We visited Leighton House (the faux-Arabian home of Victorian painter Lord Leighton, amidst the gorgeous spring blooms of Kensington) to hear William Howard play the piano, and relished his relaxed dispatch of four viciously difficult Liszt transcriptions, culminating in a Chopin G Minor Ballade which went with elegant ease and pleasure. He mentioned afterwards that he’d spent the whole day setting up the concert, which was a fundraiser for his new Love Songs project, and so playing Liszt was “the easy bit”.
William plans to commission a large group of contemporary composers to write a piano love song, for a future CD release, and he’s also planning an open competition for anyone else who feels like having a go. Realising that nearly all popular music takes the shape of a 3-4 minute reflection on love, William wondered why classically trained composers of today rarely approach this genre. He may well ask. It seems to me that what we know as ‘contemporary music’ was forged in Germany and Austria during the two most anxious eras of recent history – pre-1914 and immediately post-1945. Its themes understandably have been angst, fear and elegaic loss. Joy, optimism and so on have received critical short shrift by comparison.
When I first heard about the competition, it sounded like a relaxed, light hearted holiday from the ‘everyday round’ of writing for new music forums. But the more I think about it, it’s also a serious challenge to the passively accepted norms of contemporary composition.