The high-brow just don't know how to love him

January 9, 2004

Puccini faced it, so did Rodgers and Hammerstein, and today Andrew Lloyd Webber is a victim. Why can't academics help but sneer at popular composers, asks Adrian Mourby

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a composer who produces strong, not to say violent, reactions in people. Last year, art critic Brian Sewell famously begged Lord Lloyd-Webber not to leave his art collection to the nation, dubbing the Royal Academy exhibition of Lloyd Webber's Victorian art "complete trash" and calling the collector "an immature and blinkered Betjemaniac".

Lloyd Webber has also been attacked by musicians, notably the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who accused him of plagiarism.

"There are two sorts of stealing (in music) - taking something and doing nothing with it, or going to work on what you've stolen. The first is plagiarism. Andrew Lloyd Webber has yet to think up a single note; in fact, the poor guy's never invented one note by himself. That's rather poor," Andriessen says.

Lloyd Webber's reputation is certain to come under the microscope again when The Phantom of the Opera finally comes to the big screen this year.

Yale University Press is also bringing out an analysis of his work this year by John Snelson, editor of Royal Opera House publications.

But despite his ability to rouse passions and his role in transforming the West End theatre scene, Lloyd Webber has been little studied in the UK.

Why? David Nicholls, professor of music at Southampton University, admits:

"The academic community has been snotty about Lloyd Webber." He adds that the composer also did himself few favours by comparing himself to Puccini on a television programme.

Geoffrey Block, professor of music and author of Oxford University Press'

history of the Broadway musical, From Show Boat to Sondheim , says simply:

"He is the Broadway composer musicians love to hate."

But Peter Dickinson of London University's Institute of United States Studies thinks academics should not be so quick to write off Lloyd Webber's achievements. "Regardless of fashions or passing snobberies, music that means something to millions of people is successful in communicating.

Therefore both the music and its context will always be worth studying."

Dickinson sees parallels with other popular composers once considered beyond the pale. "The serious music establishment sneered at Gershwin for long enough. In the past 20 years, things have changed. The public knew all along."

So what have critics and academics got against a good tune? In Nicholls' opinion, there is considerable resistance in the academic community to popular music.

"As a discipline, music is hopelessly behind," he says. "It's only in the past 20 or 30 years that barriers have begun to break down, but there is still a resistance to engage with the musical. There have been studies emerging in the past ten years - of musical composers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and so on - but the closer you get to the present day, the less likely it is that there's scholarly engagement. The only person who broke through this is Sondheim."

Nicholls says the less populist Sondheim, who has written musicals based on the works of Bergman and Plautus and has won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, is a more academic-friendly composer because he "doesn't promote himself as Lloyd Webber does, he responds well to penetrative interviews, he chooses subject matter that has depth, he's relatively modest and hasn't made a huge amount of money".

Snelson thinks Lloyd Webber has, like Puccini, been discriminated against for composing strong, self-contained musical numbers that stand proud of the lyric dramas for which they were written. "Consider Love Changes Everything ," he says. "The supposedly 'higher' aim of an integrated work of art militates against such self-contained 'take-out' hits - but the public loves them. I think a lot of our critics and academic commentators distrust such a direct relationship between audience and composer without the intermediary of analysis and explanation - it does them out of a job.

"Hence, that which becomes easily popular is quickly deemed to be without a pure artistic value. Commerce and art are too often placed in an uncomfortable and false opposition."

Snelson is also dismissive of the charge that Lloyd Webber is a plagiarist. "Lloyd Webber's musical style has strong roots in the 1960s, when the transformation of classical music through its assimilation into rock was in full flow. Think of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's use of Pictures at an Exhibition or Deep Purple's use of Janácek's Allegro Barbaro . We should remember that many progressive rock musicians of the time had classical music training to high levels, and in rock they drew on the skills and emotional purposes with which they had been inculcated. Lloyd Webber's recognition of the points of contact between rock and Prokofiev and Stravinsky in Jesus Christ Superstar were imaginative, creative and of their time."

He holds that Lloyd Webber's musical "references" seek to release unexploited potential in existing work. He cites how the Jesus Christ Superstar song I Don't Know How to Love Him "brings a new dramatic tension to Mendelssohn's original melody through the confused emotions of Mary Magdalene. The opening theme may be Mendelssohn, but the rhythmic and harmonic treatment along with new lines of highly effective melodic development are Lloyd Webber's. The song works in its own right as its many performers and audiences can witness."

He adds: "Lloyd Webber's cross-genre references over some 30 years of a highly diverse repertory amount to a considered technique of musical inclusion and reinterpretation: deliberate, focused and constantly surprising."

Nevertheless, populist composers such as Lloyd Webber and Puccini remain the kind of composers scholars are disinclined to write about. William Drabkin, editor of Cambridge University Press' The Musical Language of La Bohème , notes that, despite Puccini's high reputation as an operatic composer, interest in his music has been largely confined to the opera house and the journalistic world surrounding it.

"Fifty years after the appearance of the first substantial study of a Puccini opera worthy of the term 'analysis', his musical scores are all but ignored by serious music journals and university analysis seminars, places from which informed critical opinion on other musical matters has long flowed in abundance," Snelson says.

It is significant that the Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini in Lucca was founded only in 1996, many years after Parma's Istituto di Studi Verdiani or Pesaro's Fondazione Rossini, and then only with private money donated by Rita Dell'Anna, widow of the composer's son.

How long will it take before British universities study Lloyd Webber - or will he have to endow the institution himself?

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Reader's comments (2)

Hi, who's this written by?
Hi, who's this written by? Give it a while- A Lloyd Webber will probably claim it...