The hundred years from 1850 – when Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz first began to raise the hackles of the pure music brigade – is fascinating for, among other things, the increasingly fractious debate about the merits or otherwise of program music. A collection of 15 essays, The Symphonic Poem in Britain 1850-1950examines not just the rise of musical ‘storytelling’ among English and Scottish composers, it takes a broader look at the subject by considering the impact on native musicians and their audiences of the genre’s chief influencers from overseas.

Symphonic Poem in Britain

The debate is summed up by two opposing points of view. Frank Bridge’s opinion was that without an awareness of the composer’s intent and a willingness to enter into his program an audience might as well go home. “Only to the lover of the footpath which winds through the woods and over brooks with the aid of old-fashioned stepping-stones, can this piece arouse a sympathetic understanding. In fact, only if there is such a thing as rest in the soul of the listener… will...

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