The second part of the pen-portrait of Montague Phillips published in Part 21 of Music of All Nations: A collection of the World’s Best Music. The contemporary reader is reminded that this was written some 88 years ago and must allow for some views which may seem a little patronising in 2016.
‘What are your views, Mr. Phillips, on some of the music that has been written of late years?
‘Much of it I heartily enjoy—in fact, I like ultra-modern work, provided that it is music, but half the stuff we get nowadays is not music at all; formless, without coherence or logic, and ugly. Without being in the least old-fashioned, I contend that beauty is an essential part of art. Surely there is so much ugliness around us in all the facts of existence that we can well afford to spare it from music and the sister arts; but to-day there is a kind of brutality in expression which seems to be held up as originality and strength. It is nothing of the kind. I do not dispute that a composer should write as he feels, but if some of our present-day musicians are writing as they feel, there must be something seriously wrong with them! The truth is, in my opinion that they are determined to get to the front, which in itself may be quite laudable, and that they endeavour to achieve their end by sensational means in order to be talked about.
At the opposite extreme is all the jazz and syncopated stuff that has been imported from America, but this is already dying away, and we are getting in its place a sort of Moody and Sankey music. Similarly, I think, that people are beginning to come back to saneness in art, one of the signs of renewed health being the return to the classics so much in evidence to-day. Look how popular Bach is. It seems as if people cannot have enough of him, though I have my doubts as to whether this is always genuine. It may be in part due to fashion, which obtains in music as in women's attire.
Side by side with the most modern output we have been indulging in a regular orgy of the long past, such as folk music and the works of the Tudor period. This has been considerably overdone. Because a piece is old it is not necessarily good also, but we have been rather indiscriminate in our admiration for what has been unearthed. Some time ago composers were bidden to seek for originality and native idiom by studying folk music, but national progress is not to be made in that way; rather it is hindered. I associate myself unreservedly with a recent utterance on this point by Sir Edward Elgar. He said, 'I am sorry that instead of inventing our own tunes we are going back to the old folk songs and trying to build from them. There are people who pull down old castles and build houses, and sometimes pig-sties, but there is the satisfaction of knowing that there is an inspector of nuisances. People take folk songs and make modern music of them, but there is no inspector of nuisances to look after that sort of thing. I only wish there were.'
Apart from the two extremes in music, the ultra-highbrows and the irredeemable lowbrows, there is a great middle class of amateurs, as well as professionals, whose chief demand is that they shall have music which they understand and enjoy, without their taste becoming debased. It is those in this class which are the mainstay of music, and while I would not claim that their opinions should be paramount, I do say that in the nature of things they are entitled to be considered. It is they who buy our music, who fill our concert-rooms and theatres, and 'listen-in' to the wireless. Their support cannot be gained by affronting them.
It is rather a vogue to depreciate a song as an art product, but, after all, it is one of the easiest and, maybe, one of the best ways of gaining the popular ear. Provided the words are good, though not necessarily by Shakespeare, these can be set to music in such a way as that the whole shall be a really artistic production, quite different from the ordinary shop ballad. Because a song has the good fortune to hit the popular taste there is no reason why it must therefore be regarded as commonplace or cheap.'
‘The popularity of light opera of the Sullivan type shows that there is an immense public for this class of music, but we cannot live on Gilbert and Sullivan alone. We want something a little more up to date, if I may say so, and we have the composers who can give it us. But what earthly chance have they of gaining a hearing? They are ousted by the foreigner every time, until it would really seem as if we British are patriotic in everything but music. It is unfair that our composers should not have their chance, but our theatre managers seem to have no vision or imagination. They are unable to visualise or realise the possibilities of a new work, and so they have to go to America or elsewhere to see a piece which is already on the boards before they can judge whether it suits their purpose or not. If it does they buy it, just as they would any shop article.
‘They won't look at a British composer. It has got to this pitch—that even if they get a piece on a British subject they go to a foreigner to provide the music, which is farcical. Yet we have plenty of composers waiting for a chance to show of what they are capable. These are the people who need encouragement.
What is really wanted is a theatre devoted to the production of British light opera. I sometimes feel that had I had the good fortune to win the big prize in the Calcutta Sweepstake—which was an impossibility, seeing I had no ticket—I would have spent a large part of it in furthering a scheme of this kind, for there would have been more money than I should have needed personally. The only alternative is to appeal to some benevolent millionaire to come forward with the few necessary thousands of pounds, but I fear that the appeal will fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, our public is starving for the lack of really good light opera, while our composers, conscious they can supply it, are eating out their hearts in neglect. I can only hope that, as in other spheres, there will be a return to saneness and that some manager with more vision and enterprise than his colleagues will lead the way. If success attends him, as I feel sure it would, it will not be long before the others will follow his lead, even as one sheep follows another. The public is ripe for some such undertaking.'
‘Public taste is very much underestimated. There are plenty of people who only like rubbish, but practically they can be ignored. The great majority of people are really musical in the sense that they can appreciate music which is melodious and well written, but not too advanced. The trend of things in general is to a better standard, but the managers of our theatres steadfastly refuse to put on pieces which would satisfy them, and when people go to hear them they have to listen to inferior music sung by inferior singers. The consequence is that, apart from grand opera, which is on another plane to that I am discussing, our musical stage is starved. All that we are given are foreign productions in which dancing comes first and music last. Our amateur societies are reduced to giving a few works, if we exclude the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. They don't do the foreign stuff, in which there is nothing for them to work at worthy of their powers.'
‘This amateur operatic movement is the one thing which is keeping alive the English love for light opera. Many of their performances are indeed extraordinarily good and successful, but they are not in a position to produce new works, which is what we want if this particular form of art is to flourish. And for that we need a home in the shape of a permanent English opera house.’