Chosen Hill, with its views over the Vale of Severn toward the Forest of Dean and the Black Mountains, now unbearably close to the M5, acts as a kind of nodal point for a number of British composers. Four in particular demand our attention.
Herbert Howells, whose Piano Quartet is dedicated to a fellow Gloucestershire composer with the inscription ‘To the Hill of Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it".
Then there was Gerald Finzi, born in London but who loved Gloucestershire and the Severn. Finzi was diagnosed with Hodgkinson's Disease in 1951. Five years later, he and Ralph Vaughan Williams went on a walking trip to Chosen Hill. They visited the local sexton’s cottage for tea. Unfortunately, there were children with chickenpox in the house. Finzi contracted the disease. Due to his weakened state it caused severe brain inflammation. So Chosen Hill was to be the death of Finzi.
And finally there is Ralph Vaughan Williams, also a Gloucestershire man born in Down Ampney who loved walking on Chosen Hill. His music is often deemed to evoke various English landscapes.
All four composers have been condemned for writing ‘pastoral’ music.
All four composers have been accused of writing ‘cow pat music’ or of ‘rolling in the mud’ or being ‘just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate’.
Yet ‘English Pastoral’ Music is popular.
It sells CDs and fills concert halls.
It gives the listener warm, cosy feelings about an England that used to exist – sometime in the past, just before our grandparents were born.
It presents an aural impression of an imagined ‘Golden Age’ or ‘Garden of Eden’.
Yet pastoral imagery in music can be tainted. The Fall of Humankind limits its effect.
Like the Shropshire Lad himself the pastoral image has been smutched with violence.
The Great War gouged a great scar in the largely fictional concept of a rural paradise.
What is Pastoral Music?
The musicologist Ted Perkins has suggested that there are at least three stylistic markers for this genre:
1) The use of folksong or modally inspired melody: this can include music from the Tudor era.
2) Impressionistic techniques beloved of Ravel & Debussy
3) A neo-classical, as opposed to sub-Wagnerian romantic, colouring.
To complicate matters further, Eric Saylor has recognised the concept of ‘soft’ pastoral and ‘hard’ pastoral that can be applied to literature and music.
‘Soft Pastoral’ seeks to escape from the relative chaos of urban life to the rural idyll. An example would be The Lark Ascending.‘Hard’ Pastoral would attempt to ‘present an unsentimental view of nature and the countryside, free from escapist trappings.’ Examples include the novels of Thomas Hardy.
To be continued...