Monday, 5 July 2010

English Music: Treasures of our Native Art

This overview in The Times newspaper of British music performances in London is exceptionally interesting as it brings together a consideration of a few concerts which took place in the summer of 1915. Mention is made of a number of British works – some which have survived the following 95 years and others that appear to have fallen by the wayside or are awaiting rediscovery. It is interesting to note the anti-German rhetoric insofar as Germanic music had been banned from concert halls: however this is hardly surprising during the First World War. What is interesting is that this sentiment is actually quite measured compared to some of the more virulent propaganda that was prevalent at the time. The author foresaw a time when the German classics would once again be given due weight. Nowadays the British music enthusiast would complain that perhaps too much ‘weight’ was given to the German (and other) classics and not enough attention paid to the home-grown music of the United Kingdom.

Several concerts lately given in London have deserved more attention than it has been possible to devote to them as they occurred day by day, but a retrospect may do a little more than record, since events gain significance by association.
One concert, rather apart from the others, was that which the Oriana Madrigal Society gave at the Aeolian Hall on Tuesday night. It was a programme which sent one away with the feeling that there are a great many good things in the world and that many of them come from England. To place madrigals by Morley[1] , Ward[2] , and Mundy[3] beside songs by Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter is to realise that there is a continuous breath of life in English music, at any rate when it is coupled with English poetry. The words of the first song cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’[4], finely sung and played by Mr. Gervase Elwes, the Philharmonic String Quartet, and Mr. Kennedy Scott, suggested a motto for such concerts as this one; and the sense of continuity in English vocal music was strengthened by its contrast with foreign types, the Two Psalms[5] by Grieg and the delicate songs of Debussy. We only want more programmes of this type, performed with the fine ability which the Oriana singers possess, to realise conclusively what our national place in music has been and will be.
Singers have an admirable opportunity for doing the same thing in their recitals. Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms no longer dominate the field, not from foolish determination to boycott the great masters, but because the German language is unpleasing to listen to just now. Mr. Harry Alexander lately gave an excellent scheme of English and French songs, old and new, in which he showed by his skillful singing what a wealth of variety the two languages offer: and Miss Phyllis Lett performed a very interesting programme which ranged from Bantock and Elgar to Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, and placed some Romanian folk songs beside some Irish ones. Certainly if the great Germans are put aside for the moment in order that we may enlarge our perceptions, and particularly appreciate the treasures of our own song, it is all to the good, and has nothing to do with the type of propaganda which advocates the worst art if only is home made.
In instrumental music the London String Quartet is continuing its important project of ‘Saturday and Monday Popular Concerts’ and last Monday’s audience showed that there is a real demand for them. Ethel Smyth’s string quartet in E minor was played between Dvorak’s quartet in E flat Op.51 and Franck’s quintet for piano and strings. Today a quartet[6] by J.B McEwen is to be heard with Debussy’s quartet and Schubert’s quintet in C for strings. Ethel Smyth’s quartet is one of the best pieces of chamber music in a large form written by a composer of this country, though perhaps it might have been even better if its form had not been quite so large. Each one of its four movements tails off a little in the course of its full development, and along with many distinctive beauties it affords an example of what is a prevalent weakness in the pure instrumental works of our own composers – a lack of sustaining power.
That is why the ‘Fantasy’ idea fostered by Mr. Cobbett’s prize has been so successful. Relieving the composer of the obligation to ‘talk big’ it gives his fancy free play in a single movement, and there is nothing to prevent his fancy from taking a longer flight when its wings are strong enough. Prizes for quartets in full sonata form have just been awarded to Frank Bridge[7] and W.H. Reed, and the former’s work is to be played shortly at a ‘Popular’ concert. These concerts which place modern English works beside modern foreign ones as well as the classics, and perform all with equal sympathy and care, provide the right environment for the development of chamber music. We sincerely hope that they will become a permanent institution.
The Promenade Concerts at the Albert Hall are the only orchestral music which London is getting just now, and the programmes have been as diversified as is possible when the classics of Germany are excluded. Elgar’s Symphony in E flat was played on Thursday night; Lalo’s in G major last night. The latter took the place of Borodin’s symphony, which was postponed until next Friday; and it should be noticed that next Wednesday a programme of Tchaikovsky’s music is to take the place of the miscellaneous one originally planned.
Since our retrospect at this point has already drifted into a prospect, we would call attention to two other important concerts, both of which take place next Friday at the Aeolian Hall. The Philharmonic String Quartet will devote the afternoon to British chamber music, and will follow a new quartet[8] by Arthur Bliss with Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls. Albert Sammon’s Fantasy, and the quartet by Ethel Smyth which we have been considering. In the evening a concert under the auspices of the Société des Concerts Français’ will include Florent Schmitt’s 'Psalm XLVI’ for organ, two pianos, soprano solo, and choir. This concert is given for the benefit of the Comité Général pour les Victimes de la Guerre en Pologne.’

The Times (London) Saturday 19th June 1915 (with minor edits)

1. Thomas Morley (?1557-1602)
2. John Ward, of Canterbury (1571-1638)
3. John Mundy (?- 1630)
4. On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams 1909
5. From the Four Psalms Op. 74, Nos. 2 & 4
6 The ‘Biscay’ Quartet
7. The String Quartet No.2 in G minor. It was finally premiered at the Aeolian Hall on November 4 1915
8. Probably the String Quartet in A major

No comments: