Wednesday 24 October 2018

The 21st century: classical music is still alive and well

Experimenter: Karlheinz Stockhausen
Experimenter: Karlheinz Stockhausen

George Hamilton

Over the last three months in this space, we've gone on a bit of a journey exploring just what exactly is classical music. It's probably easier to explain what it's not. It's not pop, it's not rock, it's not folk, it's not jazz. So what is it? Well, it's pretty safe to say you know it when you hear it.

By and large, it's music from a place and time - three centuries across the continent of Europe. It evolved as society was evolving, breaking free of the constraints that kept it in churches and big houses, becoming popular entertainment, and making stars out of its principal performers. And then it stopped.

Well, that's not strictly speaking true. While the field is dominated by big names from the distant past, serious music is evolving now, as it did before, and as it did as the 20th century developed. There's Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein. Edward Elgar wrote three symphonies and his famous cello concerto after 1900.

Classical music as we know it was very much alive and well in the early decades of the 1900s. And ever since there have been musicians following the same path. John Rutter and Karl Jenkins, just two names plucked from the air, are living composers in the classical idiom.

They, though, are not necessarily the people you'd consider first in the context of music in the 20th and 21st centuries, probably because their output sits so easily with what went before. It's the German Karlheinz Stockhausen who springs most readily to mind.

His work is certainly not classical music as we know it. But this is where we run into difficulty. For are not his forays into the realm of sonic experience simply the contemporary equivalent of the boundary-pushing that took advantage of bigger and better instruments to expand horizons? Stockhausen's experiments with electronics made him a seminal figure, with an influence right across the musical spectrum.

No less than The Beatles acknowledged their debt. The montage that was on the cover of their album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band features an image of the face of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

John Tavener, the English composer who lived from 1944 to 2013, was described in his Daily Telegraph obituary as an "icon of contemplative music". He was another who attracted the attention of The Beatles, who released his cantata The Whale (based on the story of the prophet Jonah) on their Apple label.

Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer and conductor, was more akin to Stockhausen, experimenting with form and style, producing a singular avant-garde soundscape.

Michael Nyman, while producing minimalist music similar to the Americans Steve Reich and Philip Glass, has found inspiration in earlier periods too. For the movie The Piano he created moments - in particular in The Heart Asks Pleasure First - that might best be described as 20th-century romanticism.

Another contemporary composer is from much closer to home. Gerald Barry from County Clare was one of Karlheinz Stockhausen's students at the conservatory in Cologne in the 1970s.

Eschewing modern technology, Barry has given us a broad range of composition, from an Oscar Wilde opera to a piano concerto that will be given its Irish premiere by Hugh Tinney with the RTÉ NSO under the baton of Cristian Macelaru in the National Concert Hall at the end of October.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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