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BBC Singers - Understanding Rubbra

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Edward Goater Edward Goater | 10:53 UK Time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

Edmund Rubbra at home in 1949. Photo: Haywood Magee/Picture Post (Getty Images)

Edmund Rubbra at home in 1949. Photo: Haywood Magee/Picture Post (Getty Images)

Edward Goater, tenor member of the BBC Singers, introduces the music of Edmund Rubbra which Radio 3 listeners will be able to hear next week. Edward describes the richness and depth of the music, and suggests that it's time to bring it into the mainstream...


Call to mind the great and celebrated symphony composers of history and one might be forgiven for thinking quantity is a prerequisite for posthumous laurels. For many composers, '9' is held in symphonic legend as the superstitious number. The idea that Beethoven’s fateful target could reach out to them across the centuries loomed high in the minds of Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams - to name but a few. Step into the ring, then, Edmund Rubbra, possibly the 20th Century’s most prolific English composer. He racked up 11 full-scale symphonies as well as countless other orchestral works, including theme-and-variations on at least three other composers, and various works for voice and orchestra. For a series of recordings which you can hear next week, the BBC Singers picked pieces for unaccompanied choir from his abundant library.

There can be no doubt that Rubbra likes to paint with broad strokes. Although the Singers have chosen works representing his entire output, one unifying trait that runs through them all is the vast canvass of sound he demands of his singers. Tenors and sopranos can usually be found singing above the stave with long, often quiet, arching phrases that can leave one vocally exhausted by the end. Rubbra was not particularly concerned about the demands his music placed on performers (in any genre). For him, each piece was a personal statement, a deep individualistic commentary in musical form.

'I never know where a piece is going to go next… when I begin, my only concern is with fixing a starting point that I can be sure of…my imagination discovers the architecture for me.' - Edmund Rubbra


Rubbra conducting the first performance of his 4th symphony at the Proms in 1942. Photo: BBC

Rubbra conducting the first performance of his 4th symphony at the Proms in 1942. Photo: BBC

Rubbra converted to Catholicism in 1948 after a long personal journey. In that same year he produced a Mass and the famous Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Although the Te Deum, which we sing this week, is a later work (1962), it shares many of the features of these previous large-scale religious works. Here, Rubbra uses the double choir framework (that is to say, eight parts) of his Missa Cantuariensis but subtly changes it, setting the sopranos and altos against the tenors and basses primarily.
This was to be a period of great personal expression for Rubbra. His Symphony No.8 – dedicated to the great Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin – was to come a little more than a year later, but here in the Te Deum we see Rubbra’s unashamed devotion. He takes great care to quote important religious statements bold and undisguised in counterpoint: phrases like 'when thou hast overcome the sharpness of Death', and 'we therefore pray thee help thy servants' rise from the texture like beacons. Homophonic (hymn-like) writing serves to deliver the message without confusing it in harmony or layered part-writing. In addition, from a singer’s point of view, we see all the composer’s hallmarks - fully expressed contrapuntalism in the 17th-century vein, strong organum and modal textures; the whole piece smacks of monastic, canonical rite. This is the very essence of Rubbra’s style and the strongest tie to his Englishness.

Rubbra’s music draws a line between the old Edwardian stalwarts of Vaughan Williams and Holst, right through to the modern day, encompassing the likes of Leighton and Britten along the way. His later work Psalm 122 ('I was glad when they said unto me'), written just two years before his death, is highly serial and functional. Whilst not fully utilising a 12-tone row, he does allow the pure structure of a theme to dominate the progression, rather than letting harmony or development hold the reins. It’s purposefully modernistic – always striving to throw off the mantle of Parry’s famous setting! But we should never fully expunge the deep-seated Englishness of Rubbra’s writing from our minds, nor would he want us to. The simple carol, The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn, is an early work (Op.3) and is clearly shaped by his cultural learning. It’s pentatonic, pastoral and contrapuntal – one could stuff it, and place it in a museum of English music!

Rubbra was always clearly a product of his influences. He maintained a keen interest in Buddhism and mysticism throughout his life, something he got from his early mentor and teacher Cyril Scott who wrote many books on it. He was also an avid exponent of modal writing, which he no doubt took from his teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, R. O. Morris. All this might serve in answering that one glaring question in our minds: how is it, that a composer of such prolific output and seemingly respected reputation should be so unknown in the general repertoire? It is hard to say, though one must appreciate that although Rubbra’s keen ability in contrapuntal writing often led to some complex dissonances in his music, he generally eschewed modern treatments and styles in his compositions at a time when others were forging ahead with, for example, the avant-garde.

However apposite that might be, for me it’s more simple. His music is undoubtedly hard work for any singer and this can put choirs off. But for shame! Since, for the listener, the rewards are rich and bountiful. He is a composer wonderfully attuned to the British ear. He weaves highly crafted melodies through rich harmonies – the music is taut like a Haydn symphony, but less direct in its speech. Like Debussy – whose music he loved so much as a young boy – his language is discreet but powerful at the same time. Not bad for a former railway clerk!

Here are full details of the BBC Singers' Rubbra broadcasts in Afternoon on 3:

Monday 11 June 2012 c1515

Op 37 5 Motets for chorus, 1934:

Eternitie (Robert Herrick)

Vain Wits and Eyes (Henry Vaughan)

A Hymn to God the Father (John Donne)

The Search (Henry Vaughan)

A Song (Richard Crashaw)

Dedication: for Leslie Woodgate (Chorus Master of the BBC Singers from 1934-1961)


Tuesday 12 June c1525

Op 3/1 Dormi Jesu (Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn), SATB, 1924;

Op 5  Madrigals 2nd Set (1942; Thomas Campion)

No 1: Leave prolonging thy distress

No 2: So sweet is thy discourse , S, TB soli


Wednesday 13 June 2012 c1430

Op 96 The Givers (Louis MacNeice), SATB, 1957, written specially in honour of the 85th birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams  

Op 162 Introit (W.H. Auden; words from ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ from collected poems by W.H. Auden), SSATB, 1982 (Commissioned by the BBC for its 60th birthday celebration at St Paul’s Cathedral on July 12th, 1982) 

Op 164 Psalm 122 (vv. 1, 9), SATB, 1984 


Friday 15 June 2012 c1505

Op 115 Te Deum (Latin), SSAATTBB with div; 1962

Dedication: To the Lord Mayor and the City of London for Performance at the Opening Service of the Festival of the City of London in St Paul’s Cathedral on July 9, 1962. 






  • Comment number 1.

    I came across this a bit late and I've missed all the programmes. No trails, I imagine. Two points - if the image of Rubbra conducting is in fact from the premiere of the Fourth, then the story (repeated by Radio Three when they last broadcast the recording of the premiere (which they should certainly repeat - there aren't many such recordings) that he did so in military uniform is obviously nonsense. Perhaps he was photographed on another occasion. And - at least in terms of symphonies - he was certainly NOT the most prolific of English twentieth century composers. Unless it is now the official Radio 3 position that Havergal Brian was not a composer at all - unlikely in view of the last outing of the Gothic Symphony.

    Next time Radio Three feels like doing a Rubbra series, a few fanfares would not go amiss.


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