As the Southbank Centre works its way through the development of 20th century music along the lines of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, I've been hearing so much to remind me that, loudly though the twelve-tone boys and their disciples may have shouted and slavishly though the acadamic establishment may have followed them, tuneful and direct serious (and, as Prokofiev put it, 'light-serious') music kept going.
My feeling that all these ways of finding new ways to say old things, properly absorbing the past - it's hardly reactionary - are just as valid as the work of the so-called pioneers, was confirmed by an interview Benjamin Britten (pictured above with Pears and Poulenc in Cannes, 1954) gave Donald Mitchell back in 1969. It's reproduced in The Britten Companion (Faber; more on the context, taking the City Lit opera class through Gloriana, anon).
Praising the emerging John Tavener - pity that promise never went further than it did - Britten said 'I think he and many of his generation are swinging far, far away now from what I call the academic avant-garde, who have rejected the past. He and many others like him adore the past and build on the past. After all, language is a matter of experience. When we're talking together, we're using symbols which have been used by the past. If we rejected the past we should be just making funny noises.'
Mitchell asks him if he is conscious of the burden of tradition. 'I'm supported by it, Donald,' comes the reply. 'I couldn't work alone. I can only work really because of the tradition that I am conscious of behind me. And not only the painting, and architecture, and countryside around me, people around me....I feel as close to Dowland, let's say...as I do to my youngest contemporary.'
Steeped in Poulenciana, and happily ploughing my way through the correspondence, I'm always aware of the sheer joy in his tradition-conscious music. He loves what he absorbs. But he also realised his limitations. He writes to a friend in 1942: 'I am well aware that I am not the kind of musician who makes harmonic inventions like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel or Debussy [always the top names among living composers he tended to cite, along with Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, occasionally Hindemith]. But I do think there is a place for new music that is content with using other people's chords. Was that not the case with Mozart and with Schubert? And in any case, the personality of my harmonic style will become evident.'
It's been a joy to discover the Trio and the Sextet in Pascal Rogé's collaborations with marvellous French colleagues, even to hear the strange Aubade in a vintage recording where Poulenc is the pianist. In his own piano pieces, he's an interesting one: determined to capture a speedy spirit where appropriate without bothering too much about all the right notes.
As for other personal discoveries, after Tippett's Second Symphony, I found to my surprise that the First went just as deep - probably deeper in its knotty slow-movement Passacaglia variations, where there's the sort of selective scoring, in this case for three flutes above the chaconne on muted violas and cellos, which most composers can only dream of hitting on. Indebted to Graham Rickson there for digging out the old Colin Davis recordings for me.
I was heading for the second-cast Mozart Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera on Friday. But the Tuesday before, I listened to Vaughan Williams's Five Tudor Portraits to prepare the class for the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert I thought I was going to miss. I suppose I'd imagined that all five portraits were like the one I knew, the Epitaph for John Jayberd of Diss - three-minute character studies. I hadn't appreciated the brilliance of Tudor poet John Skelton's rapping doggerel and I was stunned to find not only the rollicking variety of 'The Tunning of Elinor Rumming' (a real personage depicted above handing her ale to Skelton and a priest) but above all the 20-minute requiem for Jane Scroop's sparrow Philip, slain by the convent cat Gib.
Such delicacy here, sentiment in the right sense and fresh invention just when it's needed. And this in a rather poor performance conducted by David Willcocks (sadly there's not one on YouTube as yet, though you can catch the BBCSO performance on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer until Friday evening). I gave up my Flute ticket and went to the Barbican instead, writing about it for The Arts Desk. John Wilson and co confirmed my hunch: a masterpiece. I shed a few tears for Philip Sparrow, I can tell you, particularly in that movement's incandescent epilogue. None for York Bowen's Viola Concerto, simply because like so many second-rank works it lacks a personal identity. But that's been an exception among the 20th century surprises, which I hope just keep on coming.
More of the new-to-me now, which in this case is very much the old, or rather timeless. On Ascension Day (illustrated by Rublev, the illuminator of the Très Riches Heures and Perugino), I found myself spoiled for choice between the four cantatas on John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage instalment. For consistency's sake, I decided to stick with my Leipzig 1725 sequence and plumped for 'Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein', BWV 128. In that context the joyous circumstance has to make a new, at long last major-key beginning with two mellow horns dictating G major as Bach weaves a glistening fantasia around the sopranos' chorale.
Innovation appears in the bass's invocation to 'arise and with a bright sound proclaim...', accordingly replacing horns with trumpet and breaking off into recitative and arioso. Since the last of the sustained lines tell us 'not to fathom the Almighty's power', all we get in the ritornello is a brief return of the trumpet, no voice.
Alto and tenor in the ensuing aria-duet declare 'my mouth falls silent', but they instead keep on going until the lovely oboe d'amore has the final word and - unaccompanied - the last note. Even the final chorale, with its rich turn on 'Herrlichkeit', has added grace, this time in the return of the two horns, the first climbing to the heights to fill out the textures in the final gazing 'on Thy majesty for all eternity'. As Rene Jacobs, in his incarnation as one of the worst countertenors ever, is on the Leonhardt recording, let's try a newcomer, Dutch forces under Leusink.
From sacred to profane, finally, here's a plug from proud godfather for Alexander 'Betty' Lambton's sax tootling in his band Lieutenant Tango. Let's hope the irresistible danciness of their single 'Charle Brash' brings them the fame they deserve. This old hipster-replacement here is already chanting and doofing the refrain 'Charlie Brash (doof, doof, doof)/Where's your cash? (doof, doof, doof).'