A ‘Peculiar Spiritual Make-Up’

Literature on the life and music of Edmund Rubbra is not vast. Spiritual Dimensions in the Music of Edmund Rubbra, a new book by Lucinda Cradduck, offers an analysis of the composer’s life and works through the lens of his various spiritual interests. At 250 pages plus references, it’s considerably more approachable than Ralph Scott Grover’s exhaustive 1993 survey of his output, and offers a suitable companion to Leo Black’s 2008 study of his eleven symphonies.

The Wilfrid Mellers remark that Rubbra was a man endowed with a ‘peculiar spiritual make-up’ often serves as an introduction to his music. But spirituality is a dangerously nebulous concept, liable to become a fuzzy stand-in, a catch-all for the ineffable. It’s to Cradduck’s credit that she foregrounds it here, and unpicks the various strands of spiritual influence in Rubbra’s life with care and erudition. It becomes clear that Rubbra was a widely-read and curious man who took spiritual ideas seriously, and as listeners of his music, so should we. 

She draws out a nuanced picture of Rubbra’s place in 20th-century British musical life, beginning with the early, Theosophy-infused influence of Cyril Scott and Holst and his work with progressive dance and theatre groups. His creative responses to Asian musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan and the dancer Madame Menaka complemented an intellectual engagement with Eastern spiritual traditions.

She identifies aspects of nature mysticism too – Rubbra lived for decades in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and associated with artists and thinkers whose worldviews were shaped by Medievalism and the Arts and Crafts movement. The analysis of the bewitching Canto from the sixth symphony is particularly compelling here, as is her nuanced answer to the question of Rubbra’s place in the English ‘Pastoral’ tradition, something often lazily equated with nostalgia in the wake of industrialisation and war, but which, in Rubbra’s case, arguably manifests itself more as a progressive ideal for a humane and spiritually fulfilling existence.

What emerges is that Rubbra was as likely to be influenced by what he read and saw as the music he heard. He fed his mind on poetry and novels, and it was a library book that first introduced him to the esoteric Theosophy movement as a teenager. The colours and moods of Italian religious art inspired him, as did the idiosyncratic evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin. He adored the tranquility of Abbeys, and despite his somewhat chaotic love life, considered joining a lay order. While he was eventually received into the Catholic Church, he retained a lifelong interest in Buddhism – and even had to defend himself for it, when it was made known to a church music society who had commissioned him. 

Cradduck’s use of musical analysis is extensive, with plenty of scored examples. I found it most enlightening when drawing on the organic qualities of his music – how it expresses the ideas of divine interconnectedness, the fusing of opposites, and the innate expressive powers of certain intervals. Her identification of ‘golden sections’ and numerical sequences, on the other hand, I found more speculative than convincing, and arithmetic always makes for heavy reading. But overall, this book is an admirably serious attempt at grappling with the manifestation of spiritual ideas as dots on the page, something which is no easy task. That it includes some of his unpublished, unrecorded and unfinished works is particularly valuable context for the Rubbra fan.

Cradduck avoids the temptation to bang the drum for Rubbra as an unjustly neglected composer – her approach throughout is to illuminate the specifics of his life and works, something which I feel actually makes the case for his music more powerfully than direct pleading ever could. Nonetheless, her final summary draws comparisons to the popular, spiritually-influenced composers James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener, and so the question of why Rubbra’s music gets comparatively few performances still hangs unsaid in the air.

Also implicit in this book is another absence – that of a true biography of Rubbra aimed at the average reader. Oliver Soden’s recent book on Tippett and Leah Broad’s brand new Quartet have shown publishers turning to 20th-century British composers as ripe material for the mass-market biography, in both cases to critical acclaim. Could Rubbra one day receive similar treatment? While Cradduck’s valuable study succeeds on its own terms, it also suggests a life eventful enough, and connected to enough colourful personalities and intellectual movements, to make a worthy addition to this genre.

Spiritual Dimensions in the Music of Edmund Rubbra is available from Routledge.

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