The century the music died
September 23 2021, by Patrick Maxwell
“Die Land ohne Musik” was the ultimate insult of one German critic about Britain in the nineteenth-century – the Land without Music. Ever since the phrase became widespread there have been numerous attempts from these parts to debunk it; the twentieth-century in many ways represented a great blossoming of English music. But still it’s stuck, particularly when applied to England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. In Europe, this was the time of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Berlioz. Over here it was Battishill, Walmisley (pictured above) and Attwood. There’s a reason you know the first five, and perhaps a better one for why you haven’t a clue of the last three.
Why is this? Why did the country which had housed Handel and encountered the glories of Haydn and had full view of the emerging Viennese School have hardly anything to offer in return? After Handel’s death in 1750 (the same year as Bach and Scarlatti), musical London entered a period of barrenness unheard of since the beginning of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth a hundred years earlier. Some names emerged to brighten this relative darkness early on: Maurice Greene (1696-1755) is an under-recognised composer of innate musicality and emotion, and his anthem Lord, let me know mine end has kept a place in the standard choral repertory for its pulsating lamentations and finely balanced craftsmanship, and he left some unduly neglected organ music. William Boyce came up with a heavy heap of choral music which has only stopped collecting dust in the last one hundred years; despite the shine of his writing there is little to persuade the listener that England was undergoing anything like the same revolutions as Germany or Austria at the time.
One reason for this scarcity of 1750-1830 lies in the political climate. Up until the convulsions of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s subsequent wars, England under King George the Third was prosperous and, even more dangerously for musical exploration, stable (except for the disastrous loss of the American Colonies in 1783. The old joke goes that Switzerland stayed neutral through all the European wars and produced nothing but the cuckoo clock tune; England at this point seems to have been transfixed by its success into a similar artistic torpor. High on imperial conquests, the most lasting pieces to come out of the Britain of the day were Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britaania and the horrible dirge of the National Anthem from the same pen. Great crowd-pleasers they may be, but such pieces are emblematic of a musical culture verging on the vainglorious and worryingly pleased with itself.
Handel had left a large impact on the musical scene he left in London, with his genius for oratorio and dramatic choral narrative providing a series of popular hits among the burgeoning artistic culture of the city. The problem for the country’s composers after his death was simply that no one could approach anything like a similar level of contrapuntal skill. As the critic William Alex Barrett put it a century later, the composers of this time ‘exhibited .. a large acquaintance with the music of Handel, and excellent memories which supplied the place of invention’. For the next eighty years, English music would grow fat on the fruits of Handel’s labours.
It should be said that the prospects were not utterly bleak; Dr Boyce had a certain popularity in his day, and Jonathan Battishill composed some of the most heart-rending psalm chants in the Anglican repertoire. Thomas Attwood was touted as the English Mozart for a time after his early studies with him, even if the comparison can only provoke laughter today. But now any legacy is left to the echoes of a cathedral quire or the organ loft, and certainly not among the hallowed concert halls of Handel’s greatest output, particularly the ubiquitous Messiah which has in many ways remained unsurpassed by any English oratorio since its rapturous reception by George the Second in 1741. None of the successive attempts by Arne, Boyce or Samuel Arnold on similar religious texts have had anything like the same posterity.
Many a music scholar today would say that English music did not fully get its act together until the ‘Renaissance’ in the late nineteenth-century, when figures such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Elgar and Hubert Parry paved the way for Vaughan WIlliams, Britten and Tippett, to name but a few, in the next century. But that misses out the figure of Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76), whose largely choral output has survived more than any of his contemporaries, and who does at least signify a spate of reimagination in the increasingly torpid musical mind of national composers at the time. If it was needed, the political climate was tumultuous enough; the Great Reform Act had caused turmoil in the years leading up to its eventual passing in 1832, and the threat of a Revolution such as that in France still lurked. Wesley managed to rid the musical scene of some of its banality, with an early Victorian taste for the bare and scraping harmonies of his devout, ascetic Christianity. The writer Richard Franko Goldman rightly labelled him ‘the one really important talent of the period’, mainly for the ‘style of genuine beauty and distinction’ he undoubtedly possessed. Today, Wesley is heard most often in one of his earliest works, Blessed be the God and father, which combines sumptuous treble melodic lines with raucous choruses and stealthy lower lines. It gives something of a misleading, slightly juvenile impression of his work, however, which could be both sonorous and impassioned, bereft and impactful. The anthem Cast Me Not Away is all of those things, building up a powerful resolution through a combination of simple homophonic meditation and standard Victorian polyphony at different times. With words from Psalm 51, the repeated evocation of the ‘bones which thou hast broken’ being finally able to ‘rejoice’ releases all of Wesley’s bitter-sweet harmonic skill, before the same line is given a reconciliatory feel by the dominant sevenths and searing dissonances which end this trenchant, beautifully constructed piece.
The times when the music of the British Isles has threatened the status of its European counterparts have been too few since the age of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. The standard of composition in the nineteenth-century seemed, for all its satisfactions and temporary popularity, devoid of the progress, sophistication and astuteness of the composers and works churned out in Germany, Austria and, increasingly, France. The beauty of Wesley came after a desultory period of relative drought in the shadow of Handel. What remains now is the incredible line of musicians from Henry Purcell to Greene to Wesley, which distinguishes the populars of the time from the music worthy of attention today. And anything descending from Purcell is worthy of at least a little of that.
Patrick Maxwell, L6
- Composers who put British music on the map (The Independent)
- The British musical renaissance in a land without music (The Musical Times)
- Bigamists, lunatics and adventurers: the raucous world of 19th century British music (Spectator)