Music of the Four Countries

British music evokes the landscapes and character of our country. Peter Gibbs introduces the works of some lesser-known composers.



In his collection of essays, entitled The Pleasures of the Past, the historian, Professor David Cannadine, observed that 1934 was a bumper year for the deaths of famous British composers. Elgar and Holst – two of our most outstanding musicians, and leading figures in the English musical renascence – both departed this life. So too did Frederick Delius, the Bradford-born composer of German ancestry whose remarkable career took him to Florida, Norway, Paris, and to the village of Grez-sur-Loing in rural France, where he eventually succumbed to the illness which had gradually consumed him since 1918. Elgar, Holst, Delius: their names and most of their works are well known, but they have tended to overshadow a number of other very fine composers whose reputations are long overdue for a revival.

Delius was a great worshipper of Nature, and in his orchestral work North Country Sketches he came close to distilling the essence of a region and its landscape through the seasons. This work dates from the months immediately preceding the First World War – and it is poignant to think of the many “pals” from Northern England who volunteered at the outset of the conflict, and died in the trenches of France and Belgium. One composer whose life ended in the mud and horror of the Western Front was Ernest Farrar, a name unfamiliar even to many followers of classical music. But Farrar was a man of considerable talent, and had he lived beyond the age of 33, might well have emerged as a new Delius or Vaughan Williams. His three-movement English Pastoral Impressions suggest a timeless landscape; the sort of rural scene which John Masefield evoked in his poem, August 1914:

‘An endless quiet valley reaches out

Past the blue hills into the evening sky;

Over the stubble, cawing, goes a rout

Of rooks from harvest, flagging as they fly.’

Farrar was born in Lewisham in 1885, in those days very much part of Kent, but now subsumed into the sprawl and depressing urban anonymity of Greater London. The novelist and Nature-writer, Henry Williamson, wrote about the village of Lewisham and the River Ravensbourne which ran through it. Whatever English pastoral impressions might have existed in those days, have long since gone. Yet in the form of Farrar’s music, a remnant of those halcyon days is still there for this and future generations.

Farrar’s death occurred in the final year of the war, a symbolic event in many ways; as if the England of hearth and home, herb and hymn, had itself been sacrificed on the barbed wire entanglements of No Man’s Land.

A world away from the ravaged Europe of the Great War was the age of Victorian high-romanticism, and it fell to a Scottish composer, Hamish MacCunn, to create a musical world of drama and legend – MacCunn being, perhaps, the Sir Walter Scott of orchestral works and opera. MacCunn was born in 1868, and his best-known work is the Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: a piece of great melody, atmosphere and power. Just like Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, MacCunn’s scene-painting has an immediate fresh-air, open-air quality; with the drama and overwhelming presence of majestic natural forces flowing through his rich score. Scottish moorland, mountains, spate rivers, and shifting weather conditions are all felt in the overture, with a sense of Scottish clans, border raids, blood feuds and ancient folklore never far away.

Similar themes, but this time in the landscape of the island of Ireland, can be enjoyed in the Irish Symphony and tone-poems, With the Wild Geese and The Children of Lir by Sir Hamilton Harty, a charismatic conductor and composer, born in County Down in 1879. Again, the name – Hamilton Harty – is unfamiliar to modern concert audiences, although recordings by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, and the Ulster Orchestra, have at least maintained his presence on CD. The muscular, immediately impressive styles of Berlioz or Tchaikovsky come to mind in the Irish composer’s assertive, “call-to-arms”, yet occasionally dreamy music. The work – With the Wild Geese – is intriguing: Harty’s wild spirits being the Irish soldiers who fought with the French at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, but whose spirits returned to the skies and lands of Ireland in the form of a flock of birds.

Celtic influences are never far away in the music of the Cambrian composer, Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008), although Hoddinott’s output is very much in the late-20th-century style: tonality mixing with atonality, and the orchestra creating an altogether more abstract experience, especially in one of his most monumental creations – The Sun, The Great Luminary of the Universe. Yet Hoddinott was not afraid of lighter, more immediately accessible forms, and in his sets of Welsh Dances (very similar in style to the English, Cornish and Scottish dances of Malcolm Arnold) the listener is led into a breezy, folk-like, and sometimes deeply nostalgic world. Hoddinott also composed a set of Investiture Dances for the Prince of Wales – the slow movement of which seems to take us into a strange, craggy region of mountains, Neolithic stones, and skies ruled by birds of prey.

In 1968, the Scottish National Orchestra and its conductor, Sir Alexander Gibson, produced a record for EMI, with the title – Music of the Four Countries. MacCunn and Hamilton Harty were both included in the collection, alongside the operatic overture, The Wreckers, by that indomitable English lady-Wagnerian and Suffragette, Dame Ethel Smyth, and the Welsh Rhapsody (ending in Men of Harlech) by Sir Edward German. Happily, the recording – which still sounds fresh and bright – is still available in CD format, and it is a firm recommendation to anyone who enjoys great orchestral music. Yet it is depressing to consider that apart from specialist festivals and Radio 3 broadcasts, very little of our musical heritage is known. How many school music departments feature the works of MacCunn or Farrar on their curriculum; and how often do we come across general television programmes about the lives and works of our composers?

Music, poetry, literature, painting, folk-music: all are essential elements of our national culture and collective identity, but it seems as though are television screens and airwaves are increasingly given over to an ooze of crude entertainment and aggressive, commercialised, sometimes thuggish sport. If we are to rescue Britain from this atmosphere of decline and uncouthness, we must rediscover our artistic and musical heritage. In a world of uncertainty and globalisation, the presence in our lives, once again, of Britain’s cultural achievements will enable us to withstand the very pressures that threaten to untie the threads of community and continuity. What better way to celebrate our Britishness than with the music of the four countries?


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  1. Thanks for this erudite and thoughtful piece. It is indeed a misfortune that our young people are mostly ignorant of their rich musical heritage and spend their time absorbing commercial pap, derived from the folk music of others.

  2. You omitted Rap. Once the preserve of Manhattan or Detroit street culture, now popular with our brainwashed youth.

  3. I recall that a medley of songs from each of the four countries used to be played when Radio 4 started up in the mornings.

    This introduction to the day’s broadcasting was abolished, I have no doubt because it was thought by the Cultural Marxist BBC to be inappropriate for the new, multicultural, multiracial Britain..

  4. No doubt it was space limitations in this interesting review of the heart of ‘British’ music that gave only a passing reference to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although a great collector of English Folk music his parentage was of Welsh origin. He was inspired by A.E.Houseman’s poem “On Wenlock Edge” which, for my taste, gave us a musical composition of quintessential Englishness.

    On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble.
    His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves.
    The gale, it plies the sapling’s double.

    I also found it a pity that mention was not made of George Butterworth. He was also inspired by the poet A.E. Houseman and composed ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and several other song settings. He is probably best known for his orchestral idyll ‘The Banks of Green Willow.’ This was in his short life when having first won the Military Cross he died in the WW1 battle of the Somme aged 31.

    Contrast George Butterworth and his music with Benjamin Britten – fortunately not included in this four nations music review. Perhaps I am prejudiced, not for his homosexuality but in contrast to Butterworth he decided to move to safety in America in 1939 but returned in 1942 when it looked likely that Germany would lose.
    His early work, particularly his opera Peter Grimes, certainly echoed strains of folk music. He later turned towards atonalism (discordant harmonics) in the manner of Schoenberg and Berg. This reminds me of the immortal words of Sir Thomas Beecham, founder of the proms, who when asked what he thought of Schoenberg’s music replied: “I believe I trod in some on my way here this evening”.

  5. Thank you for bringing my attention to these almost forgotten British composers. Even as a life long lover of classical music I had never heard of Ernest Farrar or any of the others for that matter. The British media seems to be very selective in which composers are promoted on radio and TV, and the shops are very well stocked with the music of every non-British composer you can name. I will now be seeking to acquire CD’s of these British composers music as soon as I can.

  6. Having in the past never being into folk or classical music it has to be said as you age your taste of music broadens somewhat. I now find myself listening to the likes of Classic FM and you know what “it aint arf bad”. By coincidence l was recently casting my mind back to some of the characters l have met on the Nationalist scene as it is 41 years since l picked up a copy of” Britain First” the old NF newspaper and l began this lifelong journey anyway l digress, my mind was cast back to the 1979 general election and one of the candidates l was helping, l have to admit we lost contact years ago and so l did as you do these days, googled his details. lo and behold his (known) history appeared and it reminded me of the talent we had in the Movement in the early days. The gentleman concerned (no name for obvious reasons) is now an internationally known musical composer has had his works played at the Royal Albert Hall and his music is available to purchase on I tunes! Well done that man. If only we had managed the talent available what a strong position we would be in today.

  7. Why not mention quintessentially English light music writers such as Ronald Binge (the Watermill, Sailing By, Elizabethan Serenade).

  8. Thank you, everyone, for the interesting comments – Music of the Four Countries seemed to go down well. All the items mentioned are on CD. Yes, would love to have mentioned more about Vaughan Williams, but I thought that it might be better to concentrate on all the lesser-known people – such as Farrar, whose music has a rare beauty and a very deep Englishness. (Farrar and Butterworth actually go very well together.) I understand John’s comments about Britten, but to be fair to the composer, he did go to Canada and the U.S quite a long time before war was declared. And although pacifism isn’t my philosophy, Britten did say that his whole life had been devoted to acts of creation, and that he could not – physically or mentally – will himself to acts of destruction or killing. Once back in England (in 1942), he gave many performances and recitals, which undoubtedly helped to raise the spirits of the concertgoing public, which must have included many servicemen and women. Post-war, Britten wrote works for the Royal Family, and the Queen opened his concert-hall. Britten also wrote an arrangement of the National Anthem, and a Coronation opera, Gloriana. He was not a “nationalist” composer, but his Englishness was derived from a love of the countryside, of ancient churches, and of ancestral English musical forms – the Elizabethans, Purcell etc.

    Tim – glad you have fond memories of the old BBC Radio 4 medley of national airs, which many listeners fought to preserve. Did you know that the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Gavin Sutherland recorded the R4 theme on CD? The disc also contained the wonderful Sailing By, by Ronald Binge. Binge also wrote a pastoral impression, entitled The Watermill, and an Elizabethan Serenade.

  9. British music and or the worship of these stuffed articles that are called composers is without a doubt part of the reason for the decline of the West.

    As for Benjamin Britten, if Mr Britten could have written a few operas whose central themes did not concern beautiful youths being persecuted by older men then maybe we could all have time for him.
    As it is he is part of the disastrous three part post war legacy of British superiority over all those dastardly foreigners.

    Benjamin Britten for Opera, what more can one say. Henry Moore for sculpting, he was once classified as the British ‘Michelangelo’, (he was!) And of course the wooden ballet doll, Dame Margot Fonteyn. There are other guilty persons.

    We are paying for the sins of the fifties and rightly so, but we must have paid back the balance and interest by now, so Nationalism can go on ahead into those sunlit uplands unencumbered.

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