Foundations – Britten and Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Holst

Gustav Holst

To put it politely, Britten had a mixed relationship with the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. There are many dismissive quotes from him about the music of both – and indeed it could be said they were influential in a contrary way, for at times it seems Britten wanted to compose at the other end of the spectrum, avoiding any associations with their work. “I am absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes”, he said in 1931. Or worse, four years later, “Certainly the best way to make me like Elgar is to listen to him after Vaughan Williams”.

And yet there are mitigating circumstances. The first case for the defence is a searing, operatic account of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius made for Decca in 1971, the culmination of an admiration that Britten developed for the composer. Michael Kennedy talks about how Britten apparently made nine takes of the Prelude before he was satisfied, and was generally fussy throughout the recording about the outcome. The Prelude is indeed beautifully pointed Prelude, the mid to lower strings shrouded in mist, and there is a really impressive heft to the first orchestral climax, ushered in by a thrilling roll of percussion.

The London Symphony Orchestra strings are among the few to completely nail the tricky fugue in the Demons’ chorus, which has a real frisson of terror, while the moment where the choir sing ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ is truly visionary. Sir Peter Pears inhabits the role of Gerontius with great ease, singing in a fulsome tone and really living the moment. The whole piece comes to a climax at Gerontius’ death, as it should, and the moment just before Pears sings ‘take me away’ really feels like the climactic moment of the piece. The closing pages, from 5’20” onward in the final section, are radiantly beautiful.

It appears Britten never fully understood the music of Vaughan Williams for his own means, and there are several withering comments in the biographies that speak of an outright dislike of what he rather harshly saw as a reliance on folksong, as well as formal shortcomings. Even though Britten admired a masterly work such as the Symphony no.4 in F minor, its composer did not escape criticism. And yet, once again, Britten’s attitude mellowed at Vaughan Williams’ death, enough for him to say that ‘we will miss him sadly – above all, his wonderful, uncompromising courage for fighting for all those things he believed in’. Britten accompanied Pears and the Zorian Quartet in a wonderful, translucent account of the Housman song cycle On Wenlock Edge. The six perform Bredon Hill with a keen sense of atmosphere, effortlessly evoking the sense of a misty morning.

Delius registers little on the Britten radar, save for an account of the Two Aquarelles, Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra for Decca. However John Bridcut records Britten declaring that On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring was ‘perhaps the piece of music that brings tears most easily to the eyes of an expatriate Englishmen’. However other pieces are seldom referred to.

No, of the first generation British composers in the 20th century, Britten reserved special admiration for Gustav Holst. Holst had a much wider outlook than his contemporaries, and although he used folksong as a prominent part of his music he looked a lot further afield, as far as India and Japan, for inspiration – something Britten was also to do on visits to Bali and Japan. The Hymn Of Jesus, Holst’s response to the First World War, appears to have left a lasting impression on Britten, its unusual musical language, text setting and interesting perspective – with choirs split and ideally displaced from each other – all elements that stuck with the younger composer.

While Britten did not record this piece he did conduct an unusually desolate account of Egdon Heath at Orford Church in 1961, an account preserved by the BBC for their Britten The Performer series. Its creeping bass strings and ghostly, slowly shifting patterns are strangely unnerving. Britten also accompanied Pears in the highly unusual 12 Humbert Wolfe Settings, Op.48, songs of unusual melodic and harmonic contours that end with the extraordinary Betelgeuse. This song, an otherworldly utterance that is every bit as remote as Neptune from The Planets, exists in a different time frame to the other eleven in the set, and Pears and Britten recognise its strange and far reaching qualities.

Britten was to prove different again from his immediate English musical ancestors – but two contemporaries from that generation, John Ireland and Frank Bridge, were to have a strong bearing on his musical direction in his teens and twenties.

The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist, save for the recordings in the Britten the Performer series. The following recordings were used as reference:

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius – Sir Peter Pears (tenor), Yvonne Minton (mezzo-soprano), John Shirley-Quirk (baritone), Choir of King’s College Cambridge, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge – Sir Peter Pears (tenor), Zorian String Quartet, Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Holst: The Hymn Of Jesus – BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult (Decca)
Holst: Egdon Heath – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC / IMG Artists)

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