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Book Review

Englishness in Music

by James Day

reviewed by Peter Dale

<< Continued from yesterday

The book is also immensely refreshing for never resorting to the props of the opinions of others. Day is his own man. There is none of that sort of dreadful book which consists of a long and tedious hall of mirrors of other people's opinions and then the revelation - surprise! surprise! - that the present author knows better after all. This is not a heavy book, but the erudition is there all the same; it's just that Day wears his learning lightly.

There are quite serious omissions I think. There is no discussion at all of the so-called English cadence, for example. Nor does he mention the false relations which, though they may have been an international feature of music towards the middle and end of the sixteenth century, became a quite distinctly (and exclusively?) national characteristic of English music in the first half of our own century. Of course one cannot tackle everyone or everything in a mere two hundred pages, but some large and very large figures are missing and missed: Moeran, Patrick Hadley, Rutland Boughton, Stainer, Howells and Finzi, to name but a few. Holst gets barely a mention. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, has a chapter to himself - surely an over-statement of the case for the Englishness of (some) of his music. Day turns a blind eye also to how often Mendelssohn gets English stress patterns wrong in his music which is odd because one of the very, very interesting patches of the book is a discussion of the early developing habit in England of scanning by stress rather than by quantity, a practice which almost certainly did (and does) contribute to an English flavour in our opera and song.

Day notices how the English love an eccentric (even if we are not so keen in eccentricity in our products). This being so, I'd have thought Percy Grainger deserved a mention at least, if not a full-fledged discussion. In the event, he gets neither.

By ignoring them, Day puts one in mind of other books about Englishness: Paxman and Bryson recently, but also the classic The Englishness of English Art (Pevsner), English Eccentrics (Sitwell), George Orwell's The Decline of the English Murder, and of course, Vaughan Williams' (his hero) National Music and Other Essays. Certain broad ideas are, in fact, held in common by Day with all those others: the English capacity to absorb eclectically from extra-national sources and then to make them our own (just like the growth of our language, in fact), an aversion to personality cults but a soft spot for characters, a proper but not vigorous attention to folk art, folk music, vernacular of all sorts, a feeling for dignity rather than pomposity, wit and fun rather than belly laughs and vulgarity, a suspicion of hearts worn on sleeves. All these and more amount perhaps to a peculiar achievement. So much of our art is national, for example, in quite recognisable ways, but not nationalistic, puritan but not puritanical, national (again) but in no sense tribal, melancholy quite often but not maudlin or morbid.

I wish Day had given some field trials to his ideas in the form of a few case studies. Why, for example, does Tippett, using Italian material, nevertheless make something so tellingly English in his Fantasia on a theme of Corelli? What is it about Blake which makes him so popular with composers bent on being English while the apparently much more English Wordsworth has hardly ever had a look in? Is there something special about English attitudes to form and surface, perhaps deriving from the light in these islands which allows one to see far without murk on the one hand or dazzle on the other? That's certainly true of another very English art form: our gardens. And then, at least statistically, so many cello concertos are English. Why should this be so?

What we need now is for someone else, familiar with English music but not themselves English, to tell us how it looks and sounds from their point of view. That would be to pay English music an enormous compliment, but we have done it so often for other people's music, why should not someone now do it for us? There is a sense in which, being English and in England, we take Englishness for granted. On the whole, that's the way it should be, but I'll never forget the time when I had been abroad, happily as I thought, for nearly six weeks and then, in a strange house, I heard Elgar on the record player. I cried then and knew where I belonged. I suspect that a lot of other people must have had similar experiences.

The book is well indexed. There are no illustrations or music examples, but many interesting quotations, especially from letters and song texts. Quite a lot of misprints have gone uncorrected. 'Long love Orianna' (sic) appears four times, though Elizabeth herself might have been flattered, getting on for seventy though she was when the Triumphs were published.

Copyright © Peter Dale, April 18th 1999

James Day: Englishness in Music

ISBN 0 905211 02 2

Thames Publishing.          £14.95

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