David Matthews composer

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That Intimate, Familiar Sense

Review of The Oxford History of English Music, Volume Two: c.1715 to the present day by John Caldwell

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, November 1999

What exactly is English music? A question one can hardly avoid asking, when the first two composers dealt with in this second volume of The Oxford History of English Music, by John Caldwell, are the Germans Handel and Pepusch. It emerges that, for the most part, Caldwell means music written in England; so, for instance, the Irishman, Michael Balfe, qualifies by virtue of having made his career in London, but his compatriot John Field does not, because, although he came to London for a few years, he spent almost all of his adult life in St Petersburg and Moscow. I can't help feeling, however, that Field's music should have found a place in such a history (is he included in histories of Russian music?), as he is so much more interesting than most of his contemporaries. As it is, there are three brief references to him, none of which mentions his outstanding achievement, the invention of the Nocturne.

The problem becomes more acute when Caldwell reaches the twentieth century. If Handel qualifies, why not Roberto Gerhard, who wrote all his most important music in England after moving here in 1939? Gerhard at least gets a favourable mention, unlike poor Berthold Goldschmidt, sixty years a British resident and fifty years a British citizen, who is returned to the near-oblivion from which he finally emerged at the end of his life. The last chapter has a section on Irish, Scottish and Welsh composers, mostly of this century; but should they all have been marginalized? Judith Weir, for example, is one of the most prominent composers working in England today, but all that is said of her is that she writes "uncompromisingly dissonant music", which will come as a surprise to her. By Caldwell's principles, should Peter Maxwell Davies have been treated so fully, since for the past thirty years he has written all his music in Orkney? And what about the exile Delius? Some of these questions would have not arisen, if 'British' had been substituted for 'English' in the title. I can anticipate Caldwell's objections to that, though his chosen title might have had more validity, had he taken the concept of 'Englishness' more seriously than he does; more of which later.

But Caldwell's achievement in singlehandedly assessing the whole of English music is impressive, none the less. The fact that much of the music discussed in this volume is so un-rewarding - the vast majority of what was written in the century and a half before the English 'Renaissance' at the end of the nineteenth century - does not seem to have discouraged him; his tone rarely lapses into the merely dutiful. While he does not try to exaggerate its quality - "the English reaction to most of this (ie, the Romantic movement) was at first patchy and in the end doomed to failure through lack of artistic resolution in the face of a fickle public taste", he admits, before plunging into the mildewed world of Victorian opera and oratorio - he is always prepared to search for merit on the dustiest shelves. His account of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century musical life in England - which means, almost exclusively, London, with occasional excursions to Oxford and Cambridge - is exhaustive and scholarly. It would seem that Handel's presence in England, though it resulted in some of the most splendid music produced on these shores, was pretty disastrous for the future of music here. English music had always drawn sustenance from foreign influences, but now the reliance on foreign composers and performers, and their continued importation to supply the latest Continental fashions, resulted in a drastic decline of the home-grown product during the latter part of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries. It is a not dissimilar story to the history of English food; and just as English cookery survived (and mostly still survives) in the backwaters of private kitchens rather than in glamorous restaurants, so English music kept going in a modest way in cathedral towns (with the fine choral and organ music of the Wesleys, for instance) and in the long-standing tradition of comic-dialogue operas, which had a spectacular late flowering in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Caldwell writes enthusiastically about the Savoy operas, emphasizing how it was the coincidental meeting of two kindred spirits that produced their sparkling tone (Sullivan by himself, or with others, was just another dull Victorian).

In a similar way, it was the unaccountable workings of genius that brought about the sudden, sensational emergence of Elgar, however well the ground had been prepared by Parry and Stanford. Elgar's Englishness is surely indisputable, even though his main musical influences were German (Schumann, Brahms and Wagner). The tone of voice - highly emotional yet uneasy, sometimes extrovert, sometimes inhibited, romantic, nostalgic - seems quintessentially English, and his music in its quieter moments, as Vaughan Williams said, "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 is drawing attention to a connection between music and the English landscape, which is the key to understanding much of the finest English music of this century. Just as the Romantic movement in English painting a century earlier had found its ideal subject in the landscape, so when Romanticism finally found powerful expression in English music at the turn of the century, it expressed itself above all as a pastoral music, first with Elgar, then with Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax, Tippett and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Britten. The language of this music was grounded in folk song, often deliberately, as in Vaughan Williams and Holst. Elgar himself did not use folk song, but made his own folk music out of his rural childhood experience. Tippett, like Stravinsky, transformed the folk songs he used into something very personal, and eventually did not need their stimulus. English pastoral music has often been attacked by sophisticates as "cowpat music", and indeed it is, in some ways, a naive music; perhaps the last testament to its innocent phase was Britten's Suite on English Folk Songs, significantly entitled A Time There Was, whose poignant ending, with a desolately beautiful folk song collected by Percy Grainger fading out over a C major chord, recalls the "Ewig… ewig…" of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

Today, we are only too aware that the landscape itself has lost its innocence and has turned into something to be exploited, by the tourist industry or by advertisers; above all, it has become something under threat. So we should not be surprised if, when English composers write landscape pieces today, as Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle have done, their outlook tends to be dour and bleak. Yet since, despite all this, nature is not yet spent, a balanced alternative view is still possible, one in which traditional concepts of beauty can co-exist with the truthful, from a more comprehensive, more knowing standpoint. Simon Schama has written in Landscape and Memory of the "veins of myth and memory" that lie beneath the surface of landscape, awaiting rediscovery and evoking a perspective far wider than our initial simple response to the picturesque. This is a fruitful field for the composer.

Caldwell, in a final summarizing chapter, chooses to place more emphasis on English eclecticism and its indebtedness to Europe than he does on Englishness, a tenable viewpoint; but he fails to point out that almost all authentic melody in English music throughout its history, as opposed to that which is purely derivative, has a recognizably English quality which it derives from its association with the vernacular, whether folk song or popular music. Caldwell deals with popular music and folk song in a separate chapter, and so underplays its connection with the art music of the time. And although he ends his history with a prophecy that the future of English music lies in a rapprochement between the serious and the popular - which indeed seems likely - he has not dealt in sufficient detail with the phenomenon of contemporary popular music to show why this should be so. Admittedly, to do this properly would have added another fifty pages or so to an already lengthy book, but in the democratic musical culture of today it simply cannot be ignored, or, as here, confined to half a page of discussion and a list of six artists and groups. Just as serious is Caldwell's refusal to discuss British jazz (both jazz and pop are rather superciliously referred to as "alien stock"). Jazz always seems to get sidelined, but if it can now be openly acknowledged that Duke Ellington is as significant a twentieth-century American composer as Ives, Gershwin or Copland, then it ought to be recognized that British jazz composers such as Mike Westbrook, John Dankworth and Tony Coe are as important as many of the 'serious' composers in this volume. It is, above all, through an integration of jazz into the language of 'serious' contemporary music, a phenomenon that parallels Britain's transformation into a multiracial society, that, I believe, the rapprochement that Caldwell mentions is already coming about. It is extremely difficult, of course, to give an adequate account of contemporary music in a general history, and perhaps it might have been more sensible for Caldwell to have ended his survey in 1945, with the premiere of Peter Grimes. His treatment of living composers is for the most part reasonable and thorough, and, apart from those I have mentioned, there are few undeserved omissions; but although some attempt is made to place composers together in groups, one inevitably gets a somewhat confusing picture of the contemporary scene in this country, whose diversity, however, is one of its healthiest aspects. Despite my reservations, there is still much that is admirable in this volume, and the fact that it is an example of the highest production standards - elegantly printed, full of beautifully engraved music examples, hardly any misprints - makes it the more sad that it will be one of the last to appear from the now defunct Oxford end of OUP's music-books department, whose shameful demise leaves a large gap in English - or British - musical culture.