A Slightly Irreverent Look at English Music

Quick, name three British composers not the Beatles, David Bowie, Mick Jagger or Johnny Rotten?

If you said Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton or Gustav Holst, congratulations. If you said Michael Tippett, Harrison Birtwhistle, John Tavener or Thomas Ades, what are you doing here? Go teach your college class. 

Honestly, the history of English music is a little weird. Things are puttering along just fine until the late 18th century, and then poof! Crickets for a hundred years. What happened?

If you’re a fan of medieval music, you know that England didn’t contribute much. [Your Spotify playlist also must be a real hoot at parties.] England has always been a little late to the musical party, like it can’t find directions and shows up right when everyone else is sleepily heading home. 

So, early music in England didn’t really take off until the middle late Renaissance. By then, musical ideas had been passed around Europe like a game of telephone from Italy, France, Germany and even Spain. (Yes, I know those countries weren’t called those names back then. Deal with it.)

By the time the style of all those complicated Italian madrigals and mind-boggling polyphonic church motets reached the shores of Great Britain (again, I know it wasn’t called that), the music had undergone a transformation. It was simpler, easier to understand. Downright tuneful. 

Want a great example? Listen to this madrigal by Gesualdo, and then this one by John Dowland. [note: Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover and spent most of his life alone in a mountaintop castle. So there’s that.]

The Renaissance morphed into the Baroque (entirely unbeknownst to the people living through it) and thank goodness, for once England actually kept up. This was in the form of a composer named Henry Purcell. Purcell only lived 36 years. [ Purcell's death has been attributed to either an allergic reaction to chocolate, or pneumonia caused by that time his wife "accidentally" locked him out of the house in winter. ]

But in his short time on Earth he composed the first operas in English, orchestra suites, keyboard music and at least one or two masterpieces of choral literature.

Now, you might be thinking, what about Georg Fredrick Handel? Here’s the thing, though: Handel was German. He moved to England, wrote some great music with English texts (Messiah? Heard of it?), but never really assimilated. OK, we’ll give him half-credit.

After Purcell and Handel, English music took a nap. I mean, a looong nap. Like, go shake England and see if it’s still alive or just sleeping.

Why the deep slumber? Some scholars blame it on the royalty of the 19th century, many of whom were of German descent. The predominant attitude was German, good. English, bad. 

At some point during the 63 year (and 216 days) reign of Queen Victoria, English music woke up, wiped off the nap-drool, brewed a pot of coffee and got to work.  Some English composers were proper Victorian gentlemen, like Sir Aurthur “Pirates of Penzance” Sullivan.  Others came a little later, like Edward “Nimrod” Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav “T-Bone” Holst. [So called because he played the trombone. Actually, no one probably called him that.]

All of these composers – and several others I can’t remember – used folk music or references to Renaissance-type textures in their compositions. Beginning in Europe in the mid-19th century, there was a great interest in folk music,  both as a way to reinforce often unhealthy nationalistic politics and attitudes [you know, like feeling your country is entitled to most of Greece and Egypt's antiquities], but also a way to recognize each culture’s unique musical heritage. Many of America’s most beloved folk songs came from elsewhere, often England, Scotland and Ireland. 

The result of the "great folk song revival" in England was the incorporation of folk tunes into the music of Holst, Vaughan Williams and, probably, a lot more. Both composers wrote suites literally called “Folk Song Suites.” [A little on the nose, boys, don't you think?]

Past the turn of the 20th century, English music remained in good hands through the compositions of folks like Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Michael Tippet, George Butterworth and Ethyl Smith. [You're thinking about pancake syrup, aren't you?]

Then jazz happened, rock happened, pop happened, the Beatles and the Stones and the Sex Pistols all happened. And English classical  music – like in America and everywhere else – retreated into its little niche.

But that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

NEXT TIME: We look at the music for our November concerts.


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