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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Grow up, Howard Blake – The Snowman is not being ‘desecrated’ by vocalise

When a composer creates a universally loved piece, as Blake undoubtedly has with his score for The Snowman, they have to accept that the piece becomes everyone’s property – copyright laws notwithstanding. It’s the natural urge of any musician faced with something that intrigues them to make it their own by arranging it, reharmonising it, or in some other way messing with it. When Stravinsky took a new turn in his creative career by recreating earlier styles from Bach to Verdi, some accused him of lacking respect for the music he was tampering with. He retorted: “You respect, I love.”  

Of course that response could be used to justify the most horrendously bad-taste arrangement. But there’s always a risk in any situation in life when a generous move is called for. There’s a chance one’s generosity will be misplaced. But what’s the alternative? Jealously guarding the purity of the original will of course ensure no harm comes to it. But the price paid would be that the music is removed from the swim of musical creation and recreation. And that’s a sad fate. One of the things that makes modernist masterpieces seem lonely is that they deliberately remove themselves from the recreative life-blood of music. No-one will ever creatively “mess with” Pierre Boulez’s Marteau sans Maitre of 1957, because its musical language is too self-referential, too shut off from the “common tongue” of music.  It will only ever exist in one form, fixed for ever in lonely purity.

The other reason a piece never gets “messed with” is that nobody cares enough about it to bother. Blake ought to be pleased that somebody cares enough about his music to make this arrangement – whether he approves of the method or not. Composers in the past understood that their music would escape their grasp, and be recreated in less than ideal ways, but the wiser ones among them knew this was a price worth paying. Richard Wagner was one of them. In the last few months of his life, when he was living with his wife Cosima in Venice, he took a walk along the Lido and came across a brass band playing selections from his opera Tannhauser. 

It was probably woefully out of tune, and sadly lacking in orchestral richness. Did the aged master cry, “Schweinhunde! Nicht mehr von dieser abscheulichen Entweihung!” (“B——s! No more of this vile desecration!”) and throw the musicians into the lagoon? He did not. In fact he seemed well pleased, even though his opera, which is all about the temptations of the flesh faced by a holy knight, has more of a claim to be a sacred object than a film about a magic snowman. 

Blake should thank his stars that the world has taken his score to its heart, relax, and let Manners do his job. Who knows – if it turns out well, he might even learn something.

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