Alan Bush was a controversial figure and, as a result, attracted outspoken
opinions about both him and his work. On the one hand, he was a highly
intelligent and gifted musician and a fine concert pianist. He studied with
Tobias Matthay, Benno Moiseiwitch and Artur Schnabel. In his early days,
he was always in touch with music of his time. He gave the German première
of the Frank Bridge Sonata in Berlin in 1931 only six years after it was
written. He often said that Eastern European audiences were far more
discriminating and intelligent.
Bush succeeded Rutland Boughton as musical advisor and conductor of the London
Labour Choral Union. "Boughton was more concerned with spreading socialism
than making music," Bush once told me. It was the First World War that changed
Bush. His eldest brother was killed and the socialism that blamed God, who
did not exist, for war and all wrongs led Bush to join the Independent Labour
Party in 1924 which was a left wing group. By the early 1930s he had become
a Marxist and in 1935 entered the Communist Party. His politics diverted
him from his early musical ideas and he lost the impetus of some of his fine
works of the 1920s. His music became more 'social', less demanding and sometimes
non-thematic. Music became a 'social expression'. He said, "The ultimate
value of music to any Marxist depends upon the importance of the importance
of the subject which is expressed."
Most professional musicians would oppose that statement. Music is to be addressed
on its qualities as music and how the material is used and developed.
For example, his opera Wat Tyler (1948-51) succeeds or fails on the
quality of the music, not its political message. The other worrying feature
is that while people have every right to choose their own politics, religion
and sexuality it becomes tedious and indeed worrying when a composer's work
regularly advocates his personal orientation. Britten did it with his sexuality,
Elgar with his personal and sanctimonious Catholicism and Alan Bush with
But a man's private life is his life. It is when it comes into the public
domain that the public may have a right to comment. We judge the music not
Relinquishment may be of greater interest to musicians than listeners.
It inhabits the key of Ab Major with the G also flattened. This is married
to the Mixolydian mode. It exudes a sound world which I find both curious
and unappealing and I am no stranger to unusual sound worlds. The piece lacks
any noticeable thematic material of any consequence. The Indian composer,
Kaikhhosru Sorabji praised the work because it had no theme or system!
The Nocturne was written almost thirty years later but it still inhabits
the same world of the non-event as some interpret Jane Austen's novels where
there is no real action or landmark. It is all very anaemic and
The fine Austrian-born violinist Max Rostal, who settled in England in 1934,
is the dedicatee of the Lyric Interlude which is a better piece than the
two piano pieces. No longer do we have inertia and passivity but some contrast
and an element of colour. But the piece is too long to sustain the material
it uses. The Violin Concerto that Bush wrote for Rostal in 1948 is a worthy
The cantata, Voices of the Prophets is an excellent piece. Both the vocal
and piano parts are full of interest and it is equally as good as Tippett's
The Heart's Assurance with which it is often compared. Bush's work
is probably the better piece having a successful 'marriage' between the two
parts and it teems with fascinating and attractive lines. And, perhaps strangely,
for a vocal work it has tremendous energy and is never dull although the
final movement is somewhat discursive. This disc is worth having for this
very special cantata. It is a gem!
The final item is the three movement English Suite and is in the tradition
of similar compositions by fine British composers such as Holst, Bridge,
Vaughan Williams and Finzi. This Suite opens with a fantasia based on a plainsong
by John Taverner. The slow movement uses brief portions of the tune and the
finale uses the tune The Cutty Wren associated with Wat Tyler.
It is not an outstanding work but one of interest.
In paying respect to Redcliffe for their commendable enterprise, I cannot
be over-enthusiastic about this disc, save for the Voices of the Prophets.
You can discover more about this disc on the
Recordings web site