The Golden Renaissance of English Music

by Em Marshall-Luck (January 2012)

“These people have no ear, either for rhythm or music, and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is thus all the more repulsive. Nothing on earth is more terrible than English music, save English painting,” wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine in 1840s, whilst in an 1866 study about national music, the German researcher Carl Angel announced that "Englishmen are the only culture (people) without their own music", and in 1904 Oscar Schmitz published a book concerning English society with the sub-title Das land ohne music. Such comments are indicative of how other countries traditionally despise England for her “lack of musicality”. Perhaps, in the increasingly cosmopolitan atmosphere, Britain, instead of treasuring and re-discovering her gems, blindly followed the short-sighted opinions of other countries – for in 1930, the music critic E.J. Dent wrote dismissively that “…for English ears Elgar's music is too emotional and not quite free from vulgarity”, while thirty-four years later another critic, Colin Wilson, said that “much English music has the insipid flavour of the BBC variety orchestra playing an arrangement of a nursery rhyme”.

Yet English music has not been without her champions, and in 1995, the great musician Yehudi Menhuin said in a letter to The Times that “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”, and ended with the wish “May the island spirit still be led by its composers!”

Anyone who is familiar with Vaughan Williams’s atmospheric Oxford Elegy, Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality, Britten’s haunting Serenade, or the undeniable orchestral brilliance of Holst’s Planets will certainly recognise that, far from it being the case that Britain has produced no good composers, it is rather that that their genius is unrecognized. Refusing to follow sheepishly the trends that hold other countries in their thrall, they have gone their own way.

Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Elegy (John Westbrook narrator)

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Britain produced composers of tremendous skill and renown, including Purcell, Byrd, Arne, Tallis and Blow, and although the period between Arne and Parry has been called “musical Ice-Age”, it was, in fact, a time when Britain continued to produce composers who were the equal of their foreign contemporaries, if perhaps not progressive enough to warrant international attention. Philip Hayes, for example not only built Oxford’s beautiful Holywell Music Room, but also composed the world’s first piano concerto. There was also an unfortunate number of cases of extraordinary talent cut short. Edward Bache, who died at the age of 25, composed exquisite chamber works, and Thomas Linley, who died in 1777 in a boating accident aged 22, produced wonderful anthems, odes and oratorio, of one of which (his Shakespeare Ode), the 1824 Dictionary of Musicians said “Neither Purcell nor Mozart ever gave stronger proof of original genius than can be traced this charming ode”.

The start of the twentieth century then witnessed a most incredible golden renaissance for music in Britain, when myriad composers began to pour out amazing works of innovation, power, drama and beauty. Stanford and Parry were at the start of this renaissance, and these two, composers of international status, used a Brahmsian style to create English music that was the equal of Brahms. Throughout the nation, music burgeoned as a result easier access to scores and dramatically increased musical education through the colleges, as well as the proliferation of choral societies. Elgar furthered the creation of an English style through the marriage of the two Teutonic schools of Brahms and Wagner, and was duly recognised by his foreign contemporaries: Richard Strauss called him “the first Progressivist in English Music”, while Hans Richter said to his orchestra on rehearsing Elgar’s First Symphony “Gentleman, now let us rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer”. Other composers continued to look abroad and to incorporate the sounds they heard into what began to take recognisable shape as something inextricably “English” – Delius turned to the continent as well as to his beloved Negro spirituals to evolve a unique sound with lush, rich harmonies, while Holst turned to his own brilliant inspiration, to a divinity within and to other Eastern cultures for his own, totally original, idiosyncratic and deeply mystical voice. Vaughan Williams returned to English roots – both folk and Tudor – to resurrect an English music, rebelling against the all-pervasive Teutonic schools. English solo song became, from its parlour song and folk roots, a high art form – often meltingly beautiful, while, at the other end of the scale, Britain had her answers to Wagner in the form of Bantock and Holbrooke (the latter known as “the Cockney Wagner”), who wrote long, deeply romantic, lush and intense music – huge long operas to rival the Ring, and epic orchestral works. Other composers of this period, such as Bowen, Moeran, Bainton, Mackenzie, Armstrong Gibbs, Thomas Armstrong, Lord Berners, Dyson, Lambert, Leighton, Boughton, Coles, Coleridge Taylor, Dunhill, Foulds, Dale, Goossens, William Lloyd Webber, MacCunn, Harty, Friskin, McEwen, Montague Phillips, Scott, Rawsthorne, Rubbra, and Hadley, are only known by a small corpus of recorded works which show remarkable individuality, inspiration, and forward-looking orchestral panache.

Despite the fact that these composers very much have their own voices, they are nonetheless all recognisably “English” (as a genre). Britain is a nation whose music and literature (with which it has an inextricable relationship) are drawn from her landscape, reflecting the soil from which the author was born and the views he drank in - from the gentle swell of undulating hills to the stark desolation of mud flats and moors. Seascapes are equally important – being an island nation, we have, whether conscious or not, a call to the wildness and freedom of the sea, which features large in all British arts. Britain may not be able to offer the break-taking majesty of the Alps or the majestic sweeps of the Tabernas desert, the spectacular fjords of Norway or the thick tangling forests of Germany, but still it does not present the complacency that some people associate with it. For centuries artists, poets and composers have been inspired by the subtle hues and shades in our “blue remembered hills”, the play of light in tenderly mysterious woods, the change of the seasons or shifting weather, or by the sweeping dramaticism of the dales and lakes that so entranced Wordsworth.

No puts this so well as Menhuin, writing in his preface to John Burke’s book Musical Landscapes

“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 on the whole more fluid, less formal and didactic, than almost any other. On the whole it 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. It is not music of extremes or confrontation, nor music of elegant, formal life at court or within the rooms of a private house, but a music that reflects the feelings, thoughts and emotions of particular individuals, finding a sympathetic echo in the hearts of all their compatriots…”

Melancholy, nostalgia, wistfulness, contemplation, the occasional spark of dry (or sometimes quite earthy) humour, and rays of hope and spirituality run through the veins of this music. Often simply, but exquisitely, crafted, it is deeply evocative and speaks to the soul. It’s about poetry, landscape, seascapes and towns-scapes, and these influences have shaped creative outpourings to create works of subtle and fluid beauty. And in a society where music has, perhaps inevitably, become uniform - not just in orchestral logistics but also in sounds, repertoires and performers – this uniqueness is to be preserved, and cherished to the highest degree.

Yet despite this amazing heritage, much of this glorious music is sadly neglected or overlooked. For a start, festivals of English Music tend to either fail from the outset or gradually become international – the Cheltenham Festival was originally founded in late 1940’s as the Cheltenham Festival of British music, and became international a decade later. Even Three Choirs Festival has, in recent years, been moving slowly away from English music, and particularly lesser-known works, to more routine, international fare.

The fact that identical repertoires are being performed by the same players world over means that a small nucleus of works has developed that are recognised as “acceptable”. As a result, concert managers are not willing to take risks and programme anything other than contemporary music (for which they can obtain governmental funding) or established classics - no concert manager would be in trouble if a programme of Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Verdi did not sell, but his job would be on the line if he had attempted a concert of Moeran, Armstrong Gibbs and Ernest Farrar. The consequences of this are obvious – and debilitating. British composers have little place in this clique of favoured composers, and English music is simply not fashionable. Worse still, it is seen as politically incorrect. Whether this is a result of the ever-increasing tide of multiculturalism, and the fact that anything “English” suffers, one can only speculate. But certainly there is a hesitation to promote anything English, as if it is seen as antagonistic to other cultures – as if we were terrified of being seen as imperialistic or jingoistic if we celebrate our own culture (one needs only look at the stigma attached to glorious ending of Elgar’s Caractacus because it looks forward to a great British Empire). Even at the time Neville Cardus said: “If a German or an Austrian, a Czech or a Bashibazouk, had composed Gerontius, the whole world by now would have admitted its qualities.”

It is also notable that Britain often looks to the opinion of other countries before taking up her own flag: Beecham only took up Delius’s music here after its evident popularity in Germany, and even Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was only resurrected here (following an unfavourable premiere in Birmingham) after its has proved a tremendous huge success in Germany.

Furthermore, English music has a rather serious image problem. British composers of the early twentieth century are scoffed at, perceived as the “English pastoral composers" - lesser musicians whose "cow-pat", simplistic, rustic and folk-y works are naturally second-rate to the great Germanic school, or forward-looking Russian school or hugely inspired and under-rated Scandinavian school.

English music did often draw on folk roots – and it was then criticised as being rustic, simplistic, and unnecessarily bucolic. In his book National Music, Vaughan Williams tried to dispel this unjustified image of folk music as being inferior:

"...I am not telling you of something clownish and boorish, not even something inchoate, not of the half forgotten reminiscences of fashionable music mouthed by toothless old men and women, not of something archaic, not of mere "museum pieces", but of an art which grows straight out of the needs of a people and for which a fitting and perfect form, albeit on a small scale, has been found by those people; an art which is indigenous and owes nothing to anything outside itself, and above all an art which to us today has something to say - a true art which has beauty and vitality now in the twentieth century."

"The Water is Wide" - sung by Hayley Westenra

Whilst some composers (often of the more modern, forward-looking school of English music) disagreed (Constant Lambert wrote rather amusingly in Music Ho in 1934 that "the whole trouble with a folk song is that once you have played it through there is nothing much you can do except play it over again and play it rather louder"!), many endorsed Vaughan Williams' illumined opinions: Percy Grainger said "I consider the communal development of folksong is no whit inferior to the original achievement of a great outstanding "original" genius", while Cecil Sharp proclaimed that "Folk music is the ungarbled and ingenuous expression of the human mind and on that account it must reflect the essential and basic qualities of the human mind".

Dispelling this myth of "toothless old men" and of a crude simplistic, unrefined folk music is important, but when one considers that not just Holst, Hamilton Harty, Moeran, Bax, Delius, Boughton, Butterworth and early Bridge but even wonderful, innovative, daring Britten – the darling of the notoriously anti-tonal music establishment - arranged folk melodies, folk music begins to lose its anachronistic image. Furthermore, it is an indisputable fact that when Stravinsky or Bartok quote folk tunes, people rave about them, whereas if a British composer does the same, the piece is dismissed out of hand as being rustic or primitive. Folk-music, it seems, is fine. It’s just British folk that’s the problem.

Similarly, whereas many works have been inspired by the countryside, look at the dramaticism, the wildness, the stark desperate desolation, the shocking, striking, power of Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony, Holst’s Egdon Heath, Moeran’s In the Mountain Country or Bantock’s Celtic Symphony, for example. These in no way depict cows looking placidly over gates into pretty fields of corn, nor complacent rural idylls. One really wonders whether those who short-sightedly dismiss English music in this way have ever actually sat down and properly listened to a symphony by Moeran, McEwen, Boughton, Vaughan Williams or Scott - or have indeed heard any English music apart from those few accepted classics, the done-to-death lip-service pieces.

Despite the neglect of English music, there is still a huge demand for it, as evidenced by rocketing CD sales and high chart-listings. Under the guidance of Roger Wright, some intriguing pieces of rare English music have recently made their way to the Proms – including Fould’s World Requiem and Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, and English music can increasingly be heard on Radio 3 and Classic FM.

David Hill conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Raphael Wallfisch
(photo by Catherine Hadler)

Yet when one considers how important this genre once was, one can see how much restoration work still needs to be done. When the Amsterdam Concertgebouw opened in the 1880’s, the symphony chosen to open the first night was not, as one might expect, one by Beethoven, Brahms, or Dvorak – it was Stanford’s Third Symphony.  Following this great success, Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall made sure that it secured the premiere performance of his Fourth Symphony. Now this great composer’s music is relegated to the occasional enterprising amateur choral society concert. Sullivan’s cantata The Golden Legend was so popular that it was the second most frequently performed choral work in England after Handel’s Messiah, His grand opera Ivanhoe received over 150 consecutive performances in its first run – possibly a record for any opera, and Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha received performances at the Royal Albert Hall every single year without fail between 1924 and the start of the war in 1939.

The English Music Festival (EMF) was founded in 2005 to redress this balance and last year held its fifth Festival – to so large and enthusiastic an audience that chairs had to be borrowed from villagers’ garden sheds to seat everyone in the unprecedented and unexpected demand. That the EMF has been able to put on world premiere performances of major works by composers such as Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst, Britten, Gurney, Moeran and Bowen is both a tribute to the Festival, yet also a shame that such works are still only now being discovered and have not yet found their way to the concert platform. The EMF sets these early twentieth century gems in context, with music included ranging from mediaeval times through to the present day, with a number of contemporary commissions in an accessible, traditional vein.  Artists include world-class orchestras and soloists, and each year EMF concerts have been broadcast on Radio 3. Demand for this music has pushed the EMF into a realisation that it needed to expand, and so EM Records and EM Publishing were born, to bring the general public world premiere recordings of important repertoire (such as our latest release of Holst’s important work, The Coming of Christ, with words (recited by actor Robert Hardy by poet laureate John Masefield), and to bring musicians the notes, to enable them to perform works otherwise inaccessible to them. The response to the Festival itself, and to these latest offshoots has been overwhelming and thoroughly demonstrates that the tide has turned and curiosity in this overlooked genre is becoming a passion for many.

So, spread the word, and dig out your forgotten score of Vaughan William’s Mass in G minor. English music is back on the map.


Em Marshall-Luck is the Founder-Director of The English Music Festival, Director of EM Records & EM Publishing and the author of Music in the Landscape (Robert Hale 2011)

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