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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Symphony No. 4 (1941)
Symphony No. 10 Sinfonia da Camera (1974)
Symphony No. 11 (1979) premiere recording
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
CHANDOS CHAN 9401 [58.22]
[released November 1995]

Edmund Rubbra was a lovely man: very intelligent and intellectual man, a modest and congenial person. He was a walking encyclopaedia and an authority on all sorts of subjects; a fascinating man to talk with.

I recall my first meeting with him when I was rehearsing an excellent youth orchestra in one of his pieces. I asked him, "Do we call you Mr Rub-ra of Mr Rew -bra?" He answered quietly, "You call me Edmund!"

Rubbra was an expert on world religions and philosophy but was never arrogant. He felt that there were many things that were far beyond words and unable to be expressed in words and he loathed the bastardisation of words. He would lament that the word ‘wicked’ was now being used to describe something fantastic or remarkable and how the word ‘cool’ was used to mean something socially fashionable. "Wicked means evil or morally bad, " he would say, " and cool means neither hot nor cold." He would get noticeably annoyed at things like this. He literally squirmed when the Liverpool pop group, The Beatles, were called ‘fabulous’. "Utterly stupid", he said, "fabulous means old and ancient like a fable."

He was an uneven composer. His string quartets are awful being so tense and claustrophobic. Some of his choral music is truly superb particularly his Masses and works like Inscape. His orchestration has always been criticised and sometimes it is naff. Take the jaunty tune from the scherzo of the Symphony no. 5 which he gives to the horn. It is not a horn tune at all. It is obviously a clarinet tune.

Rubbra's orchestration is often maladroit. He had no feeling for instruments and there is little concertante writing in his work and no outstanding orchestration as a result. He also had certain trademarks which makes his music unmistakable. The grim opening of the Symphony no 5 gives way to his usual three part counterpoint and that introduction has no bearing on what follows.

My fond memories of him began when I was a boy. It was an early performance of his Soliloquy for cello and small orchestra being broadcast. I took my parents old valve radio, changed the plug so that it fitted into the light socket in the kitchen and listened to it in the dark. I was deeply impressed. I rushed straight from that performance to chapel not realising that, in the dark, I had bent under the indoor washing line and was in chapel with a pair of nylons across my shoulder.

Whatever you do, obtain Rohan de Saram's performance of this little masterpiece. Do not obtain the version by Jacqueline DuPré which is simply dreadful. She was not a good cellist. She always played with extreme hormonal intensity and added minutes to standard works.

It is my view that the Symphony no. 4 , written between 1940-2 is his best symphony. But I have to take issue with Robert Saxton's notes although I want to say that I respect him enormously both as a composer and person. I profoundly admire some of his work.

Rubbra had no sense of form. A good composer makes a blueprint of the whole structure first as would an architect. Rubbra often said to us, "I never know where a piece is going. I just write." He also said, "The idea for the opening of the Fifth Symphony came to me while waiting for a bus in Oxford. I wrote it down when I got home and kept writing." It is this lack of form and structure that pervades some of his symphonies yet he was sufficiently aware of sonata form to include the basic ingredients when he wanted to.

The Symphony no. 4 is cast in three movements although I would say four. The opening Con moto is spacious and profoundly beautiful. Strings are divided and in octaves with woodwind and horns adding to the ethereal colours. When the music becomes agitated it has a controlled excitement and the later use of the Phrygian mode maintain the interest.

Holst was a poor composer (consult my article on him on this site) and told Rubbra, "Never use the dominant seventh!" What utter stupidity. In this work Rubbra uses it to full effect and it is a useful interval in many respects particularly in modulations.

Before we proceed further we have to compliment the splendid playing of the Welsh orchestra. It could not be better. Richard Hickox is as reliable as ever and the sound is gorgeous .

The second movement is an intermezzo marked allegretto grazioso. The third movement is in two parts of which the first is slow and introspective and the second half is more forceful.

There is a clear Rubbra sound which you can only appreciate when you get to know his work. One of his many endearing qualities is the use of the timpani, never excessive but always very telling with a strange muffled attack. The Soliloquy for cello and small orchestra, Op 57, uses the timpani to great effect and when Ngoc performed this work with me conducting the orchestra Edmund went to the timpanist and told her exactly how he wanted the part played. She did a great job and Edmund took her, Ngoc and myself out to lunch to express his appreciation. He was a kind and lovely man.

The Symphony no. 10 dates from 1974 and is entitled Chamber Symphony. It was premiered in January 1975. The dedication to Sir Arthur Bliss is a little surprising since Bliss was not an admirer of Rubbra's orchestral music. After a London concert several of us joined Sir Arthur and Nancy for a drink which he offered to buy for us. And so we ordered. Then he said, "I have no money". Therefore, so our drinks were not the promised gifts. He looked around the bar and saw a pork pie. "That looks as stale as a Rubbra symphony", he said. That comment may be apt for this symphony. It is dull.

Michael Kennedy, some of whose comments are incredible, writes in his Dictionary of Music that Rubbra's symphonies are full of spiritual grandeur. What on earth does he mean? Does he mean of the Divine? Does he mean religious? Does he mean something relating to spiritualism? Does he mean something that reveals the spirit, the very essence of Rubbra himself? Does he mean something that will speak to our spirit, our very being? Does he mean that the music is refined and sensitive? Robert Saxton implies that the Rubbra symphonies represent a journey but from what to what?

I am not sure of the logic of the tenth symphony. It has some few fine moments particularly those parts which suggest a dance . The work is episodic and has a loose and unsatisfactory structure. The sad oboe theme that closes the work is poignant. It is the fourth movement that lasts 56 seconds a curious after thought. The penultimate movement, lento e liberamente, has the same poignant oboe but a finale of less than a minutes seems absurd. The oboe is almost the star in the second movement scherzando ma grazioso but playfulness is not revealed.

His final symphony was dedicated to his second wife Colette and was composed while they were living in Horton cum Studeley a few miles outside of Oxford. It was premiered at a Promenade Concert in August 1980. It is a slow, but not dragging piece, with an andante moderato leading into an adagio calmo e serena. It has atmosphere with a horn duet over strings and harp having a valedictory feel. The horn players are very good incidentally, with a sure intonation. Nasal woodwind and a rich string passage continue the work and there is the usual three part counterpoint. The sound-world is very attractive and it is beautifully played. Listen to the majestic timpani and lush strings, occasionally sounding a little Hollywoodish. The lonely oboe heralds music which seems to head towards a climax but it does not come. The tinkling celesta adds a magical feel to the music. Lovely as this music is, where is it going?

Nonetheless Richard Hickox is to be congratulated on a firm control of the music's progress. Another climax is threatened but it does not come and yet another, but this fails as well. Yet another build up and collapse. There is a sense in which they music does not flow, does not gel. The braying horns heralds another climax, brilliantly played and the climax is disappointing but the music has a glow about it. Yes an element of serenity is here as if the composer was reverting to his strong Catholicism which had been under threat with his fascination with Taoism. The tolling bells might suggest that as well. It seems to take a while to wind up. The last few minutes do not seem to belong although the use of brass is very effective and the clashing cymbals and the penetrating horn saves the day. But then the music succumbs to melodic nullity again, albeit beautiful melodic nullity.

David C F Wright

see also review by Rob Barnett


COMMENT received

There is much in Mr. Wright’s review that is perceptive and well informed and with which I fully agree. I have also learned some things from his essay. However, a few of the things that he says call for comment, I think.

Mr. Wright states that "Rubbra had no sense of form." I defer to his superior technical knowledge. However could I suggest that this does seem to be a somewhat extreme comment to make about a man with eleven symphonies to his name? I note the quote from the composer himself but I do wonder how safe it is to take these words at face value. How are we to know that Rubbra's tongue was not in his cheek at that time? Mr. Wright, speaking with the benefit of personal acquaintance with Rubbra, pays tribute to his humane qualities. Though he does not say so specifically, a strong inference of his comments is that Rubbra was also a modest man. Therefore, quite possibly in making these comments about his own muse he was indulging in self-deprecation?

I would also take issue with the statement that "Rubbra's orchestration has always been criticised". I've certainly read such comments apropos the first couple of symphonies but not to a similar extent about the later works. (This may suggest that as Rubbra became more experienced as an orchestrator his scoring improved, as one might expect, albeit he was never in the class of say Elgar or Mahler as an orchestrator.) In May 2001, Robert Layton, an authoritative commentator on Rubbra, as on so many other 20th century composers, contributed a fine and informed centenary tribute to Rubbra, his old teacher, in International Record Review. One of his comments seems worth quoting. He writes of a broadcast performance of the Fifth symphony conducted by Stokowski: "It served to show that when all the dynamic shadings were scrupulously observed, every note in the texture perfectly placed, the orchestral colouring far from being opaque acquired real transparency."

May I also quote from an essay on Rubbra by the late Harold Truscott? He comments especially on the First Symphony, the orchestration of which he acknowledges to be "persistently thick and without relief." Writing of the first movement of that work he has this to say: "The attempt to find ‘second subjects’ and comment on their lack of contrast is futile. Rubbra is not writing a sonata movement. I find the sound of this music satisfactory, but it is not primarily an orchestral sound at all, and I think one must forget the orchestra and colour and concentrate on line-development and the immense satisfaction that this can give.….He has, indeed, revised the scoring of both the first two symphonies, but the recalcitrant element is in the music and no scoring would remove it. Once this is understood, stumbling blocks are removed." (Robert Simpson (ed.): The Symphony 2: Elgar to the Present Day. p183. Pelican, 1967)

In the light of such comments Mr Wright’s assertion that Rubbra’s orchestration "has always been criticised" seems a rather sweeping generalisation to me. I quote Messrs. Layton and Truscott not in order to suggest that they are right and Mr. Wright is wrong, but to show that there is room for a genuine debate about Rubbra’s symphonic music. Simply to dismiss Rubbra’s orchestration as "often maladroit" simply will not do, I submit. In support of this assertion Mr Wright cites a jaunty tune, first heard on the horn, from the scherzo of Symphony No 5, which he avers "is not a horn tune at all. It is obviously a clarinet tune." Well, I’m sorry but I beg to differ. I’ve listened to this particular passage repeatedly to listen for what Mr Wright suggests. Yes, when, on its third appearance, the tune is handed over to the clarinet it does work particularly well, I think. However, to my ears it also works just as well on the bassoon immediately before that point and it sounds good at the very start of the movement on the horn (though, I readily acknowledge, perhaps not quite so well as on clarinet or bassoon.) Again, this is surely another instance where there is room for more than one opinion, each equally valid?

In my view Mr. Wright damages his review by the personal attacks on other musicians and commentators that he inserts. The story about Sir Arthur Bliss strikes me as being plain malicious. It does no service to the posthumous reputations of either composer and seems to me just to score a rather cheap shot at Rubbra’s expense. It would have been preferable to omit this from what is in many ways a scholarly review, I think.

I’m sure I won’t be alone in taking issue with Mr Wright’s verdict that Jacqueline Du Pré "was not a good cellist. She always played with extreme hormonal intensity and added minutes to standard works." Now, I must admit that I too have reservations about the emotional content of some of her performances (including the celebrated Elgar Cello Concerto recording with Barbirolli.) However, I take the view that hers is not the only way with this work (and with others) but that it’s a valid musical and emotional response to the music. Contrast Mr. Wright’s blunt opinion with that of our colleague, Gwyn Parry-Jones, recently reviewing the Christopher Nupen film of Du Pré: "Her approach was always the same – total emotional and musical honesty, coupled with a technique that was so fine that it often went unnoticed." If Du Pré was such an artistic liability why were performers of the calibre of Zukerman and Perlman, to say nothing of Barenboim, apparently so keen to make music with her? I don’t think it will do to assume that they did so purely out of friendship.

But most of all I strenuously object to Mr Wright's intemperate comments about Michael Kennedy. Kennedy is, for my money, one of the best writers on music in the English language. He is consistently fluent, well informed and, above all, possesses that rather rare gift of making one impatient to hear the piece of music about which he is writing. His writings on composers such as Britten, Elgar, Mahler and Richard Strauss have been widely acknowledged as major contributions. Mr. Wright quotes a comment by Kennedy that comes from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. Surely he realises that in such a publication entries and comments must, of necessity, be brief? I may be wrong but I would interpret Kennedy’s comment as meaning "grandeur of the spirit." I know what that means to me.

As I said at the start of this note, there is much in Mr Wright’s review that is informative and well-argued. However, I do feel that some of his views lose credence by being advanced rather too bluntly and I believe it’s right to offer a corrective.

I must confess that at the end of the day I’m unsure whether Mr. Wright recommends this CD to readers. Let me say without equivocation that, in common with all the discs in Richard Hickox’s Rubbra cycle for Chandos, it is an excellently produced CD of fine and unjustly neglected music. The performances are all first rate and most sympathetic and the music on the disc is extremely well worth getting to know. I have no hesitation in recommending this CD.

John Quinn


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