Edmund Rubbra was a
lovely man: very intelligent and intellectual
man, a modest and congenial person.
He was a walking encyclopaedia and an
authority on all sorts of subjects;
a fascinating man to talk with.
I recall my first meeting
with him when I was rehearsing an excellent
youth orchestra in one of his pieces.
I asked him, "Do we call you Mr Rub-ra
of Mr Rew -bra?" He answered quietly,
"You call me Edmund!"
Rubbra was an expert
on world religions and philosophy but
was never arrogant. He felt that there
were many things that were far beyond
words and unable to be expressed in
words and he loathed the bastardisation
of words. He would lament that the word
‘wicked’ was now being used to describe
something fantastic or remarkable and
how the word ‘cool’ was used to mean
something socially fashionable. "Wicked
means evil or morally bad, " he would
say, " and cool means neither hot nor
cold." He would get noticeably annoyed
at things like this. He literally squirmed
when the Liverpool pop group, The Beatles,
were called ‘fabulous’. "Utterly stupid",
he said, "fabulous means old and ancient
like a fable."
He was an uneven composer.
His string quartets are awful being
so tense and claustrophobic. Some of
his choral music is truly superb particularly
his Masses and works like Inscape. His
orchestration has always been criticised
and sometimes it is naff. Take the jaunty
tune from the scherzo of the Symphony
no. 5 which he gives to the horn. It
is not a horn tune at all. It is obviously
a clarinet tune.
is often maladroit. He had no feeling
for instruments and there is little
concertante writing in his work and
no outstanding orchestration as a result.
He also had certain trademarks which
makes his music unmistakable. The grim
opening of the Symphony no 5 gives way
to his usual three part counterpoint
and that introduction has no bearing
on what follows.
My fond memories of
him began when I was a boy. It was an
early performance of his Soliloquy for
cello and small orchestra being broadcast.
I took my parents old valve radio, changed
the plug so that it fitted into the
light socket in the kitchen and listened
to it in the dark. I was deeply impressed.
I rushed straight from that performance
to chapel not realising that, in the
dark, I had bent under the indoor washing
line and was in chapel with a pair of
nylons across my shoulder.
Whatever you do, obtain
Rohan de Saram's performance of this
little masterpiece. Do not obtain the
version by Jacqueline DuPré which
is simply dreadful. She was not a good
cellist. She always played with extreme
hormonal intensity and added minutes
to standard works.
It is my view that
the Symphony no. 4 , written between
1940-2 is his best symphony. But I have
to take issue with Robert Saxton's notes
although I want to say that I respect
him enormously both as a composer and
person. I profoundly admire some of
Rubbra had no sense
of form. A good composer makes a blueprint
of the whole structure first as would
an architect. Rubbra often said to us,
"I never know where a piece is going.
I just write." He also said, "The idea
for the opening of the Fifth Symphony
came to me while waiting for a bus in
Oxford. I wrote it down when I got home
and kept writing." It is this lack of
form and structure that pervades some
of his symphonies yet he was sufficiently
aware of sonata form to include the
basic ingredients when he wanted to.
The Symphony no. 4
is cast in three movements although
I would say four. The opening Con moto
is spacious and profoundly beautiful.
Strings are divided and in octaves with
woodwind and horns adding to the ethereal
colours. When the music becomes agitated
it has a controlled excitement and the
later use of the Phrygian mode maintain
Holst was a poor composer
(consult my article on him on this site)
and told Rubbra, "Never use the dominant
seventh!" What utter stupidity. In this
work Rubbra uses it to full effect and
it is a useful interval in many respects
particularly in modulations.
Before we proceed further
we have to compliment the splendid playing
of the Welsh orchestra. It could not
be better. Richard Hickox is as reliable
as ever and the sound is gorgeous .
The second movement
is an intermezzo marked allegretto grazioso.
The third movement is in two parts of
which the first is slow and introspective
and the second half is more forceful.
There is a clear Rubbra
sound which you can only appreciate
when you get to know his work. One of
his many endearing qualities is the
use of the timpani, never excessive
but always very telling with a strange
muffled attack. The Soliloquy for cello
and small orchestra, Op 57, uses the
timpani to great effect and when Ngoc
performed this work with me conducting
the orchestra Edmund went to the timpanist
and told her exactly how he wanted the
part played. She did a great job and
Edmund took her, Ngoc and myself out
to lunch to express his appreciation.
He was a kind and lovely man.
The Symphony no. 10
dates from 1974 and is entitled Chamber
Symphony. It was premiered in January
1975. The dedication to Sir Arthur Bliss
is a little surprising since Bliss was
not an admirer of Rubbra's orchestral
music. After a London concert several
of us joined Sir Arthur and Nancy for
a drink which he offered to buy for
us. And so we ordered. Then he said,
"I have no money". Therefore, so our
drinks were not the promised gifts.
He looked around the bar and saw a pork
pie. "That looks as stale as a Rubbra
symphony", he said. That comment may
be apt for this symphony. It is dull.
Michael Kennedy, some
of whose comments are incredible, writes
in his Dictionary of Music that Rubbra's
symphonies are full of spiritual grandeur.
What on earth does he mean? Does he
mean of the Divine? Does he mean religious?
Does he mean something relating to spiritualism?
Does he mean something that reveals
the spirit, the very essence of Rubbra
himself? Does he mean something that
will speak to our spirit, our very being?
Does he mean that the music is refined
and sensitive? Robert Saxton implies
that the Rubbra symphonies represent
a journey but from what to what?
I am not sure of the
logic of the tenth symphony. It has
some few fine moments particularly those
parts which suggest a dance . The work
is episodic and has a loose and unsatisfactory
structure. The sad oboe theme that closes
the work is poignant. It is the fourth
movement that lasts 56 seconds a curious
after thought. The penultimate movement,
lento e liberamente, has the same poignant
oboe but a finale of less than a minutes
seems absurd. The oboe is almost the
star in the second movement scherzando
ma grazioso but playfulness is not revealed.
His final symphony
was dedicated to his second wife Colette
and was composed while they were living
in Horton cum Studeley a few miles outside
of Oxford. It was premiered at a Promenade
Concert in August 1980. It is a slow,
but not dragging piece, with an andante
moderato leading into an adagio calmo
e serena. It has atmosphere with a horn
duet over strings and harp having a
valedictory feel. The horn players are
very good incidentally, with a sure
intonation. Nasal woodwind and a rich
string passage continue the work and
there is the usual three part counterpoint.
The sound-world is very attractive and
it is beautifully played. Listen to
the majestic timpani and lush strings,
occasionally sounding a little Hollywoodish.
The lonely oboe heralds music which
seems to head towards a climax but it
does not come. The tinkling celesta
adds a magical feel to the music. Lovely
as this music is, where is it going?
Hickox is to be congratulated on a firm
control of the music's progress. Another
climax is threatened but it does not
come and yet another, but this fails
as well. Yet another build up and collapse.
There is a sense in which they music
does not flow, does not gel. The braying
horns heralds another climax, brilliantly
played and the climax is disappointing
but the music has a glow about it. Yes
an element of serenity is here as if
the composer was reverting to his strong
Catholicism which had been under threat
with his fascination with Taoism. The
tolling bells might suggest that as
well. It seems to take a while to wind
up. The last few minutes do not seem
to belong although the use of brass
is very effective and the clashing cymbals
and the penetrating horn saves the day.
But then the music succumbs to melodic
nullity again, albeit beautiful melodic
David C F Wright
see also review
by Rob Barnett
is much in Mr. Wright’s review that
is perceptive and well informed and
with which I fully agree. I have also
learned some things from his essay.
However, a few of the things that he
says call for comment, I think.
states that "Rubbra had no sense of
form." I defer to his superior technical
knowledge. However could I suggest that
this does seem to be a somewhat extreme
comment to make about a man with eleven
symphonies to his name? I note the quote
from the composer himself but I do wonder
how safe it is to take these words at
face value. How are we to know that
Rubbra's tongue was not in his cheek
at that time? Mr. Wright, speaking with
the benefit of personal acquaintance
with Rubbra, pays tribute to his humane
qualities. Though he does not say so
specifically, a strong inference of
his comments is that Rubbra was also
a modest man. Therefore, quite possibly
in making these comments about his own
muse he was indulging in self-deprecation?
also take issue with the statement that
"Rubbra's orchestration has always been
criticised". I've certainly read such
comments apropos the first couple of
symphonies but not to a similar extent
about the later works. (This may suggest
that as Rubbra became more experienced
as an orchestrator his scoring improved,
as one might expect, albeit he was never
in the class of say Elgar or Mahler
as an orchestrator.) In May 2001, Robert
Layton, an authoritative commentator
on Rubbra, as on so many other 20th
century composers, contributed a fine
and informed centenary tribute to Rubbra,
his old teacher, in International
Record Review. One of his comments
seems worth quoting. He writes of a
broadcast performance of the Fifth symphony
conducted by Stokowski: "It served
to show that when all the dynamic shadings
were scrupulously observed, every note
in the texture perfectly placed, the
orchestral colouring far from being
opaque acquired real transparency."
May I also
quote from an essay on Rubbra by the
late Harold Truscott? He comments especially
on the First Symphony, the orchestration
of which he acknowledges to be "persistently
thick and without relief." Writing
of the first movement of that work he
has this to say: "The attempt to
find ‘second subjects’ and comment on
their lack of contrast is futile. Rubbra
is not writing a sonata movement. I
find the sound of this music satisfactory,
but it is not primarily an orchestral
sound at all, and I think one must forget
the orchestra and colour and concentrate
on line-development and the immense
satisfaction that this can give.….He
has, indeed, revised the scoring of
both the first two symphonies, but the
recalcitrant element is in the music
and no scoring would remove it. Once
this is understood, stumbling blocks
are removed." (Robert Simpson
(ed.): The Symphony 2: Elgar to the
Present Day. p183. Pelican, 1967)
light of such comments Mr Wright’s assertion
that Rubbra’s orchestration "has always
been criticised" seems a rather sweeping
generalisation to me. I quote Messrs.
Layton and Truscott not in order to
suggest that they are right and Mr.
Wright is wrong, but to show that there
is room for a genuine debate about Rubbra’s
symphonic music. Simply to dismiss Rubbra’s
orchestration as "often maladroit"
simply will not do, I submit. In support
of this assertion Mr Wright cites a
jaunty tune, first heard on the horn,
from the scherzo of Symphony No 5, which
he avers "is not a horn tune at
all. It is obviously a clarinet tune."
Well, I’m sorry but I beg to differ.
I’ve listened to this particular passage
repeatedly to listen for what Mr Wright
suggests. Yes, when, on its third appearance,
the tune is handed over to the clarinet
it does work particularly well, I think.
However, to my ears it also works just
as well on the bassoon immediately before
that point and it sounds good at the
very start of the movement on the horn
(though, I readily acknowledge, perhaps
not quite so well as on clarinet
or bassoon.) Again, this is surely another
instance where there is room for more
than one opinion, each equally valid?
In my view
Mr. Wright damages his review by
the personal attacks on other musicians
and commentators that he inserts. The
story about Sir Arthur Bliss strikes
me as being plain malicious. It does
no service to the posthumous reputations
of either composer and seems to me just
to score a rather cheap shot at Rubbra’s
expense. It would have been preferable
to omit this from what is in many ways
a scholarly review, I think.
I won’t be alone in taking issue with
Mr Wright’s verdict that Jacqueline
Du Pré "was not a good cellist.
She always played with extreme hormonal
intensity and added minutes to standard
works." Now, I must admit that
I too have reservations about the emotional
content of some of her performances
(including the celebrated Elgar Cello
Concerto recording with Barbirolli.)
However, I take the view that hers is
not the only way with this work (and
with others) but that it’s a valid musical
and emotional response to the music.
Contrast Mr. Wright’s blunt opinion
with that of our colleague, Gwyn Parry-Jones,
recently reviewing the Christopher Nupen
film of Du Pré: "Her approach
was always the same – total emotional
and musical honesty, coupled with a
technique that was so fine that it often
went unnoticed." If Du Pré
was such an artistic liability why were
performers of the calibre of Zukerman
and Perlman, to say nothing of Barenboim,
apparently so keen to make music with
her? I don’t think it will do to assume
that they did so purely out of friendship.
of all I strenuously object to Mr Wright's
intemperate comments about Michael Kennedy.
Kennedy is, for my money, one of the
best writers on music in the English
language. He is consistently fluent,
well informed and, above all, possesses
that rather rare gift of making one
impatient to hear the piece of music
about which he is writing. His writings
on composers such as Britten, Elgar,
Mahler and Richard Strauss have been
widely acknowledged as major contributions.
Mr. Wright quotes a comment by Kennedy
that comes from The Concise Oxford Dictionary
of Music. Surely he realises that in
such a publication entries and comments
must, of necessity, be brief? I may
be wrong but I would interpret Kennedy’s
comment as meaning "grandeur of
the spirit." I know what that means
As I said
at the start of this note, there is
much in Mr Wright’s review that is informative
and well-argued. However, I do feel
that some of his views lose credence
by being advanced rather too bluntly
and I believe it’s right to offer a
confess that at the end of the day I’m
unsure whether Mr. Wright recommends
this CD to readers. Let me say without
equivocation that, in common with all
the discs in Richard Hickox’s Rubbra
cycle for Chandos, it is an excellently
produced CD of fine and unjustly neglected
music. The performances are all first
rate and most sympathetic and the music
on the disc is extremely well worth
getting to know. I have no hesitation
in recommending this CD.