The glory of English music

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The Glory of English Music, Basil Maine, with a foreword by Sir Adrian Boult
(Alan Wilmer Ltd, 88 Fetter Lane, EC4) price 3s 6d [18p]

The lectures here incorporated in a book somehow give it a sense of completeness. Though all is not fish that gets into his net, Mr Maine’s finely stimulated mind reacts to the outstanding phases of English music from the Elizabethans until now: so that his expansive title is justified, even for so small a book. Though Mr Maine is chiefly known to English musicians through his Life and works of Elgar, he also belongs to that small community of enthusiasts who derive inspiration from the masses of William Byrd and the instrumental works of his English contemporaries5. Yet he does not fret like the chivalrous pioneer in old music, Arnold Dolmetsch, because the community remains so small. Mr Maine is aware that present-day homophonic music has a definite key tonality: modern ears have been trained and developed on this tonal system. Ancient music has not these qualities: hence the lack of general interest in it. The veriest tyro unconsciously recognises the simplest and most popular formula of today (ABA); but the old English instrumental fantasy does not disclose itself so readily.

It is a healthy sign of the trend of the times to find a critic correcting the popular notion that it was the Puritans who killed sixteenth century English music. Cromwell was a cultivated musician. Elizabethan music got its quittance from the Restoration. From what we know of the tastes of King Charles II, we cannot imagine that William Byrd was one of his favourite composers. The inclusion of Handel as an English musician was inevitable, for he was an inside composer and the greatest of them all, and in addition a naturalised Englishman: so John Field remained an outside composer, who could not shed his British origin because all his work was accomplished abroad. It is less troublesome to present Handel as an English composer (through his having lived most of his life and died in London) than Delius, who was born in England yet did all his work outside of it and died abroad.

Today how far we seem from December 17th, 1843. Yet there is a helpful reminder in a letter from Mendelssohn of how much Sterndale Bennett once meant to this country. In a letter of that date supporting Bennett’s candidature for the Professorship of Edinburgh University, Mendelssohn states that Bennett’s residence in Germany, and the popularity of Bennett’s music with German audiences, had removed the prejudice against English music in Germany. We also remember Schumann’s enthusiasm for Bennett’s music. Such popularity has not been attained by any English composer since.

Mr Maine escapes very discreetly from the trap of comparisons between the rival popes, Elgar and Delius. They are unlike, apart from similar ecstatic spiritual qualities: yet the little analysis of discloses clearly enough that Mr Maine has reached the heart of Delius and understands his art.

  1. For the Rev Basil Maine (who was himself a monthly contributor to Musical Opinion), see HB’s review of his Elgar biography reprinted in Havergal Brian on Music, Vol 1 pp77-79. Can any HBS member shed light on the possible whereabouts of Maine’s papers, since his own compositions are said to include a Te Deum orchestrated for him by HB? ↩︎

Book review

Musical opinion, July 1937, p. 873