Fellatio (ma non troppo)

Music 2 - Dermot Clinch on the composer hailed as a saviour of the art

The composer Thomas Ades was awarded the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition at the end of last year. He was named in the Sunday Times Power List as one of the "top 20 creative forces in the arts". And on Christmas Day he had an opera about oral sex on the television.

In fact Ades received a double dose of the Channel 4 treatment over the holiday season. There was also a documentary in which the young composer trudged across wintry landscapes, wore Reservoir Dogs-style shades outside the Snape Maltings concert hall in Tory East Suffolk and was charmingly immodest about his achievements in boosting ticket sales at the Aldeburgh Festival, where he is artistic director. But the main event was Powder Her Face on Christmas Day.

On the strength of this opera Ades now has commissions for Covent Garden and for Glyndebourne. But Powder Her Face remains, for the moment, his only stage work. It is distinctive. Act 1 Sc 4: "Ng ugh agh ah ng agh [coughing] ugh agh ugh agh [clears throat]...". The synopsis explains: "Her Grace gives the Waiter the friendly welcome which has earned her such popularity among the staff." The libretto by Philip Hensher, based on the life of the Duchess of Argyll, is feebly shocking, approximately witty and exhibits, along with its oral fascination, a brutally limited emotional range. The composer, aged 23 when he wrote the music, can be excused for attempting, but ultimately failing, to extend convincingly the piece's sympathies with a counter-current of his own.

Channel 4 concurs, as the title of its documentary, Music for the 21st Century, made clear, in the now routine judgement that Ades is the saviour of our musical life. And surprisingly, even on the small screen the virtues of his opera - its pacing, its emotional depths in spite of everything - were evident. Fishing reels and Swanee whistles fizz at the musical extremities; popguns, electric bells and accordions contribute to some of the most distinctive musical textures of any recent opera. Beginning on a tango, going through motions that Berg, even Stravinsky, might envy, the work is a parodist's showcase. In addition, the composer proves himself a master of the telling reference: accompanying the demise of the Duchess of Argyll by the ghost of a Venetian barcarole, the dance symbolising all those born, in Browning's phrase, "to bloom and drop".

The succes de scandale is always a good way to start. Richard Strauss established his operatic reputation with a work in which he dished up John the Baptist's head on a salver accompanied by disgustingly vivid musical trimmings, but only after Salome had danced naked in front of her stepfather. Ades pulled off a similar coup with his first opera. But it would be a shame if the piece's notoriety, and failings, eclipse his greater achievements.

For these the series of recordings on EMI are our best bet, most recently the grand echoing four movements of Asyla, the symphony in all but name, in which Ades finds a voice for the large musical occasion that is truly, distinctively his own. Is it possible to sound like yourself when sounding like Mahler and Wagner, as Ades does in the work's echoing, haunting slow movement? It is: the mark of this composer's genius is his ability, like Benjamin Britten before him, or W H Auden in another sphere, to soak up and redistribute the history of his art while making it distinctively new.

Peter Grimes sounds as though Verdi and Berg are in the wings for half the time, but is never anything other than Britten. Similarly, what may be Ades's most touching achievement so far, the slow movement of his string quartet Arcadiana (1994), is perhaps a reminiscence of Elgar. It is subtitled "O Albion"; is marked "devotedly"; treads softly but purposefully like Nimrod; and builds a climax as restrained and moving as Elgar's in the Enigma Variations. But over the movement's three minutes we think not only of Elgar, but of Beethoven, and of how that composer's late, almost static melodies were perhaps in Elgar's mind, too. And thus our intellect is engaged as well as our emotions, and the music is proved profoundly good.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing