Happy Birthday Edmund Rubbra


Today is the birthday of composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-86). In January I wrote an extensive blog post about Rubbra’s music, using his eleventh symphony as an example of why I love his work. But given the sheer scale of Rubbra’s neglect, I wanted to take the opportunity of his birthday to mention him again.

I recently re-discovered the fantastic speech that comic writer and lifelong classical listener Armando Iannucci gave to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2006, in which he passionately argued we should all talk more about what music means to us. This blogger obviously could not agree more. But in it Iannucci also related his discovery of Rubbra’s music, despite it having fallen out of fashion:

When I first heard Rubbra, was I unaware that his music, along with the music of many English symphonists of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, had been critically banished from the airwaves and concert halls because they were deemed embarrassingly traditional. So I had no idea I wasn’t meant to like it.

Sadly, that banishment has lasted for a long time. But as for being embarrassingly traditional, I think the perfect response to such a superficial judgement came from Rubbra himself:

It is not musical style that matters, but the thought behind the style; it is the stature of the thinking that gives music substance.

I include below two examples of the stature of Rubbra’s thinking: the first movement of his wonderful piano concerto that gave this blog its botanical name, and one of my favourite of his late works: the fourth string quartet. The latter piece, like the eleventh symphony, shows the fascinating evolution that his music underwent in his later years, becoming at the same time more condensed and more liberated. Its soft and serenely dignified ending is also, in my view, one of the most moving passages in his whole output.

Should that not be enough, these two pieces also feature on an introductory playlist for Rubbra’s music that I have compiled from what is available on YouTube, which can be found here. And as a final thought as to why I think this man’s music matters so much, I can only repeat what I said in my previous blog:

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. 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.

So Happy Birthday, Edmund Rubbra. Here’s hoping you won’t have too many more before you get the recognition you deserve.