Das Land ohne Musik
© Chris Green, January 2010
Go on to the web and the advice from one reference is that it is difficult to track down where this claim started. The best guess is that it was a German critic residing in London in the mid 1800s. Well, some might say, it had to be a German because it was widely thought that German music as represented by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms represented the pinnacle of classical music-making. It was no coincidence then that musical neighbours paid tribute by writing music that was distinctly Germanic in flavour. Listen to the symphonies of Stanford and Sullivan and one can hear traces of Brahms.
The problem is that Carl Engel's claim stuck and was repeated over the next decades despite the success of Elgar's music in Germany (but then one could argue that Elgar was inspired by some of the operas of Wagner).
This month's selection of CDs represents proof - if proof was needed - that the claim could not last because the Brits have long reasserted their significance in the world of international classical music composition, and it did not all stem from the music of Benjamin Britten, even though there are those who might suggest that was the case.
However, time and space requires that I should take an arbitrary departure point and I start with the Suffolk boy made good. Britten's talent was precocious, and like that of any precocious young person he was quick to dismiss the music of many older composers. His apprenticeship was in part spent in the film recording studio with small bands of musicians recording music for GPO films which are now once again available as a series. The GPO Film Unit was an important development ground for directors like David Lean and under the inspired direction of John Grierson and Cavalcanti, the Unit turned out film after film, many seemingly unrelated to the Post office. Composers such as Walter Leigh, Darius Milhaud and Benjamin Britten contributed scores for the documentaries, most of which lasted less than 15 minutes. This is where Britten's first arrangements of music by Rossini (later to become part of Soirees and Matinees Musicales) were first heard, and where The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra made its appearance.
The latter work is one of eleven works in a collection from Nimbus with the English Symphony and String Orchestra conducted by William Boughton (Nimbus NI 1751). Packaging works in this way is an economic investment and performances are very good, but there are better individual recordings of works such as the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. However, the musicians are recorded sympathetically and soloists Jerry Hadley (tenor) and Anthony Halstead (horn) contribute with a sensitive account of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.
The same orchestras contribute to another Nimbus boxed set celebrating the music of Sir Michael Tippett. Tippett was such a contrast to Britten, both as a person and as a composer. At a personal level, Tippett publicly committed himself to his pacifist ideals in a way that Britten ducked. Britten could have come back to Britain earlier in the Second World War. He could have accepted a prison sentence like Tippett as a conscientious objector, and could have come out as a gay person. No, he chose to surround himself by a court which protected him and his reputation. Musically, Tippett's music is less accessible, and I have often found that he would use half a dozen notes where fewer would suffice. If that sounds like heresy, I am sorry, but one only has to explore his choral music to see this more clearly. His arrangements of national airs are tricky in the extreme, and not rewarding to singers. Yet there are notable exceptions like A Child of Our Time, the spirituals from which are included in this largely orchestral edition on four CDs, again from Nimbus (Nimbus NI 1759). Tippett's concertos, the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage and some of the occasional pieces such as Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles contribute to an interesting and well recorded selection that was issued to celebrate his music on the occasion of the composer's death on 1998.
So, there we have: two contemporaries who came to make their mark on the national and international music scene- owing little to their predecessors like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and yet building on the assertive stance taken by both those men in affirming Britain as definitely a land where music flourished.