British Music: So Who Should We Be Looking Out For in British Music Now?

Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-) studied with Goehr and Birtwistle at the Manchester College of Music (hence ‘Manchester School’). His dramatically expressive early style, best heard in Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), was influenced by the European avant-garde as well as the legacy of Mahler and Schoenberg. For over three decades he has lived on the remote island of Orkney whose landscapes are reflected in his music. The more radical character of his early music has been superseded by an interest in broader symphonic canvases.

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) is the doyen of English composers. Alongside Britten he played a crucial role in the revival of English opera in works of such outstanding beauty as The Midsummer Marriage (1955). His highly lyrical, richly contrapuntal style, heard in his ‘classical’ phase in the Fantasia on a Theme of Corelli (1953), is complemented by a spikier, more dissonant idiom in King Priam (1962) and other works of the period. He is always open to extra-musical influences as diverse as Jungian psychoanalysis and the human rights movement of blacks in America.

Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) studied with pupils of Schoenberg, so he was thoroughly grounded in the serial idiom. He then went on to work with Babbitt at Princeton. His musical tastes are in fact wide, but since the 1970s he has become one of the principal exponents in Britain of electronic music, working at IRCAM and elsewhere. Among his finest works are the electronic compositions Mortuos plango, vivos voco (1980) and Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986).

Oliver Knussen (1952-), like Harvey, studied in both England and America, which allowed him to cultivate a truly cosmopolitan style. His acute sense of orchestral colour, no doubt enhanced by his highly successful work as a conductor, can be heard to fine effect in three symphonies (1967, 1971, 1979). Intricate textures and an interest in counterpoint can also be heard in his operas Where the Wild Things Are (1983) and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985).

Harrison Birtwistle (1934-) is one of few English composers to suggest the violent musical imagery of Varèse in his music (often wedded to the ritualistic preoccupations of Stravinsky). He composes on a broad scale, allowing clearly audible musical processes to unfold in an inevitable, often overwhelming manner, as in The Triumph of Time (1972), arguably his best orchestral work to date. His opera Gawain is an outstanding example of his ability to communicate on the most ambitious scale.

Nicholas Maw (1935-2009) is another English composer who is not afraid of large canvas, as is evidenced in his extraordinary orchestral work Odyssey (1987), championed by Sir Simon Rattle. Unlike the Manchester School composers, he seems to lean towards a more conservative idiom and has a definite penchant for melody (Mahler can sometimes be heard in the background); Odyssey is largely tonal, one might almost say romantic in manner. His compositional voice is, however, most distinctive.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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