Lost voices of British music

Next year will see the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. Preparations for commemorating it are well under way, as are controversies about how to respect different national sensibilities.

For Britons, the conflict’s horrors are most sharply evoked in poetry and paint: the verses of Wilfred Owen, say, or the nightmarish landscapes of Paul Nash. Yet the country’s composers went to the trenches too, as a City of London Festival concert will highlight on Saturday June 29. Coinciding with Armed Forces Day, it will also mark the end of “Worlds in Collision”, a two-day conference at Mansion House exploring the connection between creativity and the trauma of war. To be performed by the Royal Artillery Band, the programme will feature a new arrangement by composer Nigel Osborne that features the music of seven composers who fought in the first world war.

Among them, Cecil Coles, who died aged 29 at the Western Front, is probably the least remembered. But Osborne, Edinburgh University’s Reid Professor of Music until his retirement last year, argues that he may also have been the one with the greatest potential to change the direction of British music.

Coles was brought up in Edinburgh, where he studied at the Reid School of Music and won a Bucher scholarship to Germany, becoming assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera. In scores such as Cortège (the only movement from Coles’ symphonic suite Behind the Lines to survive the war) and Sorrowful Dance, which Coles wrote at the front for his wife and new-born daughter, there are clues to the direction Coles’ work might have taken. “Had Coles lived, Scottish music might well have been propelled into mainstream modernism several decades earlier,” says Osborne.

George Butterworth was also active on the Western Front, awarded the Military Cross for his heroic defence of the “Butterworth” trenches and twice more recommended for the honour before he was killed at the Somme in 1916. He was the restless, rising star of English music, shaping the English folksong movement along with Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharpe.

Butterworth’s settings of A.E. Housman’s poems in A Shropshire Lad and his orchestral piece The Banks of Green Willow are his best-known works and, as with Coles, his death had long echoes: Osborne is convinced the creative dynamic between Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams would have changed the course of post-war British music.

Ernest Farrar’s life was similarly short. Born in 1885, the same year as Butterworth, by the time he was called up he had established himself as a gifted composer and outstanding teacher. Farrar died at the Somme in 1918, just days after he had returned from the UK on a leave during which he conducted the premiere of his Heroic Elegy. His best-known works, Vagabond Songs, The Forsaken Merman and his symphonic suite English Pastoral Impressions, show him drawing on folk-music sources for inspiration, like so many of his contemporaries, although in form and colour his music was closer to the French school.

The other four composers in Osborne’s medley all survived the war, though it marked them to varying degrees. Arthur Bliss was wounded on the Somme and gassed at Cambrai – events which, along with his brother’s death, profoundly affected him. He poured his anguish into Morning Heroes (1930), a piece using texts from Homer and the War Poets. It was, says Osborne, “a defining moment” for Bliss, establishing him as “the artisan of a musical clarity that was to become the nearest to a ‘mainstream’ for British music between the wars”. It is Morning Heroes’ final chorale, “Dawn on the Somme”, that opens Osborne’s medley.

Less resilient was Ivor Gurney, whose early work had picked up the threads of the English pastoral and late German Romantic traditions, and arguably the most important composer/poet in the English language since John Dowland and Thomas Campion. But he was wounded and gassed, and never mentally recovered. After the armistice he studied briefly with Ralph Vaughan Williams, but his condition worsened and he spent the last 15 years of his life, until his death in 1937, in a mental asylum. Like Farrar, he is represented in the medley by an adaptation of one of his piano works.

William Wallace was a Scottish ophthalmologist who gave up medicine after the war to devote his life to composition. Although he was primarily influenced by Liszt, there are also resonances of early tonal Bartók in his music while his “Scottish Style” foreshadows the work of James MacMillan and Eddie McGuire.

Of all the composers who fought in the first world war, Ralph Vaughan Williams alluded to it least in his work, although Seventeen Come Sunday, which completes the medley, is a classic piece for military band. Vaughan Williams was to go on to become one of the 20th century’s most important British composers.

How British music would have developed if his talented contemporaries had lived and flourished remains a tantalising “what if?” But Saturday’s concert should offer some fascinating pointers.


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