Masters of the English musical renascence

Image: Stuart Millson

STUART MILLSON reports from the 17th English Music Festival

Ever since 2006, except for the shortest of absences due to the Covid crisis, the Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames has been hosting the English Music Festival, the EMF – the artistic creation of one dedicated Englishwoman, Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck. The first-ever concert was held on an October evening, given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by (the late) David Lloyd Jones – a conductor noted for his love of opera and Russian music, but also for the music of the English musical renascence: the era often seen as dominated by Elgar, but actually the time when Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss, Ireland and many others shaped a national musical style (or styles) with their expansive symphonies and folk-infused song-cycles.

For an initially small Festival with great ambitions, but – inevitably – with limited funds, the participation of the BBC’s most versatile orchestra was a masterstroke of strategy by the Festival founder – ensuring a prestigious beginning to her concert series and an all-important broadcast on BBC Radio 3. At once the Festival was put on the map and thanks to many others being inspired by Em’s great enthusiasm, has grown in scale and scope through the years, with the BBC’s orchestra still the mainstay of the opening concert.

Today, the Festival takes place over the May Bank Holiday, a time when the countryside surrounding Dorchester comes into its own: willow cotton drifting on the air; the footpaths to the Thames laced with white cow parsley; meadows of buttercups leading to Iron Age embankments; and nearby, under the full canopy of churchyard trees, the welcome shade and cool recesses of places such as St. Peter, Little Wittenham. 

Here, among the tomb chests and brasses, the Oxfordshire of quiet parsons and fussy parochial church councils can be found – but also the dreamy, immemorial Thames-scape of William Morris and Kenneth Grahame, the immemorial England of T.S. Eliot, Sir John Betjeman, or Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. High above the hamlet, like a sentinel in the downland, stand the trees of the Wittenham Clumps: inspiration for Paul Nash – and welcome shade for grazing cows and OS-guided walkers who find themselves a little too warm after wandering to the ridge on a hot day. As was the case with Richard Adams’s rabbits of Berkshire-set Watership Down, the view here seems to take in ‘the whole world!’ – or at least, the Chilterns to the east, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford to the north, and beyond, an outline of the beginnings of the English Midlands.

Dorchester Abbey is the largest building visible in the landscape (save for a lurking, distant 1930s-looking factory-type structure to the northwest). The Abbey has been a seat of Christianity since the seventh century and a survivor of the reign of Henry Vlll – its great window and towering arches a worthy rival to more famous landmarks, such as Gloucester Cathedral. As the Wittenham Clumps were to Paul Nash, so the Abbey became an inspiration to fellow artist, John Piper – and in our own time, for the orchestral musicians of the EMF, the great church offering a near-perfect acoustic and a truly inspiring setting for their concerts. 

And for the musical offering of Friday 24th May, Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite opened the BBC Concert Orchestra’s programme, the work based upon romantic and folk-reminiscent melodies originally penned for a short 1950s transport film, entitled East Anglian Holiday. A superior piece of public information-film scoring, the suite begins with a stirring ‘spirit of England’ theme, which gives the impression that you are back on the Wittenham Clumps, surveying the majesty of ‘this other Eden.’ However, East Anglia has no downland, so listeners find themselves rubbing shoulders with morris-dancers at a Suffolk festivity, or being lulled into an afternoon slumber by the waters of Orford Ness. A stirring, martial portrait of Framlingham Castle ends the sequence, but not before a brief reappearance of the moving opening tune – a pleasing farewell to the East of England on Carwithen’s bus or rail trip to the county.

Holst’s imposing and early (1899-1900) Symphony in F major, subtitled The Cotswolds, was the main work in the concert – its last movement, like the Carwithen, conjuring scenes of bucolic, open-air celebration and the atmosphere of a countryside where people still whistled folk-tunes. Yet the work’s other movements sometimes seemed to bypass the village green, with an altogether less scene-painting feel – although it has to be said that the brooding and dark slow movement is a memorial in music to the Arts and Crafts luminary, William Morris. Conductor Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra played with deeply-felt intensity, with brass and the darker hues of the orchestra summoning the spirits of the Cotswold hills and combes.

Brass instruments were very much in evidence in the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Richard II – A Concert Fantasy, woven together from fragments of music and ‘cues’ written by the composer for a planned wartime radio play. The arranger and bringer-to-life of this Shakespeare scenario is Nathaniel Lew, Professor of Music at St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont, who – like conductor, Martin Yates (the arranger of RVW’s Falstaff suite, ‘Fat Knight’, also once premiered at this Festival) – has a fascination with the rescuing and revival of works once thought to be lost, or not to have existed at all. The performance fully honoured the EMF’s guiding philosophy of what can almost be seen as musical archaeology, or restoration.

Saturday morning’s chamber recital featured Rupert Marshall-Luck, violin, and Peter Cartwright, piano, doing their brilliant bit in bringing obscure works into the limelight, including Ernest Farrar’s Celtic Suite, Bliss’s Theme and Cadenza, and sonatas by Herbert Howells and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (whose Clarinet Concerto, played by Michael Collins, featured in the first-night concert). Known for his authoritative performances of Elgar’s famous Violin Sonata, Rupert Marshall-Luck, brought gravitas to the Howells and Stanford, aided by the concerto-like strength of Peter Cartwright’s piano playing. Both artists channelled huge energy and concentration into what was a lengthy, often heavyweight chamber programme, which allowed us to see the overlooked greatness of England’s heritage of smaller-scale works.

Hilary Davan Wetton, with the Godwine Choir. Image: Stuart Millson

My journey to Dorchester ended this year with the Saturday evening concert by the Godwine Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, an effervescent, ever-youthful 80-year-old veteran of the concert podium. Addressing the audience on the desperate need for arts funding in Britain, and contrasting how Parisian politicians would authorise the pouring of money into any festival of French music, the Maestro went on to conduct choral masterpieces such as Vaughan Williams, O Clap Your Hands; Elgar’s 1914 Give Unto The Lord, but with time, too, for the enchanting Blake-inspired part-song by Havergal Brian, The Dream – with a folkish, fairy atmosphere of glades and glow worms. Dreamscapes were also created by the wonderful Godwine voices in the form of Holst’s Sanskrit-inspired Hymns from the Rig Veda, pieces that had the Abbey audience spellbound, especially one of my concert companions, a youngish (still under-40) relative newcomer to music. Proof indeed, should the Arts Council require it, that you stimulate an interest in classical music by playing to people… classical music.

With its Suffolk and Sanskrit music, its Cotswolds and choral contributions, the 2024 EMF may well go down as a vintage ‘season’ – but we say that every year.

Our Republic by the Sea, and two translations from German

PETER LILLIOS is an auditor and poet based in Sound Beach, New York. He writes: ‘I believe that poetry — and particularly formal verse — shows its strengths most readily when presented as an auditory experience. When spoken or sung expertly, the inherent musicality of well-crafted verse comes to the fore, creating a powerfully synergistic effect: delivery of meaning at an intellectual level is paired with a much more primal experience of truth as revealed through the rhythm and flow of speech itself. To this end, I’ve enlisted professional voice actors and singers to vocalise my poetry — both original works and English interpretations of existing works.’

Our Republic by the Sea

I know a little plot of land

That’s one part grass and one part sand;

Though twice a day it’s one-third sea,

There’s room enough for you and me.

No one’s staked as yet a claim;

None have stayed, though many came.

It hasn’t lustre or acclaim,

But let us take it, all the same.

We’ll build ourselves a cabin there

With driftwood bound and stacked four-square,

In order that we fell no tree

To craft our lodging by the sea.

We’ll pay no tithes, demand no tolls

From passersby who simply stroll

Through our surf, along our shore,

And leave things as they were before.

We’ll have no children of our own—

None to reap what we have sown;

And when our time has come and gone,

No monuments to gaze upon.

Yet if a child should someday sift

Through our ruins near the cliffs,

She’ll find our charter there below,

Untouched by water’s ebb and flow.

It shall not state our reasons why,

Nor seek to boast or codify.

Its form shall be a simple list

Of lessons learnt and lessons missed;

The ways we lived, the stands we took,

The rules we did and did not brook;

The things we gave and we forgave

Six metres from the lapping waves.

Our ode to life and love austere

Will linger well beyond our years.

Its title, set in bold, shall be,

‘Our Republic by the Sea.’

Music, vocals and instrumentals by Joseph DeNatale

Two Translations

The Midnight Watch

The Argonnerwaldlied (‘Song of the Argonne Forest’) was composed by Hermann Albert Gordon in 1914/1915.

The Western Front, six hours ’fore dawn.

A watchman gazes over yon:

Above the trench, beyond the wire,

At one small star, to which his thoughts aspire.

His love, he knows, beholds it too.

She’d sworn an oath, her word was true:

At midnight, till their eyes could meet,

She’d send the little star her beau to greet.

And with his gaze still fixed on high,

A flash of red illumes the sky.

The cannons’ thunder shakes the ground;

Shells burst and shrapnel splinters all around.

His comrades rally to his side:

A dozen left, the rest have died.

They fell by fate or happenstance—

Just twelve remain to halt the foe’s advance.

The watchman bids them hold the line.

Above the fray, his star still shines.

The guns resound, the rifles crack—

Until the foe is turned and beaten back.

He asks not ‘why?’ nor ‘what’s the sense?’

Seeks neither fame nor recompense;

Knows precious little of grand plans,

Yet at the fore the watchman firmly stands.


Argonnerwald, um Mitternacht,

Ein Pionier steht auf der Wacht.

Ein Sternlein hoch am Himmel stand;

Bringt ihm ’nen Gruß aus fernem Heimatland.

Und mit dem Spaten in der Hand

Er vorne in der Sappe stand.

Mit Sehnsucht denkt er an sein Lieb:

Ob er sie wohl noch einmal wiedersieht?

Und donnernd dröhnt die Artill’rie.

Wir stehen vor der Infantrie.

Granaten schlagen bei uns ein,

Der Franzmann will in unsere Stellung ’rein.

Der Sturm bricht los, die Mine kracht,

Der Pionier gleich vorwärts macht.

Bis an den Feind macht er sich ran

Und zündet dann die Handgranate an.

Die Infantrie steht auf der Wacht,

Bis daß die Handgranate kracht,

Geht dann mit Sturm bis an den Feind,

Mit Hurra nimmt sie dann die Stellung ein.

Er frug nicht warum und nicht wie,

Tat seine Pflicht wie alle sie.

In keinem Liede ward’s gehört,

Ob er geblieben oder heimgekehrt.

Vocals: Chloe Edgecombe. Producer: Luks Rivera

Thoughts Unrestrained

Die Gedanken sind frei (‘Thoughts are Free’) is an ode to freedom of thought whose original lyricist and composer are unknown. The most well-known version was composed by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1842.

Unrestrained are our thoughts, no man can divine them;

They cannot be caught, nor jailer confine them.

No seer can know them, oppression won’t slow them,

So let it be taught: unrestrained are our thoughts!

I think as I will and as brings me gladness,

And do so until it drives away sadness.

This joy and contentment spurns censor’s resentment;

It remains as it ought: unrestrained are our thoughts!

And should I be thrown into a dark prison,

My captors shall bemoan my thoughts having risen—

Because my own thinking will set the bars clinking

And bring them to naught: unrestrained are our thoughts!

So I shall have ever this simplest of pleasure,

And bandits shall never steal from me this treasure.

No mob can demolish, no law can abolish

What Nature hath wrought: unrestrained are our thoughts!

Die Gedanken sind frei

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliehen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke;
denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: die Gedanken sind frei.

Drum will ich auf immer den Sorgen entsagen
und will mich auch nimmer mit Grillen mehr plagen.
Man kann ja im Herzen stets lachen und scherzen
und denken dabei: die Gedanken sind frei.

Vocals and production: Caroline and Darren Clarke