Sunday 22 July 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 6

The final part of my survey of British music leads into the contemporary era by way of such figures as Bernard Stevens (1916–1983) who studied at the Royal College of Music with R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob but whose career as a composer was affected by his communist leanings and Geoffrey Bush (1920–1998) who, after being a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, studied with John Ireland, completing his education at Balliol College, Oxford. 

Probably two of the best CDs of Bernard Stevens’ music to consider are both from Meridian both with the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Downes and featuring his two symphonies, cello concerto and violin concerto.

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Geoffrey Bush’s two symphonies coupled with three other orchestral works are on an attractive Lyrita CD  with various orchestras conducted by Vernon Handley, Nicholas Braithwaite and Barry Wordsworth.

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Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell (1917-2009) was influenced by his time in America where he was stranded in 1939. Born in Hampstead, London, he studied at the Royal College of Music but, attending the New York World Fair, when war broke out he was unable to get a ship back to the UK. He stayed in the US until 1947 and his music was championed by Thomas Beecham, Leopold Stokowski and Bernard Herrmann.

Beecham continued to champion Arnell after his return to England but, after Beecham’s death, performances were less frequent. He taught at Trinity College of Music in London until 1987 and produced seven symphonies (the last completed by Martin Yates), orchestral and chamber works, operas and ballets. He also wrote many film scores. Dutton Vocalion  have recorded many of his works including all of his symphonies.

Perhaps the best introduction to his music is through Dutton’s recording of the first and sixth symphonies conducted by Martin Yates conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

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One of the most troubled composers of the 20th century was Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). A prolific film composer, he nevertheless produced a large output of concert music including nine symphonies.

Born in Northampton, he was the son of a shoe manufacturer. After study at the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with Gordon Jacob and the trumpet with Ernest Hall, in 1941, he joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet, becoming principal trumpet in 1943. In 1948 he left the orchestra to become a full time composer.

His life was blighted by mental problems leading to alcoholism and periodic stays in mental hospitals. Despite this, in addition to his nine symphonies, he wrote a large amount of orchestral music, many concertos, two completed one act operas, chamber music, instrumental music and music for brass band. 

Such is his output that it is difficult to make a single recommendation but certainly the box set from Naxos of Graham Penny’s fine symphony cycle (also available separately) and his equally fine recording of the complete orchestral dances should be considered.



It is easy to overlook Robert Simpson (1921–1997) by remembering him as the man who helped to bring the composer Havergal Brian to late prominence, but Simpson was a fine symphonist in his own write. Born in Leamington, Warwickshire, his father, Robert Warren Simpson, was a descendent of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of anaesthetics. After Westminster School, he studied medicine in London for two years and during the war served with an A.R.P. mobile surgical unit during the London Blitz. During this time he took lessons from Herbert Howells eventually taking his Bachelor of Music degree and degree of Doctor of Music at Durham University.

1951 he joined the music staff of the BBC, becoming one of its music producers and remaining with them for nearly three decades until resigning over the BBC’s cuts to their orchestras. In 1986 he moved to Ireland where he lived until his death in 1997.

His eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets make up the backbone of his musical output but he also wrote concertos for violin, flute, piano and cello as well as a small number of works for piano, including a piano sonata, and works for brass band.

Hyperion Records have recorded all of the symphonies and quartets as well as much of his other music. The symphonies, which are a colossal achievement, are available in a box set or individually with Vernon Handley conducting all but number eleven which is conducted by Matthew Taylor.

Although from the same generation as Arnold and Simpson, Arthur Butterworth (b.1923) is still actively composing and conducting. Born in Manchester, he attended the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), where he studied composition, trumpet and conducting. He was a trumpeter with the Scottish National Orchestra from 1949–55 and the Hallé from 1955–62. In 1963 he began teaching at the Huddersfield School of Music, an activity which he combined with composing and conducting.

To date he has written seven symphonies, the last of which was premiered by the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra on 28th April 2012. Amongst his other works are concertos for viola and trumpet, orchestral works, ‘Haworth Moor’ for chorus and piano and chamber works. Butterworth’s music is much  influenced by Sibelius. Dutton Vocalion has recorded a number of his works including his symphonies number 4 and 5 and his viola concerto with the composer conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

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The Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott (1929–2008) was born in Bargoed, Glamorganshire and educated at Gowerton Grammar school and University College, Cardiff,  later studying privately with Arthur Benjamin. After his Clarinet Concerto of 1954 was performed at the Cheltenham Festival by Gervase de Peyer with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, a string of commissions by leading orchestras and soloists followed. He went on to be Professor of Music at University College, Cardiff.

There are more than 190 opus numbered works which include ten symphonies, choral works, numerous concertos, chamber works and piano music. His beautiful Sixth Symphony has been recorded by Chandos Records with Bryden Thomson and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

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Peter Maxwell Davies (b.1934) born in Salford, Lancashire was something of a child prodigy. He took piano lessons and composed from an early age. After education at Leigh Boys Grammar School, Davies studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music (amalgamated into the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973), where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group committed to contemporary music. After graduating in 1956, he studied in Rome before working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School from 1959 to 1962.

In 1962, he secured a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. He then moved to Australia, where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 1965–66. After returning to Britain, he moved, in 1971, to the Orkney Islands, initially to Hoy, and later to Sanday. Orkney hosts the St Magnus Festival founded by Sir Peter in 1977.

Sir Peter was made a CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1987. He was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in March 2004. Sir Peter, or Max as his friends call him, is a prolific composer whose compositions include opera, choral music, nine symphonies, concertos, chamber music including ten Naxos Quartets and piano music. Sir Peter has written a number of works for Royal Occasions which brings us back to his Ninth Symphony that will be premiered in Liverpool on 9th June 2012.

Although early on Max’s music was influenced by the European avant-garde his music from the late 1960s moved towards experimental music such as Revelation and Fall and  the music theatre pieces Eight Songs for a Mad King and Vesalii Icones. His opera Taverner shows an interest in Renaissance music. Since his move to Orkney, Max’s music has taken on the influences of the landscape and the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown.

Naxos Records have started re-issuing the Collins Classics recordings of the first six symphonies made with the composer conducting. So far the first three have been issued and each has an interesting fill up work.


These wonderful symphonies are well worth getting to know even if at first you find the musical language difficult to understand. They will reward amply with repeated listening.

Another of the original Manchester School is Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934). Born in Accrington, Lancashire he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music on a clarinet scholarship, meeting there fellow composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and afterwards worked as a schoolteacher until, in 1965, a Harkness Fellowship gave him the opportunity to continue his studies in the United States and he decided to dedicate himself to composition.

From 1975 to 1983 Birtwistle was musical director of the newly established Royal National Theatre in London and, from 1994 to 2001, he was Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College London.

His compositions are often complex and written in a modernistic manner but all have a clear, distinctive voice. His works include six operas and a number of chamber operas, orchestral works, a concerto for violin and orchestra, works for chamber ensemble, piano works, choral and vocal works.

NMC Recordings, the company that has done so much for contemporary British music, have recorded three of Birtwistle’s orchestral works from the period 1994-2004. These works, Night's Black Bird, The Shadow of Night and The Cry of Anubis, move away from the composer's forceful and monolithic grandeur, of which he has become associated, and have a more reflective, otherworldly and subtle sound, exploring the world of melancholy.
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William Mathias (1934-1992) was born in Whitland, Carmarthenshire. A child prodigy, he started playing the piano at the age of three and composing at the age of five. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Lennox Berkeley and went on to become a fellow in 1965. He was professor of at the University of Wales from 1970 until 1988.

His compositions include opera, three symphonies, several other concertos including three pianos concertos, numerous choral works, chamber works and works for piano and organ.

Somm Recordings have recently released a recording of Mathias’ attractive Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, the second of which  has certain overtones of Tippett in its writing, coupled with Vaughan Williams’ early Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra.

Hugh Wood (b. 1932) was born in Lancashire and received early encouragement from the composer Alan Bush. He studied history at New College, Oxford, but spent much of his time writing music particularly for the theatre. In 1954, he moved to London to study composition privately with, amongst others, William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber. He went on to teach at Morley College and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music.

NMC Recordings has issued two fine discs of Wood’s work. The first has his vibrant Symphony coupled with his Symphonic Cantata ‘Scenes from Comus’ with the BBC Symhony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and the second has his Violin and Cello Concertos played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by David Atherton with Manoug Parikian (violin) and Moray Welsh (cello) as soloists.

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Jonathan Harvey (b.1939) was born in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, studied at St John's College, Cambridge and took private lessons with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller. Early musical influences included Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen and Britten and later Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt. In the 1980s, at the invitation of Pierre Boulez to work there, Harvey produced much music at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique).

Harvey went on to become Visiting Professor of Music at Oxford University and Imperial College London, as well as Honorary Professor at Sussex University.

Again NMC Recordings have a disc that gives a good cross section of Harvey’s music from the atmospheric orchestral works ‘Tranquil Abiding’ and ‘Timepieces: I, II and III’ to the more astringent ‘Body Mandala’ and the, at times, more demanding vocal work ‘White as Jasmine’. Ilan Volkov and Stefan Solyom conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

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David Matthews (b.1943) was born in London but did not show any particularly early desire to compose. He read classics at Nottingham University and later studied composition with Anthony Milner.  Matthews was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw. For three years he worked as an assistant to Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh.

He has largely avoided teaching, but has done much editorial work and orchestration of film music. He has also written articles and reviews for various music journals and books on Tippett and Britten.

To date Matthews’ output includes seven symphonies, a number of concertos including two for violin and one for piano, numerous orchestral works, chamber works including twelve string quartets, three piano trios, two string trios and piano music.

Dutton Vocalion have recorded five out of the symphonies on two CDs with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Jac van Steen.

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Toccata Classics have issued two volumes of string quartets played by the Kreutzer Quartet.


These recordings should be in the collection of any lover of British music.

Colin Matthews (b.1946) was also born in London. His older brother is the composer David Matthews. He also read classics at Nottingham University and studied composition with Arnold Whittall, and Nicholas Maw. He later taught at the University of Sussex and worked at Aldeburgh with Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst.

He is founder and Executive Producer of NMC Recordings, and has also produced recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, Virgin Classics, Conifer, Collins, Bridge, BMG, Continuum, Metronome and Elektra Nonesuch.

His works to date include orchestral works, two cello concertos and a horn concerto, works for chorus and orchestra, vocal works, chamber music including two oboe quartets and three string quartets, instrumental and piano works. Colin Matthews’ ‘Pluto: The Renewer’ was written in 2000 to be performed as an adjunct to Holst’s the Planets.

NMC Recordings have issued Matthews’ atmospheric Sonata No. 5 for orchestra ‘Landscapes’ together with his Cello Concerto and other orchestral works with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Carewe and Michael Tilson Thomas respectively and Alexander Baillie (cello).

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Michael Berkeley (b.1948) is the son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley who, after being a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, was educated at The Oratory School in Oxfordshire before studying composition, singing and piano at the Royal Academy of Music, later studying with Richard Rodney Bennett.

In 1979 he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, then became Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival from 1995 to 2004 and Composer-in-Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 until 2009. He is also Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Michael Berkley is also known as a television and radio broadcaster and presents BBC Radio 3's ‘Private Passions.’

His works include opera, choral works, orchestral works, concertos, instrumental works and piano works. I have already mentioned two recommendable CDs issued by Chandos Records coupled with works by Sir Lennox Berkeley in Part 5 of this survey of British music but, in addition to the Chandos Berkeley series it is worth seeking out an EMI recording of Michael Berkeley’s fine choral work ‘Or Shall We Die?’ coupled with Paul Patterson’s Missa Brevis with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Richard Hickox.

Judith Weir (b.1954)  was born in Cambridge and studied with John Tavener while still at school before studying with Robin Holloway at King's College, Cambridge. Her music has been influenced by medieval history, as well as the traditional stories and music of her native Scotland.

She was Composer in Association for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 1998 and Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival from 1995 to 2000.

Her music includes operas, orchestral works, vocal and chamber works and a very striking and attractive piano concerto available from NMC Recordings.
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James MacMillan (b.1959) was born in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire and studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Rita McAllister and Durham University with John Casken. After being a music lecturer at the University of Manchester from 1986-1988, he returned to Scotland and became Associate Composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Macmillan is a prolific composer and his compositions include opera, theatre music, choral works, orchestral works including symphonies and concertos, chamber music and piano music.

Macmillan first came to prominence in 1990 when his orchestral work ‘The Confession of Isobel Gowdie’ was premiered at the Proms. This work has been recorded more than once but is available on an LSO Live CD coupled with another fine work The World's Ransoming all with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.

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Do also consider an inexpensive recording of MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Immanuel coupled with Tryst all performed by the Ulster Orchestra under Takuo Yuasa with the fabulous Colin Currie (percussion) on Naxos.

When I began this survey I certainly didn’t realise that it would run to six parts, but it is a tribute to the wealth of British composers that there are. Yet for all this I have still left out fine composers that many people will admire.

From the 1960’s onwards there was a polarisation in British classical music with the more conservative composers left feeling ostracised by the musical establishment. It is encouraging now that both conservative and modernist composers can exist side by side. Indeed this has led to a fusion of styles by many composers.


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