By Simon Brackenborough
Sometimes, the best way of telling new stories is to reclaim old words. The word “parochial” might be a good place to start. “All great civilisations are built on parochialism,” wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh in 1952. “Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” Parochialism is universal: it sounds like a contradiction, but only if you don’t fully grasp its meaning. “Parochial” literally means “of the parish”. It denotes the small and the particular and the specific. It means knowing where you are. It can also mean insular and narrow-minded, but it doesn’t have to, any more than “cosmopolitan” has to mean snobbish and rootless.
Some years ago, in my late teens, I cycled from my Hampshire home out to the village of Ashmansworth. I had recently discovered the wonderful music of Gerald Finzi (1901-56), and realising that he had lived not that far away, I was curious to visit (although the 45-mile round trip sure was far enough by bike.) What I didn’t know is that Ashmansworth is the highest village in Hampshire, and I was greeted by spectacular views as I climbed the North Wessex downs. It’s a beautiful and at times eerily quiet area that feels lifted above the cares of the world, and it’s all too easy to imagine these idyllic surroundings providing inspiration to a composer who was a master of music of deceptive gentleness and expressive subtlety.
The quotation above comes from Paul Kingsnorth’s brilliant recent essay England’s Uncertain Future in the Guardian. ‘The small and the particular and the specific’ would probably have been familiar to Finzi, an avid rambler who cultivated rare breeds of apple. (By coincidence, Kingsnorth’s excellent book Real England contains a chapter charting the demise of England’s orchards, and the extraordinary number of apple varieties that went with them).
It’s often said that music is a ‘universal language’, but I’ve always felt that this is only half the story. Music can be universal, and it can be abstract; but it can also be personal, local, and national. During my own awakening to the joys of classical music, I found myself drawn to composers from my own country, particularly those from the early twentieth century. Not exclusively, but disproportionately. I discovered Vaughan Williams, became obsessed for a while with the music of Arnold Bax. I later developed a deep fascination for the music of Edmund Rubbra.
So taking leave from Kingsnorth, I would like to reclaim another word: Nationalism. It’s St. George’s day, the patron saint of England, and ‘Nationalism’ in England is generally associated with the political far-right. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about Nationalism: no political wing owns the concept of nationhood. Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter and author of The Progressive Patriot put this very well during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. My Nationalism is one that is against monarchy, colonialism, and sceptical of the powerful. It is instead an appreciation for the enchanting, fascinating and often bewildering richness of my country – its history, its landscapes, its people and its art – balanced with a keen awareness of its flaws and injustices, past and present. It’s an inclusive Nationalism, that welcomes outside influences, accepts the need for change and resists romanticising the past. (Confusingly my country is England, but also Britain. I am English, but do not feel that Scotland and Wales are entirely foreign either. Such is the untidy nature of nationhood in these islands.)
It has, therefore, always seemed natural to me to take a particular interest in composers from my country. Not because they are better, but because these composers spoke the same language, lived in the same cities, looked at the same landscapes, lived with the same climate, shared much of the same history. Listening to English music enriches my understanding of where I am.
For me, it is about making connections. Many of my favourite composers were finding inspiration in the folk-songs, literature and landscapes of England and Britain. So my interest in English music has led me to discover the poetry of George Herbert, Matthew Arnold, AE Housman, Humbert Wolfe. It’s taught me a host of beautiful folk tunes, and I have developed a musical layer to my mental geography of the UK.
I can’t possibly do justice to the whole sweep of English music in one blog post. But I want to demonstrate some of the ways music has contributed to my sense of Englishness. If you watched the BBC’s recent adaptation of Wolf Hall you may recall that it opened with a piece of lute music. That was an arrangement of William Cornysh’s wistful 3-voice song Ah, Robin, Gentle Robin. It’s a very simple but beautiful song, that ends with an early version of what became known as the English Cadence, such was its popularity with Tudor composers: a harmonic movement with a bittersweet combination of both minor and major modes. Now I am sceptical about assertions of ‘national character’ but that gently bittersweet quality, that slightly sunny varnish of melancholy, is a strain that crops up quite often in English music. And it was a mastery of this quality in Finzi that led me on that 45-mile bike ride, his heart-rending Eclogue for Piano and Strings being a superlative example of this sensibility.
By taking note of the music of our history, we can understand it on a more instinctive level. Shakespeare – England’s cultural colossus– died on, and was possibly also born on, St. George’s Day. What school children don’t tend to learn, however, is that his was not just a golden age for English drama, but also English music. Beautiful settings were even written for the songs in his plays, Twelfth Night’s O Mistress Mine, Desdemona’s Willow Song, or this lovely lullaby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And one of my favourite ever composers, Thomas Tallis, composed for every monarch from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, changing his style according to the shifting religious affiliations of the time. Even though Tallis was Catholic, his pared-down English-language masterpiece If Ye Love Me, written in the reign of Edward VI, beautifully symbolises the changed outlook of a young Protestant church. Later on, and we can feel the confident splendour of the Elizbethan age in William Byrd’s consort song Rejoice Unto The Lord, which with dashing contrapuntal ingenuity pays tribute to the Virgin Queen:
The mercies of the Lord our God pour’d down upon this land
Doth far surmount in quantity the number of the sand
So that the people Israel did never feel nor see
More certain tokens of God’s love in their delivery
Than we of England whom the Lord hath blest these many years
Through his handmaid Elizabeth, in peace from foreign fears.
This idea of making connections was recently demonstrated in a fascinating essay by the landscape writer Robert MacFarlane, The Eeriness of the English Countryside. It’s a wide-ranging survey of the way that rural landscapes have held a presence of creepiness and potential violence in literature, music and art. As is often the case, classical music was left out; but he might have included Holst’s quietly unsettling tone poem Egdon Heath, or the sinister foreboding of the Suffolk coast in Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.
MacFarlane’s essay shows how a landscape can have many different meanings. In Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, he set poetry by Matthew Arnold that describes the rural surroundings of Victorian Oxford that are in many ways unchanged today. Based on fragments from The Scholar-Gypsy and Thyrsis, the poetry is narrated with an intoxicatingly-scored accompaniment of orchestra and chorus. The poetry is about place: a countryside full of botanical detail and name-checked landmarks, haunted by ghostly visions of local legend and dreamy recollections. But it is also about loneliness, and the grief of lost friendship. Combined with sensual and evocative music, Arnold’s words powerfully charge the landscape with rich layers of associations, and the exquisite ending, over which the narrator addresses his dead friend Thyrsis and the hills they loved to roam, is one of the few things in music that can bring a tear to this emotionally-reserved Englishman’s eye. In my mental map of the UK, Oxford has never been the same since.
But I should be careful here. English classical music is too often characterised as bucolic, elegiac and introspective, but that’s far from the whole story. Not for nothing did the conductor Thomas Beecham once mischievously quip that ‘the English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes’: we do bombast very well, from grand oratorios to heavy metal. If you want to see a different side to Vaughan Williams, a great example is the little-known Fantasia on the Old 104th. Indulgently scored for piano solo, choir and orchestra, it is a rollicking celebration of England’s choral tradition, taking a stout hymn tune and teasing out of it an eccentric rhapsody, culminating in overblown baroque counterpoint for full choir and orchestra. With amazing energy and daring for a seventy-seven year old, it’s completely bonkers, and all the better for it. It would go down a storm at the Last Night of the Proms, and could sit proudly alongside the other roof-lifter that avoids unreconstructed jingoism: Blake’s Jerusalem, which I adore for Parry’s perfectly-wedded music, and its inspirational, uplifting sentiment.
But ultimately, we should be aiming for more than this. A better form of Nationalism would ensure that the full glorious range of Britain’s classical music heritage is performed and taught alongside classics from abroad, so that people know not only Purcell, Elgar and Britten, but Rubbra, Malcolm Arnold and Elizabeth Maconchy too. Not because this music is better than anybody else’s, but because it is ours, and nobody else will ensure it is heard and understood if we don’t. In fairness, there is an annual English Music Festival in Oxfordshire, which is a noble undertaking. But it’s not enough. What we need is either a public body to fund performances of Britain’s classical heritage, or a cultural shift within the industry: to seeing the continual support of national musical heritage as a crucial task.
There could be unexpected benefits to this approach. Everybody says they want to find new audiences for classical music, an art-form that can seem distant and insular. One way to bridge that gap is surely to make connections between music and the country and culture that people have grown up with. And it can be done without quarantining English music away in niche all-English concerts, which too often happens today. The native can offer illuminating links to the foreign too – Vaughan Williams and Ravel, Arnold and Shostakovich, Bax and Sibelius are all natural pairings. I think this approach would reap benefits; after all, it’s no coincidence that English works claimed three of the top five spots in this year’s Classic FM Hall of Fame poll. Parochialism is universal.
We live in an age of great travel, but at the same time as there is more outward exploration, so there seems to be more inward. A national approach to music would be tapping into what Kingsnorth acknowledges as a trend. St. George’s Day is marked far more now than it was when I was a boy. Both MacFarlane and Kingsnorth have themselves contributed to a wave of new books feeding a growing interest in English (and British) history, traditions, and identities. This is not waving flags to Elgar, but in its own quiet way it is Nationalism just the same, and that is no bad thing.
Contemplating the power of globalisation to distance us from our surroundings, Kingsnorth talks about ‘the slow, messy business of getting to know a landscape […] if a nation is a relationship between people and place, then a cultural identity that comes from a careful relationship with that place might be a new story worth telling’. Reading those words I think of Finzi, quietly tending to his rare apple trees high up on the Hampshire downs. Perhaps our classical music culture has something to learn from that.
Happy St. George’s Day.
Read more by Simon Brackenborough:
Music of Ecstatic and Contemplative Qualities
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus.