Pierre Boulez was wrong to imply that English composers are second rate

I once had a conversation with Pierre Boulez in which I dared to raise the subject of English composers, knowing that it probably wasn’t a good idea. I recall him sighing as he searched to find a phrase that could accommodate the depth of his contempt. “English composers,” he replied at last, “are what we call in France the second knives. They do not cut so sharp.”

It was a sweeping statement that ignored the international success of major figures such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Britten, though it’s something you still hear. And it contains an element of truth so far as lesser figures go: the Finzis, Rawsthornes, Butterworths and others of the loosely called English Romantic school during the first half of the 20th century. But even when their blade is blunt, these people can be fascinating. And for nine years now they’ve had an annual celebration of their work: an English Music Festival (EMF) that runs in Dorchester-on-Thames (a suitably idyllic English village) and draws enthusiasts and collectors in good number – though it doesn’t attract public funding or a single serious corporate sponsor. For such things you need more edge, ethnic diversity and outreach to minorities than ventures like the EMF can contemplate.

But it should qualify for some kind of support because collectors of Romantic Englishness are such a rare breed that they need a boost. And last week, for the opening concert of the 2015 Festival, they turned out to support a batch of blissfully obscure scores played by the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor Martin Yates.

One was Mr Yates’s own completion of a Fantasia that George Butterworth left unfinished on his death in the trenches of the First World War. Another was the British premiere of a Hindemith-indebted New Age Overture, written by Richard Arnell in New York where he, along with Britten, had been stranded since the start of the Second World War. And there was also a Bucolic Suite written by Vaughan Williams before he’d found his idiom as a composer, barely identifiable as his own work, and proof that Englishness can be acquired as well as in the blood.

The main work, though, was Gerald Finzi’s ambitiously grand Cello Concerto, given its full due by a soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, who has made a speciality of the piece and plays it with a sweeping, visionary magnificence it doesn’t seem
to get from anybody else.

Whether his closeness to this music has to do with being, just like Finzi, British-born from European Jewish stock, I’ve no idea. But he’s a mighty champion of English repertoire. And to supporters of the EMF, a hero.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (05/6/15).

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