Magazine article Musical Times

Running Softly

Magazine article Musical Times

Running Softly

Article excerpt

RICHARD DRAKEFORD explores some of the byways of twentieth-century British music

Now that John Bishop of Thames Publishing has recently died, out of the way yet interesting British music of the past century may need to find another champion. It is all too easy to suppose that, during the twentieth century, British music and musicians lived and worked in a kind of Dark Age doldrums, until salvation turned up with the arrival of Sir William Glock's fascinating BBC Invitation Concerts and revivified Proms. Such is received opinion, yet it is as simplistic as another myth of recent times - that the United Kingdom had no truly professional composer between Purcell and Britten. (After Britten's death it was curious to note that his professionalism seemed to be more admired than his actual music - a viewpoint which would make Rheinberger a greater composer than Musorgsky) But Britten will have his place later in this review. First, though, Martin Lee-Browne led me, at least, to reconsider just how conservative our musical life must have been in the first half of the twentieth century.

I suppose if Frederic Austin is remembered at all today it is for the arrangement that he made of The beggars' opera which wowed theatre-goers in London when it was produced at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in June 1920. The critic of the Times commented:

The airs have been reset with dainty accompaniments which appeal at once to the modern ear, though eighteenth-century feeling is preserved by the use of appropriate instruments, strings, flute, oboe and harpsichord, all of which were played by an accomplished orchestra of ladies under Mr Eugene Goossens' direction.

Perhaps that sounds a little quaint; yet what follows is interesting:

Mr Frederic Austin, as well as taking the part of Peachum, the first of the triumphant villains, has been the Dr Pepusch of today I...I Only once or twice did we feel that his skilful treatment brought a touch of descriptive colouring into the music which was foreign to the spirit of the thing, and such touches were not unwelcome.

Nowadays we prefer, I suppose, our Dr Pepusch pure, or else the more extreme `twentieth-century touches' in Britten's realisation, beside which Austin's may seem a little too gentle.

The beggars' opera apart, Austin's other compositions are a closed book to most of us, and even indeed to Austin's grandson, Martin Lee-Browne, whose otherwise absorbing study is punctuated by some disappointing `don't knows'. Percy Grainger was greatly taken by a late orchestral piece The sea venturers (1935), while much earlier a Symphony in E minor (1913) was thought overscored but progressive. While writing his earlier music Austin was also establishing himself as a singer (in 1914 he sang some of Schoenberg's early Lieder to a London Music Club), and his flair for the stage was such that Beecham gave him the role of Orestes in the first British performances of Richard Strauss's Elektra. He must have been an impressive Wotan also. `His denunciation of the offending Brynhilda was enough to make the whole house quail [...I and he passed with exquisite art to the tender mood when he permitted the parental mood to exert itself' (Yorkshire Daily Observer). Perhaps it was gratitude for these fine performances that caused Beecham to help Austin find singers for The beggars' opera. Indeed Beecham was a major force in keeping British musical life alive, pre-Glock. Another such figure was the wealthy Maecaenas, Balfour Gardiner, who provided funds not just for his fellow composers of the `Frankfurt Gang (a maverick group including Austin, Grainger, Quilter and others) but also, famously, for the first (private) performance of Holst's Planets suite. Martin Lee-- Browne's book conveys the impression that the early twentieth century was a rich period in British musical life, no doldrums nor yet a Dark Age.

THE darker aspects in Alan Bush's life arose, in the main, as a consequence of his steadfast, lifelong allegiance to Marxism. …

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