In 1857, the wife of a humble Worcestershire piano tuner gave birth to a baby boy. Mrs Elgar named her new son Edward and, finally, the catalyst existed for this British compositional silence to be broken. Edward Elgar’s first published works, in the 1880s, along with those of his Irish contemporary Charles Stanford, heralded the return of the British composer after nearly two hundred years of inactivity. There was, to follow, another golden period in British music, the start of which coincided with the zenith of the British Empire and the culmination of the Industrial Revolution. In addition to the early front-runners of Charles Stanford and Edward Elgar, the British compositional stage was soon to be filled with figures such as Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Edward Naylor, Charles Wood, Edward Bairstow, Charles Parry, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Ivor Novello, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Edmund Rubbra, Lennox Berkeley, John Ireland, Arnold Bax, Ivor Gurney, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi, Michael Head, Roger Quilter, Peter Warlock, Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Bliss, Kenneth Leighton, Richard Rodney Bennett, William Walton, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. These composers were championed by the great British conductors of the day – immense figures born in the late Victorian period, such as Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent, and Henry Wood. These composers enjoy many links and similarities. Nearly all took the career route which went via the RCM and the collegiate chapels of Oxbridge. Many championed and premiered the work of others. Nearly all of the composers in the above list were the teachers and the pupils of other composers in the list. New boundaries were drawn and new frontiers were breached. Elgar became the first Englishman ever to write an oratorio, a concerto and a symphony of any substance. Holst and Vaughan Williams wrote works on a vast new scale, such as The Planets and The Sea Symphony, as well as film scores. Britten became the first significant composer since Handel to write operas on British soil, whilst Delius, Finzi, Vaughan Williams and Howells explored the possibilities of harmony, tonality and modality in a new but quintessentially English way, and wrote music, which was both nationalistic and programmatical, and which has endured simply because it is so clever and so endearing. 

Paradoxically, after the extreme famine in British music through the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, many of these composers were extremely prolific. Vaughan Williams, for example, wrote nine symphonies, ten operas and eleven film scores, including the epic Scott of the Antarctic. Elgar wrote weighty concertos for the cello and the violin, eight substantial oratorios and three symphonies (the last of which was not completed), and Britten contributed thirteen operas as well as a huge requiem. All three were additionally responsible for a vast amount of orchestral, choral, vocal and chamber music. With this music, along with the more personal and intimate works of Howells, Finzi and Gurney, the brilliant choral and orchestral textures and timbres created by Walton, Delius, Bliss and Arnold, and the affinity with native British poetry evident in the songs of Quilter, Head, and Warlock, the composers of this newly-musically-awakened sceptred-isle were making up for lost time.

The late Victorian age was a time of self-confident expansion, of invention, of new technologies and of song. From middle-class front parlours to the music-hall, and from revitalised cathedral choirs (after a well-documented slump in standards during the nineteenth century) to an astonishing growth in provincial and civic choral societies, orchestras, operatic societies, madrigal choirs and glee clubs, there was prosperity and growth. It can be no coincidence that, in the 90 years following 1850, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Hallé, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the London Bach Choir, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Royal College of Music, the English National Opera, the Welsh National Opera, and the Royal Opera House were all founded. The United Kingdom was back on the musical map.