Interview: Leah Broad, music lecturer, Oxford

30 August 2019

‘Who knew so many people could relate to the composer-biscuit analogy?’

I teach music analysis and history. Music analysis is like English Literature but with music — we look at scores and performances, and work out ways to interpret them. With history, we look at music as part of society and culture. How has music been used in the past, and what have the consequences been? What powers does music have — for good or bad?
 

We often think about music as a positive thing, and it very often is. It can bring people together and have incredible benefits for wellbeing and health. But it can also be used to divide people, and in extreme cases has been used for torture. I’m thinking about music in Guantanamo Bay and other interrogation camps. Researchers have shown that music has been used for both physical torture (played very loudly and persistently for sleep deprivation), and psychological torture (as a means of identity erosion, for example, playing sexually explicit music to those who believe that it is a sin to listen to such music). We try to look at how music both shapes and is shaped by the society we live in.
 

I’m fascinated by the lesser-known stories from music history. Why have they been forgotten — and what happens when we insert these stories back into our current understanding of music history? That’s what led me to specialise in two areas: Nordic music, and theatre music. My research asks why Nordic music is lesser known than, say, German or French music from the same period, and what was actually going on musically in the Nordic countries.
 

As a listener, I fell in love with Sibelius’s music; as a researcher, I fell in love with the number of unanswered questions there are about Nordic music. Sibelius is probably the composer I listen to most. His works have a rare depth that keeps me endlessly intrigued. More recently, though, I’ve been really getting into the music of Amanda Röntgen-Maier, Erkki Melartin, Ole Buck, and Helena Munktell. They’re four extremely different composers, and each fascinating in their own way.
 

And I’m exploring what theatre music was in the early 20th century. What kind of music was performed, who wrote it, and why has it been forgotten? What does this tell us about how we’ve previously been prioritising when we look at music history?
 

When I was studying for an undergraduate module on Scandinavian music, I found a reference to some of Sibelius’s theatre music. It struck me as odd that he seemed to have written quite a bit, but, though he’s such a famous composer, I’d certainly never heard of it, and I’d never seen it discussed in detail. By comparison, there are entire books dedicated to his symphonies. So I did a bit more digging, and found that this wasn’t a one-off. Loads of composers wrote extensive theatre music: it just wasn’t being written about very much.
 

Often it was reworked into suites, which is the form we hear theatre music in most often today — for example, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin, and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. But a lot of other popular pieces originally came from incidental music — Sibelius’s Valse Triste originally came from his score for a play called Kuolema, and Finlandia originally accompanied a tableau vivant. So I applied for a Masters to study Sibelius’s theatre music, which then became a D.Phil, and so it continues.
 

Being a “New Generation Thinker” means I’m working with the BBC to turn my research into radio and TV programmes. It’s been incredible fun. If you visit my website, you can hear the programmes we’ve made so far. There’s quite a lot about biscuits! And this summer I was talking about Nordic composers at the BBC Proms [3 and 4 August, on BBC Sounds]; on Radio 3 Essential Classics introducing women from music history; and I’ll be in Glasgow later in October to talk about Sibelius.
 

There are two main reasons why Nordic music isn’t performed much, or known about outside of the Nordic countries. The first is practical. Scandinavian languages don’t tend to be spoken by non-Scandinavians, so it’s tricky for singers here to learn this choral music. The second is more historical. In the early 20th century, Germany was seen as the home of classical music, and music from other countries was seen as peripheral or exotic. So the Nordic countries tended to be represented by one “national” composer (Grieg, Sibelius, or Nielsen). Add in the fact that very few non-Nordic researchers speak Nordic languages, and it means that the history of these countries hasn’t been explored much.
 

But this is definitely changing, and the richness of musical history in the Nordic countries is starting to be explored a lot more. Partly this is thanks to the popularity of many contemporary Nordic composers. Hildur Guðnadóttir, for example, just wrote the music for the wildly popular TV series Chernobyl; and both Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Outi Tarkiainen have world premieres being performed at the Proms this year.
 

There are some fantastic Nordic liturgical settings. Elfrida Andrée, who was Sweden’s first woman cathedral organist, wrote various liturgical settings; Asger Hamerik wrote an extraordinarily over-the-top Requiem; and, more recently, Sven-David Sandström has produced a substantial amount of liturgical settings. Fartein Valen’s work is especially interesting — he was deeply religious, and his beliefs influenced him throughout his life, coming forward very strongly in his music. His orchestral setting of Ave Maria (Op. 4) is particularly beautiful.
 

The biscuits. . . ha! I started thinking about biscuits, because classical music can sometimes seem a bit unapproachable or unrelatable. Where on earth do you start? So I was thinking about ways of linking music with much more everyday things to make it all more comprehensible. Biscuits have very distinct tastes in the same way that composers have very distinct personalities.
 

I originally put the thread on Twitter as a joke, but I’ve been completely overwhelmed with people’s responses to it. Who knew so many people could relate to the composer-biscuit analogy? I’ve had people contacting me asking to link them up with composers based on their favourite biscuits, and letting me know that they’ve tried a new composer based on their favourite biscuit. I’m just delighted that it’s got people listening to music, and discussing composer/biscuit opinions. What I hope it shows is that classical music doesn’t have to be deadly serious, and you don’t necessarily need to have a vast amount of musical knowledge to enjoy it.
 

I play the piano. I originally trained to be a concert pianist. I’m not sure I’d say my humming can count as singing per se. As an undergraduate, I ran the Christ Church Music Society.
 

I’m not sure I have a distinct memory of a first experience of God. I think that we experience God every day in people’s actions and in our interactions with others and the world around us. Musically, when I’m performing, I’m thinking so immediately about my interactions with the people I play with or the notes I’m playing, I’m very much in the moment; but certain listening experiences — there are moments when I might say I experience God.
 

There are many, many things I still want to do. I’m still pretty young, so the list ranges from starting a family to getting my book out, to finding more time for meditation.
 

I think the main thing that makes me angry is people being condescending or unempathetic to those they consider to be less important or lower status than themselves. This applies on both a local and a global scale.
 

I’m happiest being with my family and friends. Also finding really exciting archival material. You can’t beat that.
 

I love the sound of my dog’s snoring. There’s something very peaceful and homely about it. Musically, I think the Bach cello suites are hugely reassuring.
 

My students give me hope for the future. I have the privilege of teaching some extraordinarily kind and gifted people, and I have faith that they will go on and make the world a better place than they found it.
 

I pray most for the health of loved ones, and that world leaders may find the guidance to show compassion and empathy.
 

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose to be with my grandmother. She had a lot more spiritual wisdom than most. If I was locked in a pub though, I’d definitely go for Mozart. He had a cracking sense of humour.
 

Dr Leah Broad is a Junior Research Fellow-elect at Christ Church, Oxford. She was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. https://leahbroad.wordpress.com

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