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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Land of Max and Harry

By Norman Lebrecht / February 25, 2004

English music died in early 1934 and was instantly reborn. In February, Edward Elgar expired. Gustav Holst followed in May, Frederick Delius in June. These three composers had put England on the musical map with a wash of nostalgic orchestral pastoralities, drifting to the astringent. They left many imitators but no outstanding heir.

Elgar’s successor as Master of the King’s Musick was a Welsh waffler, Sir Henry Walford Davies. The foremost next-generation symphonist, Ralph Vaughan Williams, was wrestling in 1934 with his dissonant but ultimately directionless Fourth, which he dedicated to his rival Arnold Bax, whose fifth and sixth symphonies were going down a pan of Sibelian derivation and alcoholic haze. The English musical renaissance had ground to a halt.

Yet, on the very evening of the day that Elgar died, 70 years ago this week, the BBC relayed the first performance of A Boy was Born, a set of variations for unaccompanied voices by Benjamin Britten. The composer was 20 years old, and living with his Mum and Dad in Lowestoft. Before the month was out he had completed the Simple Symphony and was preparing its premiere in Norwich. A month later, Britten’s Phantasy Quartet was played in Florence for the International Society for Contemporary Music, holding its own beside such dazzling submissions as Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, the piano concerto for left hand by Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok’s Rhapsody for violin and orchestra. Seldom has a new composer made a more emphatic entrance.

Britten owed no debt to the pomp and circumstance of the Elgarian past, nor to the Great War anguish of Vaughan Williams and Bax. His music was oblivious to the political turmoil of the 1930s, as it was to Britain’s imperial burden. Although he wrote soundtracks for 25 film documentaries, some of them social commentaries, the music he wrote for the concert hall was abstracted of contemporary relevance, absorbed in itself.

Pacifist and shy of fame, Britten sailed to America with his lover, Peter Pears, early in 1939. The establishment frowned upon his abscondment and scowled when the pair returned in mid-War as flamboyant conscientious objectors. Britten, who never longed to belong, was unbothered by exclusion. Seven weeks after the end of war he achieved with Peter Grimes what no composer had done for two and a half centuries since Purcell: he made an opera that was both intrinsically English and internationally appealing. A fable of alienation that foretold post-war social disintegration, Peter Grimes was promptly staged in Stockholm, Zurich, Basle, Antwerp, Tanglewood, Hamburg, Berlin and Budapest, winding up at the twin pinnacles of opera, La Scala, Milan and the Met in New York. What Elgar had done for the English symphony in 1908, Britten now did for English opera.

English, note well, not British. Ours is a music rooted in language and landscape; it makes no concession to petty nationalisms. Britten formed anEnglish Opera Group pour encourager les autres, and founded a festival at Aldeburgh, where he lived in a setting similar to that of tragic Grimes. These were worthy endeavours that yielded scrawny fruit. Britten inspired little art of lasting value, other than his own. The operas that Berkeley, Williamson, Gardner, Crosse and Musgrave wrote for the EOG lie justly forgotten. The one work of consequence that the company staged provoked, as will be seen, a huffy walkout by Britten and Pears.

There was to be no school of Britten, no factory of English opera. Britten was too thin-skinned to tolerate any circle of friends and associates short of sycophancy, and sycophants make poor composers. When Britten died, in December 1976, English music would have ended again - but for the miracle of 1934.

In the second half of that lowering year, within a penalty kick of one another, there were born two composers who would take English music into modernism and beyond. Harrison Birtwistle opened his eyes in July 1934 onto scrubland near Accrington. Peter Maxwell Davies emerged two months later in more comfortable Mancunian circumstances. Harry and Max, as they became known, were fellow students at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Max produced a trumpet sonata that shattered instrumental convention and several windows. > Harry maintained a gritty, sphinx-like silence until, in 1959, he allowed a dissonant performance of Refrains and Choruses at the genteel Cheltenham festival. Britten and Pears did him the honour in 1967 of walking out on his first opera, Punch and Judy. Max earned his moment of infamy soon after with Eight Songs for a Mad King, a Pinteresque tragedy in which George III,besmeared with excrement, is regaled by caged musicians with snatches of Handel and the Beatles. The two composers jointly formed a performing group called the Pierrot Players, then fell out.

Max dominated the 1970s, writing an eloquent first symphony which the 23 year-old Simon Rattle conducted (the recording was recently issued on CD). Harry overtook him with a concert work, Earth Dances, which amounts to the most seismic inspiration since the Rite of Spring. I remember watching the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra effing and blinding right through its Maida Vale studio premiere in March 1986, but Earth Dances is now a repertoire piece for international orchestras and Birtwistle has pushed out the boundaries ever further with a sequence of operas great and small, from Mask of Orpheus at ENO, to Gawain at Covent Garden, to the forthcoming Io Passion, which is to be premiered, aptly enough, at Britten's Aldeburgh. He became the first composer to be booed by revellers on the Last Night of the Proms. Max, meanwhile, has occupied himself with symphonies (eight in all), concertos (ten) and string quartets (ten, in progress). Some condemn his fertility as repetitive and regressive, but posterity may take a more generous view. These two are now the grand old men of their genre, revered and fondly mocked by two successive generations.

So there you have it: the evolution of English music from the nucleus of a miserable year. Europe rightly recognises 1685, when Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were born, as the cradle of classical music. We need to acknowledge 1934 as the incubator of English music and, in the coming months, to hail the 70th birthdays of Harry and Max with cymbals and rejoicing.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001