be said to represent ‘the way forward’.

What about the ultra-modernists who, in their 1960s heyday, insisted that only the avant-garde mattered? Now they are severely out of fashion; even Radio 3 no longer indulges them. I imagine them locked in a conservatoire attic somewhere, one of them rattling the door handle while the others tape the noise and call it Anomie XVII or whatever.

These ‘squeaky gate’ composers are easy to make fun of. Brian Ferneyhough, born in Coventry in 1943, is leader of the ‘new complexity’ movement, whose arguments can only really be understood if you’ve got a maths degree. Plus, he looks like one of those orange-shirted Open University lecturers from my childhood. One of his most celebrated works is called Time and Motion Study II. I used to make jokes about ‘Uncle Brian and his toe-tappin’ tunes’ — until I actually listened to some Ferneyhough. Flurries for chamber ensemble may be an atonal scramble, but it bursts with joie de vivre.

Ferneyhough’s friend Michael Finnissy (b. Tulse Hill, 1946) is another famously tough listen. Sure enough, his Second String Quartet begins with ferocious scrapings but then settles into one of the most beautiful slow passages since Beethoven’s ‘song of thanksgiving’ in his Quartet Op. 132.

Now I’ve been given a recent recording of Finnissy’s History of Photography in Sound. It’s for solo piano and lasts five-and-a-half hours. It thus belongs to one of classical music’s least-known genres, the piano epic. There are only a handful of them, ranging from the perfumed ramblings of Sorabji’s four-hour Opus clavicembalisticum to the five-hour November by the early minimalist Dennis Johnson, described as ‘glacially static’ by admirers. A friend says you have to hear November live to grasp its power, but admits that he went for a McDonald’s halfway through and didn’t think he missed much.

Finnissy’s History needs to be heard in its entirety — though I haven’t found the time to do so in one sitting. It receives a supremely virtuosic and delicate performance by Ian Pace, who also wrote the 100-page booklet that comes with the CDs. If you listen to the History cold, you may be entranced by the way it drifts in and out of tonality. But Pace’s essay tells you what’s going on: the interplay of negro spirituals and hymns from 18th-century Boston; ‘mediated allusions’ to Rameau and Gounod; ‘austere derivations’ from a mixture of Bruckner and Chabrier; canonic patterns borrowed from Bach and dotted rhythms from Gershwin. These allusions are subtle, not ‘quotes’ that stick out a mile. Blink, let alone go out for a burger, and you’ll miss them.

The result is, I think, the greatest piano work of the 21st century so far. Finnissy, supposedly an uncompromising modernist, shows us how to mine tradition without resorting to pastiche. Other works have achieved that, but The History of Photography in Sound creates a template for future composers. If there is such a thing as ‘the way forward’, this may be it.

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  • Jambo25

    Damian Thompson gets madder and madder. I rather like Sir James MacMillan’s work though, to quote Leonard Bernstein, “Its good but it isn’t Mozart.”. However, I would no more take political or spiritual advice from Sir James than I would from Carlo Gesualdo or Alfred Cortot. If I want spiritual solace from a musician I’ll listen to the B Minor Mass or St. Matthew Passion.

    • Damian Thompson

      ‘It’s good but it isn’t Mozart’ – not a bad description of Lenny’s symphonic oeuvre. I agree with you about the Scottish Catholic Church being on good terms with the Scottish government – that’s what happens when your bishops brown-nose SNP politicians and you employ hardline Nats (they know who they are). Meanwhile, I didn’t need to consult the ‘great’ Tom Devine to work out that Scottish Catholics are the most pro-independence religious group: it’s there for all to see in the opinion polls. But thanks for reminding me that Sir Tom will no longer be in a position to pull rank on Sir James.

      • Jambo25

        Oh I think in political and moral matters Sir Tom will always be able to pull rank on Sir James.

    • MikeF

      Is the ‘British state’ i.e. the United Kingdom a nation-state or a state-of-nations? If the former then your remark about James MacMillan could be deemed valid? If the latter then there is nothing inconsistent in his acceptance of a knighthood. In any case as I understand it he dislikes the SNP because he regards it as a vehicle for aggression and prejudice and yes some ‘nationalisms’ can be like that but not all.

      • Jambo25

        I don’t remember the SNP ordering the invasion of Iraq. Nor do I remember them ordering a bombing campaign against Libya. That Sir James seems to think, if you are correct, that the SNP are more aggressive than UK nationalism, then Sir James is obviously delusional. No matter how you cut it Sir James is endorsing Britishness

  • Alistair Hinton

    To paraphrase – is it just me, or is loving the sound of one’s own journalistic fingers on the keyboard just a speciality of certain Spectator critics?

    “Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and, jumping a generation, Thomas Adès” – quoi? How many generations are being “jumped” there, the three being born respectively in 1934, 1952 and 1971?

    I have no idea what the reasons might be that James MacMillan decided not to reject his knighthood or indeed for his religious and political stance/s but, in the context of Michael Finnissy’s epic piano work (which I take to be the intended subject of this piece), is any of this really relevant and does it matter – and, if so, how and why?

    “Brian Ferneyhough…is leader of the ‘new
    complexity’ movement, whose arguments can only really be understood if
    you’ve got a maths degree”, we’re told; leaving aside that a maths degree is of no help in getting to grips with any of his work, I can imagine the kind of dusty reaction such a statement would get if it were to me made to Ferneyhough himself who is by no means alone among composers tired of being branded with the “new complexicism” label as though some identifiable form of “complexity” is the intended principal characteristic of their music.

    The writer mentions the alleged “perfumed ramblings” of Sorabji in the context of his Opus Clavicembalisticum, a work punctuated by a series of four fugues; I’ve heard the work in performances by three of the five pianists (including the composer himself) over a period of more than 30 years and have yet to identify how fugues can incorporate “perfumed ramblings in their course, whoever might have composed them. Furthermore, there are actually quite a few piano epics from the past century or so; Rzewski’s The Road, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and others, not least a good many by Sorabji himself besides the one work referred to here and which I take leave to doubt that the writer has heard.

    It’s not even as though I would necessarily take issue per se with some of the writer’s positive and negative responses to certain of the works that he mentions en passant, but this kind of purportedly clever-clogs sound-bitten-catchphraseful let’s-pretend-(but-fail)-to out-Lebrecht-Lebrecht-infused contribution does neither itself nor its subject nor The Spectator any favours whatsoever, as far as I can tell.

    Lastly, the writer concludes (as though he’s heard every existing piano work dating from 2001 onwards) that The History of Photography in Sound “is…the greatest piano work of the 21st century so
    far”; it isn’t – it was written during the 20th century. In writing it, I have grave doubts that Finnissy ever thought about – let alone perceived – The History of Photography in Sound as “(creating) a template for future composers, let alone that “if there is such a thing as ‘the way forward’, this may be it”; I suspect that he was far too busy forging the work as what he wanted it to be in its own right.

    • Damian Thompson

      Ooh, get you! You sound very cross, Alistair – too cross to check when ‘History’ was finished: large sections written in 2000. Alternatively, you may be one of those pedants who count that as the 20th century, but I’m not.

      Sorry about the reference to Sorabji: I do rather like his magnum Opus, and indeed have Ogdon’s recording of it. Perhaps the fugal structure will become clearer to me when, as I hope, the magnificent Fredrik Ullén records it. If you can point me to recordings of the other Sorabji epics, I’d be grateful.

      Meanwhile, I do know that other composers have written piano epics: Vingt Regards is a masterpiece, though not giant on the scale of Sorabji or the Finnissy. I’m a fan of the Rzewski, too, and have the composer’s recording of it. Also in my CD collection: Passacaglia on DSCH by the much-missed Ronald Stevenson, The Vanishing Pavilions by Michael Hersch and (especially fine) Matthew Schellhorn’s performance of Ian Wilson’s Stations. But if this is some sort of how-many-piano-epics-have-you-heard pissing contest, then you may well beat me. I’ll get over it.

      • Alistair Hinton

        Cross? Moi? Mais non! I know when Michael F completed History and do not require pedantry to perceive the 21st century as having commenced on 1 January 2001, but never mind.

        Ullén (who is indeed magnificent) has no plans to record Opus C but the fourth of his projected six CDs traversing the composer’s 100 Transcendental Studies has only recently been released. That’s one Sorabjian piano epic; others that have been commercially recorded include Fantasia Ispanica and Concerto per suonare da me solo (just over an hour each), Toccata I (about 75 minutes) and Sonata No. 4 (2 hours +), all played by Jonathan Powell and Piano Symphony No. 5 (also 2 hours +) played by Donna Amato, all on the same label as the Ogdon Opus C – Altarus. Others have been recorded for broadcast only, including Piano Symphony No. 4 ( not far short of 5 hours) played by Reinier van Houdt and Il Grido del gallino d’oro (85 minutes) and Sequentia Cyclica (7 hours 10 minutes) played by Jonathan Powell. Details of Sorabji’s “piano epics” may be found in the catalogue of his works at or you can write to

        Yes, Stevenson is indeed much missed; he wrote only one piano epic – the one that you mentioned – and splendid it most certainly is. It’s now quite well served on CD, though the finest performance, for me, remains the composer’s own, again on Altarus. Stevenson was undoubtedly one of the great pianists of our time.

        I don’t do pissing contests, by the way, whatever the subject; I merely sought to point out that the piano epic in the past century or so might not be quite the rarity that you appeaed to suggest…

      • Young Precariat

        “I do rather like his magnum Opus, and indeed have Ogdon’s recording of it.”

        Oh no…

        Everything I have heard about you must be true.

  • Wolfgang

    “when John Cage pushed sound to the point where nothing short of the soloist defecating on stage could shock audiences: ‘Where do we go from here?’” when did when start writing like this? Oh, when they let unprofessional writer in the world of blogs! Mr.Thompson learn how to write….:)

  • If the excerpt is any indication, then Finnissy did indeed defecate on stage. I’m sorry, life is simply too short for this kind of clattering nonsense. Five-and-a-half hours? As the old sayings go, the Emperor has no clothes, and if Finnissy should ever run across something resembling a melody, or development of same, he ought to write it down.

  • Young Precariat

    Lay off Cage, Damian.

    Schoenberg has ruined the musical education of countless young people.

    Not content on traumatising undergraduates, he has somehow managed to find his way into A level and GCSE syllabuses.

    Cage’s sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano on the other hand are sublime.

    99% of people would rather listen to 4’33” than four minutes and thirty three seconds of Schoenberg (and that 1% are probably deaf).