Thursday 22 May 2014

An English Pastoral Tradition

Ahead of our Fields of Sorrow and Albion Fields performances, which explore English composers response to landscape and national identity, Britten Sinfonia Chief Executive David Butcher discusses the emergence of an English pastoral tradition;

Throughout much of the 19th century there was no imperative for English composers to champion national identity through music, beyond the celebratory anthems to highlight Queen Victoria’s reign.  But towards the end of the century, with military rivalry from Germany and industrial competition from the USA, composers began to search for new ways of expressing an overtly English identity.  The golden age of Elizabeth and of England’s rural past became an inspiration to composers and artists more generally, and one that had been forgotten in the headlong pursuit of progress which had driven the industrial revolution.

Composers such as Vaughan Williams and Holst and later figures such as Tippett and Britten all had deep affinities with the English landscape. Once a pastoral idiom had been established, it was not long before composers began to see beyond the visual and develop the landscapes of the mind such as with Vaughan William’s Flos Campi and Holst’s Egdon Heath.  Vaughan Williams observed his work has “nothing to do with buttercups and daisies” instead exploring a landscape of physical and spiritual longing, without regret or nostalgia. The warmth, however, of Flos Campi is poles apart from the cold and bleak emotional road that Holst’s mature works displayed, with the changing perspective of time and space as the journey unfolds, as demonstrated in the miniature Fields of Sorrow.

The influence of landscape as part of a wider tradition continues today not least in the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle. As the critic and writer Andrew Clements wrote recently, “Birtwistle is as profoundly English a composer as Vaughan Williams: it’s just that his vision is not one of green meditative pastoral, but something bloodied and cruel, rooted in pagan Albion.” For Birtwistle, the interaction of the landscape and time has been a compositional preoccupation.  His ideas have been much influenced by the artist Paul Klee’s technique of building imaginary landscapes allowing for a rich blend of rigour and fantasy.  Birtwistle described his Melencholia 1, his lament for clarinet and strings, as his Tallis Fantasia and The Fields of Sorrow illustrates, as does the wider gamut of his musical and dramatic works, a continuation of a pastoral tradition that has its roots in the rediscovery of landscape as a creative force by English composers more than 80 years earlier.

David Butcher
Chief Executive

Britten Sinfonia performs Fields of Sorrow featuring music by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Birtwistle on Friday 24 May at West Road Concert Hall and Friday 30 may at London's Milton Court - more info.

Britten Sinfonia performs Albion Fields featuring music by Vaughan Williams, Britten, Holst and Elgar on Saturday 25 May at Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall - more info.

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