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EDMUND RUBBRA (1901-1986)

A COMPACT BIOGRAPHY  and CD Reviews by Rob Barnett

See also Francis Routh on Rubbra

A Historical Perspective (Timeline)
Teacher and Guide as I knew him- Gary Higginson

Edmund Rubbra was born in Northampton on 23 May 1901. Northampton seems to have been the home of distinguished British symphonists being also the birthplace of Malcolm Arnold and William Alwyn. Alwyn he knew during childhood. As for Arnold he was a considerable supporter of Rubbra's symphonies and made two notably passionate BBC studio recordings of the third and fourth symphonies during the 1960s. Would that this Northampton partnership could be preserved on CD: a luminous and dynamic enterprise if only it could be translated into silver.

Rubbra was an early advocate of the music of Gustav Holst and Cyril Scott. While in his late teens he promoted a concert of Scott's music in Northampton. He studied privately with Scott and broadcast talks on the composer as well as acting as presenter on broadcasts by Patricia Clark of a handful of Scott's songs.

Rubbra pursued his later studies at Reading University and then at the Royal College of Music where R.O. Morris and Holst were his teachers.

Rubbra was extremely prolific with four string quartets, various chamber works, many songs and piano pieces, several overtures, three concertos (one each for violin, viola and piano) and pre-eminent in this oeuvre and indeed among the works of this century: eleven symphonies. We should not forget his Sinfonietta for Strings (which post-dates the Eleventh Symphony and was written for the Albany Symphony Orchestra - much associated with the later symphonies of George Lloyd) and Rubbra's equivalent of Brahms' piano concerto No. 1: the Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra.

His own conducting in battle dress of the premiere at the wartime (WW2) Proms of his Fourth Symphony is legendary. Blessedly a disc recording of this momentous event exists in the BBC archives and it is in very good mono sound. The only less than blessed feature is that towards the end the sound develops a disfiguring 'wow'. Perhaps technology can defeat this. Until then a relay in 1996 by the BBC was eloquent proof of a treasurable performance of one of the century's finest symphonies.

Rubbra's interest in early British music seems to have been touched off and kindled by Holst and R.O. Morris. This interest, though not to be over-stated, is reflected somewhat in his symphonies and more overtly in the orchestral Farnaby Improvisations and the recorder piece Coeurs Désolées (dedicated to Carl Dolmetsch and Joseph Saxby).

Rubbra was a fine pianist (of which evidence remains in the form of various private recordings including an RAM concert of Cyril Scott songs with Peter Pears). In this capacity he partnered Erich Gruenberg (violin) and William Pleeth (cello) in a trio that toured and broadcast very widely. He also wrote perceptively on music and was a communicative broadcaster. His interests in contemporary music were wide-ranging and at odds with the tonal style of his own works.

Rubbra was made a CBE and his D. Mus. from Durham was the first of many awards and honours.

He died at Gerrard's Cross on 14 February 1986 and it is only since that date that the first recorded cycle of his symphonies was made under the baton of Richard Hickox. This was with the enterprise and insightful distinction of Chandos.

It was Hickox who with his eponymous choir had recorded (on an RCA LP - not since reissued) two of the masses and two carols back in 1975. Did Rubbra suspect that Hickox would turn to his symphonies and present them to the world in the first Rubbra symphonic 'intégrale' on compact disc?

© Rob Barnett


A sequence of reviews by Gary Higginson, Hubert Culot, Michael Freeman and Rob Barnett with a survey of recordings of Rubbra's Fourth Symphony by Paul Conway, an article by Gary Higginson and an historical perspective in the form of a chronology and context for the symphonies.


Symphony No. 1 (1936)
Sinfonia Concertante (1936)
Symphony No. 2 (1937)
Symphony No. 3 (1939)
Symphony No. 4 (1941)
The Morning Watch (1941)
A Tribute (1942)
Symphony No. 5 (1947)
Ode to the Queen (1953)
Symphony No. 6 (1954)
Symphony No. 7 (1956)
Symphony No. 8 (1968)
Symphony No. 9 Sinfonia Sacra (1971)
Symphony No. 10 (1974)
Symphony No. 11 (1979)


Between 1995 and 1999 Chandos issued the discs listed below, launching and completing one of those projects that people talk about for years as being the stuff of artistic compulsion. Indeed Lyrita went some way towards a cycle starting 1967 with the Symphony No. 7 conducted by Boult. Latterly they issued Symphonies 2 (Handley), 3 and 4 (Del Mar), 6 and 8 (Del Mar). Isolated issues included RCA's Hans-Hubert Schönzeler's No. 5 and No. 10 later to appear on Chandos - No. 10 is still available. On EMI there is the Barbirolli Hallé No. 5 much reissued since its 78 issue and still there in the EMI catalogue. In addition there was an Italian label (Intaglio) which produced a CD of Boult conducting No 6 and Groves conducting No. 8 but this disappeared from sight some time ago.

The Lyrita came as close as any company to a coherent cycle but even then it used a variety of conductors and grew over the years rather than being planned and executed with a single orchestra, single conductor and single orchestra.

For years there has been talk of the composer-conducted recording of the Proms premiere of Symphony No. 4 being issued commercially but nothing has come of this and speed variations apparent in the master when it was broadcast in 1996 may preclude issue until technology conquers this aberration. Other 'might-have-been' projects included one (actually announced) by Koch International who were to record the complete symphonies with a New Zealand orchestra conducted by James Sedares.

The Chandos/Hickox sequence are in standard livery - handsomely designed and concordantly complementary in character with Rubbra's music. The excellent notes are variously by the composer Robert Saxton (a number of his orchestral works are available on Collins Classics) and Adrian Yardley.

The six Chandos discs under review are joined by a seventh that has been around in one form or another for many years. This is the Chandos Collect label collection conducted by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler. This was the first recording of Sinfonia da Camera and was first issued on LP in 1976.


Click on image for Reviews

Symphony 1 and Sinfonia Concertante
CHAN 9538

BBC Welsh SO/Richard Hickox

all recorded 1990s at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales

(all full price and only available separately)

Symphonies 2 and 6
CHAN 9481
Symphonies 3 and 7 CHANDOS
CHAN 9634

Symphonies 4, 10 and 11
CHAN 9401

Symphonies 5 and 8
CHAN 9714
Symphonies 9 and Morning Watch CHANDOS
CHAN 9441

Symphony 10, Improvisation, Tribute CHANDOS
CHAN 6599
Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Schönzeler
recorded 1975 (mid price)
Other Works Some of this discs can no longer be purchased. The reviews are included for reference and for those who like searching out used copies.
Choral Works Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis, Tenebrae Nocturnes , Salutation, Missa In Honorem Sancti Dominici , Festival Gloria, Gloria Dei Patris Elizabeth C. Patterson. James Jordan (organ). Guild GDCD024


Songs for Voice and harp: A hymn to the Virgin Op13 no2: Rosa Mundi Op 2: The Mystery Op 4 no 1: Jesukin Op 4 no 2: Orpheus with his Lute Op 8 no2: Song-Cycle The Jade Mountain Op 116 Solo harp works Fukagawa (1929) Transformations Op 141 Pezzo Ostinato Op 102 Nocturne by BERKELEY and Prelude by HOWELLS Harp and cello Discourse Op 127 Solo Cello Improvisation Op 124 Tracey Chadwell Soprano
Danielle Perrett harp
Timothy Gill cello


Violin Sonatas No 1 (1930); No 2 (1932); No 3 (1968); Four Pieces Op 29; Variations on a Phrygian Theme Op 105. Krysia Osostowicz (Violin)
Michael Dussek (Piano)
Chamber Music Vol 1 Violin Sonata 2 Op 31 (1932); Piano Trio 1 Op 68 (1950), Prelude and Fugue on a Theme by Cyril Scott Op 6g (1950); Piano Trio 2 Op 138 (1970); Fantasy Fugue Op 161. Michael Hill, piano;
Kate Bailey, violin;
Spike Wilson, cello;
Lyn Fletcher, violin (violin Sonata)


Concerto for Violin & Orchestra Op 103; Concerto in A for Viola & Orchestra Op 75 Tasmin Little, violin,
Rivka Golani, viola
RPO/Vernon Handley


String Quartets Sterling Quartet.
Conifer 75605 51260 2


The Hickox Chandos cycle is of great importance but mere importance can make for the most lacklustre listening. As it is Rubbras music carries no shred of dullness It is immediately identifiable, has a passionate unity of character, emotional without excess, turbulent without cacophony and driven without being chaotically splenetic.

This cycle stands high among the recorded cycles of twentieth century symphonic music. It easily compels a place among the recorded symphonic cycles of  Tubin, Holmboe, Hanson, Rosenberg, Madetoja, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Alwyn, Langgaard, Rosenberg, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Miss these works at peril of your own impoverishment. If you wish to acquire them gradually then start with Nos 4, 10 and 11 then progress to 3 and 7, 5 and 8, 1 and then 9.

© Rob Barnett

See also Francis Routh on Rubbra

Note from Jim Brennan

Reading this collection of reviews, especially of the Hickox series, reminds me of hearing the Halle, under Barbirolli, playing No 6 in the Sheldonian at Oxford in the spring of 1956.

Rubbra was teaching in Oxford, then, and was sitting in the box over the Ashmolean side-entrance to the Sheldonian, and sitting above and nearly opposite him, i had a good view. His body language was uninhibited and unambiguous. Virtually every beat brought an emphatic and positive response, even the vaquero Hispanicisms of the trumpet tune in the finale. He was clearly in favour of everything Barbirolli did. Which is fascinating, because Barbirolli’s tempi, as was usual with Rubbra at the time, and performances of Symphonies 4 and 5 were not at all uncommon then, were by Hickox’s yardstick, fairly moderate. I don’t think Hickox got the hang of No 6 at all. Norman Del Mar, who must have played the horn in a fair few Rubbra symphonies before he came to record for Lyrita, also takes a moderate view, though not as moderate as Barbirolli. In fact, it turns out that on timing Del Mar and Hickox are pretty close, though I still think Del Mar does a better job. Beecham used to say that tempo was an illusion.

I also recall the Rubbra-Gruenberg-Pleeth trio, especially in a performance of Brahms’s Op 87 in Balliol College Hall, with Rubbra, who had the requisite octave technique and stamina, thoroughly enjoying himself. Oddly, the last time I heard his music in public was a performance of the one-movement piano trio in Inverness, by a trio from Aberdeen University in which the pianist had been a Rubbra pupil, and knew exactly what he was doing. The strength of the work impressed the audience, to most of whom it must have been completely unfamiliar, enormously.

What an odd period the forties and fifties were. Rubbra’s disdain for orchestral colour and concentration on contrapuntal essentials were entirely in tune with the utilitarian austerity of the time. The end of rationing, and the Macmillan easing of consumer credit swept all that away, and there were suddenly very few Puritans left. The last time a Rubbra Symphony premiere attracted national attention was no 7, which the critics of the time found Brahmsian, by then almost as poisonous an adjective as it had been for GBS. He was never exactly fashionable, but he didn’t deserve the neglect his later years got.

Nice to see someone taking an interest

Jim Brennan
January 2009


Rob Barnett

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