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Fertile soil

As an Englishman I am curious as to the regard - or otherwise - held by the rest of the world to our understanding and enthusiasm for music. This matter returned to my mind on recently reading the words of a mid-19th century cleric, the Reverend Mr Haweis, in a book titled in the manner expected of its author's calling - Music and Morals. He begins, 'The English are neither a musical people nor artistically endowed. But, in any case, their general artistic endowment surpasses their specifically musical impulses; i.e. they have produced better artists in the field of the graphic arts than in the realm of music. A people cannot be called musically gifted simply because it permits itself to be educated to listen. It must first produce its own composers. No one can maintain that the English meet this condition or that they ever have.'

Morals, or the lack of them, have no bearing on that statement. Apart from the sad omission of Purcell from his apparent evaluation of the past, the Reverend Haweis' conclusion sounds pretty accurate for England in the mid-19th century. At the end of the next century, just 150 years on, it is astonishing to survey the change of musical scenery. What happened? Elgar, out of an average family in Worcestershire in 1857, brought a quiet revolution to our pastoral backwater. Proof is found in the year of his death, 1934. It also deprived us of two other major talents in English music - Delius and Holst, both born after Elgar.

Had not the first World War inflicted a most devastating loss of young life upon both sides, English music (and much of European music) would have found itself richer by far. Undoubtedly an English renaissance would have have been even more fruitful - a doleful thought in memory of talents unfulfilled. If you care to look back, this century has given Britain a generous share of natural musical creativity, apart from those mentioned, through Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Ireland, Walton, Bliss, Howells, Rubbra, Britten and Tippett, without yet mentioning those still with us.

The revitalisation of a nation's musical life has perhaps never before seen such a transformation within 150 years or so. I'm tempted to believe that many Britishers now over 60 will predict that the next century has no chance of similar musical growth, and those younger will mostly believe the opposite.

That's life!

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, March 29th 1999

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