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National Anthems
January/February 2012

Musical malevolence: Benjamin Britten (left) privately sneered at fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams 

It wasn't that long ago — perhaps 30 or 40 years — that those who thought they liked music regarded British composers as an oxymoron. Anything that was not Beethoven, Bach, Mozart — or directly descended from them — was not merely looked down on by musical snobs, but was viewed with utter contempt. In the 1970s Elgar was only just coming back into fashion; Vaughan Williams was still in his post-death period of studied neglect; Walton was in a comparable pre-death one. As for the panoply of other native composers, they were not even on the radar. Oddly enough, one of those who most vigorously led the climate of disdain for British works was a British composer, Benjamin Britten. Conscious of his own genius and deserved pre-eminence, Britten was never that keen on others muscling in on his act. His diaries and letters drip with bile about Vaughan Williams in particular. Only Frank Bridge, who had been his teacher and remained his friend, escaped the rough end of Britten's tongue.

Now, this has changed. Vaughan Williams appears to be the nation's favourite composer. Everyone seems familiar with Elgar. Thanks to the enlightened attitudes of concert programmers — not least Roger Wright, who runs the BBC/Henry Wood Promenade Concerts — British music is put before audiences in a way those of us who rather admire it could not have imagined a decade or two ago. But, with notable exceptions, this airing of our musical culture is conducted within strict limits.

Vaughan Williams has become so celebrated largely because of the championship by Classic FM — a station that seems otherwise to play mainly film music — of just one of his pieces, "The Lark Ascending". It's a rather enjoyable piece of music. However, I wouldn't even put it in the top 20 of VW's works. Elgar is well-known because of the Last Night of the Proms, and "Land of Hope and Glory": but some of us have always considered the fourth "Pomp and Circumstance" march superior to the first. Works by lesser composers of the English musical renaissance only have rare outings, though they are spectacular when they come. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra a few years ago championed the works of John Foulds, the only English composer other than Britten to whom I would unhesitatingly apply the word "genius". This included giving the first concert performance for over 70 years of his awesome piano concerto, the Dynamic Triptych. The Proms have hosted a performance of that work too, and also such other rarities as Moeran's Symphony in G Minor, and Vaughan Williams's shamefully neglected Piano Concerto in C.

In one of those moments one can liken only to being a child allowed into a sweet shop and invited to help oneself, I have been allowed to explore some of the wilder shores of British music for the amusement of listeners to BBC Radio 3. Over four Saturday afternoons from January 14, from 3pm to 5pm, I am presenting a series devoted to music that we ought to know better but do not. I have spent over 30 years ferreting out the downright obscure. Some of it did not merit the effort, but an awful lot did. British composers in the middle of the last century were the great victims of the snobbery I described above. Very few made it into the repertoire. Public taste was deemed against them. When the unlamented Sir William Glock took over what was then the Third Programme in 1959, he drew up a blacklist of composers, many of them English and writing tuneful, romantic music, who were not allowed on his airwaves. Those days, thank God, have long gone, and our own music can take its chances along with everything else.

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