Saturday, 11 August 2018

Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution

Keith Burstein
Keith Burstein
Keith Burstein is an intriguing person, softly spoken yet with strong opinions about politics and about music, notably tonality, opinions which are strongly held and which have been seen as contentious. Keith's opera The Prometheus Revolution premiered at the Arcola Theatre by Fulham Opera as part of the Grimeborn Festival on Tuesday 7 August 2018 [see my review]. The opera deals with politics and the idea of revolution in Britain, so another contentious topic. We met for coffee to find out more.

The opera combines the idea of a revolution in Britain with the Prometheus myth. The idea for the work began when Keith became interested in the Occupy Movement. Music and politics seem to go hand in hand for Keith, his previous opera Manifest Destiny was about a suicide bomber who renounced violence. An opera which has resulted in an ongoing court-battle with Associated Newspapers [see Keith's website for more details]

For Keith, the way the Occupy Movement pitted the 99% against the 1% meant that there were quite a few middle class people in the tents and he talks about the way it effectively created a movement whereby the poor and the affluent middle class (the 99%) were pitted against the ultra rich (the 1%). Keith was intrigued that, compared to the ultra rich, the affluent middle classes seemed poor and that their children were radicalised and going to demonstrations. Keith sees this as leading directly to the rise of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn. So Keith decided to try and write a music drama which took these processes as the starting point. Keith uses the myth, Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to everyone, as a metaphor to ask what if the 99% did wrest power from the 1%

Such fascinating conversations are not ones that I usually have when talking about opera, and perhaps that is half the problem with contemporary opera. Intriguingly, Keith combines these contemporary politics with a musical style that is still radical for its embrace of tonality.


The Prometheus myth appeals to Keith because he has so often in the past found himself struggling against various establishments, having been part of the establishment himself.

Though the music written by young composers of today is admirable for its poly-stylistic nature, it is not that long ago that 20th century modernism was the orthodoxy in Western contemporary classical music. I have interviewed a number of composers (including Jonathan Dove and Rachel Portman) who failed to become part of the composing establishment when they were young because their style of music did not confirm to the prevailing orthodoxy.

Keith spoke out about what he saw as the endgame of atonalism, feeling that radicalism should not always be atonal.

Both his parents were orchestral musicians, so classical music was in the air he breathed. As a teenager he rebelled, and grew interested in politics, psychology, architecture and philosophy, subjects which interest him still, but he ended up at the Royal College of Music. His earliest instinct was to be a composer, but he started as a performer, and spent 10 years doing so. He rang a contemporary music group, the Grosvenor Group and performed George Benjamin, Oliver Knussen, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen in all seriousness.

In 1988/89 he had something of a mini nervous breakdown and everything came to a halt. He came to the realisation that he had to write music. He started sketching out a work and found that his music sounded more like Rachmaninov. This wasn't because he was motivated by any particular ideological thought, or because he hankered to be a film composer, the music simply emerged like that.

Keith feels that he was simply open to some zeitgeist-like change, that there was a paradigm shift out of 20th century modernism into whatever the defining 21st century style was going to be, and that this would be unpredicted and unexpected.


Keith spent six years writing The Prometheus Revolution, a period suring which, with the rise of Trump, Brexit and Corbyn, the subject matter came to seem more and more prescient. Formerly, you could hardly use the word Revolution in a title without being sneered at, but now revolutions seem to happen regularly.

So why write an opera on such a difficult and contentious subject?

For Keith, opera has a unique power to x-ray the human soul and allow the audience to enter the nervous system of the characters. The power of music to simulate the psycho-dynamic of emotion enables the audiences to inhabit the experiences of the protagonists.  So in Keith's new opera, the audience experiences the emotional assault of carrying out a revolution and opera is the only medium that could do that.

The performance will use 12 singers and a piano, in the studio theatre at Arcola, creating quite an intimate experience. Keith rather likes this intimacy, citing the origins of opera in the experiments of the Florentine Camerata in the late 17th century. Trying to emulate the dramas of the Ancient Greeks, the Florentines invented opera almost by accident and in this early form it was a very chamber-scale art form. And Keith feels that opera works far better in an intimate setting.

Keith's music is tonal, but he feels that the wider public does not have a clear idea of tonal and atonal, and often people do not even agree what the terms mean. He quotes Arvo Part, that music should be written from the heart to the heart, and feels that in his music he is preoccupied with conveying the raptures of the human heart and the full range of human emotion. In this opera, Keith has experimented with using a range of popular, demotic and musical theatre styles as well, and so there is a lot of flitting in an out of genres. When writing, Keith is happy to allow his instincts to take him wherever, and his is happy just to write a melody, and feels that melody is at the cutting edge of what is new in music.

For Keith, tonality is something that underpins all music and that we should not feel limited by it. He goes on to explain that tonality is not a recent construct, it is something which underlies the whole variety of human music, and Keith sees non-Western pitch structures as being close to Western ones. He admits that this is all debatable, but if we accept it then writing tonal music is not going backwards, tonality is an infinite resource.

Looking ahead, Keith has a new work being performed by the London Chamber Orchestra. This came about because Keith was introduced to Vladimir Ashkenazy through their links with the Southbank Sinfonia, of which Ashkenazy is patron. And Ashkenazy asked Keith for a new tone poem for the London Chamber Orchestra.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Small scale challenge: studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera (★★★½)  - opera review
  • Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland from Carolyn Dobbin & Iain Burnside (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Prom 34: rare Barber & Copland in Juanjo Mena's leave-taking at the BBC Proms (★★★★) - concert review
  • Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête  (★★★) - opera review
  • An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera at Grimeborn  (★★★) - opera review
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
  • Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne (★★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tiroler Festpiele Erl (Austria) (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Home

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