fredag 11 januari 2013

Why does this music spook me?

For some reason this piece, Rejoice in the Lord alway, by George Rathbone, gives me the creeps. On the face of things it is a nice bright jolly tuneful composition in a major key, with no discords. It was probably written between the two world wars, in the British light music idiom. But it spooks me. Why should it have this effect? It could be that it is just too bright and jolly to be true, in the spirit of the muscular Christianity which came to the fore in British public schools in the second half of the nineteenth century and was a continuing theme until the 1960s, when, thank goodness, it faded away. Or is it just that the music is boring and vacuous? Or is it the associations it carries? It is exactly the kind of music that we were made to sing at school just after the war. To a listener whose childhood was in the 1940s, it taps directly into a stream of unpleasant memories: the smell of school dinners with overcooked cabbage and wet coats in cloakrooms, dingy classrooms, sitting on dusty parquet floors, being made to wear itchy woollen underwear, that sort of thing.

Poor Man's Purcell
But there is another issue in the case of this particular text. The Rathbone setting immediately invites comparison with the much better-known one by Purcell, written in 1685. If you have heard the Purcell then the Rathbone will leave you dissatisfied. It also raises the question of why the composer, who was born in 1874 and studied at the Royal College of Music, even went to the trouble of writing it, knowing full well the difficulty of following in the footsteps of a giant. Admittedly the Purcell takes more in the way of resources and is longer, but the comparison is bound to be made and the newer piece doesn't stand a chance. It comes across as a poor man's Purcell. So why is it even being performed, when it should have been allowed to sink quietly into oblivion? After all, the composer is so obscure nowadays that he does not even have a Wikipedia entry.

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