Be embraced!

Music - Dermot Clinch on how composers engage with the symphony

The funny bit in Hans Werner Henze's big, German, un-funny, anti-fascist Ninth Symphony, given its British premiere at the Proms this year, was the third movement. A Nazi official was delivering a typed report of his latest outrage. A task force of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - castanets, rattles, bongos, cymbals, glockenspiels, tubular bells und so weiter - accompanied his despatch with a full-scale clicking and tapping National Socialist typewriter. The jaunty pings of the carriage returns sounded terribly out of place.

Henze embraces all he does with warmth and emotion. His talent for orchestral writing is famous and, in his new symphony, it is responsible not only for many of the wonderful things we hear, but for many of the funny ones, too.

It is not that dialectic and synthesis need dominate a symphony. It is not that local colour - the sensual soughing of wind in reeds, for example - is ruled out. But Henze spatters local colour so widely across his Ninth Symphony that it ends up all over the place, and we are back at square one.

At least the continuing importance of the symphony, or the idea of the symphony, was being demonstrated. Henze's work is an "expression of the utmost admiration for the people who put up resistance to the Nazis and their reign of terror", and is the latest of the composer's many bulletins from the front line of world oppression. The symphony is based on Anna Seghers's novel The Seventh Cross, which also inspired a film starring Spencer Tracy. The Albert Hall filled up to hear it, and the Harold Pinters put in an appearance. But one wonders if the composer's notoriety as a spokesman for the left obscures the central question of whether solidarity with the masses is best expressed in a language - all modernistic and expressionistic - that the masses, almost certainly, do not even want to understand.

At least Henze plunges into the deep end. He does not court the criticism levelled at the distinguished composer Robin Holloway, whose First Symphony was premiered at the Proms, that he "should get out more", rather than stay holed up in his Cambridge college writing music about music and larding his works with quotations from a century of musical styles. This was, in fact, a curious criticism. Holloway had been commissioned to write a piece "charting the course of the 20th century", and his use of that century's music, if not actually demanded, was surely justified. Holloway lards with brilliance; the manner in which his symphonic themes morphed now into Strauss, now Elgar, and so on, and proved capable of all kinds of upside-down and inside-out games, was highly crafty.

Holloway and Henze do things differently. Henze is German and unembarrassed by his national symphonic heritage, even if he is ashamed by much of the rest of it. He invites us to compare his Ninth, a choral symphony, with Beethoven's Ninth, also choral, but moreover, as it happens, the most influential symphony ever composed. Holloway writes programme notes that constitute a long and detailed apology for his way of doing things. He is more guarded. And he is English. He felt "so thoroughly brainwashed by the Austro- Germanic superiority complex", he told one newspaper the day before his First Symphony was performed, that writing a symphony was something he thought he would never do, "not in my whole life".

Perhaps even Holloway, an avowed romantic, suffers reservations about what modernist composers have disparagingly called "the Brahms noise": the motorised chug of outdated ideologies said to be discernible in the monumental works of the greatest symphonist after Beethoven. After two world wars and a fascist nightmare, it was perhaps inevitable that the sound of an artist getting into a creative froth, the sound of belief in progress and change as manifest in music, should become suspect, and that the sublime grinding of a big symphony should become unfashionable. Modernists tended to avoid them. "If a-((b+n)-a)

Holloway's symphony is huge, impressive, witty; it is about a difficult century, but contains few jackboots; it ignores two periods of total war because the composer regards these as untreatable; it is overintellectualised; it is about music. But, for one composer, the writing of a symphony marked a step, it seems fair to say, towards greater engagement. "I resisted it at first - I really battled against what it was trying to be; I tried to deny it." Yet he wrote it. Henze carried the symphonic torch through dark modernist years and wrote works inspired by the songs of the Vietnamese Liberation Front and Afro-Cuban rituals in honour of Shango, the god of war. His was engagement of a different kind.

The approaches are different. But both may be sourced, like just about everything in the past couple of hundred years of western music, to Beethoven, who was the first composer seriously to write music about music, but also the first to write a great symphony that was, at the same time, a political statement. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is now known as the official hymn of the European Union, and Leonard Bernstein changed the words when the Berlin Wall came down. But derived from it are both Holloway's rarefied, self-critical art, committed in its own way, and the high gloss of Henze's more outward engagement.

In the end, Beethoven's Choral says it all. It was conducted at this year's Proms by Bernard Haitink; and if we were moved beyond measure, it was not because the work depicts man's inhumanity to man in musical detail, which it doesn't, but because the solidarity of the final choral movement - "Be embraced, ye millions!/This kiss to all the world!" - rests its case on musical evidence first and last. Beethoven has the confidence even to doubt his own art. "Not these sounds!" sings the bass soloist, referring to all that has gone before, and signalling the struggle yet to come. The work blazes into political affirmation at the end, but it is affirmation won through musical fight, by musical means.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place