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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

Preface

This study forms the second part of a trilogy. The first part, Contemporary Music, was a broadly based introduction to the varied and controversial developments in Western music since 1900. This second part is specifically concerned with British composers, whose work has multiplied so exceedingly since 1945, particularly as London is now the musical capital of Europe, if not of the Western world.

The third part (The Aesthetics of Music - A Study of Tonality) will form the interpretative conclusion to the series, based on the factual foundation of the first two. The entire trilogy is intended as an assessment of the contemporary environment.

The principles governing this book are the same as those underlying the first, Contemporary Music: it is a study in aesthetics. That is to say, it is not intended as an encyclopaedia; nor as a complete catalogue of every work of every British composer; nor does it claim to be history. Instead, I have tried to identify the individual motivation of certain composers, and to identify the direction in which their personal creativity has led. It is no function of a practising composer to attempt to put price tags on the work of his colleagues; indeed, as they and he form parts of a living and constantly evolving organism, this would be a highly dubious undertaking. And in-so-far as criticism is taken, as it usually is, to mean the pronouncement of a value judgment, or the expression of an opinion, this book is not intended as criticism. What the function of criticism could be, and what it is today, are two very distinct things. The critic should not attempt simply to measure the music against the rigid slide-rule of his own experience; rather he should, on each encounter with a fresh artwork, enlarge the range of his experience. Aesthetics is concerned not with the opinion of the critic, but with the nature of the art-work. But a reasoned assessment of the contemporary situation in this country is a very different matter; it will act as a life-line in a period of growth and evolution.

It is necessary to define terms. The term contemporary is taken, by its dictionary definition, to mean belonging to our time; by our time is meant the period since 1945, which forms a convenient starting point for historical, political and social, as well as musical, reasons.

The word contemporary is sometimes misused, particularly by certain of today’s more articulate avant-garde, and made to apply qualitatively and exclusively only to those works which are consistent with their own immediate philosophy; the implication being that all others are to some extent irrelevant to today’s listeners, and somehow not genuinely contemporary.

Such a doctored use of the word, with the lopsided view of today’s musical art that it entails, is based on a false aesthetic standard. The only question to ask of an art-work is not whether it is contemporary, which is a purely neutral term, but whether, and if so why, it is artistically effective. If an art-work is effective, it will contribute actively to its tradition; if it is ineffective, it will not. What matters about a composer’s style is not that he uses this or that particular idiom (however up-to-the-minute), but what use he makes of it. So tradition may be defined as that element in art which is relevant for those who come after. An active contemporary tradition is both a cumulative thing, and a constant growth; but an attempt to confine the use of the term contemporary to one specific aspect of today’s many-sided musical activity is doubly unfortunate; it is out of touch with the dictionary definition, and it misunderstands the way in which musical traditions evolve.

That we are now witnessing such an evolution of an active musical tradition in this country is assumed, self-evident. Moreover, tradition may be defined also as that part of an art-work which gives it some claim to lasting, as distinct from merely ephemeral, value.

The term British is taken to include those composers who live and work in this country, or who consider themselves to be British citizens, wherever their work has been heard.

The term music is taken to include as many aspects of the composer’s work as fall under the heading art-work. An art-work is one which makes some claim on our serious attention. This implies a creative, unique purpose on the part of the composer, and an active response on the part of the listener; it implies that the composer possesses and uses both vision and technique, and that the listener in return is expected to bring to bear his full intelligence. This excludes non-art music, such as pop music, whose purpose is chiefly, if not entirely, commercial. Pop groups are big business; they are socially significant; there is no question that they form a remarkable contemporary phenomenon-but this does not make the result into an art-work, and to consider it as if it were is an illogical affectation.

The activity of contemporary British composers presents a variegated pattern, like a mosaic, made up of innumerably variable particles, each reflecting and illustrating a different aspect of art; some more, some less, some apparently very little; but each differently expressive, each with a different contribution to make to the overall pattern of the contemporary tradition. Any attempt to identify, and confine, contemporary music within any one of these particles is neither prudent, nor, historically speaking, very sensible. It would be to confuse a part for the whole.

Inevitably, selection implies judgement; and judgement may well seem personal or arbitrary to those whose opinions are already formed. Some composers whose work may be widely played and comparatively well known have received scant reference; others whose work is much less familiar, if known at all, have been treated more fully. The underlying factor is the uniqueness of their art-to which neither fluency nor notoriety are necessarily the passport. Starting with the music itself, I have been concerned with its underlying nature and purpose; not so much with the outward facts surrounding a composer’s career, however well publicised these may have been. In the case of a few composers, their work has been so well noised abroad, and their every move so well documented, that further comment is superfluous.

It should hardly be necessary to point out that the order of the chapters in no way follows a chronological progression; nor should it be taken to imply artistic precedence or ‘progress’. This would be foreign to the entire concept of this book. It is incorrect aesthetically to consider a composer who uses a particular idiom or style as more ‘advanced’ than one who uses another. Rather should they be seen as each developing a different aspect of a many-sided tradition.

Tradition is that factor which allows music to grow. It is not merely something derived from the past. Therefore a tradition that is healthy and vital is capable of growth in as many directions as there are composers of uniqueness. It is these composers whose work I have attempted to describe in these pages.

As the book is not an encyclopaedia, nor an up-to-the-minute work of reference, I have omitted checklists of composers’ works, except where such a list is used to illustrate a particular point, or where it is otherwise unobtainable. In the majority of cases, checklists are issued by publishers. Works referred to in the text are checklisted in the index (not in internet version).

The intention of Appendices III, IV and V [not included in this web version] is - in taking a cross-section of concerts in one typical season from the twenty-five years covered by the scope of this book-to show, by means of figures and tables, the place allotted to the contemporary British composer in the output of the principal orchestras, organisations and festivals. The season chosen is 1968/9.

[Note - Appendices not included in this web version of the book]

October, 1971

© FRANCIS ROUTH


 

INTRODUCTION

I British Music up to 1939

 

Contemporary music is never a complete entity, a thing in itself, which can be measured and assessed at any one moment in time. Rather is it a process of growth, many sided, organic. Its properties are biological; it has its roots in the past, while, plant-like, some newly-formed shoot is always springing up. Hopefully and curiously, we can only wonder whether a new growth will blossom forth into a flowering plant of recognisable beauty and unique character, or wither away into nothingness. The reasonably informed musician, like the reasonably informed gardener, may make a reason-based guess. But it is only a guess.

However, what is not so much a matter of guesswork, but more susceptible of expert assessment, is the new growth that is beyond the seedling stage, the bud that has already begun to flower. To the gardener who is acquainted with grafting and splicing, with soil fertilisation and the care of plants, the appearance of the new bloom will not come entirely as a surprise. And in the case of a musical growth, the same laws operate; the nature of a composer’s work is decided already by the priorities he sets himself at the formative stage, by his artistic point of departure; also by his environment, which represents the soil in which his creativity develops and grows.

It is unreasonable to consider a seedling as if it were a flower. It may well develop into a flower later; or it may not. But speculation is not valid criticism. And, in the same way, it is no merit in itself that a composition should be the work of a ‘young composer’; indeed, it may well be a disservice to a composer to overrate his immature student-work. Not until the bud opens out into flower is it possible to discuss its true nature. And many a composer (Britten, Rawsthorne, Tippett, for example) has withdrawn his early attempts.

Two main questions underlie any reasoned enquiry into the development of British music up to 1939. First, what was the nature and purpose of the composers’ achievements? Secondly, what was the environment within which they worked?

The first question is considerably easier to answer than the second. The environment itself was constantly changing, compounded of several factors, and it varied from place to place. Historians and critics of the time give widely differing accounts, according to their prejudices and differing backgrounds; and to accept one as definitive means to ignore others. Moreover, the most active musicians, and the most articulate, are not always those whose work is most lasting. One cannot necessarily form a complete picture solely from the accounts of individual writers, composers and critics. Cecil Gray provides a particularly clear example of an important writer whose remarkably shrewd insight into the work of a small group of composers (Delius, Van Dieren, Warlock, Lambert), for whom he acted as spokesman, was matched by an almost complete antipathy towards composers of a different allegiance. The picture he presents is therefore a partial one. But his History of Music was remarkable for its erudition, and for its catholicity of taste: mediaeval music, plainchant, Monteverdi, lesser known eighteenth-century opera, were included in his survey-all of which have since come into their own. His concern with Russian music, and Berlioz, and his distaste for Wagner, Schoenberg, and the nineteenth-century hegemony of Teutonic music, and above all his fervour in the cause of Sibelius, all accurately reflect the mood of his day; moreover, his style of opinionated writing did much to establish the critic’s function today as primarily one of passing judgment and giving an opinion [See the preface to his A Survey of Contemporary Music]. He represents the composer’s lot (and no doubt in this he was also giving articulate expression to a considerable body of opinion) as a never-ending, uphill struggle against a bureaucratic and philistine Establishment. That British musical society at this time did contain some members whose chief characteristics were their extreme limitations of outlook is beyond doubt. Such people can be found today, if one is sufficiently interested to enquire. But fortunately they form only a part, and a small and insignificant part at that, of the overall pattern of musical achievement.

Generally speaking, the period up to 1939 was one of activity, development and expansion. As far as the concert-going public was concerned, there were one or two chief centres of music-making. Pride of place, because of its roots in the past, must be given to the Three Choirs Festival, which provided Elgar’s environment, and which reached its heyday between the wars.

The great works of Elgar, choral and symphonic, are the musical and spiritual embodiment of Worcester Cathedral or the Malvern Hills. The qualities of his music-the emotional stillness and tranquillity, the gentle, melting harmonies, with their leisurely rate of harmonic change, the sequential themes-all arise naturally and inherently from the resonant dignity of an English cathedral.

Many a composer, including Vaughan Williams, derived great benefit from this centre of music-making. Other centres were found at Leeds and at Bournemouth. The Leeds Festival in 1931, saw the first performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, while at Bournemouth Sir Dan Godfrey, with his municipal orchestra, promoted the work of a number of composers, many of whom were invited to conduct themselves.

As far as London was concerned, the story of music-making up to the war is mainly the story of Queen’s Hall. When Queen’s Hall was destroyed in an air raid on May 10th 1941, this marked not only the end of a concert-hall in London, which was the focal point for the country as a whole; it also marked the end of that formative period of the renaissance of British music, with which it was more or less coeval (1893-1941), By 1939, the regular symphonic repertoire had been established in this country; orchestras had been formed which were of a professional standing, and comparable in quality with other leading world orchestras; standards had been set which formed the norm for composers, audiences, critics, and performers. In short, the foundations of a tradition had been laid.

One musician whose work had a certain visionary quality was Henry Wood. He was not so much a great conductor as a great personality, and one whose work, through the medium of the Proms, which he founded, brought him into direct touch with the ordinary music-loving public [No one captures this mood more aptly than J. B. Priestley, when he describes in Angel Pavement a visit by the central character, Mr. Smeeth, to a Queen’s Hall concert.], which he himself had created. His contribution to the developing tradition of British music was to teach the public to accept the work of the British composer. In this respect he was the first [The first Promenade Concert was on 10th August 1895, at Queen’s Hall], though other conductors of this period, notably Adrian Boult, Thomas Beecham and Dan Godfrey, followed his example in their different ways.

His words are prophetic [Taken from a broadcast of August 1941.]:

They said there wasn’t a public for great music 47 years ago. The critics wagged their heads. But Robert Newman said we’d make a public, and we did. He asked me to be the permanent conductor of a new orchestra he was forming, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra - and I jumped at the chance. Out of that came the Proms. It was a bold venture, in 1895.

Bach and Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are not dry-as-dust names to be shuddered at these days. They’ve become friends now, and well-loved friends, to all sorts and kinds of people, who had never heard of them till the Proms started. It meant years of hard work, and, I quite admit, a certain amount of cunning. We had to go slow at first; cornet solos and all that sort of thing. Nowadays, I can put on a work like the London Symphony of Vaughan Williams, one of the finest composers we love in Britain today, and then you see how the Proms have changed. I’ve arrived at what I set out to do.

If, after 1945, a new concert-hall was to take the place of the burnt-out Queen’s Hall, it would be because the tradition of British music-making was so secure that a new concert-hall was felt to be necessary. Such a hall was, indeed, built ten years later-the Royal Festival Hall-which was part of the Festival of Britain in 1951; and it has since been extended to include two smaller auditoria. It is, therefore, true to say that, during the period up to 1939, the groundwork of the renaissance, whose fruits were to become more and more apparent after 1945, was securely and truly laid. Standards were established; and a public was seen to exist. In short, the soil was prepared.

There was, however, a very wide gap between the music being played at concerts during this period, the works being written in this country, and the developments taking place on the continent of Europe. European composers who, for better or for worse, were altering the face of music at this time, included chiefly Busoni and Hindemith, with their neo-classical inclinations; Weill and Brecht; Satie and the Ecole d’Arceuil; Stravinsky and Bartok; and the Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Many developments in British music since 1945 [With the notable exception of electronic music. See p. 297.] have had their origin in the work of these pre-war European composers, but at the time their works were hardly known or played at all in this country.

What performances there were, stand out because they were so isolated. The Sackbut [See p. 14.] concerts promoted Bartok; Erwin Stein directed Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in April 1930, in a celebrated performance at Westminster Central Hall, with Erika Wagner and the Pierrot Ensemble; in 1933 Edward Clark and Adrian Boult presented a broadcast of Wozzeck, though this had to wait twenty years before being staged at Covent Garden, conducted by Erich Kleiber. Stravinsky appeared several times at Queen’s Hall, where he both played and conducted.

Some of the most enterprising concerts were conducted in 1921 by Eugene Goossens with his specially formed Goossens Orchestra. This series included, in June 1921, the first performance in England of Stravinsky’s notorious Le Sacre du Printemps, ‘which created such a sensation that it was repeated by general desire at a subsequent concert in the same series’ [Quoted from Robert Elkin, Queen’s Hall, p. 47.]. Other composers represented were Schoenberg, Debussy, Bliss, Bax, Ireland, Delius and Lord Berners. Goossens’ compositions were in the romantic tradition, but as a conductor he was lost to England because there was no demand for his concerts. He went instead to America.

Seen against a European background, and particularly in historical perspective, it might seem that Vaughan Williams’s folk-song school, or the Sibelius movement, were an irrelevance to the growth of British music.

It naturally happened that some individual musicians, whose vision was more internationally orientated, would have preferred the rate of development to be different, or quicker, or both. Such men as Edward Dent, Edward Clark, Constant Lambert, were aware of developments in other European countries, and wished to bring them to the notice of their more sluggish fellow-countrymen. But it was not to be expected that the radical innovations of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, Krenek or Hindemith, would find ready acceptance by a British public whose acquaintance with the standard nineteenth century repertoire was so comparatively recent. What they had so laboriously learnt they were not prepared to unlearn. Contemporary music was, therefore, the concern of the minority, who formed into small, private societies.

Edward Clark at the B.B.C. would arrange broadcast performances, often at a conspiratorial hour late at night; more often than not with inadequate rehearsal. One musician summed up the conditions under which such work was done: ‘It was every man for himself-and the devil take the Hindemith!’

In general at this time, performances of contemporary music were very infrequent; the British composer could only take his work to the L.C.M.C., or the Macnaghten Concerts [See p. 21.]. This is in marked contrast to the situation in 1970, when it is very much easier for new work to be heard; and as far as the B.B.C. is concerned, the situation has been transformed, as can be seen by comparing the pioneer work of Edward Clark with the long list of premieres in 1970, to say nothing of other performances which were not premieres, or were of composers other than British. In many ways the B.B.C. by 1970 swung too far the other way, and did not differentiate between a workshop rehearsal and a public recital [See p. 18.] Many of the works were of relevance only to a small minority, and made no impact on the majority of listeners.

Vaughan Williams adopted a different approach from Clark or Lambert. His concern was not so much to find out about the latest developments in music that were happening on the continent, as to set about realising and fulfilling the musicality that, so he believed, was inherent in the English make-up. He therefore wished, more than most composers of his generation, first to win acceptance by the broad mass of his fellow-countrymen. Great music, he feels, springs from a tradition; and a tradition needs national roots. There is nothing narrowly chauvinistic, or mistakenly patriotic, about such a view; it is purely observable common sense.

Indeed, for this reason, our contemporary tradition starts with Vaughan Williams. He foresaw that it would take several generations before an endemic British tradition could flourish, and he set about establishing roots for such a national music, secure and deep. So far from being narrow or provincial in outlook, Vaughan Williams was, on the contrary, a composer of wide-ranging vision, revolutionary in thought. He set to work to touch and influence the musical life of his country at as many points as possible; at the orchestral concert level; at the university level, which he rightly thought was very important for the propagation of a positive musical taste; at the amateur level which, again, he was very far from despising; at the level of church music, which was at a particularly low ebb, and has remained so for most of the contemporary period; at the level of chamber music and song-writing, since the love of domestic music-making is one of the hallmarks of an active tradition.

As he essayed such a bewildering diversity of work, it was inevitable that he would be misunderstood. But the underlying purpose of his work may be seen partly as a spiritual thing; a search for a foundation for a British musical tradition that would have sufficient toughness and validity to grow over the coming decades, and that would strike a responsive note in the musical instincts of the people which, he felt, had for too long been repressed and frustrated. It can be seen partly also as a technical thing. If music is to survive it requires not only a certain distinctive individuality and grandeur; it must also have technical expertise.

As far as British music was concerned, Vaughan Williams saw a rich heritage from the past, waiting to be claimed by composers, and other artists, of the present. But first it was necessary to win acceptance, not so much from the critics and other self-styled experts, whose knowledge of other traditions, past or present, was largely second-hand, as from the mass of the people. Folk-song, and the use of a modal idiom, which we recognise as one of the features of nationalism, was to Vaughan Williams the means of achieving such a general acceptance, and a link with past periods. To later composers and to us today who, thanks largely to him, can take for granted a certain measure of popular acceptance, the use of folk-song material may seem unnecessary, an anachronism; and to those of his contemporaries who were influenced by his dominating personality into the unthinking imitation of his style, the device proved a particularly unqualified dead end. But the same may be said for any technique or style. It is the universal characteristic of second-rate and derivative composers that they copy this or that original without the insight which is essential if they are to use their mentor’s style in an effective way. Audiences prefer an original to a pale copy-and rightly so.

If Henry Wood was the earliest champion of the British composer, and his go-between and advocate before the broad concert audience, and if Cecil Gray was the spokesman of the more thinking musicians of his day, the most articulate spokesman of the advanced set was Constant Lambert. His Music Ho! is both knowledgeable and witty, a true barometer of the times. The period following 1918 was partly, though not entirely, a period of trivialities, of undergraduate pranks, of the antics of the Sitwells, of the jazz age; but it was also a period of reaction, after the war, against all things German; particularly Wagnerian romanticism. The smart, and therefore correct, thing to be was an admirer of things French, such as Debussy or Berlioz; of things Russian, such as the Russian ballets of Stravinsky, or the works of Borodin, Mussorgsky; or, if you wanted a model symphonist, of Sibelius. The very last resort of the destitute was to be satisfied with the homespun product of your native land; indeed, the British composer, along with the British public, needed to be jolted out of his narrow provincialism into a greater awareness of the world about him. Colour, exoticism, Life-low or high-were the essentials necessary for salvation. Thus spake Constant Lambert.

But Vaughan Williams thought differently. The acceptance of a contemporary British composer by his own countrymen would depend on many other considerations than just musical ones. A composer needs to make a correct evaluation of British society; its social barriers, its conventions, its taboos. To offend in any important particular might result in total rejection, however excellent the music.

One such force in society, and perhaps the most influential of all, is the power of the Establishment. Though a nebulous thing, it is, like the British Constitution, a force that is all the stronger for being felt rather than seen. Its rules are unwritten conventions rather than an absolute code of conduct; against its verdict there can be no appeal. And one of the strengths of Vaughan Williams was his acceptance of, and by, the Establishment.

Another force in British society, which Vaughan Williams recognized and fully allowed for, is the cult of amateurism. Whether in politics, in law, in sport, or in art, the British instinctively exalt the amateur-and correspondingly downgrade the expert. Clearly this presents the composer with a disturbing choice. Is not expertise the one decisive factor that separates the truly ambitious artist from the dilettante; the work of some permanent value from the work of ephemeral interest only? Yet expertise by itself will in no way win acceptance by a British public taught, in truly democratic style, that a ‘do-it-yourself’ job has some intrinsic merit, from that very fact; and that the expert, unless controlled, may assume a superiority over his fellows, which is to be mistrusted.

This cult of the amateur can sometimes invite and breed hypocrisy of a particularly disturbing kind. It no more abolishes the need for expertise than prohibition abolishes drinking; but what it can achieve is an outward denial and devaluation of skill. If a composer is to survive, and find some acceptance, in British society, he must tend to belittle the technical and specialist excellence of his work, which are what chiefly qualify it for serious consideration, and stress instead his possession of those neutral qualities of ordinariness and sameness that make him indistinguishable from his fellows-his fondness for gardening, his concern for the local football team, his partiality for an occasional pint-all those absurd activities that appear under ‘recreations’ in Who’s Who. But whatever happens, he must make no admission of artistic endeavour, or effort of any kind, as this will be of no avail.

So it comes about that the much-reputed ‘reserve’ of the English is as much due to self-preservation as to national modesty. Vaughan Williams met the challenge inherent in this aspect of British society by seeking, wherever he could, to establish and maintain contact with as many people as possible, and to interest them in what he was doing.

A third characteristic force inherent in British society, which Vaughan Williams took fully into account, is an insatiable curiosity about other cultures and other traditions. Partly for commercial reasons, partly as a mark of social distinction, the British have always been inveterate travellers; and a traveller is essentially an observer of a scene; he is in no way committed to, or involved in, what he observes. The Grand Tour of the eighteenth century was obligatory for the cultured English gentleman; he was expected to capture something of the habits and customs of other countries-the more exotic the better-and thus return home armed with interesting conversation. Music was included among the objects to be observed; it was something that foreigners did so much more naturally, and so much better than the English. Such an approach to contemporary music can be seen in the history of music of Dr. Charles Burney, which is more of an eighteenth-century travel-diary than a music history. But the philosophy underlying it is anything but out of date; indeed, it is still felt today; namely, that if you wished to become a musician you had to go to Vienna or Leipzig in order to do so. It has been accepted for very many years by the British that other traditions and cultures, particularly of the more respectable European countries, are vastly more interesting than anything that could be produced at home. The story of British music, at least since the seventeenth century, can be interpreted in the light of the acceptance-or the rejection-of this philosophy. It has fundamentally affected the cultural ethos, and the general musical receptivity, of the intelligentsia of this country.

And even today, when London is now the musical capital of Europe, and when music is heard in London in greater quantity, and of a higher standard, than in any other city in the world, the British people are still quite extraordinarily slow to cast aside this self-denigrating philosophy which automatically places the work of foreign composers, however negligible, on a higher level of interest and artistic achievement than the corresponding work of their British counterparts.

This inherent desire to investigate and to extol foreign traditions was fully understood by Vaughan Williams. Indeed, he himself shared it; he was fully abreast of all the latest developments. But he exercised his composer’s right of choice, and was not content to be merely the propaganda-agent of another composer’s style.

And so the musical environment in England between the wars showed a differing degree of acceptance of the British composer among different sections of people. Vaughan Williams won acceptance; and through him, and Henry Wood, the gate was opened to a considerable number of British composers whose music was nostalgically romantic. There arose a considerable romantic movement, twenty years or more after this had occurred in Germany and other European countries. This mood was perfectly caught by Beecham, when he sponsored the music of Delius, who would otherwise have remained virtually unknown here, though his work was extensively played on the continent. Curiously, the work of this émigré Englishman, whose revolutionary score Paris (1896) antedates, in terms of sheer modernity, the early works of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, most aptly illustrates the result of an absence of the impetus of an active tradition, within which a composer can live and work. By the twenties, when Beecham promoted his work, the music of Delius was already being superseded in Europe by various other movements; but the developments in music of the twentieth century had scarcely begun to be recognized in England, except by a handful, and the romantic movement between the wars was popularly acceptable because it postponed the necessity of recognition; at least for a while. But it meant that impetus was lacking in this country.

A measure of this lack of impetus can be seen in the work and career of Constant Lambert. This remarkable musician, whose father was a painter and whose brother a sculptor, was primarily a man of the theatre, and the first British composer to be commissioned by Diaghilev to write a ballet-a remarkable achievement for a young man. But his ballet scores, starting with Romeo and Juliet, never succeeded as much as his other better-known work, The Rio Grande (1928), which has a zestful vitality lacking in some later works, such as Horoscope. Tiresias was peremptorily dismissed by the critics, though not primarily for musical reasons. Indeed, the music is by no means to be dismissed; Rawsthorne later wrote an orchestral piece round a theme from this score. Summer’s Last Will and Testament is another remarkable choral work; not gay or witty, but containing many references to earlier styles, such as the madrigal.

Lambert was not entirely to be identified with the prevailing mood of romantic nostalgia. Though he was associated with the group centred round Philip Heseltine and Cecil Gray, he later lost favour with their tendency to an ingrown Englishry which resolutely refuses to admit outside influences. His own criticism of Stravinsky in Music Ho! was largely personal, since Stravinsky’s outstanding success with Diaghilev was in such marked contrast with the failure of his Romeo and Juliet.

The mood of romanticism, however, is much more truly reflected in the symphonies and choral works of Bax, Ireland, and the songs of Warlock, Van Dieren. If Bax’s symphonies and tone-poems show the characteristic romantic predilection for a big orchestral tone, Ireland’s romanticism was, on the contrary, condensed into his piano works, which greatly exceed his pieces for orchestra in both number and scope. Several later composers were deeply impressed by Ireland’s piano-writing, notably Alan Rawsthorne.

Warlock’s brooding melancholy, the Heseltine side of his personality, is most fully realised in his settings of Yeats-a poet who also greatly affected Bax. Both Delius and Van Dieren wrote major works on Nietzsche’s texts (Also sprach Zarathustra) and the Hans Bethge translations from the Chinese, which also inspired Mahler’s Third Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.

Van Dieren at this period was the central figure in an important group of composers, which included Bliss and the young Walton. Though his music had a strongly romantic flavour, he anticipated, in a number of ways, certain trends which were later developed by Webern-complex contrapuntal writing, for instance, for groups of solo instruments. This was, no doubt, a direct influence of Busoni-his wife Frida was Busoni’s pupil-but it does no service to Van Dieren to claim for him, as Cecil Gray did, the mantle of the Messiah. His gentle romanticism was highly aristocratic and refined, but of its period.

It is commonly said, and with some truth, that trends and movements in European music reach England at least ten years later; that there is a time-lag in the receptivity of English audiences. This may well explain the non-appearance of up-to-the-minute styles among British composers. The flippancy and satirical humour of so much French music, for instance, in the 20s, was hardly reflected at all on this side of the channel. Indeed, while French audiences were, we presume, responding in the appropriate manner to the facetious humour and disrespectful antics of Satie, or to the small theatre works of Stravinsky, the audiences in England were too busy catching up on their romantic past to pay much attention.

Not until forty years later, with the rise of the avant-garde in the 60s, and of groups such as Maxwell Davies’s Pierrot Players, did flippancy and humour become acceptable; then these early works of the twentieth century produced a considerable progeny in Davies, Goehr and others. Would Lambert have approved of such a latter-day fulfilment of a fifty year-old movement such as appeared in Dada or Surrealism? Not, we may be sure, if the joke has to be explained, like the patter of a stale comedian. The only test of a joke is whether or not it is funny. Would Lambert have been amused by Hoffnung’s extravaganzas in the 50s, or were they pouring hot water on to old tea leaves? In 1930 Constant Lambert might point out the merits of zest and levity in music, whether in his own Rio Grande, or in his book, Music Ho!; but apart from Walton’s Facade, and one or two attempts by Bliss and Berners, this was neither expected nor approved of by the English public. The Establishment was not amused.

Meanwhile, another aspect of British music was being developed, with very great promise for the future; that was the re-discovery of early music. An awareness of the great strength of past periods of English music had first been shown by Vaughan Williams in his movingly austere Tallis Fantasia; and the desire to recover something of the splendour of the past was felt increasingly during the inter-war period.

Peter Warlock was a pioneer in his work on the English Ayre, and brought to bear, in his re-discovering of music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, a unique combination of scholarship and creative insight. His transcriptions included songs, English and French Ayres, and pieces for strings by Purcell, Dowland, Matthew Locke and many others. He and Cecil Gray also wrote the first study of the life and work of Gesualdo, who was entirely unknown, but later, thanks largely to Stravinsky’s interest, became something of a cult figure.

Lambert edited and performed works by seventeenth- and eighteenth century composers, such as John Blow and William Boyce. E. H. Fellowes began his monumental work of editing Tudor music, and Margaret Glyn pioneered the rediscovery of the Elizabethan virginalists. Charles Kennedy Scott and Boris Ord were two musicians particularly concerned with establishing a standard of choral singing which would equal that of the great orchestras; they founded the Oriana Madrigal Society and the Cambridge University Madrigal Society respectively. Thus began that revolutionary movement in British choral singing, which was to have such marked effects after 1945. [One musician, who was a member of the choir at King’s College, Cambridge (1949-52), under Boris Ord, subsequently formed his own professional choir, and extended these principles beyond Tudor and early English music, to the contemporary repertoire. John Alldis has described (in Composer, No. 33, Autumn 1969) something of his intention: ‘(At Cambridge) I had become accustomed to a standard of choral singing which, in those days, did not exist anywhere else. This was due to Boris Ord, who, in my opinion, ‘invented’ that intense, clear sound (as opposed to the woolly choral society sound) that we all now try to achieve in English choral singing. I also wished to expand beyond the Renaissance repertoire which the post-war flood of scholarship had led everyone to perform. I chose professionally trained singers, of high general intelligence, who were beginning to succeed as individual performers. I wished to do something of a virtuoso band. I was not seeking to blend voices into a "choral", non-individualistic sound. (I favour) 20 to 24 in number, more or less equally divided, but unlike some, I occasionally increase the number of voices as they get lower. This can have a striking effect on the total sonority. I normally have a counter-tenor in the alto section-it seems to add a special quality to the sound without being in itself obtrusive.’]

The time when Alldis formed his choir (1962) was the time when the serialist movement was at its height; his chosen repertoire was, therefore, strongly inclined towards Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Stockhausen, and their English derivatives Wood, Lutyens and Smalley.

The discovering and performance of contemporary music between the wars was confined to a minority-a handful of small societies, and one or two individual musicians of a somewhat idealistic turn of mind. Apart from the group who gathered round the Sitwell family, some distinctive concerts, the Sackbut concerts, were promoted by Cecil Gray and Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine). Works by Van Dieren and Delius were juxtaposed with those of Purcell; Schoenberg and Bartok with Gesualdo. Such programmes, with which we are now more familiar, were entirely unknown fifty years ago. Warlock was a friend of Bartok, who later in the 30s came several times to this country, largely through the I.S.C.M. [See p. 20.] Another composer who greatly influenced the trends in British music during this period was Busoni; not only as a pianist, and composer, but also through personal contact, through the I.S.C.M., he had a great effect on the two British musicians who were chiefly instrumental in bringing about the swing towards the contemporary composer, that began to be apparent after 1945-Edward Clark and Edward Dent.

Dent, Professor of Music at Cambridge, and biographer of Busoni, was a musician of international vision, through whom Britain was included in the I.S.C.M.. Edward Clark was an enlightened champion of contemporary music through the medium of radio performances. He promoted works unheard of in this country, such as Busoni’s Dr Faustus and Arlecchino, and Berg’s Wozzeck; he befriended British composers, much as Adrian Boult did as a conductor. Both filled a need.

When Boult was appointed to conduct the newly formed B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra, this ensured a central and important place for the symphonic work of the romantic British school of composers of the period-Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, Bax and John Ireland. It was largely due to him that their work became securely established. So, in the story of the gradual evolution of contemporary British music-certainly as far as orchestral music is concerned-Adrian Boult occupies a central position. He sought to be, not so much the great virtuoso conductor, as simply the friend and colleague of the composers of his time, many of whom he knew personally, and for whom he acted as intermediary and advocate with the public. In 1919 Hugh Allen, the Director of the Royal College of Music, invited him to join the staff of the College. It was an inspired and highly propitious appointment, and the next five years proved a particularly fruitful period for British music, when such works as Holst’s Planets, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, John Ireland’s Forgotten Rite and Delius’s Violin Concerto were first rehearsed and played under Boult’s direction. For sheer activity, and concert work, the centre of gravity of British music in 1920 lay at the Royal College of Music.

This ceased when Boult was appointed in 1924 to conduct the Birmingham orchestra; and in 1930 he moved from there to be the first conductor of the new B.B.C. Orchestra, a post which he retained for twenty years, in close association with Edward Clark. His departure brought an insecurity to composers from the 50s onwards [after 1950 he was associated with the L.P.O.].

While Boult was forming the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra, another orchestra was being formed by that most colourful of musical individualists, Sir Thomas Beecham. On October 7th, 1932, at Queen’s Hall, the London Philharmonic made its first appearance. Beecham was a perfectionist, with an acute ear for the constituent strands of sound that make up the orchestral ensemble; and indeed Alldis was to follow the same principle when he founded his choir thirty years later [see p. 14].

Beecham’s unique achievement, in this period of musical growth in England, was to set standards. He was himself an inveterate founder of orchestras, starting with the Beecham Orchestra of 1909, to say nothing of the Beecham Opera Company; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was also to be his creation, in 1947. But it was not enough in itself simply to found orchestras. The quality of ensemble playing and orchestral sound had to stand comparison with that of the finest foreign orchestras, whose tradition went back much further. It was necessary therefore that as soon as possible the newly-founded orchestra should tour abroad; and this the London Philharmonic duly did-to Germany in 1936, to Paris in 1937 [described in The Baton and the Jackboot, by Berta Geissmar]. Beecham set a standard of ensemble, of phrasing, of orchestral balance, that made him comparable with the European virtuoso conductors of his generation-Furtwangler, Toscanini, Walter. But the only British composer whose work he promoted to any great extent was Delius.

In addition to the founding of symphony orchestras of international standard, which could, under the right direction, serve the British composer, another development took place in the 30s, one which achieved spectacular success remarkably soon, and quickly became a focal point for the British composer; that was the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, later renamed the Royal Ballet.

The achievement of Dame Ninette de Valois in founding a British ballet company is in a sense more remarkable than that of Sir Thomas Beecham in founding orchestras. She was not only starting a new group of dancers; she was initiating a tradition where hitherto, in this country, there was little or none [only the Ballet Rambert existed as an independent company, founded by Marie Rambert, who had also been associated with the Diaghilev company as a teacher of Dalcroze Eurhythmics.].

After dancing with the Diaghilev company, which she left in 1926, she considered the possibility of appearing with dancers in municipally-owned repertory theatres in England. She knew that there was a stock of dancing talent of a very high order in this country, only waiting to be used properly. Her first achievement was in work with W. B. Yeats at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, in his dance-dramas, which were much influenced by Japanese No plays. But the decisive moment came when Lilian Baylis suggested a joint venture whereby a new dance company would present performances, partly at the Old Vic theatre, partly at Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington. This company would therefore be called the Vic-Wells Ballet. And so in 1931, with six dancers, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet was born. There also started, however insecurely, a ballet school-without which no ballet company can exist.

They were referred to in one newspaper as ‘the Islington dancers’; and the company stayed at Sadler’s Wells until 1939, when the theatre closed. The chief conductor was Constant Lambert, and under his dynamic direction a wholly fresh repertoire of British ballets was built up, starting with Bliss, Walton, Lambert himself. Like Dame Ninette, Constant Lambert had been associated with Diaghilev, and it was the combined vision of these two that gave the balanced impetus to this idealistic enterprise, and brought success. But Lambert was much more than just the conductor; he controlled the dancers as well as the musicians; he directed the decor, and provided just the overall musical leadership that the newly founded company needed.

The public in the 30s was small, but during the war years the company was compelled to travel round the country, playing in different theatres and camps. From this necessity came virtue. They soon realised that they were not only filling a need by providing art and colour during a period of enforced austerity; they were also establishing their own identity among a wide public-which has grown ever since. Immediately after the war they toured abroad, first to Brussels and Paris in 1946, then to America and Russia-where with some understandable satisfaction Dame Ninette decided to perform Stravinsky’s Firebird. Thus her British company brought the chicken home to roost, and won great international acclaim. Perhaps the greatest international triumph was the opening at the Metropolitan in New York of The Sleeping Beauty, conducted by Constant Lambert, with Margot Fonteyn in the role of Aurora.

So ballet developed earlier and quicker than opera in this country during the inter-war years. Indeed, opera was still an exclusive affair at this time. The Covent Garden season was for just three months during the summer, and the repertoire was confined to German, Italian or Russian opera, while the newly founded Glyndebourne was modelled on some private, princely theatre of the baroque period, and derived its artistic life-blood from the opera houses of Germany, whose work it reflected.

During the war Covent Garden opera house became a dance-hall, while Sadler’s Wells was closed. When Covent Garden opened again in 1945, Dame Ninette’s company, and school, played there for a year, until the opera joined them. Thus the Royal Ballet was securely established. Yet, strangely, more prestige attaches to opera than to ballet in this country. You have ‘Grand Opera’; you do not have ‘Grand Ballet’.

The tradition and technique of dancing that inspired Dame Ninette were in line with the classical Western style of Denmark, France and Italy-which had also been the source and origin of the Russian style. But the characteristics of the British Royal Ballet are a greater development of footwork, greater movement from the waist downwards, and character-dancing. Physical style is something inherent in the national dance of a country, and in the case of the Royal Ballet it has evolved naturally. The success, and the example, of Dame Ninette’s vision acted as a spur to Britten, and others, in 1946 in forming a corresponding company for opera-the English Opera Group.

Constant Lambert died in 1951; but numerous British ballets continued to be played by the Royal Ballet. ApIvor, Arnold, Searle, Rawsthorne, Britten and several other composers contributed works. But since about 1965 the company has tended more towards the classical repertoire.

The inter-war period also saw the formation of several societies and organisations specifically for the promotion of contemporary music. The fruitful period at the Royal College of Music following 1920 was made possible by the official endowment known as the Patron’s Fund, which was used for the purpose of orchestral rehearsals, and thus for the very direct benefit of composers. This therefore is, in effect, the first official contemporary music society.

In 1903, Sir Ernest Palmer, later Lord Palmer of Reading, presented to the Royal College of Music (founded thirty years previously) the sum of £27,000, which was later increased, for the specific purpose (among others) of ‘the selection and performance of works by British composers under forty years of age’. This exciting and novel project was put into the hands of a committee made up of the staff of the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music (founded in 1822); and between 1904 and 1914 they administered a series of public concerts, at the Bechstein Hall [now the Wigmore Hall] for chamber music, and the Queen’s Hall for orchestral music. The composers normally conducted their own works, and if the list of those included had a strong academic bias, this was, perhaps understandably, because the Committee felt that their first loyalty was to those who were in some way associated with the two main teaching institutions in London. These concerts were thus the first, and official, shop-window of the Establishment. Unfortunately, the public was not yet ready, and a lack of public interest in new music resulted in many empty seats.

The concerts were suspended when war broke out in 1914. When they were resumed in 1919 it was decided, at Hugh Allen’s instigation, that public concerts, for which there was no public, should be superseded by public rehearsals in the College. The London Symphony Orchestra was engaged, and Adrian Boult conducted. At that particular moment in time the results were highly advantageous for British music; but the same principle was applied later with much less success [see p. 365.]. It was an innovation which represented an important shift of emphasis. It can by no means justifiably be said that it caused the rift between the composer and the public, but it was a realistic recognition that such a rift existed-and indeed has continued to exist ever since. Probably in 1919 it was unrealistic to expect a conservative, and largely unaware, public to accept such an exciting and radical conception as Lord Palmer had visualised. Unfortunately, the relegation of the composer to ‘public rehearsal’ status, while in some ways an admirable expedient, created an impression of second-class musical citizenship which still survives today. There is something of a parallel to these ‘public rehearsals’ to he seen in Schoenberg’s ‘Society for private musical performances’, which he started in Vienna at about the same time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, several private attempts were made, of an isolated and somewhat disjointed nature, to promote music by British composers. In 1907 Delius and Elgar launched a concert-scheme which they called the League of Music. Granville Bantock and Henry Wood were also associated with it, though Wood’s interest must have been slight, as he does not mention it in his autobiography. A somewhat dismal account by Beecham [Frederick Delius, p. 147] records the work of the League:

The League struggled through a period of nearly two years of fitful activity, underwent several changes of direction, succeeded in giving one Festival of concerts in the October of 1909, and thereafter sank gently into oblivion.

Composers, however eminent, are not necessarily good administrators. Moreover, the time was not yet ripe. But another musician who privately sponsored a considerable number of concerts out of his own pocket at this time was Balfour Gardiner. Small concerts, often with Charles Kennedy Scott’s choir, were given privately, for instance at Lord Leighton’s house in Kensington; bigger concerts were promoted at Queen’s Hall

Balfour Gardiner was a wealthy patron, who worked through the Establishment, often with most positive results, as in the case of Holst’s Planets. But the first effective group-movement came in 1919, when the British Music Society was founded, on the initiative of Dr. A. Eaglefield Hull. This society was intended for the general furtherance of music in this country after the war. It was not to be a society for British music alone, but a British Society for music in general. Its underlying aims were twofold: first, to encourage and promote the general level of musical taste and understanding among concert audiences, who were generally speaking extremely conservative; second, to promote the young and untried composer, who had little or no chance of public performance, except through the Royal College of Music concerts, or abroad at a Festival such as Donaueschingen.

It was the second purpose which proved the more fruitful, and under Edward Dent’s presidency there grew the London Contemporary Music Centre (L.C.M.C.). This was created specifically for the new composer, and it was not only the first, but also the most continuously active and long-lasting branch of the British Music Society. Its outlook was always, and from the start, international, and never limited just to British composers. This fundamental principle is maintained today by its successor, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (I.C.A.).

Another dimension, and one that was to prove of great importance, was added to the work of the L.C.M.C. from an unexpected source. In 1921 a group of Viennese musicians, notably Egon Wellesz and Rudolph Reti, formed the International Society for Contemporary Music (I.S.C.M.); and the first international festival took place in Salzburg the following year. It was intended as an international music forum, the first since the end of the war. Most European countries were represented, as well as America. Performers of various nationalities participated, sometimes in the same work, and the focus was on new music from different countries. It was agreed that sections should be formed in each country, and that festivals would be presented in different cities of various countries in turn. The works played would be chosen by an international jury from those submitted from each country. It was also agreed by a majority of those at Salzburg that London should contain the central office, and so the (then) chairman of the London Contemporary Music Centre, Edwin Evans, undertook that his society would carry out the duties of this central office, and that they would also become the official representatives of the British section of the I.S.C.M.

The original British Music Society dissolved in 1933, but the London Contemporary Music Centre continued very active until 1953, when it amalgamated with the I.C.A. It was responsible for the organisation of those I.S.C.M. Festivals that were held in this country in 1931, 1938 and 1946. Edward Clark later became the chairman, and their annual series of concerts, held mainly at the Cowdray, Aeolian or Wigmore Halls, were of the greatest practical help to younger composers, whose works would probably otherwise not have been heard in this country; certainly not in professional public performance.

The inevitable shortcomings of this pioneer society were of less importance than its very real achievement; they were the sort of shortcomings which are inevitable when committees are faced with artistic matters-there is a marked tendency to settle for the lowest consensus of opinion, and to prefer the devil-you-know to the devil-you-do-not-know; particularly if the devil-you-know is present at the same meeting. Certain eminent composers are surprisingly absent from the programmes, while certain others, not so eminent, are noticeably present.

The young fledgling composer needed, and will always continue to need, not only the professional performance of his work at a public concert, but also the opportunity to hear it and assess it at the rehearsal or workshop stage. Ideally, this should form an essential part of any college or conservatoire curriculum; but the situation in 1930 was-as it is today-far from ideal in this respect. The work of the newly established L.C.M.C. was thought by some young musicians to be not sufficient for the needs of composers, who were beginning at this time to be a force to be reckoned with. A group of three students at the Royal College of Music formed, in 1931, a private society to promote young British composers. Elisabeth Lutyens, later the wife of Edward Clark, was the originator; her collaborators were Anne Macnaghten and Iris Lemare. The first series of concerts, known as the Macnaghten Concerts, took place in December 1931; they strongly favoured, whether fortuitously or not, works by the fair sex-Elisabeth Lutyens herself, Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst’s daughter, and Elisabeth Maconchy. Other composers represented in the early years of the Macnaghten Concerts, given in the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate, were Benjamin Britten, Alan Rawsthorne and Arnold Cooke. The concerts have continued ever since, and the promotion of British music, particularly of lesser known young composers, has always been, and still remains, their constant policy. In the first eight years of activity after 1945, works by more than sixty contemporary British composers were played. But after 1957 there was a slight shift in emphasis, to match the changing situation in London, and in the country as a whole. It seemed that more good could be done by presenting not quite so many new British works, and by ensuring that those that were presented were assured of as large an audience as possible by mixing them with works by acknowledged masters-not necessarily always British. In the choice of foreign works, an effort would be made always to offer something new to this country. Moreover, there has also been a marked swing, since about 1968, towards the avant-garde [after 1945 three other societies were added to the number of those whose concern was to perform contemporary music; these were the Committee (later Society) for the Promotion of New Music (1943), the Park Lane Group (1956), and the Redcliffe Concerts of British Music (1964), (see p. 364/7)].

And so, in summary, the period up to 1939 was a formative, exploratory one for British music. In orchestral concerts the mainstream of the repertoire was made available to the public, and those British composers whose works represented the late flowering of romanticism. The more ardently adventurous had to seek outlets in the smaller societies, particularly the L.C.M.C.; any broad public acceptance of the more experimental or outré contemporary trends still lay in the future. But after 1945 a more adventurous spirit begins to appear.

Meanwhile, the ground had been prepared; the basis from which composers could work.

 

 


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