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 His status as a “Jewish” figure in English circles superseded his reputation as a German only at the very close of the 19th century.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.

Sir Arthur Bliss, Things to Come, Suite

by Byron Adams

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

Bliss born Aug 2, 1891 in London; died Mar 27, 1975 in London
Things to Come composed in 1934–5 for the film adaptation of H.G. Wells novel
Approximate performance time: 17 minutes
Instruments: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, 1 harp, and strings

In 1933, H.G. Wells finished a “history of the future,” The Shape of Things to Come, in which he predicted global warfare in the mid-twentieth century that would be succeeded by a utopia in which positivistic and scientific values would reign supreme. Despite dissenting voices such as that of Aldous Huxley, who had mocked Wells’s predictions in his novel Brave New World (1932), Wells created a screenplay for a film version of his book entitled Things to Come. Wells was deeply disappointed with the result, however, as the film was a highly adulterated realization of his vision: Wells’ chief contribution to the completed film was the way in which his name was exploited for publicity. The movie, which was directed by Alexander Korda and starred Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson, was released in 1936 to reviews that ranged from tepid to hostile, yet continues to maintain a reputation among a band of cognoscenti as an early example of science fiction transferred to the medium of cinema. In other words, Things to Come has become a cult classic.

Upon its release, critics praised one aspect of the production unreservedly: the score by the British modernist composer Arthur Bliss. In the heady early days of the creation of Things to Come, Wells himself contacted Bliss to supply music for his cinematic vision. Wells later wrote, “The music is a part of the constructive scheme of the film, and the composer, Mr. Arthur Bliss, was practically a collaborator in its production. . . . This Bliss music is not intended to be tacked on; it is part of the design.” Bliss, who had written an essay on film music as early as 1922, responded with alacrity to Wells’ ideas, producing a score that is considered to be one of the finest achievements by a British film composer, music on a level with scores by Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, and William Walton. In a prophetic anticipation of John Williams, Bliss concludes the suite drawn from his music for Things to Come with a broad Elgarian tune that hails Wells’ cloudless, technologically perfect future.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Frank Bridge, Phantasm

by Byron Adams

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

Bridge born Feb 26, 1879 in Brighton, England; died Jan 10, 1941 in London
Phantasm composed in 1932; Premiered in 1934 as part of the BBC “Festival of British Music” broadcast
Approximate performance time: 26 minutes
Instruments: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, strings, and solo piano

The son of a music hall conductor in the seaside town of Brighton, Frank Bridge entered the Royal College of Music in 1896, studying both violin and viola. Bridge was a brilliant student on these instruments, especially the viola, and a superb and accurate conductor as well, trained in the split-second timing needed to lead the orchestra in a music hall, as Bridge had often deputized for his father at the Empire Music Hall. In 1899, Bridge won a scholarship that enabled him to study composition with the redoubtable pedagogue Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford, whose attitude toward his students was volatile, disliked the confident young Bridge, but trained him with a mixture of exasperation and thoroughness.

A respected violist in a number of string quartets active in the drawing rooms of fin-de-siècle London, Bridge concentrated on composing chamber music in a style predicated upon that of Brahms and, especially, Gabriel Fauré. Edward Speyer recalled that Bridge “dominated and guided the various London quartets of the time. . . . He has the conscience of the true artist.” A precocious composer, Bridge won a number of prizes, including the prestigious Cobbett Prize in 1907.

Gradually, however, Bridge’s conscience began to lead him away from this refulgent early style towards what could justly be called an “English expressionism.” While he occasionally used British folk songs and dances in his lighter work, Bridge was no nationalist: his pacifism, born during the First World War, had a marked effect upon the development of his impressionable pupil, Benjamin Britten. During that war, Bridge’s style gradually changed as his expressive range expanded and he studied the music of Arnold Schoenberg and, especially, Alban Berg, with whose aesthetic he felt a deep kinship. Bridge’s Phantasm for piano and orchestra, premiered in 1934 and dedicated to his American patron, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, is a stunning example of his late Modernist style. Cast in one movement and subtitled a “rhapsody”—although anything but “rhapsodic”—Phantasm is Freudian music haunted by wraiths, dreams, and ghosts. Non-tonal and tightly organized, Phantasm is one of Bridge’s towering achievements.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Robert Simpson, Volcano

by Byron Adams

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

Simpson born Mar 2, 1921 in Leamington Spa, England; died Dec 21, 1997 in Tralee, Kerry, Ireland
Volcano composed in 1979
Premiere: October 1979 by the Birmingham School of Music Brass Band under Roy Curran
Approximate performance time: 12 minutes
Instruments: 3 tenor E-flat French horns, 1 soprano cornet, 7 cornets, 1 flugelhorn, 2 B-flat baritone horns, 2 B-flat trombones, 1 bass trombone, 2 B-flat euphoniums, 2 B-flat bass tubas, and percussion

Remarkable in an age buffeted by musical fashion, Robert Simpson had the courage of his conventions and went his own way. Possessed of a blunt wit, Simpson was fearless in criticizing contemporary music: “No one born deaf could be a composer,” he said, “though if it could happen now is the time.” Furthermore, Simpson believed strongly that a composer ought to spread sanity to listeners. By sticking to his beliefs, Simpson proved to be a radical in his rejection of the various modernisms that distracted performers and audiences from the 1950s to the 1980s. Marginalized by the gatekeepers of that period in the British musical establishment, Simpson’s career rested on his probity and astonishing talent. He attracted such a devoted core of listeners and advocates that they founded the Robert Simpson Society—still active in promoting his music—in 1980 while he was still alive, a singular exception among British composers in this regard.

Simpson was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, but did not seek an easy alternative to military service, as he was a member of a mobile surgical unit during the London blitz. During this period, he studied, somewhat incongruously, with the fastidious composer Herbert Howells. Howells encouraged Simpson to take a doctor of music degree from Durham University. Simpson did so, producing his First Symphony as his dissertation in 1951. In that same year, he joined the BBC, becoming one of the most inspired radio producers of the last century. As if his BBC activities were not enough, Simpson produced a steady stream of compositions—eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets—as well as the first study in English of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, which was published in 1952 and revised in 1979.

For all of his interest in composing in the classical forms, Simpson, who was an avid amateur astronomer, was also fascinated with the intersection of natural phenomenon and human psychology. His twelve-minute tone poem, Volcano, originally composed for brass band in 1979, illustrates musically both a volcano erupting and the explosion of a volcanic temperament.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

William Walton, Symphony No. 2

by Byron Adams

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

Walton born Mar 29, 1902 in Oldham, England; died Mar 8, 1983 in Ischia, Italy
Symphony No. 2 composed from 1957–60; premiered Sep 2, 1960 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under John Pritchard
Approximate performance time: 29 minutes
Instruments: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, 1 piano, 1 celesta, 2 harps, and strings

Determined to escape the dreary confines of Oldham, his hometown, William Walton enjoyed a charmed career from 1922, when his scandalous Façade for narrator and small ensemble engendered both controversy and priceless publicity, through his brilliant film score for Olivier’s 1944 film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Plucked from obscurity by the dazzling and wealthy Sitwells—Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell—Walton quickly made a name for himself in British music and abroad: major artists such as Heifetz vied to perform his music and famous conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent championed his scores.

After the Second World War, however, drastic changes in musical fashion rendered his music “old-fashioned” in the eyes of many myopic critics. Walton’s style was pigeonholed and dismissed as “bittersweet” and “nostalgic”: the former enfant terrible was pilloried as an establishment figure. This view was far from accurate, for some of Walton’s most extraordinary achievements, such as the Second Symphony, came in the latter part of his long career. Walton’s early discovery of the elements of his idiom enabled him to assimilate successfully a wide range of disparate and seemingly contradictory influences such as jazz, Stravinsky, Sibelius, and Ravel. Walton’s ability to absorb new technical and orchestral resources never left him and informs the music of the 1950s and 60s.

Walton was a virtuoso composer whose complete technical command is in evidence throughout the Second Symphony, which was commissioned in 1956 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society. (The premiere, which took place on September 2, 1960 at the Edinburgh International Festival, was marred by faulty balances and an uncomprehending conductor.) While not as passionate as his more popular First Symphony, Walton’s second essay in the symphonic genre is a far more refined and completely realized work of art. The score is remarkable for its stylistic consistency, developmental ingenuity, and, above all, its coruscating orchestral brilliance. The music is scored with a precision, surety, and elegance that bear comparison to Ravel and Dukas. Walton’s interest in Schoenberg is proclaimed in the finale, a set of variations on a twelve-tone theme that employs an ingenious adaptation of serial procedures.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.