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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- programmatic works.

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.

Recommended recordings:

Bridge.The Sea (Works by Britten & Bax) Ulster Orchestra, Vernon Handley (Chandos ABRD 1184).

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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