Tuesday, September 12, 2006

From www.classicstoday.com, 12.9.06


London: August 25, 2006

“When British music plays, the world now listens!” So trumpets the jingoistic cover of this month’s Gramophone magazine. Well, evidently the international astronomical community hasn’t been paying attention. In a triumphant vindication of composer Gustav Holst’s original conception for his popular orchestral work The Planets, the scientific gathering voted to remove Pluto from the list of true solar bodies meriting the designation “planet,” thus sparing music lovers the need ever again to hear English composer Colin Matthews’ excruciatingly wretched appendix to Holst’s masterpiece. Record labels that have already recorded the piece are reportedly hastening to reissue their performances with Pluto happily omitted.
One confidential source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this correspondent: “We knew it was a bad idea from the start, but we got a lot of subsidy money from the Arts Council for pretending that contemporary English music wasn’t as dead as we all know it to be.” Members of the London orchestras are echoing the same sentiments. “Yes, the music is bad, and there’s something shoddy about have nothing better to do than latch on to an established masterpiece in order to make a name for yourself,” sighed one resigned back-stand violinist. “But don’t tell anyone I said so,” she added hastily, looking over her shoulder in alarm. “You have no idea how close-knit the performing arts community is over here. No one dares express any dissent if one wants to keep one’s job.”

Still, cracks in the institutional foundation seem to be appearing. Representatives of the various national rights societies are meeting in Madagascar next week to debate whether or not Matthews should be forced to return all of his royalties. “He’s never made any money from anything else he’s ever done,” said one enraged delegate, “so why should he profit from what has turned out to be a fraud?” Matthews himself, through his publicist, points out that he had no way of knowing that Pluto would soon be demoted from planetary status, but that argument doesn’t hold much water with record buyers. Shoppers at HMV’s flagship London store seemed rather better informed than the composer. “Pluto’s claim to planethood was always controversial,” says James M., a phlebotomist from Kensington. “Matthews should have thought of that before mutilating a masterpiece!”

As the repercussions continue to ripple through the classical music world, there are rumors that the House of Commons may take up the matter this fall. Tory back-benchers, operating under the mistaken assumption that Gustav Holst was German and not English, have already been heard to characterize the Pluto decision as “anti-British,” and have expressed support for Matthews' latest project, a Proms commission to write a sequel to Eric Coates’ London Again Suite tentatively entitled London Again and Again and Again. Other projects have been hastily cancelled, not all of them originating in the U.K. The Fairbanks Symphony of Alaska is reportedly considering dropping plans to commission Matthews to write Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Arctica.

British conductor Simon Rattle, however, is predictably standing by Matthews, a close personal friend. Rattle's upcoming tour with the Berlin Philharmonic features performances of The Planets with Pluto still intact, and he reportedly sent a personal letter to the deliberating astronomers begging them to at least postpone their announcement until after the tour, "for the sake of international peace and fellowship." And not every third-rate English composer finds the situation distressing. Anthony Payne, busily at work on his conjectural completion of Elgar’s opera based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, barely conceals his glee. “Matthews bungled the job,” Payne contends, summarizing the entire imbroglio in this fashion: “One should never touch a finished piece. In writing trash and fobbing it off as the work of a master, it is essential to select a project in which the original composer did as little as humanly possible. Then no one can criticize your own contribution, however awful.” Just so.

David Hurwitz

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