When a new work has been been successfully launched, your first thought must be to wonder how soon it will be before you hear it again. But if you are cynical, or merely realistic, you know that the desired repeat may never happen. The chances are that not only you, but those who have never heard it at all, will be deprived of it for ever.
Yet there was a time in Scotland when subsequent performances happened more often. The period coincided with the first great surge of Scottish talent, when Scottish Opera was still young and the Scottish National Orchestra performed new Scottish music as a matter of course, not just through a sense of duty, or because it had a conductor (Alexander Gibson) who believed in it. Disillusioned composers who had moved elsewhere to try their luck were enticed to compose again for Scotland. Resident composers knew that at last they had a chance to hear their own music on a regular basis. What had been long established in Holland, Scandinavia and other European outposts was suddenly happening here.
Sadly, it didn’t last. To hear any of that music, first performed 30 or 40 years ago, is now at best a matter of luck. No matter how good it was, most of it has gone, to be replaced by what is new instead of being built firmly into an expanding Scottish repertoire. Thus we have been deprived of Iain Hamilton’s hallucinatory, Shelley-inspired Alastor, Robin Orr’s cogent Symphony in OneMovement, Martin Dalby’s Tower of Victory, Kenneth Leighton’s questioning Sinfonia Mistica, Thomas Wilson’s early symphonies and Thea Musgrave’s zany Chamber Concerto No 2, to mention just a few works worthy of being heard again. Adding opera to the list, we may wonder why Hamilton’s Catiline Conspiracy, Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots and Orr’s Full Circle have never been brought back.
When Edward Harper’s Symphony No 2, an important new work by a mature Edinburgh-based composer, was premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra last month, it could have been an occasion for the planning of a Harper retrospective. But where was his fine Symphony No 1, fascinatingly inspired by the slow opening tread of Elgar’s Symphony No 1? Launched in 1979, it has sunk without trace. Where was his exhilarating orchestral showpiece, Bartok Games, and where, above all, was his Fanny Robin, that terse, atmospheric, romantic tribute to Thomas Hardy? A double-bill of this and Orr’s Full Circle, a sharp operatic transformation of Sydney Goodsir Smith’s little thriller about Clydeside poverty between the wars, would suit the RSAMD’s opera school to a nicety.
In Scottish music there is a black hole into which too many fine works have dropped, without hope, it would seem, of excavation. Since several of the composers are now dead, and others have abandoned composing, any prospect that their fortunes will change is fast diminishing. Yet Musgrave’s clarinet, horn and viola concertos, and her vividly resourceful Concerto for Orchestra are 20th-century classics that are now too rarely given an airing (though the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland has proved helpful here). Even works commissioned by Scotland from composers of other nationalities – Luciano Berio’s compelling study in arrested motion (typically entitled Still), Birtwistle’s exquisite Melencolia II for clarinet, harp and strings, and the desolate beauty of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Stone Litany, stand badly in need of revival.
So what can be done? If the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, from its new power base in Glasgow City Hall, were to seize the initiative, others might follow. Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust and the Hebrides Ensemble, filling the gap left by Edward Harper’s now defunct New Music Group of Scotland, could do something on behalf of lost chamber music. A slot in the Edinburgh Festival could surely be found by our new artistic director. If other countries far from the European mainstream – think of Finland or Norway – can do this sort of thing on behalf of their own musicians, then why can’t we?