ENDNOTES – English music renewed
STUART MILLSON relishes four world premieres at the English Music Festival
The English Music Festival’s first concert took place in the autumn of 2006. An ambitious undertaking by its founder, Em Marshall-Luck, the Festival set out to perform rare and unheard-of works by our more famous composers, and obscure and sometimes difficult works by many forgotten figures. Believing that Vaughan Williams’s works for piano and orchestra are as important as anything by Prokofiev or Ravel (Vaughan Williams actually studied with the French impressionist composer), or that sonatas by Cyril Scott and Granville Bantock were as intricate, searing and rewarding as Bartok, Em founded a musical event that has in the eight years of its existence challenged every preconceived notion about English music – and also, showed how uncompromising belief in an artistic cause can generate momentum, support and success.
The Quarterly Review was very honoured to take its place alongside other music critics at this year’s Festival first night, held in the English Gothic magnificence of Dorchester Abbey – one of the most notable of Oxfordshire’s churches. Sitting as I was beneath the chancel arch, I was able to watch the light filtering through the great arched window of the Abbey; the glass changing from a sparkling, cream light, to – at dusk – a blue-green-opal edifice. With virtually every seat sold, and a great sense of anticipation as Radio 3’s announcer, Christopher Cook, began his commentary; the concert (which began with the audience singing Parry’s Jerusalem) led us away on a journey through a lost English landscape.
Rutland Boughton (1878-1960), whose dream was to create a cult centre of Arthurian opera at Glastonbury, provided the first main work: a deeply-personal, dark and uncompromising overture entitled Troilus and Cressida. Impressive and well-orchestrated, the Boughton gave the BBC Concert Orchestra and their conductor, Martin Yates, an excellent chance to stretch their muscles for the main work of the first half, the large-scale Violin Concerto (1942) by E.J. Moeran – a work championed at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood.
Joining the BBC orchestra was solo violinist, Rupert Marshall-Luck, who shares his wife’s crusading zeal for English music. Believing this work (much overshadowed by Elgar’s great concerto of 1910) to be a lyrical, reflective masterpiece, Mr. Marshall-Luck proceeded to deliver a performance of utter commitment: never any histrionics or show, just total, unfussy, clear application and dedication to the score – careful in every way, and yet carefree, too, in those moments when Moeran seems to be closing his eyes and dreaming of his Irish roots and the coastal landscapes of Eire. Radio 3’s announcer had, in his commentary, quoted certain critics who believed that this concerto lacked backbone. Rupert Marshall-Luck’s performance showed us that a concerto need not have the rigid Germanic structure, or getting-from-A-to-B simplicity which some might demand from their music. Instead, a beauty of sound and feeling, and the sense of many impressions and ideas being cradled by a good soloist gave the work, not backbone exactly, but a structure and “story” – to make it satisfying and ultimately cohesive.
However, for me the most poignant of all the works on offer at this English Music Festival treasury and living archive, were the two Vaughan Williams pieces which dated from the years just before the Great War – the period of the Pax Britannica, The Wind in The Willows, and the romanticism of Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. In 1902-3, Vaughan Williams had envisaged the creation of a sequence of impressions of Hampshire and the New Forest. Last year, the Festival performed the rare, unknown symphonic poem, The Solent, and this year, we found ourselves on dusty summer lanes, leading to Burley Heath and Harnham Down (the latter completed in 1907). A few hours before the concert, I wandered into the Abbey foyer – the Box Office and hub of the Festival. As I entered, the orchestra was in rehearsal – the gentle breathing of Vaughan Williams’s pastoral vision filling the spaces of this building, a place truly made for works named after heath and downland. I paused and listened, along with a few other Festival-goers and Abbey visitors and sightseers; drawn into music which seemed to have come out of the woods and fields. There was that indefinable, understated woodwind voice – so plaintive and typical of Vaughan Williams – and the violas and gentle rocking to and fro of the strings; with “glints of folk-song” (to quote Christopher Cook) but no clear, single tune. A haze of early summer, an evocation of May: a time of the world, and of England, before the obliteration of the First World War.
The first night of the Festival concluded with another rare, unsung masterpiece (and it was a masterpiece, as we were to hear): variations for the orchestra, by Sir Arnold Bax – probably best–known for his surging symphonic sea-work, Tintagel – in which the realism of a place gives way to the dreams of an artist, and to echoes of Wagner, King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde. The new, old work which we were to hear and applaud had waited for over one hundred years for this performance. How is it that such a situation could exist? It is almost as strange as finding out that the National Gallery has just found new works by John Constable piled up behind a door in the cellar, and that nobody has been sufficiently interested to investigate what was standing there for all those years, covered in cobwebs. Em Marshall-Luck’s gathering together of a circle of musicians, musicologists, and musical “French polishers” has ensured that major works – vital parts of our national, communal heritage and cultural experience – are rescued, revived and enthroned in their rightful place in the concert programmes of this, and other countries.
To begin with, Bax’s variations did not sound much like the Bax we know. There was little evidence, for example, of his well-known Celtic legends or dark, peaty scores which resemble a heady mixture of myth and Sibelius. But this was one of the composer’s early works, and it struck me that there was a certain Germanic side to the score – with a heavy-footed waltz (clearly liked by the orchestral players) reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Nothing, however, prepared us for the finale: the great organ of Dorchester Abbey chiming in, and urging the BBC Concert Orchestra on to a Parry-like finale, with a sense of pomp and circumstance and procession – even a sense of the triumphant style of a World War Two era film score. I closed my eyes and imagined the Bax peroration fitting nicely into the end of a cinematic tale of wartime heroism – and yet, in this 1904 work, we are a fair way distant from either of the 20th century’s two conflicts.
I came away from Dorchester that evening, feeling as though England’s music had been revived. A worldwide audience had heard the concert and it was reassuring to know that BBC Radio 3 maintains the Corporation’s commitment to high-culture, serious music, and the importance of our own tradition and soul.
STUART MILLSON is Classical Music Editor of the Quarterly Review