By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
The history of English music since the emigration of Georg Friedrich Händel in 1712, is connected to the remarkable economic and political prominence that England enjoyed well into the twentieth century. By the time of Franz Joseph Haydn’s visit to London in the 1790s, England had fully developed a large-scale musical life, which often valued European continental composers even more than the continent did. The English engagement with music was cultivated and enthusiastic, reflecting the rapid growth of an educated and affluent middle class and a burgeoning group of musical organizations including numerous choral societies. These hosted historic music festivals in the nineteenth century, which led to the creation of some of the most important works for chorus and orchestra, including Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846) and Dvořák’s Requiem (1891), both of which premiered in Birmingham.
It was part of Händel’s legacy, and of the Hanoverians generally, that the wealth and vitality of English musical life were engulfed by German influences. Liszt’s final major public appearances took place during his triumphant visit to England shortly before his death in 1886. The famed conductor of Bayreuth and Vienna, Hans Richter, left the continent and took up residence in England at the end of the nineteenth century and left a lasting impact on his adopted British home. Max Bruch, Joseph Joachim, and Johannes Brahms were favorite figures and recipients of many English honors. There were of course leading names in English composition who sought, before the turn of the last century, a voice that was distinctive from the overwhelming models that emanated from Germany. Edward Elgar struggled with this issue, despite both his admiration for Strauss and Brahms, and Richter’s devoted patronage. Similar concern was also felt by Elgar’s contemporary, Charles Villiers Stanford. But for other English composers, Germany was a focus and a haven. Dame Ethel Smythe’s first ventures into opera were produced and performed in Germany. Frederick Delius’s major operatic venture, A Village Romeo and Juliet (1901), was based on a Gottfried Keller story and first known to audiences in its German version.
The symbiosis of English and German music continued through the years of tacit but growing political rivalry that marked the reign of Wilhelm II of Germany, who had an ambition for Germany to compete with England as a naval power. But when that rivalry erupted into the First World War, and the House of Hanover discreetly changed its name to Windsor, the desire to develop a distinctly British musical style accelerated rapidly.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose ancestors include Josiah Wedgwood and Charles Darwin, belonged to the group of composers that wanted to distinguish themselves as something other than German disciples, even before the War. Arthur Bliss came partly from an American family and lived for a short while in Santa Barbara. Although initially inspired by French and Russian influences, during the early part of the century he rediscovered his Englishness in large measure through the example of Elgar. Frank Bridge, the least known of the three composers on tonight’s program, was primarily a composer of chamber music. He was determined in the last decade and a half of his life to find a style that would set him apart from the French and Austrian composers who had influenced his earlier work. The indication of his success may be found both in his own music from the 1930s, and in his influence on his great pupil, Benjamin Britten.
The First World War was a traumatic event, particularly for England. Although victorious, Britain’s imperial pride was permanently damaged by the War’s carnage. The longstanding decline of England’s economic and political importance was also exposed, for it took the American entry in 1917 to break the stalemate and secure the victory. The years following 1918 were marked by a depth and variety of intellectual and artistic stimulation. It was an era of renewed interest in both religion and an equally fanatical equivalent among the English: pacifism. English foreign policy had been defined by a reluctance to become enmeshed in the instabilities of continental Europe since the fall of Napoleon, and its echoes lived on after the First World War. But by 1930, just when Bridge was completing the single-movement Elegiac Concerto on tonight’s program, there was pressing reason for the English to be concerned regarding the direction of continental European politics. The few democracies on the continent were weak, and fascism had made its initial successful appearance. 1929 marked the end of the superficial prosperity of the age. John Maynard Keynes had warned, following the First World War, against a vindictive victor’s peace. He turned out to be prophetic, as Weimar Germany reeled from one crisis to the next. The League of Nations was evidently a failure. The specter of future conflicts was not hard to imagine.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, the prospect for peace and prosperity, let alone freedom and democracy, faded rapidly. Bridge’s Concerto spans those few years when the English political landscape changed forever. Composed in 1930, the year after the market collapse, it was not performed until 1936, during some of the darkest hours of twentieth-century history. Just a short while earlier, in April 1935, Sir Adrian Boult premiered the Fourth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is a work of intensity, angularity, and darkness, and it led immediately to the assumption that the composer had written music in response to the grim events abroad. But Vaughan Williams angrily denied any spiritual or programmatic basis for this view of the Fourth Symphony. He claimed that the only object of music was beauty, and even though he confessed several years after the Symphony had been written that he was not sure it was beautiful, he was certain that at the time of its composition, he wrote it solely out of a conviction of its merit simply as music. The Symphony shows many debts to the rhythmic and thematic fire of Beethoven’s symphonic writing. Despite Vaughan William’s disclaimer, the Fourth Symphony has never shaken its association with the sense of impending doom that began to descend on the British during the mid-1930s, and that was clearly understood and perceived by British intellectuals (except for those who were sympathetic to Hitler).
Arthur Bliss’s Concerto is dedicated to the American people and was premiered in June 1939, a few months before the outbreak of the War in September. The music, like much of Bliss’s output, is sprawling and varied. The work had been written for the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, and its premiere featured Solomon, the great English pianist. The influences of French modernism are audible, but equally evident, notably in the work’s closing moments, is the distinctly English voice that Bliss borrowed from Elgar with its anthem-like character.
All three of these works represent an interesting and complicated facet of pre-war Britain. As many will recognize, the title of this concert derives from Winston Churchill’s famous account of the years leading up to the War. In spite of the more than ominous events of Europe, the predominant sentiment in England was that of denial and appeasement, much to Churchill’s dismay. It was a stroke of unexpected good luck that the fascist sympathizer Edward VIII fell in love with an American divorcée and abdicated. Bliss’s dedication to America would become all the more poignant as President Roosevelt, against the wishes of the majority of Americans, helped an unprepared England survive during the more than two years of World War II before Pearl Harbor, when England stood alone.
Three composers, akin in their traumatic reaction to the First World War and their subsequently pacifist hopes, created works that marked turning points in their styles and careers. Frank Bridge produced a dark musical Oration, imitative in structure of a funeral elegy replete with evocations of war and death. Bliss, a master of illustration and sentimentality who reveled in writing virtuosic fireworks, wrote a massive Concerto that ranges wildly from the intimate to the sentimental, and from the nostalgia to the triumphantly proud. Vaughan Williams’s seemingly contained notion of beauty took a strange and provocative turn in the direction of the Fourth Symphony after 1933. Despite claims for aesthetic autonomy, did Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries tap into the undercurrent of the moment, creating works that not only intimated the anxiety of the times but through that very anxiety forged a distinctly British musical sensibility? Perhaps these composers, like many visual artists as well, were driven even indirectly by the clouds gathering over them to reevaluate their influences and ambitions. The events surrounding their activities as composers may have sparked a transfigured act of self-reflection and opened up new paths, thereby generating novel foundations of twentieth-century British music.