What makes English music English?
It is an endlessly fascinating challenge, trying to tease out the ingredients that make up a national musical language. As with a decent stew, some elements are obvious, like rich red tomatoes or onions, and others are more subtle – a pinch of spice or a hint of exotic seasoning that has you guessing.
The most fruitful period to begin this game is the early 1900s, when many composers were deliberately reflecting their country’s culture in the music. In the search for an authentic reflection, Kodály, Bartók and Janácek took inspiration not only from folk music but also the rhythm of colloquial language, its natural cadence and inflections. Debussy threw out the rule book and applied a Gallic sensualism to a variety of colours, some of them Oriental. Vaughan Williams and Holst took their pushbikes to the Somerset lanes and Wiltshire pubs, encouraging farm labourers to whistle them some tunes. Then they made the connection between those modal ditties and the rich English cathedral tradition, coming up with an inspired combination of soil and spirit. Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ manages this fusion beautifully.
We could dig deeper here, into the country’s climate and its effect on temperament, into its natives’ sense of humour, into how people there relate to time, into the predominant landscapes (cue images of Sibelius’ dark forests or Elgar’s Malvern hills…). However, after a while, the tracks lead into a more abstract and subjective world, full of presumptions and projected ideals.
With many of the English pastoralists there is something about the gentleness of the scoring that lends it that nostalgic quality, that wistfulness. Ironically, Vaughan Williams called this light touch his ‘French polish’, after studying the exquisitely scored works of Ravel. The overall feeling may be one of restraint, but the deep yearning for a less troubled, greener past is always there.
The key give-away, though is that when the passion does break through the surface – which it often does, in fairness – the lines fall away as soon as they have presented themselves. Elgar started this trend, if we can call it that. Listen to the many surging melodic surges in his Introduction and Allegro for strings, for example: Paul Daniel – Introduction & Allegro for Strings
It is this falling away, this refusal to have anything like the long, at times hysterical, build-up of the Russians or the epic outpourings of the Germans that gives the work of Elgar and VW its sense of understatement, its British sensibility – as if they had someone whispering ‘steady on, old chap’ in their ear as they wrote. Not that their music is tepid or inhibited. If anything, the suggested repression of the emotions gives their work an even more ardent quality. It’s an interesting paradox and a very British dilemma.