Beyond Britten: English Music in the 20th Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert This England, performed on Jan 31, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The American concert-going public tends to acknowledge only two English composers after Henry Purcell: Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten. Britten is the one English composer after Elgar who has secured a place in the repertory with a wide-ranging representative selection of works. In another category are unaccountably neglected composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose fame as an orchestral composer in the U.S. rests largely on a handful of works performed repeatedly by American orchestras. Consistent with its mission, the ASO has therefore chosen four eminent but even less well-known 20th-century English composers for this program. They frame the century that separates Edward Elgar from George Benjamin (one of England’s finest living composers) and mirror the powerful and rich heritage of English music that is today underrepresented in the concert repertoire, even in Great Britain.

As this concert will make apparent, it is unclear whether national categories are either justified or really descriptive of music, especially in the 20th century. Is there anything “English” here beyond the blunt facts of birth and citizenship? National stereotypes in music are hazardous at best and always the object of intense debate and conflict within nations—as the cases of Russia and France in the 19th century suggest. Why do we need them or use them in music, an art form whose materials cannot be differentiated quite as readily as languages are one from the other?

The case of England sheds a special light on this troublesome subject. For most of the 19th century in England—the most powerful economic nation in the world and the European power with the largest empire—Felix Mendelssohn was, with Handel, one of that nation’s most beloved composers. From the English perspective (including that of Queen Victorian herself), Mendelssohn represented the finest in all of “German” music. His status as a “Jewish” figure in English circles superseded his reputation as a German only at the very close of the 19th century. Liszt, Schumann, Bruch, Grieg, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Dvořák, and Wagner all were central components of English musical life in the 19th century without causing the English undue anxiety. After all, the British ruled the world and felt entirely at home consuming and adapting the finest things from all over the world. The made everything their own from tea to music. The suggestion that the composer Charles Villiers Stanford overtly emulated Brahms was as much a compliment as a criticism; it showed his discernment and taste. The English were not in need of a defensive nationalism until the beginning of the 20th century, when the hegemony of the Empire began its protracted decline. That reality and its attendant sensibility emerged with considerable force in the wake of the hard-won victory in 1918.

As the novels of Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot reveal, music flourished in 19th century England. As the novels of E.M. Forster attest, music continued its important cultural position into the early years of the 20th century. Its choral tradition was unrivalled, as were its orchestras and concert life. The composers on today’s program sought to make their careers in a vibrant and eclectic musical culture. Frank Bridge—the eldest in the group—never achieved public recognition his musical merits, even though his work consistently won the admiration of his colleagues for its craftsmanship and integrity. The next eldest, Arthur Bliss, was far more successful in his lifetime, but his posthumous standing has become modest at best. Most famous of the four was William Walton. A very few of his works remain in the repertory and, as Byron Adams observes in his fine program notes, Walton witnessed in his lifetime a striking and depressing decline in his reputation and popularity. The most obscure figure is also the youngest: Robert Simpson. His writings—notably on Bruckner—have consistently overshadowed his very substantial output as a composer.

Two of the four pieces on this program were written in 1934, at the beginning of what Churchill would later term the “gathering storm” that culminated with World War II. England had lost an entire generation in the trenches of World War I. A horror of war and an allegiance to pacifism were widespread. Frank Bridge and Robert Simpson shared these convictions, as did Bridge’s student Benjamin Britten. The works of Bridge and Bliss contain an element of unease if not anxiety regarding the prospect of yet another massive conflict—albeit not in the direct way Vaughan Williams’ 4th symphony from 1934 does.

William Walton’s second symphony was finished and premiered in 1960 during the era of visible and rapid decline in England’s importance in world affairs, after the 1956 Suez affair, during the de-colonization of Africa but before the Beatles—an era filled with an admixture of resentment and nostalgia. And the newest of the works, Simpson’s Volcano, was completed in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, at a time that many regard as the nadir in Britain’s post-war history.

The genres on this program are as varied as are their musical styles. The program opens with an essay in film music, at a time when music promised to be more than a subsidiary illustrative medium in films, and when there was considerable optimism about the possibilities of film music. We then confront a variation on the idea of a piano concerto—a work with a suggestive title and program—written in a committed, tightly-argued, and personal modernist musical language. We then encounter Simpson’s essay in sonority. The concert closes with an ambitious and eloquent symphony, one that should be more often heard. But outside of England, even Elgar’s two superb symphonies have had a hard time getting their proper due until recently.

In the end, is there anything distinctly “English” about this music? Yes, perhaps, and perhaps no; it all depends on what one thinks is and sounds “English.” Rather, this music suggests the powerful variety of expression in 20th-century music, the vitality of English musical life and the prodigious skill of these English composers, each of whom appropriated and adapted the influences around them to fashion music well worth hearing.

Our first concert of 2014 raises basic questions about the fundamental mission of the ASO. In concert after concert, our audiences (and also our critics) want to know how we program our concerts. Why do we choose the works we play? And if most if not all of them are not in the standard repertoire, either because they were never in it or fell out of it, what justifies reviving them? These questions are particularly apt at a time when a fantastic array of works can be found on the Internet, on YouTube, and on CD recordings. Is it the case that everything “really great” is already out there, played often, and well known, and that works that require revival are somehow lesser and fall short of being first rate, and therefore less deserving of repeated performances? Is not therefore the standard repertoire simply the best music written? And if you can hear so called “lesser” works on recording, why play them? Is the ASO on an elaborate buried treasure or scavenger hunt, where the reward is the off-chance that we will stumble on an unknown work that will become standard and hailed as a masterpiece? (The answer to this is obviously no). Or is the ASO seeking to challenge the logic of contemporary concert life today, particularly its distortion of history—a distortion that robs the audience of the pleasure of encountering the vast riches of the musical past?

The answer to this complex set of questions is quite simple. First, a work of music, in order to be appreciated, has to be played and heard in real time and space. A recording is to a piece of music what a small photograph in a book is to a work of art or architecture. Second, the act of listening does not demand that the listener assume the role of judge in some sort of “beauty” contest that seeks to select winners in a virtual contest for the “greatest” works of music. Why compare one against another by some vague criterion of greatness? We do not read that way and we do not look at visual art that way. Lots of music merits frequent revisiting because all music, even the most popular, suffers from too much repetition. And extreme neglect of all but a few works narrows our habits of listening.

The question is not whether any of the works on today’s program is a “masterpiece” in someone’s opinion. Rather it is whether the music, much like a fine book, deserves to be revisited—played and heard—and whether it captures the imagination of listeners. In some cases, a work will do so with unexpected power sufficient to propel it into today’s repertoire. In other cases, a work will be rewarding to hear and cast new light on the era in which it was written and remind us of the immense unperformed worthy repertoire that has accumulated over more than three hundred years of musical culture.

The growing habit of erasing the past through ignorance or lack of curiosity should be resisted at all costs. All of the music the ASO programs was once admired by the greatest of composers and performers. In bringing neglected works to the stage, we do honor to their judgment. The Britten centenary has come and gone, but why leave the shores of Albion so quickly? British music has much more to offer.