Your favorite English Composer?
I am somehow hooked on English composers even quite a while before I moved from Berlin to London... (Naw, not the few real famous ones, I don't talk about Elgar, Purcell, Britten or the early renaissance masters like Tallis etc.). I am talking about the lush, rich, edgy, light, subtle, very often melodious and tuneful, sometimes pastoral and late romantic sounds starting with Ralph Vaughan Williams (whom I learned to love long before I moved to London when I sang in Berlin his fabulous Sea Symphony and detected his cosmos of symphonies only comparable to Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich), the strange, bizarre, humorous but always warm and affectionate sound of Malcolm Arnold (this year celebrated for his 100th birthday), the philosophical and impressionistic music of Frederick Delius and Gustav Holst (who wrote a lot more than The Planets). In that time I found names like William Walton, Greald Finzi and George Butterworth, Cyril Scott and Stanford, Parry and Sullivan especially tempting...
The abundance of fascinating sounds on streaming services and some tipps I received on social media lead me now to names I've never heard of: York Bowen (yes, there is a great piano English composer), Gordon Jacobs, Bantock, Alwyn, Bax, Bliss, Benjamin...
What do you think of it? Why is this music so underrated in music historical view? Why is there no English School comparable to the New Vienna School or Les Six? Why are those composers still so rarely played in continental concert halls and even in England?
And last but not least: What's your favorite English composer? Or which work? Can you come up with another name I've never or rarely heard before? I am sure there are lots. So please let me know of your favorite work of Foulds, Cooke, Gipps, Rubbra or whatever.... (listening to Alwyn's Magic Island while I write...)
Being an Aussie and growing up under the imperial cloak of England 😀 the music of the British Isles was my constant companion. So many of the composers you mention played a big part in my musical upbringing.
It would be hard for me to choose a favourite English composer. Vaughan Williams and Purcell are definitely up there. And having been a chorister and performed works by people like RVW, Purcell, Walton and others, I'm particularly drawn to those composers. Vaughan William's haunting Mass in G Minor is among my favourite works of all.
As for someone you might not have heard, how about Sally Beamish? She often composes for viola - an all-too-neglected instrument. Here's her viola concerto titled 'Under the Wing of the Rock':
Your post, Johann, mentions so many of my favourite English composers, and the one composer who always gets me racing to the ‘off’ button: Parry. Specifically his choral works, which have a sickly smell of victorian sentimentality to me. Can anyone change my mind?
My favourites: yes the famous names, Purcell and Britten. Less famous favourites include the Geordie baroque composer Charles Avison, and Sally Beamish (great call, Rose. I’m especially fond of her string quartets)
RWV is an interesting call, and a good question: why aren’t more of his symphonies played in the concert hall? I’m amused at how often a love of RVW’s music is a whispered confession, a guilty secret.
And one last question: can we count Handel as an English composer?
Welll @jen, Handel was a "naturalized" British subject, so I guess he can be counted as an English composer!
I was going to say that he's my favourite (you might know that already 😊); followed closely by Purcell and Elgar, but @johann-agricola categorically says this is not about the obvious ones .... 🤷♀️
Yes @dinah, I remember 😁, and Handel is also one of my favourite composers. But you’re right, this could too easily go off topic - perhaps we should set up a separate thread to discuss Handel and his music?
And one last question: can we count Handel as an English composer?
The English certainly did, and I think you'd get agreement from the man himself. Not sure about the opinion from the Continent.
@jen listen to Parry's chamber music! I like it a lot...: https://music.apple.com/gb/album/parry-piano-trio-in-e-minor-piano-quartet-in-a-flat-major-vol-1/1175498029?ls
And I remember a symphony I liked pretty much. And when I was a member of a German church choir I always tried to convince our conductor to program some Parry but English wasn't in favour back then...
@capriccio thanks for Sally Beamish! Sounds great! I've never heard of her and will check the music. I found there so much great English viola music...
@capriccio I may consider myself here as continental... 🙂 Handel was definitely English since he had spent most of his life there and had some of his greatest successes there. But he was very cosmopolitan and had many successes in Italy and Germany as well. I remember endless discussions in my Berlin church choir years ago if we should sing the Messiah in English or in German language. Luckily we voted eventually for English...
I remember endless discussions in my Berlin church choir years ago if we should sing the Messiah in English or in German language. Luckily we voted eventually for English...
This sounds like fodder for a topic by itself! 😀
@capriccio it is indeed, sometimes I do actually like Handel sung in German but I think I will continue this in the Handel forum... 🙂
@johann-agricola Your suggestion to try Parry’s chamber music is a good one. (Note to self: remember to listen to the chamber music of any composer before dismissing their oeuvre as being not to my taste 😊)
So, this morning, I listened to the E minor piano trio… Twice, without once reaching for the ‘off’ button! In truth, I rather liked it, especially the outer movements. Tonight I’ll try his other piano trios, and perhaps the string quartets too.
Consider my hat eaten!
Note to self: remember to listen to the chamber music of any composer before dismissing their oeuvre as being not to my taste 😊)
good advice @jen 👍
Following your post, Johann, I’ve been musing on the subject of fashion in music, and the ways in which the works of certain composers fall in and out of favour.
Edwin York Bowen’s compositions (and his performances as a pianist), it seems, were hugely popular during his early career, but fell out of favour after the First World War to the extent that he largely stopped composing and focused on a career as a music academic instead. Apparently his music was just too romantic for fashionable taste?
My only acquaintance with York Bowen’s oeuvre had been via Stephen Hough’s wonderful recording of a selection of his preludes and other short piano pieces (unfortunately on Hyperion, so not available to stream) - it’s hard to imagine a pianist better suited to play these works. In recent years, however, there have been numerous other releases of York Bowen’s compositions: the symphonies and piano concertos, Lawrence Power performing the viola concerto, and Christina Ortiz with a recording of the complete 24 Preludes, to name just a few. So perhaps York Bowen is starting to be properly appreciated again.
And back to Stephen Hough: well known as an English pianist, but perhaps not so well known as an English composer? I love this album:
And apologies for veering off topic, but I’m just smiling as I recall our conversation, @capriccio, on a forum of old (is it really only a few weeks ago that the Primephonic forum disappeared??), about the pleasure of driving to Stephen Hough’s recording of the Saint-Saëns piano concertos 😁