David Matthews composer
 
 
 

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The Music of English Pastoral

Originally published in Town and Country, edited by Anthony Barnett and Roger Scruton, Jonathan Cape, 1998

The English landscape has been the inspiration of much of our greatest painting and poetry, and has also profoundly affected English composers since the end of the nineteenth century, when a pastoral school began which in many respects parallels the school of English landscape painters a century earlier.

The association of music with landscape is essentially a Romantic phenomenon, a departure from the Classical conception of music as an abstract language concerned in a general way with the expression of feeling but with no particular relation to the external world. At the end of the eighteenth century, Classicism, the art of the city, and of man as political and social animal, decorously practising religion, ordering nature into formal gardens and parks, gave way to Romanticism, with its central image of the emancipated individual wandering alone through the world amidst the splendour and beauty of wild nature, finding God (if anywhere) in his sense of awe at nature's grandeur. The result, in early Romantic art, was the poetry of Goethe and Wordsworth, the paintings of Friedrich, Constable and Turner; and, in music, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the 'Scène aux champs' from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Weber's Der Freischütz and other pieces that began to explore the new, colouristic possibilities of the symphony orchestra (for landscape music is almost exclusively orchestral). On one of his several visits to this country, Mendelssohn visited Fingal's Cave on the Hebrides; but this early example of musical seascape did not inspire any work of similar quality from his English followers. They were more affected by Elijah, and the result was dozens of dreary oratorios. England did not produce a great Romantic composer until Elgar.

Elgar's music has two voices. One is energetic, extrovert, confident, urban: we associate it with Elgar's own time (what more appropriate music to accompany the images of Edwardian England could there be than the Pomp and Circumstance marches, or the opening of the First Symphony?) but it is grounded in the past too, in visions of medieval chivalry, and above all in the plays of Shakespeare, of which Elgar had a deep knowledge. Despite his swagger, Elgar was an uneasy Edwardian: even at his most confident, his music has a precarious stability. He is conscious that he stands at the end of an era, that what he celebrates will soon vanish. Hence his taking refuge in the past, though here he only finds confirmation of what he senses in the present. In what is perhaps his greatest work, the symphonic poem Falstaff, chivalric splendour fades into wistfulness, and finally into disillusion and death.

In Falstaff we also encounter Elgar's other voice. This is reflective, nostalgic, sometimes heartbreakingly poignant: it is a rural voice, the voice of his native landscape, the Severn valley near Worcester where he grew up. For most of his life Elgar chose to live close to this landscape - in Worcester, Hereford and Malvern - and his music drew strength from its being composed in proximity to the source of its inspiration. Since, however, the musical influences on Elgar's style were almost wholly German - Schumann, Brahms and Wagner - it might seem surprising that he sounds so English. There is no explicit influence of folksong, as in Vaughan Williams or Holst, yet his melodies have a naturalness which is like folk music. Elgar's characteristic melodic fingerprints may be traced back to his childhood: the tunes he invented when a boy are remarkably like those he wrote as an adult. Elgar in fact made his own folk music, and it is not too fanciful to suggest that it came out of the Worcestershire landscape, since this is what he himself said. In his sixties, he wrote to a friend: "I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great." The special quality of Elgar's pastoral music was well expressed by Vaughan Williams when he wrote that it "has that peculiar kind of beauty which gives us, his fellow countrymen, a sense of something familiar - the intimate and personal beauty of our own fields and lanes." Vaughan Williams emphasised that this quality was not found in Elgar's 'popular' style, "but at those moments when he seems to have retired into the solitude of his own sanctuary."

One difference between Elgar and his younger contemporary Delius is that Delius never left the solitude of his own sanctuary. Delius is a supreme Romantic individualist in that his music is exclusively about his own sensations and his relation to the natural world, which he looks at in a typically fin de siècle way: his Nietzschean life-worshIp is tempered with world-weariness, and his love of beauty with an acute consciousness of its evanescence. Delius frequently expresses feelings of nostalgia, in the true meaning of the word: the sense of loss and longing in his music is so painful as to be at times almost unbearable. Nostalgia is a peculiarly English affliction, and this may be one reason why Delius's music sounds English, for though he was born in England his ancestry was German, and his musical background - like Elgar's - was mostly Germanic too, but also included the influence of Grieg, and of the Negro spirituals he heard when he lived in Florida as a young man. Moreover, the landscapes in his mind when he wrote his music were mostly not English: some were Norwegian, from the summer holidays he spent walking among the Norwegian mountains; others French - and especially his own garden at Grez-sur-Loing, outside Paris, where he lived from the age of 35. Despite this cosmopolitanism, Delius's music has a persistently English voice (and incidentally is rarely appreciated outside this country), and he did write one of the crucial English pastoral pieces, the 'English Rhapsody' Brigg Fair, which is based on a folksong that the Australian composer Percy Grainger had collected in north Lincolnshire and presented to Delius in an arrangement for chorus, with chromatic harmonies similar to those Delius himself used. The poignancy of this chromatic harmony changes our perception of the beautiful, innocent tune; it tells us the world it came from is dying, if indeed it ever existed except in the imagination. Brigg Fair was written in 1907 and can be heard now as an elegy for the mythical golden age of rural life that ended with the First World War.

Grainger was an assiduous collector of folksongs between 1905 and 1908, the heyday of the folksong revival headed by Cecil Sharp. Under Sharp's influence, Vaughan Williams too had begun collecting folksongs in 1902 and notated over 600 during the next ten years. This was part of a widespread investigation of our national musical heritage, for at the same time the treasure chest of English music from the Tudor and Jacobean periods was being unearthed, edited and published. Vaughan Williams was also editing The English Hymnal (published in 1906) to which he himself contributed several of the finest hymns in the collection, for example 'Come down, O Love divine', whose tune he called 'Down Ampney' after the village in Gloucestershire where he was born. Some twenty years later he was to edit the Oxford Book of Carols. Despite his own agnosticism, the Anglican Church and its music and traditions were a constantly important factor in Vaughan Williams's life: the Church provided an exemplar of quiet continuity and resistance to ephemeral fashion (at least it did in his day). Folksong, which for Vaughan Williams included hymns and carols, and the choral music of such Tudor composers as Tallis both became central to his musical world, and transformed his musical language. In a series of lectures given in 1932 and published under the title of National Music, Vaughan Williams argued that, in order to be truly universal, music should first be rooted in the composer's native country, and his own music is a vindication of these beliefs.

If I had to single out one piece to demonstrate what I think of as Englishness in music it would be Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony, and specifically the modal opening of the first movement whose soft horn calls over a flattened seventh in the bass seem to summon up an archetypal English landscape of summer pastures and distant hills. Others might choose the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis or The Lark Ascending. In The Lark Ascending, the dialogue between the solitary listener and nature - the lark - becomes, at the end, a monologue for the lark, the solo violin, who leaves the orchestra behind to climb up alone into the clear air. The lark's pentatonic music is a distillation of folksong, and how much more affecting is this song than if Vaughan Williams had tried to imitate it more closely, as Messiaen was later to do. For the lark's song is made a human song and thus, as Wilfrid Mellers has written, "by no other composer is the interdependence of man and Nature more movingly expressed".

This nature music is never nostalgic, as Elgar's or Delius's is; it quietly celebrates the timeless moment - and one can draw comparisons with English mystical writers such as Traherne. But Vaughan Williams is by no means all pastoral idyll. In his Second Symphony, the London, Vaughan Williams paints a vivid and warm-hearted portrait of the city before the First World War, just as Elgar had done in Cockaigne. Both composers see London from their perspective as visitors from the country - there is a certain wide-eyed innocence in their approach, as compared with the svelte sophistication of a genuine city composer like Gershwin. (There is no London equivalent to Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin's great hymn to New York.) The First World War, in which Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance driver, made it impossible to recapture this innocent, benevolent vision of the city, and threatened the tranquillity of his pastoral images. The Fourth Symphony of 1934 is a ferocious piece from which pastoral serenity is all but excluded. It is regained in the Fifth Symphony, but temporarily lost again in the terrifying Sixth, whose unremittingly bleak conclusion some have seen as a prophecy of nuclear winter (it was written just after the end of the Second World War). If the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies are to be called urban - a better word would be anti-pastoral - then Vaughan Williams takes from the modern city only inhuman images of mechanisation and destruction. He is disturbed by these things, but his refusal to ignore them is part of his greatness: his music never becomes one-dimensional. His last works continue his quest for meaning in the modern world, and unsurprisingly come up with no final answer, but the sense of deep calm which was there from the start is never entirely lost.

The darker side of Vaughan Williams owes something to his close friend Gustav Holst, whose music shares the influence of folksong, to which Vaughan Williams had introduced him. Both Vaughan Williams and Holst consciously changed their musical language: their attitude to tradition was different from the previous generation who still drew on a natural inheritance from the past, and is that of the typical twentieth-century composer who makes his own tradition from what he finds most important to him. Vaughan Williams's Englishness, as I have implied, was deliberately cultivated, while Holst made great efforts to reject the nineteenth-century German music on which he had been brought up in favour of a simpler, purer style. It took Holst many years to refine his language so that he could precisely capture the vision he sought: he finally achieved it in late works such as Edgon Heath, an orchestral evocation of Hardy's Wessex landscape. The score of Egdon Heath is prefaced by a quotation from The Return of the Native: "A place perfectly accordant with man's nature - neither ghastly, hateful, not ugly: neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony." The tone of Holst's music corresponds quite uncannily to this description. During the composition of Egdon Heath, Hardy invited Holst to lunch at his house near Dorchester and typically, Holst walked there from Bristol, a distance of some seventy-five miles. The intimate knowledge of the landscape that Holst acquired from his frequent long solitary walks helped produced the inscapes of Egdon Heath which are remote from any facile attempt at scene-painting.

The next generation of English composers had a more equivocal attitude towards folksong and Englishness. Walton was the inheritor of Elgar's popular urban style, and the edgy Romanticism of much of his best music - for instance the Viola Concerto or the First Symphony - is urban too. Walton lived the first past of his life like an eighteenth-century composer, supported by the aristocratic patronage of the Sitwells, and the second half, after his marriage, in Italy, which had always represented his own ideal landscape. His contemporary Michael Tippett, however, while never nationalistic in his outlook, asserted his Englishness when he continued the strain of Vaughan Williams's visionary pastoralism in such pieces as the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the Ritual Dances from his opera The Midsummer Marriage, and the Fantastia on a Theme of Corelli. Tippett initially followed Vaughan Williams in deliberately using folksong as a basis for melody, and the strength and freshness of his renewed pastoralism is striking. Like most important English composers of this century, Tippett chose to live and work in the country and developed a close relation with it, a relation whose fullest expression appears in The Midsummer Marriage, where the uniting of two young couples takes place against the background of a symbolic landscape on Midsummer Day. Tippett's music evokes the life of nature at its most fecund, and there are moments of ecstatic stillness which have no parallel in English music, even in Vaughan Williams at his most rapturous. The lyricism of The Midsummer Marriage persisted in Tippett's music right to the end of his life: in the wonderful slow movement of the Triple Concerto, or in the rarefied, singing lines of the Fifth String Quartet.

At the very time that Tippett was discovering folksong as a fresh way forward, the folksong movement was being amusingly satirised for its preciosity in Music Ho! by Constant Lambert, who claimed that it was a wholly artificial reaction of something that was already dead. Lambert noted that London bus conductors were not singing tunes from Vaughan Williams's folk opera Hugh the Drover but, if anything, the latest American popular hits (this was in 1934). He was wrong, however, in supposing folksong to be now exclusively the province of an effete middle class. He missed its survival in pockets of working-class culture, in town as well as country, where it awaited a second and more extensive revival in the 1950s, when its influence began to spread to current popular music: this continues today - but that is another story. Lambert also attacked "self-conscious Englishry", as he called it, pointing out that "the strength of the English tradition in art is that it has always been open to foreign influences, which have been grafted on to the native plant without causing it to wither away." No one would disagree with that, of course, certainly not Tippett; nor did Vaughan Williams imply that a composer should be totally insular - he himself had studied with Ravel and taken in the productive influence of French musical Impressionism. Folksong simply provided Tippett, as it had provided Vaughan Williams and Holst, with a vernacular language that he could adapt in his own way, just as later he was to make use of the vernacular language of the blues.

Britten, who was twenty when Music Ho! was published, did reject self-conscious Englishry as represented by Vaughan Williams, but he remained loyal to his teacher Frank Bridge who, though his later music inclined towards modernism, had also been a wholehearted pastoralist in such pieces as his orchestral rhapsody Enter Spring. Bridge's tone poem The Sea was the first orchestral work Britten heard as a boy, and in his own words he was "knocked sideways" by it. Britten went on to produce a series of definitive English seascapes in his opera Peter Grimes, inspired by the North Sea at Aldeburgh near which he lived for most of his life. Britten's intuitive understanding of the sea and its various moods in the Four Sea Interludes from the opera is as profound as Holst's had been of the landscape in Egdon Heath.

It can now be seen that Britten's rejection of Vaughan Williams and what he stood for was simply a necessary part of defining his own musical personality, and that in his own way Britten was as attracted to folk music as were his predecessors - he made, after all, over sixty arrangements, or rather re-compositions, of folksongs (including French and American ones), and his highly original harmonisations move the songs out of their old-fashioned contexts, and make their sentiments modern. His ambivalence towards the English tradition was typical of him, the master composer of ambivalences. At the very end of his life Britten wrote what is his most explicit landscape music in his Suite on English Folksongs, 'A time there was' (the subtitle is from Hardy's poem 'Before Life and After', his evocation of lost paradise). The Suite is dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger, and the last movement, 'Lord Melbourne', is based on a folksong that Grainger collected and which is played in the piece by a solo cor anglais exactly as Grainger notated it. At the end, the cor anglais reaches its final phrase as the strings make a cadence into C major, its E flat sounding a bittersweet - and characteristically English - dissonance against the strings' E natural. The words of the folksong here are "But now to death I must yield". The phrase is repeated by the clarinet and, inconclusively, by the flute, while the strings prolong their C major chord, quietly fading into darkness. The effect is similar to the end of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde: man lives and dies, but nature is eternal.

The mood of deep sadness that pervades 'Lord Melbourne' no doubt has much to do with Britten's thoughts on his own impending death, but its elegiac tone is also typical of the way we look at our landscape today. We are constantly reminded that so much of it is threatened in various ways, while at the same time nostalgic imagery from the lost Eden of pre-First World War England pervades our television screens and cinemas, usually accompanied by pastiche Delius or Vaughan Williams, which emphasises that these composers represent a vanished past. It is hard now to look at a beautiful landscape with an innocent eye: its imagery has been ruthlessly sentimentalised by the nostalgia industry, and appropriated by advertisers who use it to try and sell us cars or anything else they choose to thrust at us, indifferently corrupting our sensibilities. This is just one of many reasons why the English pastoral school, which was pre-modern, not to speak of pre-postmodern, cannot be sustained as it was. It belonged to a more innocent age that is gone for ever.

So when English composers today write landscape pieces, their perspective tends to be somewhat bleak. Almost all Peter Maxwell Davies's work in the second half of his life was inspired by his chosen landscape of Orkney, and he has evoked its strange, barren beauty in such pieces as Stone Litany. His musical language, however, grew out of his early immersion in the Second Viennese School, so that his intended Sibelian objectivity has to compete with a tendency to Expressionist angst. It is certainly a deeply troubled music, even desolate. Harrison Birtwistle's music is also dark and tense, and pervaded by undercurrents of violence. We might associate its rough grittiness with the Pennine landscape where he grew up, but it is a dour landscape he gives us, devoid of any spirit of delight, though often with a weird beauty of its own (as for example his Silbury Air, whose starting point was the great prehistoric burial mound of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire). Both composers have an authentic vision to communicate, if a rather narrow one. Both Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle have had a big influence on younger generations of composers, who mostly share their underlying pessimism. For their music would seem generally expressive of an almost universally held feeling today that nature is fighting a losing battle with man, and that the world is headed for ruin. In the face of this profound melancholy about our future, how can we continue to rejoice? How can we not take refuge in the past? And if we try, in an old-fashioned way, to celebrate the beauty of nature, how can we avoid lapsing into sentimentality?

These may, at present, seem impossible questions to answer. And yet, despite our apprehensions, we should not entirely lose heart. We should not forget that the simple fact of the return of spring can still delight us afresh each year, as it always did, and we are not obliged to deconstruct our delight. Nature is not yet spent. And it is particularly appropriate for us now, with our keen awareness of the past, to look deeper into our landscape beyond the innocent eye. In his marvellous book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama demonstrates how Western cultural history is intimately bound up with the landscape, whose contours everywhere reveal the influence of man. He writes about the "veins of myth and memory" that lie beneath the surface of things, waiting to be rediscovered. We do not have to look to other cultures, Schama says, to find surviving nature myths, "of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain": they "are in fact alive and well and all about us if we know where to look for them." To walk in a forest may summon up numerous associations for us, of sacred groves, royal hunts, bloody battles once fought there. Remembering all this, we gain a perspective far wider than our initial simple response to the picturesque.

This is a fruitful field for the composer. The response to nature that Schama describes is not one of nostalgia (though an element of nostalgia may be present) but a more complex feeling that brings the past into communion with the present, and which may be translated directly into music. For instance, towards the end of Holst's Egdon Heath, a grave folk-like tune is heard, like a procession of ghostly dancers drifting across the landscape, while at the very end a trumpet sounds out a lonely fanfare. By these devices, Holst reminds us of the presence of man, "slighted and enduring", in Hardy's words, in the seemingly empty landscape, and thus adds another layer of meaning to the musical experience he provides for us. The use of the vernacular here, in the folk-like tune, is particularly telling, as it was in Britten's 'Lord Melbourne'. In order to invoke memory, music must surely make some use of the musical vernacular - that is, simple diatonic or modal melody - as the most appropriate musical metaphor; for the whole of Western music up to the advent of modernism was grounded in the vernacular. Modernism excluded it, but at great cost to musical language's comprehensiveness.

A pastoral music for the future, then, if there can be such a thing, will be comprehensive, in its musical language and in its content: it will reflect the complex way we now view our landscapes, their richness and their density. (Within such a complexity, beauty too will have a place.) Above all, it must be a genuine expression of feeling. To understand his Third Symphony, Mahler told a friend, "you would yourself have to plunge with me into the very depths of Nature." Mahler sounds like Ruskin here, who advised the young artist to "go to Nature in all singleness of heart… having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning." Singleness of heart, identification with the source of one's inspiration, and, I would add, a kind of intoxicated delight in one's material - this is the only way to produce anything of real value in music, or in any other art.