I recently read ‘The Edwardians’ by Roy Hattersley. He sees the age as an optimistic and creative time in Great Britain, despite the indulgent and often indolent son of Queen Victoria who when he became King gave his name to the brief period of his monarchy. Whilst Hattersley sees the English composer Edward Elgar as typical of those years, Bantock (and the two men were great friends ) could equally be the same, though he lived into more recent times. He was a teacher of eminence, holding important posts in Birmingham for many years. One critic says of him that he was a ‘man of exceptionally wide culture, boundless curiosity and unlimited energy’. The Grove Dictionary entry accuses him of writing too much music, most of which is now entirely neglected.
So why remember him? First I think because he was an original amongst the English music renaissance of the nineteenth and twentieth century. He was fascinated by Oriental, Celtic and Greek myths and found inspiration in them for much of his music.
He was widely read and was a master of French, German, Arabic and Persian and it was not unusual for him to correspond to his friends in Latin. (Whether the friendships survived is another matter). He was influenced by Wagner, Liszt and Richard Strauss as were so many other European composers of his time, but otherwise was a traditionalist and a brilliant orchestrator : his music has a sumptuous, long-breathed splendour that is often very beautiful if perhaps lacking in variety. Certainly he wasn’t lacking in ambition and his grandiose and idiosyncratic interests may be one reason why his music fell out of favour as well as the impossible demands he made on performers. His Celtic Symphony for String Orchestra for example requires six harps, and some of his many choral works call upon huge resources both of numbers and of skill.
I have an inveterate fascination for composers who may have slipped out of favour – what some might call ‘minor’ composers. What they often lack in immediate appeal they compensate for by their originality and determination to be themselves. Looking at my modest CD collection, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner and the rest are well represented, but there are others amongst them, composers such as Alan Rawsthorne, Lutoslawski, Malcolm Arnold, Frank Martin, Herbert Howells, Michael Tippett. And three CD collections of orchestral music by Bantock, issued on the Hyperion label in the early 1990’s.