LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Little sympathy for British symphonies

By Norman Lebrecht / December 27, 2000

Why are our composers being overlooked?

THE term "English Composer" was for so long an oxymoron that even after a century of high achievement it retains something of the pejorative. Preface it with the adjective "lesser-known", and a mighty wave of mediocrity arises from the musical unconscious - a wave of meadowy pleasanteries, warm-ale songs dressed up as symphonies and contrapuntal correctness masquerading as creative inspiration. Unlike Germany's, ours is not a culture that tolerates derivation.

Two of the English lesser-knowns are about to turn centennial, which is generally the last chance a composer gets to pitch for posterity. Posterity, however, is a flighty old thing and the odds here are fatally stacked against the worthier of the two composers.

Gerald Finzi and Edmund Rubbra were born in 1901 and, though of markedly different backgrounds, struck up a warm friendship. Finzi was raised in London in a long-established Italian-Jewish family of comfortable means; Rubbra was working-class Northampton, sent to work on the railways at 14.

Both slipped easily into the bucolic idiom trademarked by Vaughan Williams, but, where Finzi chewed grass contentedly until his early death in 1956, Rubbra, who had written four quick symphonies, engaged in rigorous self-examination and creative abstinence during the Second World War. In 1948 he converted to Roman Catholicism and composed a fifth symphony that broke free of nostalgic insularity and spoke in broader Brucknerian phrases.

This was no way to court success among the English, who like their symphonies short and ancient. Rubbra wrote 11 before disillusion set in. His work was taken up by Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli and gained ground in the Fifties until the screech of modernism ruled it out of fashion, on more than one count. Rubbra was unfailingly tonal and increasingly occupied with Christian mysticism; his Ninth Symphony amounts to a vision of the Resurrection. At his death in 1986, he left some 140 works, most of which languish unplayed.

It is more than 20 years, his son tells me, since any orchestral music of Rubbra's was performed in London. A symphonic cycle has been recorded for Chandos by Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but Hickox had made himself the champion of many British composers and his advocacy for Rubbra is not entirely convincing. The centennial opportunity has not arrived a moment too soon for Rubbra; however, it looks as if the opportunity has been missed.

Where the list of Finzi performances for the coming year runs to four single-spaced pages, the schedule of intended Rubbra performances can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Birmingham will hear Four Medieval Latin Lyrics on May 23, the composer's birthday, and Hickox with Welsh forces will perform the Fourth Symphony at the Proms and the Tenth at the Barbican. Naxos is bringing out a St John's College disc of choral music. And that, barring some amateur recitals and a pair of string quartets, is just about that.

Finzi, by comparison, has seven performances each of his clarinet and cello concertos between now and September, and seven more of Intimations of Immortality, his celebrated Wordsworth setting. The discrepancy does not, of course, reflect the two composers' relative merits. Much of it can be ascribed to the vagaries of music publishing. Finzi was published by Boosey & Hawkes, the largest classical specialist; most Rubbra scores languish in a catalogue of Lengnick's who, at the last accounting, were a dimly lit subsidiary of a pop publisher, Complete Music. Finzi, moreover, wrote small-scale pieces, while Rubbra wrestled with big ideas. In a soundbite era, Finzi is the more saleable.

Neither is, by any measure, a major composer on the European scale, but Rubbra's music at least struggles to tell us what was going on in his world, whereas Finzi's is rural, retrospective, old before its time. That he should hog the centennial limelight is both unjust and unhelpful, for English music needs its Rubbras more than its Finzis if it is to ascend beyond the broad plateau of Britten's creative conquests.

At the root of the matter is a native suspicion of the symphony, which (as Mahler told Sibelius) "must embrace everything". In this country, we compartmentalise arts away from ideas. Those misguided citizens who write symphonies are made to suffer for their presumption. Malcolm Arnold, 80 this year, hardly gets a hearing. Benjamin Frankel, Havergal Brian, Alan Rawsthorne - yea, unto Peter Maxwell Davies, can go whistle for a symphonic performance. Even VW had to wait to the end of the century for a full symphonic cycle.

It is a form of self-depreciation that no other nation would condone. The British state and the BBC provide us with a dozen symphony orchestras. Their first priority should be to play symphonies, some of them British.

10 July 1999: The elusive sound of Britishness
23 November 1996: None stranger than Grainger

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999