HOW I CAME TO KNOW THE MUSIC OF EDMUND RUBBRA
by Gary Higginson
It was when I was a choirboy in the mid-60s that I first came across Edmund
Rubbra's music. I think that it was probably the early carol The Virgin's
Cradle Song which is to be found in the Oxford Book of Carols. The
choirmaster had little use for contemporary music, he also taught me the
piano so I had no chance of encountering anything recent unless it was set
by the Associated Board!
I asked someone, when I was about 15, who were our leading British composers
and I had the reply "Britten and Rubbra". Actually by that time, c.1968,
Rubbra's star was very much on the wane, so whoever it was, was either behind
the times or had very personal views. I knew much of Britten; but Rubbra,
just one piece.
In 1969 I started an A-level course and 20th Century orchestral
music was an option paper. The Head of Music at my school suggested various
composers for me to listen to, including Rubbra. That name coming up again.
One Saturday afternoon a girlfriend and myself went to that marvellous record
shop in central Birmingham now long since gone, Vincent's. They, it seemed
to me, knew everything and had everything. Rubbra's 7th Symphony
had just been released by Lyrita conducted by Boult. I bought it and played
it over and over. I still love the piece to bits, and I found that others
liked it too (I felt that that was important) - for example my long-suffering
girlfriend, my parents and my piano teacher.
The Guildhall School of Music was, I had been informed, the place to go for
singers, As a counter-tenor I became a student of the college as a first
study singer. But my real reason, although I kept it secret, for wanting
to go there, was to study with Rubbra. I had composed since the age of 13,
music which my family and teachers thought 'way-out', I wanted to meet and
know a real composer. I started lessons with him only after I had submitted
a piece for his scrutiny. I cannot imagine how the piece he saw helped me,
but he saw something in it and accepted me in late 1971.
After a while, I asked him what of his I could hear on record he stiffened
up to his height of 5 foot 6 inches and announced "two pieces, the symphony
and the Cradle Hymn". I left feeling surprised, upset and determined that
one day I would try, in some way, to bring his music (and perhaps my own)
to public notice.
I have to add that there were things at that time about Rubbra's music, which
I found irritating. One, I suppose, can be heard in the 7th Symphony's
1st movement. I always felt frustrated that his music would regularly
rise to a climax, achieved contrapuntally, and would then withdraw from it,
without achieving its real purpose, so I felt. This is no longer a problem
to me but that, added to his preference for slow speeds, meant that I could
not always come to terms with it, until that is, I became middle-aged myself!
When Rubbra decided suddenly to retire from his teaching commitments at the
Guildhall I decided, with the help of other of his pupils, supporters and
teaching colleagues, to put on a concert of his works. At that time I was
treasurer of the Contemporary Music Society so I had some powers of persuasion.
Oddly enough you might think, Rubbra had not featured in any of our previous
concerts, which seemed to be the reserve of the avant-garde. So my suggestion
was not received over-enthusiastically by the members. However there were
enough influential people around to want to make it happen, so happen it
did. I was proud to be involved with such an auspicious occasion, which saw
some notable performances.
I recall a student's performance of the 3rd quartet and the fairly recent
3rd Violin Sonata. Also I gave the first London performance (although
the composer thought it could have been the first ever performance) of an
early song The Mystery (1922), at that point still in manuscript but
soon after published.
The most important event for Rubbra, before his retirement from teaching
in 1974, was the occasion of the first London performance of his great
9th Symphony, the Sinfonia Sacra. I believe that he regarded
this as his most important work, and the one he wanted most to have recorded.
The students under the late Harold Dexter gave it a superb performance at
St. Sepulchre's Church, Holborn on 3 July 1974. Rubbra had been to the college
to lecture on the piece, I wonder if he was aware of the cool reaction that
some of the students gave to it. I think that he was but he stiffened his
back and delivered a lecture on structure and orchestration and not for a
moment did he mention the real genesis of the piece - his own religious faith.
I suppose this was in case he put some students off even more. I'm not sure.
The next time the work was played by anyone was in 1981 when Richard Hickox
conducted a BBC performance for the composer's 80th birthday.
It had been in February 1975 that Rubbra's 10th Symphony received
its first performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Northern Sinfonia
under Rudolf Schwarz. I had seen the work develop a little ever since the
first sketches in, I think, 1972. He had started the piece with what was
basically a scale of B minor. This was gradually adapted both melodically
and rhythmically over the next year or so. Such a simple opening, I recall
I booked a ticket for the concert and was to have sat just 3 rows in front
of the composer. We had kept in contact since his retirement and I had been
to his home in Gerrard's Cross on a number of occasions. Rubbra was surrounded
by 'the great and the good' and clutched a huge score. He saw me, smiled
and, Hugo Cole, I think it was, came over to me and said, "Edmund has a spare
seat next to him. Would you like to join us." I was thrilled. The symphony
was on first and we listened and followed the score. (Composers in my view
shouldn't take the score to the first performance but I am glad that Edmund
did). How much I took in I can't remember. Rubbra took his bow but returned
for the next items the Haydn Cello concerto in D. He liked Haydn.
We corresponded very regularly between 1977 and 1984 but I did not see him
at this time. Many readers may well remember how difficult it was to get
to know much of Rubbra's music during these years. There were few new recordings,
little was broadcast and I found that the best thing was to put on and perform
the music oneself. Still, the only performance I have ever heard of, or heard,
of the Op 120 Spring Carol Sequence for voices and woodwind ensemble
was one which I put on in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in 1984. It was also true
of his lively arrangement of Dance to your Daddy Op. 84. There are
My last visit to Gerrard's Cross was on a beautiful February Saturday in
1985. My wife was very heavily pregnant and we took our monstrously energetic
dog. We were made very welcome although Colette, Rubbra's wife, was most
anxious that Humphrey, the Labrador, in his excitement did not knock Edmund
or Sue over, as both were in a very vulnerable state. He remained very
perceptive, even at his advance age. He told me that I would always have
trouble succeeding with my own music, as I was too individual. I must have
been inspired that day because I sang and played on the piano several of
his songs, without a wrong note, for example the still unpublished Who
is Sylvia Op.8 no.3 (I gave its first public performance in 1988) also
It was a lover and his lass Op.13 no.3, and Why so pale and wan
Op.22 no.2. All of these songs were from the 1920s and he said he hadn't
heard them for 50 years or more, and I remember that Colette enjoyed them
too and knew them very well.
Rubbra took on the appearance of a saint at this time with his benign expression
and silvery hair - a man of dignity and integrity, which came through his
music from those early songs right up to the Sinfonietta for strings
Op.163 which I saw in pencil on his music-stand but which I could not persuade
him to play to me. It is still a curious and odd situation which I wish someone
could explain, that this, his last major work, a work which he always wanted
to write should still remain unpublished.
So, what does his music mean to me after all this time? The long-breathed
melodies, as in The Lantern out of doors from Inscape Op. 122.
The contrapuntal excitement in the scherzos and faster music. The mystic
often bi-tonal harmonies as in Veni Creator for choir and brass Op.130
and, most importantly, the deep and genuine spirituality often verging on
ecstasy. But there is also an agony to be heard, a lament for mankind, as
I find in the third movement of the 2nd Symphony, and a deep love
of, and reflection of nature as in the Canto in the 6th
Symphony. Sometimes other 20th Century British composers achieve
these traits, not least Michael Tippett, but in Rubbra they are constantly
there and in a magnificently life-enhancing way. You will find all of these
characteristics in his symphonies but it is in the 9th Symphony
that you will meet the real essence of Rubbra. It is ultimately there where
I would point anyone who is to gain a real understanding of his music.