On Musical Knighthoods…

November 3rd, 2016

kj_11It was quite a momentous day on Saturday 13 June when the Queen’s Birthday Honours List was announced, not because of various celebrities and sports stars getting this or that honour before their 30th birthday, but because for the first time in quite a while the sphere of ‘classical’ music, and more importantly, contemporary music, was represented in a substantial and meaningful way (not that you would have known this from the BBC, or other leading news outlets…but that’s a different story). What made it momentous was that one of our leading and most feted composers, James MacMillan was awarded a Knighthood ‘for services to music’- whether you like his music or not, the recognition that a ‘contemporary’ composer (i.e. not a film, ‘crossover’ or pop composer) could achieve one of the country’s leading honours was an edifying thing (presuming such honours mean something to you) and perhaps gave some hope for a future where contemporary music, and its practitioners received more widespread recognition for their art. I had a warm feeling inside. Then I saw that a second ‘contemporary’ composer had also been awarded a Knighthood…

The awarding of a Knighthood to the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins ruffled more than a few feathers in the contemporary music world (if social media is anything to go by…) and provided an interesting if inflammatory counterpoint to MacMillan’s honour. Jenkins’s Knighthood was awarded for ‘services to composing and crossing musical genres’, and if ever there was a nuanced statement, this was such. That these two composers got the same honour at the same time really highlights the place of ‘classical’ music in the country’s artistic life, its understanding of the arts and issues regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and whether this is even important.

Karl Jenkins, you would imagine, is a composer cut from a very different cloth to James MacMillan – his music is designed for a different audience, comes from a different aesthetic and is written to fulfil a different objective to MacMillan’s. You won’t often find their works programmed together, and the sort of performers who might tackle Jenkins’s work would rarely find themselves faced with a MacMillan piece (though, to be fair, it does occasionally happen in the choral world). But they are both still composers, still making a living from writing music and both representing the United Kingdom in the arts at a wider level.

So why is it an issue that they both received honours at the same time?  In many ways, it isn’t – both men are being recognised for success in their relative fields: MacMillan as a prolific composer and visible figurehead for contemporary composition, Jenkins for the huge and worldwide success of his choral works Armed Man and Adiemus. The problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that to the uninitiated both are being recognised as composers, there is a suggestion that there is as much ‘worth’ in the Armed Man as there is in Seven Last Words from the Cross – to many people this does not sit well. Maybe the problem lies in that statement – ‘services to composing and crossing musical genres’ – is crossing musical genres a good thing? Do genres need crossing? Is Jenkins being recognised purely for the commercial success of his works (which definitely garner much more commercial success than MacMillan’s) or is there a quality judgement? Does there need to be a quality judgement here? Does the awarding of the honour to Jenkins devalue MacMillan’s and thus the whole sphere of contemporary music making?

I’m not sure it really matters – I’m certainly no fan of Jenkins’s music (The Armed Man is my bête noire) but I’m not sure it is the worst thing ever that he got the award, though the timing certainly could have been better. I like to think of it this way: if Karl Jenkins was a shoemaker rather than a composer (bear with me here…) and his shoes were being worn around the world by millions of people, and they had the stamp ‘Made in Britain’, would anyone mind him getting a Knighthood? Would the world of artisan shoemaking be up in arms? Maybe they would.


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