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.

Classical Kent

Peter Warlock
STUART MILLSON searches for unjustly overlooked Kent composers

A recent release on an innovative recording label – with the somewhat obscure title, Heracleitus – brings a mysterious figure from 20th century music in this country into view. The CD from the recording arm of the English Music Festival, an organisation dedicated to the rediscovery of the musical traditions of this island, owes its name to an almost forgotten song by Peter Warlock, which receives its world-premiere recording in the disc (Heracleitus – songs by Warlock, Gurney and Butterworth, EMR CD036).

Peter Warlock (1894-1930) was perhaps one of the first English minimalists – or at least, a composer able to concentrate profound sensitivity and emotion into sparse and sparing spans of music.

Warlock is best known for his Suite, Capriol – based upon 16th-century airs and dances – and the slanting light of desolate marshland in the melancholic song-cycle, The Curlew; but in the song, Heracleitus, the listener encounters a timeless whisper from classical antiquity, set in an English mist, and reverently delivered by tenor, Charles Daniels:

‘They told me, Heracleitus, they told 
Me you were dead; 
They brought me bitter news to hear 
And bitter tears to shed; 
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I 
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.’
(W J Cory, 1823-92, after Callimachus (3rd century BC)

Warlock lived for a time in the north Kent village of Eynsford, which even today (despite traffic) is a reassuringly old-fashioned place, standing beside and fording the clear stream of the River Darent, overlooked by downland and willows. By a stroke of good luck, the M25 – which planners wanted to build through the Shoreham and Eynsford valley – went elsewhere, saving an idyllic landscape from noise and destruction.

E J Moeran, Warlock’s fellow composer and boon-companion

A blue plaque at the Eynsford High Street cottage which he shared between 1925 and 1928 with fellow composer, E.J. Moeran commemorates his time there – and by all accounts (“with the kitchen swimming in beer”) it was a jolly, bohemian existence, or perhaps too dissolute to sustain. Moeran – a man who seemed as Irish as he was English – even earned the name, “Jolly Jack”, and when not composing his Violin Concerto or landscape-inspired rhapsodies, shared his composer-friend’s propensity for ale-drinking. Legends abound of the Eynsford sojourn: a naked Peter Warlock, no doubt under the influence of the local brew, even rode a motorcycle back and forth through the village – to the amusement of fellow bohemians, no doubt, but probably to the consternation of the natives. When returning from London on the train, the Eynsford station-master was always ready to bang on the window of the carriage in which Warlock was travelling – thus waking the slumbering composer from his stupor.

Another of the composer’s north Kent circle was the curious figure of one Hal Collins. As Michael Trend noted in his 1985 book, The Music MakersThe English Musical Renaissance from Elgar to Britten:

… Hal Collins – also known as Te Akau – a part-Maori, who boasted a cannibal grandmother. Collins was an interesting man in his own right: he was an effective artist, as his woodcuts show, and also, it seems, a self-taught musician who once played a whole act of an opera from Tristram Shandy which he had in his head.

Yet a purity is found in Warlock’s music, at odds with the excesses – and darkness of his character (a darkness, emphasised by his strange, untimely, lonely death in a Chelsea flat in 1930): wistful phrases, beautiful and touching, yet slipping away into a feeling that the composer is longing for something unattainable. (Warlock wasn’t the musician’s real name – the composer abandoning his familial name, Heseltine, for a persona far more tantalising and provocative.) It was, perhaps, a natural thing for Warlock to have come to this Kentish valley. Neighbouring Shoreham was the home of the early 19th-century mystical and pastoral painter, Samuel Palmer. He and his followers loved the countryside and described themselves as “the Ancients”, often dressing in the mediaeval costume. The paintings – oddly modern, in their style – or at least, not entirely what one would expect of the early half of the 19th century – depict a mediaeval world of corn, twilights, harvest, rural-dwellers. A photograph exists of smiling Peter Warlock, tankard in hand, standing alongside members of the Shoreham Dramatic Society – the members in their rustic Robin Hood costumes.

English music is so often associated with scenes of rural Britain. As the inter-war Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, said: “England is the country, and the country is England.” Vaughan Williams wrote a Pastoral Symphony, in part, a response to the Great War; and a composer called Ernest Farrar (who was born in Lewisham in 1885 – some 10 miles from Eynsford) which in those days was a rural village by the River Ravensbourne) composed a suite of English Pastoral Impressions, the first movement of which suggests bells chiming in the distance, and a gentle dance on the village green – the music then subsiding into a dream sequence, as distant, watchful horn-calls evoke longing and memory. Farrar served in The Great War, his life ending on the Western Front in the last year of the conflict.

In the search for Warlock, other forgotten figures have emerged from the north-west Kent… Who, for example, has heard of John Veale (1922-2006)?  Veale was born in the suburb of Shortlands (famous for its 19th-century ragstone-constructed water pumping station, built in the style of a chateau) and a part of Bromley – once a Kent market town, but now known as the London Borough of Bromley. He composed symphonic works, and his Violin Concerto (which is reminiscent of William Walton) has been recorded by the Chandos label. Yet, just like the Cornishman, George Lloyd, Veale sank into complete obscurity during the time of the Second Viennese School takeover at the BBC during the 1960s and ‘70s; and was quite surprised in the early 1980s to have received a telephone call: “Is that the composer, John Veale?”

Just a couple of miles away in equally built-up Beckenham (although there are still village almshouses by St. George’s church), emerged another composer: Carey Blyton (a relative of the famous children’s author). Many will be surprised to know that Blyton wrote much of the early incidental music to the classic television sci-fi series, Dr. Who – haunting, abstract minimalist pieces, including a brief march-like interlude for the character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, an accomplice of the Doctor. In complete contrast is the composer’s Song of the Goldfish – a strange evocation of the fish’s existence in a living room bowl – and an adventure-tale Overture, The Hobbit (recorded on a British Light Overtures series by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia).

Villages just beyond the M25 – suburbs which were once villages themselves. Look carefully through the neat hedges and fragments of still-wild woodland that has managed to cling to life in our congested age: a legacy of music created by some of England’s most unusual artistic personalities remains…