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by Harold Truscott


It is no news that England is seldom quick to advertise her artistic wares, and I will anticipate at the outset a possible question raised by my title: why should I drag from obscurity a composer about whom previous generations have not troubled themselves? The reason is this: if one cares about music, no part of one's heritage is insignificant and, in fact, Ashton looms large at a very critical moment in the resurrection of English music; and resurrection it was. To anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in examining the record of English instrumental music from the death of Arne (1778) and Boyce (1779) to the end of the nineteenth century it is a familiar fact that this period, up to roughly the eighteen-eighties, is a desert. The amount of instrumental music written during the Victorian era alone would fill a fair-sized library, but there is scarcely a single two-page piece which could be called with reason a composition. I have found the Gadsbys, the Jacksons, the Farmers, the contrapuntal exercises they call symphonies, the imitations (at many removes) of Schumann's G minor Piano Sonata which pass for piano sonatas, the organ pieces which are so stiff with academicism that they appear to be in permanent plaster of Paris, a fruitful source of entertainment and instruction, but the entertainment was inadvertent and the instruction concerned the innumerable ways academicism holds up her sleeve for avoiding composition. It is a period littered with the Doctor's Exercise (which is always published), the prim personal examples by the great Teachers - the Prouts and Macfarrens. I doubt if there has ever been a period in the history of English music when more music was published and less composed, when almost every church organist added to the dusty piles of notes without volition. Whatever movement or semblance of life this mass of work may have is purely involuntary. Some good things in other directions came out of this time, but it was crowned by the English love of the academic institution, without whose imprimatur nothing had any worth; in spite of what is superficially a freer outlook, we are fundamentally still bound by the same cord, All that has happened is but a natural saturation point was reached and an inevitable movement against the current began, with difficulty, to make itself felt.

I would not want to pass by without due respect one or two curiosities on the way. Cipriani Potter, for instance, an early Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, in the days when there was still a clergyman Headmaster as well, who wrote nine symphonies - symphonies in exactly the same keys in exactly the same order as Beethoven, These symphonies do have some spark of an idea about them but in each case the idea has been sparked off by Beethoven. And there was the gentleman who much later, emulated Wagner's Rheingold Prelude which, representing the flow of the Rhine, is almost entirely on the chord of E flat, by writing an overture to an oratorio Jonah which cleverly represented the whale's belly by being entirely on a chord of D. The weak and derivative quality of much of this production is crucial and might stand as symptomatic of the whole period in matters of composition.

Particularly is anything like an imaginative keyboard style conspicuous by its absence; apart from the bread-and-milk imitations of Schumann to which I have already referred, such a style exists merely as watered down versions of Cramer's studies or extensions or modifications of a prevalent hymn-tune style. The only composers in England during the whole of this lengthy period who produced great and original keyboard music were two foreigners and an Irishman: Clementi, Dussek and Field, with Cramer and Moscheles (two more foreigners) as near misses. Sterndale Bennett was certainly imaginative, but he wrote his best work in Germany under strong Mendelssohnian influence, which was much of the reason for his appreciation by the Germans.

Now this depressing picture did come to an end, but the ironical thing is that it had done so long before England realised it, and it came to an end in Germany. The return of a genuine creative spirit to English music is usually associated with the advent of Parry, born in 1848, and Stanford, 1852, leading on to Elgar, 1857, who took longer to develop than the other two. This is particularly true of Parry, in practically every department of music except opera and piano music.

The former he did not touch, the latter is represented by a delightful collection of pieces called 'Shulbrede Tunes' and four piano sonatas, all of which were written towards the end of his life and do not show any great creative power; they are merely well written, which is something. He did write some organ music which is fine, if not great. His power is essentially in his orchestral music and his choral writing, where he is superb. Stanford, a great teacher, wrote some outstanding songs, many of which could justly be called great, and some distinguished orchestral and chamber music; I would hesitate to use the word 'great' about the instrumental music, although there is no doubt that it was composition of a very real kind. But, again, although both composers began to write early in life, about the age of eight, they developed a musical maturity only slowly. Elgar's story is well-known, and has become much more so since the centenary of his birth in 1957. And this brings us back to Ashton.

He was christened Algernon Bennett Langton Ashton, a name which surely speaks of the quiet dignity of an English cathedral close in mid-nineteenth century. His father a lay-clerk at Durham Cathedral, removed his family to Leipzig in 1863; when the boy was four years of age, and that is where he grew up. His mother gave him some musical instruction, which he craved early, and he attracted the attention of Moscheles, who advised sending him to the Conservatoire.

There he went when he was fifteen, studying under Reinecke, E.F. Richter, Jadassohn and others. In 1879 he left with the Helbig prize for composition, made a short visit to England and proceeded to Frankfurt for further study, this time for nearly two years with Raff. Later he settled in London and from 1885 to 1916 was professor of piano at the Royal College of Music which had gained its present status in 1882. He died, hale and vigorous practically to the end, in 1937.

It was during the period of study with Raff that Ashton began the long series of extremely individual works which reach, in opus numbers, to 174; this number is his last piano sonata. But this list does not include a number of concertos for various instruments, piano, violin, violoncello and viola, as well as a number of symphonies, all of which remain in manuscript, or a last titanic chamber work.

This means that during the eighteen-eighties there was being written some of the most vital and original English piano and chamber music in our recent history, which was, in fact, virtually first in the field after the century-long gap. But it was written in Germany, it was first recognised by Germans, and Ashton was literally the first English composer since Sterndale Bennett to be taken seriously in Germany, but for a very different reason. The brief article on Ashton which was written for the second edition of Grove's Dictionary by F. G. Edwards ended thus: 'Certain of his chamber works have fine qualities which should rescue them from oblivion'. This has been anonymously changed in the fifth edition to read: 'Certain of the chamber works have fine qualities, but they belong to a school influenced mainly by Brahms, the minor exponents of which are now beyond revival.' This amendment moves from the grudging ceding of a bare minimum of the original to the quite frankly inaccurate. The point is that what the Germans saw in Ashton was not Brahms or any other German manifestation but a genuine English accent which they welcomed. Most of Ashton's music was published by German firms, Hofbauer, Ries and Erler, Robert Forberg and Simrock, and he had a high reputation in that country as a rare phenomenon, an English composer of real note.

It would be strange indeed if his music showed no European influence, and of course it does; but its English accent is as unmistakable as that or Elgar or Tovey, and as undeniable. The last composer he would suggest is Brahms, and I suspect that (if, indeed he troubled about this at all) our anonymous friend made his acquaintance with Ashton’s music in the way in which most such 'authorities' familiarise themselves with the' work of a somewhat obscure subject on whom they have been asked for a few lines by a rather watery eye. In Cobbett's 'Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music', which badly needs bringing up to date, Adolph Mann gave a much more enlightened account of Ashton's work. But Mann was a German, and probably knew the music. I have a vivid memory of a certain member of staff at the Royal College of Music laughing heartily at the mere mention of Ashton as a composer and then, being pressed, confessing, without shame, that he knew none of the music.

At any rate, whatever the reason, England punished Ashton by taking no notice of him at all, except to treat him as a joke. And he had two hobbies which greatly helped the fun-loving English in this interesting pursuit. He wrote letters to the newspapers and did so in considerable quantity. Could it reasonable have been expected that anyone with such a hobby should be taken seriously? The letter-writing perhaps brought such names as 'Disgusted', that grand old comic English institution, to people's minds, but the truth is that Ashton was anything but disgusted. The two volumes of letters which were published under the title of 'Truth, Wit and Wisdom' are remarkable for the fact that the," are literally chockful of these three qualities. Contrary to a prevalent modern practice, Ashton actually supplies what he promises. What these letters show is a vigorous, well-informed mind, alive and acutely interested in everything that concerns life and humanity in general; and it is a pleasant change to be able to read worthwhile letters (many of which are fair-sized essays) which one knows were intended to be read publicly where one does not feel that one is continually prying into private affairs. It is also extremely refreshing and encouraging to find a musician of such accomplishment, with such a record of achievement, who was interested in so much that did not concern his art; in this he is an object lesson to us all.

The greater part of his published music was composed before 1900, although some of it was only published later. In 1932 he wrote to a friend to tell him of the completion of twenty-four elaborate string quartets in all the major and minor keys, without the slightest hope or prospect of having one of them performed, let alone published. There is a nobility about this gesture which alone must command one's admiration.

Let us remember one or two other things. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century there was no English style to which one could make any reference, and this particularly applies to keyboard music. This had been largely in abeyance since Boyce's death. It was with the enormous development of music on the continent, and in particular in the German-speaking countries, that we had to catch up. When, about the turn of the century, English composers began to try to form an English style, it was largely through folk-song that they did so. But this is quite factitious. Any music can be given a certain spurious English flavour by the use of English folk-song or a folk-song style; it can be done by a to foreigner, quite convincingly, and, indeed, has been done, by Bernard van Dieren, and Busoni's elegy, 'Turandots Frauengemach', invoking the tune 'Greensleeves', sounds as English as Vaughan Williams. This has following to do with a spontaneous English way of speaking, as unmistakable as the German accent of a Brahms or the equally Austrian one of Joseph Marx. Any real attempt at a genuine English musical language had, perforce, to begin abroad, for you cannot make a language without surface material; and, in fact, as the folk-song impetus died down, English composers began to do in the twentieth century what many were blamed for doing towards the end of the nineteenth - they took their initial impetus from the Continent. There was nothing to show that, for instance, Alan Bush's Symphony or Racine Fricker's Violin Concerto, to take two works at random (l could pick a hundred more were not written by Central Europeans instead of by Englishmen, and when we come to the English twelve note imitators it has really become a case of Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.

Ashton, like Elgar and Havergal Brian, never had anything to do with English folk-song or the comparatively easy and ready-made English accent imparted to the music of the folk-song school, very often, be it noted, by the use of English folk-songs of foreign origin- many of the most beautiful of Essex folk-songs, for instance, are a legacy from the Dutch settlement on Canvey Island; such an English quality depends on the listener being familiar with certain tales which they believe to be of English origin. But a genuine national accent accepts the genuine international accent and comes from that indestructible thing, the soul. And this is the particular quality which can be found in Ashton's music, not least in the magnificent series of eight piano sonatas which are the crown of his piano music. It is also what struck the Germans as outstandingly attractive and fascinating about his music. The point is that such a genuine native strain came first from this composer who has been persistently and determinedly cold-shouldered by the country he was the first in a very long time to make eloquent in music on her own account.

Another thing is this: although his music has never been publicly performed in England, and I can recall in the last twenty-five years only two broadcasts of works of his, both before the last war, there is abundant evidence that his work has had a considerable influence on the formation of a genuine English school of composition in this century.

One has only to see the great variety of names in the list of musicians, creative and otherwise, and all good friends of his, to whom he dedicated his long record of published work, to realise that his music was well-known privately if not publicly. To support this, there is the fact that much of the best English music of this century bears the strong imprint of his highly personal style, a style of freely moving lines, usually of single notes, with chords reinforcing the texture at quite unexpected points, phrases which overlap each other, rising in pitch by intervals of a fourth or fifth until they begin to descend by smaller intervals, the whole demanding extreme concentration and the clearest part-writing in a keyboard texture tremendously difficult and exciting in its clarity, both of sound and thought. Now, nowhere before Ashton is this style to be encountered, either in England or abroad, but it has gradually crept in, at first by direct contact and then, with younger composers no doubt at second-hand, so that many composers so affected are probably unaware of the origin of much of their own style.

Again, the work of every really individual composer has an appearance which cannot be mistaken. By this I do not mean that the work can be assessed by eye, but that something of the composer's personality imparts itself to the appearance or the music, so that a glance at a page is enough for one to be aware, without doubt, of the authorship. With some composers one may suspect several possibilities but with the front-rank individuals there is no doubt.

Ashton's music has this marked individuality to the eye; and indeed his music is quite un unmistakable; even the music of composers strongly influenced by him does not give the impression of his music. And his individuality is most obvious in his keyboard writing, which is literally the first genuine English piano style in the history of music. Not since the sixteenth century had there been an English keyboard style of such power and range of expression, and in this connection it is rather a happy coincidence that one of the masters of keyboard writing in early sixteenth-century English music was Hugo Aston (sometimes spelt Ashton). And it is still true that, with rare exceptions, such as John Ireland and Arnold Bax, English composers do not. excel in the piano sonata, or in piano music in general. No other English composer has produced anything like the series of eight piano sonatas which Ashton left behind him. When the first of these, in E flat minor was written in 1878 English music had indeed come alive with a vengeance; its first movement, in particular, is sombre, powerful, and has a sense of form dictated by the music which is perhaps both the most surprising and the most convincing thing about it. It is music made of the very stuff of the piano; it lives on the keyboard as Mozart's operas walk on to the stage.

I do not know what notice, if any, will be taken of this centenary year of the birth of a very notable English composer, to say the least, but I do know that if it is allowed to pass without comment or performance other than mine, there will be one more black mark against England's manner of appreciation of her own musical heritage, and Ashton will have fought a battle for an object - the musical reputation of his country - which is not worth the effort.

Harold Truscott

[first published in ‘Musical Opinion’ - 1959]

This article appears here courtesy of the Algernon Ashton Society


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