To mark St George's Day, we have listed ten of our favourite English composers, from Tallis to Tavener. We have also recommended some recordings by each composer, which you can listen to via the Qobuz playlist below.
Most of Tavener's music is explicitly religious, some influenced by late Stravinsky. His most notable works include The Protecting Veil, Song For Athene (heard by millions at Princess Diana's funeral) and The Whale.
The Protecting Veil
Yo-Yo Ma (vc); Baltimore Symphony Orchestra / David Zinman
'A reading of tremendous stature and technical refinement...' Read review.
The sound world of Delius is immediately recognisable – warm, luminous orchestral colours, hazy, impressionistic tone pictures tinged with a romantic glow. No one (unless you include popular music arrangers) followed in his footsteps. He belonged to no tradition; he led nowhere.
Orchestral Works, Vol 3
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham
'It is, quite simply, a performance to cherish...' Read review.
Tallis can fairly be said to be the first important English composer, though little is known of his life. Most of Tallis’s music is, not surprisingly, for the church and his historic importance is in being one of the first composers to write for the Anglican service, the composer who bridged the transition from the Roman rite.
Spem in alium
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
'A fascinating experiment by the choir, who expose the contrafactum for what it really is...' Read review.
A keen collector of English folk songs and folk dances, Butterworth's passion for folk music clearly influenced his style of composition. He is one of the great 'what ifs?' of musical history. Who knows what he might have achieved had his life not been cut tragically short on the Western Front in 1916?
Complete Butterworth Songbook
Mark Stone (bar) / Stephen Barlow (pf)
'Poignancy is driven home by this collection of his songs...' Read review.
A fluent, versatile composer, Arnold wrote scores for nearly 100 films. His most important works are orchestral (nine symphonies, 1951-82; numerous light and serious pieces). His language is diatonic, owing something to Walton and Sibelius, and the scoring is dramatically brilliant, Berlioz being his acknowledged model.
Symphony No 5
London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox
'One of his most accessible and rewarding works...' Read review.
The patron saint of music blessed Britten with precocious gifts for he began playing the piano at two and was reading symphony and opera scores in bed at the age of seven. Britten came of age in 1934, the year in which Elgar, Holst and Delius died. He rapidly dragged British music into another era – his own.
Melos Ensemble; Bach Choir; Highgate School Choir; London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
'Among the most magnetic performances of British music ever put on record...' Read review.
Think of Holst and you think of The Planets. Not much else springs to mind and, indeed, his output is comparatively slender, but he wrote much else of interest, including A Somerset Rhapsody, The Hymn of Jesus and A Choral Fantasia. Yet The Planets is such an overwhelming, original work that everything else pales into insignificance in scale and concept.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Simon Rattle
'Blazing brilliance, warmth and weight...' Read review.
After receiving conservative English and German instruction, and learning modern French orchestral technique – Vaughan Williams emerged as an adventurous, unmistakably English composer with a distinct voice of his own. The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' and Tallis Fantasia are amongst the most popular works by any British composer, but it is in his nine symphonies that we feel his true substance.
A London Symphony
London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox
'An essential purchase for anyone remotely interested in British music...' Read review.
Many regard Purcell as the greatest English composer of all time. That is arguable; but considering his importance in the history of British music, it’s ironic that so little is known about his short life. Among his most influential works are the opera Dido and Aeneas and the semi-operas The Fairy Queen and King Arthur.
Les Arts Florissants Chorus; Les Arts Florissants Orchestra / William Christie
'Christie makes the strongest case for this music to date...' Read review.
A composer of individuality and depth, Elgar worked firmly within conventional 19th century German harmonic and structural traditions, yet his voice is quintessentially English. His lyrical side conjures up tranquil pastoral beauty; his pomposity and ebullience remind us of the British bulldog – one with teeth.
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Adrian Boult
'None has surpassed it in authority and fidelity...' Read review.