Roger Scruton hails the glorious achievements of the English composers, and their role in idealising the gentleness of the English arcadia — so loathed by our liberal elite
The English have always loved music, joining chamber groups, orchestras, operas and choirs just as soon as they can put two notes together. But it was not until Elgar that a distinctive national voice was heard in the concert hall. The Enigma Variations and Sea Pictures marked a turning-point in our musical culture: complete mastery of romantic polyphony, without the teutonic stodge of Parry and Stanford. This, at last, was the sound of modern England: gentle, nostalgic, an organic growth from a deeply settled landscape where many generations had been quietly at home.
While London audiences were being moved to tears by the noble pathos of Elgar’s first symphony and violin concerto — the latter the equal of any in the repertoire — other musicians, less great but in their way just as talented, were wandering the cathedral closes and green lanes of Old England, in search of the people’s voice. Cecil Sharp collected the modal folk-songs which still were sung in pubs and market-places. Arnold Dolmetsch and family dressed up to play the sackbuts, lutes and viols of the Tudor court. Vaughan Williams edited and added to the English hymnal before producing his lovely collection of Christmas carols. Holst and Delius used English folk melodies in works that are now lasting parts of the concert repertoire.
Thanks to that exuberant explosion of native musicianship, English composers discovered their national style. Imperial gloom gave way to a pastoral idiom that is as true a symbol of our national identity as anything that the English have achieved in painting, architecture or literature. Russians, Czechs, and Hungarians all relied on music to define their national consciousness. We did the same. Our modern music is one of the high achievements of the national spirit, one that does not merely express an idea of historical legitimacy but also triumphantly vindicates it, the 20th-century collapse notwithstanding. From the Vaughan Williams symphonies to the Tintagel of Bax, from the songs of Finzi and Gurney to the choral splendours of Herbert Howells, the first wave of modern English music speaks to us not merely of a beloved landscape and its rediscovered legends, but of the distinctively English way of life, in which conflicts are settled by law and apology rather than by force. The prevailing sentiment has nothing in common with the aggressive nationalism that was then on the march in Germany. It evokes an imaginary arcadia in which the very real gentleness of England would be idealised, and so placed at the service of mankind.
Some great works emerged from this first wave of modern English music — the late symphonies of Vaughan Williams, the Hymnus Paradisi of Howells, the D Minor Cello Sonata of Frank Bridge. But it was the second wave that established modern English music as one of our greatest cultural possessions. Benjamin Britten, William Walton and Michael Tippett emerged as composers who we could proudly set in the pantheon beside Messiaen, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Their works may have been booed by Pierre Boulez, but where are Boulez’s thinned-down trickles beside such solid statements as Britten’s Cello Symphony, Walton’s Viola Concerto and Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia? Between them those three composers shook our music free of its parochial roots and planted the shoots in a thousand fertile places. The only regrettable result of their musical triumphs is the shadow that they cast over their lesser contemporaries — truly talented composers like Robert Simpson, Alan Rawsthorne, John Ireland, Edmund Rubbra and George Lloyd, whose music is now unjustly dismissed as the work of ‘also rans’.
And the story continues. A third wave of modern English composers has overtaken the long withdrawing roar of the last one — with works in every genre and every idiom, from the religious monody of John Tavener to the exuberant Concerti for Orchestra of Robin Holloway. Not all of this new music appeals, and I for one have a growing reluctance to be bombarded with coagulated note-clusters from Harrison Birtwistle. But the thread of Englishness still ties our contemporary music to those original pilgrims to the Brigg Fair. English legend returns (though somewhat psychotherapised) in Birtwistle’s Gawain, the folk-song tradition lives on in Malcolm Arnold, a survivor from the second wave, Robin Walker, has even written a 40-part motet, as a companion piece to Tallis’s great ‘Spem in Alium’. And David Matthews’s 6th Symphony stirred the audience at its prom premier last year, by gradually unfolding into a rhapsodic meditation on ‘Come Down O Love Divine’ — one of the melodies that VW added to the English hymnal, and which he named ‘Down Ampney’, after the village where his father was vicar.
So fertile has English music been that there is less and less room in the concert hall for the neglected masterpieces. Yet at this time when we English are beginning to rediscover our primary attachments it is more than ever necessary to connect to our national music — the most vital and consoling part of the culture that defines us. Luckily the matter has been taken in hand by Em Marshall, the young enthusiast who founded the English Music Festival, with the express purpose of bringing back into the repertoire all the masterpieces that have fallen out of it or which don’t attract the attention of the official sponsors. The Festival takes place in Oxfordshire from 23 until 27 May, and provides a rare opportunity to hear Holbrooke’s Birds of Rhiannon, Rawsthorne’s deeply nostalgic Practical Cats, Mackenzie’s lovely Benedictus and Bantock’s Celtic Symphony, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. Bliss, VW, Bridge and Delius are all represented, along with surprising premieres of works by Britten. Music lovers are urged to find out for themselves by visiting www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk; just to read the programme is to feel a spasm of national pride.
It is an interesting fact about our country, however, that its culture is the target of systematic repudiation from those entrusted with preserving it. Em Marshall’s approaches to the Arts Council have been repeatedly rebuffed. To seek funding for something consciously English offends against political correctness, and multicultural orthodoxy has required the Council to turn its back on England and on anything that might invoke our national greatness. Such an attitude to the national culture would be unthinkable in France. And it bespeaks a profound ignorance of what England stands for. Our culture has been a generous host to other outlooks, other places, other faiths. That is part of what it is to be English, and part of what our English music conveys. You don’t have to look very far to grasp the point. Names like Bax, Delius, Finzi, Dolmetsch and Holst bear witness to an immigrant-friendly island. Bax loved Ireland as much as England, and evoked its landscape as no other composer has. From Holst’s Vedic Hymns and Delius’s Koanga to Britten’s Curlew River our music has reached out to the world in a spirit of inclusion, and if ‘multiculturalism’ means anything, then Curlew River (a ‘church parable’ in the form of a Noh play) is the quintessential instance of it — and all the more English for that.
For the time being we English must live under governments and institutions that have our cultural annihilation as their hidden goal. All the more reason, therefore, to support the private attempts to keep the memory of our country alive, and to rally support for its real achievements. So let’s all meet up in Oxfordshire this May.