Thursday, June 30, 2016

What happened to English music between Purcell and Elgar?

In addition to sporadically updating this blog, I write program notes for classical music ensembles. Part of the reason my posting schedule is erratic is that summer is my busy season; many orchestras like having all notes for their entire season in one booklet, so I have to write them well before their first concert in the fall. When researching my own notes, I sometimes consult program notes by other people, and too often I find examples of how not to write about music.

When researching a piece by Henry Purcell, I found a sentence that made me facepalm:
Purcell's early death, at the age of thirty-six, not only cut short one of the most promising of careers, but also sidetracked the development of a specifically English musical style until Elgar and then Britten emerged some two centuries later.
This was published for one of the world’s most prestigious ensembles, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! My home city should do better than this.

I’ve written a few posts about the classical music canon and the way in which music history has emphasized composers to the exclusion of other factors. This sentence, penned by Phillip Huscher, demonstrates some of the problems with these conventions. The canon doesn’t include any English composers from roughly 1700 to 1900, so one might deduce that nothing important happened with English music for about 200 years. In fact, even in the 19th century, England earned the nickname “das Land ohne Musik” (“the country without music”) because of this perceived lack of composers. Notice that the nickname originated in German—it comes from a time when German-speaking areas were asserting their cultural superiority, especially in music. But this cliché is not historically accurate.

First of all, there were several English composers who wrote music between Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar: William Boyce, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, John Stainer, William Sterndale Bennett, Cipriani Potter, Henry Hugo Pierson, and Arthur Sullivan (as in “Gilbert and Sullivan”), just to name a few. Most of them produced religious music, which goes a long way to explain their absence from the canon. Other than some works by Bach, the canon almost completely ignores religious music, particularly in the case of England, where the official state religion is an eponymous denomination without much sway in the rest of Europe. Religious music thrived in England, which undermines the claim that “a specifically English musical style” wasn’t developing during this period.

There are other factors that worked against these composers, as well. English culture had a particular moral suspicion toward music, which meant that it didn’t gain nearly as much respect or support as an art form as it did in, say, Germany. “Musician” was not regarded as a viable profession for English gentlemen, certainly not as respectable as “banker” or “engineer” or “barrister,” so few were encouraged to pursue it as a career. Not only that, but English music lovers tended to prefer music by foreigners, to the point where some English musicians adopted German or Italian stage names just to be taken seriously.

The two most popular composers in England between Purcell and Elgar were both German: George Frideric Handel in the 18th century and Felix Mendelssohn in the 19th century. Mendelssohn was a frequent visitor to Britain, but Handel spent most of his career in England and eventually became a citizen. Both composers influenced English music, initiating stylistic trends. Even though these trends were inspired by foreign-born composers, they shouldn't be excluded from the “English musical style.” To a listener from the 18th or 19th century, a Handelian oratorio would definitely sound more “English” than “German.”

My biggest problem with Huscher’s sentence, however, is that he puts an entire country’s musical culture on the shoulders of a few individuals. It sounds like Purcell really screwed England over by dying early (Gee, thanks Purcell!). Then, somehow, Elgar single-handedly developed a national style, reviving English music. Once again, it’s the Great Men who receive credit for changes that involved many people and larger cultural forces. The canon narrows our focus to just two people (well, three: Benjamin Britten gets a shout-out because he uses a theme by Purcell in his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra), overlooking two centuries’ worth of interesting history.

To give you a sense of what English music sounded like before Elgar became famous, here's John Stainer's “God So Loved the World” from his oratorio The Crucifixion. It comes from 1887, so it's at the very end of the alleged gap described by Huscher. You can hear that the English style had indeed come a long way since the Baroque music of Purcell.

Thank you to Byron Adams for his repertoire suggestions!

Program notes for Henry Purcell's Chacony in G minor, by Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra


  1. One could argue that national styles is another myth propagated by German musicologists. It, by definition, puts into second place any nation that enjoys a diffuse or international or cosmopolitan music. The striving for purity (through the use of pure-born composers, folk-tunes) is a particularly invidious element of nativism.

    David Hunter

    1. Fantastic post!
      Would this one be David Hunter? :D
      Who could blame German musicologists for propagating these unpleasant marks of identity? This mythical caesura was while the British kingdom became United and expanded, as the whole of Germany was left to their own states, confederated or not. Germans' native son Handel anglicized himself as much as the later Hanoverian Georges could, such that what was German eventually sounded English.

      William James