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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Put out more flags for English music

By Norman Lebrecht / April 26, 2006

No sooner do the daffodils give way to tulips and St George's Day flashes by on April 24 than a twittering is heard up and down the land in praise of English music and, by way of counterpoint, in outrage at all those critics and taste-makers who, for reasons obtuse and treasonable, refuse to acknowledge the glory of all things English.

This week, the patriots won an unexpected bonus ö a whole day on BBC Radio 3, tea-in-bed to nightcap, when the only sound on air was by Englishmen good and true, most of whom have not graced a major concert bill in years. The music of Roger Quilter, John Ireland, Herbert Howells and others yet more arcane murmured temperately through the day until, in the gloaming, the weary ear craved a guttural sound, something to muddy up all that green and pleasant moderation and inject a dose of rigour, technical and intellectual, to the meanderings of middle-roaders.

Writing as one who has banged the drum for many an unjustly neglected composer, I despaired not just of the innocuous emanations on air but of the underlying premise that English music warrants such attention. Taken singly, like malt whisky and in prudent doses, there is genius to be found in the national opus. But laid end to end in any kind of cycle, a triple weakness is exposed: its chauvinism, its amateurishness and its bumbling inconsistency.

The music of England flowered first in the Tudor era when a new Anglican liturgy demanded thumping good tunes and the theatre of Shakespeare sparked musical opportunities. The art reached its apotheosis a century later in the short-lived Henry Purcell, only to be crushed by the immigrant George Frideric Handel whose fertility was unsurpassable. A hundred and fifty years passed before a native symphony, Elgar's first, penetrated the continental canon.

In its doldrums, 'English' music laid claim to the Irishmen Michael Balfe, Hamilton Harty and Charles Villiers Stanford, the Scotsman Hamish MacCunn and the Welsh-blooded Ralph Vaughan Williams. National peculiarities were ethnically cleansed in the name of greater Englishness, giving cross-border offence and constricting the creative potential.

The narrowness of Englishness excluded Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was half-African, and the half-Indian Essex lad Kaikhosru Sorabji, along with such influential migrants as the Dutchman Bernard van Dieren and the Russian, Nikolay Medtner. The 1930s influx of Hitler refugees faced hostility from establishment racists like Quilter and permanent exclusion from the mainstream. The names of Egon Wellesz, Hans Gal, Franz Reizenstein, Roberto Gerhard, Matyas Seiber and Berthold Goldschmidt are notably absent from recent Daily Telegraph editorials proclaiming the untapped excellence of English music.

The newcomers' professional competence and experience clashed with the insularity and inferior training of English composers whose scores contained fundamental errors of instrumentation and veered from flights of inspiration to trudges of mediocrity. In English music, one melody was enough to make a reputation. Elgar, Walton and Bax wrote symphonies that trailed off after a movement or two. Vaughan Williams never got to grips with concerto form and the orchestral works of Delius found expression chiefly in the fervency of Thomas Beecham and Vernon Handley, most other conductors giving them up as mush.

Even Benjamin Britten suffered crises of confidence and identity. After a triumphant decade that began with the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and ended with The Turn of the Screw, Britten floundered for style and ideas until he alighted, in Japan, on the Noh theatre, whose modes he applied to a pair of static church parables. It took a Shakespeare commission, A Midsummer Night's Dream, to bring Britten back to basics and English music onto a plane of global recognition.

The crippling disability of the opus is its lack of stability, both individually and across the board. Many conductors, exhilarated by The Planets, are put off by the next Gustav Holst score they read. It is no coincidence that the nine symphonies of Vaughan Williams have only ever been performed once as a cycle ö by Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the mid-Nineties ö for the curate's egg, excellent as it is in parts, is not recommended to be consumed whole.

For the world to embrace English music, it needs to be weeded of eccentricities and arrayed as a competitive phalanx of work. The third and fifth symphonies of Vaughan Williams will hold their own against any of the epoch. The suites of Delius are mostly beguiling. The clarinet and cello concertos of Gerald Finzi should be heard widely, along with Malcolm Arnold's horn concertos and Benjamin Frankel's work for viola. Some of the best British pieces were written in obscurity by colonial civil servants like John Foulds, whose orientalist suites have been championed in Birmingham by Sakari Oramo, or by humble music teachers like Bernard Stevens, whose second symphony found an unlikely fan in Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.

Other raptures are to be found at random on record - Fishing by Moonlight by Robin Milford, out on Hyperion, or a lost concerto revived by Peter Donohoe on Naxos by the Belfast composer Howard Ferguson whose violin sonata was much played by Heifetz. There is a musical heart to the English and it beats farther and wider than is generally accredited.

As for the masterpieces, few as they are, they have received little of the scholarly attention that has restored to pristine authenticity the published scores of symphonies by Beethoven, Mahler and the rest. The tendency has been to leave the English stuff alone for fear it might disintegrate under scrutiny.

An exception is the Elgar violin concerto, which has just appeared in what purports to be the original version, the one that Elgar signed off before the wonder-fiddler Fritz Kreisler got his hands on the solo part. While composing the concerto Elgar, himself a violinist, consulted William H. Reed, workaday leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Reed's plain text, pre-Kreisler, has come to light. It contains some differences in ascending and descending scales and a spartan absence of vibrato, which was Kreisler's trademark effect.

The result, lyrically played by Philippe Graffin and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley on the Avie label, is understated in a recognisably English way. It is all the more appealing for confirming the work's essential Englishness ö an Englishness that abjures flashy tricks and jingoistic bombast in favour of closely reasoned discourse and the quiet confidence of genius.

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



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