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Summer of Englishness: BBC Proms

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:27 UK time, Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mark Wigglesworth. Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

In my last piece from this series we have discussed that 'sticking out' from the mainstream is considered to be something odd for those who proudly embody 'Englishness'.

This characteristic of the English mentality has a flip side: the English do appreciate and are usually very good in their team efforts.

I won't even dare to approach the subject of football, but can safely mention that the English cricket team is now ranked the first in the world.

The England rugby team is doing quite well too.

Usually, our relay-sprint teams also perform rather well.

But the best example should definitely be drawn from an entirely different arena - the BBC Proms.

There you can find seamless teamwork on many levels, as every year a dozen people from Radio 3 organise the world's biggest and best festival of classical music.

The BBC orchestras are among the best in the world, and this feast of music is broadcast, promoted, recorded, and distributed across many platforms to many countries.

So let's talk about English music then.

It's widely represented in this year Proms: Purcell and Elgar, Bridge and Britten are among those I listened to this summer at the glorious Royal Albert Hall.

They say that the music is the language of the soul, so what is the language of the English soul, I wondered.

But before going into my musical findings (which are quite amateurish anyway) another saying caught my attention.

The great German poet Goethe once said: "Music begins where words end".

So I thought to myself, are the English as good in music as they are in literature?

Shakespeare and Marlowe, Swift and Defoe, Thackeray and Dickens, Austin and Wolf, Orwell and Elliot - those giants formed the shape of the world literature and easily feature in any top rankings of the world's word-craft.

Is it the same with composers?

And the answer is: Alas...

So, do the laurels of word-smiths occupy too much space in the English soul, leaving too little to music?

Or maybe this is true only in case of the classical music?

After all, if you take English rock for example- it's a leading force in the modern musical world.

Or maybe that it is another, again a very much English expression - 'striking the right balance' between words and music, between music and populus, that could explain the blossom of that type of music?

Famous English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham said once, in a very English manner: "The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes."

Funnily enough, this might help us understand why groups (or teams) such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, Take That or Arctic Monkeys are doing much better in the ranks and history of music than the sole-soul English classical composers.

Classical English music, which I heard at this year Proms, it seems to me also confirms some fundamental characteristics of English mentality, which I am talking about.

The bottom line is, the English are seemingly much better with words than with tunes.

Even when it comes to tunes, they are much better with songs and choirs, rather than with solely instrumental music.

The majority of English music I heard was either Symphonies, Cantatas and Oratories with choirs or singers, and it has a long standing tradition.

Purcell, who more than 300 years after his death is still considered by some the country's greatest composer, was always credited by the musicologists for his 'exquisite talent for English word-setting and expressiveness'.

I know that I'm simplifying and generalising, however I'm talking not so much about the music, but about the national character reflected through that music.

And though Purcell might have been credited for his expressiveness, but generally the music I heard, has been quite reserved, not exultant, not sentimental, but rather rational and conceptual than spontaneous.

English composers themselves very often openly admit it in their comments. The same Sir Thomas Beecham sarcastically said: "There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn what goes on in between."

But more seriously, Benjamin Britten, talking about his 'Spring Symphony' said in a letter 'It is such cold music that it is depressing to write'.

Edward Elgar, commenting on his famous 'Enigma', said: 'I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture'.

If you would like another sweeping statement from me, here it is.

Whereas in the 'continental' (Russian, German) music to my ear 'the Theme' goes through the instruments, in English music the instruments contribute and build 'the Theme' with their own 'micro-themes'.

I would call it 'the democracy of the musical instruments', where every instrument has not submitted to the wholeness of the orchestra, but creates this orchestra with the value of its own voice.

Frank Bridge's Rebus is a good example of it.

As he stated himself, he wanted 'to show in musical terms how a simple idea passed around can become distorted in the process'.

So the theme started by cello and basses is followed by cymbal-topped crash, then is replaced by lonely bassoon's solo, then by all dancing strings, etc...

As for the theme, the disappearance of it becomes an overall theme of the Rebus.

Bridge, who was Britten's teacher, said once to him: "You should try to find yourself and be true to what you found".

In that sense English composers never copied continental colleagues, but got on with inventing and producing their own brand of music.

The view that music is a solid and good human product (somehow even industrious), rather than divine revelation was upheld also by Edward Elgar, whom Richard Strauss called 'the first of the English progressivist' composers.

Explaining his famous composition Enigma, Elgar said: "the larger theme of it is not musical but conceptual: a bond that links 14 individuals".

For me it reflects the pragmatism of English character.

The following saying belongs to a famous English poet W.H. Auden: "Music is the best means we have of digesting time."

Moreover, the majority of musical pieces I'm talking about were commissioned by different non-musical bodies: Red Cross, Samaritans, Japanese government, etc seemingly to digest their time.

The pragmatic approach to music-making is even more obvious in this weird thing, which I had noticed, following this year Proms.

On one of the BBC channels you can hear the live comments to the played Prom - rather like from the football match. 'Now you can hear a gloriously tender, heart-warming tune in a radiant C major. This captivating vision now clouds over, however: muted trombones spit out a warning, and a brief but turbulent development section is upon us...'

So returning to the field of words I would summarise my Suite on Englishness between the words and tunes by what the English poet Robert Browning wrote in his Victorian England:

But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o'er a secret wrung from nature's close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro' every nerve.

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