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A Few Brief Thoughts on the British Symphony 1940 to 1980

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
As mainland Europe turned its back on what was its own main creation at the beginning of the 20th-Century strong lines of new symphonic traditions sprang up in Scandinavia (Nielsen, Alfven, Simonsen, Glass, and of course Sibelius), Russia (Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky and Prokofiev) and Britain. These could almost be said to be the aftershocks from the fallout of the genre being felt on the periphery of the epicentre, Vienna. This of course is not the case and each region developed its roots and taste for the symphony many years before with the omnipotent control of the Austrian/German works.
So what was it that made the UK so receptive and fertile to the symphonic style of composition? Orchestras. As simple as that. The UK had since the late 19th century developed independent orchestras in many of its growing metropolises such as Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bournemouth as well as the capital. They had a fierce sense of independence and individuality and encouraged new symphonies by new composers. When they could not get these from abroad anymore they turned to their own home grown talent that had been waiting in the wings for so long for just such an opportunity.
Another contributing and important factor was that at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th-century many of these orchestras could attract, and afford, the major conductors of their day. These were musicians who were more than willing to regularly undertake the task of conducting a new score by a British composer. Hans Richter for instance became a great favourite with British audiences, and composers alike, for his willingness to cultivate a British sense of themselves through their very own music. He of course was the conductor who brought  the  premieres  of  Elgar’s  “Enigma  Variations“,  “The  Dream  of Gerontius” and the “First Symphony” to the attention of the British music lover.
The music festival was another outlet that encouraged the growth of home grown talent by commissioning new symphonies, trying to out-do their main rivals for the newest and best of the composers and their works. A boom period for the newer generation of composers after the triumvirate of Stanford, Parry and Elgar.
The newly formed BBC played a major role in disseminating the new works via its broadcasts to the nation and thus instilled a sense of Britishness through the new and wholly home grown talents around, those of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax, Moeran et al. At a time when being British was something to be proud of and worth celebrating alongside all other nations works. When a new symphony from one of the main British composers was something to look forward to and created much speculation amongst concert goers and BBC listeners alike. With its major orchestras and conductors throughout the UK the BBC was almost the backbone of this nation’s high art musical quest to discover itself.
By 1940 the goal of creating a unique Britishness in music was well and truly achieved but we were as a nation yet to see the best flowering of this cultivation of our creativity, even though it was a darkened flower that grew without much tending and without much recognition by many.
This blog will not be dealing with what makes British music sound British but with the lesser known names (not Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bax, Tippett etc.) that created works that were of immense importance, if little known, to create one of the greatest flowerings of the symphonic genre ever made in the world to date.
The British Symphony from between 1940 to 1980 has always been an anathema to all but a few knowledgeable and interested parties. If asked, the general music public would probably state some passing acquaintance with the symphonies of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, possibly Walton and maybe even Tippett but behind these pinnacles of the genre there lies a vast ocean of exquisitely wrought, direct, passionate works that remain almost lost or completely forgotten. Some may say that they are forgotten for a good reason — quality. Whose quality control levels are we speaking of here? Yet if quality of whatever level were the reason then the reverse should be the norm. Many such works by Simpson, Arnell, Alwyn, Rubbra, A.Butterworth, Racine Fricker, Searle, Jones, Wordsworth, Gipps, etc., although little known are such important British symphonies in the growth of the genre that they should be the staple diet of every British orchestra and University music department, rather than languishing in such abject obscurity that they unfortunately have been consigned to the pile marked “Never!” by orchestras who are out to try and make nothing more than a profit rather than to support and promote the cultural advancements of the country, like their forefathers did not all that long ago. Economic circumstances have been one of the main reasons for these important works neglect and even though one can understand the orchestras needing to make money to  survive I do not see the fiftieth performance in a year of a little known work a European composer as being of any moral, cultural or musical significance when a symphony by say Arnell or Wordsworth would certainly bring their names to peoples lips, and probably reignite the lust for the British Symphonic genre again. Far too long we have been fed the same staple diet of 19th century Europeans that we seem to have lost sight of our own great works. When was it that most of us heard Elgar, Bax or Vaughan Williams Symphonies live or the great Symphony by Moeran? Probably never!
In the time of their creation many British Symphonies were ignored in favour of the usual warhorses. In Edmund Rubbra’s case it wasn’t until his Fifth Symphony that he was commissioned to compose it. In Peter Racine Fricker’s case all five were commissioned, but only the first two from British organisations. With this atmosphere of extreme disinterest and lack of performance opportunity it is surprising that so many composers in Britain between 1940 and 1980 even considered writing full scale symphonies. Yet throughout this period some of the finest works of the 20th century symphonic writing were created with a drive and enthusiasm that has been seen little since the Classical and Romantic period.
Not only did these works cover the English Nationalist School of thought but also modernist writing and even avant-garde experimentalism of the likes of Peter Maxwell Davies’s first outing in the genre. The influence of Europe was only apparent in some composer’s works, usually émigré composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Egon Wellesz thus making this unique to a completely British ideal of creation. By British I mean all the countries of the British Isles including the Irish Republic; although they were somewhat later in their own development.
The great unique skills found in much of this period’s music is of an astonishingly high quality. If one listens to the Symphonies of Alan Bush, Gordon Jacob, Arnold Cooke or John Joubert (slightly later than the rest and still writing) we are not in the land of the “cowpat movement” as Ethyl Smyth so ignominiously dubbed the British Pastoralists, but in a soundworld that is British and yet outward looking. It is not European but does not follow the norm of the then English pastoralism of the day. It is a style of strong linear melodies combined with denser tonal textures that sometimes spill over into an atonalism that is not that of the Second Viennese School. Its language is unique amongst Symphonic writers and is unique even to the British sphere of composition, take a listen to the late Robert Still for this in particular. Beyond these names we come to the more 12 tone serial worlds of Humphrey Searle, Iain Hamilton and Peter Racine Fricker. These three I always refer to as “the lost generation”. These three composers came about in their language through an assurity of instrumental language and style that was didactic and yet highly skilled and original. They were ignored by all around them even though their language was old and modern at the same time. Their compositional worlds were British, just like Alan Rawsthorne’s was, but with a European lilt to the colours and language. They were of their time but their time was not to come. Sir William Glock took over at the BBC for new music and this original and new language was not to his taste. The younger generation and the avant-garde were, and so these three were ignored by their peers from the previous generation and considered old fashioned by the younger ones. There was no way out. Racine Fricker left for America where his music was highly regarded. Searle and Hamilton buried themselves in University posts and just grinned and bared the rebuttals and ignominy of deference. To listen to their Symphonies with hindsight is to discover a world of sounds like no other in European music and certainly not in British music.
One who runs throughout this period, and was completely ignored in his lifetime was one Havergal Brian. His case is now well documented via Robert Simpson’s article and in the three volumes about his Symphonies by Malcolm MacDonald has more than compensated for the obscurity of his life. His works are now well known through recordings as is the Symphonic output of George Lloyd. Again ignored and yet unique if a little too European Romantic for some tastes. His Fourth Symphony still stands as one of the finest British Symphonies of the age.
The case of Benjamin Frankel is a curious one. He was an esteemed teacher, performer and writer of film scores. Many for the Hammer Horror movies, also as a serious composer he was highly regarded and much of his chamber works were performed and still are. His symphonies are another matter. Overlooked for no good reason. They are technically superbly structured and argued with wonderful melodies that stay with you. A language that is structured in a pseudo serialistic way and yet speaks of rich harmonies and emotion that can be found at every twist and turn of his output. Probably his fourth symphony is his greatest along with the sixth.
A distinct lack of female composers is unfortunately prevalent in this group but one is in there. Ruth Gipps. Her work is neo-pastoral in many cases and yet speaks of higher things than just British/Englishness. Her five Symphonies are unusual on many counts such as structure and instrumentation. She ran her own orchestra, “The London Repertoire Orchestra” and they premiered many of her works. Her best and most well known is the Second Symphony that takes some getting used to in its unusual structure and highly tense language but does give a lot back after repeated listening. The terseness that some of her music has was also apparent in her as a person. This was probably due to her having to fight for everything against her male colleagues.
Thankfully many of these works were published at the time but unfortunately have long since dropped out of the publishers catalogues. Some never made it that far, such as Christopher Steel, Ruth Gipps etc. Many have over the years made it on to recordings but these have been sporadic, and in some cases very poor broadcast performances only exist which do more harm than good when listening to them, I am thinking of most of William Wordsworth’s output in this respect. While writing this essay many of these recordings came to light or in some cases have been supplied by the composers or their families.
The flowering of the Symphony in Britain is a strange phenomenon that has no real ‘raison d’être’ but happened as a natural emergence of the growth of British music since the Renaissance of music in Britain in the 1880’s with Charles Villiers Stanford’s seven Symphonies, Arthur Sullivan’s “Irish Symphony” and Hubert Parry’s five, all ground breaking works in this idiom, if still with a strong Germanic accent in their language. The growth of the orchestras in the early part of the 20st century were also an influence as already stated and this encouraged British composers to explore the form; unfortunately not supported that much by the orchestras later on that had once come knocking on their doors for these works. In the 6o’s and 70’s a couple of the big orchestras did go back to supporting the flowering of symphonic writing supported by their commissioning boards. One of these was the Liverpool Philharmonic who commissioned many works especially from Robert Simpson. In the 6o’s and 70’s and early 8o’s the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra positively encouraged composers to create symphonies and symphonic works through the commissioning work of the Feeney Trust. This farsighted approach unfortunately did not find favour and now the writing of commissioned symphonies is almost unheard of. It has become more a labour of love, and hope, for a composer rather than a certainty of performance through a commission.
After 198o most new generation composers gave up on the Symphony like their European counterparts did back in the early 20th century. Some like Maxwell Davies has found a niche for his overlong and somewhat non comprehensible outings in the genre since the fourth to carry that title. One of the best is David Mathews who is an incessant Symphony writer changing and developing its forms to suite his requirements. Other than these, few composers have even contemplated writing full large scale Symphonies. I can only hope this situation will change and a new form of Symphony will evolve in this country when the powers that be give it a chance to live again.

Posted by author: Ash Ahmed
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2 thoughts on “A Few Brief Thoughts on the British Symphony 1940 to 1980

  • Patric
    A really excellent article, Andy, and one which should stimulate students to follow through to YouTube the many composers mentioned, and try to find even more representatives of the British symphony. Just last week I was in Southwold, Suffolk, the home town of William Alwyn, in whose honour a Festival is mounted each year. His legacy of 5 symphonies run alongside his fine reputation as a major film music composer, like his contemporary Malclom Arnold whose vast output included 9 symphonies. I was with several living composers who have contributed symphonies, like the 87-year old John Joubert still vigorously composing, and like Gordon Crosse, currently recovering from serious illness, is the composer of 2 symphonies. And David Matthews was there, and it is worth catching up with his 7 symphonies, two of which were broadcast only last weekend (catch up on Radio 3 iPlayer!). The symphony is a formalised structure that presents huge challenges to composers and, if they feel able to take them on, can be an absorbing concentration of pure musical thinking. They are immensely difficult to create well. It is a pity that such efforts have been so frequently neglected.

  • Great article – I’ve been putting together a list of British symphonies from 1750 right up until the present day as the basis for further research. Turns out that 1940 to 2000 is the peak period of popularity, according to my list. The numbers are as follows: 72 examples between 1940-49; 88 (1950-59); 119 (1960-69); 89 (1970-79); 115 (1980-89); and 84 (1990-99). and there’s still considerable interest, with nearly 90 examples listed between 2000 and 2014. The full list is here: http://atuneadayblogdotcom.wordpress.com/

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