From Elgar to Britten - the British Revival

Sunday 12 June 2011 7:45 p.m. St Machar's Cathedral

With the death of Purcell in 1695 there concluded a golden age in British music, an era which had witnessed some of the finest sacred, secular and instrumental music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, composed by musicians such as Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins, Weelkes, Gibbons, Tye and Morley. These composers had wrestled against the English Reformation and the church’s split from Rome in their writing, and yet had still been able to find favour with monarchs, patrons and the public, producing excellent and enduring music.

Following Purcell’s death (notwithstanding the work of the German-born Frederick Handel, who continued living and working in London until 1759, and a handful of minor works by eighteenth-century English cathedral organists such as William Boyce, Thomas Attwood, and Maurice Greene), British music was to enter a lengthy period of hibernation, a period lasting for almost two centuries.

The creative musical focus throughout the eighteenth and the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century settled firmly in continental Europe, firstly (after the death of Bach in 1750) in Vienna, and then spreading outwards through France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Whilst Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms were all prolifically establishing themselves, developing new forms and structures, and forging ahead with an ever-developing musical language throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Vienna, the British were silent. In mid-nineteenth-century France, Berlioz, Chopin and Bizet were at work. In Scandinavia Greig was paving the way for Sibelius, whilst in Eastern Europe and Russia, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were preparing to lead a new romantic revolution, and still the British slept on. Simultaneously in Italy the great, through-composed, operatic style of Verdi was being perfected – a legacy from Pergolesi and Donizetti – before being handed down to Puccini, a chronological contemporary of the English-born Frederick Delius, but with the advantage of a recent, national musical language on which to draw. Back in Germany, Liszt (b1811) and Wagner (b1813) and Bruckner (b1824) had taken the mature romantic musical language to its furthest harmonic and melodic frontiers to date, a language which was to be inherited, enhanced and stretched yet further by Mahler and Richard Strauss. From Britain still not a note was heard.

In 1857 the wife of a humble Worcestershire piano tuner gave birth to a baby. 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, which this concert will begin to explore. 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, Richard Rodney Bennett, William Walton, Arthur Benjamin, 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 share many links. Nearly all took the career route which went via the Royal College of Music and the 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 by this group. 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. Coleridge-Taylor and Ivor Novello excelled in the popular style, Britten became the first significant operatic composer since Handel to write on English soil, whilst Delius, Finzi and Howells explored the possibilities of harmony and tonality in a quintessentially English way, and wrote music which was both nationalistic and programmatical, and which will endure 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 also responsible for a vast amount of additional 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 as 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 parlour to music-hall, from re-vitalised cathedral choirs after a noticeable slump in standards during the Romantic period, to an astonishing growth in provincial choral societies, orchestras, operatic societies, madrigal choirs and glee clubs. It can be no coincidence that, in under 90 years, from 1858, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, The CBSO, the Halle, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Philharmonic, The London Bach Choir, The Huddersfield Choral Society, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Opera House were founded. The United Kingdom was back on the musical map.

Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2011 Aberdeen Bach Choir