Setting The Scene – English music in the year of Britten’s birth

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Before embarking on its voyage through all of Britten’s works, Good Morning Britten has a look at the musical climate in England in the year of the composer’s birth, 1913.

It was to be quite a year for music internationally, with the notorious riots at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring setting the tone in Paris at the end of January. In all reality, though, the musical climate in Great Britain was rather less confrontational.

The year falls close to the end of the Edwardian era, whose influence extended up to the start of the First World War. There was a sense of national pride running through the musical works of 1913, with composers taking the opportunity to glory in Great Britain as arguably the most powerful nation in the world, and looking to portray its natural beauty in their orchestral scores.

It is striking how almost all the music published in Britain in 1913 is orchestral, and moreover how the majority of composers were preoccupied with writing programmatic music about the country they lived in. A revealing snapshot of titles from the year includes A London Symphony (Vaughan Williams), North Country Sketches (Delius), Hebridean Symphony (Bantock), St. Paul’s Suite (Holst) and A Shropshire Lad (Butterworth).

Perhaps the biggest work of all to emerge from Britain in 1913, however, was Falstaff, Elgar’s only symphonic poem and one of his creative peaks. An unbroken span of 35 minutes, it vividly characterises the Shakespearean character with remarkably accomplished writing for orchestra, and uses some daring modulations and harmonies that indicate Elgar’s incredible assurance as a composer but also the willingness to push himself musically. Instruments such as the bassoon assume greater importance in the orchestra, and the solemn ending confirms Elgar’s approach to the symphonic poem was rather less extravagant that of his contemporary, Richard Strauss.

Similarly programmatic, Arnold Bax’s Spring Fire, a five movement symphony in all but name, also leaves a lasting impression, but is seldom heard these days. With luminous orchestration, yearning harmonies and powerful climax points it is pure outdoor music, using the orchestra as a vast canvas to paint some unexpectedly luscious pictures of a pagan ceremony found in a Swinburne poem. In this sense Bax was nodding a little towards Diaghilev and the Parisian uproar, but the resultant music remained recognisably British.

Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony, his second in the form, found the composer at pains to point out that his priority was to write a symphony rather than a series of musical pictures. Few could argue, though, that the opening pages, representing dawn mist hanging over the River Thames, are remarkably vivid, particularly when the Westminster chimes are heard. For the Scherzo, Vaughan Williams recommends the listener imagine themselves standing on the Embankment late at night, with the bustle of the nightlife on The Strand not far off. The enduring popularity of this work shows how well he managed to integrate both scholarly discipline and musical imagination.

Frederick Delius was also paying homage to his home country, though his North Country Sketches are concerned specifically with the moors around his Yorkshire birthplace. The four movement suite charts the countryside through the seasons, with an atmospheric evocation of Autumn, a Winter Landscape and a Summer Dance, before the purposeful March of Spring that rounds off one of his most accessible orchestral works.

Bantock, meanwhile, was representing the outer limits of the isles in his Hebridean Symphony, a powerful, single movement spread that, like Elgar’s Falstaff, lasts for close on 35 minutes. There are vivid evocations of the sea and a storm, some incredibly virtuosic writing for brass in the third section, and a clever interpolation of a Hebridean song, the Harris Love Lament, which becomes a statement of victory before, like Elgar, he chooses to end in solemnity.

Two of the more lasting pieces from the year 1913 are the shortest. Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite for strings, written for the St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, is a neat and compact piece, lively and wistful at times while cleverly integrating folk melodies into its concise design. In the finale Greensleeves rises out of the middle of a texture previously dominated by a Dargason, a 16th century dance tune. Meanwhile Butterworth’s The Banks Of Green Willow, based on the folk song of the same name, seems to accurately evoke the lush green countryside of the Sussex Downs through opulent scoring and the memorable melody, shaped like the brow of a hill itself.

Two of Britten’s eventual teachers were also active in this year. John Ireland, whilst working on his symphonic poem The Forgotten Rite, a downtrodden depiction of Jersey’s pagan history, wrote two of his best loved songs, Sea Fever; and The Holy Boy. Ireland’s prowess in writing in longer forms is still to be fully recognised, and this is partly on account of the quality of his song writing. The melody of Sea Fever brings an uncontrollable yearning, while The Holy Boy, popular in a number of arrangements, is wistful and romantic.

Frank Bridge, meanwhile, was showing signs of breaking away from the relatively conventional style of writing he had used to this point. Dance Poem is a 14-minute piece for orchestra that is, in the composer’s own admission, experimental. It is strangely elusive, attractively coloured and uses some pretty exotic harmonies as it breaks into a brightly scored waltz. Later Bridge went much further, breaking almost completely with tonality as his compositional moulds outgrew their origins. Could this restless spirit of progression have drawn Britten in to learn with him?

Having spent a week with the music of Britain in 1913, one thing is clear – the music of Benjamin Britten that I know at this point has very little relation to what was being written here. For sure he became adept at natural evocations of the country he loved, and some commissions were completed for specific national events, but it appears they were done in a very different and much more economical way, less obviously post-Romantic, as many of these works are. It is to be hoped the coming months will reveal a lot more about that, along with many more discoveries!

Much of this music can be found on a Spotify playlist, with the exception of Spring Fire and Dance Poem, which are not available on the service. The following recordings were used as reference:

Elgar: Falstaff, Op.68 – London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti (Decca)
Bax: Spring Fire – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vernon Handley (Chandos)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.2, ‘A London Symphony’ – London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult (Decca)
Delius: North Country Sketches – Ulster Orchestra / Vernon Handley (Chandos)
Bantock: Hebridean Symphony – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vernon Handley (Hyperion)
Holst: St Paul’s Suite – St.Paul Chamber Orchestra / Christopher Hogwood (Decca)
Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Grant Llewellyn
Ireland: Sea Fever – Benjamin Luxon (baritone), Alan Rowlands (piano) (Lyrita)
Ireland: The Holy Boy – Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), John McCabe (piano) (Classic FM)
Bridge: Dance Poem – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

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