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?