Wanted: Dead or Alive – Good Composers

In a remarkable interview some years ago, soprano Jessye Norman was asked how she refreshed songs by Beethoven, which she had been singing for many years.

‘By singing New Music,’ she replied. ‘It gives me more to say, more to give.’ She went on to describe her excitement as each page of a new song by a living composer rolled out of her fax machine.

I know just how she felt. Last week I was in an ensemble which was recording a new score that arrived via email attachment; I couldn’t wait to print it out and try it. New Music – as yet unperformed, unheard, newly-minted – about to be brought to life and recorded.

The interesting thing was how the experience of playing New Music by a living composer impacted the process this week of learning music, new to me, but by a dead composer. Rehearsing a new score in the presence of its composer sharpened my awareness of markings, note lengths, dynamics etc in a score by a composer no longer with us. And then later, when reworking another piece already in my repertoire, I found myself hearing and seeing that work with new ears/eyes.

James MacMillan, in a recent talk in Ipswich, quipped that all the best composers are dead. [Discuss!] Whatever one’s views are on that, playing music by living composers  can enrich our approach to the music of the dead ones. We have more to say, and more to give.

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