Monday, 4 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part One

Herbert Howells
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...


Mathias Richter said...

Thanks for starting this series! I am eagerly awaiting the continuation!

Perhaps you will write about that aspect later but it would be interesting to find out WHY composers have been condemned and derided for writing pastoral music. You have already covered parts of this in your very perceptive essay about the complex history and reception of Julius Harrison's Bredon Hill rhapsody.

Pastoralism in literature has a long and acclaimed history. Only in its later incarnation as Georgian Poetry it suffered the same fate as pastoralism in music.
I would like to take a different point of view: English pastoralism is the late equivalent to the many national schools which developed all around Europe during the 19th and early 20th century but unlike many of those it steered more or less clear of chauvinistic nationalism by concentrating on landscape and folklore instead of politics and heroes. This is of course a simplification but it may explain why pastoralism is still attractive to listeners and even contemporary British composers. The problem is that it can be exploited for political purposes. Unfortunately this has happened, perhaps less in England than in Nazi Germany. But by remembering that pastoralism is vulnerable to political exploitation one shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Listening at a superficial level it may give 'warm, cosy feelings about an England that used to exist' but at a deeper level it brings us back to reflect about the sources of live. It can have a cathartic effect. Like taking a walk along the country in spring it can refresh physically and mentally. It doesn't manipulate.

You have mentioned Ted Perkins's attempts at defining pastoralism in music elsewhere but I am sceptical about his selection of markers:
1) Why should music of the Tudor era be a marker for pastoralism? I do not consider RVW's Tallis Fantasia as pastoral music. The Tudor revival is a very complex phenomenon and not restricted to music.
To me 2) and 3) seem to contradict: how do impressionistic techniques and neo-classical colouring go hand in hand? If one looks at Debussy/Ravel and Stravinsky as the main exponents of impressionism and neo-classicism they have little in common. Nor would I describe anything written by them as pastoral. Pastoralism is a late flowering of European romanticism.

Eric Saylor's concept is less rigid but should be handled with care. Your analysis of Ian Venables Op. 11 is a fine example how to deal with this concept in a productive way.

Eric Saylor said...

For whatever it's worth, I'm currently at work on expanding my observations on pastoral music (that originally appeared in an essay published in The Musical Quarterly) into a full length monograph, which I anticipate submitting to my publisher by the spring of 2016, if not earlier. There will be a lot of complicating of a lot of assumptions about pastoralism, believe me.