British Music: A History (1/3)

British music has its roots way back in the past. Simon Trezise uncovers the days before Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, taking us on a journey through the centuries right up to today’s great composers.

Sitting in a restaurant recently and hearing learned continental gourmets at a neighbouring table pouring scorn on British cuisine – fish and chips with salt and vinegar! – was an acid reminder of how many people once regarded British music. For around two centuries (1700-1900) Britain produced not a single composer worthy to stand beside the giants on the continent. And even in the much more productive twentieth century there were lapses: for example, while Germany obstinately maintained its dozens of opera houses through saturation bombing and chronic shortages in the last war, Covent Garden became a dance hall.

The influence of the Europeans
If we go back in time, however, a very different picture emerges. Through much of the medieval period, England was far more a part of Europe than it has ever been since. Educated people spoke French and the monasteries, cathedrals, courts, and other musical centres enjoyed a rich and diverse musical culture close in character to European music of the time. Sadly, the massive destruction of medieval sources during relatively brief bouts of Puritanism and other upheavals means musical evidence is as meagre as it is in religious painting, sculpture and stained glass. That the music was highly elaborate is suggested by a few sources which reveal polyphonic writing at a level to match the better-known work of the Notre Dame School. The astonishing virtuosity of Sumer is icumen in is a good indicator.

John Dunstable (c. 1390-1453) is the first great name in English music. He influenced a whole generation of continental composers, not least Dufay. As a representative of the international character of his age he couldn’t be bettered: while one of his main employers was Henry, Duke of Gloucester, later in life he acquired lands in Northern France. His music is harmonically mellifluous with a distinctive melodic style that is considered distinctively English.

From the sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth Britain enjoyed a period of musical brilliance and plenty. Not even the abolition of the monasteries, vicissitudes of the Reformation, could dry up the creativity of church composers such as John Taverner (1490-1545) and Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-85).

Greatest of all was William Byrd (1543-1623), who composed for both the Catholic and Protestant liturgy in an exuberant a cappella style that matches the work of his contemporaries Victoria and Palestrina in quality and inspiration. He also wrote for virginal – an important keyboard instrument for English composers of the period.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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