The Elusive English Sound
The elusive “English” sound. What is it? Perhaps it’s in the nature of fairies and pixies – invented to conjure feelings of wonderment to soften a bleak reality? Or is it more like the mystery behind the English head of beer – how did it got there? And how do we do it again? I’d like to offer a fragment reminiscent of an answer.
“The Land Without Music”. In his treatise of this same title, German critic Oskar Schmitz voiced a commonly-held view of British musical identity. As it was, Purcell (who died in 1695), was the last major British-born composer, with the writing and performance of music mostly dominated by foreign musicians. Although Schmitz had an ulterior motive to stamp Germanic musical dominance, in true poetic justice, Britain soon after produced a list of internationally acclaimed and influential composers leading through to the 21st century. But the “English” (or British) sound was forged much earlier with far richer results than Schmitz perhaps had knowledge of or admittance to.
The music resembling the beginnings of a British voice was developed within the protected yet creatively fertile care of the church. Before the Norman Conquest of 1066, the polyphony (where the individual voices sing separate lines) that was to emerge in 11th-century manuscripts from Winchester Cathedral had already been fostered. A wide range of vocal and musical forms were evident in 13th and 14th century manuscripts. Simple lyrical melodies were becoming popular and a distinctively English style was beginning to emerge. Forms of polyphonic writing such as rounds appeared in various manuscripts including a 13th-century manuscript preserved from Reading Abbey of Sumer Is Icumen In. English folksong found it’s origin in little works such as these, as does the pastoral depictions of nature which finds its way into modern English music in the later centuries.
As far as composers were concerned, Britain was producing considerable reprentatives, the first major being composer John Dunstable, who was influential across Europe. The “English” sound was gathering recognition when in 1440 Burgundian poet Martin le Franc praised Dunstable’s music, approving of its “contenance angloise”, an “English aspect” characterised by the use of “sprightly consonance” and sophisticated harmonies. A musical identity continued to strengthen by the late 15th century as a florid style of church music developed in the cathedrals in England. William Cornysh the Younger and Robert Fayrfax produced highly ornate Magnificats and motets, many of which are preserved in the Eton Choirbook.
The 16th century saw the Reformation quickly erode the prosperous musical environment that had been so carefully fostered. Thomas Tallis and his pupil William Byrd, as Cathelic sympathisers, were targeted along with all others associated with the “heretical” Catholic establishment. The complexity and sophistication of English choral writing in previous generations reached a high point in the Catholic music of Tallis. The creative freedom previously afforded by the church had allowed him to experiment with complex structures, writing for multiple choirs and, in his famous motet Spem in Alium, music involving 40 separate parts.
Protestant rule waned slightly with the fiercely Catholic Queen Mary’s reign, before it was soon reestablished with Queen Elizabeth I who’s compassionate demeanor meant Tallis and Byrd were able to at least continue composing, however simplified their styles were required to be. And the incidental positives that arose from the methodical destruction of the British musical identity was the introduction of the English language into anthems and hymns which would later be a defining element in the “English” sound. The quiet development of England’s music happened in secret, hidden behind the doors of private homes that housed the publication and performance of smaller less elaborate works, though still impressive.
From here the arts enjoyed a momentary boost in the golden era of poetry and drama with the grandeur and timelessness of Shakespeare and Donne. The art song and the original singer/songwriter in John Dowland crossed boarders, and Italian Renaissance song styles began to seep into British population met with positive response. Dowland had brought certain recognition to the British music world by sharing his exquisite songs and solo lute works laden with intense emotion and direct expression at German, Italian and Danish courts.
The civil war of 1642 saw a deliberate artistic drought lasting for 18 long years – theatres were closed and royal patronage came to a drastic halt with the execution of Charles I. And yet amongst all this, one key event took place that set up the rise of one of Britain’s greatest composers – Henry Purcell. The first major opera of this new era was Venus and Adonis by John Blow, however the success of this work was soon eclipsed by perhaps the most famous English opera of them all, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The opera was given a low-key premiere by the pupils of a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea, West London in 1689, yet it proved immensely influential, and established a lasting taste for opera in the capital.
In the next two centuries, Britain’s musical empire depleted considerably, though its political and economic growth had never been so powerful. Post-Purcell, no English born composer could follow up on the past international successes or compositional developments and the attention seemed to be reserved for the continental acquisition of wealth, land and power. For this reason, many international musicians and composers flocked to the island, including two major figures who brought individual musical identities of their own – the German composers George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Both composers did much to contribute to the growth of musical culture during this extended period – in fact Mozart spent a year in Chelsea. Handel had turned his attention from operas to oratorios and the work that forever linked his name with the form was Messiah, premiered in Dublin in 1742, and gradually endeared audiences to it’s sophisticated vocal lines and interwoven harmonies.
While Handel made considerable advancements in the operatic and oratorio art forms, Mendelssohn made a significant contribution to the British choral tradition. His oratorio Elijah appealed to the amateur choirs and choral societies he had worked hard to establish. He also fostered the talents of a young William Sterndale Bennett. Like Mendelssohn, Bennett contributed some oratorios to the British choral tradition, but achieved greater success as a conductor and teacher. The only real achievement from a native English composer was the oratorio The Crucifixion by Oxford professor John Stainer in 1887. The 19th century also produced the famous comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan, but for much of its lighthearted popularity, neither artist was able to establish themselves with any serious intent. However the 1880s presented some British composers who were finally emerging from the artistic wasteland and producing concert works of real significance. The most famous were the English-born Charles Hubert Parry (another Sterndale Bennett pupil) and Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Both men sought to infuse their otherwise classical works with folk elements from their respective countries arguably for the first time bringing to the forefront an actively defining British sound. However their cultural significance was quickly forgotten when they were eclipsed by another proudly English composer in 1899 and arguably Britain’s greatest and most “English” composer since Purcell – Edward Elgar.
The romantic mysticism of Elgar’s Enigma Variations instantly caught the public’s attention and sparked their imagination. Personalised orchestral portraits of Elgar’s own friends proved intriguing and ambitious – mostly because he had left one portrait indeed a true enigma, which tantalised his audience’s curiosity. While these settings were sublimely attractive for their extra-musical inspirations, they encapsulated what many have described as the quintessential “English” sound. Was it the refined and restrained musical language reflected in typical English society? Was it the grandeur of the orchestra and the way in which he crafted a sophisticated palette of orchestral colours? Or was it Elgar’s own confidence and swagger of a relatively young yet deeply adored Englishman that shone through his music? Prior to the premiere, Elgar had been living the typical life of the artist – starving in obscurity. When he’s efforts were finally recognised, it was on an international scale.
The First World War came as another blow to the vulnerable British music culture. Many musicians were conscripted and never saw another concert hall again. The famous Ralph Vaughan Williams had served as a stretcher bearer and had written his Third Symphony as a response to his experiences in the war. Vaughan Williams was already known for his work with folk tunes so its no surprise he named the work the Pastoral Symphony, and the music reminisces over a bygone era while subtly presenting a dark call to war and duty with bugle sounds he’d heard from the front line. The strong slant toward nostalgia while dryly undercutting it with the bleakness of reality is perhaps just as quintessentially British as Elgar’s enigmas.
In spite of this worldwide cultural impact, an “English Pastoral” style developed further, partly from the incantations of Englishness in the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but also from the application, at least subliminally, of English folk music undertaken by composers including Gustav Holst, Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger – as an Australian, I feel strongly that the fiercely Australian Percy Grainger belongs here. Many composers followed Vaughan Williams’ leading example, as he had, by consequence, become the pinnacle of English folk music. These too included John Ireland, Arnold Bax, E. J. Moeran and Gerald Finzi. It’s curious to note that the “English” sound wasn’t apparent until post-Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and of course would not be the case without the disciples that followed.
As jazz began to infiltrate classical music particularly in places like Paris, British composers like William Walton were flexible enough to adopt such shifts in style. Many of his major works toyed with the pastoral style while adding a contemporary edge to the traditionally folk song. His First Symphony and oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast are perfect examples of such an amalgamation. With political unrest intensifying before and during the Second World War, many musicians fled to the UK, positively contributing to the growth of British musical culture. The German Jewish composer Hans Gál, who lived in Scotland until his death, presented works of German and British influences. Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik had worked alongside fellow composer Witold Lutosławski in cafes around Warsaw during the war and had fled Communist Poland. He became a significant figure of Britain’s evolving new music scene.
While Ethel Smyth and her The March of the Women, and Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time continued to bring international attention and develop the country’s contribution to serious classical music, opera had not really been touched by a British-rendered pen since Purcell. And then Benjamin Britten wrote Peter Grimes and would forever be remembered as the country’s greatest and most influential operatic and art song composer of the early 20th century, bringing a level of text-setting prowess of the English language other composers hadn’t yet managed to achieve. Britten’s distinctive style was recognisably English, and yet managed a modern psychological paradigm akin to Schoenberg which would certainly find its way into the music of future operatic composers.
Along with Britten’s influence, the modernist ideas of Boulez, Stockhausen and the postwar avant-garde began to seep into the styles of the young composers in the 1960s. Harrison Birtwistle’s first opera, Punch and Judy, was one of the reforming operas of the late 20th century. Its close-to-the-bone interpretation of the familiar puppet theatre subject shocked audiences. Equally bludgeoning was Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, a song cycle about the mental illness of King George III that graphically represents the distress and disorientation brought on by his condition. The British sound post-war had been noticeably blurred. Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, although still leading voices, were now seen as establishment figures rather than young radicals. To the extreme of these two is the New Complexist movement, a style of radical modernism instigated by English composers Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy. They have a healthy following including leading composers like Roger Redgate and James Dillon. And English-language opera is moving in new and interesting directions thanks to composers such as George Benjamin, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adés. And although the ‘English’ sound has morphed considerably since Elgar and Britten, composers such as John Rutter stay true to Britain’s well-established choral tradition, English pastoralism is a defining element of David Matthews works, while John Tavener continues to develop minimalism within the realm of religiously-charged works.
Is there a defining quality in western classical music, written by composers born on the isles of Britain? Does it possess a certain “je ne sais quoi” that adequately yet inexplicably defines the “English” sound, however vague? Or perhaps it is all best left in its elusively refined musical abstractions, hinting at times, to a distant accent.