The Longest walk on Earth by Alan Rawsthorne

written in 1949

Few people today would claim that our Western music is of its nature esoteric. Over the past ten years vast numbers of people have come into contact for the first time, with the repertoire of the concert-hall, and have found, surprisingly and unaccountably, that it is quite enjoyable. Perhaps, during the war, it was boredom and the black-out. Perhaps it was the absence of ball- games. But whatever the reason, many people who have hitherto considered symphonic music about as alluring as a dentist's chair have found that it is not so forbidding after all. Furthermore, they have found that, unlike ball-games. it is not necessary to learn all the rules before you can enjoy yourself.

Experience of listening is what really counts. No one can honestly assure a man that if he wade through a harmony-book he will automatically enjoy listening to Beethoven symphonies the more. All one can say is that if he likes listening to symphonies he will probably find a book on harmony of itself interesting. And so he will build up a more and more sensitive system of instincts, upon which the enjoyment of music depends. As for the composer, unless he is of an unnecessarily cynical turn of mind, this situation is highly encouraging. The musical innocent who finds Bach a bore may be quite ready to be excited by Stravinsky. It is partly a question of up-bringing.

Many children in the past have been victims of a strangely uncomprehending system of musical bullying, when they should, poor little things, have been playing marbles or eating doughnuts; their minds have closed tighter and tighter as the years rolled by, and their sense of adventure has withered. So they come to believe that Tchaikovsky or Mozart or Brahms, or whatever it might be, is right and proper for them to listen to: and after a long series of repetitions and shocking performances of these works, their interest begins to flag.

The Promenade Concerts loudly proclaim that, in music, everything is for everybody. The Proms do not proselytise; they simply make things available. And the promenader is certainly open-minded, frequently in curious ways. I remember standing in the Queen's Hall when I was a student, listening to Kodály conducting a new work. When it was finished, I noticed that the man who had been standing on my left foot for the past ten minutes joined in the acclamation with more than usual heartiness. Such was his fervour that I ventured upon the admittedly not very arresting remark that I could see he had enjoyed the performance. "No, no", he said, applauding away vigorously, "Oh no, not a bit." This puzzled me. "then perhaps you clap because you're glad it's over?. "No", he said, "but a British audience will never let you down." It was a solemn thought.

It occurred to me again, years later, when I conducted my Piano Concerto - with Louis Kentner playing the solo part. It was the first time a work of mine had been performed at a Prom. I was nervous. I had been let out from an Army camp on an obscure Welsh mountain for forty-eight hours leave to come and do it. The main difficulty in conducting at concerts, I have found, is in getting yourself on to the platform in the first place, and it has been authoritatively observed that the longest distance on the surface of the earth is from the artists' room to the rostrum. This I managed to achieve, buoyed up by the reassuring presence of Mr. Kentner, and gazed for a moment upon the prospect before me. I did not, like a drowning man up for the third time, review my past life. I did not even think of the Prince Consort or Sir Michael Costa. The present was quite enough.

Here were the familiar sights - the crystal fountain, the pink flowers, the pinker faces; here was the familiar dull thud of the casualties as the audience swooned away, and the equally familiar first-aid detachments ready to ply their grim trade as the ranks closed up. I had seen it and warmed (quite literally) to it many times before. This, I said to myself, is the most remarkable audience in the world. It does not consist of rows of oiled shirts stuffed with hay. It is not a grim proletariat bent upon being improved. It is prepared, at the cost of two shillings and excruciating discomfort, to enjoy itself. And so I turned my back upon it, as it were, for the first time .........

Actually, once you start to conduct there is usually a certain interest in the music, even if you have written it yourself, which keeps your mind from preying upon the more gruesome side of things. On the other hand, even at a Prom, you must not feel so much at home as to stop and revise passages which could have been more effectively scored. You can get into your shirt- sleeves, metaphorically, and address yourself to the task, with the knowledge that you are taking part in a serious and significant enterprise. To a composer, this is of high importance. You are no longer a Charles Addams horror with six toes and an eye in the back of your head. Your work is not being presented to a small coterie of neurotics who all think they can do it better than you can.

You have to deal with a large, if amorphous, mass of popular taste which at any rate is genially disposed. Some may applaud because a British audience never lets you down. Others may not applaud at all. Some, you venture to hope, may possibly clap because they have been interested in what you have been doing. All these considerations are of comparatively small account. Have you succeeded in what you set out to do? Has the performance been such as could realize your intentions? Whatever the answer to these questions, you know that you have contributed a drop, however small, to one of the greatest streams of musical culture in our country.

Taken from THE CREEL, the journal of The Friends of Alan Rawsthorne and the Rawsthorne Trust, Vol. 2 No.2 Autumn 1992

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