Friday, 31 July 2009
The Neglect of English Classical Music
by David Hamilton (August 2009)
As T.S.Eliot noted, traditions have to be renewed. The English Music Festival presents English Classical music from Medieval to Contemporary and is renewing a tradition.
Yehudi Menhuin wrote to the Times in 1995, “English composers will not slavishly follow some arbitrary theory or construction, whether political or musical. They have kept their Englishness intact, whilst the mercantilistic world has gone all-American.” more>>>
Posted on 07/31/2009 5:56 PM by NER
1 Aug 2009
An entertaining article, and one that will keep me busy investigating some of the composers with whom I'm unfamiliar.
Was the appropriately named Benjamin Britten excluded from the list for his modernity, or for his influence on and by the American Aaron Copland and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich? Britten's "Peter Grimes" is most enjoyable.
1 Aug 2009
Thank you so much for this tremendous collection. There is enough material here to occupy my lonely hours during the coming winter.
Although I must admit that I read it rather quickly and I may have missed Holst's The Planets which has captivated me...well, I won't say for how long, but ever since, how's that!
Thank you, once again. Chapeau.
1 Aug 2009
Supplementary: an article by Roger Scruton from 'The Spectator', in 2008:
"We need the English Music that the Arts Council hates."
2 Aug 2009
I do hope you gentlemen didn't mind too much that I left out Britten and Holst's Planets. I had to make decisions on what I wrote about and what I left out and decided to uncover the ones I thought most neglected.
What does excercise me is what sort of music and expressing what would we like to see develop in the future. Anyone have suggestions?
4 Aug 2009
Hm-m-m. That's a corker.
Maman used to say: He who askes the question....has the answer. Ha ha.
5 Aug 2009
May I say how strongly we at Victorian Opera endorse what you are saying. I agree with all you say about the composers mentioned. How could it be that the Cheltenham Festival did not give the premiere of Holst's Cotswold Symphony and that a Danish CD label Classico provided the first hearing of this symphony. And how dare a director Michael Berkeley promote his own work when he should be acting as an impartial director of the Festival. 2008 saw Balfe's bi-centenary yet nothing was given by R3. When last September RTE broadcasted a rare performance of Balfe's Falstaff 1838 the BBC wouldn't relay it even though it would have cost them nothing in royalties. We have just recorded W V Wallace's 'Lurline' 1860, a superb work, in readiness for his bi-centenary in 2012. Will Wexford or Buxton pick up a Wallace opera to perform? I doubt it without a deliberate shake up. I am disheartened by the fact that licence payers cannot get R3 to promote a wider coverage of classical music instead of pushing atonal and serial music that very few enjoy listening to.
Raymond Walker, Chairman Victorian Opera NW
6 Aug 2009
I am wholly in agreement with you about the marvellous music written by so many British and Irish composers which languishes in undeserved obscurity. Two quibbles - Tallis and Byrd are cited as composers of the baroque era (while Byrd did live into that era, his music does not really fit into it stylistically, and Tallis died well before the advent of the period) and the record company Lyrita is misspelled. I notice that you make no mention of the prominent composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who has, inter alia, written pieces which incorporate or are inspired by folksong or folk melody (such as An Orkney Wedding).
Somewhere in my collection of recordings, too much of which is still in boxes since I moved, I have what I recall is a Hyperion CD (probably out of print) of music by a contemporary of Purcell and Blow, a polymath who died in his twenties or thirties. He was, I believe, an earl or something similar. I cannot remember his name, but his music is of extraordinary quality. Perhaps you are aware of this recording's existence. . it's inaccessible to me at the moment, unfortunately.
10 Aug 2009
There are quite a few points in this article with which I feel impelled to take issue – and by no means because I am a Scottish composer!
To begin with, the first quotation from Menuhin is at the very least unhelpful; he does not appear to specify which English composers he’s referring to (it can’t possibly be all of them!) and in any case he seems to make a sweeping generalisation in his first sentence. What in any case is the “Englishness” of these composers and how can we tell that it remains “intact”? His observation that “the mercantilistic world has gone all-American”, irrespective of its truth or otherwise, seems to have no obvious relevance in the sense that American music has taken some kind of precedence over that of other nations.
There is a kind of narrow parochialism about much of the remainder of this article in its suggestion that “English” music is somehow identifiably different to any other and may and should accordingly be more strongly supported in England as such. I am all for supporting English music that is worth of support, but I cannot help but return to the questions “who are these English composers?” and “what makes them and their music identifiably English?” One has only to consider the immense differences between a handful of English composers born in England between 1943 and 1946 to realise that there is no obvious commonality besides the country and origins of their birth - I refer (in chronological order of birth) to Brian Ferneyhough, David Matthews, Robin Holloway, John Tavener, Colin Matthews and Michael Finnissy. Can it reasonably be said that all of these identifiably represent what can be called an “English musical tradition” – and the same one at that?
Thanks to a variety of researchers, performers, record companies and the like, we know far more English music now than was the case 30 years ago and there can, of course, be no doubt that some of this unearthing has proved to be of immense value in reviving the justifiable fortunes of music that has for far too long been overlooked; the case of John Foulds, to which a paragraph is devoted, is a classic example of this. The paragraph on Frederick Cliffe, however, borders on the fatuous; is it reasonable to expect to class his 1889 symphony with the early symphonies of Mahler, Brahms’s and Bruckner’s final symphonies and Tchaikovsky’s last two symphonies?
Whilst it is obvious that the term “land without music” in the period between Purcell and Elgar in England was an exaggeration, can we really be expected to believe that the works of Stainer, Wesley, Potter, Sterndale Bennett, Crotch, Hayes, Bache, Linley and others whose names the author might have mentioned but decided to omit “were on a par with their foreign contemporaries”, irrespective of whether or not they were considered “progressive enough for international attention”? In what ways were any of these on such a par? Who were the contemporary English equivalents of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bellini, Rossini, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Alkan, Weber, Verdi, Alkan, Wagner, Bruckner, Smetana, Brahms, Dvo?ák and others? There were interesting figures in English music during this period, to be sure, but I remain unaware that England could field anyone of the order of these composers.
The paragraph beginning “Even during the ravages of Modernism in the twentieth century” prompts the hackles of suspicion rise before its very credibility is undermined by its leading to the claim “there was a renaissance of music in England at which “Stanford and Parry were at the fount and in a Brahmsian style created English music equal to Brahms himself”; leaving aside the facts that Stanford and Parry did no such exalted thing and that a substantial proportion of their mature music was composed after Brahms’s death, what on earth is meant here by “the ravages of Modernism” and when were they supposed to have “ravaged” what?
We are then told that “Elgar continued the creation of an English style through merging Brahms and Wagner.” That Elgar was, by the time of his first symphony, the most important English composer for many decades is surely beyond doubt and he certainly knew well his Brahms and Wagner, but he felt influenced more by Schumann than either. But how did he “continue the creation of an English style? How could he in any case have “created” one “through merging Brahms and Wagner”? He developed his own, to be sure and was subject, like all composers, to certain influences in his earlier days, but he seems to have taken little from anyone in that list of earlier English composers that the author provides. Richard Strauss certainly recognised Elgar’s greatness; his claim for him as “the first Progressivist in English Music” was no more patronising towards Elgar than it was towards English music, but it also somewhat misleading in that Elgar’s work had more to it than mere “English Progressivism” (as I am sure Strauss also recognised).
Perhaps even more improbably, we are expected to believe that “England had answers to Wagner in the music of Bantock and Holbrooke, “the Cockney Wagner”, composers of long, deeply romantic, intense music – to rival Wagner’s Ring, and epic orchestral works”; to begin with, no one was asking a question and, important as Holbrooke was, the idea that his orchestral epics “rival” Wagner’s Ring would surely have been as absurd to him as it should be to the rest of us – and almost as risible as the idea of anyone being “the Cockney Wagner”!
We are then given another long list of English composers active during the 20th century - “Bridge, Bowen, Moeran, Finzi, Sainton, Bainton, Mackenzie, Gibbs, Berners, Dyson, Bax, Bliss, Ireland, Lambert, Boughton, Coles, Coleridge Taylor, Dunhill, Foulds, Dale, Goossens, William Lloyd Webber, MacCunn, Armstrong, Harty, Friskin, McEwen, Phillips, Scott, Rawsthorne, Rubbra, Hadley and Howells”. I was unaware that Macs kenzie, Cunn and Ewen - or Harty - were English in any case and it might likewise be salutary to question Goossens’ and Moeran’s English credentials. We certainly know more about these composers’ works nowadays and some of the explorations have again yielded many treasures, yet of these, can one really put them all on anywhere like the same level? - Rubbra, Howells, Rawsthorne, Goossens, Foulds, Ireland, Bliss, Bax and Bridge seem to stand pretty much head and shoulders above most of the remainder (although the jury might yet be out on the standing of Bowen among this group) - but what does this long list of names prove in any case?
Menuhin is then reinvoked in his quoted statement that he was “drawn to English music because...it reflects the climate and the vegetation which know no sharp edges, no definitive demarcation, where different hues of green melt into each other and where the line between sea and land is always joined and changing, sometimes gradually, sometime dramatically.” If that isn’t woolly thinking, I don’t know what is! Leaving aside the dubious topographical claims, how can or does any English music identifiably reflect those things? and was there ever in any case climate, vegetation and the rest in England that was so utterly distinguishable from their equivalents anywhere else on earth that they somehow begat music that is similarly so very different from that of other nations and instantly recognisable for its origins, irrespective of who wrote it? I remain mindful of the need to justify my questions here without putting my remarks firmly to the test, so next time I listen to Rubbra’s First Symphony, Ferneyhough’s Third Quartet, Bridge’s Second Piano Trio or Birtwistle’s Earth Dances (English earth, is it?), I promise to make a point of looking out for -er - something or other that offers even a tenuous thread of commonality and continuity that accords in some way to Menuhin’s somewhat strange vision of England and things English.
Menuhin continues “The music … is a very human music, not given to shattering utterances, to pronouncements of right or wrong, not to abstract intellectual processes, to human emotion in the abstract, but to a single man’s experience of today as related to a particular place…”. What is he talking about? Is musical humanity the exclusive province of English composers? (one would hope not!). If there are no “shattering utterances” in Brian’s Gothic Symphony and Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony I’m an Englishman! Is there a prevalence of “pronouncements of right or wrong” in non-English music? Is Ferneyhough’s music free from “abstract intellectual processes”? How is English music uniquely given to “a single man’s experience of today as related to a particular place”, whatever that is in any case supposed to mean (and why only a single man?!).
I will desist from picking apart the rest of the article, since the principal points are largely already made, so I will confine myself to a few brief final observations.
Suffice it to say that I am not aware of the nature and extent of conspiracy against the promotion and performance of English music that the author strongly and repeatedly suggests, which seems to be rooted in the notion that the promotion of non-English music in England is at best suspect and at worst scandalous.
As to “English pastoralism”, I suspect that the author is regarding the notion of “tradition” with which he opens as something locked in the past but which is at the same time possessed of some kind of justifiable immutability that ought to ensure its perpetuation.
Never mind the “age of diversity” that supposedly acts against the recognition of English music; what about the sheer range and diversity of English music itself?
To return to Elgar; his Caractacus is cited. The imperialist tone of its ending is as nothing to the unalloyed embarrassment of his Crown of India which I understand is shortly to be revived (albeit only momentarily, one hopes!); now if anything by a great composer could really be regarded as absurdly and emptily jingoistic and utterly beneath him, then that work surely jostles for pole position with the second and third of Shostakovich’s symphonies! Much has often been made of the “Englishness” of Elgar’s music; not only can I simply not hear it but I had initially put off it by what I had read and heard about this supposedly pompously-circumstantial antediluvian imperialist Edwardian land-on-which-the-sun-never set music – which was a great pity, since I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a performance of his first symphony, fearing the very worst, yet what I heard thrilled me intensely and still does to this day. Elgar’s finest work is arguably of the order of importance of any work produced by non-English composers in his own time, yet what is there that is so “English” about it? Those very characteristics about which I had initially felt so queasy are rarely present at all – which is hardly surprising, given such factors as Elgar’s lower-middle-class origins, his Catholic faith (and his doubts about that) and his frequent bouts of unconfidence, all of which mark him out as a most unlikely candidate for the “English establishment figure” of his day into which people tried to turn him (although, despite Elgar’s virtuosity as a cyclist, shouldn’t one of his “friends pictured within” have gently persuaded him to shave off those handlebars?). One does not have to be a Catholic or an English person to be profoundly moved by The Dream of Gerontius, as well I know (and I doubt that it had been any kind of perceived “Englishness” in Newman’s text that discouraged Dvo?ák from setting it before it came Elgar’s way).
Finally, it is blindingly obvious that very few of the examples that the author provides are post-WWII, so where this article really falls down is in its omission of, among others, Tippett, Britten, the clutch of composers born in the 1930s (Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Maw, Payne, McCabe, etc.), those whom I have already mentioned from the 1940s, Knussen from the 1950s, Benjamin from the 1960s and Adès from the 1970s; if all that’s a mere coincidence, it’s a pretty drastic one!
Music that is any good must stand – and, yes, sometimes needs to be helped to stand – on its own two feet, but because it is worth bothering with, not because it is “English”; do we only or mainly care about Debussy and Dutilleux because they were/are French or Copland and Carter because they were/are from Menuhin’s mercantilistic all-American society?
© Alistair Hinton, August 2009
15 Aug 2009
Mister Hinton, the point of my article was to counter “The Neglect of English Classical Music” and for the rediscovery and encourage the use of English Classical Music. A narrow parochialism “ is a sadly neglected quality in our vulgar all-encompassing world which promotes everything but our culture and traditions and I am under no obligation to go all trendy, join the Globalist craze or even promote music or composers on their merits. I prefer the narrow and deep to the broad and superficial. I sought to promote what I believe to be neglected music and that is a virtue in itself. I repeat English culture and music is under constant attack and these attacks are often mounted by using English taxpayers money to do so.
On this occasion I had mustered my evidence in support of a major point: the promotion of English Classical Music in general, as a good in itself, not to value individual works from any or all cultures, which is the fashionable but superficial way. If you wish to promote Elgar’s handlebars do so by all means but that is no concern of mine.
I never intended to proceed by making comparisons in the standard contemporary style of essay writing as that is the Liberal Internal Dialectic style of essay writing. My way is the Conservative style - collating from reality and reports of reality and thus deriving a nationalist Conservative view of reality and I am not going to change.
In this instance the whole of that article was grater than the parts and it is the whole that is the important part.
If any wish their music or orchestras to get involved which is the real intention of this piece, then please contact the Festival or the Director through the links provided.
24 Aug 2009
Here is another view on English Music that I hope people find interesting.
31 Jan 2010
Dear Mr. Hamilton,
I feel very pleased reading your article (it was a long time ago when you sent it, but I preferred to read it calmly than just pass some eye on it at that time. Anyway, I apologize.)
You are very lucky when you argue about all the richness of English music heritage. I often ask myself how can such a beautiful, expressive, powerful and unique-flavoured music, how can it be so far from the great concert platforms (at least, this is what happens here and in some other places where I was honoured to be in). I was also surprised by names as Cliffe and Foulds as well as the quotations about them!
I agree when you say that English music is easily recognisable as English. Perhaps it is its most important quality. I cannot think of other culture whose music is so authentically conceived. A possible exception could be Brazilian music, that, if uses European structures mainly, on the other hand has its fingerprints (rhythms, folklore and inspiration) as notorious signature.
For its qualities, as you said "tuneful, melodic and tonal", English music is also attacked. Ironically, by some Englishmen, themselves parts of this common root. One cannot fight drinking his native fountain! This is a kind of prejudice born from an old (and, unfortunately, not dead yet!) iconoclastic praxis of "question to raze", often without any criteria other than the negation itself.
I think that English music was not apart from the ongoings abroad, but, indeed, was powerful enough to summarize the world trends and, furthermore, blend them with its unique identity.
On what concerns the concert managers, if they're not prepared to take risks on English modern music, it's true if one says that they're not prepared to take any risk, because this happens everywhere.
People who attacks and doubts the qualities of British music seems to forget about the weight of names as Purcell, Byrd, Tallis or Downland, to name just a handful of the baroque or pre-baroque. If Purcell is undoubtedly the most original composer among the baroque ones (one can easily identify not just the main principles of that aesthetics but an English original flavour as well on it), it is quite obvious that Byrd and Downland remain important parts on the literature of their instruments. And when it is said that between Purcell and Elgar nothing has happened in the United Kingdom, I keep thinking why do Haendel, Clementi, Mendelssohn and even Chopin were attracted to England. Certainly, not just curiosity, unless they were not who they were...
Althought it exists this resistance (or opposition), we are glad to notice that, at least, Elgar, Britten and Vaughan Williams mainly still resists in the repertoire of the most important orchestras and chamber groups worldwide. And names as Peter Maxwell-Davies and Sir Michael Tippet remain as unquestionable welcoming cards!
Maybe, as you say in your article, all these misfortunes could be justified by political reasons. It would be disappointing if even music is already affected by these human imperfections...
FRC - C.'.F.'.M.'.
25 Aug 2010
English music is beautiful but we "Brits" think that it is vulgar to like our own work. So much of the pastoral music of the early 20th century has a wonderful tingle factor. I wish that TV and film producers would use more of our heritage on their sound tracks. Why do we imagine that the Americans are better?
19 Apr 2011
I was searching for a truly definitive article on English music, specifically within the pastoral tradition, and could not wish for a better article than this. Thank you. Carl. http://carlhalling.xanga.com
1 Jun 2013
After this length of time after the original post I suppose it doesn`t matter, but I can`t resist adding to the comments by stating that this article is typical in not a mention of the "unperson" of English Music whose music, ironically, is the only music to survive form the Victorian era . I speak of course of Sir Arthur Sullivan. The Savoy Operas may be in a distinct genre of opera but Sullivan, along with Britten, Purcell and Handel, was a REAL man of the Theatre. it is simlply not good enough to ignore him. Poor show, ignorance and pure snobbery I say!