by Len Mullenger
In the late 1970s (16th July 1977 to be precise) the BBC broadcast Alwyn’s opera Miss Julie. William Alwyn’s name was unknown to me so I wrote to the BBC expressing my enjoyment of the opera and seeking more information on the composer. I waited many months for a reply during which time I read Francis Routh’s chapter in Contemporary British Music (Macdonald 1972) and started to explore the symphonies on the Lyrita recordings that were then emerging. Eventually my letter did elicit a reply – from the composer! He informed me that the opera had been recorded by Lyrita with the same cast. He went on to say how his music was much more appreciated abroad than at home and from other sources I became aware of the way the BBC had actively suppressed broadcasts of music by British composers of that generation rather than promoting them. He also mentioned that it was to be his 75th birthday that November and he hoped that the BBC would allow him a talk feature on his life. This spurred me to write to all the magazines and the BBC to try and ensure there was some sort of celebration to mark the event. Gramophone promised an article, which did not emerge, but the BBC did broadcast the 5th symphony from Croydon. My local Recorded Music Society sent a birthday card with a Rossetti drawing as Alwyn was an early collector of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was delighted and an even longer letter arrived. This was all very exciting for me because I had never had contact with a composer before. My only regret is that I never met him; although I did eventually meet Mary Alwyn at the premiere performance of Miss Julie at the Norwich Theatre Royal in 1997. In 1995, ten years after the death of William Alwyn, Andrew Palmer founded the Alwyn Society with the aim of deepening the knowledge and appreciation of his work and encouraging live performances. I offered to create a web site for the Society using the experience gained from creating a website in my role as a University Biology admissions officer. I approached Chandos for permission to copy all the booklet notes to their recordings and, with the help of Rob Barnett of the British Music Society, we added biographical material. This was placed on the University Biology server. MusicWeb stems from that. [The Alwyn Society became inactive following the death of Mary Alwyn]
The Alwyn site was successful in attracting attention and even praise. Hunting round the web showed very few sites devoted to British composers. Two that stood out at the time were the Elgar and Delius Societies. It seemed an obvious move therefore, to extend from the Alwyn site and include other composers. Clearly this could not be done unofficially on the Biology Server. Fortunately it was at that time that the Coventry Performing Arts Centre amalgamated with the University and, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the staff of the Educational Development Unit (EDU), I was able to persuade the Performing Arts Centre that a British composer site would be of great assistance to their students and be useful for any part-time courses run for Coventrians. Hence the site became official ( by which I mean that it was tolerated by the University administration – there was never any finance made available for development although I was able to use University notepaper which lent authority) and was located on an EDU server. In 1997 a press release announced a free service to any composer Society or Trust wishing to have a web presence. For the next couple of years there was a steady flow of enquiries and many Composer Societies ended up being represented on MusicWeb.
Whilst researching Humphrey Searle I discovered a biography written by David Wright and sought his permission to republish it alongside the composer’s memoir which had not been able to find a publisher. It transpired that David had a large and growing collection of such biographies and they became the mainstay of MusicWeb. I had long been a member of a Recorded Music Society and had witnessed the common problem of the membership dropping away – many dying without being replaced by new younger members. My own society had, in a period of only 12 years, dropped from a regular turnout of 40 to only 8. I suggested to the Federation of Recorded Music Societies that a web presence would enable the affiliates to advertise their programmes and perhaps attract new and younger members. This became a flourishing part of the site looked after by Reg Williamson who finally persuaded me to join the FRMS committee. Eventually Reg retired and the FRMS decided in 2003 to run the website themselves. [Reg has since died]
Most of the British composers represented on the site belong to the ‘forgotten’ generation composing in the 50s and 60s. This was not by design – more a reflection of my own taste and the lack of exposure offered to these composers. In fact the site became much more comprehensive although present day composers tend to have a well established presence on the web – either through having their own sites or being represented by their publishers. The site is not restricted to British composers and I was soon approached by the Dvorak Society and the Respighi Society to see if I would help them. There are now a goodly number of specialist articles on non-British composers such as Leo Brouwer (one of the most popular pages), Mahler (the most popular pages), Luis de Pablo, Egon Wellesz etc. Nevertheless it is the British composers that have received the in-depth treatment to date and where necessary articles have been commissioned (Britten, Bridge, Holst ). Future needs are for similar studies of Arnold, Bliss and Gershwin. We also have in-depth studies of Gundry and Butterworth who were little known and I was proud to be able to persuade Colin Touchin at the Warwick Arts Centre to include Arthur Butterworth’s fourth symphony in one of their programmes as a 75th birthday tribute (see review by Paul Conway). Arthur came with his family and we cut a cake in the interval. In one of those unfortunate coincidences that dog us through life, it was that very day that ClassicO chose to lay down the premiere recording of the first symphony which Arthur was therefore unable to attend.
Ian Lace and Rob Barnett already knew each other and approached me with the idea of a supplementary site specialising in Film Music. This started in early 1998 and became a major, flourishing part of the site. Ian Lace was appointed Honorary Editor for Film Music on the Web. Ian was keen to edit a site that treated film music with the respect it deserves. It embraced responsible news coverage and comment, articles, composer profiles, and most importantly, in-depth reviews of books and CDs of current and historic film scores. Ian was also keen to include coverage of concert and operatic music by film music composers such as Korngold, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, and George Antheil. A new classical music-orientated innovation began on Film MusicWeb in March with a regular feature entitled If Only They Had Written for Films, the first of which was devoted to the music of Kurt Atterberg. Ian retired as Hon Ed in December 2002 handing that job over to Gary Dalkin and then Michael McLennon. Ian died in 2021.
With Ian keen to include reviews of CDs, we needed to link the reviews to on-line web-stores. Accordingly, the site would clearly be defined as ‘commercial’ and would be contrary to the University regulations for web sites. There were other problems with the University too. They would not permit me to support local events such as the Coventry Jazz Festival and the Warwick Arts Society even though I perceived that to be a service to the local community, which the University was supposed to serve. It became necessary to think about leaving the University. In the end it was a technical reason that caused the site to move entirely onto a commercial server. The Educational Development Unit decided to use Microsoft Front Page to administer their files. This was fine when I was working in the University but impossible using a dial-up modem externally. Hence the whole site migrated to the ISP Force9 and it was months and months before the search engines caught up with that move! The Force9 site was closed down on 2004.
I was actually already running a dual site at the time because of the Gerard Hoffnung pages. When I was a teenager, Gerard Hoffnung was much loved and his little books were sought-after Christmas presents. He died very young and his memory gradually faded and I realised that none of my students had ever heard of him. Most of his books were also out of print. I took steps to trace his widow, Annetta, and invited her to the University where we designed a site to the memory of Gerard. Annetta had a small cache of the little books so the site was created and sales links generated for the Oxford Union Bricklayer speech on a BBC tape, the two CDs (EMI and Decca), the remaining books and delightful sets of postcards of the cartoons. We also had detailed a range of Hoffnung jig-saws but that sole-trader business folded just as the site got under way. The Hoffnung site has been immensely popular and sells the Hoffnung artifacts to all parts of the globe. We may not make much money out of it but we like to feel that we are helping to keep these recordings in the catalogue. Gerard would have been 75 in 2000. To celebrate that his cartoons were on display at the British Cartoon Centre and the little books were privately republished by Annetta. (She died in July 2018)
Because of the wish to put CD reviews on the Film Music site (and Ian was already well established as a reviewer for Fanfare and BBC Music Magazine – and he regularly contributes reviews to Rob Barnett’s Classical MusicWeb, more of which below) the decision was made to mount the entire site with Force9. This was because the site was clearly going to exceed the usual offers of 20Mbytes or even 50Mbytes (it is currently (March 04) approaching 800Mbytes with over 24000 pages) and Force9 were the only UK ISP to offer unlimited webspace with business use. We had severe problems with them at first because they did not provide sufficient bandwidth and the site was very slow and even unreachable at times. This markedly improved once Force9 were taken over by Plusnet and the unlimited web space offer still stands. What none of us had appreciated was that there was a limitation on daily downloads and with the burgeoning success of the site we were beginning exceeding that limit fourfold so a more serious solution had to be found. However, the move to Force9 did allow me to represent the Warwick Arts Society who have a large site now as well as the Coventry Jazz Festival. [Both now run their own websites-2003]
Rob Barnett was well known as a reviewer for the British Music Society and editor of BMS News. With the success of the CD reviews on the Film Music site he was appointed honorary editor of Classical MusicWeb and Classical CD reviews were started in late 98. We now review around 220 Classical CDs each month with a smattering of middle of the road, jazz, musicals etc. that Ian includes in what he refers to as his Curio Corner.
The number of reviewers has gradually grown to meet the demand and we currently list just over 140 contributors to the site. There are usually around 40 reviewers active at any time.
Summer 2000 I was sitting under my gazebo chatting to Peter Grahame Woolf and his charming wife Alexa. Like me, he was semi-retired but still practiced as a psychiatrist and had travelled to Birmingham to see a patient, calling on me on the way back to London. We both had converging ideas. I thought that the site could be used to promote budding artists. We could perhaps mount their CVs at little or no cost and act as a contact point – I had already had a preliminary chat with Diana Hirst along those lines. Peter’s concern was that such artists now had little exposure as most of the daily newspapers had stopped printing concert reviews and consequently young artists did not have the previous opportunities of producing a portfolio. Peter had been writing about music for more than forty years. He had been a contributor to Strictly off the Record which eventually failed through lack of support. The result of that meeting was Seen&Heard which presents reviews of live concerts as soon as possible after the event. We started by presenting one or more new reviews every day. Marc Bridle, Melanie Eskenazi and Bill Kenny have all been editors of a greatly expanded Seen&Heard. CD reviews had originally been presented monthly but often a recording is of such great interest that we wished to draw attention to it immediately. Consequently in November 1999 we started a Daily Review on the site. The first was Dracula followed by the first of the Bostock Nielsen cycle in the revised scoring. I had attended the Press launch in Liverpool where Bostock also gave a live performance and I came away clutching the CD. Live concert reviews also occasionally appeared as a daily review if it was part of a continuing cycle. The daily reviews attracted a small but dedicated following. Following the success of that it was decided in May 2000 that all Classical reviews would be posted as received to add a daily interest to the site. Around ten a day are added – usually five days a week. Each month between 150 and 200 classical CDs and DVDs are reviewed.
The site looks better and navigates better than it did. Unusually for web sites we maintain an archive of previous incarnations so the early front page can still be seen. Early visitors to the site may recall that ‘headless witch’ spinning a web on the front page. Reg Williamson hated it and it was soon replaced by the Hoffnung Drumming Turtles. New front pages were developed in-house (i.e. by me in my house) but we were precipitated into a redesign when we learned that Internet Magazine was proposing a site-survey of Film MusicWeb. I had always admired the presentation of Helen San’s Film Music site www.cinemusic.net and she kindly offered to rebuild the Film Music front page for us around some ideas that had been floating around in my mind. [Helen has now retired] We got a kind review from Internet Magazine but with some adverse comments about site navigation which we hope have now been addressed. We were so impressed with Helen’s work I commissioned a new front page for the classical site. I should add that Film MusicWeb has been greatly admired and is the preferred site of many search engines, including Yahoo.
All this talk of commissions and sales makes the site sound like a thriving commercial enterprise. Sadly, like Amazon, it is not. We were receiving in excess of 75,000 unique visitors each month (current figures may be seen here), but they did not buy enough CDs and site did not cover its cost and had survived through a combination of donations and the editors putting their hands deeply into their pockets. All the contributors work for nothing although the reviewers do get to keep the discs which do not cost the site anything although I have to cover the postage costs.. It was my desire to be in a position to pay the reviewers for their hard work and travel expenses and particularly to reward the editors. It is sheer obsession that has got us where we are. We have a questionnaire on the site and from the returns there are indications that some people would be willing to pay a subscription to visit the site but that is a road I would rather not follow.
Written in February 2001 and gradually updated
Our Association with Vavo.com ran for ten months and was financially successful but was then terminated as Vavo hit the same buffers as other dot.coms. We are currently on our own again and pursuing other avenues.
Ian Lace retires as Ho Ed for Film Music on the Web and Gary Dalkin picks up the reins.
Through the good offices of Simon Foster (of Avie) I was put in touch with the Classical Network Ltd who ran the website Ludwigvanweb.com This site supported independent classical labels whose disc are offered for sale or download. In return for a monthly payment we reviewed discs from their associated labels and these reviews appeared on both MusicWeb and Ludwigvanweb, accessible to MusicWeb’s 50,000 weekly visitors to their site. They had a hands-off policy so did not try to influence the MusicWeb reviews. They agreed the reviews would be meaningless if that were not the case and have put up with some stinkers (although not all those were published on their website). Regrettably, although both sides have held to their bargain our visitors did not play ball. They did not even sell enough discs to cover what MusicWeb was costing them. So as we headed towards 10 years old the future of MusicWeb is still uncertain.
MusicWeb published its 10,000th classical review. However MusicWeb has always suffered from Server down-time and these have a devastating effect on visitor numbers. In March and June 2004 there were two periods of over a fortnight when MusicWeb was not available. As a result of this we were offered a new home with Harold Moore’s record shop and visitor figures slowly climbed again. An attempt was made at making the site more commercial and adverts were accepted for the first time in some years. We also commenced a makeover process with Seen and Heard being the first section to benefit from the designer hands of Bill Kenny.
As a lead up to our 10th Birthday celebrations the site name was changed to MusicWeb International www.musicweb-international.com This reflected the diversity of both our reviewers and of our audience.
Eventually the relationship with Harold Moores and Classicall.net ended. They were not paying us and we were owed a great deal of money. This is a recurring refrain of MusicWeb! We have found a new server and currently survive on the money raised by the site and by donations.
The site was given a makeover with a new logo and much improved navigation.
Seen and Heard, the live concert and opera review site, was given a make-over. To make it more flexible and easier for contributors to load their reviews, Bill Kenny and his team spent several months developing a database-driven site using WordPress. This also allows instant notification of new reviews by e-mail to those who want it.
Bill Kenny says:
The old Seen and Heard design has served us very well – our readers seemed to like it – but it had three disadvantages from our point of view. It was both inflexible and difficult to adapt to our changing needs and it was awkward to maintain. Its greatest disadvantage by far however was that it required a huge amount of manual labour by our Webmasters simply to keep it up to date.
With often more than 20 new articles and reviews to add twice weekly these days, and with having to index every new entry manually, an average upload day with the old design could take up to 6 hours to complete, a fact that could often delay the publication of some reviews by as long as a week – or longer if the review just happened to miss one of our twice -weekly deadlines. We simply had no more time available for updating.
So enter our new shiny design which is built in WordPress and which can be updated daily – or at the very least on the five working weekdays anyhow. WordPress is an amazingly flexible tool too and a typical review or article can now be set up, then indexed automatically in several useful ways and even emailed to our readers in less than a couple of minutes after it has been edited. Readers in their turn can add their comments to every piece that we publish now, which the members of the reviewing team hope will become a regular feature of our output.
We are reasonably sure that most people will find the new design an improvement on the old one but we would still be glad to hear from anyone who doesn’t. And if readers tell us why they don’t like the changes, we are also optimistic that WordPress – and the Editorial team – will be sufficiently flexible to overcome any snags that do show up.
With that proviso out of the way, we are looking forward to adding new features to Seen and Heard, to reporting even greater numbers of musically interesting venues and to making some new friends in the process. We might even take up Tweeting if our readers would like that. Let us know and we’ll certainly look into it.
Bill Kenny retired from his role as S&H Editor and webmaster in September 2011 being replaced by Stan Metzger. (Bill died in late 2022, just a few months before MWI eventually moved to its own WordPress site.)
Tony Duggan, the great Mahlerian, dies at the age of 58. Obituary.
By public demand we have redesigned the site yet again. It was said to be too colourful and even garish. There were still complaints that it was difficult to navigate (there are now over 40,000 pages) so we have adopted drop-down menus for the first time. The change met with approval!
By the start of 2015, our twentieth year, we had published 40,000 classical CD reviews plus thousands of Seen and Heard and Jazz reviews and various articles are also published each month. As Klaus Heymann said:
MusicWeb International has indeed developed into the most important classical review site on the web, by reviewing more recordings than any other medium in the universe.
See the tribute page http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2015/Jan/anniversary_tributes.htm
Stan Metzger died suddenly (Memoriam page). John Quinn and Jim Pritchard took over the running of Seen and Heard and John Quinn also became the Senior Editor of MusicWeb International.
The Founding Editor, Rob Barnett had edited nearly all the reviews that appeared on MusicWeb but he has now stepped back to being just a reviewer and, as so often in these cases, it has taken a team of new editors to complete the same work. For Rob and myself MusicWeb had been virtually a full-time job. I too have, at the age of 76, stepped back. The publication of reviews after editing is now carried out by David Barker in New Zealand and Jonathan Woolf co-ordinates the allocation and distribution of review discs. I have now moved to much smaller premises and no longer have the facilities for this. The indefatigable John Quinn does everything else including overseeing the occasional series of Listening Room reports and attending concerts as a reviewer. And so we head for 2020 when we will be 25 by which time we will have exceeded 50,000 CD reviews.
A Major New Development
The Musicweb site was getting on for 30 years old and was still basically as it was in the beginning with hand crafted pages that were fixed HTML files and not a secure site. The site was not database-driven and did not adapt for phones. It was full of old links that no longer worked as the sites and merchants they led to had disappeared. All of this did not comply with the latest Google algorithms and we were becoming ignored by Google – not good for any site. We decided a fresh start was needed as we simply could not revisit nearly 60,000 reviews and articles to amend them So the decision was made to freeze the original site as the MusicWeb Archive. Everything was still fully accessible but no new reviews were added after December 2022. So, since January 2023 we operate on two sites with a spanking new review site created by David Barker with input from Len Mullenger.