Saturday, 31 October 2009

The English Nationalist School of Music

From Humphrey Searle and Robert Layton, Twentieth Century Composers: Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherland (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1972)

Nationalism in music was a product of the nineteenth century. Its origins were partly political; in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, for instance, native composers revolted against the Germanic culture imported by the occupying Austrians. They wished to create a national music of their own, based on their folk-songs and using their own language. The melodies and rhythms of native folk-songs influenced even the symphonic works of Smetana and Dvorak in Czechoslovakia, and even a cosmopolitan composer like Liszt was very much affected by the music of his native Hungary. In other countries, too, music began to grow more nationalistic in revolt against the cosmopolitan culture which usually flourished at the courts; thus in Russia the nationalist school under Balakirev wrote Russian music based on Russian and even Caucasian folk-songs in order to replace the French and Italian influences in music favoured by the Imperial Court. Similarly, in Norway a nationalist school grew up with Grieg at its head which spoke in a different voice from the German music which was then prevalent. In England where … German influences were dominant throughout the nineteenth century, the nationalist tide did not begin to flow until the beginning of the twentieth century, and the leading figures in this movement were


two very dissimilar composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, who nevertheless shared common aims.

Both Vaughan Williams and Holst were certain that it was English folk-song which had liberated music in England from the German tradition and given it a voice of its own. Vaughan Williams once wrote: ‘My intercourse with Cecil Sharp (the pioneer collector of British folk-songs) crystallised and confirmed what I already vaguely felt about folksong and its relationship to the composer’s art. With him you had to be either pro-folk-song or anti-folk-song, and I came down heavily on the folk-song side’. This was the basis of his famous article, published in 1912; ‘Who wants the British composer?’ And Imogen Holst declared of her father: ‘The other important event (of 1905) was the revival of folk-song. Folk-songs finally brushed all trace of Wagner from his work. He had the deepest admiration for Cecil Sharp and felt that when the time came for the English musical history of the twentieth century to be written, Cecil Sharp’s name would stand out above all others’. Frank Howes, in his book The English Musical Renaissance, points out that ‘other influences besides folk-song operated in the formation of both men’s respective styles. In the case of Vaughan Williams, one was the hymn tunes he examined for his edition of the English hymnal. In that of Holst it was Weelkes and Purcell, which he made his various choirs sing. Both were touched by the new interest in plainsong, and both found in Bach an antidote to too much Beethoven and Wagner’. Both were interested in writing for amateurs, including choral societies and brass bands, and in musical education - they possessed a social as well as an artistic conscience.

Ralph Vaughan Williams came of mixed Welsh and English blood. His father was born into a legal family from Wales; his grandfather was a judge who settled with his family at Leith Hill, near Dorking. The house next door belonged to the Wedgwood family, descendants of the famous potter, who had also intermarried with the Darwins


(Charles Darwin was Vaughan Williams’s great uncle). The two households soon developed a close friendship, and in 1868 Arthur Vaughan Williams married Margaret Wedgwood. Arthur was a clergyman, and had the living of Down Ampney in Gloucestershire. He had three children; Ralph, the third, was born at Down Ampney on 12 October 1872. Arthur died only two and a half years later and Margaret brought her family back to her parents’ house in Leith Hill. Here Vaughan Williams was brought up and was given music lessons by his aunt. He learnt first the piano and then the violin. He went to Charterhouse in 1887 where he played the viola in the school orchestra and sang in the school choir. In the summer of 1890 he was able to go to Munich to hear Wagner’s operas for the first time. In the same year he entered the Royal College of Music, where he remained for two years, and in 1892 went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.

At Cambridge his official subject was history, but he continued his lessons at the Royal College of Music. During this period he met a number of men with whom he formed lifelong friendships: the philosopher G. E. Moore, the historian G. M. Trevelyan and H. P. Allen, later Sir Hugh Allen, director of the Royal College of Music.

Although an allowance from his family made it unnecessary for him to earn his living, he took an organist’s post at Lambeth in London. He had become engaged to Adeline Fisher; they were married in October 1897 and went to Berlin. Here Vaughan Williams studied with Max Bruch, returning in April of the following year to London and his organist’s position in Lambeth, which left him time to write music of his own, including a setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Some of his song settings, among them Linden Lea, which was to become well-known, stem from this period. Though he had not yet achieved a really mature style in these, it was clear that he was reacting against German influences, which he found actually repugnant; apart from folk song, the chief influence on his music was


that of the Elizabethan composers, Purcell and even mediaeval music at times. He also admired Parry for his mastery of choral technique. It was at this period that he began to think about composing a large choral work with the sea as its subject. This was eventually to become the Sea Symphony.

It was a period when great interest was shown in collecting folk music, and Bartók and Kodály were beginning their collections of Hungarian folk-songs. 1903 saw the beginning of Vaughan Williams’s collection of English folksongs, in which he collaborated with Cecil Sharp.

In 1905 he began the first of his mature works, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem Toward the Unknown Region. He still felt that he was not sufficiently equipped as a composer, and he travelled to Paris to study with Ravel. Ravel helped him to refine his style, concentrating on lessons in orchestration. Vaughan Williams wrote of this experience: ‘As far as I know my own faults he hit them all exactly and is telling me to do exactly what I half felt in my mind I ought to do’. Ravel took a keen interest in the English composer, and the two remained friends for many years.

The time spent with Ravel must have given Vaughan Williams the confidence he needed to complete larger, orchestral works. The Sea Symphony was first performed at the Leeds Festival in October 1910, and made a tremendous impression. It is a setting for soloists, chorus and orchestra of several poems about the sea by Walt Whitman, in four movements resembling those of the classical symphony, though the form of each movement is often dictated by the structure of the words. It is a powerful work which also contains many beautiful lyrical moments, though the finale is perhaps too extended to balance the rest. It was then that Vaughan Williams met Isadora Duncan and began work on a choral ballet based on The Bacchae for her. And always much concerned with the richness of English folk culture, he gave a lecture early in 1912 in which he set forward his ideas on English folk music: ‘The evolution of the English


folk-song by itself has ceased but its spirit can continue to grow and flourish at the hand of our native composers ... we have made the mistake in England of trying to take over “ready-made” a foreign culture, a culture which is the result of generations of patient development, and of attempting to fit on to it our own incompatible conditions. This is merely to reap where we have not sown and the result must be failure’.

His London Symphony was first performed on 27 March 1914 in a concert of modem orchestral music conducted by Geoffrey Toye at the Queen’s Hall. ‘A better title’, wrote Vaughan Williams, ‘would perhaps be Symphony by a Londoner, that is to say, the life of London (including possibly its various sights and sounds) has suggested to the composer an attempt at musical expression, but it would be no help to the hearer to describe these in words’. And in fact the music does contain various London sounds such as the Westminster chimes, a theme derived from the street-cry ‘sweet lavender’, the sound of a mouth-organ and the jingle of hansom bells; but these are all worked into a true symphonic structure in four movements, and only appear incidentally. Although the piece enjoyed great success, the composer was unable to find an English publisher, so he sent his only score to Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig.

As soon as war broke out, Vaughan Williams enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, although he was over forty. In June 1916 his unit left for France, where they were stationed at Ĕcoives. It was here that the ideas for A Pastoral Symphony had their origin; the long trumpet cadenza in the second movement owed its inspiration to a bugler who used to practise in the evening. In the autumn the unit embarked for Salonika; Vaughan Williams remained with it till early 1917, when someone in authority arranged for him to be sent back to England to train for a commission. He said: ‘My only regret at leaving is that I shall cease to be a man and become an officer’.

Peace brought with it a new period of success. On re-


turning to London, he was invited to teach at the Royal College of Music. He was made an honorary Doctor of Music at Oxford, and his Sea Symphony was performed on that occasion in celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Sheldonian Theatre. The unaccompanied Mass in G Minor belongs to that period. Of the latter he said: ‘There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass’.

During the next six years he completed many works and was working on his opera based on Falstaff, Sir John in Love. In 1929 he wrote a Fantasia for cello and orchestra for Pablo Casals, as well as a concerto for two violins. By now Vaughan Williams’s mature style had been fully developed. One could describe it as a mixture of modal harmonies and melodies derived from folk song with poly tonal counterpoint and a fondness for moving in block chords. This style was characteristic of him for the rest of his life, though certain of his later works show a rather more austere character.

As early as 1927 he had begun work on the ballet Job. The scenario had been provided by Geoffrey Keynes, and the work had originally been intended for Diaghilev who, however, thought the idea ‘too English’, as it was based on Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job. With no immediate prospects of a stage production Vaughan Williams designed the work as an orchestral suite, in somewhat expanded form, for the Norwich Festival. Meanwhile, however, the Camargo Society had become interested in it after Ninette de Valois and Lilian Baylis had seen the model sets and designs, and the ballet was first performed by the Camargo Society in July 1931 at the Cambridge Theatre.

In the winter of 1931-2 Vaughan Williams began a new symphony, his fourth. It was first performed on 10 April 1935 by Adrian Boult and the BBC Orchestra; it was a more powerful and violent work than anything he had written before, and remains one of his most original pieces. It is very much more chromatic and dissonant than his usual pastoral style and has a mood of bitterness which is


absent from most of his other works. […]

Shortly after the first performance he was offered the Order of Merit; although he had previously refused all honours, he was prepared to accept this. During the summer he was engaged on three major works, the Five Tudor Portraits for chorus and orchestra to texts by John Skelton, the fifteenth-century poet, a comic opera The Poisoned Kiss, and another choral work, Dona Nobis Pacem. The text of this last work was a setting of three poems by Walt Whitman, and this certainly was a clear presentiment of the coming world war. […]

About this time he received some suggestions for ballet scenarios, one based on Spenser’s Epithalamion from Ursula Wood. After a long correspondence they met for the first time in early 1938. They soon became friends, and she was in fact later to become his second wife.


[…] In 1940 Vaughan Williams undertook composing for a new medium, films. At the suggestion of his former pupil, Muir Mathieson, Director of Music at London Films, he wrote the music for his first film, The Forty-Ninth Parallel. This was shown with great success in 1941, and as a result he was asked to write music for two further films, Coastal Command and The People’s Land.

From this time dates a long and interesting letter to a friend who had sought advice on a possible musical career for his son. This letter, contained in Ursula Vaughan Williams’s biography of her husband, gave the advice that a young composer should take part in as much practical music-making as possible, study the great masters, and work at home, going abroad only when mature. Vaughan Williams, always reacting against any form of pomposity, calmly answered Walford Davies, who said that he had written his Solemn Melody on his knees, ‘I write my music on my bottom’.

The fifth symphony, more pastoral in style than its predecessor, had been completed and Vaughan Williams con-


ducted its first performance at a Promenade Concert on 24 June 1943.

Advanced age did not diminish the composer’s energies. In 1944 he provided incidental music for Richard II for the BBC, and wrote an oboe concerto for Leon Goossens. After the war ended, he began his sixth symphony. Early in 1948 its first performance was given at a Royal Philharmonic concert; like the fourth symphony, it is a powerful and dramatic work, and many people felt that it was not only inspired by the war, but also that the quiet and sinister last movement represented earth after total destruction by atomic bombs. Vaughan Williams, however, said that the last movement was based on Prospero’s speech from The Tempest: ‘The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself ... shall dissolve and ... leave not a wrack behind’.

In May 1951 Adeline died. After her death, Vaughan Williams asked Ursula Wood to help him with his domestic affairs. In the summer of 1952 they spent a holiday in France together. Early the next year they married.

Though Vaughan Williams was close to eighty, his creative energies did not flag; he wrote a Romance for harmonica and orchestra for Larry Adler, and a seventh symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica, partly based on his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic. In the summer of 1955, after a holiday in Greece, he gave a lecture in Cork, in which he attempted to prove that almost all the good Irish (not Gaelic) folk-songs were really derived from England; his audience was naturally somewhat outraged. The eighth symphony, on which Vaughan Williams had been working for some time, had its first performance at Manchester under Barbirolli in May 1956; the score is notable for its inclusion of a number of tuned gongs. He had already started on a ninth symphony, and continued to work on it while on a summer holiday in Majorca. In 1957, while on holiday in Austria, he heard a Hugel horn for the first time and decided to incorporate it in his new ninth symphony. He lived


through a major operation, and his eighty-fifth birthday, in October, was celebrated with a concert of his works at the Festival Hall.

After a short holiday in Dorset in 1958 Vaughan Williams returned to London, and here, on 26 August 1958, he died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis.

By basing his melodic and harmonic style on English folksong, Vaughan Williams was able to free English music from German influences; certain traces of a French style appeared instead, however, especially in his more lyrical works such as the Pastoral and fifth symphonies. […]

Vaughan Williams’s principal collaborator in the English folk-song school was Gustav Holst, born at Cheltenham on 21 September 1874. His great-grandfather was a Swedish musician who taught the harp to the Imperial Family at St Petersburg and left Russia with his wife and his small son early in the nineteenth century because of his political views. Later the son settled in Cheltenham. Both Holst’s grandfather and father were musicians. His mother was English, and died when Holst was only eight. He was looked after by his father’s sister, Nina, who was a keen musician.

Holst started early to play both violin and piano, and at the age of thirteen he had set the poem Horatius for chorus and orchestra. Later, when he was seventeen, he was given some counterpoint training at Oxford. Having tried unsuccessfully to win scholarships at various London colleges of music, he returned to Cheltenham, where he obtained an organist’s job at a village in the Cotswolds. He was given the conductorship of a local choral society, and wrote an operetta, Lansdowne Castle, which was produced in 1893 in Cheltenham with great success. As a result, his father borrowed a hundred pounds from one of his relations and sent Holst to the Royal College of Music.


[…] In the autumn of 1895, just after his twenty-first birthday, he met Vaughan Williams for the first time; they soon became friends and got into the habit of playing each other their works. Holst was writing an opera called The Revoke. He became interested in socialism and ran the Hammersmith Socialist Club, attending Bernard Shaw’s lectures at Kelmscott House.

In 1897 he was asked to conduct the Socialist Choir, and there he met his future wife, Isobel Harrison, who sang in the choir as a soprano. He earned a living as organist in several churches in London, and continued to play the trombone in various theatre orchestras. In the autumn of 1898, however, the Carl Rosa Opera company offered him an appointment as first trombone and repetiteur. […]


Holst married Isobel Harrison in the summer of 1902, and coming into a small legacy on the death of his father, he and his wife were at last able to afford a honeymoon: in the spring of 1903 they went to Berlin.

On returning to England, Holst decided to give up trombone playing and to devote his life to composition. His first efforts were a good many songs, invariably rejected by publishers. But he was soon able to begin his career as a teacher and in 1905 was appointed Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, a post which he held until his death. He began to be interested in English folk-song and wrote his Country Song and Marching Song for orchestra, as well as sketching his Somerset Rhapsody. The influence of folk-song in these early works is fairly slight though they do contain some modal elements. […]


[…] In the summer of 1913 the new music wing at St Paul’s was opened, and Holst was given a large sound-proof room to work in. Working mostly on Sundays, he wrote the St Paul’s Suite for the school orchestra as a token of his gratitude. His earlier interest in Hinduism gradually gave way to one in astrology, and this became the point of departure for his new work, The Planets. He had just finished the sketch of Mars, the bringer of war, when war in fact broke out, in 1914; Holst at once tried to enlist, but was turned down because of his neuritis and weak sight.

The Planets is a large-scale suite for full orchestra which contains a great variety of styles, ranging from the savagery of Mars, the delicacy of Venus, the scherzo-like character of Mercury and the mysticism of Uranus to the remoteness of Neptune. This variety however does not mean that the composer’s personality is lost: there is always an astringency and power in his handling of his material. The Planets has remained Holst’s best-known work.

In the summer of 1917 he set the Hymn of Jesus, from the Apocrypha, and for this purpose he taught himself Greek so as to be able to understand the original. Long wanting to take a more active part in war work, he was at last offered the job of musical organizer to the YMCA among the troops in the Near East.

Returning from the Near East and back at St Paul’s, he began setting Walt Whitman’s Ode to Death for chorus and orchestra, struggling at the same time to write the libretto of his opera The Perfect Fool. Meanwhile The Hymn of Jesus had been published in the Carnegie Collection of British Music, and Holst conducted its first public performance at the Queen’s Hall in March 1920. This had an overwhelming reception - Holst was becoming successful at last. But Holst was never very good at public relations and simply did not know how to deal with press photographers or


journalists, as well as consistently refusing to accept any honours, degrees or titles.

[...]. Now living alone at Thaxted, looked after by a manservant, he wrote his Choral Symphony, settings of poems by Keats. Admittedly it is difficult to make a setting of the Ode on a Grecian Urn which can add much to the poetry of the words, and the last movement, Bards of passion and of


mirths is rather on the long side, but the first movement’s Bacchanal in 7/8 time and the Scherzo, Fancy and Folly’s Song are both delightful and exciting, and it seems a pity that this work is performed so rarely nowadays.

About the same time he began a new short opera At the Boar’s Head, an interlude based on the Falstaff scenes from Henry V; it was built to a great extent on Morris and country dance tunes which happened to fit Shakespeare’s words.

[…] Holst was a close friend of Robert Bridges and Thomas Hardy, and was now inspired by the latter’s Return of the Native to write an orchestral piece, Egdon Heath, one of his most interesting and remarkable works. The music catches the austere and remote quality of Hardy’s description of the scene, and a good deal of it is more experimental harmonically than anything Holst had written before - so much so that listeners to its first performance failed to understand it, and its true stature has only been appreciated in recent years.

During the summer he was unwell and at the end of the year he decided to stop work and have three months’ holiday in Italy. On returning to England he was as active as ever. In 1930 he finished a Concerto for Two Violins for the sisters Jelly d’Aranyi and Adila Fachiri. The concerto was played at a Philharmonic concert at the Queen’s Hall in April, and on the same occasion Holst was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. He was working on his Choral Fantasia, in homage to Robert Bridges, as well as on Hammersmith, a Prelude and Scherzo originally commissioned by the BBC Military Band, and afterwards rewritten for orchestra. His sixth and last opera, The Tale of the Wandering Scholar, with a libretto by


Clifford Bax, was written in 1930.

[…] In May 1934 he was operated on; the operation was successful but his heart could not stand the strain, and he died on 25 May.

Holst was a composer of a remarkably original turn of mind, and he absorbed many influences. English folk-song was by no means the only one, and to some extent he was an eclectic. He made a notable contribution to English music although this is only just beginning to be appreciated today. In many ways he was in advance of his time, and the austerity of many of his works is more in keeping with modern music than with the somewhat lusher and more romantic style of his contemporaries.

Three other English composers of this generation deserve to be mentioned; although they were not so directly affected by English folk-song as Vaughan Williams and Holst, they definitely represent a nationalist school in that they wished to eradicate German influences from English music, however much they admired the German classics themselves.


The eldest of these was Frank Bridge (1879-1941), whose contribution was mainly in the field of chamber music, although he also wrote a small number of orchestral works. Beginning as a romantic, his style became increasingly ‘modern’ during the 1930s, especially in such works as his Divertimenti for wind quartet and his later chamber music, which show an experimental use of harmony. He is also remembered for his teaching of Benjamin Britten.

John Ireland (1879-1962) is also chiefly remembered for his chamber music and songs, though he wrote an important piano concerto which still remains in the repertoire. His other works show a genuinely individual gift, and his settings of the poems of Hardy and Housman are extremely subtle. He had an extraordinary ability to reproduce the atmosphere of a poem in music by apparently simple means: he did not aim at bold effects, but his settings show a far more real understanding of his chosen poets than the more superficial ones of his contemporaries like Arthur Somervell, for instance. His music shows some influence of his French contemporaries, particularly Debussy, but he worked out an individual style which combines both English and French elements.

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was very much a romantic: apart from his music he also attached himself to the ‘Celtic twilight’ school of literature, whose protagonists were Synge and Yeats, and he wrote prose under the name of Dermot O’Byrne. He is chiefly remembered for his seven symphonies, highly romantic and passionate and based partly on folk elements, but characterized by a certain turgid texture which has prevented them from becoming popular. He was a brilliant musician who could read any score at sight, and this possibly tempted him into over-writing. As a person, he was extremely quick-witted and astringent, in complete contrast to the romanticism of his music.

An interesting survivor from this period is Havergal Brian; he was born in 1877 and is still alive at the time of writing. Between the ages of seventy-eight and ninety-


three he wrote no less than twenty-two symphonies, in addition to the ten which he composed earlier. Though stemming from the romantic style, his music is very much more austere and ‘modern’ than that of his contemporaries; many of his symphonies are one-movement works of fairly short duration, and he has added an entirely original element to English music. His principal virtue in his later works is compression and reduction of the music to its bare essentials; in achieving this he got away both from his romantic background and the folk-song school of his youth. His music is often harsh and violent in a manner which is well attuned to the present day.


No comments: