Saturday, 12 December 2015

Did English music find its own voice in the 20th century? A question posed by Giorgio Sollazzi

This blog will be regularly updated on this page. Hopefully this will make the discussion easier to follow.  As it is an edited e-mail conversation between Nurtan and myself sometimes our initials are used to outline a particular view, sometimes they are blended (as in the Holst choral symphony).

That is a huge question in less than a dozen words. I will make every effort to keep the English plain so I can offer some views that might be read by people outside the UK and Nurtan's USA.
Before Elgar (and perhaps including some of Elgar's music) the view is that English music followed the conventions and interests of the European masters. We think of the influence of the Baroque masters on Thomas Arne, the inescapable influence of Beethoven and Brahms on the symphonic writers like Charles Stanford. I notice that you use 20th century, that is helpful, there is so much activity by UK born composers that is harder to share because of availability of recordings and scores, though programmes like "Here and Now" on Radio 3 Saturday nights at 10.00 - 12.00 is a wonderful resource.
So, we have a wide choice, from the conservative Frank Bridge, the operatic Britten, the religious Tavener, the eccentric genius of Maxwell Davies, the precision of Jonathan Harvey. Where to begin?
I will share this with Nurtan who no doubt will touch on R. V. Williams, Walton, Bax and others. Wherever possible we shall include Youtube references as examples.

The twentieth century was a strange mixture of influences and trends that both highlighted and blurred the national identities of composers. I would argue that British music found its voice in that it was influential in the development of several styles - not necessarily in Britain. R.V. Williams, Walton, Bax, Finzi, Arnold contributed to the lyrical expressiveness that came to dominate much of film and stage music. Tippett's use of folklore and spirituals in A Child of Our Time influenced the integration of the past with the current as well as the introduction of expressive psycho-drama from theatre to concert stage. Lesser know but immensely influential composers such as Alun Hoddinott, who provided examples of dark, dense, aggressively rhythmic music and precision in modern orchestration that went beyond Mahler in managing the huge modern orchestra. I can continue this long list, but that would not be necessary. Yes, Britain found her voice in the 20th century.

That is a very clear response and outlines many areas where the British composers have contributed to art music. I notice you avoided the whole folk song tradition which is one unique area, and one which for many paints a picture of sentimentality which it doesn't always deserve. I don't know if Italy had a similar folk song to art music period, perhaps Giorgio could help us out there. Then we have Tudor influences to consider as well. It may be the case that the pre WW2 music was the period of finding ones voice and post WW2 losing it again, I shall have to dwell on that.
It might be valuable to consider the influence of the sea on British music too, there are so many works, right up to the present that return to this subject. Perhaps it is a knock on effect of Debussy writing the greatest symphony in "La Mer". Just consider though the great music reflecting this subject matter, Bax Tintagel, Bridge "The Sea" Britten "Peter Grimes", several Maxwell Davies works.
I have a notion that UK composers adapted serialism and avoided the austere language, you mentioned Hoddinott and he is a perfect example of this.
There is still a wealth of material to be explored in literature, composers are still mining Shakespeare and the Mabinogion is still a resource for several composers far more competent than myself.
Perhaps we are still searching for a voice rather than having found one. When you consider how many accents there are in the UK it isn't surprising that we might have more than one voice.
I would like to explore this question further, perhaps by looking at some specific areas, symphonic writing before 1945, and then the modern British symphony for example.
I might be able to offer some links to examples of what I consider to be the best examples of British orchestral music to help develop a sympathetic view of this art form.

It might be useful to consider this question in two sections, he first up to the second world war, and the second post WW2 extending a little into the 21st century when required.
There is a period of folk song collection which has to be considered because it is one way to establish a voice.  There are Welsh and Scottish composers who use folksong in art music but the bulk of recognised music at this time is English,
Alongside this there is a group of composers occupied with exploring a mix of tonal (in its widest sense) and modal music.  Several of these composers wrote symphonies, and as the symphony consists of a balanced presentation of several aspects of music where tonality plays a significant part, I would like to focus on these to answer the question.
There is a crossover between the composers of orchestral and the folk inspired music, the majority of these crossover works are symphonic poems. 

To make a start on this enormous task here is a partial timeline of British symphonic writers up to the 1940's.  The links do not indicate that one symphony is better than another but are a suggested listening list.

1900.   Gustav Holst               Symphony in F
1903    R.V. Williams              Sea Symphony 
1907    Edward Elgar             Symphony no 1
1911    Edward Elgar             Symphony no 2
1912.   R.V. Williams              Symphony No 2         
1923.  Gustav Holst               First choral symphony
1921.  R.V. Williams              Pastoral Symphony
1922   Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 1
1926    Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 2
1927    Havergal Brian            Gothic Symphony      
1929    Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 3
1930   Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 4
1931    Havergal Brian            Symphony No. 3        
1932    Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 5
1934    R.V. Williams              Symphony No. 4         ps://
1934.   William Walton            Symphony no 1
1937.   Edmund Rubbra         Symphony No 1
1937.   Edmund Rubbra         Symphony No 2
1937    Havergal Brian            Symphony No. 5

1939.   Edmund Rubbra         Symphony No 3

Musicians who use filters understand their value is bringing a focus on a particular part of a sound.  Astronomers and musicians both appreciate the necessity to remove certain areas of information to reveal the wealth of data which would otherwise be missed.  In one sense the table provided of symphonic works is a filter on the music of the British Isles in the 20th century.
I stress this point because the notion of presenting a group of works may be viewed as some sort of beauty pageant with the notion of selecting a winner and runners up, which is not its intention.

If one was unwise and used commercial values as a filter then English music is heard with a distinctive voice.  These are among the most popular works:

·         The Lark Ascending                                                            1914 (rev. 1920)
·         Nimrod / Enigma variations                                            1899
·         Jupiter / Planets                                                                  1914 - 1916
·          Jerusalem                                                                             1916
·          The Angel’s Farewell / Dream of Gerontius 1900
·          Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus                               1939
·          The Banks of the Green Willow                                      1913

I have added the dates because they show that the most popular English music comes from a short period of time, and even if the list was extended to a hundred of the most popular pieces of music the trend would still be evident.  In answering Giorgio’s question about the English voice this has to be taken into consideration.
To accept the melancholic and hymn like melodies as the English voice is folly, but so is turning ones back on the characteristics that pervade these works.  There is a hymn like quality to parts of the fourth movement to the Sea Symphony:
O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas.

and the slow movement "On the beach at night alone" is undoubtedly touched with melancholy and the brooding about the conflict between the moment and the eternal:

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d
And shall forever span them….

Yet, despite its sympathy with the “English” sentiments of the more popular music this remarkable symphony is not well received.
The list has already been filtered, not every symphony of the period (1900 - 1939) is included, time has made certain names less familiar or less popular, there are works which could be symphonic but are not named symphony, Bridge's "The Sea" like Debussy's "La Mer" should be considered in the classification.  There are great composers with a distinctive voice who are filtered out, Delius for example, could the North Country Sketches be considered as a symphony?  Four movements, each contrasted, and yet there is nothing of the symphonic argument here, however broadly we consider the term.

Let us substitute another word for ‘list’, and replace it with ‘sample’.  This should satisfy our requirements to explore areas of commonality which may offer at least a partial answer to Georgio's question.

Once our sample is in place the task of repeated listening takes place.  Refreshing one's perception of this group of works throws up an avalanche of observations, but the one that stood out was how did a work like Holst's "First Choral Symphony" fade into near obscurity compared to "The Planets"? This is a remarkable symphony, consistently well written, the choral writing is notable for its clarity, the harmonic language is never pedestrian and the orchestration well controlled.

Holst’s First Choral Symphony was written after WW1, Holst had been prevented from enlisting and taking a military role on the battlefield.  The term survivor guilt is usually placed on those who have firsthand knowledge of war, but both Holst and Frank Bridge display responses that suggest the term should be used more generally to any experience of war.
There is a musical point to be made of this; German music had dominated British thought and style, the war created tensions which influenced every artistic endeavour.  Holst and R. V. Williams wrote about national identities and there was a near necessity to express oneself outside the German tradition.

If an art is to live it must spring direct from the life and character of the people from where it had its origins. 
We shall not evolve great music by trying to fit our home made ideas to foreign forms.
RVW article on British Music.

That tradition had been upheld by two earlier symphonists, Parry and Stanford, the latter in particular having considerable influence through his role as a teacher of composition as well as composer.
Using the literature of a particular country is one way of developing a unique voice, the usual advice for selecting poetry is to take a poem of lesser quality, advice that Holst ignored completely.
The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the great poems, not just for its language but for its theme.
Holst took the poem and other samples of Keats writing as his text and used the poem as the core expressive content of the symphony.  The poem if full of musical imagery

“What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

But the life of the poem is in its contradiction, it is a frozen moment in time, a reflection of the ideal where the music in unheard

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

There are many extra-musical themes here which become hallmarks of British music in this period.
It is impossible to discuss the voice of British composers without some discussion of harmony, and the second movement has a particularly clear example of the use of open fifths, static harmony and slowly oscillating chords.  In an earlier blog I referred to R. V. Williams’ use of these three ingredients in the last movement of the sixth symphony, one of the most distinctive passages of symphonic writing in the 20th century (though outside our time period here).
Holst the man appears reserved, shying away from publicity, happiest in study.  In his music there is introspection but there is also red-blooded fervour and this symphony has it all. Although the world premier of the  symphony in Leeds seem to have been well received, its London opening seems to have been panned,  It is difficult to reconstruct the London critics surprising reaction, we might take a wild guess  on what happened. It seems that the literary critics were offended by Holst’s re arrangement of the poem. Obviously, this is a gross misunderstanding of the reasons behind the re-arrangement through juxtaposition of parts of Keats' other poems. They are simply musical.
The added material extends the Ode in a manner to accommodate the balanced flow of music to conform the required format of a symphony. According to Holts' biographer Jon C. Mitchell, the rehearsals for the challenging choral and solo voice parts were rushed and wholly inadequate. It appears that, the resulting less than stellar performance's criticism fell on the composition of the symphony.
1.       It contained a literary outrage – "How dare a mere composer change the work of an immortal poet" .
2.       The great choral symphony – Beethoven's ninth had only one movement as an exposition of a poem – this is all singing, thus not a symphony in reality.
3.       Challenging became impossible. Examined dispassionately and with the first choral symphony in mind, of course these criticisms are nonsense, and should not have been accepted by the knowledgeable orchestra directors who choose the works that are played.  This regrettable incidence created an aura of impossibility of a satisfactory performance and led to the undeservedly diminished stature of the work. Shy, and to some extend reclusive, Holst did not seem to have advocated for the symphony to counter the London reaction. Probably, these  circumstances are the main contributory factors for the rare performances of this wonderful work. 

Before I close this section of the blog I would like to include an observation sent to me by Nurtan while I was considering the Holst Symphony:

After I read the introduction to Holst's piece and listen to the first choral Symphony again – I must admit for the first time in many years – I remembered how beautiful it was and how much the general public is missing by its rare appearance on the concert stage. I think (sharing) it would be a service to the public.

As I am thinking about the possibilities and the vastness of a blog on (this) music, I have a picture of two Don Quixotes sitting by the seaside with teacups in hand trying to empty the ocean. For me, It is fun, second childhood and better than thinking about the ills of the world. I hope it is the same for you.

Following my comments on the popular voice of English music in the period up to 1939 Nurtan offered the following thoughts on two of R.V. William’s most popular works.

Many of the concert attending, classical music enjoying public would associate Ralph Vaughan Williams with two works, “The Lark Ascending” and the “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” and consider them as pleasant but not too complicated pieces that can be enjoyed without much thought. Alas, those who believe that would be missing much in these two works. I don't mean to insult the intelligence of audiences and/or suggest that these two works are hard to follow. In fact, for me, listening to Lark Ascending played by a very high calibre violinist, for example Hilary Hahn or listening to Fantasia, Andrew Davis conducting BBC Symphony (my favourite performance) is something to behold. My main point is that there is much more to these two short pieces than one might expect.

Lark ascending (Lark) is easier to explore because there is a version, which happens to be the original version, written for solo violin with piano accompaniment. In this format, the intricacy of the violin solo especially about 4 ½ minute into the score and the last 30 bars are violin writing at its delicate best. I think, if you like to listen to violin music or better still if you are a violin player, you would appreciate the score for violin with piano reduction. Frequent use of pentatonic scales and free-form cadenzas provide an impressionistic tone painting of a skylark.  This work was described as a Romance for violin and orchestra, and it has a literary quotation from Meredith’s Poems and Lyrics of the Joys of Earth.
The latter part of the quotation reads:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial wings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

There is a less well known work, Romance for Viola and Piano, found after the composer’s death which may be taken as a parallel work to the Lark in many ways, and it expands our perception of V.W’s voice in this particular mode of expression.  It was written in or about the start of WW1 and has an extraordinary quality of space and stillness in the outer sections.  Stillness is a characteristic which pervades both these popular works. 
There is a sense of ecstasy in the poetry which comes through the music of the Lark in the rhapsodic pentatonic figures, this is a very different ecstasy to that heard in the fourth movement of the Sea Symphony. There is a tendency to soul searching in R. V.’s music, he understands that man sins and fails but that there is a possibility of redemption, as for Pilgrim and for Job. It may be this that results in the dramatic extremes of the 3rd to 6th symphonies, extremes which left many audiences baffled.

For the orchestral performance of the Lark, I have heard a number of very good performances. I think Hilary Hahn's interpretation with the LSO under Colin Davis is a very good choice for those who are familiar or unfamiliar with the piece.

Fantasia is another matter. In its premiere, conducted by the composer, was apparently to a quiet reception by the audience and ecstatic appreciation by musicians such as Howells. It is full of interesting innovations and a musically fascinating structure.
Before considering the Fantasia it is valuable to listen to the Tallis original
This performance is without the glitter of studio techniques but offers in its simplicity a valuable insight as to how the composer may have heard the music performed.

The strings in the Fantasia are put through every timbral nuance, they are divided into two sections, preferably located away from each other and the principals form a quartet. There are a number of solo passages which are treated to counterpoint while the full strings weave an organum-like texture which is to be reworked many times in later works. These are functional composition devices. In an intricate arrangement, the divided orchestra plays the themes with call and response (as in church antiphony), a quartet announces and joins the orchestra. It is a delicate dance, an echo and the presence of two choirs in a cathedral. This makes it a difficult piece to conduct. Heavy-handed conducting simply won't do. Beyond the usual accuracy requirements, the sensitivity to and understanding of this structure are the most important reason. Andrew Davis' conducting stands out as the best in my opinion, but I would strongly recommend comparing other performances. The call and response has to be just right to provide the intended effect and it should not be an echo – that is an intangible which is hard to communicate in a score.

The use of spatial music comes and goes as a fashion, The Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable example after which the attention to its use wanes, and this is the work that stands out in V. W.’s output for making serious use of the technique.  With the use of loudspeakers in concert halls the interest is rekindled, but this isn’t the composer being far sighted, it is a response to the traditions of the church.  As a side issue one may consider Ives (another composer with strong links to organised religion) to be a more powerful influence on this technique.

There is little doubt that audiences (and programme note writers) regard these as quintessentially English works as being the English voice, yet the works tend to stand alone, it is hard to draw parallels between R.V. Williams and the other composers of the same period, unless we take a non-musical link in the expression of melancholy which is conveyed so well in his music. 

Tallis is a very creative dead-end – once done it is inspired, original, exciting but end of the road. I don't think that it can be replicated in a way that it does not look like Tallis lookalike. I cannot think of a composer one might consider as his disciple. I'm not claiming an encyclopaedic knowledge of all English-speaking country composers, but I think I would have heard one or two voices that took his work and advanced it. Butterworth was his contemporary, Frank Bridge, Holst, even pastoralist Finzi were not stylistically like him.

Tallis- BBC Symphony this Andrew Davis conducting.

Lark – Hahn with London Symphony Orchestra Colin Davis conducting

Violin and piano score International Music Score Library (Not public domain)

PMLP49679-Vaughan-Williams - The Lark Ascending (piano red.).pdf