There’ll Always Be an England

I bought, because a reader recommended it, The Pimlico Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Composers (1999), by Mark Morris – not the famous dancer, of course, but a Welsh music critic resident in Canada. It is organized by country, which creates some curious ambiguities: for instance, Foss is listed under the U.S.A. and Wolpe under Germany, even though both were born in Germany and emigrated to America. (I think of Wolpe’s late music as highly American, while Foss retains his German accent.) But it has certain advantages, such as listing Iceland’s Thorkall Sigurbjörnsson, New Zealand’s Douglas Lilburn, and Norway’s unfortunate and distinctly underrated Geirr Tveitt, whom most survey histories are unlikely to mention at all.

What’s interesting is the opportunity to see our music world in an exceedingly British mirror. For example, this comment in the section on the U.S.A.:

“It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that in terms of musical impact, and in the reflection of the wider human condition and the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day, none of the American composers has yet matched their European counterparts.”

This is refreshingly frank, and brings up two Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have “the wider human condition,” i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man’s relation to society. On the other, “the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day,” which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward (and stopping for the time being in London, at least until the trains are in better repair), is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all “serious” composers must comment, and to which they all contribute. No dirty rumor of “pluralism” taints these pages. British composers, from that country which the Germans used to call “das land ohne musik,” occupy 72 pages; Americans only 50; Germany gets 49, and Russia 45. Harry Partch, La Monte Young, and Morton Feldman (the most influential composer of the last 25 years) are mentioned only in passing, not granted separate entries, while the names Conlon Nancarrow and Robert Ashley appear nowhere. Meanwhile, the entry on the United Kingdom begins, “The history of British music in the 20th century is a remarkable one,” and includes separate essays on William Alwyn, Ivor Bertie Gurney, Daniel Jenkyn Jones, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Grace Williams, all of whom surely outrank the marginal Feldman.

To an extent, the book indeed complements my own American Music in the Twentieth Century. But I have trouble thinking how I’ll explain away its anglophile exaggerations, and I have ended up taking Paul Griffiths’ more equitable Modern Music and After for my 20th-century music survey class.


  1. says

    Typical untrustworthy British music critic. Praise every last British composer to the skies for their folksy charm, denigrate everyone else.
    KG replies: Well, I did end up with Paul Griffiths, who’s British, and who does a dynamite job of capturing the motivations and nuances of the Darmstadt avant-garde.

  2. peter says

    On the topic of British disdain of foreign composers: A German friend of mine with a career in business and based in London decided a few years ago, in his early 30s, to seek his vocation as a composer. He enquired at various London Universities about completing a post-graduate degree in composition. In an interview at one of the more famous music schools, he was told by the British Professor: “Well, we don’t plan to accept you to study composition here. There are really quite enough German composers already!”
    KG replies: That’s classic, a real keeper.

  3. Eugene Leung says

    Dear Kyle,
    I bought this book about nine years ago just as I was getting into “classical” through C20 music as a kid. I would really take this more as an interesting personal project than one worthy of academic attention except for the breadth of nations covered. Now as a huge Feldman fan I am disappointed that he didnt get an entry, but considering the amount of music one has to get through to write a book as such, and considering, say, Feldman’s reputation at the time, I guess it’s understandable.
    Greetings from the UK, ha!

  4. says

    Right, Griffiths is British! But he’s an atypical British critic, from where I sit. His Concise History of Western Music I plan on buying when it’s out July 31. You know it’s special when I critic will fork over cash for something he could probably get for free just by asking the right person.

  5. Jeff Dunn says

    Glad you mentioned Tveitt. I organized a short concert here in the SF Bay area of some of his piano pieces, with commentary on his unlucky life. Quite a story! Had Tveitt been born 50 years later, he would have been famous today.

  6. Gavin Borchert says

    Jeff: think about bringing your Tveitt program up to Seattle–see if the Nordic Heritage Museum might be interested in sponsoring it:
    I discovered Tveitt through my interest in Norwegian folk music, the most beautiful in Europe. . .

  7. Lana Eddudottir says

    The Icelander’s name is Thorkell. Listen to his Kalaïs “the haunting flute playing of the Northern Wind’s son at the seashore”.
    KG replies: You’re right: Morris spelled it “Thorkall.”

  8. says

    It’s funny to me to get all this interest in Tveitt. An old friend of mine whose house burned down got interested in Tveitt because his house burned down, occasioning the loss of much of his music. (He later got buried in an avalanche as well, or maybe that happened first.) Anyway, the music really is impressive, in an individual style.

  9. Mark Morris says

    I was really interested to read Kyle Gann’s comments on my book, which I started writing what is now 22 years ago. It received a sort of avant-guarde reaction – some seemed to love it (for which I was grateful), others hated it either because their favourite composers were missing, or because of my coverage of American classical music.
    I would, today, include far more American composers than then, but what many of the critics of the book seemed to have missed was that I had a very clear criteria for the book, clearly outlined in the introduction. On the one hand, I deliberately did not include younger composers who would clearly, and rightly, be 21st composers in the future. On the other, I concentrated on composers whom the general public, whether they were in Kuala Lumpur, Nottingham, or indeed Columbus, Ohio, should have a reasonable expectation of getting hold reasonably easily recordings of the works I was discussing, so they could listen to the music – as I indeed did, for virtually everything in the book.
    At the time (the 1980s, early 1990s) it was actually very difficult indeed to get hold of recordings of Morton Feldman or Harry Partch, let alone La Monte Young or Robert Ashley. On the other hand, thanks to companies like Chandos, there had already been an explosion of recordings of British music, easily available around the world.It is easy to forget that the Internet – with its access to information and recordings – simply didn’t exist when I wrote the bulk of the book.
    Thank goodness, the situation has now changed -the availability of recordings in 2008, compared with, say, 1988, is truely remarkable and wonderful, and it is really good to see such labels as Naxos doing series on American music.
    The book is about to go on the web, complete, and I do hope it will be of use about those composers I did include – especially as I am quite proud of my entry on, for example, Cage. One of the things I plan, especially as the 20th Century is now over, is to add to the book online, and American music will be a large part of that.
    However, I make no apologies for still believing, ultimately, that great music illuminates the human condition, and that that has nothing to do with Romanticism (it could equally be applied to Monteverdi or Stockhausen or Tan Dun). And I hope Kyle Gann will forgive me if I still don’t believe that Morton Feldman is the most influential composer of the last 20 years,much though Amercian academe may indeed be influenced by his ideas, just as I don’t believe that Derrida is the most influential thinker in the world of literature, much though English Department academe might wish it so. But I will agree that if I were writing the book today, he would have got greater prominence!
    KG replies: The recordings that made Harry Partch famous began appearing in 1969, those that made Ashley famous in 1978. Feldman’s influence came in from outside academia, which bitterly fought it.