These talking pictures will never catch on – (attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, 1928)
I have just received another of Medium William’s emails. He is a Nigerian astrologer, who with uncanny insight tells me he has sensed from my astral emanations that I have experienced a difficult year. To receive his amazing predictions for 2021, I just have to send him my credit card details and open the attachment to his email. I think I can predict that if I follow his instructions I will experience a sudden heavy financial loss.
Do I want to know what 2021 holds for me? Not really, I’ll find out soon enough. As the old Danish proverb has it, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, and composers soon learn that their professional lives are shaped more by random circumstance than careful planning. I think back on my career. If there had not happened to be an inspirational music teacher at my high school, I might have taken my headmaster’s advice and embraced an academic career – so by now I would be a frustrated retiree with not enough to do. Had the same director of music not recommended that I study music at Cambridge (I hadn’t a clue about universities, not many of us had back then) I might have gone to Oxford and would never have met the legendary David Willcocks, thanks to whom my music began to be published. Later on, had an American choir director named Mel Olson not randomly come across my early published work and commissioned me to write the Gloria, I might never have gone to America, the first of what became a flood of opportunities to compose and conduct there . . . and I would never have met my wife, then a young alto in the Californian university choir which had invited me to be musician-in-residence. As the saying goes in theological circles, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to make plans or take decisions; I sometimes think of my life as a never-ending battle to beat back chaos, create order, and meet one deadline after another. But, in the end, we aren’t in control. The ‘jarring, jarring seeds of matter’ referred to by Dryden in his words for Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day will always collide in unpredictable ways, though it’s comforting to think that our dear patron saint has, it says in the same chorus, the power to turn them into ‘one perfect harmony’. My constant, and deeply inspiring and consoling, companion during this year has been Masaaki Suzuki’s 55-CD box set of Bach’s 200 or so surviving church cantatas. Bach’s Lutheran librettists may sometimes have been a little too fond of pain and death for my liking, but, for me, Bach does bring the world into perfect harmony like no other composer can.
I face 2021 and all its uncertainties with equanimity. Maybe that will change if the larder empties or the lights go out, but in these difficult times I often think of my parents. They rarely spoke of the war, though they were both in the eye of its storm, not knowing from day to day whether their home and their places of work would still be standing after the nightly blitzes which devastated London, or indeed whether they would still be alive. They didn’t romanticize the blitz spirit, they just got on with things and did their best day by day, adapting and responding to every situation as it arose. Let’s not try to make inevitably inaccurate predictions about where ‘the cultural sector’ (as politicians irritatingly refer to us) will be in a year’s time, let alone five years’ time. We just need to do our utmost to keep it alive until things improve, remembering that pandemics, like wars, eventually come to an end. Happy 2021!
Some of my favourite inaccurate musical predictions:
‘This vulgar and tuneless so-called opera will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history’ – French music critic, after the première of Bizet’s Carmen (1875).
‘Today I have discovered something which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years’ – Arnold Schönberg, of serialism (1921).
‘No gags, no girls, no chance’ –attributed to Mike Todd, theatrical impresario, on seeing a preview of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1943), which went on to be the longest-running musical of its time (2212 performances).
‘The poor boys have lost their talent’ – Mary Martin, Broadway star, on hearing a private preview of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956), which overtook it (2717 performances).
‘We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out’ – internal company memo rejecting the Beatles following their audition for Decca Records (1962).