Thursday, 29 October 2009

Marion Scott, our map and guide

Marion Scott entered the 20th century with her ears tuned to the future, writes Pamela Blevins. As a violinist, she often programmed new music in her recitals. In 1908, she formed her own string quartet to champion contemporary British music, some so new that the ink was barely dry on the manuscript page. As a regular contributor to The Music Student from about 1911 to 1918, she enlightened readers about the latest chamber music and wrote extensively about the work of contemporary women composers and performers.

As the 20th century progressed and music moved in different directions, Marion moved with it, always staying open to new music that often stirred controversy and provoked outrage among critics and the concert-going public. Never one to dismiss a work because it strayed from accepted norms, she embraced the “radical” music of her day and wrote about it with an insight and clarity that opened the minds of her readers. She made the seemingly inaccessible, accessible. As a critic/commentator for the Christian Science Monitor, the Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Listener, the Radio Times and other publications, she introduced new works by Bartok, Webern, Tippett, Luytens, Dallapiccola, Britten, Messiaen, and many others to her readers.

One of Scott’s guiding principles in music rested in her belief that “Design in music is desirable, if that music is to be intelligible. Without it, great music is impossible. For design is not a machine-made pattern. It is the projection into the human consciousness of a divine and beautiful order. …Just as the laws behind natural phenomena do not die, so the realities behind music continue to exist whatever the changing phases of concrete music. Design is one of the hardest obligations for a composer to fulfill.” She found that design even in the most abstract music.

On an “arctic” February night in 1929, Marion attended the British premiere of Bartok’s third and fourth quartets performed by the Hungarian String Quartet. She regarded Bartok as “a composer who is a focal point in the work of his generation” and described his Third and Fourth String Quartets as “testaments in music’s new language”.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, she observed: “On the whole the third quartet is the more approachable of the pair, even though ordinary listeners will feel in either that they enter upon the unknown region. ‘No map there, no guide,’ as Walt Whitman would have said. Yet though old maps are of little use, Bartok’s music gives evidence of powerful design throughout. It has the same kind of strength and sparseness met with in modern architecture.” In both quartets, Scott found “melodic material…in a minority” and that Bartok seldom used “more than the minimum necessary for thematic differentiation. …Of beauty in the sensuous style there is next to none”. Bartok “constantly employs harmonies drawn from the upper series of the harmonic overtones, and matches them by sound effects drawn from the non-normal kinds of string tone”.

But Marion found both quartets full of “harmonic character, exhilarating rhythm, patterned ideas, and swift logic. … Even on a first hearing it is possible to feel the strength which has bound all these elements of sound and modern mentality into firmly consistent works. Bartok’s style may be – and is – stark, but it is never dark, and never shallow. He has the dramatist’s, not the film producer’s gift.” She came to regard Bartok as “one of the greatest, and most dynamic musicians of modern times”.

She faced the challenge of Webern’s String Trio, op. 21 with an equally open mind. “Webern’s thin sounds, skewed phrases, and silences are about as much like ordinary string music as Shakespeare’s ghosts that did ‘squeak and gibber’ were like human beings. Even the programme note described the two short movements as ‘wraiths’. But this must be said: If they are wraiths, they are so in their own right; they are not phantoms of older music. Maybe that is because they have never lived. Will they later? – that is what matters. Is this exposition of Schoenberg’s theories by Webern the foreshadowing of a new era in music? Remembering that steam from a kettle and the twitching of a frog’s leg are now historic as first hints of steam power and electricity, must we regard Webern’s music as a portent of things to come? Time alone will show.” (No date.)

In 1929 Marion became the first person in England – as far as I know – to produce an in-depth study of Paul Hindemith and presented her findings before the Royal Musical Association. (Donald Tovey wrote his essay in 1936.) I think it is fair to say that some who attended her lecture were wary of Hindemith’s new music. After all he was regarded then as the enfant terrible of Europe, a composer who embraced atonality and whose music was too cerebral and abstract for some. W.W. Cobbett who attended the lecture admitted his "ignorance” of Hindemith and acknowledged that after Scott’s talk, he left “knowing” on the subject.

Scott had researched Hindemith’s life and studied his music, an odd choice for a lecture, it might seem, coming from a woman in her fifties who was standing on the threshold of becoming an internationally acclaimed authority on Haydn. Marion had read the entire scores of three of Hindemith’s early atonal operas with librettos so daring that she doubted they would make it past the English censor (one wonders how she got the scores into England). Marion observed that “Paul Hindemith is an apostle of Atonality and Linear Counterpoint. But he is also a real person in music -- a genuine composer who gives off music as a piece of radium throws off energy. That is what makes him interesting, and his music worthy of study.”

In drawing links between the musical designs of Bach and Hindemith, Scott observed that “composers of today, with Hindemith in the vanguard, have revived the structural designs of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. ...It may be said without irreverence that Hindemith’s masterful and quite terrible music for the mob in his opera Cardillac would have been impossible if he had never known Bach’s supreme treatment of the crowd in the St. Matthew Passion.” She held Cardillac in very high regard.

“Hindemith’s concentration and economy function at their highest power throughout the opera. …The contrapuntal parts, tingling, darting with vitality, are complex in appearance, clear in reality. Two of the most tremendous effects in the music are made by means so simple that one almost gasps on realizing how violently – on account of the context – one reacts to them. The first is the dead silence when Cardillac murders the Cavalier; the other is the long soft common chord of E flat on which the opera ends. For two hours Hindemith has held one…in a clenched fist, listening to his atonal, strangely staccato style. Then at last comes this diatonic, legato chord. The fist opens, one drops out, exhausted and amazed.”

Scott’s understanding and appreciation of Hindemith are clear yet she felt something was missing: “[Hindemith] is too radically a musician to evade for ever the great emotions that go with genius. If they thaw the little piece of ice that lies in his artist’s heart, the effect will be amazing.”

After World War II, Marion welcomed the opportunity to review concerts of contemporary music and found London “as music minded as ever, and infinitely more so than it was ten years ago”. She covered the “outstanding” Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in July 1946 that united countries so recently at war.

On Luigi Dallapiccola’s Songs from Captivity for chorus, percussion, harps and two pianos: “Only the last two movements were given at this concert [Boethius’ Invocation and Savonarola’s Farewell -- the first movement is Mary Stuart’s Prayer]. Technically they are distinguished by fine craftsmanship: and though not atonal they are fundamentally modern in their harmonic texture. But what winged the music straight into the sympathies of the hearers was its intensity of feeling. ‘These are they which came out of great tribulation’ one said to oneself.”

On Olivier Messiaen: “…another work was performed which also came out of captivity, but in this case it took the form of a mystical, apocalyptic quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano…called Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. Here was a man to whom in captivity had come the vision of that transcendental freedom where Time is nothing and Eternity everything. His eight movements were each touched with a strange, unworldly quality; some were exceedingly lovely, and the scoring had often an almost ethereal frugality which yet was never untender, except where the composer intended fierce effects, as in the ‘Danse de la fureur’, which was plangently aggressive.”

“It was,” she wrote “a strange experience to come away from these concerts that had brought together so many nations, and then to turn up a little alley between shells of buildings and come suddenly upon a view of one of our own quiet griefs – a great devastated area…of open ruins…[where] now grew pink willow herb, wild fern and golden yellow weeds, in a great silence beneath a half moon…”.

For more on the music and life of Marion Scott, see Pamela Blevins' Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott, available from your favourite bookseller.

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