Wednesday, 14 October 2009

English Music Festival

Interview – David Hamilton talks to Em Marshall, organiser of The English Music Festival
September 4th, 2009 | Author: admin

When we are being denied the celebration of our own culture, it takes courage to break ranks and offer people the opportunity to hear our great composers in a beautiful, traditional setting and Em Marshall has that. George Orwell observed that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality. In left-wing circles, it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.” Since then the New Left came to dominance and began a “critique” of our cultural traditions. Em, founder and director of the The English Music Festival1, is not allowing her beloved music to be sniggered at. She is staging the second Festival from the 23rd to 27th of May 2008: “We are bringing an opportunity for people to hear works they will not hear anywhere else,” she told me. It is her vision and she had always wanted to do it. She has loved English Classical music since the age of three when her father used to sing Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lee to her. More people enjoy this music than realised and often she is approached about a work not heard live before – people never had the opportunity. Well, they have now. Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman had never been performed at a professional concert, only at amateur productions, before the first English Music Festival staged it. Some have objected that the Festival should be held in London but aside from higher costs, the rural setting of Dorchester, Oxfordshire is in keeping with the nature of pastoral music.

The Festival is a celebration of English Classical music from medieval to contemporary. The main evening concerts will be at the medieval Abbey at Dorchester-on-Thames, several at Radley College Chapel, and All Saints Church, Sutton Courtenay. There will also be a concert at the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford University. Over the five days there will be fourteen concerts and recitals that give the audience the almost mystical experience of listening to performances of exquisite English music from the arc of the centuries, yet the focus is on the twentieth century and many overlooked pieces will be performed. It is reviving an important part of our culture.

Which pieces are to be in the Programme?

The series opens with a major concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra of works including Holbroke’s Birds of Rhiannon, Rawsthorne’s Practical Cats and Mackenzie’s Benedictus and featuring music by Parry and Bantock. They will also bring many unjustly neglected pieces back to life. Other artists booked to appear include the Carducci Quartet, performing Vaughan Williams and Moeran String Quartets; Vox Musica, the Amaretti Orchestra, including Finz’s Clarinet Concerto, Ireland and Elgar; Keble College Choir performing Sullivan’s Sacred Music; and Hilary Davan Wetton with the Milton Keynes City Orchestra and City of London Chorus playing Holst and Howells. There will be Elgar’s Banner of St.George and Dyson’s Agincourt, a concert of organ music, a concert of Arne and Linley. Early Music Solo Song and, for a lighter period, Mayerl with David Owen Norris give a broad look at the variety of our national musical inheritance. The conclusion is to be a “Grand Finale.” Philip Lane will be a composer featured, along with David Owen Norris, Paul Carr, and maybe Ron Corp and Matthew Curtis.

If it’s so good, why is it neglected?

In contrast to Orwell’s sniggerers, Yehudi Menhuin wrote to the Times in 1995, “English composers will not slavishly follow some arbitrary theory or construction, whether political or musical. They have kept their Englishness intact, whilst the mercantilistic world has gone all-American.”

If it is so good, why is it neglected? Like other aspects of English culture it is the victim of a negative ideology that devalues it with pejorative labels like “eltist” or “narrow” but, as we shall see, these labels do not fit reality. English music is not imitation but innovative and has developed significantly from the early twentieth century but is still rooted in the English tradition and in what Em calls our “sound-world” – it is tuneful, melodic, tonal, pleasant to listen to and is recognisably English. “John Foulds,” Em wrote in a review, “is one of very many English composers who, despite being brilliant and highly regarded during his lifetime, had fallen into neglect and is only now being re-discovered. He was fascinated by both Indian and Celtic ideas, sounds and thoughts, and by “alternative worlds.” His son, in the introductory notes to a disc, describes his father as “clairaudient.” Many sounds that Foulds created have an “other-worldly” air.

English Classical Music is popular but hidden by a cloud of prejudice and ignorance from its rightful audience by being characterised as “elitist” or “quaint” when in fact it has the tonal qualities that everyone enjoyed before modernism set out to destroy them. It is a living but obscured tradition, and often requested on Classic FM, whose “The Hall of Fame”, is the world’s biggest annual survey of classical music tastes; The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams is the nation’s favourite English work. It is one of the pieces which listeners ask to hear most and epitomises the English pastoral tradition.

The 2005 Proms had a number of all-English programmes. All but one sold-out, whereas other non-English music programmes did not. The Gloucester 3 Choirs Festival in 2001 had a special Festival of only English music and sold out swiftly. The BBC Music Magazine has a Top 20 Best sellers list and there are some really interesting English music discs there, often by obscure composers. Yet despite this noble heritage, much of this glorious music is overlooked. “English Music” festivals tend to either fail at the outset for lack of funds or become internationalised. The Cheltenham Festival was founded as “The Cheltenham Festival of British Music”, but went “international” and no longer features music not played elsewhere.

The first English Music festival was also in Dorchester, and devoted to the “diversity, innovation and brilliance” of composers usually neglected in concert. Entitled Heirs and Rebels it opened with a fanfare: Conductor David Lloyd-Jones produced a thrilling rendition of Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture and changed mood with Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody No.1(1906), which highlights solo clarinets and violas. This was followed by Frank Bridges’ Oration which is a single-movement concerto against the futility of war. It is impassioned and captures the anguish and despair in its vivid images of suffering and death. Then followed Holst’s Invocation and Irish Symphony by Sullivan who had Irish ancestry but musical roots in the English tradition. He was not restricted to comic opera! It united the Viola Sonata of Algernon Ashton, a rhapsody by Elgar’s champion William Reed, and a suite by Benjamin Dale, Lord Berners’ Luna Park, and featured Jeremy Irons narrating Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy!

Does the festival commission works?

Without renewal culture dies and the Festival renews by commissioning works. An oratorio Prayerbook, written and performed specially for the first Festival by David Owen Norris was acclaimed by the audience. The clarinet and viola heralding Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 was a beautiful performance. A bracing work is Oration by Britten’s mentor, Frank Bridge. The haunting cello concerto is a passionate cry against the barbarity of the Great War and expresses the miseries of the Front. Julian Lloyd Webber was sympathetic to the solo line, as the cello strives to extricate a poignant lyricism from the tensions of the orchestral background. He returned for Holst’s seldom performed Invocation (1911).

Em feels, “There is something about the landscape including the poetry and language, the syntax and grammar transmits into the way the music is phrased. It is English: the way we construct our sentences dictates the way we construct our music. It is the way composers compose their music. The construct of our thoughts dictates the way we construct our music. So much is laying neglected. It is usual to get a series of say Mahler, Brahms but rarely English Classical composers. Frederick Cliffe’s First Symphony (1889), was only revived after 83 years’ neglect and was a revelation: a large-scale, distinctive, late Victorian symphony of virile invention and command of the orchestra, varied mix of contemporary influences, and its drama, lyricism and sheer impact.”

The Daily Telegraph of 22 April 1889, published a review: “It may be doubted whether musical history can show on any of its pages the record of such an Opus. The symphony is a masterpiece, and the composer, one might think, feels terrified at his own success. For our own part, noting the imaginative power displayed in the work, the easy command of all resources, the beauty and freshness of the themes, and their brilliant development, we feel inclined to ask a question, propounded concerning another phenomenon “Whence has this man these things?” Mr Cliffe has by one effort passed from obscurity to fame, and must be regarded as a bright and shining star on the horizon of our English art.”‘

Over a century later The Daily Telegraph of 26 April 2004 had a feature on John Foulds as the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra released their recording of Dynamic Tryptich. Conductor Sakari Oramo explained, Foulds composed “some of the most original music ever conceived”. Malcolm MacDonald, editor of music magazine Tempo, believes: “There’s no question he was a genius and one of the most significant English composers of the last century. MacDonald, found some scores in the British Library: “I got out a dozen pieces, and the first thing I opened was the Dynamic Triptych. I was blown away by it. This was music unlike any British composer of the time. I was amazed it was lying around, and no one was playing it. “Foulds’s daughter “ took me to the garage, where there were two coffin-sized boxes full of sketches and manuscripts she’s been left by her mother.” Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts were damaged by rats and ants. In his book Music Today Foulds, explained how, by strict diet and meditation, he had developed his clairvoyant and clairaudient abilities. Much of his music, he claimed, was dictated to him by spirits.”

In the Baroque period we produced composers of immense skill like Purcell, Byrd, Arne, Tallis and Blow. The period between Arne and Parry has been dismissed as a “musical Ice-Age” though we had Stainer, Wesley, Potter, Sterndale Bennett, Crotch, who were on a par with foreign contemporaries, but not progressive enough for international attention. In 1769 Englishman Philip Hayes, who built Oxford’s beautiful Holywell Music Room, composed the world’s first piano concerto! Some great composers died young: Edward Bache, composer of exquisite chamber works, died at 25, and Thomas Linley, died aged 22 in a boating accident in 1777, yet produced wonderful anthems, odes and oratorio, about one of which was written “Neither Purcell nor Mozart ever gave stronger proof of original genius than can be traced in this charming ode”.

Even during the ravages of Modernism in the twentieth century there was a renaissance of music in England of works of innovation, power, drama and beauty. Stanford and Parry were at the fount and in a Brahmsian style created English music equal to Brahms himself; Elgar continued the creation of an English style through merging Brahms and Wagner. Richard Strauss described Elgar as “the first Progressivist in English Music”, and Hans Richter told his orchestra of Elgar’s First, “Gentleman, now let us rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer”! Others found inspiration abroad and incorporated the sounds into something uniquely “English”; Delius turned to the continent and Negro spirituals to develop a unique sound with lush, rich harmonies. Vaughan Williams returned to English roots in folk and Tudor to revive an English music, rebelling against the ubiquitous Teutonic schools. English solo song grew from parlour song and folk roots into a beautiful, high-art form; at the other end of the scale, England had answers to Wagner in the music of Bantock and Holbrooke, “the Cockney Wagner”, composers of long, deeply romantic, intense music – to rival Wagner’s Ring, and epic orchestral works. Writing about Holbrooke’s The Raven, Irish composer Hamilton Harty said “there is beautiful and impressive music in that work, and, as I told the orchestra, it is so infinitely superior to the foreign muck with which we are deluged nowadays!” Other composers of this period to listen to include Bridge, Bowen, Moeran, Finzi, Sainton, Bainton, Mackenzie, Gibbs, Berners, Dyson, Bax, Bliss, Ireland, Lambert, Boughton, Coles, Coleridge Taylor, Dunhill, Foulds, Dale, Goossens, William Lloyd Webber, MacCunn, Armstrong, Harty, Friskin, McEwen, Phillips, Scott, Rawsthorne, Rubbra, Hadley and Howells. These, and many more, are known by a small corpus of recorded works which show great individuality, inspiration, and visionary orchestral confidence.

What makes the English sound-world?

England is a country whose music and literature are drawn from the landscape, from rolling hills to the desolation of mud flats and moors. Seascapes too: an island nation, we are drawn to the wildness and openess of the sea. We have not the sublimity of the Alps nor the majestic sweeps of the Tabernas desert, the spectacular fjords of Norway nor the thick, dense forests of Germany; but, for centuries, artists, poets and composers have been inspired by the picturesque hues and shades in our “blue remembered hills”, the nuances of light-beams in enchanting woods, the changes of seasons, inconstant weather, the dramatic sweeps of the lakes and dales that inspired Wordsworth.

Yehudi Menhuin, wrote: “I am drawn to English music because I love the way it reflects the climate and the vegetation which know no sharp edges, no definitive demarcation, where different hues of green melt into each other and where the line between sea and land is always joined and changing, sometimes gradually, sometime dramatically. The music … is a very human music, not given to shattering utterances, to pronouncements of right or wrong, not to abstract intellectual processes, to human emotion in the abstract, but to a single man’s experience of today as related to a particular place…”

Our neglected heritage: In 1927, Holst wrote incidental music to a mystery play The Coming of Christ which has never been recorded. As I mentioned, Cliffe’s first symphony, an acclaimed masterpiece, has not had a professional public performance for over 90 years. His second symphony has not been published; none of the symphonies by Walford Davies, Coleridge Taylor and Somervell are available, nor is Bowen’s first symphony which was so popular that The Times devoted a whole column to analysing it; Delius’ opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, considered by many the first great modern English opera, has not been performed at either the Royal Opera House or English National Opera for over half a century.

Contemporary artists have similar repertoires and only a small number of works are considered “acceptable” as these things go in fashions. Concert mangers are not prepared to take risks so programme what they know or popular classics for government funding. A programme of Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Verdi is familiar and safe but to present say, Moeran, Gibbs and Farrar a risk. English music is not fashionable. It is not politically correct and managers hesitate to promote anything English, as if inimicable to other cultures. In an era of “diversity” and “multi culturalism” English culture is shunned. It is not the done thing to seem nationalistic by celebrating our traditions: the ending of Elgar’s Caractacus is stigmatised because it points forward to a great British Empire! We are supposed to be ashamed of our culture and ignore it or apologise. Composers of the early twentieth century are dismissed as the “English pastoral composers,” lesser musicians whose works are put below the Germanic, Russian, or Scandinavian schools. But the pastoral tradition has always inspired composers and poets. The term ‘pastoral’ is broad and its meaning of ‘rural’ and ‘innocence’, was used by Classical and Christian artists with its associations of Eden, Arcadia or a ‘Golden Age’, and nostalgia for beauty and sublimity lost through the Fall or the degeneration of Man. Pastoral goes to the roots of our culture: In the ninth century BC, Hesiod contemplated the ages of mankind from a Golden Age to his own ‘Iron Age’. Six centuries later, the pastoral was a literary form in the Idylls of Theocritus, a tradition Virgil built upon in his Eclogues two centuries later. In Christianity the Garden of Eden provided an equivalent to the Arcadia of Classical poets, and the concept of the Fall established the nostalgic pastoral inclination as a natural human impulse. For the Romantic poets, witnessing the beginning of the industrial revolution, the city was a consequence of the Fall and the contrast with nature and a new interest in childhood enabled them to draw a parallel between humankind’s degeneration or Fall from Eden and a child’s loss of innocence as he enters adulthood.

It is often based in a particular location or built from folk song-like melodies – Williams’ three Norfolk Rhapsodies (1905-07), and In the Fen Country (1904); Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody (1906-7); Butterworth’s Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad (1912), his Two English Idylls (1911) and The Banks of Green Willow (1913); and Finzi’s A Severn Rhapsody (1923). The sleeve notes to a recording of A Severn Rhapsody read: ‘The music gently evokes the mood of the English countryside and the meandering river’. A pastoral characteristic, reflective of rural ‘simplicity’. These works bespeak a retreat from the care, complexity, or harshness of society. English classical music has its roots in the country; is rooted in our landscape but not necessarily a picturesque one. Gustav Holst was walking in the desolate Dorsetshire country between Wool and Bere Regis in 1926 when visited by inspiration and he started Egdon Heath, also prompted by the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. The music is stark and austere. As for elitism anyone is welcome to these concerts. Composers like Holst wrote music for brass bands. The Moorside Suite was used in the brass band competition at the Crystal Palace in 1928 which was won by the Black Dyke Mills Band.

There is a distinction between the pastoral “genre” and the pastoral ‘topic’. As a genre, the ‘pastoral’ is a single work or movement ‘that depicts the characters and scenes of rural life or is expressive of its atmosphere’. The term is often applied to miniatures. Pastoral as a ‘topic’ may refer to a section of a large-scale work in which pastoral characteristics are apparent. Pastoral ‘oases’ are usually characterised by introspection or nostalgia, and stand in contrast to their more rhetorical surroundings. Simplicity runs parallel to complexity, constancy with change, an opposition often present in cityscapes. Most works in the English pastoral tradition are not large-scale works but representative of the pastoral genre, though degree of intersection with other forms and genres like the ‘rhapsody’ is characteristic. Some English composers are known as a pastoral ‘school,’ the creative background to both composition and reception, and that their music is so closely bound to landscapes to which they regularly returned. The English pastoral style shares aspects of the pastoral topic of European Classical and Romantic music, but is particularly associated with the musical language of folk song. It is for this reason that Elgar, Parry and Stanford had individual voices, yet developed their style from the German musical idiom but are often excluded from the pastoral canon, though their importance to the English Musical Renaissance is recognised. Contemporaries like John Ireland and Gustav Holst, despite varied influences and often different styles, played an important part in the development of a recognisably English pastoral style.

Three aspects of English pastoralism: setting, language and sensibility

‘Setting’, the specific location in which the composer has chosen to set a piece; ‘language’, the musical idiom, be it derived from English folksong, French impressionism or the German romantic tradition; ‘Sensibility’ is clearly the hardest to pin-down, but within it resides what I have called the pastoral ‘outlook’, or in other words, the mood invoked by the music; what it sets up to desire or reject. Within each category, there seems to be an ideal, in that one can posit a ‘typical’ English pastoral piece of music as one set in the West of England, derived from the musical language of folk song and with a nostalgic, introspective sensibility. However, these categories allow a degree of flexibility in that a piece need not have a specified setting, or, if it does, its idiom need not be folk-song related. Thus Ireland’s piano miniature Amberley Wild Brooks and Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony though disparate, both inhabit the English pastoral tradition.

John Ireland’s music belongs to the school of ‘English Impressionism’. Having been steeped in German classics, especially Brahms, he was strongly influenced in his twenties and thirties by the music of Debussy, Ravel, and the early works of Stravinsky and Bartók.

Contemporaries such as Vaughan Williams and Holst developed a language strongly characteristic of English folk song, Ireland developed a complex harmonic language like French and Russian. He was very influenced by poetry and his settings of such poets as A E Housman, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John Masefield and Rupert Brooke are among the best known of his works. He was susceptible to the spirit of place. Chelsea Reach is a depiction in the form of a barcarolle of the great sweep of the Thames as it flows past the Houses of Parliament. He loved the Channel Islands but his main love was Sussex, a landscape of undulating downs and then isolated villages, including Amberley of Amberley Wild Brooks – streams coursing through the fields, inspired most brilliant of his piano pieces.

Many contemporary composers are writing tonal, innovative, exciting and melodic music which spreads from the English tradition, which is difficult to hear in concert yet is too good to be ignored. There are now record labels releasing English Classical and they sell well.1 The BBC music magazine has a classified chart and they usually get in. But concerts are not put on because they are thought not to be popular: but when they are, they are enjoyed. When the BBC put on some English music it sold out. The Gloucester Three Choirs in 2001 put on an all-English programme and it sold out!

Em wants to bring unseen gems to light; feature undiscovered works and even undiscovered composers. She wants to trace lost scores and unknown ones that may be lying in relatives’ attics and tool sheds. There can be the use of old instruments but this depends on the composers being featured. This broadens people’s tastes. It is uplifting and a concert changes the listener for the better and makes them feel part of a cultural tradition, not an alienated, atomised individual.

Some day hence the English Music Festivals may seem as important to our culture now as the Olympiads were to Greek athletic prowess.

This hidden treasure of English music is part of the revival of English culture and is being brought into the light by Em and the English Music festival. The atonal era when music sounded like water gurgling down a sink is over.

Em is the main worker and works about 18 hours a day. It takes a lot of organising. Last year alone she wrote to around 5,000 companies but they think it is not popular enough or too narrow and wanted to make it international. She cannot get funding from the Arts Council. The only political organisation to give support was the Campaign for an English Parliament and their name worried some sponsors who wanted it removed from the programme, for fear of political embarrassment. Several high-profile companies declined as they did not want to be associated with elitist forms of music, preferring pop and rock. She was upset at the way some firms, first pledged their support and then let her down. She would ideally like sponsors with faith in the project. They do have a number of minor sponsors whence they get a third of their income. The other two-thirds come from ticket sales and trust funds, with the final portion from their Friends scheme and donations. The Friends scheme is very important as it brings a regular income to enable her to plan forthcoming events and gives the satisfaction of seeing that they believe in what she is trying to do. The Friends get discounts. In addition to more sponsors and Friends, Em needs helpers for stewarding, fund-raising, and publicity, which includes distributing information and programmes.


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