Series: The English Symphony

This is finally happening.

There was a discussion I read online recently about countries or cultures ‘pulling their weight’ or not in classical music relative to the country’s international/historical influence and how the renown of their classical musicians is in keeping with this or not. An example is Austria, which might not seem like a huge world power today, but was a wealthy, influential empire for a long period of (important) history, and this is reflected in Vienna’s status as a world capital of culture and art, not just music, down to this day.

There were other countries listed as not pulling their weight, for as influential and big as they played on the world scene for some time or other, it might be very difficult for someone to name any more than a handful of some country’s composers from the 19th century forward.

For as outstandingly influential and powerful as Great Britain has been in the past few centuries, I feel like their composers aren’t regarded with as much favor as other European nations. That thought was prompted by the above discussion I read, but it did make me stop and think about a few of the brushes I’ve had with outstanding compositions from English composers, so we’re going to have a little month-long chat about them. Let me be clear, though: I’ve been wanting to do a series on English composers for a very long time, and have finally finished preparing that roster. It’s going to be a busy few weeks.

 

I’ll talk more about the designation between English and British below in a very large footnote/separate section, but there’s stunning music that comes from that little corner of the world. You may not think of Great Britain as a powerhouse of musical output, even while Elgar and Vaughan Williams stand out as perhaps the most famous composers from that nation; Elgar’s first symphony is a stunning masterpiece of a symphony, and can easily serve as an example of the kind of amazing greatness that we’ll be exploring in this series.

It all started with one composer in particular, and as the inspiration for another series we’ll do this fall. I was looking very specifically for more composers like Shostakovich or Mahler, modern composers who wrote modern music in traditional forms, that is to say, had outputs of things like symphonies and string quartets (granted, Mahler didn’t do string quartets, but his symphonies…!). Who out there wrote music that adheres to these centuries-old traditions, who respects the past but also innovates and looks forward? Well, I found one composer who did absolutely just that, who adores and reveres Beethoven and Bruckner, but writes music that is distinctly, clearly 20th century music. We’ve talked about him before, but my discovery of his output is one of the greatest personal discoveries of music in the three and a half years that I’ve been writing this blog. We shall discuss him very late in the series (in fact, the second-to-last symphony we’ll discuss), but the more I looked, the more of his fellow countrymen I found, some more traditional, some far less, but it’s all astoundingly convincing, powerful music, and it’s absolutely exhilarating to see, and almost frustrating that it’s so unheard of, and just maybe in this series we can do a little bit to fix that. But don’t worry; I’m not holding my breath.

We’ll be starting quite far back in music history, farther back than I tend to wander in my musical travels, to some truly breathtaking little symphonies from a very long time ago. There’s also a German who’s sneaking into the series, who, although born in Germany to German parents, moved to England at a young age and is thus classified on Wikipedia as an “English composer,” and if Wikipedia says it, it must be true, right?

We also have a revisit on the agenda before we address another symphony from that composer, and needless to say there are chamber works scheduled for the weekend. Hold onto your hats, because most weeks in this series will have three midweek featured pieces. There’s just so much dosh garn music I wanted to discuss, and some really underperformed composers here, but even then… the list taped to my wall of composers who we will still not get to is long.

(I feel like I should mention at some point that after the first week of this series, the First World War is kind of an important factor in the music of this series. We won’t be discussing it directly, but especially as we are focusing on English symphonies, it is a running thread throughout the lives of many 20th century English composers. That’s about all the thoughts I have on that.)

In past series, we’ve discussed symphonies from places that were far more recognized as bastions of musical output, mainly German-speaking nations and Russia, but the Swedish and Danish series proved to be outstandingly enjoyable, and wonderful arguments for finding new music to enjoy because it is out there. Pieces from both of those series have ended up becoming some of the more treasured recordings in my library, and they weren’t even original focuses of the series, just the result of some musical digging.

And hopefully you’ve had or will have the same experience. As in past symphonies, I’ve tried to pick out works from these composers that will serve as either good representations of the composer’s style, or as a strong argument for their talent, but hopefully both. We’re not just doing all first symphonies here, although there are a few. That’s about all there is to say about this, for now, but by Jove, there’s some outstandingly superb music on the way for the next six weeks (yeah! that’s right! six weeks of like, three symphonies a week, plus chamber works!), so drop by whenever you’ve got some time and let’s see what there is to discover, and thanks to KJ for suggesting I finally give this series some attention. It’s finally happening!


As to the English designation, it may not make much difference to anyone outside Great Britain to call someone English or British, but it is different. I’ve titled this the English symphony because, to my knowledge, all the composers are English. That is to say they are not Welsh or Scottish or (Northern ) Irish, etc. If you do a bit of research, you’ll see that there are tons of composers from Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or however we should speak of the British Empire… In short, I’m trying to make the scope as small as possible, because we won’t (yet) be speaking of people like Charles Villiers Stanford, or Alun Hoddinott. To complicate this further, people like Sally Beamish are listed as British and Scottish (which isn’t wrong because one includes the other), but also as English.

In short, I am going to do my best to make this an English Symphony series, not because I don’t want to include Welsh or Scottish or Irish composers, but because I’d like to devote a separate (and likely much smaller) series to those composers if/when I can get around to doing so. Otherwise, we’d just call it the British symphony… but there’s enough music to discuss and address already without widening the net further. So that’s that for now. Stay tuned and thanks for listening and reading.

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