National Anthems

For too long British classical music has gone unheard. Thankfully, what was once deemed a “guilty pleasure” is now getting regular airtime

Culture & Anarchy Music
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.

Some of the music I am playing over my eight hours’ journey was not familiar even to me — such as a beautiful early piano work by Dame Ethel Smyth. Most of the rest are pieces I do not feel I have heard on Radio 3 for a very long time. Each programme features a long work and a number of other shorter ones. No composer features more than once, which allows us to delve into the undergrowth of such people as Constant Lambert, Malcolm Arnold, Gordon Jacob, Hamish MacCunn and Sir Hamilton Harty.

The big names are there too: but since I felt there was no merit in airing works with which all would be familiar, I tried to find relatively unknown ones that would extend the listener’s understanding and appreciation of the range of the great men. Vaughan Williams is represented by his ravishing song-cycle “Four Poems of Fredegond Shove”, the words written by his wife’s niece. Elgar appears through some of his songs set for orchestra, emotionally unrestrained and sounding rather like Puccini, his great contemporary — or perhaps it is Puccini who sounds like Elgar. Herbert Howells, famed for his church music, also wrote two fine piano concertos, part of one of which will feature in a programme.

The four long works are all masterpieces that deserve to be in the main repertoire: I hope some concert programmers will be listening. The first is Bliss’s Colour Symphony, which used to turn up in concerts all the time, and then about ten or twenty years ago stopped doing so. The second is Patrick Hadley’s symphonic work “The Trees So High”, from 1931, something that sounds derivative of his teacher Vaughan Williams but is remarkably and radically different from, and in many ways more articulate than, anything VW had written at the time. The third is the last movement (the whole symphony is well over an hour long) of the Fourth Symphony of my dear and much-missed friend George Lloyd, written as he recovered from shell-shock in 1945 and described by one eminent critic as like a missing symphony of Tchaikovsky. Finally, and appropriate for a year that sees the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games, there is Sir George Dyson’s cantata “Sweet Thames Run Softly”, written in Coronation year and a setting of Spenser. 

The point of the exercise is to open ears, and minds. British music has for too long been a guilty pleasure for some of us. I hope, if you listen to these four programmes, you will agree that we can at least now do without the guilt.