Last week, I attended two concerts that showcased the works young composers studying at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in Kensington, London. Most of the compositions were no longer than five minutes in duration. They were performed by musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists, also studying at the RCM.
I am not a musician, but I do enjoy classical music, both historical and contemporary. As a musically uneducated member of the audience, I was puzzled by many of the pieces that I heard. It struck me that many of the budding composers were aiming to make the performers produce extremely unusual sounds from their instruments or with their voices. It seemed to me that the compositions were written to make the performers produce the most unexpected sounds, many of them although interesting were not too pleasing to my ears and definitely atypical of the instrument making them. Tunefulness was of little or no importance in most of the pieces I heard. Many of the vocal pieces performed involved making various hissing sounds without using the vocalists’ vocal cords. The object semmed to be to intrigue the audience rather than to please it.
Each piece, despite my misgivings, attracted generous applause. Either the audience was being kind as many in it were members of the RCM, or they really enjoyed what they heard. I could not decide which was the case.
At the end of the second concert, I wondered how the composers, whose works I had just heard, would ever be able to make a living if they continued composing such unmusical (to my ears) music as I had experienced. Well, I wish them luck.
This evening, I attended a performance of A Musical Offering by JS Bach (opus BWV 1079) at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. Each of the sections of this work was introduced by the conductor, Joe Parks, who explained what was musically interesting about them.
The whole piece is based on a theme composed by King Frederick II of Prussia. He gave it to Bach on the 7th of May 1747, and challenged the composer to do something interesting with it. A Musical Offering is what Bach did with the King’s theme. I am no musician, so can hardly explain the compositional procedures with which Bach exploited the King’s somewhat dull theme. For example, in one of the sections improvisations on the theme are played with musicians simultaneously playing the modified theme both forwards and in reverse. In another section, the theme is improvised in a range of different keys. In brief, this piece by Bach is both intriguing and challenging for musicians. Although this aspect of the music is lost on me, my enjoyment of the work was not impaired.
What fascinates me is that a piece of music so full of compositional twists and turns is a delight to hear. Bach has not only satisfied his desires to hone his compositinal technique in this piece, but also he has created a work that is highly satisfying to the listener.
Great music like great paintings reach into the the inner subconscious of the listener or viewer and thereby evoke an almost visceral sensation of joy. It does not matter that the music is full of compositional magic or the painting might be impressionistic or abstract because the great artist knows how to produce a work that reaches those hidden parts of the body that evoke feelings we call emotion. Without doubt, A Musical Offering did that for me.