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The British "Mighty Handful"


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Author Topic: The British "Mighty Handful"  (Read 432 times)
Albion
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« on: January 15, 2021, 03:07:16 pm »

The five most prominent composers acknowledged by Charles Willeby in his 1896 survey Masters of English Music (https://archive.org/details/mastersofenglish94will/mode/2up) were Arthur Sullivan (allocated 103 pp), Alexander Mackenzie (70 pp), Frederic Cowen (84 pp), Hubert Parry (24 pp) and Charles Villiers Stanford (21 pp).

In 1902 the American composer Horatio Parker stated that "I have great hopes for English music. With Cowen, Elgar, Mackenzie, Parry, and Stanford the nation has made great progress within my own memory" (Musical Times, September 1st 1902, p.591). Apart from the obvious substitution of Elgar for Sullivan (who had died in 1900) it is interesting that the same perception was widespread internationally: Mackenzie and Cowen are still awaiting proper discovery...

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« Reply #1 on: January 15, 2021, 03:48:34 pm »

The five most prominent composers acknowledged by Charles Willeby in his 1893 survey Masters of English Music (https://archive.org/details/mastersofenglish94will/mode/2up) were Arthur Sullivan (allocated 103 pp), Alexander Mackenzie (70 pp), Frederic Cowen (84 pp), Hubert Parry (24 pp) and Charles Villiers Stanford (21 pp).

In 1902 the American composer Horatio Parker stated that "I have great hopes for English music. With Cowen, Elgar, Mackenzie, Parry, and Stanford the nation has made great progress within my own memory" (Musical Times, September 1st 1902, p.591). Apart from the obvious substitution of Elgar for Sullivan (who had died in 1900) it is interesting that the same perception was widespread internationally: Mackenzie and Cowen are still awaiting proper discovery...

 Smiley

That or they didn't stand the test of time.  Brahms said something similar around 1890 in "Conversations with Composers" where he listed several composers that haven't fared well, the exception being the young Richard Strauss who at the time sounded far more like Brahms than the style he is more remembered for.
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« Reply #2 on: January 15, 2021, 04:49:05 pm »

That or they didn't stand the test of time.  Brahms said something similar around 1890 in "Conversations with Composers" where he listed several composers that haven't fared well, the exception being the young Richard Strauss who at the time sounded far more like Brahms than the style he is more remembered for.

Ah, the dreaded "test of time". Remember that between 1870 and 1914 (onwards) every year British composers were bombarded with requests and commissions (from annual and triennial festivals and institutions such as the Philharmonic Society) in an already-crowded international market where significant composers such as Wagner, Verdi, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Grieg were still active: at best a premiere was scheduled, often with inadequate rehearsal-time allocated by a disinterested committee.

The "test of time" is a fallacy which takes no account of this "over-production". Before the era of broadcast, recording and musical archaeology twentieth-century critics had nothing to assess (when they could even be bothered) beyond published vocal scores for choral works and operas or piano reductions for orchestral works (very few British compositions were published in full score and archival holdings of holographs were far less accessible than they are now). Any work which is heard only in an unrecorded live concert once (or at best twice) has absolutely no chance of proper assessment...

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« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2021, 12:41:33 am »

That or they didn't stand the test of time.  Brahms said something similar around 1890 in "Conversations with Composers" where he listed several composers that haven't fared well, the exception being the young Richard Strauss who at the time sounded far more like Brahms than the style he is more remembered for.

Ah, the dreaded "test of time". Remember that between 1870 and 1914 (onwards) every year British composers were bombarded with requests and commissions (from annual and triennial festivals and institutions such as the Philharmonic Society) in an already-crowded international market where significant composers such as Wagner, Verdi, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Grieg were still active: at best a premiere was scheduled, often with inadequate rehearsal-time allocated by a disinterested committee.

The "test of time" is a fallacy which takes no account of this "over-production". Before the era of broadcast, recording and musical archaeology twentieth-century critics had nothing to assess (when they could even be bothered) beyond published vocal scores for choral works and operas or piano reductions for orchestral works (very few British compositions were published in full score and archival holdings of holographs were far less accessible than they are now). Any work which is heard only in an unrecorded live concert once (or at best twice) has absolutely no chance of proper assessment...

 Smiley

So you are saying that because of the internet, now anyone can post anything that is easily accessible, there is no longer such a thing as the "test of time"?  That all composers currently posting music online won't be forgotten because audience and critics have something easily accessible beyond a single performance?  Stravinsky actually wrote about this lamenting that the ease of which music was consumable due to broadcasting hurt its longevity because the audience and scholars didn't have to put effort to gain an understanding of what it was they were listening to. 

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« Reply #4 on: January 16, 2021, 02:04:59 am »

So you are saying that because of the internet, now anyone can post anything that is easily accessible, there is no longer such a thing as the "test of time"?  That all composers currently posting music online won't be forgotten because audience and critics have something easily accessible beyond a single performance?  Stravinsky actually wrote about this lamenting that the ease of which music was consumable due to broadcasting hurt its longevity because the audience and scholars didn't have to put effort to gain an understanding of what it was they were listening to. 

Smiley

No, I am simply saying that because the internet (and, for that matter, radio and sophisticated recording capability) was not available to audiences and critics before the 1920s composers had very little chance of having their works properly judged on one or two (often ill-prepared) performances. I refer you again to consider the vast production of composition during the late 19th century into the 20th: how can this mass of work be even addressed, let alone properly assessed, without industrious exploration?

Yes, in our present age of "disposable" music seemingly everything can be had at the tap of a computer key. No doubt much has been uploaded that is not for posterity (although it may well give many listeners pleasure, and that is all to the good) but it is surely a blatant fact that our knowledge of the classical repertoire is steered towards an accepted canon of composers and their works. To get beyond this and explore is both our right and our responsibility...

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« Reply #5 on: January 16, 2021, 03:47:20 pm »

So you are saying that because of the internet, now anyone can post anything that is easily accessible, there is no longer such a thing as the "test of time"?  That all composers currently posting music online won't be forgotten because audience and critics have something easily accessible beyond a single performance?  Stravinsky actually wrote about this lamenting that the ease of which music was consumable due to broadcasting hurt its longevity because the audience and scholars didn't have to put effort to gain an understanding of what it was they were listening to. 

Smiley

No, I am simply saying that because the internet (and, for that matter, radio and sophisticated recording capability) was not available to audiences and critics before the 1920s composers had very little chance of having their works properly judged on one or two (often ill-prepared) performances. I refer you again to consider the vast production of composition during the late 19th century into the 20th: how can this mass of work be even addressed, let alone properly assessed, without industrious exploration?

Yes, in our present age of "disposable" music seemingly everything can be had at the tap of a computer key. No doubt much has been uploaded that is not for posterity (although it may well give many listeners pleasure, and that is all to the good) but it is surely a blatant fact that our knowledge of the classical repertoire is steered towards an accepted canon of composers and their works. To get beyond this and explore is both our right and our responsibility...

 Smiley

Ok that's well put.
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« Reply #6 on: January 17, 2021, 10:40:02 am »

Reading the "opinions" of many critics in the twentieth century, it's clear that they have never heard many of the works they describe. It became commonplace to describe Stanford as heavily influenced by Brahms, an opinion unlikely to be shared by anyone who has heard most of his works performed well. Sullivan's Grand Duke is frequently described as "heavy", which again simply doesn't fit.

Re Cowen, by 1902 he had more or less given up, it seems. Though he lived to 1935, he hardly wrote anything in the twentieth century. He was, I think, more musically conservative than Parry, Stanford and Mackenzie, so he may have felt he was out of date even by the 1890s, just as Edward German seems to have felt by about 1910.
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« Reply #7 on: January 17, 2021, 11:07:03 am »

Reading the "opinions" of many critics in the twentieth century, it's clear that they have never heard many of the works they describe. It became commonplace to describe Stanford as heavily influenced by Brahms, an opinion unlikely to be shared by anyone who has heard most of his works performed well. Sullivan's Grand Duke is frequently described as "heavy", which again simply doesn't fit.

Indeed!

Re Cowen, by 1902 he had more or less given up, it seems. Though he lived to 1935, he hardly wrote anything in the twentieth century. He was, I think, more musically conservative than Parry, Stanford and Mackenzie, so he may have felt he was out of date even by the 1890s, just as Edward German seems to have felt by about 1910.

Cowen's output declined in quantity in the early years of the 20th century but in fact several of his best works post-date 1902: John Gilpin for chorus and orchestra (1904), A Suite of Old English Dances (1905), He Giveth His Beloved Sleep (1907), The Veil (1910) and The Months (1912). Scores of all these are at IMSLP - https://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Cowen,_Frederic_Hymen -

many uploaded from the personal collection of some clearly-deranged enthusiast called "Albion", lol (https://imslp.org/wiki/User:Albion).

In addition, the Novello full score of John Gilpin has recently been reprinted: https://repertoire-explorer.musikmph.de/en/product/cowen-frederic-12/.

His busy conducting career increasingly left Cowen less time for large-scale composition and undoubtedly the advent of Elgar (with whom he maintained a cordial relationship) affected his willingness to put himself into the ring...

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« Reply #8 on: January 17, 2021, 12:41:16 pm »

In 1994 Thames Publishing issued Music in England 1885-1920 as recounted in Hazell's Annual edited with illustrations, introduction and index by Lewis Foreman. Upon recently opening my copy I discovered a review of the book published in The Telegraph (certainly NOT my newspaper of choice then or now) at the time which I had squirreled away. The review by John Bentley (simply described as "a composer") damned with faint praise and not-a-little arrogance, a couple of factual corrections etc. are given in square brackets:

"You can tell train-spotters, clog-dancers, and enthusiasts for the turn-of-the-century British Musical Renaissance at a glance. It's the combination of arcane [i.e. properly researched] information with banal [?] emotion which gives the game away.

The lengthy introduction summarises the careers of figures he [that is Foreman] considers to be too little played, and he proposes canonical status [he doesn't] for such martyrs to their own neglect as Frederick [sic. actually Frederic] Cowen (once called "the English Schubert") and Alexander (The Rose of Sharon) Mackenzie. He advocates further investigation into Parry and C V Stanford, who've always kept a toehold in the repertoire through their church music.

Foreman can't quite make up his mind how good much of this unheard music actually is [precisely because it is unheard]. The most responsible critical position is, probably, that Elgar, Delius or Vaughan Williams cannot properly be understood without a nodding acquaintance with the background from which they rose to prominence [fair enough, but this still necessitates performance and recording of the composers espoused by Foreman].

The less critical defenders of neglected Victorian and Edwardian composers are keener than this, and they are in a bit of a fix. They guiltily suspect that there are probably good reasons why, say, Fred Cliffe's Symphony (1901) [sic. actually 1889] has not been heard of for many a year (one is that Elgar knocked it down and stamped on its head). Bereft of the professional's weapons of analysis and knowledge of harmony and counterpoint [at best a specious assertion], they tend to look in the most unlikely places for support [?]. Roughly speaking, they argue that music's social uses determine why composers chose to write in one form rather than another [well, composers like all of us have to put bread on the table and pay the bills]. It's then a short step to attacking the historically determined status quo, which seems to them arbitrarily to be doling out reputations [history is a fickle arbiter].

The problem with Sullivan, Cowen, Mackenzie and their like is that their "influences" - whether of Bach, Handel, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or even Wagner - were so very poorly assimilated. Too much of their music must have been extremely easy to write [labouring to produce full orchestral scores of a large-scale opera or choral work against the deadline of a commission is not my idea of an undemanding pastime], and just as much as with the Wombling Wombles [?] this tends to be a symptom of creative impotence."


Hmmm... Whither has gone the composing career and great creative output of Maestro Bentley?

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« Reply #9 on: January 17, 2021, 03:48:40 pm »

Reading the "opinions" of many critics in the twentieth century, it's clear that they have never heard many of the works they describe. It became commonplace to describe Stanford as heavily influenced by Brahms, an opinion unlikely to be shared by anyone who has heard most of his works performed well. Sullivan's Grand Duke is frequently described as "heavy", which again simply doesn't fit.

Re Cowen, by 1902 he had more or less given up, it seems. Though he lived to 1935, he hardly wrote anything in the twentieth century. He was, I think, more musically conservative than Parry, Stanford and Mackenzie, so he may have felt he was out of date even by the 1890s, just as Edward German seems to have felt by about 1910.

"Heavily influenced by..." does not mean it necessarily sounds anything like that composer being compared.  Especially not in musicological circles.  An influence can be through innovative structure which another composer is drawn to but won't impact the sound.  Musicologists would take that into consideration as well.  An obvious example, Shostakovich was heavily influenced by Bach and sounds little like him (most overtly in the preludes and fugues) as an homage to the preludes and fugues of bach.  There is clearly a Haydn influence on Prokofiev, but they sound nothing alike even in the Classical symphony though there are clear tips of the hat.
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« Reply #10 on: January 17, 2021, 08:48:35 pm »

"Heavily influenced by..." does not mean it necessarily sounds anything like that composer being compared.  Especially not in musicological circles.  An influence can be through innovative structure which another composer is drawn to but won't impact the sound.  Musicologists would take that into consideration as well.  An obvious example, Shostakovich was heavily influenced by Bach and sounds little like him (most overtly in the preludes and fugues) as an homage to the preludes and fugues of bach.  There is clearly a Haydn influence on Prokofiev, but they sound nothing alike even in the Classical symphony though there are clear tips of the hat.

Exactly: no creative artist exists in a vacuum historically, socially or culturally. "Head", "The", "Hit", "Have", "On", "You", "Nail", "The" - rearrange to make a well-known phrase or saying. John Bentley would doubtless demur...

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« Reply #11 on: January 18, 2021, 02:18:47 pm »

"The less critical defenders of neglected Victorian and Edwardian composers are keener than this, and they are in a bit of a fix. They guiltily suspect that there are probably good reasons why, say, Fred Cliffe's Symphony (1901) [sic. actually 1889] has not been heard of for many a year (one is that Elgar knocked it down and stamped on its head)."

Bear in mind that this was Cliffe's Op.1. Well, here is a 2019 live performance by the AOIDE Symphonie conducted by Gerd Müller-Lorenz -

I prefer this to the performance on the Sterling label conducted by Christopher Fifield which was recorded in a swimming-pool acoustic and how heartening it is to watch a young orchestra clearly enjoying themselves in totally unfamiliar repertoire...

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« Reply #12 on: January 18, 2021, 11:55:47 pm »

That Bentley stuff is exactly the sort of thing! Poorly assimilated? Sullivan never sounds like anyone but Sullivan (even when he's doing a wonderful parody of someone else). Stanford could not be mistaken for Brahms. Anyway, I hope Mr Bentley gets a performance soon so we can work out whether he sounds like undigested Birtwistle or undigested Glass (note the capital G).
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« Reply #13 on: January 19, 2021, 05:14:06 am »

I hope Mr Bentley gets a performance soon so we can work out whether he sounds like undigested Birtwistle or undigested Glass (note the capital G).

Strangely enough I can locate no record of, or reference to, his oeuvre either in print or online. I suspect his own compositions may be a pile of old



but without the benefits of published scores, broadcasts, recordings or reputable, professional academic analyses I couldn't possibly be in a position to properly assess his music...

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