Ebenezer Prout

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The birth centenaries of Bach and Handel remind me of the birth centenary of an English musician who, though less in public notice than some others, had a career of great usefulness. Ebenezer Prout was born at Oundle on March 1st, 1835, and thus his name and place of birth suggest an ancestry typically English. His father, a Congregational minister, is said to have frowned on Ebenezer’s desire to be a musician, which qualified suggestion of a Puritanical attitude will, I hope, pass unrebuked. Some little evidence of the fact alleged is confirmed by the statement that the future remarkable man was self-taught, though he is known to have had a few piano lessons from Charles Salaman6. A striking thing about Prout is his early developed love of orchestral music: his fascination by the orchestra began when he was only seventeen, at which time he was gathering and training a band of players at Priory House School. Clapton. Still bound to schoolmastering, he was at twenty-one at Leatherhead, where after three more years of servitude he cut the knot and became a musician.

Ebenezer Prout then trod the path by which many other men have reached great heights in music: he became an organist and was for eleven years at Union Chapel, Islington, where Fountain Meen and Henry Allon were later to prove that Puritans (and their descendants) can be excellent musicians. Meanwhile Prout's star as a composer was rising high in the heavens. The British Society of Musicians put the laurel of a first prize on his String Quartet (Op 1), and four years later (in 1865) proclaimed similarly a Piano Quartet. And so he went on until at the Birmingham Festival of 1885 we find Richter making his own debut there with a symphony by Ebenezer Prout. He had also composed three other symphonies, organ concertos, and the well-known dramatic cantata, _Alfred_7.

Thenceforward Prout’s career as a composer was shadowed by his growing fame as the author of the finest set of theoretical musical works in the English language. Prout had a natural penchant for teaching: he was also a thinker, and probably to stimulate thought in others he founded, in 1871, The musical record, appreciation of his work on which doubtless led to the offer of the post of musical critic of The Athenaeum and The Academy. That was in the days when criticism was expressed in thought-out periods, and not set forth in scintillating sentences within a decor of headings, black type and italics. Prout was now in the full light of recognition: in 1876 he was professor of harmony and composition at the National Training School of Music, and held similar appointments at the RAM and the GSM. Later he was elected to the Professorship of Music at the University of Dublin. Why did he never reach Oxford or Cambridge? Had he done so his work would now be remembered by scholarships and mural tablets.

Other things are still to be mentioned: he conducted the Borough of Hackney Choral Association for fourteen years, when its fame went out beyond the confines of even Greater London. Then he undertook the guardianship of Handel’s works, his edition of Messiah arousing unusual controversy. Prout’s version of Samson was used at the Leeds Festival of 1880.

I rather suspect that the success of Prout’s primer, Instrumentation (1876), led to his abandonment of composition: for years it was the most renowned and fascinating book on the subject in English, for price and language kept other similar works out of the reach of many. Prout's work spoke like the living voice. His penetrating skill and authority was recognised when his two books on the orchestra appeared (1897), for they were immediately translated into German. Like Berlioz, he had left nothing to chance. From his own vast collection of scores he drew numberless examples; and, again like Berlioz, he had been in deep and intimate consultation with the finest instrumentalists of his time.

What is important to note is that whilst Prout was a great pleader for Bach and Handel, he was at the same time a leader in the modernist movement. When Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, Dvorak, Brahms, &c, were the moderns of yesterday, Prout was their advocate. To those who could not procure the scores of these composers, Prout’s works included copious extracts from those in his own possession, and these must have shown the light to the oncoming generation of English composers. His standpoint on music was built on music as an art of sound. He derived all from the composer, basing his theories on actual examples found in the full scores of classicists and moderns. Self-taught himself, he appreciated the position of all striving to learn, and he stood modestly by offering what he thought might help. This is seen in, I think, the Preface to the book on Fugue.

His works, nine in all, were written in the amazingly short time of nine years: they opened and developed like the action in a drama. The climax must have been there when in 1903 it was found that twenty editions of Harmony had been sold since 1889. One other point: Prout is alone among English writers of musical textbooks whose works have been translated into German, and now comes the climax in that the books on Form have been done into Russian by order of the Soviet Government.

  1. Salaman (1814-1901) was a prolific composer, conductor, and pianist. ↩︎

  2. Well-known no longer. But Prout is quite possibly not the dry as dust Victorian of legend: the fact that Brian (whose instincts were seldom at fault) valued him so highly is a strong point in his favour. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, April 1935, pp. 588–589