In a week that saw the UK vote itself out of the EU, the resignation of David Cameron followed by most of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, the audience who dutifully trooped to the Royal Albert Hall this Sunday for a concert celebrating the 2,000th performance of Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace were clearly looking for reassurance. And reassurance is what they got – because whatever happens in the big wide world outside, Jenkins’ music has always been, and probably always will be, utter crap.
If you believe ‘crap’ to be unworthy of the critical lexicon, no word could be more apt. Believe me, nothing would have given me greater pleasure than going on record in calling his music shit. But to do so would be to imbue the Jenkins oeuvre with a whiffy pungency it palpably lacks. Some music is genuinely shit. Other music has a state of shitness thrust upon it – but the best shit music has at least tried to hit some aesthetic or technical goal that ultimately proved beyond it. But Jenkins’ jingles have no goal or ambition. And so, through no fault of its own, crap – that nondescript, expressively done to death, meaningless descriptor – turns out to be the only possible word left to convey the horror of Jenkins’ music and everything that surrounds it.
I enjoyed writing those opening paragraphs, but soon enough a point arrives when the whole Jenkins phenomena stops being amusing and becomes, frankly, a wee bit sinister. The first half of this concert celebrating the 2,000th performance of The Armed Man – the previous 1999 performances were all utter crap – was patched together from extracts of Sir Karl’s greatest hits: two movements from a Euphonium Concerto, selections from his Requiem, Stabat Mater et al. Blackadder’s own Tony Robinson was on hand to act as master-of-ceremonies and to solemnly remind us that this landmark performance was taking place around the centenary of the Battle of Somme. ‘Later I’ll be reading some World War One poetry,’ Robinson continued, ‘but none of the poems will be starting “boom, boom, boom”!’ – an inexplicably crass reference to his Blackadder character Baldrick’s attempt to better Wilfred Owen in the poetry stakes.
Talk about puncturing dignity. But here is the parallel universe that Jenkins’ music has legitimised, where every crappy idea and crappy musical gesture needs to be coated in protective layers of sugar, where the very act of composition is reduced to the re-ordering of emotive soundbites, because no genuine emotion can be risked. And so a little light levity around Siegfried Sassoon is allowable. The Battle of the Somme – LOL!
Here’s the truth. Back in the day Jenkins was a mediocre jazz saxophonist who gravitated towards jazz/rock fusion groups like Nucleus and Soft Machine, but hand him some manuscript paper and he’s barely competent. His Lament of the Valley – a Poundshop Lark Ascending played by violinist Joo Yeon Sir – hit a point of climax that left her reaching for a squeaky high-register violin note, caked in faux-expressive operatic vibrato, which comprehensively failed to carry the weight of dramatic expectation. And why the incongruous appearance of jaunty Christmas sleigh bells in the middle of a solo passage in the Euphonium Concerto? I’ve really no idea. Even with the terms Jenkins has set himself, such moments make no contextual sense. And listen deep into the orchestration, and the faint crackle of a militaristic snare drum is invariably heard – a smirking hint of vainglorious triumphalism.
The Jenkins PR machine – an unholy alliance of his publisher Boosey & Hawkes (the publisher of Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein) and record label Deutsche Grammophon (once the label of Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber and Herbert von Karajan) – managed to fill the Royal Albert Hall with the promise that this unashamed man of melody would surely reconnect listeners back to the tradition of Elgar, Howells and Vaughan Williams. But RVW saw active service in the Great War and remained haunted by what he witnessed, as his desolate Flos Campi for solo viola, chorus and chamber orchestra testifies. I respectfully suggest that he would have had no time for Jenkins’ fraudulent compositional gestures. Surely he’d have thought: how does he get away with this crap?
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