Robin Holloway on why he feels the Cambridge Prom is damp squib

The university's choral tradition is second to none, its alumni are some of today's most distinguished musicians. But the Cambridge Prom feels a damp squib, writes Robin Holloway

There's a missed opportunity at this year's Proms. The concert on 22 July celebrates the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge. There will be combined college choirs singing music by Vaughan Williams, Stanford and other alumni. There will be the BBC Symphony Orchestra - plus an incongruous monument by a thoroughly French composer - under the direction of the quintessentially Cambridge product Sir Andrew Davies. No other university anywhere could marshal a comparable event, so surely that is reason to celebrate?

But look more closely. The combined college choirs are confined to a setting of the Evening Canticles by Stanford and a handful of minor anthems by a few alumni (Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate at Trinity in the 1890s); the sole new commission, a 10-minute orchestral piece by Ryan Wigglesworth (who has just completed a sadly brief temporary assistant lectureship at Cambridge), seems slightly token; and the pièce de résistance is the Organ Symphony of Saint-Saëns, whose connection with the university is flimsy indeed (he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1893).

The concert, which represents but the tip of the iceberg of Cambridge's musical achievement in scholarship, performance and composition, is a great opportunity lost. Look at what could have been celebrated at the Royal Albert Hall next Wednesday.

The core of musical performance at Cambridge has always been choral singing - first of the Catholic, then the Anglican liturgy - centred on the two most celebrated all-male choirs in the two largest college chapels, King's and St John's. King's style is marked by impeccable refinement, sometimes tending to mannerism. The John's style has been less manicured, more full-blooded, with an edge of roughness. Trinity, the third of the larger choral establishments, treads a middle way. Since the general admission of women to the formerly all-male preserves, we have seen the dramatic rise of many small, mixed choirs for smaller buildings, of which two have reached outstanding distinction, Clare and Caius. Both boast burgeoning discographies, and though they can't outpace the big three, they are far more versatile, especially in taking on operatic work. And, as one would expect, given this wealth of functioning chapel choirs, a fine succession of organists and choral directors has emerged and continues to uphold the standard year after year. The same setup has also yielded many fine solo singers (not to mention a line of first-rate accompanists), and, more recently, opera singers of great distinction.

Instrumentalists are not so obvious a product of Cambridge, for there is no tradition of playing to compare with the plethora of choirs. And yet a university orchestra has existed unbroken since 1843, and the Victorian-Edwardian tradition of "smoking concerts" still continues, albeit utterly transformed, for there has always been a pool of talented players, changing yet replenished yearly. The density of concerts in term-time, from solo recitals and chamber-music to full-scale orchestral events, is deafening. There can be four or five musical events per day for days on end.

From this populous pool of talented graduates emerged in 1968 a celebrated band of enthusiasts for 20th-century music, the London Sinfonietta, which rapidly established itself as the prototype contemporary-music ensemble. Clearly, not all music at Cambridge is so stellar, but the very establishment of the Sinfonietta indicates the strength of the culture of musical activity. This culture enables students to learn the logistics of mounting the simplest event with flair and success, perhaps moving on from there to some enterprise involving upwards of 80 performers, before eventually conducting a Bach Passion, a Mahler symphony or a concert version of The Flying Dutchman (I'm naming things I've attended within the past 10 years or so), or even producing a fully staged opera.

Some of today's most brilliant opera producers began to learn their art while they were Cambridge undergraduates. So did eminent conductors too numerous to mention, many of whom must have imbibed something from the flat fenland landscape - for conducting forms no part of the official music course at Cambridge.

Composition does, however. And it is Cambridge's harvest of composers over recent decades that will ensure those years are remembered in times to come as a golden age. From a great wealth of talent, I reluctantly choose only a few by name: Jonathan Harvey, Judith Weir, John Rutter, Robert Saxton, Jonathan Dove, Benedict Mason, George Benjamin, Julian Anderson, Edward Rushton, Thomas Adès, Silvina Milstein, Huw Watkins. When to these homegrown products are added some notable composers who've been imported as artists-in-residence at King's, Trinity or the gallery at Kettle's Yard - Nicholas Maw, Gordon Crosse, John Woolrich and Richard Causton, among others - the result is a tolerably accurate representation of the British scene at large in all its vitality and diversity.

Perhaps such a phenomenon can no more be explained than the wealth of conductors. But a principal reason for this flowering is surely the almost unbroken presence over more than 100 years of a composer at the helm or on the staff of the music school. Not necessarily a "great" composer, but always a figure of substance. And, more important, a representative, symbolic of a creative attitude, indicating a culture that smiles upon original work. (There might well be academic repressiveness, too - I remember such from my own student years - but then reaction against obstruction from above can often nourish creative freedom like nothing else.)

Composition is not a "subject": it can't be taught like a technical skill. The process is, or ought to be, intuitive and beholden to no one method, no gradgrindery. The true artist learns from the present and the past by imitation and emulation; by poring over examples; by friendships, enmities, rivalries; above all by doing - making mistakes, retreating to further advance, stepping sideways as well as backward and forward, open to everything that will help.

The truly promising young natural will manage all this anyway and alone. But there's also objective ground where guidance can help, and this is what the atmosphere of composition teaching induced at Cambridge during the long tenure of Alexander Goehr as professor of music.

That is what next week's Prom does not reflect. But a gripe about the programming of a concert is a minor and passing complaint. Far more worrying is the possibility that the creative wing of Cambridge's music school could vanish overnight. Goehr and his friend and fellow composer Hugh Wood departed the scene in 1999, leaving me as the only composer on the school's regular roster. When I am put out to pasture in 2011, there will be none. The university's current "thinking" appears to be that if a subject cannot be covered by a member of staff, that subject is for the axe. This would be a disaster for music: to adopt a couple of phrases from Blake, it would be like tearing a fibre from the rich weave of England's green and fertile culture.

Robin Holloway

The GuardianTramp

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