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In praise of burning pianos

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

Sound Within Sound: Opening Our Ears to the 20th Century Kate Molleson

Faber, pp.354, 18.99

How are non-conformists assimilated within the cloistered walls of tradition? Richard Wagner supplied the best answer to the age-old question in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, when Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, reconciles youthful ardour with the wisdom bestowed by experience. Learn from the masters, he tells the townsfolk, if you want to start afresh.

It was a lesson absorbed by all the great modernists. Stravinsky, Joyce, Eliot, Picasso, Kandinsky and the rest of the gang understood thoroughly what had come before. Alas, it is a lesson as yet unlearned by Kate Molleson, whose pleading on behalf of ten musical misfits is unlikely to ‘open our ears’, despite her best intentions. For who do we open them to?

Julian Carrillo, perhaps, presented here as a semi-tonal Mexican brave, missing only warpaint and spear. In the manner of Leonard Sachs, that garrulous, gavel-bashing compere of The Good Old Days, Molleson piles up windy phrases like turrets on a seaside castle. Carrillo ‘was an awkward innovator, a problematic vanguard, a stubborn renegade’. That’s just the bonne-bouche. A feast of absurd claims follows.

Other readers may prefer the Filipino, Jose Maceda, with his ‘malleable drones’; or incline towards Galina Ustvolskaya, whose deliberately unpleasant music is praised for its ‘ineluctable rigour’. With such mastery of code, Molleson might have been a star at Bletchley Park. In a particularly unsettling passage, which makes one fear for her equilibrium, she deciphers the Russian lady’s ‘wilful and often inexorable cruelty’, ‘terror’, ‘physical pain’, ‘trauma’, ‘steely discipline’, and ‘violence’. And they say music is the food of love.


At least she stakes her claim honestly. A love of music counts for less in this world than the modish inflation of race and gender. Our old friend the environment is trotted out, as well as our new friend, ‘empowerment’. The forgotten ten have been chosen not so much for their gifts as for what they are held to represent. They ‘tackled taboos’, apparently, which was beyond the scope of laggards like Bach and Haydn.

But Molleson’s argument, that these self-conscious seers were excluded from the ticket-only gathering of classical music by a conclave of snobs, can’t clear the first fence. They chose to exclude themselves. Take Annea Lockwood, a New Zealander who went to America by way of England. She liked to burn pianos, drown them in water or plant them in a meadow. Most pianists, silly buggers, prefer to play them. Lockwood may strike some as an interesting figure. She was no victim of prejudice.

As a writer, Molleson drowns her own pianos. The Symphonie magnetophonique (phew!) by Else Marie Pade, ‘a daring jolt of sound collage’, is not merely a portrait of a day in the life of Copenhagen. It is ‘a mischievous, frightening, bleary and lionhearted’ portrait. Count those adjectives! Eliane Radigue is ‘a master of transience, queen of the in-between’. What?

Daft phrases drop as autumn leaves: ‘hulking metric swagger’, ‘new intervallic systems’, ‘wild, paradoxical synergy’. It is not the language of an advocate who is trying to persuade the sceptical to open their ears. As for ‘indomitable life force’, in the context of music it is sheer verbiage. Every composer of note, from Hildegard of Bingen to James MacMillan, reveals the force of life.

Great music should be available to all. But banging the drum of exclusion to make unsupported assertions about the supposed elitism of an ‘establishment’ is unworthy of a serious commentator. Contrary to what Molleson believes, no committee of reactionaries is licensed to keep out the self-styled mavericks. The door is always open. Talent alone counts.

Any inventory of genuine 20th-century orchestral radicals would include Mahler, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Bartók, Janácek, Shostakovich, Britten, Charles Ives, as well as Stravinsky. Also Vaughan Williams. The opening phrase of his Tallis Fantasia is more startling than all the hammering, yelping and piano-bashing so dear to Molleson.

It’s a varied list, and if it is exclusively male that cannot diminish the genius of those remarkable composers. So when Molleson refers to the ‘radical creativity’ of the overlooked ten, implying that her pioneers are barred from the high table of western music because they are women, black or homo-sexual, she is bearing false witness.

This book, we are invited to believe, shatters the myth of the western canon. On the contrary, it reinforces that tradition. Those who wade to the end may long to revisit the late quartets of Beethoven, and marvel anew at what, after two centuries, still sounds truly revolutionary. The immortal Ludwig wrote the first ‘green’ symphony, too. Maybe Molleson will cock an ear to the Pastoral if she can spare an hour away from polishing her favourite adjectives. It yields the quality which illuminates all great art and is missing in this treacly book: joy.

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