The English Patience: How Time Helped me Love English Composers

A man of mere 'pomp and circumstance', or something much more?

A man of mere 'pomp and circumstance', or something much more?

Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (D Major)

Englishness is something which I find perpetually isolating, which is perhaps strange considering my surviving family are all entirely English - as am I. Why, then, do I feel so uncomfortable identify as English? Perhaps it is because during my (rather limited) lifespan so far, I have been exposed to an alarmingly large number of English Nationalist extreme ideologies. Nationalism is, regardless, not something which is really up my street. I cannot understand how the division of land among rich people determines anything about a person, let alone their superiority. Since then, my view of Englishness has gone from bad to worse. I specifically remembering sitting through an otherwise rather informative hustings for the 2015 general election at my sixth form, in which a delegate from the English Democrats preached nothing short of homophobic hatred to a group of sixth-formers. Suffice to say, this did not go down well. 

'Why then,' I thought 'should music celebrate this exclusive mindset? Surely English music has nothing to offer other than Englishness?'. I was thinking primarily of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (Land of Hope and Glory), linked above. To me, there was nothing of substance to the music at all other than a flamboyant sense of national pride. I had, you might say, let my political and national stereotypes get the better of me. 

Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending'

I was then exposed to Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending', something which in my young age I'm not sure I fully appreciated. I was, for want of a better word, bored by it. More recently, my relationship with this piece has been equally rocky. I grew frustrated the in Classic FM's annual poll, it seems to be constantly voted as the nation's favourite piece of music... ever. Now, a year later, while I wouldn't vote for it as my favourite piece ever, I can see why many do. There is a simplicity to it, yes - but a very thought-through simplicity. One which is entirely effective. There is nothing lazy or boring about this piece, and I was wrong to ever judge it as such. Sure, it may not excite me as much as Shostakovich or Mahler, but there is something unique about this music which deserves recognition. 

By this point, though, in my younger years, having indulged in an unrecognised musical snobbery based on enormous oversimplifications, I had essentially judged English composers as a total write-off. How wrong I was.

Elgar, for example, the very perpetrator of a 'flamboyant sense of national pride', has a cello concerto which is rather special indeed (linked below), and was first introduced to me as I played in the orchestral concert for that and Vaughan Williams' 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' (also linked below). These pieces of music seemed pretty special to be a part of - and they are indeed very popular pieces. I was, for now, content with English music.

Holst's 'The Planets Suite'

But then, you see, I grew up a little and became even more prejudiced. I was studying music GCSE, then A Level, then began my Degree. I forgot about the joys of simplicity and the innocence and magic of the pieces I'd once played. I seemed only to find value in more complex, hard-hitting pieces. Imagine my surprise, then, as I witnessed my own youth orchestra, in a concert I had not been part of, perform Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony (Linked below, you're getting the hang of where this is going). This was and still is today one of the most exciting performances of one of the most exciting pieces I've ever seen, and you may remember that I wrote a blog post about it last year here

Britten's 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'

I do, however, still remember playing (and unfortunately not enjoying as much as I had hoped) Holst's 'The Planets', although this music is one which I had heard from an early age and I am sure is responsible for some of my musical intrigue. Before one of the rehearsals for this piece, I was speaking to another cellist about how disappointing English composers seem to be (the memory of which conversation inspired this very blog post). She was quick to point out Britten - a figure whom I had too readily forgotten. Again, his 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra' is definitely partly to blame for my interest in music nowadays, and yet there are other masterpieces by this man which I had sadly not explored to the extent which they deserved. His cello suites, for example (linked...yep) have now become a primary inspiration for the composition of my own cello suite. They somehow build on Bach, were that possible, and possess a new, unique type of vitality very far away from my perception of 'Boring English Music'.

Since then, I have had the privilege to play more pieces by Elgar, such as 'Falstaff' and 'In the South' which have shown me that far more exists to the man than I had initially perceived. It is now, looking forward to playing his 'Enigma Variations' and at the level of care and love he put into composing variations to depict important people and events in his life that I am noticing a streak of pure genius in the composer - one which, for me, took some time to emerge. 

And another thing I was entirely incorrect about: English composers are all the same. Nope. John Tavener, for example, and his 'Protecting Veil', another piece that has interested me as a cellist. This piece is unlike any of the others mentioned so far, and is so full of meaning, combining the simplicity of Vaughan Williams with the edge of Britten and the thought and care of Elgar. Yet somehow, it is completely different. 

I came to realise - I had stereotyped English music as a cartoon my stereotype an English person. There was far more to it than I first thought, and far more for it to give. I just needed to be patient. This blog post has barely scratched the surface - but it has produced a playlist of 4 hour 45 minutes for you to get your teeth into below. 

But what of the pomp and circumstance? Yes, that's quite clearly still there and yes, it's entirely cheesy. But look at the video - it's bringing people together through enjoyment and surely, if nothing else, that's the point? 

Benjamin JacksonComment