The English Symphony in Review


The series can be reviewed here.

That was a ton of music. And really it’s a testament to how much excellent music there is from that small little corner of the world up there off the coast of mainland Europe. As many brand new people there were to the blog, and as much music as we discussed, though, the list of apologies is a rather long one, with only a few listed below:

  • Granville Bantock
  • Arthur Bliss
  • Benjamin Frankel
  • Peter Racine Fricker
  • Joseph Holbrooke
  • Ernest John Moeran
  • George Lloyd
  • Cyril Scott

Those are the folks who very nearly made it into the roster, who I’d acquired pieces of, and was in the process of deciding on what of theirs I’d feature. The list of people who didn’t even really get that far is much longer, but among the more notable of them are:

  • Arthur Butterworth
  • George Butterworth
  • George Benjamin
  • York Bowen
  • Lennox Berkeley
  • Wilfred Josephs (not all just B names. What the hell?)
  • Gordon Jacob
  • Thomas Adès (chamber symphony)

Of the most famous people who didn’t get included, mostly because they didn’t write symphonies, but who I still should have found a way to include, are Thomas Tallis, Holst, Delius, William Byrd, the list goes on.

In any case, we’ve gotten through a few centuries of classical music out of Britain, and I know I called it the symphony series, but I also included the chamber works under that umbrella, partly because some of those composers had symphonies that would have been included if the schedule had worked out differently, but mostly because they help to form a larger picture of the music from Great Britain.

There’s also that thing about English versus Welsh or Scottish or whatever. In fact, I nearly included Oliver Knussen’s third symphony until I realized he’s listed as English and Scottish. He would have filled in some space between the Simpson symphony and Ferneyhough, but I decided not to include him on that technicality, but was eager to dig into that piece. We’ll get there eventually. There are plenty of Scottish and Welsh and Irish composers to discuss. Poor Stanford taught just about every single person in this series and I didn’t include him or any of his seven symphonies or eight string quartets.

In short, I mean… So much music. We went as far back as Thomas Arne and William Herschel, who was English on a technicality of sorts, but the real bulk of the symphonic contribution lies in the early to mid 20th century. Of course there’s Elgar (whose symphonies didn’t get featured this time around) and Vaughan Williams and Walton 1, which was truly a highlight of the series, but there are so many more English composers who’ve written such a large body of symphonies, that so many people seem not to know about. We talked about all of the below, but look at their outputs:

  • William Alwyn- 5
  • Richard Arnell- 7
  • Malcolm Arnold- 9
  • Arnold Bax- 7
  • Havergal Brian- 32
  • Ruth Gipps- 5
  • Edmund Rubbra- 11
  • Robert Simpson- 11

… not to mention the other more famous folks like Tippett (4) or Parry (4), or all the others who didn’t get included. Overall, there’s such a sense of music integrity, of dedication to the craft, of seriousness without being pedantic, an urgency to communicate. The lightest of these perhaps is Tippett’s hand, whose first we discussed, but there is something peculiarly enticing about all of these composers’ works, to the point that I listen to a Bax symphony, or Rubbra, or especially Robert Simpson and wonder what it is that has prevented them from becoming standards.

For one, I’m sure, it’s who they know, or didn’t, and timing and all sorts of other non-musical stuff, because I feel strongly that if given a piece of music, from Simpson or Arnold, Bax or Rubbra, to listen to, someone might not be able to offer up any specific reason for not liking it except that it’s unfamiliar. The onus, then, is on the listener, not the work, or perhaps on conductors and record companies and producers or broadcasters. How has this music not been disseminated and given a large, appreciative audience? It must be. The most obscure of them, maybe, Alwyn’s later works, or the symphonies from Brian may likely take some more warming up to, but not because they’re harsh or wild, but simply because they diverge more from the standard symphonic tradition. Simpson gives us single- and two-movement works, but he otherwise uses such classic, Beethovenian approaches that I’m so surprised, even a little saddened, that he isn’t hailed worldwide as one of the greatest symphonists ever to write music.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is desire. I know people, and some would say I’m one of them (at least as far as lunches in the office go), who is perfectly fine eating the same thing day in and day out, over and over again, with no concern for variety or change, and I would argue that so many people are like that with music. Regular fare, please. Nothing too wild or too new.

But what are the adverse cerebral effects of new music? Sure, if you’re not used to spicy food, or coconut milk, or excess amounts of butter or grease, you might have some unpleasant gastrointestinal effects for hours (days?) to come. But what’s the danger in taking a little nibble of some new music, especially when one country gives us such spectacular composers as England has? If you’re not interested in trying it, you’ll never find out.

But I’ll set my soap box aside for now. One of the things I love about the idea of blogging, and one of the reasons I don’t feel so bad publishing three or four or five articles a week is that the content is always there. I hope that even if you guys didn’t follow me every step of the way through these works (and honestly, how many of you ever do?), the articles are just sitting here, waiting to be read, waiting to be discovered.

And that’s true of all (by this point) more than 400 pieces I’ve written about (the next piece, after this article, actually will be music piece no. 450!). They’re all just here, and I’m so happy to see that people find my articles from web searches or other places online. I don’t necessarily think I’ve said anything terribly insightful in many of them, but for some of the ones I’ve written about, there is a surprising paucity of information, and if it helps some of these pieces come to light even just a bit more, then wonderful.

That ends a very nice (not so) little bundle of works from England, and there are still yet two more Somewhere Symphony Series to come this year, one in the fall, and one in the winter, so do stay tuned for those. In the meantime, we’re going to be doing some piano stuff for a while! Thank you so much for reading.


6 thoughts on “The English Symphony in Review

  1. I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your blog and the enthusiasm you show. I’ve been getting into many of the lesser known English composers myself and have asked myself the same question, why are such great composers not well known?

    1. Hi! Thanks for the kind words! I really hope some of the information has been helpful/interesting.
      There’s really a TON of great stuff out there to discover, but I think the biggest issue is money: people want to sell tickets to concerts, or sell albums, or whatever, and there’s no room for exploration that way.
      I think it’s also kind of an ‘Abilene paradox’ situation: a pianist learns only Chopin and Schubert because that’s what he assumes people want to hear; we get accustomed to hearing it everywhere and assume that that’s what pianists want to play or that it’s ‘the best’, and in turn more pianists play it… rinse and repeat.
      There are labels (like CPO or Hyperion or or another I can’t think of) that are doing a good job of presenting some of this more obscure repertoire, but some of it may never get the attention that it could certainly enjoy….

      1. There’s quite a few nice recording labels out there that record a lot of lessor known Music. Hyperion and Chandos are great all around and for covering British. Chandos has a quite a bit of the French composers as well. Naxos is good at pretty much everything. CPO is great for Germany and the surrounding areas like Scandinavia. Dacapo has lots of good stuff from the Danes. Timpani covers France. BIS has a lot of various stuff, with a Scandinavian focus as well. There’s a newer label Toccata that only does obscure music as well.

      2. Yes! BIS was the one I was thinking of. Came across BIS and CPO a lot when I was preparing the Swedish series last year. I also have lots from Chandos and Naxos, and have seen Toccata around lately. There’s also Ondine from Finland.

  2. Hi,

    Interesting blog. I’d like to recommend some more English composers:

    Alan Rawsthorne, Graham Whettam, David Morgan, Alan Bush, Nicholas Maw, John Foulds, Frank Bridge, Bernard Stevens, Humphrey Searle, Harold Truscott, Kenneth Leighton, Stanley Bate, John Veale, William Wordsworth


    1. Hi John! Thanks for the names.
      Frank Bridge did make it into the series, but not by way of a symphony. Many of the others made appearances in my notes but I just couldn’t get around to them, some I didn’t even get around to listening to. Eventually though!

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