A New English Music: Composers and Folk Traditions in England’s Musical Renaissance from the Late 19th to the Mid-20th Century
by Tim Rayborn.
McFarland & Co., 2016.
Paperback, 312 pages, $40.

Reviewed by R. J. Stove

When I come to England, I don’t claim England; I don’t own it. I feel a great kinship because of the literature and the landscape … but there’s still this distance: looking on at what I’m admiring, separate from what I am. And that’s okay.

Derek Walcott, Saint Lucian author and 1992 Nobel laureate

“It is the folly of too many, to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.” Thus Swift, in words eerily prefiguring the worst consequences of the post-Christian West’s academic hyperspecialization.

Every art, and every subdivision in every art, is periodically convulsed by historiographical controversies of which the intelligent lay reader (even the intelligent lay reader with a New York Review of Books subscription) remains happily unaware, but which inspire the most frantic debate within the discipline itself. So it has been with musicology; so it has been, in particular, with the chronicling of Britain’s musical heritage; and so it has been, above all, with the early-twentieth-century aspects of that heritage. Nowhere is this truer than with the field known as “the English Musical Renaissance.”

Until around twenty years ago, the E.M.R.—as we may succinctly call it here, for convenience’s sake—was an emotionally neutral descriptor, which for most people evoked Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, and especially whichever extract from The Lark Ascending turned up in the last British Tourist Board television commercial. The standard narrative undergirding this view of the E.M.R. was (to risk flagrant, but in a shortish article unavoidable, oversimplification) as follows: after Purcell’s untimely death in 1695, England had fostered no native composers of more than local worth before Elgar emerged two centuries later. A 1904 description, by German dramatist Oscar Schmitz, of pre-Elgar England became almost proverbial: Das Land ohne Musik. This attitude could be encapsulated in a variant of Pope’s diptych:

Music and music’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Elgar be!,” and all was light.

(In the extreme version of this mindset that prevailed among numerous English writers during the 1960s and 1970s, “Let Elgar be” became “Let Britten be.” As late as February 8, 2013, London’s Telegraph called Britten—who had died in 1976—“the Englishman who saved music.” This verdict was not, apparently, intended as an arch joke.)

During the 1990s, the historiographical consensus implied above broke down. For one thing, how could pre-Elgar English composition have been a wasteland when it produced Sir Arthur Sullivan, and when at least a half-dozen Gilbert and Sullivan operettas retained for more than one hundred years their initial spectacular popularity within the Anglophone world? For another thing, why English Musical Renaissance? Even if such a thing had genuinely occurred, where does that leave Scotland, Wales, Ulster, and pre-independence Ireland?

The single most publicized component in destroying such a consensus was not a work of research, but a bizarre and vituperative, if fluently written, 1993 tract with a title that speaks for itself: The English Musical Renaissance, 1860–1940: Construction and Deconstruction. Therein, two previously obscure British iconoclasts, Robert Stradling and Meirion Hughes, staked their valiant, entirely plausible claim to be the least intellectually or ethically qualified musicological duumvirate since Beavis and Butt-Head. Stradling and Hughes denounced the entire E.M.R. phenomenon as “a self-appointed and self-perpetuating oligarchy” at work, with predictably dire consequences for proletarians, non-Londoners, females, and other groups famously free from all taint of what is now called “privilege.” The tract acquired the rare distinctions of inspiring a plea that it be pulped—this plea having emanated from columnist Simon Heffer in The Times of August 9, 1993—and of being disowned by its original publisher, Routledge. A second edition by Britain’s most self-consciously leftist academic imprint, Manchester University Press, appeared in 2001 (under the foreseeable rubric “Studies in Imperialism”), with none of the original’s epistemological sloppiness discarded, and with new forms thereof having been added.

Anyone familiar with Orwell’s analyses of the totalitarian mindset’s linguistic corruption can perceive, and to a strictly limited extent admire, the cunning that Stradling and Hughes displayed. Take the Stradling-Hughes obsession with Havergal Brian (1876–1972), who was, our authors would have us believe, the true English musical genius of the early 1900s (as opposed to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Arnold Bax, Sir Arthur Bliss, and suchlike riffraff). Few except Pyongyang apparatchiks would ever buy a book which blatantly and brutally said “We know Havergal Brian was a great artist because he was a prole from the provinces and only a prole from the provinces can be a great artist.” But to convey the sentiments underpinning that flat declaration, while eschewing the declaration’s actual verbiage, is a genuine, if intellectually perverse, attainment: the literary counterpart to successful card-sharping. (For the record, Brian might indeed have been a major creative figure, if hardly the messiah before which Stradling or Hughes expect us to prostrate ourselves. Just how praiseworthy Brian was, it would be hazardous to determine, in lieu of close acquaintance with his thirty-two symphonies—all but eleven of which were written after he had turned eighty—and five operas. Still, we may legitimately wonder whether Stradling and Hughes would have shown Brian the smallest respect if he had undergone an Oxford schooling, lived in South Kensington, and talked like Prince Philip.)

At the same time, we need to remember Augustine’s pledge (De Doctrina Christiana) that false interpretations can be beneficial, since they can and should induce the rest of us to study harder, until we more closely approach the truth. The French Dominican priest A. D. Sertillanges likewise observed, in his 1921 manual The Intellectual Life, that “the value of a book is partly your own value, and what you are capable of getting out of it … St. Thomas took from the heretics and paganizers of his day an enormous number of thoughts, and none of them did him any harm.” In one respect, therefore, even the Stradling-Hughes agitprop deserves gratitude. Its sheer amateurish impudence forced us actual scholars in the field—by way of response—to do renewed homework; to ask fresh questions on topics where we had long shown excessive tolerance of glib answers; and to start closely listening to music which, hitherto, we might well have either neglected or taken for granted. Whatever our numerous faults, we could hardly hope to match for surreal misrepresentation such Stradling-Hughes purple passages as the comparison of Gounod with a rugby footballer (“Gounod praised the Lord and kicked for touch”), or the astoundingly ignorant caricature of Stanford (“Stanford … left himself open to the charge of being a dishonest, even a treasonable, imitator [of German music]”). Really, in terms of actual research, there was nowhere to go but up.

The supreme virtue of A New English Music—Tim Rayborn acquired his doctorate in Britain, from Leeds University, but now lives in California—lies in its taking its subject seriously. Although Dr. Rayborn is a medievalist (both as scholar and as performer), he nowhere indulges in the special pleading that afflicts certain other medievalists. He does not, for example, demonize all composers after 1800; his tone is civil from first page to last; he is not afraid to express his enthusiasm for his field (“a love I have had for many years”); he scrupulously presents data, pro and con, regarding divisive issues. While most of his book takes the form of fundamentally biographical chapters—Vaughan Williams, Holst, George Butterworth, E. J. Moeran, “Peter Warlock” (a.k.a. Philip Heseltine), Gerald Finzi, and the Australian-born, eventually U.S.-resident Percy Grainger—he is too conscientious to ignore wider historical circumstances, or to fall into what C. S. Lewis called “the personal heresy” concerning these men’s actual music. Invocations of Stradling-Hughes are kept to a merciful minimum (they could hardly be omitted altogether) and due weight is assigned to the subsequent discrediting of Stradling-Hughes by such serious researchers in the discipline as Julian Onderdonck, Mike Smith, Alain Frogley, Siobhan McAndrew, and Martin Everett.

Even those who have studied the area for years or decades will find that Dr. Rayborn can teach them much: not through conspicuous novelties in primary source material, but through novel and convincing interpretations of the existing material. This reviewer, before reading A New English Music, had known only the basics of Cecil J. Sharp’s early-twentieth-century folksong collection program (one naïve candidate in a British music examination is said to have defined folksong as “a tune written by nobody and arranged by Cecil J. Sharp”). Noteworthy is the level of bitterness which Sharp inspired, not so much from outsiders, as from fellow practitioners in the folkloric field.

Clearly, Sharp was a demon for work. Between 1900 and 1910 he collected more than 1,500 folksongs, though sometimes, when no music survived, he had to content himself with acquiring the words. Yet for all his William Morris-engendered socialistic views, he would fall foul of even the most lenient present-day collegiate ethics committee, especially as regards how small a proportion of Sharp’s royalties the singers whom he interviewed ever saw. Of course Sharp had to bowdlerize much verbal bawdry (otherwise no reputable publisher in Sharp’s day would have issued his findings) and, less predictably, he fitted out with piano accompaniments tunes originally performed a cappella. Moreover, he was laboriously writing down what he heard, unlike Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in eastern Europe (and Grainger in Britain itself), who already were capturing folksong via portable sound-recording equipment, a method which Sharp always resisted. That battle Sharp (who died in 1924) conspicuously lost. Among today’s ethnomusicologists, the Bartók-Kodály-Grainger field-work procedure is the default one, and from the 1970s the attacks on Sharp by fellow folklorists grew ever more strident.

The antics of one David Harker—“a self-described Trotskyist,” we are told, perhaps to reassure rather than to appall us—were to folk music’s historiography as Stradling-Hughes was to classical music’s historiography. Harker, in a 1977 magazine article and then in the 1984 book Fakesong, accused Sharp of inventing traditions in the best or worst Hobsbawmian manner, and of (you guessed it) imposing his paternalist ideology “on town and country alike for the people’s own good, not in its original form, but, suitably integrated into the Conservative curriculum, made the basis of nationalistic sentiments and bourgeois values.” All very transgressive. And, it turned out, nearly all bogus. To put Sharp in the worst possible light, Harker had misconstrued Sharp’s statistics with such brazenness that the editor who had published Harker’s original essay expressed subsequent regret for having done so.

Contrary to what a reader of Harker would assume, there was not (and there could never be) any automatic reason why folksong’s twentieth-century British popularizers should have inhabited the political Left. In twentieth-century France, as opposed to Britain, such persons inhabited the political Right; and, if they lived long enough—as did Marie-Joseph Canteloube, of Chants d’Auvergne fame—they supported Vichy. Dr. Rayborn might usefully have made this last point. But he rightly stresses the artistic and spiritual debt that Vaughan Williams, Holst, Butterworth, and Moeran all owed to Sharp’s labors (Butterworth actually took up Morris-dancing himself) and the surprisingly good personal relations between Sharp and Grainger, however disparate their collecting methods.

Dr. Rayborn’s chapter on Vaughan Williams is a little disappointing, more an elegant résumé than a thoroughly memorable profile. Even so, nothing that Dr. Rayborn has written lacks merit; and in the life of “Uncle Ralph” (as Vaughan Williams was unofficially but widely known), it is as well to be reminded of two features often overlooked: first, the sheer unfashionability of his work during his last decade—he died in 1958, aged 86—and second, the assiduity of his widow Ursula in promoting his cause amid these locust-years for his reputation. Of critics’ unfavorable responses to his Ninth Symphony, which appeared only four months before his death, Dr. Rayborn goes so far as to speak of “the vultures circling, awaiting the end.” However much we might in 2018 deplore the fatuities of postmodernism, we need only recall the erstwhile insolence of its antipode—the hubristic modernism which after World War II condemned Vaughan Williams as “reactionary” and embodying “the cow-pat school”—to curb our nostalgic impulses. (It was the arch-modernist Elisabeth Lutyens, disciple of Schoenberg and daughter of the famous architect, who coined the appellation “cow-pat school” through ill-concealed envy at Vaughan Williams’s success.)

As for Holst, the chronicle of his final years—ushered in by a 1923 accident when he fell from a platform, hit his head, and suffered concussion from which he never fully recovered—is a painful one, made more painful by the sheer reticence of Dr. Rayborn’s narrative. Between 1928 and his death in 1934 Holst composed very little. What he did compose invariably disappointed audiences who wanted rehashes of The Planets. His German-Latvian-Swedish ancestry (until the Great War he had been Gustavus Theodore von Holst) also gave widespread offense. Journalist Dyneley Hussey complained that Holst’s “share of foreign blood may well account for something strange and alien in his works … There is something cold-blooded and repellent even in his best music.” Peter Warlock’s fellow alcoholic Cecil Gray insisted that “Holst presents the melancholy spectacle of a continuous and unrelieved decline.” Holst’s own wife, confronted with his later productions, urged a conductor friend: “how I wish you could stop Gustav writing music like this, and get him back to his old style.” To this day, the bulk of Holst’s non-Planets output is more encountered in textbooks than heard in performance, even if its discography has expanded of late. Must this always be so? Dr. Rayborn leaves readers with the hope that Holst’s time will someday come.

After Vaughan Williams the institution and Holst the magnificent failure, three of Dr. Rayborn’s remaining four personalia are in the petit-maître class, although since by definition a petit-maître remains a maître, we have no entitlement to belittle any of them. The fourth, Grainger, so dissipated his gifts on three continents—as the Israeli saying goes, he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity—as to make Holst seem like Vladimir Putin. To an aural acuity and a Delius-like harmonic refinement (Grainger’s folksong arrangements commonly call to mind Delius’s Brigg Fair), Percy Grainger added political, etymological, and sexual obsessions that were almost bound to have sabotaged his muse even if he had not received every encouragement—notably wealth and leisure—to let them do so. His hatred of Romance languages, for which he longed to substitute his own Pidgin argot that he dignified by the name “blue-eyed English,” was perhaps the most innocuous of these tics. (Accordingly he junked standard Italian musical nomenclature, so that “molto crescendo” became “louden lots,” “viola” became “middle-fiddle,” “orchestra” became “blend-band,” and alas, so on and on and on and on.) Far less innocuous were Grainger’s erotic desires. The gossip about incestuous relations with his mother Rose was baseless (as Dr. Rayborn says, Rose’s syphilitic symptoms long made her avoid “any physical contact with [Percy] at all in his early years, out of a paranoid fear of infecting him”). But such gossip contributed to Rose’s 1922 suicide, and Grainger kept secret from his Swedish wife his sadomasochistic preoccupations until they were married. (Comedian Barry Humphries cruelly noted: “Australian composers take a lot of beating and Percy Grainger was no exception.”)

Butterworth, Finzi, Moeran, and Warlock all died prematurely: the first at thirty-one in the Great War; the second at fifty-five from Hodgkin’s Disease and chickenpox; the third, also at fifty-five, from a booze-induced cerebral hemorrhage (not by drowning, as was once thought); the fourth at thirty-six by means not conclusively established but probably self-inflicted. All four composers avoided Grainger’s reckless multitasking and over-ambitiousness. At least three showed an exceptional mastery of miniature forms; even the fourth, Moeran, demonstrated a taste for hard unglamorous creative work that, despite his imbibing, enabled him to produce at least one admirable symphony—a second remained unfinished at his death in 1950—and two equally admirable concertos. None would have composed as he did without Sharp’s and Vaughan Williams’s influence (though Warlock charged both predecessors with “idiotic harmonic restrictions”); none was a mere Vaughan Williams epigone.

Warlock came closest to Grainger in his self-destructive zeal, to which he added a methodical malevolence that Grainger usually avoided. He called lexicographer Percy A. Scholes “that stinking bag of putrescent tripe,” and publicly told him: “Permit me to suggest that … you would be much better employed in playing tennis than reporting concerts at any time, and that you would be still better employed in buggering yourself with a pair of exceptionally well-greased bellows.” Having talked so often of self-harm that those closest to him had become blasé on the topic, Warlock seems to have deliberately gassed himself in 1930, although neither accidental death nor murder can be entirely ruled out. Dr. Rayborn quotes a recent commentator’s hypothesis that the histrionic Warlock did not intend to die, but “expected to be found before the gas killed him.”

When Butterworth perished in the mud of Flanders (1916), Finzi was only fifteen, yet repeatedly his method sounds like a deliberate continuation of the older man’s. If any ten listeners heard Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad immediately followed by Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto (both are readily available on YouTube) without being told of these works’ origins, at least nine of those listeners would probably assume that the same musician had written both. An outsider element is common to Butterworth’s and Finzi’s backgrounds; both were London-born, but Butterworth spent much of his boyhood in distant Yorkshire, while Finzi was of German-Italian-Jewish lineage. It has recently been asserted that Butterworth was homosexual. The evidence is unclear one way or the other. No male or female partner in his life has been identified; he could have been merely a standard-issue Eton-educated misogynist; he could have had homosexual feelings but refrained from acting on them; he could have been completely asexual, as Ravel almost certainly was. There are also indications that before going to the Western Front, Butterworth had decided to abandon composing and folksong-collecting, in which case we must be all the more grateful for what he left behind in his abbreviated lifespan. Finzi, by contrast, never lost his creative urge while breath remained in him. Dr. Rayborn quotes him as telling his wife: “That I of all people should have to die so soon, when I have the seeds of growth in me.” Schubert had uttered a similar lament on his own deathbed.

It is impossible to imagine any reader coming away from Dr. Rayborn’s account without wanting to seek out more, and still more, of the music therein discussed. Fortunately Dr. Rayborn has supplied abundant details of relevant websites, and of the mostly British nonprofit enterprises that have set themselves the task of increasing the chosen composers’ audiences. Typographical standards are well above average in these pages; one tiny flaw—on p. 165 the surname of Warlock’s ally Basil Trier is rendered as “trier”—confirms the overriding quality elsewhere. What a relief that so detailed, fair-minded, and decorous a guide as Dr. Rayborn’s should now have emerged. When it comes to chronicling twentieth-century British music, the gates of Stradling-Hughes-Harker hell might not, in the end, prevail.  

Australian organist R. J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2012), and is currently undertaking a doctoral dissertation at Sydney University on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ compositions.