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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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

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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad