To what extent the composers of Gloucestershire set out to confirm a
That Bach was ultimately a local composer, yet his music is universal was what
Vaughan Williams argued in the first lecture of his series in Pennsylvania.1
German domination of music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries stemmed
from Bach setting down the tonal basis upon which music in the subsequent
centuries was founded upon. Bach constructed from his own musicality, and that
of his Leipzig sensibilities a sound language which was recognised as what
music should sound like, and because the locality provided him with resources
such as hymn tunes sung by the 'folk', the accent of music was German. That
local influences were said to affect local people with artistic traits in
early twentieth century Gloucestershire were recorded as early as 1919 by a
Boston (USA) periodical.2 The Cotswold hills, the River Severn with
its flood plains, the Royal Forest of Dean, the gleaming cathedral in the
county town and the view of the Malvern hills in neighbouring Worcestershire
give Gloucestershire a beauty that is discussed in length in biographies about
composers from the region. This rurality provided for Londoners and similar
city dwellers an almost anthropological view of life in original England, and
this was the pure view of the nation demanded at this time with Britain facing
increased competition from abroad. This essay discusses if the composers of
this area set out to further the rural view of England demanded by those to
whom national pride was important and if Gloucestershire provided the
resources that they used in satisfying this aim.
The combination of local elements to support a national aim
can be seen most strongly in the music, most noticeably songs of the
Gloucester born Ivor Gurney. His skills as both a composer and poet went with
him to the front line of the nation's defence in the trenches of Flanders
during the first world war. He wrote to Marion Scott of his nationalistic
artistic aims of "...making Musical History for England out of Gloster
stuff".3 Gurney's poetry reflects his fondness for the county
in which he lived and walked. In The Old City Gurney writes of the landmarks
and lists villages around his city, concluding nationalistically that
If one must die for England,
Fate has given
Generously indeed for we have known
Before our time, the air and skies
And beauty more than common has
And with our last fight fought, our
last strife striven
We shall enter unsurprised into our
Words and language are important when dealing with English
music and nationalism, after all it was Rupert Brooke's Dymock in
Gloucestershire that may be in a corner of a foreign field. There is however a
debate as to how much the music itself supports rhetoric, such as the
'fighting' and 'striving' for the national cause as described above.
Gurney's song, In Flanders encapsulates some important
issues relating to the problems music has in describing things which are
extra-musical, for example the rural landscape to which England was looking to
protect and be inspired from nationalistically. According to Banfield this
song creates a melodic line that "...expresses the curves of the hills
against the skyline...".5 Gurney's own words support this
argument that a visible representation of the Gloucestershire landscape was a
tool that he encouraged. To fellow countyman and composer Herbert Howells he
wrote; "show us Tintern and the sunset across the Malverns and Welsh
hills."6 There can however be different interpretations of
such physical landmarks, for the curves of the Malverns allegedly depicted,
contrast with the reading of the words in the poem. Gurney goes out of his way
in of emphasising the words "By jagged Malvern". He does this by
making the vocal rhythm itself jagged. He introduces the folk associated
"scotch snap" figure, at this point, which is a reversal of the
established dotted figure, and it is the only point in this song where this
jagged figure is used. Not only does this contradict the melodic smoothness
suggested by the melody and supported by Banfield, it contrasts with other
Gloucestershire views of the Malverns. Howells, born in Lydney took a similar
stance in taking great pride in his Gloucestershire roots to support his
feeling of being an Englishman. "...we were all true-blue Gloucestershire
folk," Howells said (making use of the term 'folk') "there's no
Welsh blood in our veins."7 Similarly to Gurney, he was
partial to the shapes of the landscape, saying of Vaughan Williams' Pastoral
symphony that it gives "you a shape akin to such an outline of the
Malvern hills when viewed from afar"8. Howells says that this
shape is not of "..craggy heights", which contrasts to the emphasis
Gurney put on F.W. Harvey's "jagged Malvern", above.
Banfield points to another place of In Flanders which
although may seem small, is important in assessing the validity of these
composers visual approach. Harvey's poem describes;
Where the Land is low.
Gurney took this to mean the Severn plain and not the
flatness of Flanders as the poet intended. Gurney therefore set music to the
poem which he thought was appropriate, but was in fact wrong.
Another example of this kind of misreading, was of Vaughan Williams's Pastoral
Symphony, which written in 1922 meets with a demand of a public trying to put
behind them a bloody war by appearing to have English rural qualities.(
Howells's description above illustrates this). However, revealed later by
Ursula Vaughan Williams the "cow looking over the gate" in this
symphony was most likely a French cow and a French gate, for it was the French
landscape of the war and not the English one that inspired the piece. This
information was not revealed at the time though, as it would not have been in
the interest of nationalism to know the truth behind this popular piece of
This leads us to a number of problems in relating rhetoric
about music, to the music itself, and therefore nationalist intention to the
end product. Not only is Gurney misreading the text he is setting, but other
composers are providing different descriptions of the same piece of land. And
with Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony, listeners are not receiving what
they should from the music. Howells appreciates these problems when telling
his brother of the second of his Three pieces for violin and piano (1917) that
"You or anybody else, would fail to say 'That music is Chosen
Hill!'"9 (with Chosen Hill being to the north-west of
Gloucester). Is this confusion a failure of the composer or a failure of the
abstract nature of music? It appears though that the important thing about
this "audio visual" music as a nationalistic device, is what the
music is perceived to be about rather than what it is about.
The attempt of physical description of landscape was not the
only tool these composers used in trying to support in music the language of
they used in asserting their pride and agendas for England. They tried to
utilise what they perceived as distinctly national, and musically national,
characteristics and employ them in their music. One of the most important of
these characteristics was found in folksong.
Folksong, in its pure state is regarded to be the organic
material on which music is founded. Evolving at the same time as speech it
allegedly contains the archetypal gestures that define a musical language, and
because of this close relation to spoken language, it can be seen as a useful
device in forwarding Herder's theories on the relationship between nation and
language. C. H. H. Parry, (another Gloucestershire composer of the period)
says of the features of English folksong that they "are characteristic of
the race", and that in pure folksong there was nothing "common or
unclean". This is undoubtedly nationalist sentiment by the musician.
The antiquarian and nationalistic aims of the folksong
collectors (of which Vaughan Williams and the Cheltenham born Gustav Holst
were two) was perceived to be building a "database" of rural
Englishness. This had not before been available to English composers as
national folksong had been available to, and used by, composers in other
European countries previously. The major discovery made by Cecil Sharp and the
other folk collectors was of the fact that they were modal. These modes
effectively died out when the tonal system of major and minor keys were
established by Bach, in his Well Tempered Klavier, as the scientific and
obvious system that music should be based on. Not only were these modes
perceived as English in that they came from the rural population, but a point
that many writers on the subject fail to mention is that because modes are
pre-tonal, and therefore from before German musical domination, their
subsequent use by composers can be seen as anti-German nationalism.
Vaughan Williams rarely quoted from folksongs in his own
music (although exceptions can be found in works such as Norfolk Rhapsody )
instead the composer recreates the mood of folksong. For example, modes often
have a flattened leading note, and to give the impression of modality a
composer would flatten the seventh degree of the scale (the leading note) in
the key in which he was writing. In his Songs of Travel Vaughan Williams uses
these resources to create a cycle in which the rural life and singing about it
are dominant. Gurney's songs too offer the folk-like qualities mentioned, and
Holst also was influenced by the style. Described as a failure by his
daughter, Holst's Cotswold Symphony was written to celebrate the countryside
he loved, but was written before he had discovered folksong, and this perhaps
was a missing element.10
Such nationalist sentiment of this music may however, as
with the use of landscape be built on falsehood. Although at the time Sharp
and Vaughan Williams believed that the folksong discovered in England
contained "the spiritual life blood of the people"11, the
idea that all English folksongs are distinct from those of Wales for example
(which lies beside Gloucestershire) has now generally been disproved.12
In this case it is probably also valid to argue that folk music from
Gloucestershire is not distinct from any other county from England or Wales.
This may account for Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for strings being
described as a " a land mark in English string writing"13
when the piece was inspired by folksongs heard in Cardiganshire.
The basis on which national music is founded and its perceptions therefore can
be seen as sometimes completely different. Elgar is seen almost unanimously as
an English composer, and is to this day still exploited as such. A party
political video cassette recording was sent to homes across the country by the
Referendum Party this year in preparation for the 1997 General election. As
the presentation comes to a close and the summary of our national sovereignty
being under threat is being made, the sound of Elgar's Enigma Variation No.9
is unfurled as if it were a flag. This very piece allowed Howells to "
hear, 'see', and feel whatever is best in and about us"14. But
Elgar was not from Gloucestershire, although his Worcestershire home shared a
similar set of geographical features. This may not be problematic however, for
he had more claim on them than Vaughan Williams who moved form his
birth-place, almost in Wiltshire, to Surrey when two years of age. It appears
then that the "Gloster stuff" of Gurney that was said to be used for
the benefit of the nation may not have been of all that much importance
specifically. The border counties as a whole (not only Gloucestershire) being
of equal stature for they provided much of the literature of the time on which
many songs were written, especially that of A.E. Housman, with the
Gloucestershire born composer C.W. Orr for example setting the majority of his
songs to words by him.
'Pure Englishness' that is claimed, is often contaminated by
cross border references. The German influences of Wolf confuse Orr's position
as a purely English composer. A series of three articles in the Christian
Science Monitor. Boston, U.S.A., from 26th July to 9th August 1919. The
writers name is not given., and the time that Vaughan Williams spent in France
studying with Ravel may account for the often impressionistic techniques he
used. The French inspired Pastoral Symphony opens with a series of fluctuating
consecutive intervals which could be argued to recall the organum writing
style that existed before German musical hegemony, but is also similar to
devices utilised by the "musician Franšais"; Debussy. Vaughan
Williams is said also to have been influenced by the Norman grandeur of
Tallis. However, one of the most famous of all Normans, William the Conqueror
launched his "Great Description of England" in 1086 from Gloucester,
where the first performance of Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (another
description of England) was made. Despite Howells's claims of Englishness
above, Palmer argues for strong Celtic/Welsh traits in him and Parry, Vaughan
Williams, and Holst, with one of these characteristics being a strong
identification with place15. The complex position of
Gloucestershire and other land areas often mean that claims about belonging
and style are confused, resulting in an English musical language, which
although intended by what these composers say in words, is structured on a
base which is insecure.
In question too is the nation that was trying to be
represented and promoted by these composers. For if city ills were trying to
be removed by looking to the countryside then the City is not being portrayed
as part of the nation. Indeed many faces of the nation were not represented
and even Vaughan Williams propagated the "Two Nations" of the
nineteenth century by leaving out references to popular culture (association
football) in his Housman setting of "Is my Team Ploughing".16
Mass interest in the game since the days when Parry played at public school
meant that the game was viewed in an ill light.
The composers of Gloucestershire did set out to confirm a nation from the
materials they had to hand, but it was not a nation that in truth that existed
in representing all of the people of either England or Britain and the
material that inspired it was also sometimes of doubtful origin. Nationalism
however thrives off of these over emphasised stereotypes, often founded upon
inaccuracies and therefore if these composers failed in an honest and pure
confirmation of a nation it is a failure that and music as an abstract art
should have been expected. In terms of creating a perceived national music
however, they have succeeded.
Anonymous. The Gloucestershire Group in the Christian Science Monitor. Boston,
U.S.A. from 26 June to 9th August 1919.
Banfield, S. Sensibility and English Song. Cambridge University Press. 1988
Boyes, Georgina. The Imagined Village. Culture, ideology and the English Folk
Revival. Manchester University Press 1993.
Frogly, Alain. (ed.) Vaughan Williams Studies. Cambridge University Press.
Gammond, Peter. Sleeve notes for a recording of Elgar' Introduction and
Allegro. EMI June 1991
Gurney, I.B. Poems by Ivor Gurney,1890. Chatto and Windus 1937.
Palmer, Christopher. Herbert Howells. Novello 1978.
Palmer, Christopher. Herbert Howells. A Centenary Celebration. Thames 1992.
Vaughan Williams, R. National Music. Oxford University Press. 1934.
Mellers, W. Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion. Barrie and Jenkins.
Hurd, Michael. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney. Oxford University Press. 1978.
Stradling, Robert. England's Glory: Sensibilities of Place in English Music,
1. Vaughan Williams. National Music. p5
2. Anonymous. The Gloucestershire Group in the Christian Science Monior.
3. Gurney, I.B. Letters (1913-22) to Marion Scott, quoted by Banfield
4. Gurney, I.B. The Old City (Gloucester). in Poems by Ivor Gurney, 1890-1937.
5. Banfield, S Sensibility and English Song p191.
6. Gurney in an undated letter to Howells, quoted by Palmer (1992. p46)
7. Howells in an interview with Palmer in Herbert Howells. (1978. p11).
8. Howells study of Vaughan Williams's Pastoral symphony in Music and Letters
1922 quoted by Palmer (1978. p73)
9. Howells in a letter to his brother (19th January 1917) quoted in Herbert
Howells Palmer (1992, p49)
10. Holst, Imogen. The Music of Gustav Holst and Holst's Music Reconsidered.
11. Vaughan Williams National Music. p23
12. Frogley, A Constructing Englishness in Music, p10
13. Gammond, Peter. On a sleeve note for an EMI recording of the piece in June
14. Howells quoted in Palmer (1992. p309)
15. Palmer, C Herbert Howells. A Centenary Celebration. p135
16. Stradling, Robert. England's Glory p9