The British Isles: A Musical Tour – South West England

High cliffs, picturesque harbours, bleak moors, clotted cream teas and thatched cottages – it might be clichéd but the West Country is still one of the nation’s favourite holiday destinations. Composers have been fascinated by its coast and its mysterious Arthurian connections.

Wareham Heath
Holst – Egdon Heath
If Wessex and the West Country is the land of King Arthur, it has been strongly associated in more recent times with the novels of Thomas Hardy. Two musical works have caught Hardy’s characters and landscapes brilliantly. Wareham Heath is Hardy’s fictitious Egdon Heath, which inspired Holst to write an orchestral tone poem as a ‘Homage to Hardy’ in 1927. The work has a bleak and eerie quality almost unmatched in British music. Britten’s song-cycle Winter Words sets to music eight of Hardy’s greatest poems, including ‘The Wagtail and the Baby’.

Holst – Somerset Rhapsody
With its unrivalled Georgian architecture and Roman hot springs it is not surprising Bath is a United Nations World Heritage site. Musically the city played host to Haydn and several eighteenth-century composers and musicians such as Thomas Linley. More recently, on 3 February 1906, the Georgian Pump Room was the scene of the first performance of Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody conducted by the composer. Based entirely on Somerset folk tunes collected by Cecil Sharp, the Rhapsody became one of Holst’s first widely performed works.

Purcell – King Arthur
This has got to be one of the trendiest places on earth. If you like scented candles, dolphin soundtracks and aromatherapy, then stop and shop here because this is the heart of the land for new age travellers. World famous now for the Glastonbury Pop Festival – actually in a little village a short distance from the town – Glastonbury has always had associations with the spiritual, the unworldly and the mysterious, as this is the capital of King Arthur’s Wessex. Elgar and Sullivan have both written about King Arthur and Henry Purcell and Sir Harrison Birtwistle both wrote operas on the Arthurian legends – although Purcell’s, to a text by Dryden, is more a general celebration of English pastoral heritage.

Bax – Tintagel
The northern coast of Cornwall has some of its most dramatic clifftop scenery and in the village of Tintagel, perched precariously atop a cliff with seemingly knife-edged ridges, are the romantic remains of a medieval castle with Arthurian connections. With the waves crashing against the cliffs, this should not be missed. Sir Arthur Bax (1883-1953) was heavily influenced by Celtic culture and on a visit here was inspired to write one of his most atmospheric orchestral tone poems.

Gilbert and Sullivan – The Pirates of Penzance
Once one of the biggest and most prosperous ports in Britain, Penzance is still a bustling harbour town and the gateway for the Isles of Scilly. It inspired W S Gilbert to write the libretto for one of Sullivan’s most popular operettas, The Pirates of Penzance, first performed in Paignton, Devon in 1879.

Malcolm Arnold – The Padstow Lifeboat
Down the road from Tintagel is the harbour town of Padstow, now famous for the restaurant and hotel of popular TV chef Rick Stein, who has been responsible for a renaissance of interest in British sea fish – Padstow is one of the country’s top suppliers of fresh fish. Sir Malcolm Arnold is a lover of Cornwall and his most popular works are his Cornish Dances and his overture The Padstow Lifeboat. Another composer captivated by the northern Cornish coast was Dame Ethel Smyth, a suffragette whose works are now being re-evaluated. Her opera The Wreckers was performed for the first time in its entirety a few years ago. Its overture was a great favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham, but the whole work is certainly worth a listen – some say it anticipates Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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