Great and Marvellous Are Thy Works by Stuart Millson

by The Editor

Text of a talk given at Chatham Unitarian Church, Kent, on Thursday 11th July by Stuart Millson. (Extracts from works by English composers played by pianist, Ingrid van Dooren, and on CD recordings.)

Text of a talk given at Chatham Unitarian Church, with musical extracts performed by Ingrid van Dooren.

The music of England is a rich and fascinating continuum. We may trace English music back to the mediaeval period; to Gothic voices in the great cathedrals, to monks and out-of-the-way churches, and to the troubadors. People also sang songs in taverns and in the fields as they worked. Here lie the origins of folk music, which was collected (written down during numerous trips to rural places) by such late-19th-century figures as Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger and Gustav Holst. The latter names are associated with the English musical renascence, which came at a time of great national self-confidence at the end of the Victorian era. Yet for Vaughan Williams and others, this period constituted a time of anxiety, for it was felt that the folk idiom of these islands was in danger of disappearing as life in Britain became more modernised, as rural people drifted to the towns, thus endangering the authentic voice of England – the culture and cadences of the old shires and far-flung regions.

However, the English musical renascence was a time of huge achievement for our composers and this country, projecting not just a sense of cultural identity, but showing that English music could at last be seen as part of a European whole: Elgar and Parry, for example, standing as sentinels of English music, and demonstrating that the Europe of Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner extended to the offshore islanders – us!

But it is true to say that we have had not just one, but two or three revivals of English music. Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean England gave birth not just to the seeds of trade and empire, but to composers such as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Giles Farnaby. Henry Vlll, too, was a composer! His Pastyme with good company is a favourite of madrigal groups! England also produced Thomas Tallis, who died in 1585, and whose glorious church music provided an inspiration to Vaughan Williams during the time of his English musical renascence – the famous string piece Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which transports us into the dark recesses of an English cathedral (Gloucester, 1910, saw the first performance of the work) and enables us to float backwards and forwards in time.
The famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (which is a collection of music broadly from the time of Byrd and Gibbons) represents a marvellous treasury of our tradition, and I am glad that Ingrid van Dooren is here to give us a flavour of that idiom.

[Extract from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, performed by Ingrid van Dooren, followed by part of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Vaughan Williams – The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.]

As you may hear, there is an ancient spirit and a melancholia about this music, and in the endless quest to define the essence of English music, melancholia must rate as one of the main emotions, or cadences, to be found in Englishness in general, not just in music. In his remarkable book, Albion, The origins of the English imagination, the author, Peter Ackroyd, notes how so much of our art is swept through by rain - and we think of Turner's depictions of landscapes and seascapes which seem to exist through a haze of light and drizzle. One of Turner's most brooding pieces is The Confluence of the Thames and the Medway - and through Turner's art, we can perhaps understand another dimension to English music, the influence of water - the fact that we are an island nation. For Vaughan Williams in his A Sea Symphony and for Elgar in his song-cycle, Sea Pictures, the ebb and flow of the sea, "the limitless heaving breast" of the ocean represent not just Nature, but man's place in the universe. For Benjamin Britten in the middle of the 20th-century, the sea reflects the moods and anguish of the tortured Suffolk fisherman, Peter Grimes – and from the opera of the same name, there is a set of Sea Interludes which are often played as a concert item. In fact, the Four Sea Interludes by Britten and Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, will both be played at the First night of the Proms on Friday 12th July. So do listen to Radio 3!

I thought that we would hear the interlude entitled Dawn – a picture of the grey North Sea, with an undercurrent of tension always present, and the second Sea Interlude – Sunday morning, where church bells and the sound of sea birds are clearly heard. Peter Grimes was written in 1945 and immediately took English opera to a new level of intensity; building and extending the operatic tradition which had been cultivated by Vaughan Williams, and the famous lady composer, Dame Ethel Smyth. It could be said that Britten, with the foundation of his Aldeburgh Festival, consituted another English musical renascence – attracting as it did, a large number of important international artists and composers to the Suffolk town which hosts the annual creative gathering. Britten was inspired by the late-18th-century, early 19th-century poet, clergyman and chronicler of Suffolk life, George Crabbe, and one of Crabbe’s poems, Marsh Flowers was used in Britten's sequence of Flower Songs. The poem gives a sense, not of a fragrant Englishness, but the the strange, grey saltings and shadowy light which you will find at the wild edge of England...

[Two Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, CD recording by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox.]

Britten, though, was not simply a modern composer, writing in a style that resembled a stormy tide rising against the crumbling cliffs of tonality. He drew great inspiration from the past, from the East Anglian landscape, and from Henry Purcell, the great composer who lived from 1659 to 1695. Purcell - in his operas and masques, Dido and Aeneas, The Faerie Queene and King Arthur – represented another high tide mark in the life of English music, and Britten was quick to pay tribute to this master from 250 years ago. Purcell was a great genius of his age, writing a vast array of work for voices, for the stage for instrumentalists. He wrote odes to Queen Mary, coronation music, and on Mary's death, funeral music which symbolises the English love of darkness, memorial, procession and mourning.

[CD: Funeral music for Queen Mary, Purcell, English String Orchestra, William Boughton.]

As I mentioned, Britten drew great inspiration from Purcell, and here is the great and noble opening to his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, written in 1945, but based upon an uplifting tune, a rondo, by Purcell.

[CD: Opening of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Britten, conducted by Richard Hickox – with Purcell's original tune played by period-instrument ensemble directed by Skip Sempe.]

Britten, who lived between 1913 and 1976 was a fascinating and elusive figure – a conscientious objector during the war, yet a man who had a profound affinity with the county, the country and the landscape of his birth. He wrote a coronation opera, Gloriana, and a magnificent arrangement of God Save the Queen, and it was Her Majesty who openend the famous Snape Maltings concert hall, which is the spiritual home of the Aldeburgh Festival. For Britten, the England of Gloriana could almost be seen as a page from a story by William Morris, or Shakespeare's John of Gaunt speech, or a scene from a masque by Purcell – country people happily toiling in fields, ripe corn and crops, and the monarch on her royal procession from Norwich, through a land of peace and plenty, where the hand of war and the envy of less happy lands will never trouble this innocent world.
English music is so often associated with scenes of rural Britain. As the 1930s' 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 – a place that was once a rural village) 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 misty French horns bring longing and memory, and echoes of the old England.

(CD: First movement, English Pastoral Impressions, Ernest Farrar, Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Alastair Mitchell.)

Here in Kent, the journey of Chaucer's pilgrims inspired George Dyson's The Canterbury Pilgrims, with its Overture, At the Tabard Inn, setting the scene for the progress from Southwark, through Kent and across the Medway to Canterbury. And in the Kent village of Eynsford in the 1920s, Peter Warlock and fellow composer E.J. Moeran shared a cottage in the High Street. The kitchen on Sundays was reputed to be swimming in beer. Occasionally, they composed! 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" – and a similar impulse inspired Peter Warlock, who set ancient dances in his Suite, Capriol, and who generally venerated the music of Elizabethan England. One could even argue that Warlock was one of the first exponents of the Early Music movement.

[CD: Warlock, Suite, Capriol, Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley.]

And the ideal of monarchy has also been a major inspiration for English composers. If we take our H.G. Wells-inspired musical time machine and go back, once again, this time to the England of the middle of the 17th-century, we find Thomas Tomkins, a Royalist, composing church music, chiefly for Worcester Cathedral where he served as organist and composer, and for the court of King Charles l. Here is a beautiful piece of church music by Tomkins, Great and Marvellous are Thy Works – and listen out for the repetition of the line, "And glorify thy name".

[CD: Tomkins, Great and Marvellous Are Thy Works, Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly.]

William Lawes, a slightly younger man, was a prolific composer of music for viols, and was greatly loved by Charles l. Lawes wanted to do his duty to the crown, and so rode into action at the Siege of Chester in 1645. During a skirmish, Lawes fell to a Roundhead musket shot. When the news was given to the King, he immediately went into a period of mourning, lamenting that the Realm had lost its "father of music". A modern echo of Lawes and his fate can be seen in the death of the young 20th-century English composer, Walter Leigh – killed in action at Tobruk. How strange that Lawes, with his gentle music for viols, and Leigh – with his miniaturist music for A Midsummer Night's Dream should have perished in combat. Youth – and sudden death; idealism - destroyed by the brutal hand of war: both can be found in the history of English music.

(CD: Music by Lawes, played by the Rose Consort of Viols.)

And so we come back to modern times, and to the England of Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Edward Elgar. Again, the idea of steadfast statehood is to be found in their music. Elgar drew inspiration from the legends of the ancient British king, Caractacus, in his oratorio of the same name – a druidic world under threat from the might of the Roman Empire. St. George, the Roman soldier and saint, martyred by Diocletian, inspired Sir Edward's The Banner of St. George, with words by that most Victorian sounding of librettists, Shapcott Wensley – who wrote, and these words appear in the finale of the work, written for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee of 1897:
"It comes from the misty ages/The banner of England's might/The blood-red cross of the brave Saint George/That burns on a field of white!"

Most famously, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches have become associated with Englishness and British patriotism, and the slow movement of the Second Symphony of 1911, is seen as a vast funeral march for Edward Vll, although there is much of Elgar's own general emotional character in the writing. Elgar wrote a Coronation March in 1911 for the accession of George V, but this is a curious piece of music – on edge, and like a lament in itself – as if Elgar could sense the wasteland and the dead legions of the Great War that was only three years away. (The young composer, George Butterworth, an English idealist and morris-dancer, who wrote the sunlit The Banks of Green Willow perished in the conflict.)

I am going to play a piece of Elgar now, not a martial or symphonic work, but the poignant introduction to his Piano Quintet of 1918, written at a Sussex cottage called Brinkwells. We think of Elgar as a man of Worcestershire, riding his bicycle along lanes by the Malvern Hills, but for a time at the end of World War One, he rented Brinkwells, and enjoyed the woodland and the piece of Southern England. Lady Elgar claimed that her husband had discovered a "wood magic" in the county, and perhaps there is something mystical at work in Sussex, as another English composer, John Ireland – who at the end of his life settled in Sussex – claimed to have come across spectral children from a distant era, dancing on the ancient trackways of the chalk downland. Here is the opening of the second movement of Elgar's Piano Quintet. And I will follow this some suitably pastoral and mystical music by John Ireland – the Legend for Piano and Orchestra of 1934 – written in the same year as Elgar's death. The Legend tells the story of the supernatural experience on the South Downs.

[CDs: Elgar, Piano Quintet – excerpt from John Ogdon EMI recording, followed by John Ireland, Legend for Piano and Orchestra, LPO conducted by Bryden Thomson, Eric Parkin, piano.]

One of Parry's best-known coronation pieces is his I was Glad – and it belongs to that tradition of music which only this country could have produced – music for the state, for the cathedral, music that resounds through history. We are going to end by singing the well-loved hymn, Jerusalem, a setting of words by William Blake, and a piece that was originally written in 1916 for the Fight for Right movement. But Parry, although a patriot, came to dislike the warlike associations of this organisation, which in any case, began to split into separate factions – one, imperialist, and the other, made up of a more utopian element, which dreamt of a better world to come. Jerusalem was taken up by the women's suffrage movement, and became the anthem associated with the Women's Institute. Elgar orchestrated Jerusalem in 1922, and this is the version played at the Last Night of the Proms; and Sir Walford Davies, who composed the RAF March Past, also orchestrated the hymn for the 1924 WI rally at the Queen's Hall. Tonight, it will be played by the incomparable Ingrid van Dooren.

[Ingrid Van Dooren – Parry, Jerusalem, preceded by Vaughan Williams, Bright is the Ring of Words.]

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.