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.”

Why is it neglected? Like other aspects of English culture it is the victim of a negative ideology that devalues it with pejorative labels like “elitist” or “narrow” but the labels do not fit reality. English music is not imitative, but innovative. It has developed significantly from the early twentieth century but is still rooted in the English tradition – it is tuneful, melodic, tonal and recognisably English. English Classical Music is hidden by a cloud of prejudice and ignorance and is stigmatised as “elitist” or “quaint” when in fact it has the tonal qualities that people enjoyed before modernism set out to destroy them.

In 2005, the Proms had a number of all-English programmes and all but one sold-out, whereas other non-English music programmes did not. The Gloucester 3 Choirs Festival in 2001 did a special Festival of only English music and sold out swiftly. The BBC Music Magazine has a Top 20 Best sellers list and there is some really interesting English music discs there, often by obscure composers.

Despite a noble heritage, much of this glorious music is overlooked. “English Music” festivals tend to either fail at the outset for lack of funds or become internationalised and absorbed into the Social Engineering Culture. The Cheltenham Festival was founded as “The Cheltenham Festival of British Music”, but went “international” and now stages the same as everywhere else.


Without renewal our culture would die and the Festival renews by commissioning works. An oratorio “Prayerbook”, written and performed specially for the first Festival by David Owen Norris was acclaimed by the audience. The Clarinet and viola heralding Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 was a beautiful performance. (1906).


Frederick Cliffe’s First Symphony of 1889, was only revived after 83 years’ neglect. The Daily Telegraph of 22 April 1889, published a review: “It may be doubted whether musical history can show on any of its pages the record of such an Opus. The symphony is a masterpiece, and the composer, one might think, feels terrified at his own success. For our own part, noting the imaginative power displayed in the work, the easy command of all resources, the beauty and freshness of the themes, and their brilliant development, we feel inclined to ask a question, propounded concerning another phenomenon “Whence has this man these things?” Mr Cliffe has by one effort passed from obscurity to fame, and must be regarded as a bright and shining star on the horizon of our English art.”’


Over a century later The Daily Telegraph of 26 April 2004 had a feature on John Foulds as the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra released their recording of “Dynamic Tryptich.” Conductor Sakari Oramo explained, Foulds composed “some of the most original music ever conceived”. Malcolm MacDonald, editor of music magazine Tempo, believes: “There’s no question he was a genius and one of the most significant English composers of the last century. MacDonald, found some scores in the British Library: “I got out a dozen pieces, and the first thing I opened was the Dynamic Triptych. I was blown away by it. This was music unlike any British composer of the time. I was amazed it was lying around, and no one was playing it. ”Foulds’s daughter ” took me to the garage, where there were two coffin-sized boxes full of sketches and manuscripts she’s been left by her mother.” Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts were damaged by rats and ants. In his book “Music Today” Foulds’s, explained how, by strict diet and meditation, he had developed his clairvoyant and clairaudient abilities. Much of his music, he claimed, was dictated to him by spirits.”

In the Baroque period we produced composers of immense skill like Purcell, Byrd, Arne, Tallis and Blow. The period between Arne and Parry has been dismissed as a “musical Ice-Age” though we had Stainer, Wesley, Potter, Sterndale Bennett, Crotch, who were on a par with their foreign contemporaries, but not progressive enough for international attention. In 1769, Englishman Philip Hayes, who built Oxford’s beautiful Holywell Music Room, composed the world’s first piano concerto! Some great composers died young: Edward Bache, composer of exquisite chamber works, died at 25, and Thomas Linley, died aged 22 in a boating accident in 1777, yet produced wonderful anthems, odes and oratorio, about one of which was written “Neither Purcell nor Mozart ever gave stronger proof of original genius than can be traced in this charming ode”.


Even during the ravages of Modernism in the twentieth century there was a renaissance of music in England. Stanford and Parry were at the fount and in a Brahmsian style created English music equal to Brahms himself; Elgar continued the creation of an English style through merging Brahms and Wagner. Richard Strauss described Elgar as “the first Progressivist in English Music”, and Hans Richter told his orchestra of Elgar’s First, “Gentleman, now let us rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer”! Others found inspiration abroad and incorporated the sounds into something uniquely “English”; Delius turned to the continent and Negro spirituals to develop a unique sound with lush, rich harmonies. Vaughan Williams returned to English roots in folk and Tudor to revive an English music, rebelling against the ubiquitous Teutonic schools. English solo song grew from parlour song and folk roots into a beautiful, high-art form; at the other end of the scale, 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. Writing about Holbrooke’s The Raven, Irish composer Hamilton Harty said “there is beautiful and impressive music in that work, and, as I told the orchestra, it is so infinitely superior to the foreign muck with which we are deluged nowadays!” There are other composers of this period to listen to include 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. These, and many more, are known by a small corpus of recorded works.

Yehudi Menhuin, also stated: “I am drawn to English music because I love the way 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. 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…”

In 1927, Holst wrote incidental music to a mystery play “The Coming of Christ” which has never been recorded. As I mentioned, Cliffe’s first symphony, an acclaimed masterpiece, has not had a professional public performance for over 90 years. His second symphony has not been published; none of the symphonies by Walford Davies, Coleridge Taylor and Somervell are available, nor is Bowen’s first symphony which was so popular that The Times devoted a whole column to analysing it; Delius’ opera, “A Village Romeo and Juliet”, considered by many the first great modern English opera, has not been performed at either the Royal Opera House or English National Opera for over half a century.

Contemporary artists have similar repertoires and only a small number of works are considered “acceptable.” Concert managers are not prepared to take risks, so they programme what they know, usually popular classics for government funding. A programme of Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Verdi is familiar and safe but to present say, Moeran, Gibbs and Farrar a risk. English music is not fashionable. It is not politically correct and managers hesitate to promote anything English, as if inimical to other cultures. In an era of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” English culture is shunned. It is not the done thing to seem nationalistic by celebrating our traditions: the ending of Elgar’s Caractacus is stigmatised because it points forward to a great British Empire! We are supposed to be ashamed of our culture and ignore it or apologise. Composers of the early twentieth century are dismissed as the “English pastoral composers,” lesser musicians whose works are put below the Germanic, Russian, or Scandinavian schools. But the pastoral tradition has always inspired composers and poets.


It is often based in a particular location or built from folk song-like melodies – Williams’ three “Norfolk Rhapsodies” (1905-07), and “In the Fen Country” (1904); Holst’s “A Somerset Rhapsody” (1906-7); Butterworth’s “Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad” (1912), his “Two English Idylls” (1911) and “The Banks of Green Willow” (1913); and Finzi’s “A Severn Rhapsody” (1923). The sleeve notes to a recording of “A Severn Rhapsody” read: ‘The music gently evokes the mood of the English countryside and the meandering river’. A pastoral characteristic, reflective of rural ‘simplicity’. These works bespeak a retreat from the care, complexity, or harshness of society. English classical music has its roots in the country; is rooted in our landscape but not necessarily a picturesque one. Gustav Holst was walking in the desolate Dorsetshire country between Wool and Bere Regis in 1926 when visited by inspiration and he started “Egdon Heath”, also prompted by the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native”. The music is stark and austere. As for elitism anyone can go to these concerts without passing a test. They just have to like the music. Furthermore, composers like Holst wrote music for brass bands. “The Moorside Suite” was used in the brass band competition at the Crystal Palace in 1928 which was won by the Black Dyke Mills Band.


Most works in the English pastoral tradition are not large-scale works but representative of the pastoral genre, though degree of intersection with other forms and genres like the ‘rhapsody’ is characteristic. Some English composers are known collectively as a pastoral ‘school,’ the creative background to both composition and reception, and that their music is so closely bound to landscapes to which they regularly returned. The English pastoral style shares aspects of the pastoral topic of European Classical and Romantic music, but is particularly associated with the musical language of folk song. It is for this reason that Elgar, Parry and Stanford had individual voices yet developed their style from the German musical idiom but are often excluded from the pastoral canon though their importance to the English Musical Renaissance is recognised.


Contemporaries like John Ireland and Gustav Holst, despite varied influences and often different styles, played an important part in the development of a recognisably English pastoral style.


Three aspects of English pastoralism: setting, language and sensibility. ‘Setting’, the specific location in which the composer has chosen to set a piece; ‘language’, the musical idiom, be it derived from English folksong, French impressionism or the German romantic tradition; ‘Sensibility’ is clearly the hardest to pin-down, but within it resides the pastoral ‘outlook’, the mood invoked by the music; what it sets up to desire or reject. Within each category, there seems to be an ideal, in that one can posit a ‘typical’ English pastoral piece of music as one set in the West of England, derived from the musical language of folk song and with a nostalgic, introspective sensibility. However, these categories allow a degree of flexibility in that a piece need not have a specified setting, or, if it does, its idiom need not be folk-song related. Thus Ireland’s piano miniature” Amberley Wild Brooks” and Vaughan Williams’s “Fifth Symphony” though disparate are of the English pastoral tradition.


Ireland’s music belongs to the school of ‘English Impressionism’. Having been steeped in German classics, especially Brahms, he was strongly influenced in his twenties and thirties by the music of Debussy, Ravel, and the early works of Stravinsky and Bartók. Contemporaries such as Vaughan Williams and Holst developed a language strongly characteristic of English folk song, Ireland developed a complex harmonic language like French and Russian. He was very influenced by poetry and his settings of such poets as A E Housman, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John Masefield and Rupert Brooke are among the best known of his works. He was susceptible to the spirit of place. “Chelsea Reach” is a depiction in the form of a barcarolle of the great sweep of the Thames as it flows past the Houses of Parliament. He loved the Channel Islands but his main love was Sussex, a landscape of undulating downs and then isolated villages, including Amberley whose ‘Wild Brooks,’ coursing through the fields, inspired the most brilliant of his piano pieces.


Many contemporary composers are writing tonal, innovative, exciting and melodic music which spreads from the English tradition which is difficult to hear in concert, yet is too good to be ignored. There are record labels releasing this music like Naxos, Dutton, Lyritia, Hyperion, Chandos and they sell well. The BBC music magazine has a classified chart and they usually get in. But concerts are not put on because they are not part of the productions fashionable with the ruling elites even though they are enjoyed. The Gloucester Three Choirs in 2001 did an English programme and it sold out!

The English Music Festival cannot get funding from the Arts Council. The only political organisation to give support was the Campaign for an English Parliament and their name worried some sponsors who wanted it removed from the programme, for fear of political embarrassment. Several high-profile companies declined as they wanted to be associated with pop and rock. Some firms first pledged their support and then declined.

It is up to us to support it. 

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