The spirit of England

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The desire for the expression of the spirit of England in English music programmes is again becoming vocal: but its consummation is always for tomorrow, or if anything is done it remains an incident in the past. Let us take the activities of the BBC as typical, and we find occasional hours devoted to English music in a spirit of benevolent patronage. I wonder what would be the state of public opinion in Berlin, Vienna or Paris if the programmes of the principal concerts there were mainly foreign, and if native works were relegated to the end of the concert. There would be risings throughout all Austria if any conductor offered the deadly insult of an evening or hour with Austrian composers in a manner similar to what is done regularly in England. The spirit of English music is a minus quantity among those who should have it ever before their eyes.

For this spirit of England our programme makers think only of Elgar, and there is some fear that they will not do so for long now that the force of his personality is gone. His idiomatic phrases, clear and distinct in everything he wrote, breathe the spirit of England. One may be more sympathetic and reach more quickly to certain composers by reason of temperamental affinity: but in looking around or amongst European composers of today, I see none so easily recognisable as Elgar. Here then is what we need, English character without nationalism, and that can be found widespread in our literature.

It is not that Elgar repeats himself: we may pass quickly from the pages of the slow movements of his symphonies — with their subtly woven close texture — to the slow variations in the Enigma, the Angel’s Song in Gerontius, through the secular cantatas and the oratorios, and include Dreaming and the last orchestral work he wrote (Nursery suite), and note how his personality persists through his phrases and deceptive cadences. ‘That cadence had a dying fall’ more clearly expresses the elusive character of his cadences, yet he is as purely English in his thinking as Tennyson.

Without contriving to reach posterity, Thomas Arne did so when he wrote that immortal tune, Rule, Britannia. It came as an accident, and something similar happened when Elgar wrote his military march, Pomp and circumstance No 1. It is a superbly fine tune, and as Land of hope and glory breathes much of the spirit of England, at least as that spirit comes to most of us sometimes and to others at all times.

Parry, one of the sanest, most acute and imaginative writers English music has produced, is quoted by Vaughan Williams as saying, ‘True style comes not from the individual but from the products of crowds of fellow workers who sift and try and try again till they have found the thing that suits their native taste.., style is ultimately national’. Elgar’s native genius gave expression to this spirit of England without having to pass through the process and conditions which Parry had in his mind when he addressed the Folk Song Society. For this reason many folk song enthusiasts suspect that Elgar was influenced by folk songs. On the contrary, Elgar had the spirit of England in his bones: he could express it in no other way. The affinity between him and the mass of English people was natural, and consequently it is as futile to turn a deaf ear to his national music as it is to try to stifle the voice of England.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, April 1935, p. 587