You are here

British music through the ages

Features - Classical Music

British music through the ages

by Gavin Dixon on July 12, 2013 (July 12, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
From medieval to modern-day: the Mother Land's secret music evolution uncovered.

The Land Without Music. The German critic Oskar Schmitz voiced a commonly-held view of Britain when he published a treatise with this title in 1904. After all, the British Isles had not produced a major composer since Purcell, who died in 1695, and the only music of any worth to be heard there was written, and usually performed, by foreign musicians. Schmitz had an agenda: he was out to demonstrate the superiority of German music. As if to prove him wrong, a revival of British music soon bore fruit, propelling the country to international eminence in the 20th century. But the history of music in the British Isles is much richer than Schmitz was prepared to admit: many of the earliest developments in European music began there.

Tracing the early history of written music in Britain takes some detective work. An 11th-century manuscript from Winchester Cathedral demonstrates that polyphonic music (in which the individual voices sing separate lines) was already cultivated there before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Later manuscripts, such as the Worcester Fragments from the 13th and 14th centuries and the Old Hall Manuscript (c1400) show a wide range of vocal styles and musical forms in use in church music. Already, a distinctively English style was beginning to emerge. A 13th-century manuscript preserved from Reading Abbey includes the charming round Sumer Is Icumen In. Pastoral depictions of nature would become a central theme of English music in modern times, and we find some here, including the call of the cuckoo imitated in the vocal line. The music’s gentle exuberance and the way the melodic line lilts above an alternating harmony anticipate the contours of later English folksong.

The first big name in English music was the composer John Dunstable, who worked in England and France, and was influential across Europe. Writing in around 1440, the Burgundian poet Martin le Franc praised Dunstable’s music, approving of its“contenance angloise”, an“English aspect”characterised by the use of “sprightly consonance” and sophisticated harmonies.

By the late 15th century, a florid style of church music had developed in English cathedrals. Composers like William Cornysh the Younger and Robert Fayrfax produced highly ornate Magnificats and motets, many of which are preserved in the Eton Choirbook, compiled around 1500 and still owned by that school.

Everything changed in the 16th century when the Reformation reached England. These were traumatic times for the Church and its music, and two composers found themselves at the centre of the storm: Thomas Tallis and his pupil William Byrd (pictured). The complexity and sophistication of English choral writing in previous generations reached a highpoint in the Catholic music of Tallis. He experimented with complex structures, writing for multiple choirs and, in his famous motet Spem in Alium, music involving 40 separate parts. But Protestant worship required simpler music, and under the reign of Edward VI Tallis was forced to turn to a more direct style, writing anthems to English- language texts. Here, too, he excelled, and these became a foundation of the distinctive Anglican choral tradition.

After a brief return to Catholicism under Queen Mary, Protestantism was restored under Elizabeth I from 1575. The persecution of Catholics was less severe under her rule. Tallis and Byrd were known to have Catholic sympathies, but both were protected as they were employed by the Queen herself as Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. The personal connection with the monarch even led to Tallis and Byrd being granted a monopoly on music publication, although neither was astute in business, and the venture soon failed.

Despite Elizabeth’s tolerance, Catholics could only worship in private, usually in their own homes. Byrd’s Masses for Three, Four and Five Voices offer a window onto these covert observances. The music is in the best Catholic traditions, but the scale is reduced to just a handful of singers, performing in private and well away from public attention. The Masses were published in the 1590s, but even the printing took place in secret, and especially small editions were prepared so that this contraband music could be easily concealed.

The arts thrived in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign: this was the era of Shakespeare and Donne, a golden age for drama and poetry. Song styles from the Italian Renaissance became popular, with the most skilful practitioners singing with lute accompaniment. The most significant lutenist of the period was John Dowland, whose early appointments at German, Italian and Danish courts brought him international fame. But these were still suspicious times, and many thought Dowland a spy sent from Elizabeth – like Byrd and Tallis before him, Dowland was known to be Catholic. But the musical rewards were plentiful: hundreds of exquisite songs and solo lute pieces, direct in their expression yet intensely emotive.

When civil war broke out between crown and parliament in 1642, Dowland’s successors at the Royal Court became directly involved. Charles I, like Elizabeth, retained a personal retinue of singer-lutenists, who joined him on military campaigns. The most famous was William Lawes, who travelled with Charles as a member of The King’s Life Guards. When Lawes was killed in action at the siege of Chester in 1645, Charles instituted a special period of mourning, and honoured Lawes with the title “Father of Musick”.

Cromwell’s victory was bad news for musicians. Royal patronage was brought to an abrupt halt by the execution of Charles I, theatres were closed and with the prevailing puritan attitudes, music in church was reduced to sombre chanting. Nevertheless, it was in these unfavourable and unlikely conditions that opera made its first appearance in England.

In 1656, William Davenant staged The Siege of Rhodes, the first ever opera in the English language. Davenant’s Royalist sympathies had seen him exiled to France and then imprisoned in the Tower of London. On his release, he persuaded the authorities to allow him to build a small theatre on the back of his London home, and it was here that the opera was presented. Davenant wrote the libretto, and the music was provided by a group of composers.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, theatres reopened, allowing opera finally to thrive. The first major opera of this new era was Venus and Adonis by John Blow, but the success of this work was soon eclipsed by perhaps the most famous English opera of them all, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Purcell (pictured) was from a musical background; his uncle had sung a lead role in The Siege of Rhodes. Dido and Aeneas was given a low-key premiere by the pupils of a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea, West London in 1689, yet it proved immensely influential, and established a lasting taste for opera in the capital.

Later English composers struggled to follow up on the work’s success. Thomas Arne was influential in the years following Purcell’s death, both for his own operas, but more significantly for attracting a rising star to London: George Frederic Handel. The German composer hoped to capitalise on his aristocratic connections in London. His contacts included members of the Hannoverian royal family, many of whom, including King George I himself, Handel had known back in Germany. But it quickly became clear that the general public could prove an equally responsive, and lucrative, audience for his operas.

Handel’s operas dominated the London stage for decades. He was deeply involved in the management of opera companies and the hiring and firing of imported singers. The continual rivalries between his prima donna stars provided plenty of material for gossip and for the popular press, and by continually refreshing the repertoire with new works for each season he was able to keep ahead of the game. But Handel’s operas were not for everybody. His work was resolutely high-brow, always serious, usually based on classical subjects, and in Italian, a language few could understand. The impresario John Gay realised there may be an audience for a new kind of opera – one lighter, less involved, and in the English language. His Beggar’s Opera opened in 1728 and was an immediate success. The music was cobbled together from a range of sources, and included popular ballads from every country of the newly formed (in 1707) United Kingdom, as well as music pirated from Purcell and Handel, among others. It proved a winning combination, and the opera ran in London every season until the end of the century, as well as being staged in other cities and even in the American colonies. Handel’s theatrical ventures survived the competition, but by the early 1740s he was ready to quit the opera business, and instead turned his attentions to oratorio. The work that forever linked his name with the form was Messiah, premiered in Dublin in 1742. Messiah was a slow-burner: its first audience was only mildly positive, and it took a number of subsequent performances, initially in London and later in cathedrals around Britain, before its status was established.

In 1749, Britain was victorious in the War of Austrian Succession, effectively securing her colonial interests in America and India. Handel contributed to the celebrations with Music for the Royal Fireworks, though the fireworks themselves were a disaster, the elaborate staging catching fire and burning down. The following year, Handel performed Messiah at a charity concert in aid of London’s Foundling Hospital. This became an annual event, which continued until his death in 1759, when the composer bequeathed the score to the Hospital.

By the second half of the 18th century, Britain had become a rich and powerful nation, with trade links and colonies spanning the entire world. But unlike other European cultures – German, Austrian, French, Italian – the British had great difficulty producing any native musical talent. The solution was clear: to import the composers required to keep the country’s music scene vibrant. The list of musical visitors to London in the late 18th century reads like a Who’s Who of the Classical era. From 1764 to 1765, the young Mozart lived in Chelsea, where he wrote his first two symphonies, aged just nine. In 1790, Joseph Haydn made the first of two extended visits to London organised by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn wrote some of his most famous works to perform during these visits, including his Surprise, Military, Drumroll and London symphonies. A later but no less influential visitor was Felix Mendelssohn, whose sojourn in Scotland inspired his Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture. He also became a close friend of the musically- minded monarch Queen Victoria.

Mendelssohn also made a significant contribution to the British choral tradition. Amateur choirs and choral societies played a central part in Britain’s musical life in the Victorian era, singing a repertoire that revolved around Handel’s Messiah. In 1846, Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of his oratorio Elijah at the Birmingham Festival. The work proved ideal for the large amateur choirs then active around the country. But even into the middle of the 19th century, Britain still struggled to produce any significant composers of her own. Mendelssohn, during his visits, had fostered the talents of a young William Sterndale Bennett. Like Mendelssohn, Bennett contributed some oratorios to the British choral tradition, but achieved greater success as a conductor and teacher. In 1887, the organist and Oxford professor John Stainer composed The Crucifixion, which would become the most successful contribution to the oratorio repertoire by any native British composer of the 19th century.

Despite the paucity of musical talent in Britain, stage drama there was in rude health, and by the late 19th century, London’s West End had become one of the most vibrant theatre districts in the world. In the 1870s, a collaboration began between a librettist and a composer that would launch a new and distinctively British form of musical drama: the Savoy opera. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (a pupil of Sterndale Bennett) first worked together on Thespis, which appeared on the London stage in 1872. The work is modelled closely on the operettas of Offenbach, presenting a lighthearted take on a classical subject. This set the tone for their later collaborations, including The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers, all of which soon became popular throughout the English-speaking world.

The success of these Savoy operas eclipsed Sullivan’s more serious works, which include a grand opera, Ivanhoe, a symphony, and a cello concerto. But by the 1880s, some British composers were finally breaking the drought and producing concert works of real significance. The most famous were Charles Hubert Parry (another Sterndale Bennett pupil) and Charles Villiers Stanford. In their works, a British sound begins to emerge. Stanford was of Irish descent, and Parry English, and both men sought to infuse their otherwise classical works with folk elements from their respective countries. They are best remembered today for their religious music, particularly Parry’s hymn Jerusalem and his anthem I Was Glad. The music of both composers is still regularly heard at high-profile cathedral services, including the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. In 1898, music in Britain took an unexpected change of direction with the premiere of the cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (pictured). The composer, a pupil of Stanford, was of African descent, and his cantata about a Native American chief caused a sensation at its premiere. In the first half of the 20th century, Hiawatha became one of the most performed choral works in the UK, championed by conductor Malcolm Sargent, who became so closely associated with it that one chapter of his biography is entitled “Wigwam”.

The composers of Parry and Stanford’s generation have been called“Renaissance Men”for the revival they brought about in British composition. But, with the exception of some choral music, most of their work is forgotten today. That’s because they were eclipsed by another composer, who burst onto the scene in 1899. Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations immediately captured the public imagination. This series of orchestral portraits of the composer’s friends was simultaneously intimate and epic, with a distinctively“English”sound. At the time of the premiere, Elgar was already in his early forties, and had been struggling for decades to achieve recognition. When that recognition came, it was immense and international in scope.

For the first decade of the 20th century, Elgar was the undisputed senior figure of British music. His works from this period more than justify the reputation, with his two symphonies, the Pomp and Circumstance marches and his Violin Concerto embodying the confidence and vigour of a nation now approaching the peak of its colonial power.

The First World War came as an intense and irreparable shock to that confidence. Many musicians saw active service. George Butterworth was one of the most promising composers of his generation, writing music that was both lyrical and deeply evocative of English folk culture. He died aged just 31 at the Battle of the Somme. Another famous name at the front line was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who served as a stretcher bearer. After the war, he composed his Third Symphony as a response to his experiences.Vaughan Williams named the work the Pastoral Symphony, and the music mixes evocations of an earlier, more innocent time with the bugle calls that he had heard at the front.

Elgar, too, was acutely aware of the changes brought about by the First World War. The world that his earlier music had celebrated was now gone, and he wrote very few original pieces in the last decades of his life. The one major exception is his Cello Concerto of 1919. The confidence and swagger of his earlier music has gone and is here replaced by an almost painful sense of nostalgia for those earlier times. In the decades between the wars, British music began to diversify. An “English Pastoral” style developed, partly from the invocations of Englishness in the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but also from the study of English folk music undertaken by composers including Gustav Holst, Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger (who, although Australian, played a key role in the development of English music at the time). This pastoral style predominated in British music throughout the 20th century. Vaughan Williams remained the figurehead of this school, but it also found talented exponents in John Ireland, Arnold Bax, A. J. Moeran and Gerald Finzi.

But Britain was not immune to developments on the continent. In 1920s Paris, jazz was beginning to infiltrate classical music, and Stravinsky’s neoclassicism was challenging musical tastes. Some British composers picked up on these trends, most notably Constant Lambert and William Walton. Walton was a versatile figure, and as well as Façade, his jazz-themed collaboration with poet Edith Sitwell from 1923, he also wrote major works that sit just outside the pastoral style, adding a distinctively modern edge to this otherwise traditionally English sound. His First Symphony and oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast are among the finest examples. The turbulence in continental Europe before and during the Second World War meant that many musicians fled to the UK, significantly enriching the country’s musical culture. The German Jewish composer Hans Gál arrived in Britain in the 1930s, and spent the remaining decades of his life in Edinburgh writing in a style that mixes both German and British influences. Similarly, composer Andrzej Panufnik fled Communist Poland for the UK in 1954, going on to become a central figure in the country’s postwar new music scene.

Pressing political causes of the day found a voice in the work of some 20th-century British composers, including Ethel Smyth, a leading figure with the suffragettes. Her The March of the Women, written in 1910, became the movement’s rallying cry and was regularly sung at protests and demonstrations. Michael Tippett, a lifelong pacifist, expressed his outrage at the hostilities of the Second World War in his 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time. He was later imprisoned for his uncompromising views as a conscientious objector.

Although British orchestral music had enjoyed a significant revival in the early 20th century, the country’s contribution to serious opera still rested largely on Purcell. That all changed in 1945 with the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten had been a rising talent in the decades between the wars, but Peter Grimes signalled both the start of his artistic maturity and the rebirth of English-language opera. Britten wrote in a style recognisably English, yet with a thoroughly modern psychological edge. For the next 30 years, he would remain the most significant figure in British music, continuing to write operas of international stature while also excelling in other fields, particularly orchestral music, chamber works and song.

In the 1960s, modernising trends on the continent again had a significant influence on British music. A group of young composers studying in Manchester began embracing the modernist ideas of Boulez, Stockhausen and the postwar avant-garde. These were unleashed on British audiences through theatre works that directly confronted aspects of the country’s cultural identity. Harrison Birtwistle’s first opera, Punch and Judy, is a visceral and exceedingly violent interpretation of the familiar puppet theatre subject. Just as brutal is Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a song cycle about the mental illness of King George III that graphically represents the distress and disorientation brought on by his condition. Classical music in Britain today is as vibrant and diverse as ever. Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies are still leading voices, although now as establishment figures rather than young radicals. Competing styles and schools vie for attention. The English choral tradition flourishes, especially with the popular music of John Rutter. English pastoralism can still be heard from composers like David Matthews. Religious minimalism has a strong following, especially the works of John Tavener.

At the other end of the spectrum, New Complexity, a style of radical modernism instigated by expat British composer Brian Ferneyhough, has leading advocates in the UK, including Roger Redgate and James Dillon. And English-language opera is moving in new and interesting directions thanks to composers such as George Benjamin, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès (pictured). We can safely say that Britain is no longer a “land without music”. Its fortunes have waxed and waned through the centuries, but the country’s classical music now has an enviable international reputation. Britain’s composers continue to produce ever more successful and creative work, suggesting that, of the music that will be heard around the world in years to come, a significant proportion of it will have a distinctively British accent.