Music history is written by the victors, but they are getting harder to spot

Within the rampant fragmentation that’s been with us for so long, the victors have become much harder to identify

You only have to look at Ireland’s Crash Ensemble (above) and Concorde to see how divergent programming patterns can be

You only have to look at Ireland’s Crash Ensemble (above) and Concorde to see how divergent programming patterns can be


History is written by the victors. And that applies to musical history, too: Mozart and Beethoven rather than Clementi; Wölfl or Steibelt; Wagner rather than Meyerbeer; Rachmaninov rather than Medtner; Schoenberg rather than Hauer; Copland rather than Bowles; Messiaen rather than Landowski; Shostakovich rather than Khrennikov.

The victors are pretty clear when it comes to the history of performance too: orchestras, choirs, the opera (against all the apparent odds), songs, the piano, the string quartet and various other ensembles, especially duos involving virtuosos.

Closer inspection, as you would expect, yields a picture that is rather less clear. It is not just that less orthodox combinations are less common, but their repertoire is also less standardised. The overlap between one guitar quartet or brass quintet and another is often minimal to non-existent, whereas string quartets and piano duos are likely to share a lot.

The same mutual exclusivity of repertoire applies in the area of new music ensembles. Here in Ireland, you only have to look at the activities of the best-known contemporary music groups – Crash Ensemble and Concorde – to see how divergent programming patterns can be. If you add in any other group that explores new music, the pattern of diversity persists.

In fact, for the last 100 years or so, composers have shown an insatiable appetite for writing for an extraordinary range of mixed chamber ensembles. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire set a kind of pattern for smaller groups, and his Chamber Symphony a pattern for larger ones. And the ensembles that were set up by enthusiastic musicians have all spawned works written for their individual line-ups, or for subsets of those line-ups.

Unlike most string quartets or trios, wind quintets or brass quintets, the programmes of Concorde and Crash, like the programmes of their international peers large and small, don’t usually find all the members of the group featured in all the works.

Identifying the victors
Within the rampant fragmentation that’s been with us for so long, the victors are much harder to identify, and, it must also be said, much less likely to be celebrated in the normal run of events, given that the experts so often choose to restrict themselves to doing their own kind of thing.

Two of this week’s concerts – the premiere of Simon O’Connor’s What Is Living and What Is Dead at the Pepper Canister Church on Wednesday, and the Irish Composers Collective concert by the Robinson Panoramic Quartet at the National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Room on Monday – set me thinking about how the issue must look to composers.

Take the Robinson Panoramic Quartet, whose colourful name reflects the unusual line-up (violin, viola, cello and double bass) and the fact that two of the members are from one family (Malachy Robinson on double bass, and his violinist wife, Anita Vedres, who have teamed up with viola player Robin Panter and cellist Kate Ellis).

Robinson’s spoken introductions would have had you believe that the idea of extending the range of a string quartet downwards through the addition of a double bass – and in the process ensuring that the ensemble has four distinctive voices rather than the violin doubling of the standard string quartet – must be manna from heaven for composers.

But that’s not how composers seem to have seen it over the years. A quick look at Margaret K Farish’s String Music in Print, issued in the mid-1960s, draws a complete blank. And in my own experience the Panoramic’s line-up is most often encountered as a subset of a larger group, most often quintets with piano (Schubert’s Trout Quintet the most famous), or octets with wind instruments.

Monday’s programme, which offered works by Brian Ingoldsby, Éna Brennan, Naomi Campbell, Sebastian Adams, Jenn Kirby, Matthew Whiteside and Daniel Barkley, showed what an interesting, rich middle the viola and cello can provide. In the world of the regular quartet, that combination would be the lowest available rather than the middle. And the combination of cello and double bass genuinely adds a totally new dimension. These features were best exploited in Brian Ingoldsby’s A Quart of Beer and a Pint of Insouciance, and Matthew Whiteside’s Quartet.

But back to the practical issues for composers. With only one ensemble around that is set up to handle new works for this line-up, what are the realistic chances of any new piece, however brilliant, really taking off? Not too good, I suspect. History suggests that any similar group would probably pursue its own composers and develop its own special repertoire.

Simon O’Connor premiere
Similar issues arise regarding Simon O’Connor’s What Is Living and What Is Dead, given its premiere by Michael McHale (piano), with Paul Smyth and the composer on synthesisers – although, with a playing time of about an hour, it does have the advantage of being a short concert in itself.

The printed programme offered no note on the music, but rather Tony Judt’s 2009 lecture What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?, upside-down photos of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, a detail from a Pietà by Antonello da Messina, an image from Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977, and a list of movements or sections with confusingly ordered descriptions – “I Part 2 First Dhjana” followed by “II Part 7 Third Dhjana (variation for synthesisers)”, followed by “III Part 3 Second Hindrance”. You get the idea.

The website of the concert’s promoter, Ergodos, quotes O’Connor explaining that “there is a life within this music that I cannot release myself. Like a song, it is for the performer and listener to breathe their own life and understanding into it. It is in sympathy with an older tradition of music that approaches the listener at both emotional and intellectual levels, rather than placing up barriers to understanding. I believe that, right now, the world doesn’t need difficult art that makes an audience feel stupid – it needs art that can help us deal with the society we are inheriting, art that shows us the possibility of a more beautiful world. That is what this music is trying to achieve.”

The printed programme also included the opening line from Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor, and O’Connor’s piano writing (which alternated with sections for synthesisers) included little that Schubert would have been unfamiliar with in terms of harmony, although the chord sequences engaged in a kind of side-stepping that Satie liked to exploit, and the whole was delivered with an obsessiveness that Janacek would have recognised.

I’m not suggesting that O’Connor’s music sounded like any of these composers, just that his pared-back material and processes seemed to be intended to be at once both familiar and new – a new simplicity, if you like. What I picked up as a listener, rightly or wrongly, was an interest in projecting poignancy rather than the poignancy itself.

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