Professor Jonathan Cross talks to Sean Dunn about devising programmes, challenging preconceptions, and rethinking repertoire during the Covid pandemic.

Wales is sometimes known as the ‘Land of Song’, an epithet which finds powerful expression in Welsh National Opera (WNO). Since its formation during World War Two, the company has placed great value in serving local communities, but, equally, looking outwards, enchanting distant audiences: an outlook not so dissimilar to that held by Professor Jonathan Cross. As a young treble, plucked from ‘an ordinary, big, comprehensive school in south Wales’, Jonathan sung Britten’s Billy Budd with WNO on a Spanish tour. The experience was ‘transformative’ and, along with an inspiring newly-qualified school teacher, opened a world of musical possibilities, at the heart of which lay the new: the modern; for, he tells me, back then, Billy Budd was ‘the most progressive music I had ever heard’. This awestruck boy would go on to become Professor of Musicology at Oxford, and devote his working life to the academic study and public advocacy of music from the 20th and 21st centuries. The status of modern music as something inherently subversive seems to have drawn Jonathan as a youngster (‘it kind of annoyed a lot of people’), and the repertoire continues to excite and provoke him today. A common charge is that the work of academics often fails to cut through to ‘the real world’. This is not true of Jonathan: he’s concerned actively with the ways in which ‘musicological insights might feed into what you do as a performer: how you prepare a score, but also questions of programming’, and relishes making the case for modern music - in its boundless diversity - to those willing to dive in. 

Sadly, the summer of 2016 will probably be remembered by most for the rancorous Brexit referendum. Yet from May to September of the same year, Jonathan was Series Consultant for a more enlightened project at the Southbank Centre, ‘Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals’. The festival - performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra - was a tremendous critical and public success, so I thought that it could offer an interesting starting point for our discussion about programming. Fundamental to the success of the five-concert series, I learn, was meticulous planning: ‘everything surrounding the concerts - talks and study days, interactive online materials, series of films’. Forming this structure was a collaborative effort with the marketing and media team, whose job it was to answer essential questions such as ‘Who is Stravinsky? What does his music mean today? Why might audiences be interested in it? How do you bring a new audience in?’. The first challenge for Jonathan and fellow creators was finding ‘a way of reaching out to new audiences that they couldn’t necessarily expect just to walk into a concert hall.’ After all, ‘going into a two and a half thousand seat concert hall can be a very intimidating experience for people: you don’t know how to behave; you see people who seem very comfortable there; you don’t know what you’re going to hear. It takes a huge leap of faith to do that.’ Earning that faith was achieved in large part by placing Stravinsky’s music firmly in its historical, cultural and political context: illuminating why the music might sound as it does. 

Most people (music students included) would struggle to name many Classical composers beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Many of our current practices and attitudes towards music programming can be traced to the rise of the modern public concert in the 19th century. Closely linked to this development was the construction of the musical canon, which engendered ‘the idea of the music of the past being as valuable as the music now’. Thus ‘for the most part, the concert hall really is a museum now of music from the past, rather than a boiling pot of creativity of the moment’. The formation of the canon and its enduring power can have serious, undesirable consequences. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, for example, has caused reverberations around the globe and ‘we’re suddenly beginning to realise, if we weren’t already aware of it, that the canon in a sense builds a white frame around this repertoire - and that’s when it becomes really dangerous.’ ‘If you really want music - new music, historical music - to be meaningful, you have to speak to much wider audiences.’ Most people (music students included) would struggle to name many Classical composers beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But, Jonathan explains, ‘there were hundreds and hundreds of composers - many, many women - it’s more difficult to access because of course their music wasn’t published at the time and therefore it’s having to be reconstructed - but works that are equally the measure of what Haydn and Mozart were producing. Why have those been picked out? And similarly, the hidden history of composers of colour in the 18th century’. ‘The responsibility starts as soon as you start making public music - you have to think about those things’. This process of reclamation ‘needs to be coming from the beginnings of the profession upwards because the resistance the further up you go gets greater and greater.’ 

I suggest to Jonathan that the (founded or otherwise) perception that contemporary music is complex and intimidating continues to deter newcomers. Indeed Jonathan’s own investigations into spectral music at IRCAM - sealed from the world (sometimes literally) in this centre of sonic experimentation - retains, for me, an esoteric - even mysterious, aura. It might help to recognise that approaching music like this for the first time probably won’t be the easy option: ‘That idea of the modern being difficult, I think, is a really tricky one. You cannot expect music to speak for itself: I just don’t believe that music exists in a vacuum; it doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s never abstract’. In fact ‘music and words have always gone together; music has always been surrounded by words… so it’s not in a sense explaining it but it’s a matter of contextualising it - and it seems to me that that’s crucial.’ On a practical level, music differs from most other art forms due to the simple fact that ‘it takes quite some time; so with a new work people say “why can’t we do for music what Tate Modern has done for contemporary art?!” ‘Well… the great thing about art is that if you stand in front of a piece and you find it revolting, you move on; whereas if you’re in a concert hall and you hate it, you’re trapped!’ 

A few years ago, in his role as Curator with the London Sinfonietta, Jonathan helped to devise and present ‘Spectrum of Sound’, concerts which explored the works of spectral composers like Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, again within a broader musical context - this time beginning with Debussy leading through to composers writing today. The series was about finding the right conditions in which the listener might adopt an open mindset, welcoming questions about the fundamentals of sound. Confronting ingrained assumptions in this way ‘makes one look at the musical world - and perhaps the wider world - in a different way’. ‘I’ve used the phrase “holding people’s hands” and I don’t mean that patronisingly at all but I think people just do need some security, and they say “ok, do I trust you just to help me - not to tell me what to think” - I’m not saying you have to like this, I’m just saying give it a go. Because you might find it meaningful; it might be enriching; it might change the way you think; it might change the way you look at the world. Some of us find it beautiful full stop! You might enjoy the performance, because a lot of new music is extraordinarily virtuosic. Why do we go to concerts? Well it’s not just to sit there and listen structurally. It’s a social thing as well - I mean that’s what we miss about concert going - but also it is about engagement with the skill, the virtuosity of professional musicians; and that thrills us too - they are doing something that we can’t do. Seeing the very best that the human imagination, the human will, can do - well, that’s what makes us human - I think that’s really reassuring.’

The renewal of more widely performed repertoire through fresh interpretations is certainly not something that Jonathan opposes. ‘But I think if that’s all you rely on - and they say no opera house can survive without Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini - then the whole culture just gets stagnant. And again, it doesn’t challenge you. I believe that everyone needs to be challenged - pushed out of their comfort zones; they need to see the world afresh. Don’t assume that tonal music is everywhere and it’s the only form of music there is and it’s the best form of music there is - that isn’t true: it’s just one form of music that exists alongside many, many others.’

Music can be transformative; and it’s not just transformative if you’re sat there in row F seat 21 listening to the Berlin Phil.

Rueing the adverse environmental impact of the classical music world, Jonathan identifies a positive outcome of the pandemic to be the greater value we have placed in the local. He proudly cites his own work as a Trustee of Wiltshire Music Centre, and with Zone Club, a monthly music and song writing club for young adults with learning difficulties. ‘This is the way forward. Music can be transformative; and it’s not just transformative if you’re sat there in row F seat 21 listening to the Berlin Phil. It’s transformative in your local community - and not just passively, but actively involved with music.’ Before this carries a parochial scent, he clarifies: ‘I’m not asking for a closing inwards, even if we can't travel more. We still have an international outlook; we still need to look out; we still need to cooperate with people all over the world. Yes I’m quite happy to come out as an ardent Remainer; I believe very broadly - perhaps too romantically - in that European project, in collaboration, in working together - certainly as researchers in Europe that’s what we’re doing: it’s so exciting, you get so many different perspectives.’

Thus despite unavoidable obstacles and disappointments, we might choose to see the moment that we find ourselves in as ‘a really interesting one; it raises fascinating questions because there are restrictions on what you can do, how you can perform and the size of the repertoire.’ Jonathan sees this as an ‘exciting opportunity’ to ‘rethink the whole thing - particularly in opera, but it’s true I think of orchestral repertoire as well: the canon has become so weighed down, the repertoire is so limited. Do we really need another Traviata? Another Bohème? Another Carmen? What is it saying about us?’ Clearly, Jonathan believes that now is no time for creative timidity. On the contrary, ‘let’s try some different ideas: we’re going to lose money anyway, so we may as well try something different.’


Jonathan Cross 

Jonathan Cross

I joined Christ Church, Oxford in 2003, having previously held posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Bristol. I write, lecture and broadcast widely on issues in twentieth-century and contemporary music, as well as in theory and analysis. My present work focuses on recent trends in French music, most notably the current known as ‘spectralism’. In all my work I am interested in understanding the ways in which modernist music articulates the concerns of the historical, cultural and social contexts within which it is made and received. I have been Editor of the journal Music Analysis, and am currently an Associate Editor of Grove Music Online. I am also a Research Associate in the team ‘Analyse des pratiques musicales’ at IRCAM, Paris. Beyond academe, I regularly participate in events with such organizations as the Southbank Centre, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta, as well as appearing on BBC Radio 3.