Peter Phillips

Importance of hummability

In a recent article in the Times, Matthew Parris wrote stirringly about the inspiration which may come from listening to buskers: ‘Amazing how a snatch of music heard in passing can lift the imagination and spirit.’ To him the essence of this snatch is hummable or whistle-able melody, and we are told that the ‘superior’ musicians who ignore such a simple ingredient are ‘the parasites on a beast whose lifeblood is melody’. He went on to have a go at Sir John Tavener, who apparently has written new music to ‘Away In A Manger’ because he found the existing tune trite. When Sir John was asked by an interviewer whether he thought his new music should be singable by ordinary people, he replied, ‘Not really, because, you know, I wrote it with King’s College choir in mind.’

Aside from being rather funny, it brought to mind a concert I am about to be involved in, in the Birmingham Symphony Hall on 20 January. One half of this event is to consist of the world première of Tavener’s ‘Tribute To Cavafy’, with Vanessa Redgrave reading Cavafy’s poetry while we sing Tavener’s accompanying music, and Sarah Connolly as the soprano soloist; the other will be the world première of a new (and daring) edition of Gombert’s ‘Missa Tempore Paschali’. After reading Parris’s piece, I couldn’t help wondering which of the two offerings would appeal most to his putative audience. No doubt the fact that the concert will be well attended doesn’t cut much mustard, since these will be rich people, but the irony is that both pieces in their own idiom are stacked full of melody.

I helped commission the piece by Tavener, and had a hand in choosing the poems by Cavafy which would be set to music, or more accurately surrounded by music.

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