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Book Review

Englishness in Music

by James Day

reviewed by Peter Dale

How much sense does it make to label music in terms of nationality when one of the most conspicuous things about music is that though composers must learn how to write the language, no-one has to learn how to receive it, how to understand it? Music is the international language of the country we all belong to whether our feet tread the dust of Armenia or Alabama. When, however, a composer cultivates a private language (Sorabji? Schoenberg even?) we respond with incomprehension to what strike us as meaningful sounds but from whose sense we are excluded as if by a linguistic frontier. On the other hand, when we listen to music which speaks in one of those styles which very much transcends national boundaries - classicism in the late 1780's, or Jazz and Rock music now - there seems to be something missing, some slight inflection of the common language, some local flavour. It is as if between the international language and the individual voice of the composer we need a middle ground, a local code as it were, more specific than the global language but more generalised than the personal voice.

Bernard MacLaverty in his recent novel Grace Notes (and a very good book it is too, by the way) has his heroine struggle to detach herself from the narrowness - political as well as cultural - of her up-bringing in Northern Ireland. This process gradually crystalizes around the composition of a large orchestral piece which strongly features Lambeg Drums, those tribal totems of Unionist identity. The music, like her child, was conceived on an Hebridean island (neither here nor there in terms of Albion or Ireland), but both were eventually born in mainland Britain. In the same way, the music's beginning, specific to Ulster, evolves into a universal language, coloured by local origins, tensions and bafflements (and by Lambeg Drums, of course), but transcending them into the common concerns of humanity. A picture postcard of a local spot prefigures the view from the moon, as it were.

James Day prefaces his new book with a disclaimer that 'this is not a history of English music' (because it is not comprehensive - no-one earlier than Tallis, and many others missing, especially in the twentieth century). He concentrates instead on those people who epitomise for him - and for most of us - Englishness in Music: the Madrigalists, Purcell, Handel, Sullivan, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten.

There are no easy answers to what this Englishness is. There is no national instrument or characteristic rhythmic tic - no bagpipes or Scotch snap, no harp or massed male voice Cwm Rhondda, and, let it be said, no Lambeg Drums. Given that such easily recognisable things are not available, Day does nevertheless identify, but not really clarify, certain components: the language itself and its sonic implications, an avoidance of extremes, eclectic gatherings from other traditions assembled into convincing new syntheses, a tendency perhaps to melancholy but a sense of fun too, a leaning towards a certain democratic flavour without yielding to populism, and (though he doesn't exactly say so) the faintest of conservatisms in the picture overall.

The book is full of insights. The simple fact, for example, of England's early constitutional reins on the purse strings of monarchy goes far and deep to explain the peculiar course of the history of opera in this country; or the lack of truly lyrical poetry in the Augustan age tending to push vocal music into something of a corner with popular ballads, and so on.

He develops excellent discussions of particular pieces, notably Elgar's Falstaff and Vaughan Williams' Five Tudor Portraits, and there are fine cameos of figures such as Henry Lawes, Thomas Linley and James Macfarren. Another of these concerns the gifted son of Garret Wellesley, Professor of Music at Trinity College Dublin, who destroyed his violin on the day his father bought him a commission in the army and went on to become the victor of Waterloo.

Day is good on music publishing, music in the ancient universities, Stanford's irritableness and many another attractive byway but he doesn't idealise his subject. He is well aware, for example, of English philistinism and the national vice of mistrusting genius. He is frank about the parts played by snobbery in the course of the history of English music. He tells in a foot-note of the baleful English habit of insularity and ignorance of global geography which caused the dragon for Wagner's Ring, designed and built in London, to be dispatched to Beirut in the Lebanon rather than Bayreuth in Bavaria.

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Copyright © Peter Dale, April 17th 1999

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