The Marmite Man of Music

Without a doubt, one of my favourite 21st century composers is Karl Jenkins. Admittedly, I have not listened to very much recent classical music (as my interests generally lie somewhat earlier) and I’m also slightly biased because Jenkins is a composer from my adopted homeland of Wales.  Still, I very much enjoy listening to his work.

I was intrigued recently when I came across a description of Jenkins as “the  Marmite Man of Music”.  Apparently this appellation was first used in an article in the Times in March 2008.  Unfortunately you have to be a Times subscriber to be able to access this original article, so I haven’t had a chance to read it.  I did find a reference to it in a Telegraph article by Julian Lloyd Webber in April 2008, which is readable without a subscription.

Anyone from the UK or familiar with our culture will almost certainly understand the reference to Marmite, but for the benefit of anyone else reading this I should expain that this food product (a dark brown, salty paste made from a yeast extract that is a by-product of beer brewing) is famous for polarising people into two opposite camps – those who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (as well as being especially good on sliced, and toasted, bread) and those who think it’s absolutely gross.  Indeed, the marketing slogan for Marmite in the UK is “Love it or hate it”, which was presumably inspired by and, in turn, helps to perpetuate the myth of Marmite as a foodstuff with no middle ground on the enjoyment scale.

I call it a myth since, in fact, many people (myself included) actually quite like Marmite but are not absolutely wild about it.  There are rare occasions when I get a strong craving for a bit of Marmite on toast, but in general I’m happy to eat it or to do without it.  Nevertheless, Marmite remains a handy substance to use figuratively to refer to other things that tend to (or are believed, however erroneously, to) polarise opinion.

As far as I could make out, not having read the article itself, the Times critic behind the original article was fairly firmly in the “hate it” camp when it comes to Jenkins as musical Marmite.  I got the impression that his dislike essentially stemmed from the fact that Jenkins sold “too many” CDs, so I suspect there was a bit of musical snobbery going on (and I can’t say that I’ve never found myself assuming that if something is sufficiently popular it must be naff, so I probably shouldn’t cast too many stones).

Certainly, Jenkins does tend to blend Western classical music with elements of world music (mostly Middle Eastern and some Celtic folk music in the pieces I’ve heard), so his music may not float the boat of classical purists.  To me, however, this mixture is one of the attractions of the music, along with the fact that the vocal stuff (and most of the Jenkins repertoire I’ve heard includes singing) is in an eclectic mixture of languages. By and large, the harmonies (at least for the more classical bits) are fairly conventionally tonal and relatively easy on the ear compared to a lot of modern classical music).  I understand that, before his career as a composer took off, Jenkins was a jazz and jazz-rock musician (playing oboe in addition to the more common jazz instruments of saxophone and piano), but I’ve not really noticed any jazz influences in his compositions.

My first encounter with Jenkins’ music, or at least the first time I was aware of who he was, was with his Stabat Mater (2008), which I mentioned the other day.  I think it was about two years ago I first heard that, having asked for it for Christmas after having read about it somewhere and being intrigued at the promised mix of languages and blending of musical styles.  Since then I have also listened to some of the music from his Adiemus project (mostly Adiemus IV: The Eternal Knot (2001), which is the only Adiemus album I have a copy of), This Land of Ours (2007 – an album recorded with a brass band and a male-voice choir and featuring a mix of Jenkins’ own compositions and his arrangements of other works) and most recently (this morning, in fact, for the first time) The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (1999).

This last piece is, I gather, similar to Benjamin Britten’s famous War Requiem (a piece I haven’t heard for years, though I would like to get hold of a copy) in that both are essentially anti-war pieces combining the traditional texts of the Catholic mass (the requiem mass in Britten’s case, the ordinary of the mass for Jenkins) with other texts (some of Wilfred Owen’s poems for Britten and a mixture of sources for Jenkins).  One of Jenkins’ sources (and the inspiration for the name of the work) was L’homme armé, a 15th century French folksong that was incorporated into many medieval (and some later) settings of the mass.

On reflection, I think that “the Marmite Man of Music” is not a bad description of Karl Jenkins from the standpoint of my own appreciation of his music since, like Marmite, I enjoy it every now and then but it wouldn’t feature near the very top of my list of favourites.  On the other hand, that would also be a fair description of most other composers (or foods, for that matter).