The whole idea of “contemporary music” as a thing in itself seems to have arisen in the early decades of the 20th century. Back in the 18th century it was “ancient music” that was the special case. In London there was the Academy of Ancient Music (founded in 1726 as the Academy of Vocal Music), from which Christopher Hogwood’s celebrated period band would take its name in the 1970s.
From the 1780s onwards there was a vogue in Vienna for the style of music that Handel had been writing just a couple of decades earlier. The movement was led by the Vienna-resident Dutch music patron Gottfried van Swieten, whose passion for Handelian oratorio led to Mozart being commissioned to re-orchestrate Messiah – in order to bring it in line with later 18th-century taste – and to Haydn being asked to write his oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.
The separation of old and new faded during the 19th century as the phenomenon of standard repertoire as we know it today began to develop. The radical developments of the early 20th century perplexed and stressed audiences whose tastes were now being cultivated by the music of the previous 200 years. It was the turn of the newest of the new to become the subject of separate consideration, not least through the establishment of festivals that catered specifically to contemporary music. As the century progressed, other descriptions – new music and 20th-century music – were created, all three often being used interchangeably.
Dublin didn’t get in on the act until 1969, when the first Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music was held. Within a few years it had established itself as an eight-day showcase for areas of the international repertoire that had never before been heard in Ireland as well as a platform for Irish composers, young and old. A concert devoted exclusively to the work of emerging composers was one of its important innovations.
The festival, initially an annual event, became biennial in 1972, and ran until 1986. None of its various successors has managed to emulate either its longevity or its tally of 11 festivals in all. The Accents Festival, RTÉ's Music Now, the Mostly Modern festival and a festival organised by Crash Ensemble were all more modest in scope and shorter-lived. The event that came closest to matching the impact of the original 20th Century Festivals was the RTÉ Living Music Festival (2002-2008) through its focuses on composers Steve Reich, John Adams and Arvo Pärt.
In 2006 the Arts Council published Sounds New, a review of supports to contemporary music in Ireland. It made for often dismal reading and concluded: "There has been an absence to date of specific public policy and advocacy for the development of contemporary music and its audiences." It noted that "Ireland still lacks a credible contemporary music performing infrastructure, and few if any performers spend most of their professional lives performing new music." As ever, international comparisons highlighted the drastic underprovisioning in Ireland.
Anomalies the report drew attention to included the fact that “the Arts Council funds the information and archiving side of contemporary music to a much higher level than performance and production” and that “virtually no composers are able to disseminate their work in a satisfactory way and only a small number are able to find international companies prepared to sign them”.
The major Arts Council intervention of recent years has been to provide five-year funding for the New Music Dublin festival, which was held for the first time over the opening weekend of March in 2013. The steering group that runs the festival – from RTÉ (which has made its orchestras available), the National Concert Hall and the Contemporary Music Centre – has just announced the postponement of the 2016 festival.
The key factors in the decision have been given as building work at the NCH and the involvement of the RTÉ orchestras, quartet and choirs and the NCH in special commemorative programmes for Easter 2016.
This is all very confusing. No concerts of any kind are yet listed on the NCH’s website for the weekend the festival would have taken place. But space has been found between then and Easter for RTÉ’s performing groups between them to give no fewer than 12 concerts that are wholly unconnected with the 2016 celebrations.
The New Music Dublin festival has suffered numerous abuses in its short life. Its very first orchestral concert was an imposition from an RTÉ NSO commitment that had nothing to do with the festival itself. The hugely successful and much-praised One on One concerts and installations, which drew families and children in to the first two festivals, were dropped this year, when the festival was held under a one-off name (What? Wow: David Lang’s Festival of Music 2015) and was also cut from three days to two.
The clarity of identity and consistency of delivery that any self-respecting festival would aspire to was ditched as the steering group worked effectively to turn its horse into a camel. It was difficult to see what its notion of new music was (it included pieces from the first decade of the 20th century and even earlier), and it was impossible to figure out what its relationship to the wider new music scene in Ireland was intended to be. The steering committee controlled the first festival itself, and then handed the later festivals to Donnacha Dennehy and David Lang. It's easy to see why over its three years it lacked a coherent vision.
The postponement of the 2016 event suggests that the treatment of contemporary music in Merrion Square has improved little since the dispiriting conclusions of Sounds New back in 2006. The festival's fate is now going to be governed by Dermot McLaughlin, late of Temple Bar Properties, who has undertaken a review of the project for the Arts Council.
Reporting optimistically on the first festival I wrote: “There were shortcomings, too, most of them so obvious that the organisers will hardly fail to fix them next time round.” Here’s hoping that what has been so obvious to so many of the people who attended the festival will have been obvious to McLaughlin, too, so that his review may prompt the Arts Council to give Dublin the focused and vibrant new music festival it needs.