English Music


There can be little doubt that the English music of the twentieth century was inspired and animated by the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the old music awakened the new, and the new reawakened the old. Arthur Bliss composed his Meditations on a Theme of John Blow, which may be compared with Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Gustav Holst’s daughter has written of her father’s “wild excitement over the rediscovery of the English madrigal composers” which he considered to be “the real musical embodiment of the English composers,”while Tippett’s polyphony was directly modeled upon the madrigal compositions of John Wilbye. Delius’s secretary and amanuensis, Eric Fenby, noted a connection between William Byrd’s “The Woodes So Wilde” and Delius’s own Brigg Fair.

A critic, reviewing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, observed that “it seems to lift one into some unknown region” where “one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new”;the embrace of present and past time, in which English antiquarianism becomes a form of alchemy, engenders a strange timelessness. It is a quality which Eliot sensed in the landscape of England itself and to which he gave memorable expression in Four Quartets, “Now and in England.” It is as if the little bird which flew through the Anglo-Saxon banqueting hall, in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, gained the outer air and became the lark ascending in Vaughan Williams’s orchestral setting. It is the skylark of Shelley’s poem whose “notes flow in such a crystal stream.” The same bird, in the words of George Meredith which Vaughan Williams used,

rises and begins to round, He drops the silver chain of sound, Of many links without a break

The unbroken chain is that of English music itself.

The passion of Vaughan Williams for folk-music itself has now become a commonplace of English musical history. It began in Brentwood in Essex, in the winter of 1903; Brentwood was then a growing market town, where after giving a lecture he was invited to tea by the daughter of the local vicar. One of the villagers invited to this ancient ceremony, a seventy-year-old labourer named Charles Pottipher, began to sing the songs of the region. The first of them, “Bushes and Briars,” affected the young Vaughan Williams suddenly and profoundly with the force of revelation. On first hearing this song, in fact, Vaughan Williams confessed that he was invaded by a “sense of familiarity . . . something peculiarly belonging to me as an Englishman.” The editor of his folk-songs has suggested that he “experienced a deep sense of recognition, as though he had known it all his life.” 3 This is perhaps a strange conception. It is as if the land and the landscape had prepared him for this music; it is as if he had already heard it. The song is of ancestral voices. As a fellow enthusiast wrote, “every country village in England was a nest of singing birds.” But theirs were not necessarily antique airs. “In one aspect,” Vaughan Williams wrote, “the folk song is as old as time itself; in another aspect it is no older than the singer who sang it.” This is another aspect of the English imagination itself, which is endlessly renewed and is indeed “new” again in each passing generation. The folk-song abides in Vaughan Williams’s own music, where it has found fresh life and inspiration even if it has now fallen silent in fields and meadows. Of the English folk-song itself, Vaughan Williams has also written: “We felt that this was what we expected our national melody to be.”

We may note the emphasis here upon melody. All authentic folk-music, as Vaughan Williams put it, “is purely melodic.” It is also a striking intuition on the nature of English music itself. Of thirteenth-century chant, for example, “the earliest phase of fully legible notation coincides in England with a flowering of melodic beauty so intense as to create the impression of a new and indigenous art.”We read of the “well balanced melodic lines” and “rhythmic straightforwardness”of fifteenth-century English music, which can profitably be compared with the native emphasis upon the flowing outlines and delicate linear compositions of the manuscript illuminations. Dunstable’s music of that period is notable for its “consonance and for melodic grace,”fully comparable with the description of Vaughan Williams’s own music. Of the Eton Choirbook of English church music there has been noted “the fluid yet vigorous melodic line that is so typical of this music,”and Taverner’s sixteenth-century compositions are celebrated for “the flexibility of . . . melodic lines.” The songs of John Dowland, “realised” at a much later date by Benjamin Britten, are characterised by “such delicacy and refinement that their melodic material is invariably enhanced and transmuted into something precious.”The pure line of melody is best expressed in the solo song, and so it is perhaps not surprising that “simple songs or ballads”—in theatre productions no less than in street airs—take an “indigenous” form.In the context of eighteenth-century music, “a wholly English turn of melody” has been remarked.10 Victorian part-songs, resembling the polyphony of an earlier time, were also a native growth.

Vaughan Williams’s own compositions in general are resplendent with “prodigality of melody,”11 as if the singing birds had returned, and it has been said of A London Symphony that “melodies in this work proliferate in a manner that makes disciplining them symphonically a constant problem to the composer.”12 It is clear that the composer himself “responded in an extremely sensitive and extraordinarily definite way to the expressive quality of melody.”13 This is one definition of his Englishness, of course, and his preternatural attention to melody is part of his overwhelming responsiveness to folk-song. Thus his Pastoral Symphony is marked by melody or “a free evolution of one tune from another . . . like streams flowing into each other”; 14 the hidden stream itself is that of native song.

The “melancholy lyricism” implicit in some of Vaughan Williams’s finest work has already been described. A commentator in Musical Times compared Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony to “a dream of sad happiness,” and of the Oboe Concerto a musicologist remarked that Vaughan Williams “seems to be yearning for some lost and precious thing.”15 What has been lost that excites so much lament? Could it be the idea of England itself? That would be the easy answer but not, perhaps, an altogether convincing one. The folk-songs collected and arranged by Vaughan Williams are also possessed by profoundly melancholy cadences which have been related to the line of the ancient landscape. It is a national mood, comparable to “the eternal note of sadness” which Matthew Arnold heard on Dover Beach. It is that note of quietly and insistently “throbbing melancholy”16 which emerges in almost all of Vaughan Williams’s orchestral compositions; it echoes the delicate melancholy of Dowland and the plangent sadness of Purcell. It lies within Elgar, too, in his “beautifully poetic expression tinged with wistfulness.”17

Vaughan Williams gave a set of lectures in 1932, entitled “National Music,” in which he constructed a series of variations upon the theme of English music. In the first of them he asked whether “it is not reasonable to suppose that those who share our life, our history, our customs, even our food, should have some secret to give us which the foreign composer, though he be perhaps more imaginative, more powerful, more technically equipped, is not able to give us? This is the secret of the national composer, the secret to which he only has the key . . . and which he alone is able to tell to his fellow countrymen.” Vaughan Williams was no narrow nationalist; he studied under Ravel in Paris, and his own thoroughly indigenous music is indebted to Debussy and Sibelius. Like that of Purcell and Elgar, his very “English” music is in part inspired by continental models. Elgar was championed by Kreisler and Strauss before he found a thoroughly welcoming audience at home. In turn Vaughan Williams adduces the lives and careers of Bach and Beethoven, Palestrina and Verdi to suggest that only a “local” or even “parochial” artist can become a “universal musician.” He believed that “if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls.” It is a specific and significant perception, wholly shaped by his feeling for landscape and traditional English song.

In a lecture entitled “The Importance of Folk-Song,” for example, he stated that “folk-songs contained the nucleus of all future development in music” and that “national music was a sure index to national temperament.” It is what Elgar meant when he said, “I write the folk-songs of this country.” He was testifying to the power and presence of these often ancient songs within the nation’s musical life. It was a subject which preoccupied Vaughan Williams, too. “It is extraordinarily interesting,” he wrote, “to see the national temperament running through every form of a nation’s art—the national life and the national art growing together.” In his lectures upon national music he refined this sense of the native imagination with his description of a “community of people who are spiritually bound together by language, environment, history and common ideals and, above all, a continuity with the past.” This insistence upon “continuity with the past” is once more thoroughly English in its inspiration, since for Vaughan Williams it is a living past; it is exemplified by the freshness and spontaneity of the ancient folk-song and by the tradition of Byrd and Purcell, Tallis and Wilbye, revived in his own music. Yet it must be emphasised, too, that this belief and trust in a national “community” did not preclude for him a faith in the larger possibilities of human civilisation; he professed a commitment, for example, to “a united Europe and a world federation,” but this global polity had to be established upon an attachment to a local ground since “everything of value in our spiritual and cultural life springs from our own soil.” The medieval composers of England were part of a larger Catholic and European civilisation, but theirs was still a readily identifiable national art. It is the great perplexity, and mystery, of native consciousness.

Vaughan Williams’s most recent biographer has suggested that the composer “instinctively knew there were idioms of atavistic English music, whether of Tudor polyphony or of folk song, that bore a cultural fingerprint peculiar to his homeland.”18 A musicologist has also remarked, of this “national spirit in music,” that “the composer expresses some deeply-felt national characteristic with roots far back in social and cultural evolution.”19 These may not be fashionable notions, but they are suggestive ones. How far does the Norfolk Rhapsody go back; to what atavistic longing does A Sea Symphonyspeak, and do the strangeness and serenity of Sinfonia Antarctica invoke an Anglo-Saxon fortitude in the face of natural bleakness? The sense of place, so central to this study, is also evident. Peter Warlock’s “An Old Song” represented “very much the Cornish moor where I have been living.” 20 A musical historian has in turn recovered this sense of place in the Norfolk landscape of Ernest Moeran’s “The Song of the High Hills” and in Frank Bridge’s “There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook.” The genius loci still sings. In the preliminary sketches for the Ninth Symphony Vaughan Williams drew upon memories of Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain; when he first saw the ancient stones he was suffused with “a feeling of recognition” and “the intuition that I had been there already.” His music is instinct with that sense of belonging, so that the act of listening to it becomes a form of home-coming.

It has been remarked of Delius and his contemporaries that, through their works, “a wave of nature-mysticism swept like a rushing mighty wind.”21 This great wave has been related to pagan nature worship and to elements of Celtic mythology, also; the possibilities of English music spring from the distant past, and can be expressive of it. But if the material is innate and instinctive, it must constantly be refashioned or refined. Thus in his Third Symphony, known as The Pastoral Symphony, Vaughan Williams wished to touch upon that “nerve of English mysticism” by which he hoped “the psyche of the nation might be made whole.” 22 His last symphony, completed shortly after he had set ten poems by William Blake for voice and oboe, is filled “with an inner light” and a sound both “unearthly and enigmatic.”23 It is the inner light of the English tradition and the English imagination.

His understanding of that tradition was informed by his twin passion for folk-song and for Tudor music. He loved madrigals just as much as he loved “Bushes and Briars” because he found in both of them an authentic, if unanalysable, English note. His deepest instinct was to draw both of them together in a music rich with harmony. He believed that the formal or ecclesiastical music of the Tudors drew its energy and strength “from the unwritten and unrecorded art of its own countryside,” and his purpose was to restore that grand symbiosis. “There was a time,” he once wrote, “when England was always reckoned a most musical nation” and he wished to replenish his native culture with fresh melodies.

It has often been remarked how, in the music of Delius, the plangent harmonies convey an intense and intricate sense of loss or transience; it is an intrinsic part of the English imagination, first evinced in Beowulf and the Arthurian cycle. Warlock’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” based upon an old English carol, contains “a plaintive liquescent chromatic harmony of unutterable desolation.”24 It is associated with lost childhood and the fugitive memory of the child’s landscape is related to the concept of innocence, precarious and fragile. The melancholy of Vaughan William’s music “set it apart from that of the continental masters,” 25 and it may be that the island itself manifests the sadness of long-endured human occupation with all the cares and woes that it brings. Thus the music of Delius has a characteristically English tone which sets him apart from, for example, Mahler or Strauss— with its often searing nostalgia . . . “its ever-frustrated yearning . . . its understated dreamy melancholy.” 26 It is aligned with the “sense of weary desolation” attendant upon certain English songs of the thirteenth century,27 and “the undertone of intense sadness” glimpsed in Vaughan Williams’s setting of the songs of A. E. Housman.28 Pleasure and melancholy, lyrical beauty and desolation, are thus uniquely aligned in true English synthesis.

Another line of national music was continued by Vaughan Williams when he agreed to be the musical editor of The English Hymnal as an alternative to Hymns Ancient and Modern. He knew well enough that sacred music was one of the great glories of English composition, and that Tallis and Byrd and Dunstable were acknowledged to be the finest masters of their time. So, engaged upon his twin pursuit of reclaiming Tudor polyphony and folk-music as the true native arts, he fashioned a hymnal directly out of these elements. His concern was once more with the tradition. Church music provided the only consistent and continuous musical inheritance, however bowdlerised and inhibited it had become, and Vaughan Williams wished to revive it by incorporating “tunes” by Lawes and Tallis as well as carols and traditional folk-melodies. When he took a psalm tune from that hymnal and composed his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, he created “the ultimate expression of the English soul in music.”29

The sacred music of the past can be restored to life in more than one sense. Vaughan Williams received his first inspiration for the masque of Job, for example, from Blake’s series of illustrations to that sacred book. Throughout his life he evinced a profound regard for Blake and the tradition of visionary writing in English, encompassing Bunyan as well as Herbert, Shelley as well as the King James Bible. His own visionary powers, intimated in the great symphonies, were enlarged by his reading of the English visionaries; he had pondered over Bunyan’s pilgrim for fifteen years before completing The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, and thus associated himself with a tradition of ancient religious dissent and radicalism even while remaining for all intents and purposes an atheist. He could not escape his national inheritance, however, and his religious music is some of the finest ever created.

There are other elements of Vaughan Williams’s native artistry which may be adduced here by way of explanation and interpretation. There is the question, for example, of his detachment and reticence. “I don’t know whether I like it,” he remarked of his Fourth Symphony, “but it’s what I meant.” Of another orchestral piece he said, “Do what you like with it. Play it backwards if you want to.” All this was said in the context of his overwhelming artistry and professionalism. Pevsner has already noted this detachment as an intrinsic element of the English imagination. It is not a question of false modesty but, rather, a genuine aversion towards claiming too much. When a contemporary composer acknowledged that he had written a piece of music “on his knees,” Vaughan Williams replied that “I wrote Sancta Civitas sitting on my bum.” It seems, like much in Vaughan Williams, to be a “typically” English remark, eschewing any expression of deep emotion and siting the real strength of purpose in his posterior. It has all those elements of practicality and common sense which are considered to be characteristic, as well as a faint sense of earthy or ribald humour which comes (almost literally) with the territory.

Another example of his temperament has been explored by his friend and interpreter Michael Kennedy, who has remarked that “at rehearsal and in performance his concern was always with technical matters . . . and never with the emotional content of the music.”30 This emphasis upon the practical and pragmatic is wholly comprehensible in the English context, as is Vaughan Williams’s taciturnity or diffidence concerning “the emotional content.” He was not given “to probing into himself and his thoughts or his own music.”31 We may say the same of other English artists who have prided themselves on their technical skills and are decidedly reluctant to discuss the “meaning” of their productions. Thus Mr. Kennedy believes that the Sixth Symphony must have represented “a deeply-felt, personal and impassioned utterance” precisely because Vaughan Williams’s own programme-note “studiously avoids any hint of emotional commitment.”32 It is, once more, a question of English embarrassment.

There is in Vaughan Williams’s work what has been described as “a preoccupation with sonorities,”33 which may in turn be related to what one musical historian has called “the English love of fullness of sound”34 first noticed in the twelfth century. That fullness of sound, touched by melodic beauty, is a distinctive passion in Vaughan Williams just as it is in Purcell or in Tallis. We read of certain extant manuscripts where “the English added their characteristically acute sense of vocal sonority” which could become “a special concern for euphony (for which they were later to become especially noted).” 35 It became apparent, too, in the employment of several lines of harmony meeting and parting in a musical structure like that of interlace.

That particular reverence for harmony might be variously interpreted at an aesthetic or social level; the English predilection for compromise and moderation, after all, is an aspect of the “golden mean.” The rich harmonic texture of Vaughan Williams’s music may thus be associated with the “harmonic forces” of Purcell’s compositions and the “slow-moving harmonies” and “fullness of instrumentation” in Elgar,36 or it may be related to a more primitive need for harmonious order arising from various competing elements. In either sphere, it is the true music of England. In 1994 the most acclaimed of contemporary English composers, Thomas Adès, completed a string quartet entitled Arcadiana; its most poignant and lyrical movement, the sixth, was entitled “O Albion.”

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