Britain's Musical Revival

It was Anton Rubinstein who, nearly a hundred years ago, referred to England as “the most unmusical nation on earth.” About a century before the Russian pianist and composer made known his views, Charles Burney, as sturdy an Englishman who ever lived and a good friend of Dr. Johnson’s, observed that to the British public, music was “an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great gratification and improvement of the sense of hearing.” And Dr. Johnson himself, it may be recalled, once remarked of the performance of a celebrated violinist: “Difficult do you call it, Sir? I wish it were impossible.”

These depressing opinions are fairly typical of the view that most foreigners, and many Britons, have held of English music for the two hundred years between the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 and the beginnings of the twentieth century. Whatever else England may have contributed to the world in those years, it produced few composers. Its dominant eighteenth-century musical personality, Handel, was German born and bred, and probably its greatest nineteenth-century figure, Sullivan, was a magician of light music whose serious efforts have failed to endure.

But nowadays all that is changed. The English musical renascence, which began with Sir Edward Elgar just before 1900, has now put British composers into a commanding position in the musical world. Last winter, for example, Benjamin Britten had two operas playing simultaneously in New York, with the Metropolitan giving Peter Grimes at its new house at Lincoln Center while its touring National Company was playing The Rape of Lucretia a few blocks away at the City Center.

Along with the upsurge of new British music has gone a revival of interest in the previous great creative period of English composers, the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Elizabethan songwriters and instrumental composers, some of whom all but disappeared from history for two hundred years, are being revived, and a veritable boom exists in the works of Henry Purcell.

Purcell’s great opera Dido and Aeneas has been recorded frequently, but seldom as well as in its latest version by Victoria de los Angeles, Heather Harper, Peter Glossop, and others, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and the Ambrosian Singers (Angel S-36359, stereo; 36359, monaural).

Like most Englishmen, Purcell managed to impart a resolutely British character to whatever he did: Dido and Aeneas may deal with the love between a Carthaginian queen and a Trojan prince, but its sailors’ farewell sounds like a chorus of British tars, and its witches bear a family resemblance to those in Macbeth, And the English language itself has seldom been set to music more affectingly than in Dido’s famous threnody, “When I am laid in earth.”

Another opera by Purcell, though lesser known, also displays his ability to transform an exotic tale into a musical work close to the experience and the idiom of his listeners. The Indian Queen (L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL-299, stereo; OL-294, monaural) is not, to be exact, an opera, but it is near enough to make the differences seem unimportant 270 years later. In subject matter it is a preposterous account of a war between Mexico and Peru, two countries that were all but unaware of each other’s existence in Purcell’s time. The Peruvian general is named Montezuma, which puts him in the wrong country altogether; however, he eventually changes sides and joins the Mexicans, whose queen, Zempoalla, promptly falls in love with him.

Far from being inspired by this saga to flights of exoticism, Purcell wrote music which was thoroughly suited to the surroundings of a London theater, or for that matter, an English village green. Even when the fanciful figures of Envy, Fame, and one or two Aerial Spirits appear, they are far more the habitues of Restoration England than of preColumbian Mexico. And for all the artificiality of its locale, the opera is imbued with a sense of honest, straightforward emotion.

The Indian Queen, which will come as a revelation to most listeners (this is its first stereo recording), is filled with delightful things — a trumpetdominated “symphony” with a strangely foreboding string ending; a jolly, piquant duet for two spirits; a song for Envy in which the sibilants of a snake’s hissing are underlined in a way that would seem naive if it weren’t so surprisingly effective; two famous songs, “Ye twice ten hundred deities” and “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly”; and several choral and ensemble numbers. The Indian Queen, which is admirably presented by a large cast headed by April Cantelo, soprano, and Christopher Keyte, bass, with Charles Mackerras conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and St. Anthony Singers, is an invigorating work to hear, and it loses nothing by being of its own country and epoch.

Purcell was only thirty-six when he died, and his contemporaries probably would have been astonished to know that music by native English composers would go into an eclipse for two centuries. But that is what happened. Whatever the reasons (and some interesting ones have been advanced), English musical life was pretty much turned over to foreigners, whether those who settled permanently, like Handel, or those who merely visited, such as Haydn and Mendelssohn.

Yet any notion that music is simply not part of the English soul, as it is of the Italian or the German, is rebutted by the tremendous revival that has reached its climax in the twentieth century.

English composers began regaining prominence in the 1890s; Sir Edward Elgar was the giant among them, but there were plenty of others who demonstrated that direct melodic appeal and skillful musical craftsmanship could be as characteristic of British music as of any other. Sir Edward German, for instance, wrote light operas and incidental music for Shakespeare’s plays; such suites as his Henry VIII dances survive to this day. Similarly, the piano pieces of Percy Grainger — “Molly on the Shore” and “Country Gardens” — have achieved an immortality of their own. Grainger was born in Australia in 1882 and died in the United States in 1961, but the tang and forthrightness of British folk music imbue his works. Incidentally, a recording of Grainger playing his own music has just been issued as pari of a series devoted to great pianists of the past (Everest X-913, stereo; 913, monaural). These are transfers to discs of DuoArt piano rolls made during the 1920s. The performances retain some of the mechanical sound associated with piano rolls, but even so, one is made aware of the flair and brilliance with which Grainger played his lively, hearty pieces.

Recordings of English music more or less modern in origin amount almost to a deluge. Elgar’s lyric and finely spun Violin Concerto in B Minor has just been given its first stereo recording by Yehudi Menuhin, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Angel S-36330, stereo; 36330, monaural), while RCA Victor has re-released, in monaural, the much older version of the same work by Jascha Heifetz and the London Symphony under Sir Malcolm Sargent (LM-2919).

Gustav Holst is represented by a recording of his chamber opera Savitri, a beautiful and exotically tinged work in which a Hindu woman (sung by Janet Baker) confronts and triumphs over a visitation by Death (Argo ZNF-6, stereo; NF6, monaural), and by a fine selection of medieval lyrics and part songs, performed by the Purcell Singers and English Chamber Orchestra (Argo ZRG-5495, stereo; RG-5494, monaural). Frederick Delius’ rhapsodic Piano Concerto is coupled with the American Samuel Barber’s Sonata, Opus 26, in a Decca record, with Marjorie Mitchell as soloist (DL-710136, stereo; 10136, monaural), and his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, another smoothly flowing, evocative work, is performed by Raymond Cohen and Gerald Warburg, with Norman del Mar conducting the Royal Philharmonic on an imported Pyc release (GGC-4073, stereo or monaural). Sir William Walton’s vigorous Symphony No. 1 is played in a resounding recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor ' LSC-2927, stereo; LM-2927, monaural). A record of New Music from Britain issued by Angel features Peter Maxwell Davies’ Leopardi Fragments, the work which won the 1966 Koussevitzky International Recording Award (S36387, stereo; 36387, monaural). The list could go on indefinitely.

But no matter what its length, the name at the top would surely remain that of Benjamin Britten, without a doubt England’s most significant composer since Purcell. Now fiftythree years old, Britten is represented by some forty entries in the Schwann catalogue, including several operas. Another one, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a cast including Alfred Deller, Peter Pears, John ShirleyQuirk, and Heather Harper, is scheduled to be released later this year by London. Right now London, capitalizing on this season’s successful revival of Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera, has released a single disc of highlights taken from the complete recording of the work originally issued in 1962 (OS-26004, stereo; OM-36004, monaural).

The force and flavor of Peter Grimes come through strongly in these excerpts; Britten, who lives on the Suffolk coast, knows how to steep a score with the feeling of the sea, and he is not afraid to turn the English folk-song tradition to his own good uses. This musical drama of a proud and violent fisherman pursued to his death by an evil fate is now more than twenty years old (it was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1944), but the power of its score remains unabated.

While Britten’s Peter Grimes and Rape of Lucretia were playing in New York this season, still another British work, Wilfred Josephs’ Requiem, was being given its American premiere performances by the touring Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Rudolf. Josephs is a thirtynine-year-old composer born in Newcastle-on-Tyne and currently resident in London. Before he decided to concentrate on music he received a degree in dentistry, a fact that seems to fascinate American critics who have written about him. In December, 1963, Josephs’ Requiem won first prize in the first International Competition of La Scala, Milan, and ever since, it has been performed across Europe to mounting acclaim. It was written as a memorial to the Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis, lasts lifty minutes, and is scored for the unique combination of large symphony orchestra, chorus, baritone soloist, and string quintet. It represents a combination of the Jewish and Catholic liturgical traditions, for its vocal portions are made up of the words of the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, while the string quintet interludes (of unusual harmonic richness and expressivity) represent the portions of the Roman Mass. Despite some contrived and showy passages, the Josephs Requiem is a work that marshals its resources skillfully and that communicates emotion. Decca, which regularly records the Cincinnati Symphony, has deferred for the time being the question of whether to add the Josephs Requiem to its catalogue. Whether it eventually is recorded or not, it offers one more attestation of the continued vitality and originality of British musical life.

Record Reviews

Corelli: Twelve Concerti Crossi, Opus 6

Max Goberman conducting Vienna Sinfonietta; Odyssey 32-36-0002 (stereo) and 32-30-000!: three records Odyssey is a new series of $2.50 records launched by Columbia and devoted to both new releases and reissues. Among the latter is this superb set of Corelli orchestral recordings made by the late Max Goberman, who earned his living conducting Broadway theater pit orchestras, but demonstrated his talents by .systematically recording the works of Corelli, Vivaldi, Haydn, and others. Goberman’s recordings were enthusiastically praised when they first came out (on the Library of Recorded Masterpieces label) for their scholarship, authoritativeness, and sheer vivacity, and this welcome reissue demonstrates that in this repertory, they have not been equaled.

Franck: Symphony in D Minor

Sir Thomas Bcecham conducting Orchestre National de la Radio diffusion Franqaise; Seraphim S-60012 (stereo) and 60012

Listeners who never wish to hear the Franck D Minor again are hereby urged to give it one more try in this remarkably clean and vivid recording reissued in Angel’s lowpriced Seraphim series. Sir Thomas Bcecham was renowned for his ability to impart a gloss to the weariest war-horse, and he never displayed the faculty more brilliantly than here. The D Minor, after all, is the symphony that most of us regarded as the world’s greatest in the days of our youth, and here Sir Thomas takes us lovingly back over the years.

Schumann: Piano Quintet in K-flat, Opus 44 Mozart: Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478

Leonard Bernstein, pianist, and the Judhard String Quartet; Columbia MS6929 (stereo) and ML-6329 Probably nothing is further from his thoughts, but this record suggests that Leonard Bernstein could, if he wished, carve out a highly satisfactory career for himself as a chamber music performer when his retirement from the New York Philharmonic becomes effective two years hence. His playing, and that of the Juilliard Quartet, is musically clean, rhythmically secure, and charged with an excitement that lifts these performances far above the general run. Since the Schumann quintet is one of the great ensemble pieces in all music, and the Mozart quartet a product of the composer’s mature genius, the record abounds with beautiful music-making on both sides.

Wagner: Tristan Isolde

Karl Böhm conducting Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, with Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Christa Ludwig, and others; Deutsche Grammofihon 139221/25 {stereo) and 39221/25: five records

The problems of putting a powerful and lucid Tristan on records are enormous, and DGG solved them simply: it put its microphones on the stage at Bayreuth last year and took down the live performance at the festival. The result is a Tristan with a tremendously vivid quality, as shown, for example, in the climax of Act I where the lovers, having swallowed the supposedly fatal potions, pour their hearts out to each other while the ship bearing Isolde to her match with King Mark reaches port. Birgit Nilsson demonstrates anew that she is the foremost Wagnerian soprano of our times, and Windgassen is a not unworthy colleague. Bohm’s conducting permits no lagging, and the sound seems none the poorer for originating on a theater stage rather than in a recording studio.

A Hand Is on the Gate

Arranged and directed by Roscoe Lee Browne, with Leon Bibb, Gloria Foster, Moses Gunn, Ellen Holly, James Earl Jones, and Josephine Premice; VerveFolkways FVS-9040 (stereo) and FV - 9040: two records

Some of America’s finest Negro actors, actresses, and singers were brought together for this Broadway production taken from prose, poetry, and song created by the American Negro. The variety is enormous, with writers ranging from James Weldon Johnson to Leroi Jones, and

heroes from Fredrick Douglass to Satchel Paige. There is pride as well as bitterness in this recording by the original cast, and these qualities are conveyed as memorably in the music as in the words.

Kander and Khb: Cabaret

Jill Haworth. Lotte Lenya, Jack Gilford, Bert Corny, Joe! Grey, and members of Broadway original cast; Columbia KOS-3010 (stereo) and KOL-6610 In a season of mostly lightweight Broadway musicals, Cabaret stands out as a show that at least attempts to use its words and music to some point in this case, to recall the feverish mood of Berlin during the rise of Hitler. If the show never quite attains the penetration of its Christopher Ishcrwood original, it’s because the words and music of Fred Ebb and John Kander never establish much of a sense of personal characterization. It’s a shame, for instance, that the incomparable Lotte Lenya, who plays a seedy but dignified boardinghouse keeper, is given so little of consequence to sing. The two outstanding songs are the superb opening “ Willkommen,” a welcoming song that conjures up a picture of a grinning, pasty-faced nightclub impresario, and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,”a Nazi marching song which sounds so authentic that one wonders whether the authors did some rummaging around the old German originals.

You’re a Good Man. Charlie Brown

Orson Bean as Charlie Brown, Barbara Minkus as Lucy, Bill Hinnant as Snoopy, and others, with MGM Orchestra conducted by Jay Blackton; Leo the Lion Records LE-900 (monaural)

This is an “original cast” album that reverses the usual procedure, for the record came out before two offBroadway producers decided to turn it into a live show. The songs, by Clark Gesner, celebrate the various characters in the “Peanuts" comic strip of Charles M. Schulz, and succeed in being moderately entertaining and reasonably faithful to their originals. Thus, Snoopy the dog celebrates the coming of supper with a joyous jig, Charlie Brown recounts his baseball failures in a doleful ballad, and the entire ensemble sings a chorale defining happiness in homey terms. The score is amiable if not memorable, and Mr. Schulz’s illustrations brighten the album.