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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 thinking.

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 other examples.

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.

Gary Higginson

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