British Music: A History (3/3)

British music is reborn
The century was almost over when a set of variations by a 42-year-old Worcester man, best known for a series of choral works, caused a sensation. The Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar (1857-1943) were both unmistakably English in flavour and tightly bound up in the German tradition of Brahms and Wagner. Britain was back on the world stage. His oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, two symphonies and concertos enjoyed considerable esteem abroad, especially in Germany. Elgar perfectly expressed the confidence and insecurity of a great empire.

Whereas Elgar’s music sublimely recomposes Tristan, Meistersinger and Parsifal, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) took his cue from Debussy. He also drew on the rich traditions of the English Renaissance, gorgeously intertwined with national folksong, which he did so much to bring to popular attention. His Tallis Fantasia remains unsurpassed as a highly individual example of his traditionalism and innovation. With these two composers we embark on the much-lauded renaissance of British music – a period so rich and so diverse that many volumes would be needed to do it justice.

An obvious successor to Elgar was William Walton (1902-83), who also wrote two symphonies, albeit in a more contemporary harmonic and rhythmic idiom. And with Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1916) there was at last a home-grown Straussian orchestral masterpiece to rival Don Juan and Petrushka in popularity.

Nevertheless, one looks in vain for a major pre-war British figure willing to embrace Schoenberg’s atonality or Stravinsky’s harmonic and rhythmic innovations. For the time being British music remained conservative. Since the war all that has changed. There is hardly an area of music that hasn’t been strongly affected by some British composer or other, most remarkably opera. In spite of works by Vaughan Williams and others, it was Benjamin Britten’s (1913-76) Peter Grimes (1945) that finally took up the opera challenge laid down by Purcell three centuries earlier. An amazing work, it set Britten on a course that produced several more operatic works of note, much instrumental and orchestral music, and several fine vocal works. His near contemporary Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) also responds to his country’s diverse traditions in music that recalls the distant past, rediscovers the oratorio and vocal polyphony, and combines them into works of unique beauty.

And the renaissance continues…
Of a younger generation, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-) voices a more progressive strain related to, but independent of, the European mainstream. He’s also achieved popular successes, not least in his operatic masterpiece Gawain. But he is working in a climate that has encouraged all forms of composition thanks to the work of the BBC, the Arts Council and other funding institutions. Even in the field of electronic music, the last place one would expect to find British composers, composers such as Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) have secured international reputations. There are echoes of American minimalism in the music of Michael Nyman (1944-), all-out serialism in Brian Ferneyhough (1943-), and born-again romanticism from Nicholas Maw (1935-2009). British composers haven’t been so popular since the early baroque.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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