The Art-Music Forum

Little-known music of all eras => Discussion of obscure composers => Topic started by: Greg K on March 13, 2019, 08:00:09 pm



Title: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 13, 2019, 08:00:09 pm
Imagine someone seeking mature familiarity with the English Symphony (as listener rather than student), - something between initiatory and comprehensive knowledge.  A seasoned relationship, therefore, but one falling somewhat short of intimacy or mastery.

What level of immersion in or breadth of exposure to the accumulated tradition would be necessary to achieve such a result?

To my mind the "first-tier" or foundational composers of English Symphonism (established by some combination of the coherence, individuality, range, and "English essence" of their work) are Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, EJ Moeran, Edmund Rubbra, William Walton, & Malcolm Arnold, - the whole body of whose symphonies in each case any aspirant would need to cultivate a close acquaintance with as part of their quest.  (Should anyone wish to make a case for including Havergal Brian and/or Robert Simpson among them I am open to persuasion, but not initially convinced).

But what of the vast "second tier" of English Symphonies, - by those composers whose symphonic oeuvre may lack the "massed force" of the major figures, but have yet produced individual works of power and eminence? 

Is there any consensus as to which among this large body are the most important, distinctive, and likeable, - those Symphonies which as single efforts and by some criteria rival or approach the vey best work of the canonical seven?

Name up to a dozen or so symphonies in this category (no more than one per composer) that no listener could afford to overlook and yet still claim a "mature familiarity" with the tradition.   


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: calyptorhynchus on March 13, 2019, 09:29:07 pm
I contest your premises, any symphony which is living and worth listening to is first-tier, other symphonies are simply not worth listening to. It's no fault of first-tier symphonists like Brian and Simpson that their works are or have been neglected, merely inadequate means of propagating music throughout recent times. These inadequate means also entail an overvaluation of some of the composers you mention, such as Elgar.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 13, 2019, 09:50:15 pm
"...inadequate means of propagating music throughout recent times" - are you kidding?

Anyone can go on Youtube now and easily listen to all 32 Brian Symphonies arranged in a tidy sequence, - which might be true of Simpson's 11 as well, not to mention the other (multitudinous) means of access and exposure.

You must mean something different from the obvious, - but then, I find your entire post quite incoherent.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: soundwave106 on March 14, 2019, 02:51:22 am
You must mean something different from the obvious, - but then, I find your entire post quite incoherent.

Possibly the intent was to mean the concert hall?

In the concert hall in the United States, Britain is (from what I can see) mostly represented by Elgar, Gustav Holst's "The Planets", Handel (if an adopted home counts), occasional programming of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten, and *maybe* a smattering of misc. works. (Our orchestra programmed Delius a couple of times for instance.) Of these, the only symphonies that are programmed are Handel's (being Baroque symphonies an entirely different beast), Elgar's, and RVW's. (Holst wrote a symphony plus a "choral symphony" but I have never seen that programmed.)

Many of the composers that you list I would put in a theoretical "second tier". These are often just-as-good, quality works, but they just lack that special "thing" that makes it repertoire. By this nature, this tier is a bit fluid -- some composers rise in stature over time, and some composers of hugely popular works at the time fall into obscurity. The Arnold Bax symphonic cycle actually would be my top answer for this category. Because as far as I know, the main thing that gets programmed for Bax is a few of his tone poems (like Tintagel) and chamber pieces (like the Elegiac Trio). Which is unfortunate, because IMHO Bax's symphonic cycle is very good and representative. Bax is not unloved in recordings, though.

I guess for me a good candidate for a "third tier", kind of what you are talking about, would be William Alwyn. Even less known than Arnold Bax (at least in the symphonic works world) and much less recordings than Bax, but with IMHO quite a compelling cycle of symphonies. Unfortunately he happened to be producing tonal symphonic music in an era where atonality was fashionable, which did not help the critical standing in the initial day. I think they would be far better received nowadays.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 14, 2019, 04:17:26 am
Rankings (first-tier, second-tier, etc.) may become no more than conventional and reified (if not entirely subjective) structures, but (if recognized as such) still useful for imposing a flexible order on certain values in relation to the subject IMO.  My criteria for making distinctions were "some combination of coherence, individuality, range, and English essence", in the (hazy) light of which I couldn't put William Alwyn, or say George Lloyd, or Richard Arnell, or Stanley Bate (incomplete as my sampling with Bate is) on the same level OVERALL as my "first-tier" choices, however much individual Symphonies among their works might approach in stature the best there is.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Toby Esterhase on March 14, 2019, 04:33:51 am
I revalue William Alwyn like Nino Rota his success as movie composer obscured his symphonies.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 14, 2019, 06:02:05 am
OTOH, Alwyn's Symphonies do often display a cinematic quality, so perhaps an extension of his film music skills rather than being obscured thereby.



Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: calyptorhynchus on March 14, 2019, 06:48:19 am
"...inadequate means of propagating music throughout recent times" - are you kidding?

Anyone can go on Youtube now and easily listen to all 32 Brian Symphonies arranged in a tidy sequence, - which might be true of Simpson's 11 as well, not to mention the other (multitudinous) means of access and exposure.

You must mean something different from the obvious, - but then, I find your entire post quite incoherent.

Is there any reason why you are being rude?


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Dundonnell on March 14, 2019, 12:21:01 pm
I am away from home, working in London. I shall respond tomorrow after I get home.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 14, 2019, 03:56:55 pm
"...inadequate means of propagating music throughout recent times" - are you kidding?

Anyone can go on Youtube now and easily listen to all 32 Brian Symphonies arranged in a tidy sequence, - which might be true of Simpson's 11 as well, not to mention the other (multitudinous) means of access and exposure.

You must mean something different from the obvious, - but then, I find your entire post quite incoherent.

Is there any reason why you are being rude?


How am I being rude?  Everything in your post was incoherent to me, - that is, I cannot discern the meaning and relations of its individual components.  I am just being honest about my own reaction.  It didn't make sense, - but I don't say there was no sense in it for you or others.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: the Administration on March 14, 2019, 06:11:01 pm
Although I am at an airport I feel that I should now respond.

There is a fine line between candour or robust discussion and rudeness.
I am sure that Greg K. did not intend his remarks to be taken as "rude". However if a member's post is described as "incoherent" it is understandable that the member perceives such a description as rudeness.
Perception and reception have to be taken into account when anyone speaks to or writes about someone else. Calyptorhynchus is entitled to express his perception. If a post of mine was described as "incoherent" I would be offended.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Toby Esterhase on March 14, 2019, 06:45:35 pm
OTOH, Alwyn's Symphonies do often display a cinematic quality, so perhaps an extension of his film music skills rather than being obscured thereby.


Dear Greg.K
Perhaps M.Arnold is a more correct comparison (Rota for his quarrel with L.Nono disapperead from italian concert halls).
Best


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: ahinton on March 14, 2019, 07:08:06 pm
Should one suppose that, as no recent symphonies have been mentioned, English composers who still contribute to the medium no longer write "Second-Tier" examples?...


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 14, 2019, 07:21:48 pm
Was Calyptorhynchus's response to my initial post clear and coherent to you yourself, Colin?

Take his first sentence:

   "I contest your premises, any Symphony which is living and worth listening to is first-tier, other Symphonies are simply not worth listening to."

To me it's a mess, - not even a properly constructed sentence, and extremely unclear in meaning (at last to my mind).  Is that MY (presumed) premise he's elaborating, or his own response to my supposed premise?  I can't tell because the thought itself is incoherent to me, - it's components and word choices don't fit together in any understandable way.

Honestly, if someone called me "incoherent" here, - and in my long history of internet posting that would qualify as very tame - the first thing I would ask myself is "well, am I?".  It might be true.  I find forums like this one an ideal venue to sometimes test undeveloped ideas one might have (as often articulated in careless fashion), and use any responses/dialogue to modify, refine, abandon, renounce,  or clarify the expression thereof as may be required.  I APPRECIATE being provoked and criticized, so long as it's evidently exploratory and not gratuitous, - and thus now and then can appear insensitive to those who don't share the same mindset.  Oh well.   


 


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 14, 2019, 08:00:51 pm
Should one suppose that, as no recent symphonies have been mentioned, English composers who still contribute to the medium no longer write "Second-Tier" examples?...

"Recent symphonies" stand in relation to the established tradition, either by way of reaction against or extension of, - right?  By "first-tier" I simply meant to suggest those composers and works that provided the historical and musical foundation any successors would have to familiarize themselves with and respond to in a deliberate and self-conscious way (that a listener could discern in some fashion), - not NECESSARILY some measure of quality in relation to which the "second-tier" is considered inferior or deficient by whatever defined standards, - though that might be true case by case.

Is musical composition (and music appreciation) like the sciences now, where practitioners can intelligently and productively excel without any substantive knowledge of and engagement with what came before within flexibly circumscribed contexts?   


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: calyptorhynchus on March 14, 2019, 09:23:37 pm
Your premise is that there are first and second tier symphonies, I contest this and maintain that there are only symphonies; a symphony which is not a living and vital entity is not a symphony.

That is what my first sentence means, it still means it, and it is perfectly grammatical and idiomatic.

I have a first-class degree in English from Oxford University and a PhD in English, I have five published collections of poetry to my name, as well as other published works, so please don't tell me I can't write.

I shan't bother to elucidate my next sentences, since you will be incapable of understanding them however simply they are put.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 15, 2019, 01:14:29 am
There is no possible meaning the distinction between "first tier" and "second tier" could have that would make it valid and meaningful for you?

What makes a symphony "a living and vital entity"?  The fact of it being performed?  It becomes that in performance and reception, but ceases to exist otherwise?

Your statement "there are only symphonies" as rejoinder to my distinction between first and second tier is obscure to me.

Are you saying that two or more discrete musical compositions in that form bear no relationship of any kind to one another, - cannot be ordered in any possible way that might be legitimate?

I still don't get it.

BTW, I would challenge anyone else here to affirm the first two sentences of your initial response to me as "perfectly grammatical and idiomatic". 
 


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: soundwave106 on March 15, 2019, 02:36:48 am
Should one suppose that, as no recent symphonies have been mentioned, English composers who still contribute to the medium no longer write "Second-Tier" examples?...

To me, the problem with many later composers in regards to this lumping is the "English essence" part. Without any other consideration, I would consider some of that to be the usage or influence of English (or, at least, British Isles) folk song -- not necessarily a direct quote per se, but at least some influence.

Many 20th century composers are more chromatic / sharp or more experimental, leading to a harmonic sound that is quite far away from the idioms of English folk music. As a result, I would have trouble saying, say, Peter Maxwell Davies's symphonies or Michael Tippett's symphonies as having much "English character", even though they are well thought of as composers, meet much of the other criteria, and in both cases I think do have other non-symphony output that might fits the "folksong" motif.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: PJ on March 15, 2019, 01:09:10 pm
Should one suppose that, as no recent symphonies have been mentioned, English composers who still contribute to the medium no longer write "Second-Tier" examples?...

To me, the problem with many later composers in regards to this lumping is the "English essence" part. Without any other consideration, I would consider some of that to be the usage or influence of English (or, at least, British Isles) folk song -- not necessarily a direct quote per se, but at least some influence.

Many 20th century composers are more chromatic / sharp or more experimental, leading to a harmonic sound that is quite far away from the idioms of English folk music. As a result, I would have trouble saying, say, Peter Maxwell Davies's symphonies or Michael Tippett's symphonies as having much "English character", even though they are well thought of as composers, meet much of the other criteria, and in both cases I think do have other non-symphony output that might fits the "folksong" motif.

PMD's may on occasion have some Caledonian character which is probably off-topic under the circumstances. Perhaps.


I see plenty of contemporary British symphonies on release by Toccata, Dutton and so on - I'm sure they've been discussed ad nauseam - and notice Ken Woods is about to record some of Christopher Gunning's symphonies next month.

Whether all these are "first-tier" or not is, I would have thought, a matter of opinion.

I was much impressed recently by John Joubert's Third........................ ............................. ................

P


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Dundonnell on March 18, 2019, 02:35:08 am
For a number of very different reasons I hesitate to join in the discussion of this topic.

Firstly because I have already posted as an Administrator. It is not always easy to reconcile the requirements I believe that role imposes upon me with the opinions I might wish to express as a member. There have been times when, through either laziness or lack of care. I have posted as "Dundonnell" when it would have been more appropriate perhaps to have posted as "administrator".

As a member I might have an opinion about the clarity or "coherence" of a particular post but I do not think that it would be appropriate, given my current role, for me to express such an opinion.

Secondly, as may well be evident from my posts over the years on this forum and elsewhere, I would claim a certain familiarity with a large number of British symphonists and their compositions. Whether that familiarity is any more than superficial is for others to judge. I would not assert that I am an expert musicologist! Very far from it! My response to the British symphonies I know is essentially "visceral" rather than analytical.

If pushed however I could write a very long essay on the the subject of the British symphony over the last 100 years. Whether most other members would wish to read it is quite another matter!

Thirdly, I have recently had a letter published in the newsletter of the Havergal Brian Society in which I took issue with attempts by other members of that society to rank Havergal Brian in a list of "great British composers" and to produce a ranking list which included Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I deplore such attempts to rank composers "against" each other. Musical analysis is not a beauty contest. The promotion of the music of a particular composer is not helped by claims, whether reasonable or extravagent, which seek to elevate that composer's music "above" that of other composers.

I fully appreciate that this was NOT what Greg was proposing. Talking about a "Second Tier" is not a ranking system. I can understand what he was talking about when he used that description of a group of British composers who would generally agreed to be, at worst, competent, certainly "worthy", and at times better than those words might imply.

British symphonists can be crudely, but not necessarily, inaccurately divided into certain categories. There were those who wrote in a romantic or post-romantic idiom, derived from the influence of composers like Sibelius. Some of these composers-Stanley Bate would be an example-clearly wrote in a style which is pretty overtly influenced by Vaughan Williams (a style which was denounced by Hugh Wood in the late 1950s!). Others certainly echo with Sibelian references (derivations might be a less flattering description). The symphonies of composers like Sir Arnold Bax, William Alwyn, William Wordsworth or Arthur Butterworth can sound Sibelian....at times. Sir Michael Tippett withdrew his early Symphony in B flat and one reason for this was his perception that it was too Sibelian. Sir William Walton's Symphony No.1 has echoes of this but George Lloyd is, I suppose, one of the most explicitly "romantic" of these composers.

Other composers-though one might still characterise them as "romantic" and whose symphonies are essentially lyrical and certainly tonal- appear to have been more influenced by American composers like Aaron Copland and by the music of Shostakovich. Sir Malcolm Arnold and Richard Arnell might be examples.  

Robert Simpson's symphonies are more influenced by Beethoven, Anton Bruckner and Carl Nielsen and therefore tend to sit apart.

There are those who were more susceptible to influences from a post-Sibelius Scandinavian or German tonal idiom. Arnold Cooke was a pupil of Hindemith and the inflence of the German composer is palpable in his music.
Alan Rawsthorne probably fits into this category although his music is more chromatic than that of Cooke.

In the post-1945 period a number of British composers began to write symphonies which were influenced by the music of Bartok and mid period Stravinsky. These pushed at (or sometimes beyond) the boundaries of tonality. Benjamin Frankel, Peter Racine Fricker, Iain Hamilton, Humphrey Searle, Alun Hoddinott all wrote symphonies which approached, flirted with or crossed into atonality.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's symphonies are an extraordinary marriage of Sibelius and modernism.



Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Dundonnell on March 18, 2019, 02:35:30 am
My point...which needs to be made before this turns into the extended essay I did not wish to begin....is that there are diverse influences of a wide range on a number of what I would prefer to call "considerable" British composers. I appreciate those influences (although I understand that not everyone will hear the same influences as do I) but these do not detract from-nor should they- my appreciation of the music of the composers in question.

It might be argued, and I would accept that it might well be a legitimate criticism, that I am insufficiently discriminating in my admiration for the music of the composers I have named. I have, on many occasions, praised particular composers and particular symphonies, perhaps over-praised at times.  I make no apologies for enthusiasm however. That enthusiasm has sustained my musical listening experience over many decades and is not going away!


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 18, 2019, 05:08:43 pm
Thank you for at least recognizing that  "first tier" and "second tier" (in my post) implied no attempt to create a hierarchy of "better" and "worse" or "good" and "not so good" (let alone "bad") among English Symphonies. 

Calyptorhynchus saw these terms and had an emotional reaction to what he projected into my words, - mirrored by the incoherent (as I read it) response that followed.

If relative judgments and comparative valuations according to flexible criteria will not be allowed here, then any discriminating understanding and critical appreciation becomes impossible.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Neil McGowan on March 18, 2019, 07:24:14 pm

Calyptorhynchus saw these terms and had an emotional reaction to what he projected into my words,


And he was absolutely right.

Ignorant dreck.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Greg K on March 18, 2019, 07:42:38 pm
Dreck?

You mean I'm trash in the hierarchy of AMF posters?

Below second tier even?


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Neil McGowan on March 18, 2019, 08:11:33 pm
On a different forum (the BBC R3 Messageboard - closed down by the BBC in a cost-cutting exercise). the member formerly known as 'Sydney Grew' once started a trolling exercise with a topic called 'Composers Variously Rated'.

The gist of this drivel was that it was possible to arrive at as 'scientifically proven' rating scheme for composers - whereby Beethoven and Bach were (without dispute) 'Level One', and so on and so forth down the ladder, until we had Litolff In Level three, but anyone who had ever written an opera but wasnt German (e.g. Saint-Saens) in Level Five  (graded-down for not writing  symphobies or fugal oratorios for Choral Societies)

The topic belonged n the bin from the very outset.  So do topics about putting synphonies into tiers - based purely on the personal bigotry of the assessors. The entire thing simply works to the glorification of self-appointed Cultural Commissars of a Stalinist bent.

I appeal to the moderators to close this topic - which has no place on these message-boards, and frankly should never have started.


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Neil McGowan on March 18, 2019, 08:12:48 pm
Yes, dreck. 

Can't you read?


Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: Dundonnell on March 18, 2019, 11:05:29 pm
Thank you for at least recognizing that  "first tier" and "second tier" (in my post) implied no attempt to create a hierarchy of "better" and "worse" or "good" and "not so good" (let alone "bad") among English Symphonies. 

Calyptorhynchus saw these terms and had an emotional reaction to what he projected into my words, - mirrored by the incoherent (as I read it) response that followed.

If relative judgments and comparative valuations according to flexible criteria will not be allowed here, then any discriminating understanding and critical appreciation becomes impossible.


I think that it was unfortunate that you should choose to repeat your criticism of calyptorhynchus's post. It would, in my judgment, have been more judicious not to do so.

The phrases "relative judgments" and "comparative valuations" are loaded with the obvious conclusion that in order to possess what you call "discriminating understanding" and "critical appreciation" one should assess the music of composers "against" that of other composers, perhaps particularly their contemporaries. That is the road I chose not to follow. Describing or discussing the music of particular composers in terms of the influences they may have derived is a perfectly proper exercise. I tried to do that in my (over-lengthy) post. Where the problems arise is when certain composers are placed in a "First Tier" (to which you appear to place, for example, Edmund Rubbra) but exclude other composers, such as the many I named.



Title: Re: Second-Tier English Symphonies
Post by: the Administration on March 18, 2019, 11:06:37 pm
I shall lock this thread-at least temporarily-primarily because the discussion has become markedly over-heated and abusive. I would urge all members to recall the need to avoid direct abuse and rudeness!