Setting The Scene – English music in 1930 as Britten goes to college

With Listening to Britten having reached the verge of the composer’s move to the Royal College of Music, it seems an appropriate time for Good Morning Britten to pan out a little and look afresh at the musical climate in England that year.

In comparison to continental developments, English music was sitting in a relatively conservative position. In Europe, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms had just received its premiere, while the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were towards the height of their powers. These composers were already having an effect on the teenage Britten, who had heard – and been startled by – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and he had bought and learned the music of the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19, some of Schoenberg’s most exquisite miniatures. 1920s Paris had also left its mark, with Ravel, Satie and his disciples known as ‘Les Six’ and the ‘enfant terrible’ Prokofiev just some of the active composers, while Kurt Weill was enjoying success with The Threepenny Opera in Berlin. So what of the music of Britten’s own country?

The two composers that oversaw his admission to the college were busy. Vaughan Williams was well in to his creative stride, and 1930 saw the completion and premiere of Job: A Masque for Dancing, a one-act ballet in nine scenes based on the biblical story of Job and his ultimate resistance to temptation. There is some striking music here, particularly Satan’s Dance of Triumph and the solace of the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning and the Altar Dance, and the work is generally regarded as the beginning of a new era for English ballet.

John Ireland was also reaching compositional heights, and October 1930 saw the premiere of one of his crowning glories, the Piano Concerto in E flat major. Britten was at the first performance, describing the work initially as ‘very beautiful, interesting and excellently played’, before a little less kindly deciding six years later that ‘the work wears terribly thin – bad scoring and orchestration; and all the lush beauty of the 1890s Ballades dressed in modern clichés’. The former observation is the more accurate, for this piece, uncommonly exuberant for Ireland, brings forward a freshness perhaps reflecting the personality of its dedicatee, Helen Perkin. It is a fine work, full of tuneful interactions and lively rhythms.

A key event in 1930 was the formation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sir Adrian Boult, a conductor that Britten had very little time for – but under whose guidance English musical life was greatly enriched. The music of Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams received some of its very best performances under his baton, while new music – in a sense – was also enriched.

Despite the relative conservatism in musical language, there were some composers who were prepared to look abroad for their influences. Holst remained keen to exploit his knowledge of Eastern harmonies, while Granville Bantock went a step further with his Oriental Rhapsody for brass band. Constant Lambert, meanwhile, was leaning more towards jazz and bluesy harmonies in his impressive three movement Piano Sonata, completed in 1929, and was now at work on his Concerto for Piano and Nine Players, which was about to reveal his darker side the following year.

Holst was at the peak of his powers, producing a number of works that have fallen under the radar but which are more radical than many of his English contemporaries. Imogen, the composer’s daughter, went as far as declaring in her father’s biography that 1930 was ‘one of the best years for composing that Holst had ever known’.

In that year he completed the comedic opera in one act, The Wandering Scholar, a slightly bawdy but highly enjoyable morality tale laced with laughs, a chance for the composer to let his hair down with some appropriately risqué tunes and orchestration. Much more serious was the Choral Fantasia, an elusive single movement piece lasting just over a quarter of an hour setting a text by Robert Bridges. The opening phrase famously drew a comment from the Observer critic present at the premiere, saying ‘when Holst begins…on a six-four of G and a C# below that, with an air of take it or leave it, one is inclined to leave it’. They don’t write reviews like that these days!

His finest achievement of 1930, though was Hammersmith, a Prelude and Scherzo originally for brass band but later expanded for full orchestra. The piece paints a vivid and detailed picture of his favourite London suburb within a close-knit structure, beginning with a remarkable description of the flowing Thames before more raucous scenes out on the town.

Holst was approaching the end of his life, but was not as conscious of this event as Elgar and Delius were. Elgar had all but exhausted his creative urges, but found a last burst of energy to complete the Severn Suite, an enjoyable portrait of his favourite area of the country. Delius was even more aware of the passing of time, and his Songs of Farewell, written when the composer was both blind and crippled, are somehow beautifully weightless, as if half way to another world already. The last song, Now finale to the shore, a setting of Whitman, accepts its fate with a perhaps unexpected sense of joy. The Violin Sonata no.3 of the same year, however, is less easy to love, for musically it appears to go around in a circular motion, despite a latent charm.

There was no work by William Walton, though one of the great new hopes of English music was to cement his place further the following year with Belshazzar’s Feast. Completed in 1930, and on a similar scale to that choral epic was Morning Heroes, Arthur Bliss’s multi-movement suite for speaker, chorus and orchestra that served as a requiem for his brother. This is a big, unwieldy piece that nonetheless makes a powerful statement, and, standing half way between the World Wars, learns from the first in exorcising the horrible ghosts of trench warfare, while anticipating the second in its settings of poems concerned with or about war. Bold and passionate, The City’s Arming, again a setting of Walt Whitman, is a full-blooded and dramatic response to text.

The sheer number of composers at work in England in 1930 is striking, and those who might today be considered as minor figures had plenty to say for themselves. The single movement Piano Concerto no.1 of William Alwyn is an energetic piece, saying plenty in its quarter-hour duration and doing so with vigour and invention. Rather more imposing is Winter Legends, a work by Arnold Bax for the same forces, but this is an impressive piece that does not outstay its welcome, richly orchestrated and powerfully wrought for the solo instrument, the forces setting out heroic tales of the far North – that is, the Arctic Circle. Perhaps even better is the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, where Bax has some fun with pithy melodies and unexpected orchestral outputs. Bax also completed his Nonet in 1930, a charming piece rich in instrumental colour.

Frank Bridge, who remained the most influential teacher on Britten, continued to resolutely follow the path that took him closer than any of his contemporaries to musical trends in Europe. Oration, subtitled Concerto elegiac, is one of his most lasting and moving compositions, written as a fierce expression of his pacifism, and subtitled as a ‘funeral address over the lost in the 1914-18 war’. It is a passionate single movement utterance, never letting go in its intensity as it shudders at the horrors of war, yet its solemn ending offers hope for peace.

When we last took a snapshot of music in 1913, the year of Britten’s birth, the preoccupation of many composers was representing the country in which they lived in musical form. By 1930 this had died down, save for the Severn Suite and Hammersmith, with composers now willing to attempt bigger and bolder forms. The spectre of the First World War could still be seen in the more passionate music, yet the range of styles – while hardly as pioneering as the continent – had grown.

Having been immersed in the music of 1930 for close on a week, it remains clear that Britten’s thinking was rather different to that of his contemporaries, still more aligned to Bridge and a little Holst than anything else. As he studied at college, Britten composed with impressive fluency but was a frustrated figure at times, forcing the divide between him and the ‘establishment’ ever wider, awakening the possibility of a genuinely individual and unique musical voice.

Much of this music can be found on a Spotify playlist. The following recordings were used as reference:

Vaughan Williams: Job – A Masque for Dancing – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult (EMI)
Ireland: Piano Concerto in E flat major – John Lenehan, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / John Wilson (Naxos)
Holst: A Choral Fantasia Op.51 – Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Purcell Singers, English Chamber Orchestra / Imogen Holst (EMI)
Holst: Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo Op.52 – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult (Lyrita)
Elgar: Severn Suite Op.87 – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Edward Elgar (EMI)
Delius: Songs of Farewell – Sally Burgess (mezzo-soprano), Bryn Terfel (baritone), Waynflete Singers, Southern Voices, Members of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Delius: Violin Sonata no.3 – Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Eric Fenby (piano) (EMI)
Bliss: Morning Heroes – John Westbrook (orator), Liverpool Philharmonic Choir & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves (EMI)
Alwyn: Piano Concerto no.1 – Howard Shelley, London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Bax: Winter Legends – Margaret Fingerhut (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bryden Thomson (Chandos)
Bax: Overture to a Picaresque Comedy – Royal Scottish National Orchestra / David Lloyd Jones (Naxos)
Bax: Nonet – Nash Ensemble (Hyperion)
Bridge: Oration (Concerto elegiaco) – Steven Isserlis (cello), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Hugh Wolff (BIS)

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