Musical nationalism III

There is no direct English comparison with the Spanish musical renaissance, with its clear focus on a sense of nationalistic purpose and identity : no equivalence to the work of Sarraste, Albeniz, and de Falla and ,earlier, Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922) whose edition of sixteenth century music sparked a nationalistic revival. But there is still a discernable ‘Englishness’, more of mood than content. Unkindly characterised by the composer Elizabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) who wrote many works on the 12 note system, as the ‘cow-pat’ composers, such people as Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), Herbert Howells(1892-1983) and George Butterworth (1885-1916),sadly killed at the Battle of Somme, have given us some wonderful reflective music : pastoral indeed, but not a cow in sight!

These are called, patronisingly, ‘minor’ composers, but I love some of their work, notably Finzi’s Cello and Clarinet concertos and Herbert Howells’ ‘Hymnus Paradisi’, and his beautiful motet ‘Take him, earth for cherishing’, commemorating the death of President Kennedy.

For me this is the music of an England I recognize – unassuming, often quiet and gentle but full of character – belonging more to a real celebration of Englishness than the crazy ‘’Last Night of the Proms’, that splurge of jingoistic triumphalism which is bearable once a year, but has little to say about the heart of any national music we may possess.

The compositions I have mentioned are comparable to Spanish music in their lyricism and immediate appeal, but also because they seems to spring out of the earth. Such composers may not be strong in personality – William Walton, Peter Maxwell Davies, Malcolm Arnold, Britten and Michael Tippett provide that in abundance. But I hear the morning birdsong and feel the warmth of the setting sun and can smell the aroma of freshly cut hay in the music of these, who are amongst my favorite composers.

So, perhaps if Spanish music of the last hundred years is about a people, much English music of the same period is more about place.

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