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An Outline History of British Music

Edward Elgar

The so-called "Land Without Music" was once anything but. From earliest times the Celtic fringe counted among its many skills freely improvised polyphonic singing. Written polyphony, and with it the development of rhythm and pitch notation evolved slowly. Winchester was an important centre. The monk, Wulstan (d963) describes an organ with 26 bellows and 400 pipes in Winchester Cathedral. The Winchester Tropers (c1050) contain over a hundred two-part compositions. The round Sumer is icumen in (c1300) demonstrates the ground-breaking skills of English composers, as do fragments from Worcester Cathedral. The Old Hall manuscript (c1410 - 1450) shows the first identified English composers developing an individual method of decorating the melody with harmony in thirds and sixths. The resulting sweetness of sound, eg in the Agincourt Song (1415) became known as the "contenance Anglaise". John Dunstable (d1453), famous throughout Europe, influenced the early Renaissance development of harmony and counterpoint. 

The Reformation killed off an extraordinarily rich tradition. Musical collections were destroyed along with the monasteries. Some of the old Catholic composers bent with the wind, and developed new styles for the reformed liturgies. Music was maintained in the Cathedrals but energies turned to the development of secular forms. The first lute primer was published in 1568. John Dowland (d1626) brought the lute song to unsurpassed heights. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, (c1610) attests to the keyboard virtuosity of men like John Bull (d1628). The viol consort grew in popularity. Musica Transalpina, published in 1588, brought the Italian madrigal to Britain. Thomas Morley and others developed it into a uniquely English art-form which climaxed with the work of Byrd, Gibbons, Weelkes and Wilbye. The verse anthem developed under the first Stuart Kings. At Court the Masque developed into an extravagant musico/dramatic entertainment. 

The Commonwealth period closed the Cathedrals and the theatres, so that most of the music composed at the time was for small vocal ensembles and viol consorts for use in private houses. Britain's first musical drama, The Siege of Rhodes was, paradoxically, a play set to music to get round the ban on spoken theatre

With the Restoration, James II brought with him the tastes of the French court, and sent musicians there to learn. The Chapel Royal was reformed and young composers such as John Blow trained in the new Italian style. Blow resigned as organist at Westminster Abbey in favour of his pupil Purcell (d1695), the greatest British composer for a hundred years before, and after.

A new native style developed in the re-opened theatres, but England did not take immediately to the comparatively new form of the opera. Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1683) showed what might have become of it in native hands, but the taste was for an extravagant mixture of spoken drama and masque. Italian opera only later became all the rage. Its greatest exponent, Handel, came to London in 1710 and dominated the scene for nearly 50 years, though Thomas Arne was a worthy native challenger. A popular native tradition of musical theatre flowered in the form of Gay's "The Beggars Opera" (1728) and audiences have ever since been divided: musicals for the middle-class, opera for the elite.

In answer, Handel developed the quasi-operatic form of oratorio and established the peculiarly English form of non-theatrical music drama. Hundreds of choral societies proved a ready market for this democratic art form, and remained so until the middle of the 20th century. Visiting composers such as Haydn, Mendelssohn later, and Dvorak later still, all contributed.

Commercial orchestral concert-giving began around the mid-18th century in London and provincial centres, encouraged by the burgeoning middle classes.

The founding of the music colleges provided a steady stream of expert English performers. The piano began to take precedence in the late 18th and early 19th century. The stylistic developments of the Continent for the most part left British music behind, trapped in Mendelssohnian classicism. The excesses of the Romantic vision did not catch on, other than in the field of opera. Balfe's Siege of Rochelle (1835) ran for 170 performances.  His Bohemian Girl (1843) and Wallace's Maritana (1845) were both internationally successful, but later 19th century lyric drama was dominated by the output of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sullivan's Ivanhoe (1891) ran for 170 performances.

In 1880 the emergence of Parry and Stanford re-energized the English scene and paved the way for Elgar (b1857). Elgar's renown came late in life, with the premiere of the Enigma Variations (1899), and a year later The Dream of Gerontius. British music was provided with a platform with the foundation of the Proms in 1895.

At the turn of the century, as English composers, inspired by Elgar, learnt to master contemporary techniques, a renewed interest in native music took hold. Cecil Sharp encouraged Vaughan Williams, Holst and others to collect the fast-dying folk repertoire. They founded their musical style upon it. Vaughan Williams's A London Symphony marked the pre-World War I high-point. The flowering of nationalism of the high Imperial years coincided with World War I and greatly assisted the native composer. Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931) re-invigorated the moribund oratorio repertoire. From 1914 to 1927 Rutland Boughton tried to establish an "English Bayreuth". Many composers were trying to establish an English opera, George Lloyd's Iernin (1934) was the most successful.

After the war, a reaction to all things foreign as well as a natural conservatism eschewed foreign developments. Composers gave voice to a tragic pastoralism. Younger composers struggled to make contact with the Second Viennese School . Those that did were regarded as eccentric. Broadcasting and the gramophone tempered this isolationism but it was not until after World War II that contemporary music began to be heard more widely. This was partly because a great number of European musicians had sought refuge in Britain during the war, and revitalized English intellectual and artistic life.

Two native geniuses dominated the post-World War II scene. Tippett (b1905) and Britten (b1913). Britten established the credentials of a native English opera. Tippett's A Child of Our Time made music a valid political tool. The education system ensured that concerts were patronized by a highly musically literate audience, and the academies became world leaders. In a reaction to the perceived "cow-pat" school of English music, William Glock, BBC Controller of Music, refashioned the Proms to become a springboard for all the new.

The re-opening of Covent Garden after World War II and the development of the Sadler's Wells company gave opera a firmer basis. National opera companies in Wales and Scotland and regional companies followed showing a great deal of new work, and there was an explosion in the number of Festivals, led by Bath. Cheltenham and Edinburgh Youth Orchestras were founded, and youthful music making and opera production developed.

Throughout the 20th century "serious" composers confronted more popular idioms such as folk, jazz and from the '60s onwards rock and pop styles. Film music provided a new arena of work. Composers in the 21st century will be skilled in the widest range of styles for an increasingly heterogeneous public. 

© Chris de Souza/BBC

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