The bands are talented, but the music is terrible. Photo: Getty
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Proms 2014: Remembering WWI with anthems for doomed youth

Disciplined it might be, but military music is awful. Luckily, there's greater depth to this season than a first glance suggests.

BBC Proms 2014
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

Like many things now considered to be quintessentially English, what we think of as military music – ceremonial oompah-ing in red coats – didn’t come into being until the mid-19th century. During the Crimean war, a musical celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday descended into chaos when about 20 different military bands, lacking any overall direction, all launched into “God Save the Queen” at a different pitch and tempo. The result was a distinctly unpatriotic cacophony: a cousin of the queen was so appalled that he went on to create a system of centralised training for military musicians so henceforth they would always march to the same tune.

Disciplined it might be, but there is no escaping that military music is awful. It’s no accident that the presenters on Classic FM regularly exhort housewives to use it as motivation to get the dusting done. The musicians are often outstanding – anyone who has been to a do at a barracks will have heard the tootling, crashing morass transform itself into a tight jazz ensemble as soon as the drinks are poured – and being in a military band is, unfortunately, one of the few ways left for a musician to make a reliable income. Ordinarily, with very little effort it’s possible to give military music a wide berth. This year, though, its unrelenting tedium is threatening to intrude, as it is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

In poetry, the Great War has a well-known trajectory: from the initially patriotic pastorals of Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen’s blasted swamps. In classical music, the narrative is not so straightforward, partly because martial music yields so little of broader cultural value. The Proms are taking the war as one of the major themes this year and although the obvious stuff is there – music from War Horse and the Military Wives Choir (3 August) – there are some intriguing choices, too.

Favourites such as Britten’s War Requiem (21 August) and contemporary commissions from the likes of Sally Beamish (1 August) and the late John Tavener (4 August) sit alongside relatively unknown works by composers who went to war, some never to return. Three composers who lost their lives in the trenches – Rudi Stephan, Frederick Kelly and George Butterworth – are featured this season (17 August). When you know that Stephan, a young German from Hesse, died on the Eastern Front in 1915 aged just 28, it’s all too easy to find a doomed, elegiac quality in his Music for Orchestra. The slow tempo, the Mahler-esque flourishes, the achingly beautiful woodwind solos – although written in 1912, the piece seems to gesture towards the turmoil to come.

Frederick Kelly’s offering is more overtly connected with the conflict: he is said to have begun composing his Elegy for Strings, in Memoriam Rupert Brooke on a hospital ship in 1915 as the poet lay dying nearby (Kelly died at the Somme the following year). But it is Butterworth’s 1912 piece Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad” that typifies the music we associate with the war. By using these A E Housman poems, he was joining an English composing tradition – including Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland – of harking back to a non-existent English Eden of folk music, rural pleasures and honest toil. Although Housman was writing in the aftermath of the Boer war, lines such as “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old” have a new resonance in this context.

The English pastoral is present in so much of this First World War music, both a reaction to and an evasion of the horrors of the conflict. Also featured in the season is A Pastoral Symphony (17 August) by Vaughan Williams, begun in 1916. One of his lesser-known works, it has now been re-evaluated as a “war requiem”. The shadow of death intrudes upon its idyllic landscape with subtle dissonances and a swelling sense of sorrow. The haunting trumpet cadenza in the second movement was inspired by a bugler the composer heard practising, who kept playing a seventh instead of a true octave. Even the pastoral can fall short of the ideal.

Englishness is a major topic for the Proms. One of the featured composers is the 20th century’s William Walton who, although he moved between styles and genres during his long career, has always remained resolutely English in the minds of critics. Indeed, just days before the post-imperial flag-waving of the Last Night, Walton’s Viola Concerto will be the centrepiece of a Prom devoted entirely to English music (10 September). Not all of the pieces that night are easy choices: Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 4 in F Minor is notably severe. Yet the message is clear – in a year of martial commemorations, when Scotland is voting on independence and politicians are shying away from Englishness as something toxic, English music is still something worth listening to. 

The Proms run until 13 September

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Beyond Moonlight: how Hollywood is still failing LGBTQ audiences

2016 was a bleak year for gay and transgender characters in Hollywood pictures.

How was 2016 for LGBT representation in Hollywood? It was the year Moonlight was released – the breathtaking love story of two young black men that won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars.

Beyond Moonlight, many smaller studios produced thoughtful, empathetic explorations of the lives of gay characters: from Gravitas Ventures’s All We Had and 4th Man Out to IFC’s Gay Cobra to Magnoloia Pictures’s The Handmaiden.

So… pretty good, right?

Not when you look at the statistics, released by GLAAD this week. While a low-budget, independent production managed to storm the mainstream, of the 125 releases from the major studios in 2016, only 23 included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. And almost half of those releases saw that LGBTQ character receive less than one minute of screen time. Only nine passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test – which, inspired by The Bechdel Test, asks whether characters are treated as real people, or just punchlines. Plus, while many studios claimed characters were gay, they refused to explicitly or implicitly discuss this in the script: take Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters.

A closer look at some of the LGBTQ characters we had from the big studios this year underlines quite how bad the industry is at portraying LGBTQ people:

Deadpool, Deadpool
While much was made of Deadpool’s pansexual orientation in the run-up to the film’s release, the only references that actually made it to screen were throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous and weird Deadpool is.

Terry, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave’s bisexual pal Terry repeatedly tries to persuade other characters to sleep with her, often at deeply inappropriate times, and even attempting to bribe one character into engaging in sexual activity. According to this film, bisexuality = hypersexuality.

Marshall, Lubliana, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

This whole film was a mess in its treatment of LGBTQ characters, particularly transgender ones. The very concept of being transgender is here treated as a punchline. Edina’s ex-husband Marshall is described as “a transgender” and treated as a joke, Marshall’s wife Bo claims she is now black, insisting she can change race as her husband has changed gender, while Patsy goes undercover as a man to marry the rich Baroness Lubliana, who announces “I’m not a woman”. Other lines from the film include ““I hate how you have to be nice to transgendered people now.”

Random strangers, Criminal

Remember the moment when two men kiss on a bridge in Criminal? No, me neither, because it lasted approximately four seconds. See also: Finding Dory – which supposedly features a lesbian couple (two women pushing a child in a pram). Literally blink and you miss them.

Bradley, Dirty Grandpa

The black, gay character Bradley only exists in this film as somone for Dick (Robert De Niro) to direct all his racist and homophobic jokes at. But this film doesn’t stop there – there are also a whole collection of jokes about how Jason (Zac Efron) is actually a butch lesbian.

Hansel, All, Zoolander 2

Dimwitted former model Hansel McDonald is now bisexual and involved in a long-term polyamorous relationship with 11 people – his entire storyline of running from them when they become pregnant, finding a new “orgy” and eventually coming back to them – relies on the most dated stereotypes around bisexuality, promiscuity and fear of commitment.

Meanwhile, straight cis man Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a non-binary model named All, who has “just married hermself” after “monomarriage” has been legalized, and exists purely so other characters can speculate loudly over whether All has “a hotdog or a bun” – yet again reducing transgender people to their body parts for cheap laughs.

Various, Sausage Party

From Teresa del Taco to Twink the Twinkie to the effeminate “fruit” produce, these are stereotypes in food form, not actual characters.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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