Edmund Rubbra (1901-86)

Born in ‘middle’ England ( Northampton), this supremely English composer has never received the recognition and prominence which I believe he deserves. It is generally agreed that his music is difficult, its texture thick and its many melodies hidden in a system of organic and rhapsodic growth, rather than in more traditional forms of development. But there is – for me at least – so much soul! Influenced by eastern mysticism but then in middle years converting to Catholicism, there may be little surface beauty in his eleven symphonies, but there is a depth that not many composers reach. His music demands respect and attention. It is the antithesis of ‘background’ music. There is so much happening that unless you concentrate you lose the flow or fail to follow the argument. His music difficult and different, then, but wonderfully rewarding.

He wrote many choral pieces, songs, chamber music, violin, viola and piano concertos but no work for the theatre. Teaching for many years at the Guildhall College of Music and at Oxford, he was an honoured member of the notable group of English composers of the twentieth century, but never reached the popularity of Walton, Tippett and Britten.

I heard his fifth symphony (1949) at a Prom concert conducted by Adrian Boult, and I think it must have been the first performance of what is generally regarded as his best symphonic work ( the 4th, 6th, & the 8th , with its beautiful last movement, are my favourites). There was, for a Prom audience, polite applause. But then he came to the platform, his red hair and beard, sandals and slightly dishevelled appearance appealing to the Promenaders. He looked like a real composer! They cheered.

Norman del Mar conducted many of his symphonies for Lyrita some years ago and some of then are still available I think. Richard Hickox has recorded the whole cycle more recently for Chandos.

There are many other recordings of his works currently available. But he needs to be heard in performance and as far as I know his larger works are never heard today. Marin Alsop and her excellent Bournemouth Symphony are just the people to bring him to life again in the concert hall. Please!

There’s an excellent webpage under his name which I recommend, as well as contributions from many other enthusiasts.


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