Saturday, 9 February 2013

A German View of Musical England: Percy Scholes (1917)


I came across this interesting chapter on English Music from a German perspective by a British author written during the First World War. The author is Percy Scholes (1877-1958) who was an English musician, music journalist and writer. He is probably best remembered for his editorship and compilation of the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Music.  Equally useful are his two volume set The Mirror of Music which was a celebration of the centenary of the  Musical Times  At a scholarly level he is recalled for his still-unequalled The Great Doctor Burney. One of his less well known books is Everyman and His Music: Simple Papers on Varied Subjects. The essays in this book were reprinted from Everyman, the Evening Standard and The Music Student.  Alas, I do not know which publication this present essay is derived from. I make no comment on Scholes viewpoint but simply remind the reader as to when the words were written!
Finally I have not glossed every name mentioned in the text –only those composers and musicians who are relatively unknown.

‘How little do Englishmen know about their national music? How little do they realise the position their past entitles them to take up and the airs they are entitled to display in view of the great deeds of their musical ancestors. Sometimes it almost seems as though, like Uriah Heep, they rejoice in being ‘very 'umble.’
‘No original painting, no original music, were cradled in Tudor England.’ That is a sweeping statement, and it is made by one who writes with great authority upon the period in question. I read it a few months ago in a British Academy lecture on ‘Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance,’ [1] and have spent the time since in gathering courage to oppose its author. The statement is but one more example of our most unbecoming national humility in musical matters. Its author is our great Shakespeare expert; the standard work on Shakespeare is his, and its recent new edition has placed him, if possible, still higher in the estimation of every student of English literature. The lightest word he may utter about Shakespeare or the England of Shakespeare's days is likely to reverberate for a long time in the pages of those lesser authors who make their books out of the writings of the greater ones. It becomes a duty, therefore, if one has evidence against any one of his statements to put it forth. This is a time when we are all feeling so very patriotic that anything we may say in favour of our own country is probably subject to some discount. Already, in a previous chapter in this volume, I have briefly alluded to the doings of English composers during the Tudor period. This time I will leave my own views largely on one side and quote from a German writer, Professor Johannes Wolf, of Berlin. For the most part he refers to the very period mentioned: ‘We know the praise of Erasmus, who said that the English challenged the prerogative of being the most accomplished in music of any people’.
More than thirty years before Buus, Willaert, and Bendusi,[3] who began the evolution of Italian clavier music at Venice, England had an excellent composer for the virginals in Hughe Ashton [4] Already, about 1510, his compositions show that element highly developed which demands our peculiar consideration in the English virginal music; the variation, especially of songs and dances. The researches of historians have established the great influence that this technique of the English virginalists produced on the art of the Continent, at first on the music of the Netherlands. Dr. John Bull (1563-1628) and Peter Philips (1560-1625), two excellent masters, were those who interposed; Jan Pieter Sweelinck (1562-1621) was their docile disciple, and his school was of the greatest importance for Northern Germany through his pupils Scheldt, Scheidemann, Praetorius, Schildt and Siefert. ‘This English virginal music seems to be original; the works of [William] Byrd (1593-1623), [John] Bull, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), [Thomas] Morley (1557-1602), [Giles] Farneby (1565-1640), and later of [Henry] Purcell (1659-1695), are worthy of our greatest attention. In these small musical pictures we are surprised at the richness of fancy, the delicacy of the ornaments, the character of the melodic line, and often the audacity of the harmony. Just in harmonic relation, we cannot but admire the art of Dr. Bull, especially in his first hexachord fancy, which may be compared with Bach's grand art in the Well-tempered Clavier. In general, here we find the fundaments of clavier-technique.’
Professor Wolf is quite right in his last statement, quoted above. It would be literally true to say that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin built upon an English foundation. When he comes to the English choral music of the end of the Tudor period Professor Wolf is just as ungrudging, and, as a matter of fact, he has every musical historian of importance at his back in every assertion he makes. ‘The great period of English instrumental practice was also the golden age of vocal music. Let us only touch the characteristic forms. It is true that the madrigal is not an original fruit of the tree of English art, and has not enjoyed a long life in the British Isles, and yet the specimens of [Thomas] Morley, [John] Dowland (1563-1626), [Thomas] Weelkes (1575-1623), [John] Bennett [16th-17th century], [Orlando] Gibbons belong to the best that has been ever created in this form, and are, after a life of three hundred years, as fresh as in their first days. There is, for instance, not any madrigal better known than the ‘Fire! Fire!’ of Thomas Morley. A great part of these songs have become the property of the German choirs. ‘The madrigal is not an original fruit of the tree of English art,’ says the professor. This is true enough, and the same words might be used of the sonnet. In each case England took a form of art from Italy, but quickly breathed into it the national spirit, and made it a means of English artistic expression.
I had meant to quote also from eminent Belgian and Danish writers, but there is no space, without lengthening this chapter unduly, to do more than give the German professor's forecast of our musical future.  ‘We hear in these days the musical emanations of many periods of English history, and we are ravished. A nation that is so rich in beautiful music, and has advanced the evolution of music in the way the English have done belongs to the elect. It is true that in the last two centuries other nations have had the leading position, but once, and perhaps soon, the call will sound again: ‘English musicians to the front! We know the English love of music, we know their work in the past and in the present, and with full conviction and joy we join in the poet's words: Blessed England, full of melody.’ So much for a German view of musical England.’
Percy Alfred Scholes: Everyman and His Music: Simple Papers on Varied Subjects The Music Lover's Library (1917) [with minor edits]

NOTES:-
[1]  Sir Sidney Lee Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance Sir Sidney Lee, D.Litt.
Fellow of the Academy The Annual Shakespeare Lecture, 1915 p7
[2] Professor Johannes Wolf (1869-1947) was a German musicologist. He studies at Berlin and Leipzig Universities. He subsequently became professor at Berlin. In 1915 he was working at the Prussian State Library and was latterly director of the music collections.
[3] Jacques Buus (c1500-1565), Adriano Willaert (1480-1562) and Francesco Bendusi (b.Sienna –c.1553)
[4] Hughe Ashton (Hugh Aston) (c. 1485-1558) was an English composer of the early Tudor period. While little of his music survives, he is notable for his innovative keyboard and church music writing. (Wikipedia)
 
 


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