Edmund Rubbra: Symphony no. 5

performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Hans-Hubert Schonzeler, or below by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, in what is frustratingly only the last two movements. I highly recommend just purchasing the album it’s on, from iTunes)

He goes on creating masterpieces, which I am convinced will survive their composer and most of those who are his contemporaries.

Sir Adrian Boult

Charles Edmund Duncan-Rubbra was born on 23 May, 1901 in Northampton. His parents had an interest in music as amateurs and, something it seems we hear rarely, encouraged their son’s musical pursuits.

There’s an anecdote of the young Rubbra waking up one morning in bed and realizing the light cast in his room was different than it usually is, that it fell in different places, so he asked his father why. Turns out there had been snow during the evening, and the sun reflecting off the snow reflected light up into the boy’s room from the ground, and this discovery and its implications apparently stuck with him, as did the experience of hearing (church?) bells on a walk one day. He expresses that their sound seemed to hang in the air. Whatever the accurate versions of these accounts are, it seems the young boy had a sensitivity to aesthetic and detail that  one argues is heard in his music.

He also helped to sell pianos at his uncle’s store. They kept a demo piano at their home, and prospective buyers would come and listen to the young boy play. If they bought a piano, the family received a commission.

Growing up, he worked in various offices of factories, manufacturing shoes or something, but he declined an offer of future ownership of another uncle’s business. He took up work as a clerk in a railway station, but continued to study music. He wrote some early pieces and would meet with fellow Northampton composer William Alwyn, who we will address soon, and compare notes and ideas.

At 17 years old, the young and apparently ambitious Rubbra organized a concert of works of Cyril Scott, a composer who I feel I maybe should have included (or at least revisited) in this series. A minister at Rubbra’s church sent a copy of the program to Scott, who must have certainly been flattered and/or impressed, and agreed to take Rubbra on as a pupil. Conveniently, the young student could take the train to his music lessons at a quarter the regular fare, since he was a railroad employee.

He later studied at University College Reading under Gustav Holst (also unfortunately not included), who also taught at the Royal College of Music and recommended that Rubbra apply. Do you see how important/useful connections are/can be? He took a tour as pianist, filling in for someone else for a series of concerts during his last semester, that apparently afforded him an enormous amount of practical experience, even if it might have delayed his graduation. His first symphony wasn’t completed until 1937, but three others followed in relatively quick succession. Today’s work, of sort of a new period, came along in 1947.

In his book Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Robert R. Reilly discusses Rubbra with an enthusiasm and passion almost unmatched in any of the other chapters. This is in part due to Rubbra’s later religious leanings, which Reilly favors, but he speaks very highly of his music, and the fifth is his favorite of the bunch. After having made a note to that effect, I set the book down for a while and got to reading other things, but continued listening, and from listening here and there, I myself settled on the fifth, so I was pleased when I went back to look at my notes and found that it’s not just me who considers it a standout work. Reilly also chose it as his favorite.

The symphony opens with a warm rumble followed by an oboe solo, leading us into a warm, poignant sound world instead of any kind of menacing, driving first theme. It’s sweeping and big and superbly-written. Reilly says, actually that “Its opening is straight out of Sibelius,” (p. 292), and I’d say it’s on equal footing with the exquisiteness of the writing you’d hear from him or Bruckner, or anyone else. It’s stirring, deeply emotional. Wether you hear tragedy or heartbreak or melancholy or longing, whatever it is, it’s deeply felt, even meditative.

This captivating first movement, made of long, broad melodic lines, is the longest in this half-hour symphony, and it’s so beyond any need of analysis or dissection. It has its climax(es), but the movement feels like one single uninhibited thought, like a musical snowball, or better yet, a river that begins with just a few trickles up in a mountain somewhere, and without stopping becomes a powerful, momentous body of water. It is one unbroken gesture, and a beautiful one. Really stunning, and almost frustrating that this isn’t one of those (more) ubiquitous pieces on concert programs all over the world.

The second movement is marked allegro moderato, and serves as our scherzo, but it’s a mild one, neither bombastic and violent nor comedic and playful. It’s pastoral, peaceful, almost rustic, but not folksy. I’d say it’s rustic in the sense that it sounds, like the first movement, as if it comes from the earth in the way that you hear the landscape of Finland in Sibelius’ music, or at least what I envision the landscape of Finland to be like. Is Rubbra reminiscing fondly on rolling hills and wide open green spaces? I can’t say for sure, but that’s what the music conjures up to me. It’s not entirely carefree, but sunnier than the first movement. There’s a sense of…. spirituality, of depth, or maturity, in this music, a certain kind of restraint, a tentative optimism. This movement borders on being a bit repetitive, but travels away from its starting point toward its blustery climax before coming back down. Again, it’s one long, single gesture, seemingly so simple, but so effective, and we can’t help but be carried along for the journey, and it ends quietly and unassumingly.

The real heart of the work, I think, though, is the third movement. The first movement didn’t wear its heart on its sleeve as much as the third, and the second proved to be a lighter interlude, but here is where Rubbra sounds the most honest, and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Reilly says it’s “hard to draw a breath during it,” and that it’s one of his “most rapt and deeply moving” movements. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most poignant, painfully beautiful things I’ve listened to, one of those things you can’t bear to hear too often; there’s a kind of deep, almost sacred personal nature to this. It’s marked grave, and words kind of can’t describe what this movement and some of its astoundingly beautiful gestures convey.

Thankfully, we’re left with something a little lighter to end the work. Otherwise I think we’d all be stuck in our chairs, our emotions all melted out onto the seats, paralyzed by contemplations about the bigness and meaning of life. The finale begins with the kind of bounce that you might expect from a scherzo. This is by far the shortest movement of the symphony, and it feels like a relief, a celebration. Reilly calls this “a luminous, grave symphony with an exultant final movement, propelled by fanfare-like phrases.” It’s certainly brassy, and the effect is triumphant, like the third movement got something off our chest, and the exultation isn’t really in equal measure to the pensiveness of the rest of the work, but is telling of what the heart of the symphony really…

You know what… forget it. One could speak very subjectively about emotions, grafting our own personal feelings and interpretations onto the work, but at the end of the day, it is subjective, but it’s also outstandingly, remarkably beautiful. Reilly is inclined toward attributing spiritual meaning and significance to beautiful (harmonically acceptable) music, so Rubbra’s conversion to Catholicism (I think?) having happened around this time is a convenient point of reference he mentions, saying that “it is not hard to feel a sense of profound spiritual revelation and celebration in it.”

Whether you agree with Reilly’s extramusical and religious ideas or not, he has outstanding insights into this music, and that of many other composers, and I very much enjoyed reading his chapters on some of the composers being featured here, even if I didn’t quote from them. I still might. Most of the remaining composers in the series, in fact, are featured in Reilly’s book. His focus on recovery of modern music is maybe geared toward those disillusioned with anything written in the last century, but as much as I love some music Reilly would likely detest, I see his discussion of these composers simply as presentation of composers who most of the world doesn’t know but should. There are only a few truly famous names, like Barber, Britten, Janacek, Korngold, Nielsen, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Villa-Lobos, with dozens of others that most people are likely, and unfortunately unfamiliar with.

Praise for Reilly’s book aside, there’s a pretty good showing of English composers in his selection, which serves me well in this series, but also makes an argument for the quality of the music coming from that little corner of the world. We’ll still hear some folks at the opposite end of the spectrum, but there is so much to discover and enjoy here, and in fact, it’s gotten me to thinking about something that I’ll probably end up doing throughout 2018 for the blog, since 2017 is almost completely booked up already.

In any case, it’s hard to make a convincing argument for going out and spending money on a recording of works you’ve never heard from a composer you don’t know (or on a book, but that one I can recommend with far less trepidation), but it really is a shame that more people aren’t aware of music like this, and I’m not sure what else can be done about it. But that’s all for now, and we have lots, lots more English music on the way, at least for the next two weeks, before we move on to something completely different, so stay tuned, and thanks for reading.


One thought on “Edmund Rubbra: Symphony no. 5

  1. Excellent read, and I will most certainly purchase this symphony, but perhaps the Welsh orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox rather than the Melbourne mob. One picky picky comment – paragraph 8, last sentence begins “Wether”, rather than whether.

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