My Favourite Composer

Conservatories and other music finishing schools are pretty good at putting the final polish on a musician’s skills as a performer, but they miss out on some vital aspects of training for a life in music which otherwise take decades to learn.  They don’t generally seem to teach students how to present themselves on paper – either in writing their biographies or explaining their programmes – and they don’t teach them how to present themselves on stage – stage etiquette is sadly lacking from nearly every young graduate from a music school.  But the most important lesson that they don’t teach is simply how to cope in a society where the concept of a classical musician is alien.

There have been some comments coming into this blog from frustrated Malaysian musicians who feel society is against them.  Parents, they believe, do not see music as a serious profession, schools do not encourage students to promote their musical talents and Malaysian society, from the top to the bottom, has now become so arch-conservative that any hint of anything which is not religiously or culturally rooted in the soil of the country (a soil, one hastens to add, which the country’s leaders are only too happy to destroy in the name of commercial progress) is, by definition, alien and therefore wrong.  Few in the wider artistic community who look at Malaysia today can fail to recognise a certain intellectual regression which, as a recent TV documentary so vividly revealed, means that the only Malaysian artist who ever attracted any measure of international acclaim – namely P Ramlee – would stand no chance of emerging from today’s hidebound cultural mores.  But it’s not just Malaysian society which fails to recognise the value of a classically-trained musician, and a bit of proper training at college or university would certainly prepare young musicians to cope with the sort of things we meet in everyday life.

Here’s a typical situation; this one happened to me on a flight in southern Africa when, against my better judgement, I accepted the overtures from the person sitting next to me and thereby allowed a conversation to open up.  He was, he proudly told me, a diamond merchant and was making a fortune out of Africa; clearly a man for whom large amounts of cash, obtained at whatever price in other’s suffering, presented the total horizons of his existence. A man of shallow ethics, negligible morals and totally non-existent artistic sensitivities; in short, a typical businessman in today’s money-obsessed society.  Of course, the inevitable happened and I was asked what I did.  Now, I’ve been a musician for 50 years and I still dread the question.  Here’s how the conversation progressed.

“I’m a musician”.

“Hey that’s great!  What instrument do you play?”

“Er.  The piano” (I don’t, but say you play the organ to anyone and they think you are a sex fiend.)

“Hey that’s great!  You in any group I’ve heard of?”

“I don’t actually play in a group.  I’m a classical musician.”

“Hey that’s great!  Kinda like Beyonce?”

“No.  Not a bit.  More like Mozart and Beethoven.”

“Hey that’s weird!  I don’t know about that other guy, but I’ve heard of Mozart! You mean you actually dig that old-fashioned stuff?”

“No, I play it”

“Weird.  You’re joking aren’t you?”


“Do guys ever listen to that anymore?”


“So, what’s your favourite composer?”

“Excuse me, I’ve really got to use the toilet.”

It’s that last question that gets me every time.  If they don’t know who Beethoven is, what’s the point of taking this any further?  Yet it is asked of everyone who shows any inkling of an interest in classical music.  I was at an awards ceremony in Penang last week and overheard one of the audience asking a child who had won an award what her favourite composer was.  To the child’s eternal glory she replied, quick as a flash, Bartók, which clearly flummoxed the woman who was probably expecting Mozart since wasn’t he, too, a young kid who did well in music?  I remember when I was first asked the question.  I was four and a Great Aunt of noble birth peered at me distastefully through her pince-nez and asked me imperiously who was my favourite composer.  My answer was Purcell; based on the fact that my favourite pastime was putting my collection of matchbox cars on a 78 record with the legend “TRUMPET VOLUNTARY – PURCELL” on the blue label, and then watching as the needle arm swept them off.  (Clearly presaging my move in later life to Malaysia where musical performance takes very much a back seat to the apparently culturally acceptable pastime of carnage on the road.)

Ironically, of course, while Purcell was the only composer of whom I had heard at the age of four, the Trumpet Voluntary was by Jeremiah Clarke, but by the time I learnt this, I had discovered the Voluntary on the Old Hundredth and Dido and Aeneas – genuine Purcell – so I hadn’t actually lied to Great Aunt.  Jeremiah Clarke, interestingly, never featured on my list of favourite composers.  The next time the question came up, I had just started piano lessons (I was five), and my answer then was Grieg.  My teacher had taken me to a children’s concert in the Festival Hall and Moura Lympany had played (what else?) Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  I’d loved it, and had demanded to learn it at my next lesson (I was fobbed off with some other Grieg, but had enjoyed that too.)  Indeed, I liked Grieg right up to my university days when my lecturer advised me, in no uncertain terms, that “Grieg could not compose”.

Over the years my answers to the inevitable equation have included, incredibly, Vaughan Williams (at nine I had enjoyed the Wasps Overture – unaware that just about everything else was unmitigated crap), Rachmaninov, Percy Grainger, Wagner, Lutosławski (after my first and unforgettable encounter with the Paganini Variations – the only work during a performance of which I’ve actually fallen off my seat in sheer excitement) and Messiaen, and it was only after I’d left university and was out on my own as a musician that I summed up the courage to say that I didn’t have a favourite composer and that all of them – with the exceptions of Chopin and Liszt, my two bêtes noirs – were worth listening to. 

Only in the last decade or so, enriched with decades of experience in the field, have I found out at last how to respond to that dreaded question.  I always enthuse over Wolfgang Dasistein-Grossescheidt (1890-1964), a totally fictitious name (I hope) and so unexpected that the questioner either pretends to know about him, say “An interesting choice” and then change the subject so that their ignorance is not exposed, or asks you all about him, giving you the chance to spend the next hour indulging in a fantasy of fabrications and imaginary detail which prevents any likelihood of further conversation with your unenlightened questioner.

It took me half a lifetime to learn that skill; surely that’s the sort of thing they should be teaching students at music conservatoires.


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