Having covered most of continental Europe several times over, it’s time to discuss what was going on in Britain during the romantic period. Britain had an immense colonial presence during the Romantic period of art and music. It was wealthy and at the peak of its international political influence both on the countries it colonized and on other major world powers in Europe and elsewhere. Even if many artists and creatives didn’t assert imperialist, patriotic ideals, the greatest of works produced in this period were sources of nationalist pride. For example, even today, Elgar’s works are of immense patriotic significance in the UK despite Elgar having negative feelings about Britain’s classicism and nationalism during his own lifetime.
There are many composers to talk about from the British isles, from the earliest of Western music up to this point, but I will focus on two of the most well-known to introduce you to this distinct style of sound. I encourage you to discover the many more composers from Romantic-era Britain such as John Ireland, Gustav Holst (composer of The Planets), York Bowen and their contemporaries.
Perhaps the most quintessentially “English” of soundscapes by today’s standards, Edward Elgar (1857-1934) himself would probably disagree strongly with this title. He felt like an outsider for much of his life. He was Catholic in a land of protestants, not wealthy, self-taught as a composer, and always looking East to Europe for musical inspiration. His dream to study at a German music conservatory was never realized due to his family’s meager finances. Thus Elgar taught himself to compose music and, without the guidance of a teacher, developed his own highly unique soundscape without even being aware of how unique it was. It was only after the fact that this sound became so associated with British nationalism.
Elgar resented the class system of Victorian Britain, acutely aware of his modest background even after he achieved fame for his compositions. He was a gigging musician, playing violin in various small-scale orchestras around his hometown, teaching and working at music shops. He was introverted and shy. When one of Elgar’s works was finally premiered with a live orchestra, an orchestra in which he played the violin himself, Elgar turned down the offer to conduct his own work and preferred to sit in his usual seat in the violin section. He received the audience’s applause afterward, as the composer, from his seat in the orchestra.
Here is one of Elgar’s most famous works, the Enigma Variations. Each of these short vignettes are dedicated to one of Elgar’s contemporaries, friends, or other special person in his life. Particular ones to note are the first variation, dedicated to his wife, the famous “Nimrod” variation, dedicated to Elgar’s best friend and editor, and others. There are variations that mimic people comically as well, such as variation IV which is said to show how this particular friend of Elgar’s tended to slam doors. Variation VII depicts another close friend of Elgar’s, enthusiastic but inept at the piano, and this variation may also refer to the pair once being caught in a thunderstorm. Variation XI depicts not a person but a pet; a friend’s bulldog jumps into a stream to retrieve a stick. The final variation is about Elgar himself as he relates to his friends, and he quotes the variation dedicated to his wife in this finale to show his love for her.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto
Now a cornerstone of the cello repertoire and a concert favorite, Elgar’s cello concerto did not get off to a positive start. The premier was disastrous due to lack of adequate rehearsal time. Even the critics present at the concert stated how sorry they felt for Elgar, since the piece seemed to have potential but was so badly presented. It would be over a year before another performance of the concerto, and it would not get significant attention until the 1960’s when cellist Jaqueline du Pré made an iconic recording of the piece and listeners finally discovered how beautiful it was!
This piece is also an example of how war can have a profound effect on art, especially for artists who lived both before and after a time of war. Elgar’s style was distinct, but pre-war and post-war Elgar sound quite different. At the time when Elgar wrote the cello concerto, World War I had recently reached its armistice. Elgar spent wartime in unsettling proximity to tank movement and open warfare. In personal distress as well, Elgar was recovering from a major surgery when he wrote the first sketches for this concerto. When she saw the sketches, his wife could tell already that Elgar’s outlook had changed from his pre-war self. Can you hear a difference between Elgar’s earlier and later work?
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Another decisive voice in music from the British Isles, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) marked a decisive break in soundscape between Britain and the rest of Europe. A pupil of Ravel for a short time, even Ravel warned Vaughan Williams not to study with him for too long, lest he lose a voice already so interesting and unique. Vaughan Williams is known for his love of Tudor folk song, Renaissance English chant and pastoral harmonies from his homeland. I would argue that this is a more “English” sound than Elgar, since the influence in Vaughan Williams’ music is much more concentrated in local folklore and over so many centuries of music. We will explore some of Vaughan Williams’ most famous works now.
The Lark Ascending
This work for violin and orchestra is among the most popular works in the world for solo violin, certainly in Britain it is performed perhaps weekly! But I don’t mind; it is absolutely beautiful and shows Vaughan Willaims’ love of pentatonic folk melody, sparse texture, and compelling chord progressions. Ravel only taught Vaughan Williams for a short time, but you can tell that his encouragement went a long way. Remember the pentatonic melodies that both Debussy and Ravel used so much?
This used to be one of my most-listened to works when I was a kid; I found the harmonies almost cinematic in their character and imagined all sorts of landscapes and scenes that this music could describe. Much of Vaughan Williams’ music has this soundtrack-like quality to it, due to its pastoral harmonies and through-composed structure. There are still themes, but no sonata form, in The Lark Ascending. Vaughan Williams gives enough memorable information to keep the audience’s attention but keeps the format quite open-ended otherwise, allowing room for narrative creativity for both the performers and the audience.
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
This is about as folk-inspired as one could be; Vaughan Williams takes a Renaissance-era motet and uses it as the structure of a modern work. A fantasia is a work that is entirely through-composed; once you hear section A, it will not return, and the same goes for B, C and however many additional sections the composer chooses to include. You will be able to hear remnants of the original Tallis motet throughout, and this unifies the work’s various sections, but the ways Vaughan Williams chooses to explore and develop the Tallis motet will change as the piece continues.
This is another favorite from my youth, probably because of the viola solo! It is also interesting to know that this work is for two string orchestras plus a string quartet; this will not be obvious when listening but you will notice the effects in the music’s volume and sense of distance from the listener. You will hear many call-and-response effects in which a sound is echoed by fewer musicians, sounding much further away. The second “orchestra” of string players is only a few musicians, and they sit either across the room from, or above (if there’s a choir loft in a church performance space), the larger orchestra. The effect is meant to imitate the echoes through a large cathedral, and Britain has so many cathedrals that it’s easy to hear very authentic performance of this work!
First listen to the motet that inspired the Fantasia. You will understand the Fantasia much better.
Now, listen to the Fantasia.
I have one more composer to share with you before we leave late-Romantic Britain.
George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad
A heartbreaking example of what war can do to art, George Butterworth (1885-1916) was killed in World War I when he was only 31 years old. A colleague of Vaughan Williams, both composers were friends and had similar beliefs in the art and folk music of their heritage. Here is a gorgeous short work for orchestra by Butterworth, depicting his hometown. Although it’s wonderful to have the works that do survive, we can’t help but wonder how much more Butterworth would have offered to music had he not been killed. Many more artists lost their lives in war and we will continue to see lives cut short as we delve into the 20th century.