Composer Arnold Bax.
It’s surprising how
many British composers have succeeded in painting musical pictures of their
own country. Some composers, like Vaughan Williams, wrote visionary music
which seemed imbued with “Englishness” although many people would be at
pains to try and describe what this musical quality actually is. To me,
Benjamin Britten’s music always creates images of the grey North Sea whose
waves crash on to the stony and equally grey beach of Aldeburgh, the small
English town which for many years was the composer’s home.
In some ways, the
twentieth century was Britain’s Second Golden Age of Music. The first
one of course was during the reign of Elizabeth I. But in the early years of
the Baroque, the action seemed to shift into Continental Europe. Only a
handful of British composers from that period are remembered today, notably
Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel who was of course, originally
German. During the Classical period in the second half of the eighteenth
century, Germany and Austria led the field in music.
During the twilight
years of the nineteenth century, young composers emerged who were to
eventually become the Grand Old Men of British music, such as Frederick
Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst and Arthur Bliss.
During the mid-twentieth century the torch was carried by other
internationally known names such as William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Michael
Tippett, Richard Rodney Bennett and many others. Wikipedia carries a
chronological list of British composers and it’s amazing to see the sheer
quantity and array of talent. The remarkable music of Arnold Bax is not as
well known as it should be. Take this work, for example.
Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Tintagel.
RTVE Symphony Orchestra, cond. Adrian Leaper (Duration 14:53; Video 480p)
The prolific English
composer Arnold Bax came from a family of Dutch descent, which explains his
slightly odd surname. While still a teenager, Bax fell under the spell of
all things Irish and especially the poetry of William Butler Yeats. When he
was nineteen, Bax went to Ireland and visited the most isolated and secluded
places he could find. He taught himself Gaelic and in later years, under the
pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne, wrote many successful plays, poems, and short
stories. Ironically though, his most famous orchestral work was inspired not
by Ireland, but by the restless seas around the West Country of England.
Tintagel village and
its castle lie on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall and they’re closely
associated with the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round
Table. Bax visited Tintagel Castle during the summer of 1917 and was so
captivated with the atmosphere that he produced this thrilling and joyous
symphonic poem. It is his best-known work. The expansive and visionary music
is meant to depict a castle standing heroically on the rocks, lashed by the
waves of the Atlantic. Just listen to the opening with its luscious chords
coloured by bird-like twitterings of melody from the woodwind. To my mind,
this is British music at its best.
Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Four Scottish Dances Op. 59.
Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra cond. Artem Konstantinov (Duration:
12:03; Video: 1080p HD)
As a child, I recall my
Scottish grandmother listening to records of a dance band led by the
well-known Scottish accordionist, Jimmy Shand. The band played medleys of
relentlessly jollity and she’d listen to them for hours, tapping her foot
with lady-like gentility. I’m not sure what she would have made of this
work, composed in 1957. You can’t mistake the Scottish influence and the
work has much in common with the exuberant Scottish concert overture Tam
o’ Shanter which Arnold composed two years earlier.
Written in the slightly
unusual 5/4 time, the first movement echoes the dance known as the
Strathspey which has the unmistakable imitations of groaning bagpipes
and the characteristic abrupt rhythm known as “the Scottish snap”. It’s a
wild-sounding piece but not without the typical Arnold touches of humour.
The two middle movements are full of attractive melodies. The third one
contains some remarkably beautiful music and sounds vaguely like a Hollywood
take on a Hebridean folksong. Even so, the sound is magical and really
captures the sense of the rugged Scottish landscapes, something that few
composers have managed to succeed in doing. Droning bagpipes return in the
swirling last movement which turns into a brief, wild and turbulent dance.
The Elizabethan Era,
often referred to as “England’s Golden Age” was a remarkable if rather brief
period in England’s history. During the forty-five year reign of Queen
Elizabeth there were significant developments in science, national
expansion, exploration and creativity. It ran roughly between 1558 and 1603
during which time the symbol of Britannia was first used.
Even in farming there
were new developments. The traditional open grazing fields were replaced by
large closed areas of land that required fewer workers. As a result, many
rural people left their villages and headed for the expanding urban areas.
The knock-on effect was that towns and cities burgeoned in Elizabethan
times. The towns had money and they were an ideal climate for the arts to
flourish, especially music and the theatre.
The Elizabethan inns
provided lodging and entertainment and also attracted traveling actors,
musicians and poets. Inn yards became the first venues for theatre plays. It
was not long before people realized that there was money to be made by
producing plays and then teaming up with inn owners to charge for the
performances. The theatre needed music of course, and that too flowered
during the Golden Age.
Queen Elizabeth was a
patron of the arts and was a skilled performer on the lute and the
virginals. She was also an enthusiastic dancer. The top composers of the day
were William Byrd, Thomas Campion, John Dowland, John Farmer, Orlando
Gibbons, Robert Johnson and Thomas Tallis. And I mustn’t forget the Cornish
composer Giles Farnaby who wrote some of the first quaint examples of
descriptive keyboard music.
Printed music, both
instrumental and vocal was becoming increasingly available. The orchestra as
we know it had yet to evolve, but music for smaller groups was popular and
so was the instrument known as the viol, which came in a variety of sizes.
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): Fancy for Six Viols.
L’Achéron Instrumental Ensemble (Duration: 05:07; Video: 1080p HD)
The Canadian pianist
Glenn Gould championed the music of Gibbons. “Ever since my teenage years”,
he wrote, “this music has moved me more deeply than any other sound
experience I can think of.” Gibbons was one of the most versatile English
composers of his time, and produced a large number of keyboard works, around
thirty fantasias for viols and many madrigals the best-known of which being
The Silver Swan. Gibbons came from a large family of musicians and
was considered one of the finest keyboard players in England.
The consort of viols
was a popular musical ensemble in Elizabethan times and this short work
dates from around 1603. Unlike the instruments of the violin family, the
viol (also known as the viola da gamba) has between five and seven
strings, a fretted fingerboard and it’s always played upright rather than
under the chin. You might notice that the bow is held differently too.
William Byrd (1543-1623): Ne Irascaris Domine & Civitas Sancti
VOCES8 Vocal Ensemble (Duration: 10:18; Video: 1080p HD)
Byrd, whose name is
pronounced the same as “bird” was one of the most popular Elizabethan
composers partly because he wrote in many of the musical forms current at
the time including choral music, ensemble works and pieces for keyboard. He
could turn his hand to a wide range of musical forms and yet imbue them with
his own personal musical style. He composed almost five hundred works and is
now regarded as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music.
Although he composed music for Anglican services, sometime during the 1570s
he changed sides and became a Roman Catholic with the inevitable result that
he wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life.
These two motets were
published in1589 in Byrd’s first book of sacred choral music. The music is
remarkable for its breath-taking beauty. The performance by this British
vocal ensemble is stunningly good and I cannot recall hearing Byrd’s music
so movingly performed. Just listen to those rich bass notes, the colourful,
poignant harmonies and the wonderful sense of melodic line.
The name “motet” comes
from the French word mot meaning “word” and was a choral piece for
several different voices. Composers of the day often used a technique called
“word-colouring” in which important words of the text were reflected in the
harmonies or rhythms of the music. The 13th-century music theorist Johannes
de Grocheo believed that the motet was “not to be celebrated in the presence
of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety.” Old Johannes
sounds a bit of a musical snob to me.
This wonderful, elegant
music speaks of another age and it would be the perfect antidote to a
stressful afternoon spent elbowing through the crowds at Terminal 21.