Commissioning new music costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. Given the everyday financial pressures on arts organisations, finding money for commissions can be difficult. New thinking required, perhaps?
This is going to be rather a different post from usual, focussing as it will do on contemporary and avant-garde classical music. And that includes our part in helping people to realise that classical music doesn’t stop somewhere in the early C20, but is a living, breathing art form with much to offer.
Most live contemporary music performances in the city come from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).
BCMG has been a fixture on the Birmingham musical scene for over thirty years. From its start as an off-shoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), it has become one of the premier medium-sized ensembles in the UK. As an ensemble specialising in ‘new’ music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it could possibly have constructed all of its programmes from available, known music. Instead, it has made a name for itself by giving first performances of over 160 pieces of music, and counting.
Some seventy of these pieces were commissioned by BCMG. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph – how to fund these new pieces of music? Back in the 1990s, BCMG came up with a new, innovative scheme to involve ordinary music-lovers in the creation of particular works. Sound Investment is a cleverly-named scheme which invites individuals to donate money towards a particular composer’s work. Their investment allows new sounds to be created and performed. Without it, BCMG would have struggled to commission anything like that number of new pieces.
When the first Birmingham library burnt down in 1879, only a thousand items were saved. Today, I’m going to look at one of the possible survivors.
When exploring the historical printed music collections here, I was always curious as to why we stocked nothing prior to the 1880s. By this, I mean items which came into the collection at the same time as they were published. We have a large number of items published before the 1880s, but they all came into the collection through donations or later purchase. Then I learnt something of the history of public libraries in Birmingham.
Following the Free Libraries Act of 1850, the people of the town (as it was then) decided they wanted a library, together with an art gallery. By 1866, both lending and reference libraries existed. They were popular, and grew until, by the time of the fire, the building housed 50, 000 items. The fire was catastrophic, destroying the building and the vast majority of the stock.
The volume I’m going to look at has some smoke damaged pages at the start, and it wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination to think that it was one of the rescued items.
Songs and Etchings by T. Anderton and R.S. Chattock (publ. 1871)
Thomas Anderton (1836-1903) was quite a prolific composer of choral works – cantatas and operettas mostly. He wasn’t that well known on the musical scene during his lifetime. and has since virtually disappeared from view. He lived and worked in Birmingham which explains in part, why the library bought this volume. Richard Chattock (1825-1906), an artist and etcher, was also local, being based in Solihull. Their project was evidently to take a selection of poems from different poets, illustrate one of the lines from each with an etching and then Anderton set the whole poem to music as one of a set of songs.
A contemporary news cutting pasted into the opening pages, puts it like this:
It is the joint production of Mr Anderton and Mr Chattock, and the bond of union between them has evidently been both perfect and complete. The etchings go so perfectly with the songs … that it is plain that the musician and artist were each inspired by the same thoughts … and each was similarly moved, by love of beauty, admiration of harmony, and faith in art.
Interesting that there’s no acknowledgement of the poets concerned …
Ben Jonson: To Cynthia
I like the way the moonlight is depicted, and the way it makes the figures very dark. The sky looks turbulent – maybe it’s a by-product of the etching process. Certainly the turbulence doesn’t seem to extend to the trees or the people.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ode to a Skylark
In this example, the rocks and the sheep almost seem photographic in their clarity and ‘realness’. And the sense of open country. Again, to my mind, the sky doesn’t quite work
Here is a flavour of how Anderton set both poems to music. I can’t help feeling that the etchings (for all any faults) are rather more inspired than the music. A quick look at both of these excerpts suggest Victorian parlour song to me. They are aimed squarely to appeal to home music-making.
To Cynthia (opening)
Ode to a skylark (opening)
Sebastian Evans: Shadows
Sebastian Evans wasn’t particularly known as a poet, but he was local, and prominent in a number of different arenas. This is my favourite etching in the collection – the dense cross-hatching strongly suggests the gloom, both of the room and of the old man, himself. It’s a pity that again, Anderton’s music doesn’t live up to the illustration. There is no hint of regrets or gloom in the music. I suspect a better, more adventurous composer would have made a much more atmospheric job of settings these words.