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Edmund Rubbra (1901 - 1986) by Francis Routh

 This article is reproduced from Contemporary British Music published by Macdonald in 1972

© Francis Routh 1972,1998

See also: Discography  
               Teacher and Guide as I knew him - Gary Higginson

'There are two main kinds of progressive, whether in music or in other fields of human activity. The first are those who are entirely disenchanted with the continued relevance of established methods and past traditions; they therefore seek to do away with them, and to replace them with something else; something fresh, untraditional. The second are those who do not discard past traditions, but seek instead to reinterpret them, and to apply them in a fresh context as they see fit.

The first kind, who may be described as the ideological iconoclasts, are far more readily noticeable than the second. It is indeed one of the prime requisites, if you are going to put forward new methods and fresh styles, that your gestures should he both strikingly novel, if possible outrageous, and immediately recognisable. Thus the avant-garde aesthetic is a simple one. But the severe risk run by those who subscribe to it is twofold; partly that means may be mistaken for ends - the striking of a fresh posture, the adoption of an untried process, may be mistaken in itself for an art-work, which it is not; and partly that, by thus shifting the scale of values, the concept of permanent validity in the finished work becomes relative. Your novelty one week may well be made redundant by someone else's more radical novelty the next, if you have no other yardstick by which to measure it than the fact of its 'progressiveness'.

The second kind of progressives run risks as well, though of a different, more subtle, nature. They may be overlooked as merely 'traditional', and their work not understood for what it is. Because they do not sever all links with the past, as the other kind do, but on the contrary accept the past and try to relate it to the present, their relevance for the present may he questioned. In the eyes of the first kind they will probably appear as 'blacklegs', who have, by compromising with tradition, forfeited any right to he called 'progressive' at all.

And yet the self-styled revolutionaries, of whom several adorn the history of music - much as heretics adorn the history of the Christian Church - rarely reach beyond the ephemeral stage. At most they succeed in focusing attention on to a particular idea, which others may then pursue and develop. Art reaches a more than ephemeral validity only when its creator takes a wider view of tradition than the narrowly revolutionary one.

But both kinds of composers, the revolutionary progressive and the traditional progressive, have the same means at their disposal as their starting-point; the same orchestral or choral resources; in the long run, the same public. One of the first questions therefore that each kind of composer has to solve is his use of; and attitude to, the contemporary musical resources. Is he, for instance, to take the symphony orchestra as we know it today, which is a highly sophisticated musical tool, and develop it or modify it according to his taste; or accept it as it is, and fit his ideas within this existing mould?

One composer who has accepted and worked within the scope of the existing musical means is Edmund Rubbra, who was born in Northampton in 1901. His is just the sort of musicianship that, because of its traditional, even ordinary, appearance, may well pass unnoticed. He does not discover new sounds; he does not extend the aural frontiers in breadth; instead he exploits the existing ones in greater depth. He has worked, broadly speaking, within the established traditions. If that were all, there would indeed be scant grounds for going further. But his claim to be considered progressive rests on two grounds: a personal, mystical interpretation of Christianity, which is rare among contemporary composers (only Anthony Milner invites comparison), and a reasoned, consistent and refined attitude to tonality. Both factors combine to give some of his choral work a mediaeval, timeless flavour, which for its very simplicity is practically unique in contemporary British music.

He is a traditionalist - yet in twentieth-century terms. He sees the confusion of the present scene as a rift between on the one hand those who accept the traditional concept of music as a gradual development over the centuries, and on the other hand those who destroy existing traditions for ideological reasons. He has aligned himself without any qualification on the side of the first; and once he found his path, he has been quite uninfluenced by external pressures, and the swing of fashion away from him. The groundwork of his thought is concerned with harmony, and in this he shares the company of Debussy, Schoenberg, Scriabin, and some of the English composers of the early twentieth century, such as Cyril Scott; but his solution was not to reject tonality so much as to view it in a different way.

He had happened to pick up in Paris in the 20'S, at a second-hand bookstall, a treatise on harmony by none other than Ezra Pound. [Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony (Three Mountains Press, Paris 1924)]. Set in the form of a somewhat flippant dialogue between master and pupil, it nevertheless managed to make some searching comments. For instance, it pointed out that what happens between sounds had been neglected by composers. This was putting, in somewhat non-musicianly language, what was generally being questioned by musicians at this time. Debussy, for instance, found out for himself the possibilities inherent in various scale-formations; and this in turn led to many fruitful developments by later French composers, particularly Messiaen.

Rubbra's approach was the same in principle. He sees the composer's art as the use of common, ordinarily accepted sounds in an uncommon, poetic way. This is analogous to a poet's use of words; Henry Vaughan for instance puts together common words in an uncommon way to describe a sunrise: The unthrift sun shot vital gold. Similarly Rubbra's use of one very ordinary chord, the dominant seventh, in an unexpected context, is shown in this example from the first Tenebrae setting, Op. 72 no.1: [Another use of this chord, and Rubbra's fondness for it in the Fourth Symphony, is noticed by W. Mellers in Studies in Contemporary Music.]

So the composer, according to Rubbra, must objectify the sounds, and thus explore the frontiers of aural experience in depth. He builds bridges between chords, sets up relationships between tonalities, and thus by a logical unfolding of the music, in time, he creates form. Music for Rubbra is the tonal art. He has consistently eschewed anything resembling radicalism, sensationalism or novelty.

By such stressing of the overriding importance of harmony and tonality, this kind of creative thinking tends to leave out of account other primary elements, such as rhythm, and thematic development. But Rubbra built up gradually on experiences gained during his formative years He was first a private pupil of Cyril Scott; later, at Reading University and at the Royal College of Music, he was under Gustav Holst. Both these were diatonic composers, both showed an exotic, Eastern influence; but Scott was freer in his use of chromaticism. Another highly fruitful study for Rubbra was that of Elizabethan counterpoint under the scholar-musician, R. 0. Morris.[His Contrapuntal Technique in the 16th Century (1922) and Foundations of Practical Counterpoint (1925) are standard.] There is no composer today who makes more direct application of the techniques of sixteenth century counterpoint than Rubbra; he also shares something of the romantic spirit, and the theological fervour of the sixteenth century.

His output is large; over a hundred and thirty works with Opus numbers. One of the earliest (1925) was the little carol Dormi Jesu. [Oxford Book of Carols No. 175] Its style is the modal one of the period, established by Vaughan Williams and Holst, and it is very similar to Holst's cradle-song Lullay my liking, written a few years earlier.

In the early 30'S Rubbra moved gradually out of his formative stage into a more personal harmonic style, with such a work as the First Violin Sonata, Op. 31. The foundation of this work is a harmonic one, though it contains some counterpoint. Thereafter the balance became tilted towards counterpoint, starting with the next work, the Four Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, Op. 32, for baritone and string orchestra.

The instrumental works that followed were the First String quartet, Op. 35, and the Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 38, for piano and orchestra. This latter was written in 1934, just after Holst died, and was taken from a discarded piano concerto; both works contain traces of an earlier exoticism, which was partly innate, partly inherited from Holst and Cyril Scott. The saltarello in the Sinfonia Concertante is an example of this.

Thus Rubbra gradually enlarged the range and size of his structures, with each work slightly larger than the one before. The logical result was the First Symphony (1935), which built up a symphonic design offorceceful, extrovert intensity. [1935 was something of an annus mirabilis of British symphonies; Bax's third, Wa!ton's first, Vaughan William's fourth.] He followed this almost immediately with the Second Symphony, which was more austere, primarily contrapuntal. The Third Symphony (1938) developed the lyrical content, while the Fourth Symphony (1941) was more concerned with harmony, less with counterpoint. Thus in his symphonic works up to the war an evolution can be traced. Each succeeding symphony shows a contrast of reaction to the previous one, as the composer feels his way towards that structure which is logical for his idiom. Of these four symphonies it is the third, first heard at a Hallé concert in Manchester in December 1940, which chiefly clarifies Rubbra's symphonic technique up to the war. The concern of the composer to write long, melodic lines, with plentiful use of sequence, canon and ostinato, and a Brahmsian breadth of phrase, makes for a somewhat static quality in the harmony, which is mainly triadic. The material of each movement is homogeneous, and the scherzo theme was unconsciously derived from the rhythm of the first movement.

As far as rhythm is concerned, this is derived from the crossing of contrapuntal parts; it is the rhythm that results from the absence of a bar-line, and it is thus not immediately obvious.

The outbreak of war interrupted Rubbra's composition and he served in the army. However, the war years were not entirely without music for him, as he was able to form a trio with himself as pianist, William Pleeth (cello) and Joshua Glazier (violin), and to tour camps giving concerts. [Later Glazier's place was taken first by Norbert Brainin, then by Erich Gruenberg.] Their repertoire was largely classical; Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This work started in 1942. Rubbra has always been a highly accomplished pianist, though, unlike Reizenstein, his playing took second place to his composition. He was active in the 30's as a pianist, and played a wide range of music, some of it unfamiliar, and largely for radio recitals. His trio achieved such success with the wartime concerts that it continued afterwards, and not until 1956 did pressure of other engagements compel Rubbra to give it up. Immediately after the war another opportunity came his way when the first Professor of the newly-formed Music Faculty at Oxford, J. A. Westrup, invited him to join the academic staff of that university. He remained a member of it from 1947 until 1968, and thereafter he continued teaching at the Guildhall School of Music in London, which he had first joined in 1961.

Immediately after the war Rubbra picked up the broken thread of his composition, with a Mass for Canterbury Cathedral, the Missa Cantauriensis, Op. 59; also the G minor Cello Sonata, Op. 60, written for William Pleeth, for whom he had already composed the Soliloquy for 'Cello and Strings, Op. 57. The Sonata continues where the Third Symphony had left off; it is an intensely lyrical work, and, like the symphony, finishes with a Theme and Variations, and Fugue. But in the meantime he had worked extensively with his trio, and the beneficial effects of this chamber music experience resulted in several improvements; much greater lightness of texture, and greater thematic and rhythmic variety. Moreover, the reduction from four movements to three leads to greater tautness; and it is far less harmonically static. This process continues with the Fifth Symphony (1949), which differs from its predecessors chiefly in its chamber music texture. This was followed the next year by the only work written for his trio, the Trio in one movement, Op. 68.

Two symphonies and two concertos mark his orchestral works of the 50's; the Sixth Symphony (1954), and the Seventh Symphony (1957); [of which Panufnik conducted the first performance at a Birmingham concert on 1st October, 1957] the Viola Concerto (I 954), and the Piano Concerto (1958).

The Viola Concerto is an elegiac work, written for William Primrose; it is sometimes known as the 'musical necklace' (collana musicale) after the composer's title of the third movement; and by the time he came to write the Sixth Symphony the following year, Rubbra had worked out the chamber music influence. The symphony is unusual in that the movement which he wrote first, finished with such finality that it could only be placed at the end; so the composer had to work backwards. He took the first four notes of the Cor Anglais solo (E-F-A-B), with which the movement begins, and used them as a motivic germ for the other three movements; thus E-F-A open the first movement, E-A (an open fifth on the horns) open the slow (canto) second movement, and E-F begin the scherzo. In the next symphony, the seventh, Rubbra developed greater freedom and more proliferation of ideas.

Other instrumental works include three Violin Sonatas, three String Quartets, and various smaller pieces; some with solo voice, such as the Three Psalms for contralto and piano (1947), or The Jade Mountain for high voice and harp (1963). In these five songs from the Chinese, Rubbra achieved a miniature structure, and a highly characteristic intimacy of expression. The harp attracted him, and the Pezzo Ostinato for solo harp (1959) was an essay in an Eastern mode of thought; the music revolves, with ametrical rhythms, round Raga-like material, like an Indian improvisation. The pedals, once fixed, remain unaltered throughout the piece.

Apart from a few folk-song settings, far the greater part of Rubbra's choral output is of a religious nature. This, and the modal style, coupled with the instinct for polyphonic growth, give it a mediaeval flavour. He also has a marked preference for minor tonalities, even in short part-songs, such as Christopher Hassall's Salutation, Op. 82, [Included in A Garland for the Queen, to mark the Coronation of 1953.] or the Elizabethan-derived Madrigals, Op. 51 and 52.

His religious choral music includes motets, anthems, cantatas, and ranges from show pieces of an exuberant and extrovert nature, such as the Festival Te Deum, written for the Festival of Britain, or Festival Gloria, Op. 94, to works of a practical, liturgical nature, such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A flat, or the 3-part Mass, Op. 98; or works for various specific functions, often of not great difficulty, such as the Three Motets, Op. 76, or the two Suites for voices and orchestra, Op. 122 and 129.

The same pattern of evolution is shown in the choral as in the symphonic works. The early ones are shorter, confined to one idea; the later ones are more expansive. An outstanding example of a symphonic structure applied to an unaccompanied choral work is the motet for soprano and baritone soli and double choir, Lauda Sion, Op. 110 (1960/ 61). The Latin text is a hymn of praise by St. Thomas Aquinas, and a rondo structure gives the work strength and cohesion. Rubbra has never surpassed this, which was his largest a capella work up to that point, and whose merits can be viewed from many different angles: it is a major work of grandeur and dignity; the mood of the text, which is an all- embracing poem of great power, is entirely integrated with the thematic material; and the growth and development of each run parallel. The polyphonic writing is masterly, and considerably more original than the use of a triadic idiom sometimes implies. The counterpoint is in places a chordal counterpoint; for instance, at the words 'Sub utraque specie' [p. 27/28 Lengnick Edition] the canon between two 3-part chords results in a harmonic saturation, which is a unique characteristic of Rubbra's style. This recalls the opening of  The Song of the Soul, where a similar effect is achieved orchestrally, by juxtaposed triads. The harmony arises naturally and majestically from the counterpoint in a way that has few parallels in contemporary music. He followed this in 1962 with another large festive (as distinct from liturgical) piece for unaccompanied 8-part choir, the Te Deum, Op. 115, which continues the same development as Lauda Sion. But the motet marks a summit of achievement; its successor will probably not come until the 9th Symphony.

Meanwhile his next choral works were suites with orchestral accompaniment. He had already written [for Paul Steinitz and the London bach Society, in 1953] the highly characteristic Song of the Soul, Op. 78, which is a slow but short setting of words by St. John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell, 'Oh Flamma de amor viva': the full title is 'Song of the Soul in intimate communication and union with the love of God'. And just before Lauda Sion he had written the Cantata di Camera, Op. 111(Crucifixus pro nobis), whose strange instrumentation was stipulated by the New York Church for which it was written.

The first choral suite, Inscape, Op. 122, is a setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and falls into four sections with a 'Gloria' epilogue. The second suite, In die et nocte canticum, Op. 129, is a Latin setting of early Christian texts, and falls into three sections, with an orchestral prologue ('Aubade') and epilogue ('Nocturne').

But it is in works for unaccompanied choir that Rubbra achieves his most characteristic results; the religious fervour, the free movement of modal tonality, the growth of harmony from the contrapuntal lines, the full development of his polyphonic style. Lauda Sion is his most characteristic major a capella work; the equivalent smaller works are the nine short Tenebrae settings, Op. 72, which are a masterly concentration of the a capella style. The parts move mainly homophonically in block chords, in a way which is reminiscent of the sombre chord-spacing of Monteverdi, as this, Rubbra feels, is most aptly suited to the solemnity of Holy Week. The first three Tenebrae settings, which constitute the First Nocturne, Op. 72, nos. 1-3, were written in 1954; the remaining six, the Second and Third Nocturnes, Op. 72, nos. 4-9, followed later, in 1963, after Lauda Sion, and about the same time as the Te Deum. Again, the use of chordal canon occurs, in no.4 (amicus meus). There is little independent contrapuntal movement. Rubbra has provided a striking contemporary illustration of a traditional theme.

His idiom is a tonal one, and has always been consistently so. Though he has never consciously tried to imitate other composers, he was in his formative years immersed in the piano works of Debussy, which he played; so he had a thorough insight into Debussy's individual harmonic style. Debussy had been the first composer of undisputed stature to differentiate between key and tonality. He could use the chord of C major without necessarily involving the key of C major; but he also derived strength and colour from the forces at work in the French artistic tradition as a whole, which defined, and gave direction to, his activity.

Although Rubbra worked within a different tradition, with different forces at work, and although his solution is different, nevertheless the same harmonic principles may be seen in the work of both composers. Rubbra works from a tonal centre, which differs from a keycentre in that it does not imply or include all the other notes of the key; he develops instead a harmonic fluidity, which may develop greater or less saturation, according to the number of notes specifically sounding round any given tonal centre. Nowhere does he reach greater mastery of this extremely elusive technique than in the Eight Symphony, Op. 132, which is the culminating point of his instrumental works, corresponding to Lauda Sion among the choral works.

The work was written in 1966-67 [MS dated 28th December 1967], ten years after the Seventh Symphony, and in it the goals that he has set of breadth of phrase, melodic continuity, harmonic fluidity and structural strength, are achieved to a greater extent than in any previous symphony. The sequences are less exact, the sonorities are more original, while the expansive eloquence of the slow third movement is unsurpassed. In it Rubbra adopts a new approach to texture, in that intervals are made the decisive protagonists in the themes throughout the work. He dispenses with key signatures for the first time. The first subject, at the opening of the first movement, is made of interlocking fourths, while the second subject is made up of thirds. Both come together at [4]-6symphony N~8

where the characteristic 2-part chordal counterpoint leads to harmonic fluidity round the tonal centre of B.

The material of the scherzo second movement is made up of thirds, and it gathers up themes as it goes along, like a snowball. The slow third movement is the finale, and is built round the second and sixth combined. The symphony thus includes all the intervals, as these two (the second and the sixth) together make the seventh, as the opening of the finale shows.

Here Rubbra achieves that poise between harmony and counterpoint that had sometimes eluded him in earlier works. One instance of this among many is the violin figure at [56], which is a retrograde version, in diminution, of the viola and cello part in the previous three bars. This little figure reappears as a flute solo at the very end of the symphony.

Thus both his symphonic and his choral output have reached their respective culminating points. The composer's intention is now to unite them, and write a symphony with voices: his projected Ninth Symphony, which is still only at the imagined stage, is visualised as a choral symphony, a Sinfoma Sacra on the theme of the Resurrection. In such a concept, Rubbra's symphonic and choral styles, coupled with his strong Christian convictions, will have come full circle.

© Francis Routh 1972,1998

See also: Discography

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