A Kaleidoscope Symphony: Edmund Rubbra’s Path To Transcendence

A composer with ‘a rather peculiar spiritual make-up’.

‘Oak Forest’ by Tom McNamme. Shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that the highest function of music is to release one from personal pre-occupation in order to know something of the Divine forces that shape all existence. To achieve this, the composer must have a faith that man is NOT the end of all things, that man is NOT unaided, the sole arbiter of his destiny, that he is an instrument, even if a weak one, of a purpose that, even if beyond our understanding, is immovably present at each point of time.

It was in 2001 that, at the tender age of 16, I went to my first BBC Proms concert. That year the BBC marked the centenaries of the births of two British composers – Gerald Finzi and Edmund Rubbra – and the programme began with Rubbra’s fourth symphony. It was the first Rubbra symphony I had heard: music of measured expressiveness and dignity, with a magical opening of floating woodwind chords and long string lines, creating a sense of hypnotic stasis.

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Edmund Rubbra (pronounced like ‘rub’), but he died in 1986 having written eleven symphonies, several concertos, and a considerable body of chamber and choral music. A practising Catholic, he had (in the words of the critic Wilfrid Mellers) ‘rather a peculiar spiritual make-up’, something the quotation above demonstrates. His music is infused with the well-being of a patient faith. In fact, it surprised me to learn that Rubbra greatly admired Shostakovich and Stravinsky, those two great proponents of musical irony, as irony is one thing completely absent from Rubbra’s work. Perhaps because Rubbra was unusually spiritual, he was also unusually straightforward and sincere.

Musically Rubbra was in many ways conservative, neither taking up the modernist flight to atonality, nor borrowing much from other musical cultures. His clean diatonic melodies and modal inflections sometimes create a pastoral atmosphere; this and his mystical leanings might draw comparisons to Vaughan Williams, but Rubbra’s ethos in his instrumental music was more rigorous, more preoccupied with the contrapuntal development of ideas. Part of his unique style is the remarkable emphasis on continuity and being ‘through-composed’, a trait that connects him right back to the masters of the Tudor age. His lines often proceed by step up and down scales, making his music naturally mellifluous; it tends to flow and flower, even in its scherzos.

Marrying his idiom to the structural requirements of large-scale forms seems to have been a key challenge in his symphonies, one that elicited various responses. Sometimes he would offset a section that develops a theme in a methodical way with a sudden, bold shift into something new. But he was also adept at subtle transitions, turning the music in an unexpectedly beautiful direction with a pivotal key change.

His middle symphonies are the most outwardly attractive – the sunny breeziness of the fifth, the colourful sixth, with its magical slow movement and rousing finale, or the seventh, with its magnificent, moving passacaglia – but I want to start (paradoxically) at the end, and look at Rubbra’s final symphony: the single-movement eleventh. Written in Rubbra’s seventies, it is – as Leo Black describes in his excellent book Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist – ‘a maverick, and, like most mavericks, totally fascinating.’

By the time of the eleventh symphony, Rubbra’s works had become more condensed in length but more liberated in their construction, with a more spontaneous and improvisatory character, and in my view this late stylistic turn resulted in his most interesting music. He had also begun to experiment with using musical intervals (ie the gap between two relative pitches) as a structural device. The eighth symphony seems to have been a turning point, of which he had said:

I gradually became aware of the dramatic and expressive values inherent in intervals as such, and in the new symphony the play of interval against interval, rather than of key against key, provides the motivating force behind the argument.

Like the fourth symphony, the eleventh opens with two contrasting elements creating a hypnotic sense of space: low strings and harp descend down by step B-A-G sharp while the horns slowly oscillate by intervals of a perfect fifth. The fifth is perhaps the most fundamental interval of all: it is the backbone of every major and minor chord, and Leo Black tell us that Rubbra attributed to it ‘almost mystical qualities’. The maverick approach is that Rubbra uses movement by step and the fifth to create (in his own words) a ‘kaleidoscope’, ‘transferring the elements all the time […] that is to say shaking them up’. There are no memorable ‘themes’, whose development can be followed by the listener. Instead, these two utterly generic features of tonal music slowly unfold and evolve across all the colours of the orchestra.

Rubbra’s great skill is that he takes such a vague starting point and yet produces music of assured progression. In the words of composer Robert Saxton, ‘every detail […] leads the argument onwards naturally. One feels that one is being told a tale by a master story-teller.’

Indeed, Rubbra intuitively shapes the symphony with a dramatic arc, leading to a thrilling climax over a long E pedal note just past the halfway mark. There are moments which writer Ralph Scott Grover identified as having a ‘strangely visionary quality’, a passage for celesta and strings being the most spell-binding. At other points, judicious touches of xylophone and tubular bells add an extra dash of colour.

This certainly is a fascinating re-imagining of what a symphony might be. I think the comparison to a kaleidoscope is very apt, but I have another angle on this work. It’s been documented that Rubbra took an interest in Buddhism, and I think that this symphony has strong parallels to the process of meditation; the breaths of this music, its natural but unstructured progress both evoke a meandering mental path, and its visionary passages are like moments of altered consciousness. Its curious emptiness of conventional themes gives it a sense of having transcended the world of ideas into a more rarefied realm.

The ending is one of the strangest, yet also curiously moving of any of Rubbra’s symphonies, with a glorious climax that suddenly dies away to a series of horn chords, leading to an enigmatic hush in the strings, and a perfect fifth softly intoned by muted trumpet then clarinet and harp. Robert Saxton wrote: ‘[it is] perfunctory, but this is intended, as the true essence of the symphony lies in its quiet ending on an enigmatically spaced and scored chord of C major. During the course of the work, we have been led into a world of inner peace and beauty’.

I find the eleventh symphony both beautiful and, like Leo Black, utterly fascinating. It is music that overflows with a gentle wisdom, but also an elusiveness that evokes the presence of a deep mystery: it seems to peer further into that ‘purpose’ Rubbra spoke of beyond our understanding. Rubbra, calling it ‘a culmination of all my symphonies compressed into one movement’, surely knew it might be his last (though he began sketches for a twelfth), and he suffered a stroke during the period of its composition. Could it also be that by dissolving his symphonic craft into one fluid statement, the ageing (and ailing) composer was trying to reach for a more profound articulation of his spirituality, something that moved even beyond the paradigm of structured comprehensibility?

I couldn’t write about this work without a final mention of Rubbra’s neglected state. In the 13 years since that Proms concert I’ve come to cherish much of Rubbra’s output, for which I am indebted hugely to the complete symphony recordings by Chandos which, like that Prom, were played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the late great Richard Hickox. Yet since then, no major Rubbra orchestral work has appeared at the BBC Proms, and I don’t know of any other performances at all of his symphonies – anywhere – after the centenary passed. I might have conceivably missed one somewhere, but the general rule remains: Rubbra is invisible on the orchestral music scene of his own country. This is a shameful state of affairs for a British composer of his achievements.

Nonetheless, I maintain hope that Rubbra’s time will come. There is too much quality in his work, in its craftsmanship and its distinctive voice, for it to forever remain in the shadows. He just needs a champion of suitable standing to bring his symphonies back to Britain’s concert halls. Even if you don’t share Rubbra’s religious faith (and I don’t) the essential goodness in his music surely has something important to say to our cynical times: its patient optimism, beautiful organic patterning and deeply felt spirituality are a welcome antidote to much of modern life. I was pleased to hear that comic writer Armando Iannucci included Rubbra’s eighth symphony in his choices for Radio 3’s Essential Classics last September. Such big-name advocates can only help more people discover this wonderful music.

The eighth is a good starting point for further listening, a work of strange and beautiful mysticism written in homage to the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. Two other works from Rubbra’s late period that I would particularly recommend are the fourth string quartet and the third violin sonata, pieces that balance playful inventiveness with a beautiful serenity. It may be 13 and a half years and counting for me, but here’s hoping that we get to hear some of these wonderful works in concert soon.

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