Lifeline of the dead composers' societies

September 8, 2000

Academic interest in the great composers has ensured them a life after death. Christopher Wood reports

Although there are those who claim to have received messages from the ghost of Beethoven, death generally puts an end to a composer's activities. But it can be just the beginning of another process, that of constructing and nurturing a posthumous reputation. Foundations, trusts, archives and institutes use a mixture of PR and scholarship to maintain the lustre of their chosen composer. Last month in Munich, at the first International Symposium of Composer Institutes, 38 of them got together to compare methods.

The conference was organised by Graham Lack of the Orff-Zentrum, an institute dedicated to Bavarian composer Carl Orff. As Lack explains, the first efforts of most institutes are directed towards acquiring an archive. "Scholars need to have manuscript sources together under one roof," he says. Bringing together documents can be a complex task. While all Orff manuscripts are located in one city, Munich, the Bohuslav Martinu Institute in Prague had to track down Martinu memorabilia in the many places in Western Europe and the United States where the peripatetic composer lived.

Once an archive is assembled, students can be encouraged to visit. A number of masters and PhD students reading musicology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich are being financed by the Orff-Zentrum.

The Archivo Manuel de Falla in Granada, Spain, is a particularly useful resource, because Falla seems never to have thrown anything away. The archive's musical director, Yvan Nommick, says this makes research into Falla especially fruitful. "It is possible to write an unbiased thesis," he says, "as all Falla's notes, documents and thoughts are still in existence."

Nearer to home, the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh is invaluable for scholars of Benjamin Britten and his contemporaries in music and other arts. The library's director, Jenny Doctor, lists their extensive holdings:

"We have 95 per cent of Britten's music manuscripts, 75,000 letters to and from Britten, performance and conducting scores, the archives of the English Opera Group, 13,000 photos, videosI" There is much more. As an academic, Doctor makes frequent use of the archive. The library also runs seminars and other projects with the University of East Anglia and the Colchester Institute.

With such vast stores of material, organisation is crucial, and the Falla archive like many others is going down the road of digitisation.

"(Digitisation) enables us to have a copy of all the documentation without having to handle the originals," says Nommick. But David Farneth of the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York urges caution. "Our website gets about 5,000 hits a month," he says, "but we are holding back on wholesale digitisation. The question is how to store all these graphic files. People at the conference are talking about storing images on CD-Rom, but the current shelf life of CD-Roms is only five to ten years."

One of the most important activities of the institutes is to support, and in some cases sponsor, a complete edition of its composer's works. Carl Nielsen - whose six symphonies have gained in popularity since his death in 1931 - is undergoing such a process, for which the editors have a free hand with the documents held by the Nielsen Museum in Odense, Denmark.

Another way of keeping a composer in the public eye is to issue recordings. This is the main work carried out by the RVW Trust, set up by English pastoralist Ralph Vaughan Williams with the condition that it promote compositions other than his own, something taken care of by its sister organisation, RVW Ltd. Recordings consultant to the trust, Bernard Benoliel, says: "We do recordings we think VW would have liked. One aim is to revive neglected contemporaries."

Just as the core activities of composer's institutes vary widely, so do their funding arrangements. The Orff-Zentrum is fully funded by the Bavarian state. For special projects it can also apply for funds to the composer's estate, which, as it receives money every time Orff's hugely popular Carmina Burana is played, is in a position to be generous. The Zentrum's situation contrasts sharply with the Centre de Documentation Claude Debussy, which has moved five times in the past eight years because of financial difficulties.

The Debussy institute can at least rest assured of Debussy's musical reputation. The Franz Schreker Institute has trouble persuading anyone to take notice of its composer. Schreker, an Austrian whose father was Jewish, had his "degenerate" music banned by the Nazis. He died in 1934, and somehow escaped rehabilitation. Jorge Zulueta, director of the Paris-based Societe Franz Schreker, is mystified. "It's a political question, not a musical one," he says. "Schreker left his estate to a publishing house, but they haven't published anything. What's needed is not a good editor but a good lawyer."

Which introduces a final role that sometimes has to be played by institutes, that of mediating between composer's estates and publishers, or other parties that might be inclined to squabble. "Some of the battles that composers and composers' heirs have gone through in the past 30 years over the extension of copyright have been horrific," Benoliel says.

A NOTEWORTHY FOUNDATION

The William Walton Trust was set up by Walton's widow, Lady Susana Walton, in 1984. Mindful of Walton's relatively poor background and the fact that the couple had no children, she decided to plough the considerable sums accruing from royalties into educational projects.

"We run a project in schools in deprived areas of Britain," says one of the trustees, John F. Da Luz Camacho. "The idea was to allow children who would never normally touch an instrument to put on part of an opera and work with a professional orchestra." Each year, about 5,000 seven to 11-year-olds take part. The aim is to promote music, not to promote Walton.

Older students can benefit from an activity organised by the trust's twin, the Walton Fondazione, which flies a lucky few to Ischia, Italy, where the Waltons lived from 1948, for masterclasses.

The trust sponsors a festival in Walton's home town of Oldham, and two years ago it underwrote a festival in Bulgaria, which Lady Walton attended, to perform Walton's Facade.

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