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PETER DALE is impressed by Trevor Hold's
new survey of the 'Second Golden Age of English Song'


This deeply considered, beautifully produced book surveys the 'Second Golden Age of English Song', a period of forty years or so (1890-1930) which, fortuitously or otherwise, embraces a concentration of talent un-precedented (and perhaps unrepeated) except by Campion, Dowland and Co three hundred years earlier. For the most part, the book moves, composer by composer, through the twenty major song-writers (thus, not necessarily major composers per se) whose work falls within the period: Bax, Butterworth, Browne and Bridge, through Finzi, Gurney, Howells and Ireland, to Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock. That's eleven of them re-arranged alphabetically. The others, following the more interesting and revealing chronological scheme of the book, are: Parry, Stanford, Elgar, Delius, Somervell, Holst, Armstrong Gibbs, Charles Orr, and E J Moeran.

Parry to Finzi - Twenty English Song-Composers by Trevor Hold
Parry to Finzi - Twenty English Song-Composers by Trevor Hold

Each chapter follows essentially the same pattern. The individual composer is considered broadly in the light of the sort of texts he chose to set, the characteristics of his musical style, and then by detailed examination of particular songs. By the book's own definition these people were makers of masterpieces, but it doesn't spare either their foibles or their failures. So much writing about English music still seems to feel the need to indulge in special pleading, to gild the lily (and overlook the warts), in order to get its subject taken seriously, as if there were something eccentric or even essentially ridiculous about supposing that English music (some aspects of it) needs no apology whatsoever. The favourite adjectives of this kind of writing are the soft-centered, non-abrasive 'charming', 'colourful' or simply 'characteristic' -- as if it were enough simply to be a 'character'. I don't think Trevor Hold uses the word 'charming' even once, and the same is probably true of 'colourful' (I speak from impression rather than calculation). 'Characteristic' he does use because one of the great strengths of the book is the systematic identification of individual stylistic fingerprints -- he does it for all these composers -- but that is precisely the kind of examination which requires seeing its subject far more clearly than merely as a character or a type.

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Copyright © 18 February 2003 Peter Dale, Danbury, Essex, UK


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