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
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
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James Day: Englishness in Music
ISBN 0 905211 02 2
Thames Publishing. £14.95