Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald
The announcement made recently that three well known British composers have been given the sum of £250 each for writing a concerto each for piano and orchestra will greatly encourage the ambitious young native composer. In the past, composers have rather developed the habit of sitting down and counting their grievances; today, the young composer may feel tempted to count his blessings if he will go to the trouble of reviewing the changing conditions which have obtained during the past fifty years.
For over a century the only opening for a new work was the provincial music festivals, where the prevailing oratorio tradition preferred or demanded an oratorio, or at least a choral work on a religious subject. Conditions at the Three Choirs Festival made a religious setting for choral novelties imperative. Secular choral works and those for orchestra were occasionally ventured at festivals; but as the number of performances and programmes were limited, and the events only happened once every three years, very few composers shared the privileges.
Those fortunate enough to be included got in either by influence or by ‘wire-pulling’. The readiness of Manns or Wood to encourage native composers by performing their works effected two things: it stirred their imagination and made them ambitious. It cannot be denied that until recently lack of imagination and ambition caused all English music to sound very much alike, — dull, uninspired and uneventful.
Thanks to modern facilities for repeated opportunities of hearing adventurous works, we have a number of native composers quite as enterprising as any of their foreign contemporaries and probably more ambitious. This change of outlook as well as of opportunity has undoubtedly been largely brought about by the music department of the BBC, which recognises the production of novelties as a necessity and also as good propaganda.
A further fact to the advantage of the composer is that the fees demanded by the Performing Right Society for the performance of works by its composer-members ensures a monetary return to the composer for his labour, even if, by comparison with the money paid to artisans for their labour, the composer’s reward is infinitesimal. But it is a beginning, and a recognition that justice is due as much to the composer as to any other member of society. These changes have been so gradual that no one today is surprised at them. Had they come into operation only twenty years ago, they would have treated a sensation amongst publishers and composers.
Another fact is that the present policy of exchange concerts among various broadcasting companies has given recently published English music an opportunity of being heard under English conductors from foreign broadcasting stations. In what might be classed as the foreign department of British music there have been several notable performances. Rubbra’s orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, first performed by Boult at a Royal Philharmonic Concert, has recently had two broadcast performances in America under Toscanini; and John Ireland’s London Overture — the score of which impressed me as being first cousin to Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture— is becoming a popular work in America with foreign broadcasts.
Though I have not yet heard Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, for string orchestra, several other works by this composer have pleased by their exhilarating youthful impulse, fantasy and sometimes appealing poesy. His Bridge Variations, which had a first performance at the Incorporated Society of Musicians Festival last June, is scheduled for twenty-four performances abroad. In the aggregate, this means more publicity for British music and more recompense for those who compose it.
On the other hand, by La main gauche
Musical opinion, March 1939, p. 490