A contemporary perspective on London’s ancient brass heritage and Britain’s visionary classical and folk music traditions
‘For out of olde feldes, as men seith,
Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere;
And out of olde bokes, in good feith,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere.
But now to purpos as of this matere —
To rede forth hit gan me so delyte,
That al the day me thoughte but a lyte.’
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowles
Or to put it more plainly: ‘Old books from which new learning springs’.
With the exception of Britten most of these composers are relatively unknown and if their music is played at all it is sometimes dismissed as sentimental ‘light music’; modern listeners often mistake pomp for jingoism, pastoralism for nationalism and reference to Britain’s myths as colonialism. There is strong evidence that this misunderstanding in contemporary culture of our shared history goes much further back than is genuinely recognised:
When in the 14th century Chaucer writes of ‘Old books from which new learning springs’ he is describing a phenomena that 21st century minds, with our ability may struggle to fathom: in his time England looked back into the distant past to a civilisation with greater knowledge than their own. Roman architectural ruins could still be seen, and untranslated texts rescued from the fall of Byzantium had percolated through the monasteries of Europe.
Contained dormant within these ancient texts were the intellectual seeds of The Enlightenment just waiting to be propagated. Chaucer was as close in time to the Norman invasion as he was to the future peak of Britain’s technological and political power but already these seeds were taking root, nourished by the flexible language of a colonised people which had grafted French limbs onto an Anglo-Saxon trunk, the common law and recent Magna Carta which cited as precedent principles of self-determination and limits on Royal power dating back to Celtic and Germanic resistance to Rome; and John Wycliffe’s heretical and revolutionary movement based at The University of Oxford whose followers questioned the clergy and their privileges, instead seeking knowledge directly from biblical texts.
It is with the same spirit that we seek the answers to present day dilemmas about history, privilege and culture in the works of our past.
‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’
T.S. Eliot ‘Little Gidding’
A sagacious student of history will notice that its primary comedic device is irony. The following observation is not intended to be presented necessarily as criticism but instead as evidence of the salience of certain cultural phenomena: What could be more ironic than modern-day Oxford students seeking to ‘decolonise’ their curriculum in the very same buildings where descendents of Wycliffe’s 14th century followers so fervently destroyed priceless ‘papist’ art, books and literally every single royal ceremonial object from the mediaeval court; the devotees of The English Reformation then as now felt a moral certainty that these were the symbols of the oppressors, though the 16th century iteration focused on overturning Rome’s ancient power structures which since the time of Julius Caesar had sought to turn England, and all of Britain into a colonial outpost first of the Roman Empire, and later of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope.
Some of the composers featured in this album have had their legacies subjected to the same process; it is worth noting that even the most cursory examination of these British composers’ works reveals something quite unique in European classical music: the elevation of working-class folk and protest songs to high art, and a spiritual reverence for the very land itself which stems directly from the animism of the Celts. Progressives need not look far in order to discover evidence of the persistence of an ancient contumaciousness when it comes to what might now be called ‘hierarchical power structures’ ; Foulds, Holst and Grainger all revered magic above reason, ancient woods above grand architecture, and the melodies contained within the oral traditions of peasant farmers above the rarefied music of the court.
It is curious that one often hears that the music of Holst or of Grainger for instance is ‘film music’, with the implicit assumption being that it isn’t high art; the earliest films seen worldwide were of course often on the BBC and it would be more accurate to say that film music borrows heavily from Britain’s music at the beginning of the 20th century. There is an additional element which has led to the dismissal of many of these works as ‘light music’ which must be considered: Grainger was perfectly happy to write a 4-minute piece based on a folk song for choir and full orchestra; this was due to his view that folk music from all traditions, which is inherently accessible, was the highest of arts. This accessibility leads to a certain snobbishness which endures to this day in which critics and musicians feel that a 45-minute symphony or sonata written for the church or court must be higher art than a folk-song setting; critics may wish to consider that audiences are very often drawn into the realms of classical music through first hearing orchestral film music or works like The Planets.
In closing: It is the responsibility of those of us who are the beneficiaries of this tradition to perform this music in a way that honours those who have come before us and resonates with contemporary audiences. This album is a reminder particularly to classical musicians not to throw the baby out with the bathwater as we examine our repertoire, and that the answer to many of today’s debates about everything from class, to race, to climate change may be far closer than we think. Our ancestors were not so different to us and we are profoundly fortunate to have access to the art, music and literature that they produced.
EGB will continue to present music with accompanying articles and documentaries designed to place these works within their historical context; we hope that in some small way this fosters a greater understanding and respect between those in our society who, due to one disagreement or another, feel that they have nothing in common.
‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’
Rochester, Kent, 2021