Thursday, 7 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part Two

Pre-Great War Pastoral Music
This essay is not a history of British pastoral music. However, the genre existed for a number prior to the Great War.
If we hold to Ted Perkins three point definition of pastoral music it is necessary to exclude a number of pieces seemingly fit the bill.
Works like Edward German’s delightful opera ‘Merrie England’ and Luard Selby’s Village Suite are more ‘bucolic’ than pastoral.  John Blackwood McEwan’s Grey Galloway is a tone-poem more in akin to Liszt than a piece of pastoral music alluding to a landscape.  Many character pieces display rustic titles that were added by the publisher after the music was composed.
During the first three decades of the twentieth century many Rhapsodies were composed using folksongs and national tunes. These are often well-written and finely orchestrated but are usually just a pot-pourri of well-known melodies.
Much nearer to our definition are two important tone-poems by George Butterworth – On the Banks of Green Willow and his Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad.  This latter is a melancholic work that reflects on the transience of life. It fulfils all of Perkin’s criteria in spite of its musical subject being a song written by the composer himself.  Both were composed before the Great War.

The Wartime Situation
Looking at British music composed during the 1914-18 War reveals two predominant responses to unfolding events:-
Firstly, there were ‘wartime’ works by Sir Edward Elgar (and others) which included Polonia, a rhapsody on popular and patriotic Polish tunes. There were also the recitations now deemed ephemeral, such as Le Drapeau Belge – The Belgian Flag and Une Voix dans le Desert – A Voice in the Desert. 
The second response to the shattering world events was ‘business as usual’. It is difficult to read any great war-torn trauma in contemporary works by Havergal Brian, Frederick Delius or Percy Grainger.
The musicologist Lewis Foreman has noted only one ‘war symphony’ dating from 1914-18 – Thomas Dunhill’s A minor.
One important exception is Herbert Howells. Better remembered today as a prolific composer of liturgical and organ music, his earlier output included many orchestral and chamber works. The ‘Elegy’ for viola and String Quartet and String Orchestra from 1917 and the 'The B's' Suite for full orchestra written in 1914 both contain heartfelt ‘elegiac’ music commemorating friends and colleagues who had fallen or were combatants. In particular Francis Purcell Warren who was reported missing at Mons in July 1916. Other musicians ‘remembered’ by Howells included Arthur Benjamin, an Australian, who became a prisoner of war, Arthur Bliss who was later wounded on the Western Front and Ivor ‘Bertie’ Gurney.

The Post War Situation.
Pastoralism was only one musical response to the social, political and artistic challenges to emerge from the war. On September 3 1912 Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces had been heard in London for the first time. As can be imagined, it drew considerable negative criticism.   It was a work that impressed Peter Warlock who felt that ‘one gets now and again a glimpse…of some weird, new country, and although one can only see it from a distance, there is a strange fascination in the idea of its further possibilities.’
In the United Kingdom there was a considerable diversity of musical expression. Elgar, Holst and Delius continued writing characteristic music until their deaths in 1934.   Bax was inspired by Eire and produced a series of evocative scores. John Ireland wrote urbane music that often evoked a kind of English impressionism: certainly they were given titles such as Amberley Wild Brooks and The Towing Path.
After the 1914-18 War, Frank Bridge developed ‘disturbing’ tendencies. Once a composer of powerful, romantic orchestral tone-poems and character pieces for piano, his musical language began to reflect Modernistic developments from the Continent including the music of Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Bridge did not entirely lose his post Brahmsian voice, but in works such as the Piano Sonata he was exploring radical new territory.
Arthur Bliss, who was later to become Master of the Queen’s Music is remembered for his sub-Elgarian Colour Symphony and his biting score to the film Things to Come. Yet in the immediate post-war years he was absorbing influences from Ravel, Stravinsky and Jazz.  His great ‘war’ work was Morning Heroes which was first heard in 1930 and dedicated to his brother Kennard, who had been killed in action.
William Walton was a North Country lad who fell in with the Sitwells and produced his early masterpiece Façade, which looked towards Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for inspiration.  Yet his style soon changed and after adopting neo-classicism exemplified by Portsmouth Point and then Sibelius in his First Symphony. He is best remembered now for his sub-Elgarian marches.
Pastoral music was just one trajectory in the music being written in the post Great War years.

I want to look at three diverse works all of which are claimed by musicologists as belonging to the Pastoral School. They are all composed by men who would have known Chosen Hill with the view towards the Severn and the distant hills.  Two were composed by veterans of the conflict. 
To be continued...

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