Focusing on British Music


From January 25 to February 1, the 2013 Focus! festival celebrates the flowering of composition in the United Kingdom since World War II, a cultural triumph that should put to rest any lingering questions about British musicality. Full houses, enthusiastic audiences, spirited amateur choruses, polished youth orchestras, sensational soloists, amazingly global pop—anyone who has experienced any of these British phenomena might think that the concept of an unmusical Britain is a writer’s artifice. In fact, it’s an idea that took root in the early 19th century, when concert life flourished but distinguished composers failed to emerge. The possible causes of the dearth of gifted composers might have been the accomplishments of German-Austrian giants such as Handel, Mozart, and Haydn; the extreme social reserve that may have blocked the creativity of young talent; the financial instability of the profession; and the lack of respect for musicians rooted in the vicious suppression of the arts by the mid-17th-century Puritan dictatorship. It’s impossible to know for certain.

Colin Matthews

(Photo by Maurice Foxall)

Helen Grime

(Photo by Jonathan Wrather)

John Woolrich

(Photo by Maurice Foxall)

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The result was that for many years, British musicians were regarded as little better than entertainers. Reacting to this discouraging situation in 1813, prominent London musicians took matters in their own hands by founding the Philharmonic Society, whose orchestra was the world’s first professional symphonic-sized ensemble with a steady roster of players. Suddenly, London was the only place in the world where all of Beethoven’s symphonies could be heard in one season. British composers, however, remained minor figures in European music. Certainly the culture of the romantic creator was not foreign to Victorian Britain: Lord Byron was an international idol. But something surely was wrong when a nation that had produced John Dunstable, John Dowland, Henry Purcell, and many other first-rate composers stopped doing so.  Finally, in the late 19th century, composer and teacher Charles Villiers Stanford began training students such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss, and countless others. While Stanford would not have encouraged them to follow in the path of Continental experimenters, he was able to bring out the best in them, and they showed that a Briton could earn his place in the repertory. Soon Frank Bridge, Edward Elgar, William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, and others joined the list. However, World War I, financial collapse, and political instability took their toll—and then World War II ripped society apart and heralded the beginning of the end for the British Empire. The newer, smaller Britain would have to find ways to make its mark other than as a military, manufacturing, and trading giant.

In that atmosphere of postwar renovation, the arts flourished anew, often inspired by the social tensions at home and the musical innovations that were flooding in from abroad. In the 1950s, the path toward a less conservative cadre was opened by composers Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, and  John Ogdon (though he was better known as a pianist), who formed New Music Manchester. According to Maxwell Davies, their guiding spirit was Goehr’s father, the conductor Walter Goehr, an immigrant from Germany and former Schoenberg student who exposed them to the music of the Second Viennese School and opened their minds to the possibilities for new musical languages. At the same time, the highly charged political atmosphere of that time inspired the rebellious young pianist-composer Cornelius Cardew to experiment with concepts of music sometimes politically inspired, sometimes related to the work of John Cage and the New York avant-garde. The epoch is also remembered by the larger musical world because of the proliferation of British pop stars, of whom the Beatles remain the best known. 

Institutional changes also brought modernity and British composers to the larger public. Under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s, the Arts Council of Great Britain became a reliable source of funding for new projects and new ensembles, of which the best known and longest-lived is the London Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra that has commissioned and performed countless pieces and wholeheartedly supported British composers. The Almeida and Huddersfield festivals; newer ensembles such as the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the Composers Ensemble, Maxwell Davies’s Fires of  London, and the Arditti Quartet; as well as countless soloists have strengthened the performance opportunities that encourage composers to compose. Under Tory governments in subsequent years, British music has had to cope with shrunken national funding, but it is still doing reasonably well.

At the BBC, William Glock—the controller of music during the 1960s and early 1970s—made the station, its orchestras, and its Promenade Concerts into focal points of the international new music world, and gave British composers their fair share through commissions and performances. The music publisher Faber Music—a sister company of Faber Books, which founded it in 1965 principally to publish Britten’s music and which was headed by Faber music editor Donald Mitchell—became a major outlet for younger British composers. Other publishers such as Chester and Novello (both now joined with Hansen and G. Schirmer as Music Sales Group), Boosey & Hawkes, Schott, United Music, Universal Edition, and Oxford University Press have added to the resources for British composers. Now, thanks to the Internet, young composers can promote and publish their own music. I have been amazed by the change from my student years in London, 1961-63, when new music activity was scarce, to now, when there is so much fine music being written that it was all but impossible to shave down the list of composers for this festival. 

To deal with the glut of music, for Focus! I decided to concentrate on recent works, so that Juilliard’s performers and the New York audience can hear a slice of Britain as it is now. I have also restricted the composers to those who were trained in the U.K., excluding some excellent composers who moved there later and including a few Britons who have moved abroad. As I was assembling these programs, I kept wondering how British composers differ from their international colleagues. Perhaps the principal difference is that they have generally moved away from explorations of extended sound palettes that continue to preoccupy many German and French colleagues. Like so many composers everywhere, the British have looked back toward the trusted tools of tonality and found new ways of applying their principles, often in very intricately composed music. The best composers have extraordinary craft, and wonderfully quirky imaginations.

The festival consists of six concerts. For the opening, on January 25, I will direct the New Juilliard Ensemble in music by Jonathan Harvey, Alexander Goehr, Helen Grime (a young Scottish composer), John Woolrich, and Colin Matthews. From January 28 to January 31, there will be chamber and solo concerts, and the January 29 program will be preceded by a panel discussion. Mark Wigglesworth will close the festival conducting the Juilliard Orchestra on February 1. And to kick off Juilliard’s celebration of British music, Juilliard Opera will present a pair of one-act operas by Britten and Vaughan Williams on December 9.

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