What is “English” Music?

Philharmonia Programmes Editor Joanna Wyld examines “Englishness” in music through the work of three towering English composers: Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, ahead of our concert on 15 April.

Read the full programme notes.

“At the turn of the century young English composers were sick to death of the preponderating German influence which had been stifling English music for 150 years. There were two reactions to this: one on the part of practising musicians like Elgar and Frank Bridge, who realised the value of the classical tradition yet whose utterances were characteristically English; the other, and temporarily more influential, reaction was that of the folksong group… Let American composers take warning from this. There is no more malignant disease than nationalism. Why not make the best of both worlds?”

In an essay of 1940 called ‘An English Composer Sees America’, Benjamin Britten cut to the heart of English music and its different factions – particularly the distinction between composers who embraced Continental styles and those who favoured the use of English folk tunes in their works. Nearly a century later and there is a risk that we are losing sight of these distinctions, too often lumping together the likes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams as “quintessentially English” composers, when they represented quite different schools of thought.

“What I think is awfully interesting is that in this country my music is not considered very English. When one gets abroad … one is considered enormously English.” Benjamin Britten

Elgar is frequently portrayed as the epitome of the English composer: reserved, upright, a generous Edwardian moustache crowning his stiff upper lip. This reputation has undoubtedly been cemented by the use of his music in the Last Night of the Proms, when his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 becomes an opportunity to sing AC Benson’s patriotic “Land of Hope and Glory” amid a sea of flags.

Yet former Director of the Proms Nicholas Kenyon has written eloquently about the nuances of this issue, arguing that if Richard Strauss’s declaration that Elgar was “the first English progressivist” did not quite come true, we may still regard him as “the first great English internationalist”. Elgar travelled widely and drank in what he heard, including all of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde during trips to Europe in 1892–93. Elgar’s Englishness absorbed European trends while exhibiting the supposedly typical English traits of resignation, nobility or, in his lighter moods, a certain jauntiness.

Vaughan Williams began collecting English folk songs in 1903, following in the footsteps of Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. His incorporation of this material into much of his music created an Englishness rooted in the country’s folk tunes – not unlike the approach of ethnomusicologist-composers such as Bartók in Hungary. This was often combined with an aesthetic of spacious, vividly evocative pastoralism of a kind exhibited by fellow English composers like George Butterworth. In the case of others, such as Roger Quilter and Peter Warlock, an interest in Elizabethan culture accentuated their Englishness through association with a very particular era in the country’s history.

Britten, a student of Frank Bridge, was initially sceptical of Vaughan Williams: “I was frankly suspicious of V.W. My struggle all the time was to develop a consciously controlled professional technique. It was a struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seemed to stand for.” Britten’s Englishness is perhaps most apparent in his seascapes – painted with a palette of muted and dark hues that seem to capture the light and swell of the Suffolk coast near his home in Aldeburgh – and in his word setting, for which he was profoundly influenced by the earlier English composer, Henry Purcell. Even so, in 1964 Britten argued compellingly that Englishness is easier to detect from an external perspective:

“What I think is awfully interesting is that in this country my music is not considered very English. When one gets abroad … one is considered enormously English. They can see the flavour of the nationality much more strongly than people here.”

Feature by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld

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