Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival has a number of strands of thought permeating its concerts. It explores the effects of war, sex and sexuality, politics, and race on some of the 20th century's most important musical output. The underlying argument behind putting on this extraordinary series of events is that the music, much of which we know and love, cannot be understood properly without understanding the context in which it was written.
The argument is a convincing one in general, and it was certainly true of the two pieces performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in this concert: Ralph Vaughan Williams' title-less Symphony no. 4 in F minor (1935) and Michael Tippett's secular oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939–41). Vaughan Williams himself suggested that the former should be understood as pure music, devoid of outside influences. In a sense, however, the symphony's moments of aggression and complexity are so atypical of the majority of Vaughan Williams' output that one wonders whether the effects of war (he had volunteered with the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer before commissioning as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War) had their role to play in influencing the composer. In addition, it is said to have been composed after RVW read a book on the modern symphony; that would certainly seem plausible.
It was the symphony that opened the concert. The feisty, angry dissonances of the opening Allegro were more reminiscent of Shostakovich than Vaughan Williams, and it took a good while for any hints of his more idiomatic style (in terms of modality and timbre) to come through. The structurally complex second movement (Andante moderato) was played with dignity and at a steady tempo, in contrast to the lively third and fourth movements. The orchestra's impassioned playing was judged extremely well; amongst the numerous thematic fragments brought out was one that resembled (though did not exactly match) that from the famous "B-A-C-H" fugue by a certain composer of note. The idea that this work had prophesied the rise of Fascism has been discredited widely, but it seems quite clear that Vaughan Williams did make use of considerable outside influences, intentionally or otherwise.
Tippett's A Child of our Time is anything but pure music. Its inspiration is well-known as Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom following the assassination of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee. The composer's own libretto and the interspersed arrangements of Negro spirituals deal with oppression and hope on general and personal levels; its agenda is to promote peace. Explicit external influences can also be found in the form of the work, which follows a tripartite model similar to Handel's Messiah and is heavily influenced by the musical structure of Bach's Passions (the spirituals taking the place of the chorales, for example).
Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth kept a lively pace throughout A Child of our Time, which worked surprisingly well as it avoided the sentimentality of slower tempi. The orchestra's panache and precision helped drive the London Philharmonic Choir, which sang passionately; theirs was a contribution not to be overlooked. The soloists were very good indeed, if occasionally lost in the volume of the orchestra (this was more the case with the "inner parts" of mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen and tenor Ben Johnson, but it affected all four at various stages) though not because the orchestra was too loud; it was more that their voices were not quite a match for the instrumental forces. Matthew Rose, as the bass soloist, made an authoritative narrator. Claire Booth, stepping in at the last moment for Rebecca Evans, soared beautifully over the chorus in "Steal away"; a magical moment that drew richly deserved applause.
If there were such a thing as a pure concert (in the same sense as there is pure music), this was resolutely not it. Rather than putting on two interesting works of music, these were two works which, when put together in one programme, provoked a great deal of thought not only about the historical contexts, but also about the musical influences behind each work. The London Philharmonic Orchestra's sprightly and energetic playing brought these works to life, and made it all the more easy for the ideas, ideals and influences to be heard.
As Europe slipped towards fascism, Michael Tippett felt the urge to protest in music - to show solidarity with those downtrodden by poverty and prejudice.
Then, in 1938, a young Polish Jew oppressed by the rise of Nazism shot a German diplomat dead in Paris. Tippett had the central figure for his 'oratorio of contemplation', A Child of our Time.
Taking Bach's Passions and Handel's Messiah as his models, Tippett ended each of his sections with his own arrangements of African-American spirituals.
'The world turns on its dark side,' proclaims the opening movement of Tippett's masterpiece, but it remains a work of stringent hope and optimism.
Free pre-concert event, 6.15pm until 6.45pm, Royal Festival Hall Writer and broadcaster Daniel Snowman takes a look at Tippett's A Child of our Time.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega