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And Britain's neglected cultural heroes
by Peter Gibbs
British orchestral music from the heyday of Elgar to the musical maturity of Malcolm Arnold is a
portrait of a nation in all its diversity. In their symphonies, chamber works and tone poems, Britain’s
composers have created a distillate of the character of the British Isles. British music is often forceful
and hard, yet it does not have that essentially Germanic Gothic coldness which one finds in the desolate
expanses of Bruckner’s symphonies, those cathedrals of sound. British music can at times jaunt along
in a state of careless frivolity. The pastiche and eccentricity of Lord Berners and William Walton in the
1920s and 1930s exemplify this. A spirit of folkish ebullience comes to the fore in such things as
Arnold’s Cornish, Scottish and English Dances. This music is the British equivalent of Dvorak’s
Slavonic Dances written in the late nineteenth century. Rather than making use of actual folkish idioms
in the spirit of Holst and Vaughan Williams, Arnold took typically native themes and turned them into
sounds which one would automatically associate with the West Country, the Scottish Highlands and an
English village green at fair time.
There is no science of British music, no mechanical structure to it. Indeed, if there were such a
thing, it would cease to be British music. It would be unrecognisable, a mere academic exercise. The
wholesome thing about our music and our native creative arts in their entirety is that we know them to
be ours and ours alone for they have grown out of our own soil. We cannot ‘explain’ British music in
the way that some adventurous individuals explain European music and literature and try to explain
themselves into it. The purpose of this essay is simply an act of homage to a number of composers who
have spoken of Britain in their music and said something of the nature of the British even in their non-
Sir Edward Elgar is well known and can only be treated properly in a piece entirely devoted to
his genius. I shall confine my observations to Sir Arnold Bax and Frank Bridge. Bax held the position
of Master of the King’s Music and lived from 1883 to 1953. He described himself as a “brazen
romantic” and his orchestral music is a kaleidoscope of rich Celtic legends, heroism and pagan feasting.
This Northern European legendary spirit and the style of some compositions has led many to compare
him with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Indeed, on hearing Bax’s Second Northern Ballad for
Orchestra, Sibelius commented, “Bax is my son in music”. The orchestral tone poems The Garden of
Fand (1913-16) and Tyntagel (1917-19) evoke seascapes which “with the increasing tumult of the sea”,
as he wrote of Tyntagel, would give rise to visions “of the historical and legendary associations of the
place, especially those connected with King Arthur, King Mark and Tristram and Iseult”.
If Percy Grainger gloried in music that could be described as ‘riots of Nordicness’ then it was
surely Arnold Bax who created riots of Celticness, or even paganism. Feasting, Bacchanalia and all
sorts of pre-Christian revelry surge in energetic cortege in Bax’s radiantly lyrical Fourth Symphony and
Spring Fire. Spring Fire was written in 1913 and only recently received its first professional
performance. It is a synthesis of the delights of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe with the naked Celtic
romanticism of the Fourth Symphony.
Some of the orchestral touches to be found in the expansive romantic scores of Bax can be heard
in the work of the much underrated Frank Bridge, who has only recently enjoyed a revival. Bridge was
more or less a contemporary of Bax and his pre-First World War output was very much in the tradition
of the musical nature poetry of the time. Bridge’s magnificent symphonic suite The Sea was first
performed at a Henry Wood Prom on 24th September, 1912. Twelve years later, a young Benjamin
Bntten heard The Sea performed at the Norwich Triennial Festival and remarked how he had been
“knocked sideways” by this musical seascape. As a pure piece of imagery the work is excellent.
Anyone who has been enchanted by the lapping of waves against a quiet moonlit seashore, or seen the
North Sea rage its cold fury against England’s East Coast will instantly appreciate The Sea. I think this
is the greatest orchestral portrayal of the sea, with perhaps the exception of Wagner’s evocations in The
Flying Dutchman and Tristan.
Surge of tide and lonely wailing of sea birds are to be found in this music as in no other. After
the Great War, the Bridge I love so much in The Sea, the Piano Quartet (1910) and in that last touch of
Edwardian warmth, Summer (1914), is no longer to be found. If The Sea is a masterpiece of seascape,
then Summer is the quintessence of English downland basking in the heat of one of those all too rare
warm, windless English summers. The opening passage for strings is sensuousness itself, but the work
blooms in full afternoon heat in the main middle section. The listener, if he has any feelings at all, will
find himself as exuberant as the music. Themes swirl, grow and climax, eventually to recede and give
way to new climactic symphonic motives. I am always put in mind of the vast scintillating tapestries of
Wagner: music which seems to explode and explore in all directions.
Delius, Ireland and some of Bax’s output are well known. However, it is high time that our
indigenous musical folklorists figured in a great revival. The sad monochromatic unimaginativeness of
modem concert programmes is a testimony to a concert public bereft of interest in and identity with
music born of our land. The musical folklorists are all unique, but as similar in essence, birth and
structure as a field of poppies, or the British folk. Just as the art of our islands is part of a single lineage,
a single unity, so the British people will once again become singular in purpose and identity, when
reawakened to the cultural heritage which they have temporarily forgotten and from which they have
been temporarily alienated.
For the majority of the indigenous population of these islands, the creation of a new ethos in
British politics and society is the crucial challenge of the coming Millennium. Liberalism and the post-
war consensus; moral and cultural ‘relativism’; Conservative governments interested only in economics
and privatisation; an unthinking worship of all aspects of modernity and modernism – all have
combined to ‘de-nationalise’ our country, turning us into an atomised people, separated from our
authentic, ancestral cultural identity.
And in place of our national culture, what do we now have? The shallow, synthetic
consumerism of urban America; the back-to-front baseball cap; the deterioration of a priori structures
and standards, of good manners, courtesy and normal, decent behaviour. A brutal ‘yobocracy’;
suburban railway stations covered in graffiti; the proletarianisation of language, arts and the media - in
short, a debased and moronic non-culture.
The question is: how can we challenge and defeat the sort of culture which ‘liberalism’ has
created and what icons or examples from the past can we resurrect for our crusade? There are of course,
many statesmen, soldiers, poets and writers whose names can be invoked in the anti-liberal struggle.
Yet I propose to nominate two figures who are often overlooked by British commentators - men whose
extraordinary work in the worlds of film and music contributed to a rebirth of Englishness and the
establishment of a distinctive British national voice in twentieth century arts. My heroes are the
filmmaker, Michael Powell (1905-1990) and the eminent composer of nine towering symphonies,
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
Both men shared similar traits. They thought strongly in national terms, made use of pastoral
images, expressed a feeling of romanticism, mysticism and the supernatural and saw their art as an
antidote to the sterilising influences of internationalism. Let us first consider Michael Powell. In his
productions, The Edge of the World (1937), the richly-nostalgic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
(1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and Gone to Earth (1950), Powell
celebrated a profoundly British sense of mood, place and character. He sought out the landscapes and
traditions of our country, often using images of rural crafts, or the scene of a Kent, Shropshire, or
Scottish village caught in a timewarp.
He was satirical and caustic about materialism and longed for a world where people were
content with the simple life. Sometimes his characters would launch into a tirade against the declining
values of the age. In A Canterbury Tale, the magistrate and local historian, Mr. Culpepper (a key
character), defies his critics and defends his action of “pouring knowledge into people’s heads ...
knowledge of our country and love of its beauty”. Culpepper is the paternalist guardian of the
community, a mediaeval elder of the village transplanted into the twentieth century. It is no coincidence
that this type of figure makes appearances in other Powell films. Nor let us forget that radical
statements of cultural Englishness, as expressed through the characters in Powell’s films, are now seen
by some contemporary commentators of a cosmopolitan outlook as being extreme and disreputable.
For Ralph Vaughan Williams, too, the evocation of landscapes in music was a central theme for
the national artist. His Pastoral Symphony of 1922 seems to conjure a sense of lonely ridges, dotted
with ancient stone circles and - lurking in the background - cold memories of the First World War and
the lost generation of Britain’s youth. Vaughan Williams also cherished folk music and saw it as
something that came ‘from our soil’. He was determined that these songs and melodies, passed from
generation to generation, should not perish, but rather become the basis for a national school of music.
This was the thesis of his book, Nationalism in Music.
Indeed, in a short information film - ironically-named Dim Little Island - produced just after the
Second World War, the great composer spoke of Britain’s folk-music heritage, the individuality of our
artistic character and looked forward to a new flowering of our musical genius. His folk-song settings
and arrangements certainly reveal a nationalist outlook which is every bit as relevant, as an inspiration
to music lovers opposed to such extreme atonalists as Stockhausen, as that of continental composers
such as Bartok or Kodaly - the heroes of the sort of post-modern musicologist whom one might
encounter on BBC Radio 3.
The film music of Ralph Vaughan Williams works a similar magic, especially the score that he
wrote for a 1948 Ealing production: The Loves of Joanna Godden. Set on Romney Marsh in Kent, the
film is a straightforward enough story concerning the fortunes of a lady-farmer at the turn of the
century. However, for Vaughan Williams, the bleak beauty of this part of the country provided another
opportunity to indulge his passion for musical nature-worship and the transmission of a sense of
Englishness. Few composers today would be motivated by such considerations, or indeed be able to
express the mysterious relationship between a people and their physical, natural environment.
Although in no sense politically ‘right-wing’, Vaughan Williams exemplifies a form of ‘old
Labour’ patriotism, a tendency which is essentially dormant today, if not wholly extinct within the
modern Labour Party.
The works of Michael Powell and Ralph Vaughan Williams symbolise a wholesome, intimate
nationalism and offer us a window to a better world. In an age where our cinema can produce nothing
better than the drug-fuelled violence and nihilism of Trainspotting, Powell’s films give us a glorious
vision of people and nation. And in an age where our Arts Council-subsidised composers churn out
nothing but execrable dross, Vaughan Williams stands as a colossus - an embodiment of our very own
national voice in music.
In this faceless, rootless age of European Union, multiculturalism and marijuana, Powell and
Vaughan Williams, our two cultural heroes stand before us like beacons of light. It is now up to us to
carry their light forward and ensure Britain’s cultural survival for the centuries to come.
Bridge.The Sea (Works by Britten & Bax) Ulster Orchestra, Vernon Handley (Chandos
Bax.Tyntagel, 4th Symphony Ulster Orchestra, Bryden Thomson (Chandos ABRD 1091).
Bax.Tyntagel, Garden of Fand, Northern Ballad No. 1, Mediterranean L.P.0. Sir Adrian Boult. (Lyrita Stereo).
Bridge.Summer, Enter Spring, The Sea etc. R.L.P.O. Sir Charles Groves (EMI: ASD 3190).
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