Challenging perceptions of British classical music
When I’m with my composer friends, I get rather excitable if the topic of conversation moves onto British music of the early 20th century. A number of them, particularly the British ones, find this odd. Perhaps it’s all part of the renowned British self-deprecation reflex, yet it remains a curious reaction to me. There is a pre-conception that British classical music from that period is dull, pastoral and conservative. As the premiere of my new orchestral work The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured approaches, it is a perception I want to explore and challenge.
I was born in Hong Kong where I grew up listening to Cantopop, that riotous collision of Eastern roots and Western synths. Yet my first exposure to classical music came from the Anglo-centric recording labels – EMI, Lyrita, Hyperion, Collins, Chandos, and later NMC – which were readily available in dusty music shops in the quieter corners of the colony. It was through my idle browsing that I discovered a wide range of music by British composers. They never ceased to fascinate me. I loved the songs and chamber music, but above all the orchestral works really captured my imagination.
At one end of the spectrum were works such as Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches and Walton’s Crown Imperial. When I first listened to them, I was too young to be aware of the patriotic connotations; to my innocent ears, they were simply exciting and colourful. Pieces by Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge, Constant Lambert and John Ireland, each of them inhabiting a distinctive and unique sound world, fascinated me. Moving toward the middle of the spectrum were works, notably symphonies, by Malcolm Arnold, Edmund Rubbra and Robert Simpson, who focused on musical argument and the exploration of symphonic forms. Then, we have three very different composers who share a knack of handling the orchestra in the most imaginative ways – Benjamin Britten, William Walton and Michael Tippett. At the other end of the spectrum was the tougher music of Elizabeth Maconchy, Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens.
Infuriatingly, many of these composers’ reputations have suffered from what I call the ‘Holst syndrome’. When listeners are so familiar with one or two works, it colours their perceptions of a composer. I think we need to listen to British music with fresh ears, curiosity and an adventurous attitude. To me, British music has always had a certain unique quality. I put this down to three factors.
There is a wonderful eccentricity in British music. British composers often came up with the wackiest ideas, sometimes with the wealth of literature in English as a source of inspiration. Britten’s decision to use poems from different periods to convey the transition from winter to spring in Spring Symphony is refreshing and intriguing. Sometimes the inspirations were purely conceptual, as in Tippett’s Fourth Symphony, a work suggesting a journey from birth to death in which the composer employs the sound of human breathing.
I believe the colour of British music stands out. When one thinks of the masters of orchestral music, names like Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss often come to mind. Yet look closer at the scores of British composers. You will be amazed by the sophistication and sheer imagination in the way they employ the orchestra. The majestic, often curiously mysterious palettes of Elgar’s symphonies, concertos, tone poems (In the South and Falstaff) and oratorios (The Apostles and The Kingdom) offer orchestral splendours as glorious as anything by Strauss, only with more clarity and economy. The symphonies, concerti and overtures by Walton, together with the Partita and the heartfelt Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, are works I go back to repeatedly for orchestration inspiration, just as often as the scores of Debussy and Ravel.
The breadth of British music is also impressive. Think of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies. In these works we see a composer with an extraordinary sense of exploration. By comparing the conceptions and musical languages between each of these symphonies, I was amazed by his quest for new ideas and means of expression. Those symphonies are as forward looking and adventurous as those by Sibelius and Nielsen.
Of course this tradition didn’t stop there, even with the rise of serialism, the avant-garde and everything else in the mid-20th century. The musical language might have evolved, but the spirit remains. A new generation of British composers has been producing striking works for the orchestra since the 1960s. I feel that the continuity in British classical music has been overlooked. As an outsider, I hear intriguing links between the works of different generations of British composers. Listen to these composers’ work side by side. You might find a peculiar sense of shared sensibility among their works: Holst with Julian Anderson, Simon Holt and Richard Causton; Vaughan Williams with Harrison Birtwistle and Anthony Payne; Britten with Jonathan Harvey and Gordon Cross; Tippett with Mark-Anthony Turnage, James Dillon and Michael Finnissy; Walton with Richard Rodney Bennett, Oliver Knussen, Judith Weir, David Sawer and Martin Butler … The list goes on.
As idiosyncratic as this may be, it has helped me to create a mental image of British music as a continuum. I see a tradition as strong as the German and French. ‘Therefore, be not afear’d, the isle is full of noises; sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. All you need to do is to listen without prejudice.’
The BBC Symphony Orchestra gives the world premiere of Raymond Yiu’s The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured on January 18, 2013 at Barbican Hall, London. The concert also includes music by Elgar, Qigang Chen and Haydn. For details visit the BBC SO website.
Explore British music further with Yiu's recommended recordings below:
Gordon Crosse Cello Concerto, Some Marches on a Ground, Memories of Morning: Night
NMC Recordings NMC D058
David Sawer The Greatest Happiness Principle
NMC Recordings NMC D116
Hong Kong-born Raymond Yiu is a composer, jazz pianist, conductor and writer on music. He is the recipient of the 2010 BASCA British Composer Award, spnm’s 2003 George Butterworth Award, a Bliss Trust Composer Bursary 2009, and a scholarship from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where he is currently undertaking a doctorate under the supervision of Julian Anderson.