The British Isles: A Musical Tour – Heart of England

Those stuck in an M6 traffic jam on a rainy Friday afternoon may start to wonder what it was about the Heart of England that inspired the likes of Holst, Elgar and Delius. Try exploring the Cotswolds countryside or cathedral cities such as Worcester and Lincoln, however…

Haydn – Symphony No. 92 (‘Oxford’)
Though there is much in Oxford to inspire a composer (not least, the city’s legendary football team), Haydn’s Symphony No. 92, completed in 1789, was actually called ‘Oxford’ because he conducted it when he received his honorary doctorate from the University in the Sheldonian Theatre, July 1791. It was originally written for the French aristocrat, the Comte D’Ogny.

Howells – Gloucester Service
Generations fo choristers have been brought up on Howells’s settings of the canticles, composed for some of the country’s finest choirs and most impressive cathedrals and chapels – the Gloucester Service, written in 1946, is one of the earliest and more familiar. Howells was, in fact, not a particularly religious man and the inspiration came more from settings and the people he associated with them than from religious subject matter. His love of Gloucestershire is further borne out by his ‘In Gloucestershire’ String Quartet of 1923.

Gustav Holst’s birthplace
Holst was born into a paradoxically musical but silent household – his father, Adolph, had to practise the piano on a silent keyboard because the sound of repeated scales was beginning to drive Gustav’s mother, Clara, to distraction! Nonetheless, Holst’s earliest musical experiences – gained partly from hearing a hurdy-gurdy man in the streets – had a profound influence on his later composition and his affection for his birthplace is reflected in the ‘Cotswold Symphony’.

Elgar’s early years
The quintessentially English composer was born in quintessentially English countryside, at Broadheath in Worcestershire in 1858. however, his family soon moved to Worcester, where the young Elgar cut his musical teeth in the Cathedral and on his father’s piano-tuning rounds. Much of his work is infused with allusions to his geographical background, most manifestly, perhaps, the Enigma Variations, a couple of which, ‘W.N.’ and ‘Troyte’, portray Elgar’s Worcestershire acquaintances.

Britten – War Requiem
Teh newly completed Coventry Cathedral, 30 May 1962, was the setting for the premiere of Britten’s deeply moving yet bitterly ironic War Requiem, in which the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead is set alongside the war poems of Wilfred Owen. The work, paid for by the Cathedral authorities, was hailed as a triumph even before its first performance and Britten was hailed as a national treasure – completely missing the unnationalistic tone of the Requiem itself.

Wenlock Edge, Shropshire
Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge
According to Vaughan Williams’s second wife, Ursula, AE Housman’s poem cycle A Shropshire Lad was a ‘gift for composers’, being set to music many times in the 25 years after its composition. The title of Vaughan Williams’s song-cycle On Wenlock Edge is taken from the opening line of the 31st poem of Housman’s work and refers to the range of hills that runs East to West through Shropshire.

Butterworth – A Shropshire Lad
George Butterworth was another composer who, according to Housman’s biographer Richards, ‘helped themselves to fame and popularity’ by setting the poet’s work to music. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams were close contemporaries, so it is hardly surprising that they used similar material for their composition. Indeed, it was on Butterworth’s suggestion that Vaughan Williams set about writing his first symphony.

Brigg, Lincolnshire
Delius – Brigg Fair
Delius had the folksong ‘Brigg Fair’ brought to his attention by Percy Grainger, who had originally copied it down on hearing it sung locally. According to Eric Fenby, Grainger considered Delius the most able person to set the tune to an accompaniment. The Lincolnshire town of Brigg, though unspectacular, used to be the scene of an important market, hence the folksong.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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