Quadrant Music

The Dilemma of Quality

In December 1932, a nineteen-year-old Miriam Hyde penned a letter to her mother, Muriel, from London. “I had my piano lesson yesterday,” she began, having arrived at the Royal College of Music early in the year. “I did the Waldstein, chiefly [the] last movement, and I feel that I have never added so many ‘finishing touches’ to anything I have learnt.” Hyde’s characteristic diligence, it seems, formed eagerly during her youth. “Even now I am aware of many improvements I can still make,” she continued, “and even if I never accomplish the effect I have in my head, there is a satisfaction in knowing exactly what I want, and why I am practising it.”

There is, perhaps, equal satisfaction in contemplating Hyde’s cyclical, three-part process of conceptualisation, implementation and reflection. She first conceives of a musical idea, adjudicates its merits, and upon that adjudication decides whether or not to execute it. Finding in favour of the notion, she works rigorously to manifest it wholly and accurately. Upon its realisation, she pauses to assess not only her creation but herself; she understands that the artist is to his artwork God. It is a relationship that can only dilute over time. The artwork inevitably departs the sanctum that is the artist’s mind, bound for the scrutiny of friends, colleagues, experts, commentators and, perhaps most savagely, the general public. But it is a kind of private interpretation which Hyde champions, and it is through analysing the success of her conjured thoughts that she ignites her imagination afresh—and, thus, her process. It is a process intent upon one ultimate objective: improvement in the quality of one’s craft and style. For the credible artist, this objective may as well be some omnipresent being, a beast who inspires and tortures in equal measure, and a beast whose demands can never be authentically sated. For it is the inauthentic artist—the artist predominantly motivated by commerce, status or other extra-artistic phenomena—for whom matters of craft, style and quality become irrelevant.

I was surprised to enjoy an online editorial from Tony Burke on July 23, though perhaps not for reasons immediately obvious. In July, the Minister for the Arts offered Limelight a list of musical works that are of significance to him. His tastes are eclectic. He enjoys Jesus Christ Superstar and, for its appearance in Disney’s Fantasia, Rimsky-Korsakov’s adaptation of Night on Bald Mountain (1886). The minister might further like to hear, if he has not already, Mussorgsky’s many versions of the work; I find the orchestration and harmony in the original St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain (1867) more nuanced, and the work’s choral revision into “Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad” as part of the comic opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi (1880) heightens its drama. Before Question Time in the House of Representatives, Burke sometimes tinkles out “Come on Eileen” on the digital piano in his office; the tune supposedly invigorates him ahead of debate. More consequentially, he describes the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana as “the greatest piece of music ever written”. And, deliciously, he asserts that no other musical has “matched” West Side Story’s “quality of music”.

To declare an artwork great or unmatched is to pass judgment upon its value. But Burke, to my delight, goes further. He specifically gloats of the quality of Bernstein’s popular masterpiece. Here, then, is incontrovertible proof that the minister does not only recognise the existence of quality as a quantifiable metric to evaluate musical worth; he leads us to believe that he prizes quality above all other conceivable metrics and extra-musical considerations—and if this is the case, I can only despair.

As Hyde reveals, perception of quality can only occur through critical thought. For example, if a table’s four legs are level and its top sturdy then the carpenter’s craft is duly appreciated, for regardless of the table’s style—its size, its shape, the colour of its lacquered timber, and so on—it is, unquestionably, a well-constructed table. So it is with music. Compare, for instance, the Violin Concerto by Malcolm Williamson and Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music I, both composed in 1965. These two works are very different in style, and yet they are very similar in craft. Immediately, one is a three-movement concerto while the other is a kind of tone poem. More technically, there are sizeable variations in each’s employed musical parameters. Williamson’s harmony is chromatic, his rhythms pronounced, and his textures and timbres relatively in keeping with the compositional conventions of twentieth-century orchestral art music. On the other hand, Sculthorpe’s use of pitch is largely post-tonal, and his rhythmic and textural decisions are surely underpinned by his view that, in mirroring the geographic particulars of the outback, a certain “flatness” should dominate Australian music. Further, while both works could be broadly described as lamentations, they each infer their own complex moods. Although dedicated in memoriam to Dame Edith Sitwell and bookended by mournful adagios, Williamson’s writing in the second movement reflects a conscious attempt to indulge the virtuosity of the concerto’s commissioner: Yehudi Menuhin. As a result, what is otherwise a sorrowful and pensive work is punctuated by an utterance of the utmost exuberance, at times agitated, triumphant and, in conclusion, mischievous. Roger Covell, in his program note for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of Sun Music I—incidentally, which occurred in London as part of the one-off Commonwealth Arts Festival—noted the work’s “lonely glare”, its mystery, fear and space. “This is sun music,” Covell proffered, “written by a composer living in a country where the sun can be as much enemy as friend.” 

The style of the Violin Concerto, therefore, is ultimately distinct from Sun Music I. And yet both works’ composers employ material that they maturely organise and develop, creating complete, unique and convincing musical arguments. For example, Williamson’s writing for the soloist is just as mechanically intelligent as it is artful. Similarly, Sculthorpe’s extensive palette of performance techniques represents a propensity for calculated innovation rather than verbosity. These works are as well-crafted as they are aesthetically interesting. At the risk of appearing facetious, one might even go so far as to quote Vernon Handley: “It is called, I believe, composing.”

And if the fundamental parts of an artwork are craft and style, quality is the sum of those parts. The parts themselves, in this final analysis, essentially cease to exist independent of one another—sometimes to a work’s detriment. To re-examine an earlier metaphor, the table may be functional, but if the style of its design is ugly then its quality is negatively impacted. Conversely, a beautiful table that lacks structural integrity is little more than a delayed disaster; knowing that it lacks craft, the success of its style is mitigated and its quality lessened. In the case of both Williamson and Sculthorpe, the Violin Concerto and Sun Music I are strong in their parts, and so their overall quality is equally strong.

The process just explored is, I would hope, the process that Burke undertook—at the very least, subconsciously—before he adopted his position on West Side Story. In any case, why my earlier despair upon learning of the minister’s high regard for quality, when I have just made a case for its utmost importance? 

How true it is that the malevolence of a hypocrite stings long after he has struck the blow. Readers may recall that in my previous contribution to Quadrant Music, “The Rising of Music’s New Dawn”, I admonished the federal government’s new national cultural plan, Revive: A Place for Every Story, and a Story for Every Place. As more has come to light, notably the passage of the Australia Council Amendment (Creative Australia) Bill 2023, it does seem that some of my fiscal projections were worded inaccurately; what should have been specified is that a newly formed “First Nations-led advisory board” within Creative Australia could influence a significant portion of Revive’s budget. A composer can, perhaps, be forgiven for economic faux pas.

We will return to Revive’s monetary policies in later issues of Quadrant Music, as those policies are concretely legislated. For now, the issue at hand must be addressed. The Minister for the Arts, who oversaw the genesis of Revive, is the same minister who deems an artwork’s quality, as such a term is defined above, its most important characteristic. And yet Burke’s new national cultural plan is not chiefly predicated upon quality. It is not even chiefly predicated upon art. It is, however, totally and utterly obsessed with artists’ identities.

The very first pillar of Revive is openly based upon race. Indeed, the plan’s very first actionable clause is a commitment to implement in full the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This has nothing to do with art, let alone craft, style or quality—a dilemma which Burke is seemingly quite capable of understanding. His inaction in rectifying the error, therefore, can only be construed as deliberate. And it is for this reason that, in the end, I despair.

If there were one extra-artistic phenomenon for Burke, Revive and, indeed, us all to consider, it might be nationality. In her short piece on the following pages, concert pianist Catherine Broadstock, taking the 2023 Sydney International Piano Competition as a case study, asks readers to consider how important a composer’s nationality is. Certainly, I have not attended performances of Russian music since the war in Ukraine began; my motivations are not ideological but rather diplomatic. If the taxpayer has already exported 120 Bushmasters at a cost of $2.45 million per unit to Kiev, it seems to me cognitively dissonant that he should then pay to finance the culture of his de facto enemy. Surely, in this context, his money would be better spent supporting the artworks of his fellow countrymen. The universality of music, as Pablo Casals might have put it, is one matter, but so is consistency in fiscal policy, as well as the morale of an embattled nation. The last sounds a Ukrainian audience should want to hear, I would expect, are the opening bars of Marche Slav, or the victorious finale of Shostakovich’s Leningrad. Perhaps it is only during wartime when an artwork’s quality should not be considered prime. Moreover, the broader philosophic consideration for a nation like Australia is whether or not we, the Australian people, are capable of temporarily giving up the luxury commodity of state-funded, live Russian high art—or, for that matter, any luxury commodity. In the era of Spotify and YouTube, this challenge is easier than ever before, and yet I suspect our national psyche is marred by a sense of entitlement that only forms after a long period of prosperity. In any case, Mrs Broadstock’s initial query deserves an editorial response, and so I encourage readers to submit their answers to Quadrant via email.

If there were ever a folksong to categorically express the Australian nationality, it might be “Waltzing Matilda”. David R. Crowden, a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland, explores the song’s origins. He advances a theory that would see the estate of composer Harry Nathan paid out handsomely in royalties.

Nathan was an accomplished organist, which I am sure the issue’s last contributor, R.J. Stove, would appreciate. Dr Stove has recently recorded a new album of British and Australian organ music, including works by Alfred Floyd and William James. Floyd and James represent the class of Australian composer that has been both forgotten by history and deemed unfashionable by modern society. It is fitting, then, that their legacy should appear in the columns of these music pages.

All the editorial staff at Quadrant are delighted that, in the last two months, Quadrant Music has received a volume of submissions, including both domestic and international manuscripts. This reassuring support from musicians across the Anglosphere, which I invite all to contribute to, reveals the very necessary undertakings of these pages. Their purpose is not simply to highlight what is lost or neglected. They serve to restore Australia’s rich culture of thought and art, and to inspire craft, style and quality among all artists.

Alexander Voltz is a composer and the founding editor of Quadrant Music. His email address is alexander@adkvoltz.com.


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