Commentary Magazine


Sins of Commission

It was announced in May that Britain’s Prince Charles has commissioned a piano concerto in memory of his late grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at 101. Charles had previously commissioned (also in memory of his grandmother) Reflections on a Scottish Folksong, a work for cello and orchestra by Richard Rodney Bennett, which premiered in London last year. Bennett (born 1936), a student of Pierre Boulez, is an adept composer of classical works, as a bewitching CD of his choral works on Collegium Records proves. Bennett is also a noted composer of popular scores for hit films like Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Unfortunately, few composers share Bennett’s range of talents. Nigel Hess, the composer chosen by Prince Charles for the forthcoming concerto, is known mostly for his work in TV and films, as composer of the theme music for such BBC-TV series as Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and the score of the film Ladies in Lavender. Prince Charles, who briefly studied the cello in his youth, is a self-proclaimed fan of classical music and opera. But he expresses his appreciation with the kind of backward-looking stance he has notoriously applied to modern architecture. In 2000, Charles appointed a young Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch, to be official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales—an honor last granted in 1871.

Musical traditions dating back to 1871 may appeal to the prince, but those of only slightly later vintage apparently do not. The late UK arts administrator John Drummond revealed in his autobiography Tainted by Experience that, after a concert performance of Alban Berg’s String Quartet, written in 1910, Charles declared: “Well, you can’t call that music.” Dealing with living composers is necessarily a challenge to anyone who still finds 1910 too avant-garde.

If Charles ever does decide to devote any time to new music, he need not look far. Two of Europe’s most exciting younger composers, Thomas Adès (born 1971) and Mark-Anthony Turnage (born 1960) are flourishing in England today. Outside the UK, the venerable French maestro Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) is still thriving, while Germany’s Wilhelm Killmayer (born 1927), Russia’s Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931), Hungary’s György Kurtág (born 1926), Switzerland’s Heinz Holliger (born 1939), Norway’s Arne Nordheim (born 1931), Estonia’s Arvo Pärt (born 1935), and America’s Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) have all produced recent work of permanent value. To overlook composers of this stature when it is time to commission new works may be called a sin of omission. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas states that such sins are generally less grave than sins of commission—but he was not referring to piano concertos.