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Last updated: May 31, 2014 11:11 am

British composers and the English landscape

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Composer Richard Skelton in the Pennines in northwest England©Eva Vermandel/The Wire

Composer Richard Skelton in the Pennines in northwest England

The composer Richard Skelton walks to work. Every day he leaves his cottage, located deep within the fell lands of Cumbria in the north of England, to footslog through hills that for him feel bountifully alive with the sound of music. Often he comes equipped with musical instruments and digital recording devices. Skelton farms the land for sound; his walks are his work.

Nothing has defined English music of the past 100 years more than a composerly fixation with landscape. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite – all quintessential evocations of English bucolic bliss – are regularly promoted on Classic FM like the musical counterparts of National Trust tea towels, keepsakes of pastoral revelry that can be enjoyed without ever needing to leave your suburban armchair.

But Vaughan Williams, who began to write The Lark Ascending in 1914 as war in central Europe was becoming an inevitability, and Skelton, who brings a new collaboration with the Elysian String Quartet to LSO St Luke’s tomorrow evening, have an emotional marriage with landscape that runs far deeper than sending postcards in sound from the countryside. Both composers, working 100 years apart, turned to landscape as a metaphor for grief – and then for resurrection and rebirth – when they found themselves dealing with circumstances of tragedy.

Skelton has even described his 2012 composition Véarsa Éan (“Verses of Birds”) as a response to The Lark Ascending, “intended to prick the romanticism of the ‘lark rise’ in the popular imagination” – as he once told me – “and to remind us that nature is often all about life and death”.

Vaughan Williams knew all about how idyllic landscapes could be turned on their dark side. By 1920, when he came to complete The Lark Ascending, a “pastoral romance for violin and orchestra”, he had endured the traumas of the trenches as a member of the field ambulance corps. Did The Lark Ascending, begun in all innocence, now stand as their memorial – the image of the lark symbolising a flight from horror?

With Flos Campi, Vaughan Williams’ shell-shocked 1925 suite for solo viola, wordless chorus and chamber orchestra, he provided his answer. Where the earlier piece begins with the solo violin climbing above the orchestra, airborne melody high above the orchestral foliage, Vaughan Williams begins Flos Campi (“Flowers of the Fields”) by slamming tenebrous viola chords into tart, acrid-toned double-reed oboe and bassoon fanfares. And despite the tenderness of his choral writing, a chorus singing without words is missing a piece of its essential humanity.

For many English composers who emerged after the first world war, and certainly after the second world war, pieces like The Lark Ascending felt “evergreen” in just too many senses of the word. The innocent existence that shaped it had been shattered, and visions of rural paradise were antithetical to the perilous realities of the modern world. Now was no time for a retreat into snug nostalgia.

Thus out of the landscape of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes a dangerous stranger emerged from the sea, while in Michael Tippett’s 1955 opera The Midsummer Marriage, ritualistic magic upset an otherwise serene rural setting. In Red Earth by British composer Michael Finnissy, premiered during the 1988 Proms season, a roasting hot evocation of the Australian outback sucks you in: you cower from the sheer scale and volatility of Finnissy’s orchestral topography. And Harrison Birtwistle’s totemic orchestral 1980s work Earth Dances also concerns itself with mapping the psychological impact of landscape and floating perspectives on fixed landmarks: this is music of looming vistas and of terrifying disorientation.

Like Birtwistle, Skelton was born in Lancashire; but whereas Birtwistle produces scores to be interpreted by classical musicians in the traditional manner, Skelton’s work invites us to rethink what it can mean to be a composer. Skelton never intended to compose, but found his art through a wholly unforeseen sequence of events. In 2004, his wife Louise died suddenly. She was 28. He began walking to process his grief but found that the landscape offered more than just a cathartic backdrop. Skelton entered into a dialogue with it. Picking up a violin or a guitar, he began improvising ribbons of melody against the elements – searching for sounds and answers.

When transformed in the studio into electronic soundscapes, these field recordings began to evolve like living organisms. In albums such as Landings, Crow Autumn and The Shape Leaves, Skelton walks listeners far inside weather-beaten, wind-wrecked expanses of space, places where musicians would normally fear to tread. But raw-boned, vulnerable emotions are never far away. He has buried old instruments in the ground to hear how soil and mud, now caked into strings and frets, alters the timbre. And by accepting what he finds, these instruments are reborn and given a new life.

Skelton’s project with the Elysian Quartet is the first time he has worked with classical musicians, the aim being – in a concert hall and in real time – to achieve a comparable air of immediacy and sculptural vividness. Conventional, old-school tonalities, of a sort Vaughan Williams would happily have recognised, provide Skelton with the basics of his musical language. But the originality of his work derives from an unerring ear for juxtaposing and superimposing many simultaneously heard layers of pre-recorded material, using the studio like a painter’s palette to mix, blend and merge sounds.

His music, rich in unexpected pathways and perspectives, casts a unique spell. Typically, just when you think your immersion in the landscape is absolute, Skelton will abruptly shift to a looming, wide-angled viewpoint of the same scene. And you look down at yourself moving through the landscape like an out-of-body experience.


Letter in response to this article:

An ‘English’ suite of French dances / From Mr Michael Short

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