Music and Vision homepage




a recent article on English music
by David Hamilton


I was recently alerted to an article by David Hamilton on the neglect of English music published in the New English Review when my attention was drawn to it by a reference on an online discussion forum by Canadian pianist and composer Gordon Rumson; it contained a number of points with which I felt impelled to take issue -- and by no means because I am a Scottish composer!

The author opens with a quotation from Yehudi Menuhin writing in The Times in 1995 in which Menuhin observes that

English composers will not slavishly follow some arbitrary theory or construction, whether political or musical. They have kept their Englishness intact, whilst the mercantilistic world has gone all-American.

I find this to be at the very least unhelpful; Menuhin avoids specifying to which English composers he refers (it can't possibly be all of them!) and in any case he seems to make a sweeping generalisation here. What in any case is the 'Englishness' of these composers and how can we tell that it remains 'intact'? His notion that 'the mercantilistic world has gone all-American', irrespective of its truth or otherwise, seems to have no obvious relevance in that American music can hardly be said to have taken some kind of precedence over that of other nations.

Much of the remainder of Mr Hamilton's article seems redolent of a kind of narrow parochialism in its suggestion that 'English' music is somehow identifiably different to any other and may and should accordingly be more strongly supported in England as such. I am all for supporting English music that is worthy of support, but I cannot help but return to the questions 'who are these English composers?' and 'what makes them and their music identifiably English?' One has only to consider the immense differences between a handful of English composers born in England between 1943 and 1946 to realise that there is no obvious commonality besides the country and origins of their birth -- I refer (in chronological order of birth) to Brian Ferneyhough, David Matthews, Robin Holloway, John Tavener, Colin Matthews and Michael Finnissy; can it reasonably be said that all of these identifiably represent what can be called an 'English musical tradition' -- and the same one at that?

Thanks to a variety of researchers, performers, record companies and the like, we know far more English music now than was the case thirty years ago and there can, of course, be no doubt that some of this unearthing has proved to be of immense value in reviving the justifiable fortunes of music that has for far too long been overlooked. The case of John Foulds, to which a paragraph is devoted, is a classic example of this, whereas that on Frederick Cliffe borders on the fatuous; is it reasonable to expect to class his 1889 symphony with the early symphonies of Mahler, Brahms's and Bruckner's final symphonies and Tchaikovsky's last two symphonies?

Whilst it is obvious that the term 'land without music' in the period between Purcell and Elgar in England was always an exaggeration, can we really be expected to believe that the works of Stainer, Wesley, Potter, Sterndale Bennett, Crotch, Hayes, Bache, Linley and others whose names the author might have mentioned but decided to omit 'were on a par with their foreign contemporaries', irrespective of whether or not they were considered 'progressive enough for international attention'? In what ways were any of these on such a par? Who were the contemporary English equivalents of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bellini, Rossini, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Alkan, Weber, Verdi, Wagner, Bruckner, Smetana, Brahms, Dvorák and others? There were undoubtedly some interesting figures in English music during this period, but I remain unconvinced that England could field anyone of the order of these composers.

The paragraph beginning 'Even during the ravages of Modernism in the twentieth century' prompts the hackles of suspicion to rise before its very credibility is undermined by its leading to the claim 'there was a renaissance of music in England at which 'Stanford and Parry were at the fount and in a Brahmsian style created English music equal to Brahms himself'; leaving aside the facts that Stanford and Parry did no such exalted thing and that a substantial proportion of their mature music was in any case composed after Brahms's death, what on earth is meant here by 'the ravages of Modernism' and when were they supposed to have 'ravaged' what?

We are then told that 'Elgar continued the creation of an English style through merging Brahms and Wagner.' That Elgar was, by the time of his first symphony, the most important English composer for many decades is surely beyond doubt and he certainly knew well his Brahms and Wagner, although he felt influenced more by Schumann than either. But how did he 'continue the creation of an English style'? How could he in any case have 'created' one 'through merging Brahms and Wagner'? He developed his own, to be sure and was subject, like all composers, to certain influences in his earlier days, but he seems to have taken little from anyone in that list of earlier English composers that the author provides. Richard Strauss certainly recognised Elgar's greatness; his claim for him as 'the first Progressivist in English Music' was no more patronising towards Elgar than it was towards English music, but taken at face value it might at the same time be seen as somewhat misleading, in that Elgar's finest work had more to it than mere 'English Progressivism' (as I am sure Strauss also recognised).

Perhaps even more improbably, we are expected to believe that 'England had answers to Wagner in the music of Bantock and Holbrooke, "the Cockney Wagner", composers of long, deeply romantic, intense music -- to rival Wagner's Ring, and epic orchestral works'; to begin with, no one was asking a question (so how did England come up with an answer?) and, important as Holbrooke was, the idea that his orchestral epics 'rival' Wagner's Ring would surely have been as absurd to him as it should be to the rest of us -- and almost as risible as the idea of anyone being able to assume a mantle such as 'the Cockney Wagner'!

We are then given another long list of English composers active during the twentieth century -- 'Bridge, Bowen, Moeran, Finzi, Sainton, Bainton, Mackenzie, Gibbs, Berners, Dyson, Bax, Bliss, Ireland, Lambert, Boughton, Coles, Coleridge Taylor, Dunhill, Foulds, Dale, Goossens, William Lloyd Webber, MacCunn, Armstrong, Harty, Friskin, McEwen, Phillips, Scott, Rawsthorne, Rubbra, Hadley and Howells'; phew! -- pause for breath needed. I was unaware that Macs kenzie, Cunn and Ewen -- or Harty -- were 'English' in any case and it might likewise be salutary to question the extent and validity of Goossens' and Moeran's 'English' credentials. We certainly know more about most of these composers' works nowadays and some of the explorations have again yielded many treasures, yet do they all belong on anything like the same plane? -- Rubbra, Howells, Rawsthorne, Goossens, Foulds, Ireland, Bliss, Bax and Bridge seem to stand pretty much head and shoulders above most of the remainder (although the jury might yet be out on the standing of Bowen among this group) -- but what does this lengthy list of names prove in any case, beyond the author's ability to create lists?

Menuhin's Times piece is then reinvoked in a quoted statement that he was

drawn to English music because ... it reflects the climate and the vegetation which know no sharp edges, no definitive demarcation, where different hues of green melt into each other and where the line between sea and land is always joined and changing, sometimes gradually, sometimes dramatically.

If that isn't woolly thinking, I don't know what is! Leaving aside the dubious topographical claims, how can or does any English music identifiably reflect those things? -- and was there ever in any case climate, vegetation and the rest in England that was so utterly distinguishable from their equivalents anywhere else on earth that they somehow begat music that is likewise so very different from that of other nations and instantly recognisable for its origins, irrespective of who wrote it? I remain mindful of the need to justify my questions here without putting my remarks firmly to the test, so next time I listen to Rubbra's First Symphony, Ferneyhough's Third Quartet, Bridge's Second Piano Trio or Birtwistle's Earth Dances (English earth, is it? -- and producing vegetation devoid of sharp edges?), I promise to make a point of looking out for -- er -- something or other that offers even a tenuous thread of commonality and continuity that might accord in some way to Menuhin's somewhat strange vision of England and things English, though I suspect in advance that the search will be at least as fruitless as those identified in the Scottish writer Norman Douglas' reference to looking for 'a needle in a haystack or a joke in the Bible'.

Menuhin continues

The music ... is a very human music, not given to shattering utterances, to pronouncements of right or wrong, not to abstract intellectual processes, to human emotion in the abstract, but to a single man's experience of today as related to a particular place ...

What is he talking about? Is musical humanity the exclusive province of English composers? (One would hope not!) If there are no 'shattering utterances' in Brian's Gothic Symphony and Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony I'm an Englishman! Is there a prevalence of 'pronouncements of right or wrong' in non-English music? Is Ferneyhough's music free from 'abstract intellectual processes'? How is English music uniquely given to 'a single man's experience of today as related to a particular place', whatever that is in any case supposed to mean (and why only a single man?!).

Since the principal points are largely already made, I will refrain from picking apart the remainder of Mr Hamilton's article (which readers may sample for themselves) and confine myself to a few brief final observations.

I am unaware of the nature and extent of conspiracy against the promotion and performance of English music that the author strongly and repeatedly suggests is predicated upon the giving of priority to the promotion of non-English music in England, an argument that is at best suspect and at worst specious.

With his references to 'English pastoralism', the author seems to be regarding the notion of 'tradition' with which he opens as something locked in the past but which is at the same time possessed of some kind of justifiable immutability that ought to ensure its perpetuation. Many of us are familiar with the term 'cowpat school' ascribed to Constant Lambert -- one of many English composers overlooked by the author as well as the barb from Elisabeth Lutyens -- another one -- about 'folky-wolky modal melodies on the cor anglais' but, amusing as these are, what about 'English pastoralism' in present-day music? -- is it not, for example, alive and well (albeit in what is arguably a reified form) as a palpable influence over some of the music of David Matthews -- yet another one -- for example The Music of Dawn, In the Dark Time and the Sixth Symphony?

The author writes of an 'age of diversity' that supposedly acts against the recognition of English music; why does he therefore say so little about the sheer range and diversity of English music itself?

To return to Elgar -- the author cites his Caractacus. The admittedly imperialist tone of its ending is as nothing to the unalloyed embarrassment of the same composer's Crown of India which I understand is shortly to be revived (albeit only momentarily, one hopes!); now if anything by a great composer could really be regarded as absurdly and emptily jingoistic and utterly beneath both him and contempt, then that work surely well surpasses the second and third of Shostakovich's symphonies! Much has often been made of the 'Englishness' of Elgar's music; not only can I simply not hear it but I had initially been put off the very idea of it by what I had read and heard about this supposedly pompously-circumstantial antediluvian imperialist Edwardian land-on-which-the-sun-never set music -- which was a great pity, since I had therefore to be dragged kicking and screaming to a performance of his first symphony, fearing the very worst, yet what I heard thrilled me intensely and still does to this day.

Elgar's finest work is arguably of an order of importance equal to any work produced by non-English composers in his own time, yet what is there that is so quintessentially 'English' about it? (and, let's face it, it seems that nothing can be deemed to be truly and uniquely 'English' without that woefully overused knee-jerk qualifying adverb!). Those very characteristics about which I had initially felt so queasy are rarely present at all -- which is hardly surprising, given such factors as Elgar's lower-middle-class origins, his Roman Catholic faith (and his doubts about that) and his frequent bouts of unconfidence, all of which identify him as a most unlikely candidate for the 'English establishment figure' of his day into which mould people tried to force him (although, notwithstanding Elgar's virtuosity as a cyclist, shouldn't one of his 'friends pictured within' have gently persuaded him to shave off those handlebars?). One does not have to be a Roman Catholic or an English person to be profoundly moved by The Dream of Gerontius, as well I know (and I doubt that it had been any kind of perceived 'Englishness' in Newman's text that discouraged Dvorák from setting it before it came Elgar's way).

Finally, it is blindingly obvious that very few of the examples that the author provides are post-World War II, so where this article really falls down is in its omission of, among others, Tippett from the past century's first decade, Lloyd, Britten, Searle and Arnell from its second, Arnold and Simpson from its third, a clutch of 1930s-born composers (Wood, Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Maw, Payne, Crosse, McCabe, etc), those whom I have already mentioned from the 1940s, Knussen from the 1950s, Benjamin from the 1960s and Adès from the 1970s; if that's all a mere coincidence, it's a pretty drastic one! (and the author is clearly not the only writer capable of listing English composers) ...

Music that is any good must stand -- and, yes, sometimes needs to be helped to stand -- on its own two feet, but because it is worth bothering with, not because it is 'English'; do we only or mainly care about Debussy and Dutilleux because they were/are French or Copland and Carter because they were/are in someone's bizarre perception the offspring of Menuhin's 'mercantilistic all-American society'?

Copyright © 30 August 2009 Alistair Hinton,
Herefordshire UK






 << Music & Vision home                  John Cage >>