By Peter Gibbs.
Pre-Great War British and German music, performed at this year’s Proms season, shows something of the true meaning of our culture.
A unique and memorable promenade concert took place on 17th August at the Royal Albert Hall, which presented a sequence of music by composers who served in the First World War – young composers from England, Australia and Germany. England’s George Butterworth, who composed songs based on A.E. Housman’s poetry from A Shropshire Lad, represented the cult of the “lost generation”: Butterworth being a young imperialist, traditionalist, collector of folk-music and enthusiastic Morris-dancer, cut down on the Western Front. His countryman, Ralph Vaughan Williams also served in the conflict, in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but did not lose his life in “the war to end wars” – returning to England, to compose symphonies and film music well into the atomic age.
The concert concluded with his subtle, yet intense Pastoral Symphony – a work which represented a sense of the desolation of the European theatre of war, as much as it did an idealised English rural landscape. From Germany came the 1912 score, Music for Orchestra, by the 28-year-old German composer – virtually unknown to British (and I suspect) German audiences – Rudi Stephan, who died in action against the Russians in 1915; his music suggesting that European romanticism, far from being a spent force, was about to elevated to a new plateau. And also part of the performance was the Australian composer Frederick Kelly’s Elegy for Rupert Brooke – Kelly, again, an almost unknown name; a force in music, cut down in his artistic and physical prime. (Kelly was also an athlete, and something of a dashing hero and society figure in Edwardian Britain.)
In a sort of unplanned symbolism, the evening’s programme was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble which, we hope, will continue to be a British, rather than a foreign orchestra. The Scottish referendum on separation and secession has reminded us just how delicate our national unity has become – such a contrast to the almost unquestioned loyalties of one hundred years ago. The mix of German and Anglo-sphere music also served as a reminder of the authors, Ernst Jünger and Henry Williamson, both of whom were inspired by their war experiences – in Jünger’s case, his Storm of Steel, and in Williamson’s, The Patriot’s Progress. (Undoubtedly, the late Jonathan Bowden, a self-proclaimed “European fundamentalist”, lover of Junger’s writing, and patriot would have attended this Prom.)
The compositions played by the BBC Scottish Orchestra on that summer evening tell us a great deal about ourselves, or at least, about what we, as Britons and Europeans, were as a people, or peoples. Firstly, the music and its inspirations convey a strong dimension of cultural oneness and common experience: a singular sense (in the George Butterworth and Vaughan Williams) of a mysterious Englishness, a voice in the twilight, a voice in the wilderness – a cadence of the nostalgic and melancholic. Secondly, a feeling of energy – perhaps more manifest in the music of Rudi Stephan – is also revealed: a testament to Europe (at the time just before the First World War) as a place of cultural self-belief and high achievement. Wagner, Strauss, Mahler – the great, soaring music of that late-romantic era kindled by younger men such as Stephan – the inheritors of a mighty musical legacy.
Perhaps the programme-planners at the BBC might have included another overlooked composer who met his end in Europe’s industrial-scale slaughter – its “storm of steel”: the Scottish composer, Cecil Coles. Coles entered the Royal College of Music seven years before the outbreak of the First World War. He was influenced by Highland themes and landscape, and a number of years ago at the Proms, the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland performed his Overture, The Comedy of Errors – a bright, energetic piece (preceded by the entire hall and orchestra standing for God Save the Queen). During World War One, the young composer became bandmaster of his regiment (the Victoria Rifles), but he was killed in the last year of the conflict, as he bravely helped to retrieve his injured comrades by dragging them back to the British lines, away from sniper fire which was to claim his life.
As the music worked its magic in the Royal Albert Hall, it was difficult not to mourn – not just the loss of such fine musicians – but the erosion of English and British unity; and our sense of common European cultural identity. Today, Britain stands on the very edge of the abyss: our borders under siege, our country itself fragmenting, as a misplaced Scottish “nationalism” (multiculturalism and mass-immigration lurking beneath its tartan veneer) breaks us from within. And Europe and the European Union – what could have been a high-minded, spiritual communion of nations has descended into its own political correctness; with its members and officers meeting in dull, plate-glass-windowed office blocks, picking over equally dull bureaucratic “laws” and proclamations. Has nothing noble come out of the last hundred years?
Did we all fight and die, just for this?