Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

A New English Music: Composers and Folk Traditions in England's Musical Renaissance from the Late 19th to the Mid-20th Century

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

A New English Music: Composers and Folk Traditions in England's Musical Renaissance from the Late 19th to the Mid-20th Century

Article excerpt

A New English Music: Composers and Folk Traditions in England's Musical Renaissance from the Late 19th to the Mid-20th Century.

Tim Rayborn. Foreword by Em Marshall-Luck. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016. 306 pp. Illus. Bibliog. Index. ISBN 978-0-7864-9634-1. US$39.95.

This book offers an overview of the leading composers of the so-called 'English Musical Renaissance' (henceforth EMR) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or at least those of them who drew pointedly on folk traditions. Tim Rayborn, a maverick multi-instrumentalist with recording and performance credits in world music and world fusion, as well as in European medieval and folk styles, has undertaken in this book an enthusiastically detailed survey of the life and work of seven English composers: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, E. J. Moeran, George Butterworth, Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock), Gerald Finzi, and Percy Grainger (an Australian, though here treated as an honorary Englishman). Each is granted his own chapter, largely consisting of biographical data presented chronologically, though with a special emphasis on each figure's work with folk song and dance, whether as collector, arranger, composer, or (as often here) all three. These artists' early exposure to traditional music, their theoretical views on this repertory and the human culture sustaining it, their methods of collection, transcription, and publication--these and other topics related to the subject receive detailed treatment. In keeping with the generalist nature of the book, written with the non-specialist in mind, technical discussion of folk influence on the composers' works is kept to a minimum.

Rayborn's thesis is that these composers' involvement in the Folk Revival (and, secondarily, in the parallel 'early music' revival of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English works) fundamentally accounts for England's sudden emergence from compositional obscurity in the early twentieth century. This is an old story, the standard line of many previous studies of the EMR, by Frank Howes, Peter Pirie, Michael Trend, and others, dating back to the 1970s and earlier, and in taking this tack Rayborn treads well-travelled ground. Where his effort differs from theirs is in the intensity of his bibliographical focus and in his doggedly biographical approach. With respect to the former, he is clearly determined to include everything related to the subject and to document it thoroughly. The critical apparatus comprises fully one quarter of the book's total length--four or five endnotes per paragraph is typical --and the bibliography consists of a whopping 550 printed and 125 electronic (online) sources. More than half of these entries relate directly to the Folk Revival --or, more specifically, to the activities of our seven composers in that revival--and much of this literature is of very recent vintage. Not even Howes, with his strong folk interests as long-time editor of the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, comes anywhere close to this.

As for the biographical focus, Rayborn is no less thorough. Each chapter provides a compact but still reasonably complete overview of each composer's overall career and not just of his folk song activities. A typical approach, pursued throughout, is to describe a composer's early studies, artistic projects and hopes, premieres, institutional affiliations, personal relationships, and death, in addition to discussing his collecting and arranging work as well as his folk-inspired compositions. The author's exhaustive reading is in evidence here, too, as he cites vast stretches of the scholarly literature on these figures, some of it quite recent. Anthony Murphy's 2012 work on Butterworth's sexual orientation and Ian Maxwell's 2015 debunking of the long-accepted story of Moeran's life-altering war wound, to name but two, are exemplary. …

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