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Book Review

The English Musical Renaissance

Twentieth Century British Composers & Their Works

Peter J. Pirie
New York: St. Martin's Press. 1979
ISBN-10: 0312254350
ISBN-13: 978-0312256353
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Seminal, unfortunately.

The modern English musical renaissance – from Parry through the present (to distinguish it from the Tudor period) – was for a long time more experienced than studied. People listened to it, but it didn't seem important enough to analyze. Elgar studies picked up during the Fifties and Sixties. Even so major a figure as Vaughan Williams until quite recently had only two useful books (and probably only a pitifully few Ph.D. theses) written about him, and the same with Britten. Holst, Bax, and Bridge still haven't had the kind of critical attention they deserve. Pirie, author of a book-length study of Frank Bridge, wrote the first comprehensive survey of the period, and, as you can tell by the date, that was thirty years ago.

The main good thing about this book is its breadth. Pirie has heard a lot. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of skimming. We don't get to spend a lot of time with any one work or composer.

Furthermore, this is a book definitely of its time from a certain faction of the British musical fraternity which rose to prominence during the Forties and Fifties. Pirie fights battles long over and relates a history long discredited. In this view, the English musical renaissance had promise, but fizzled, due to British insularity and provincialism. In Tudor times, England either led the way or remained in the forefront of European music. In the twentieth century, it couldn't keep up with the advanced music on the continent. To help prove his point, Pirie arranges his book by year, so we can note, for example, that the Elgar Second Symphony (1911) appeared after Schoenberg's Second String Quartet (1908). Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) comes after Bartók's First String Quartet (1908). After Elgar, England produced at best minor artists until, possibly, Britten and Tippett. To me, the viewpoint seems quaint as well as historically inaccurate. The major figures of the period were never as ignorant of continental developments as the proponents of this story make out. Finzi, of all people, chaired a symposium on Bartók.

One can agree or disagree with Pirie's evaluation of different composers. I think, for example, that he overrates Delius and severely underrates (and misreads) Vaughan Williams, particularly as a major Modernist. Pirie dismisses the Vaughan Williams piano concerto as "dull." Bartók admired it. I agree with Bartók, and I like to think I'm in better company. Nevertheless, I believe the attention Pirie brings to Bax and Bridge thoroughly deserved and even acute. I tend to give the man his likes and dislikes. He is entitled to his wrong opinion.

It bothers me more that Pirie really doesn't argue anything. He proceeds by pronouncement and thus comes across as the guy during the concert intermission repeating what he's heard other people say. He probably has heard this line over and over again and even pushed it along. Moreover, the organization of the book by year points to a severe shortcoming in critical theory. Pirie seems to believe that art exists somewhere along the spectrum of advanced to conservative, and the very notion of such a dichotomy indicates a rather touching faith in the progress of music and, for that matter, of history. History may progress, but it progresses like a river rather than like a grand march toward (but never reaching) perfection. I'm sorry, but I suspect that Boulez is not a greater composer than Bach, or Stevens, as good as he is, a finer poet than Shakespeare. Furthermore, in a hundred years it won't matter aesthetically when anything was written. It will matter to historians and to music nerds like me. Bach was behind the times, Beethoven ahead of them. Ultimately, we are thrown back on individual works, devoid of historical context. If we can enjoy a piece only once we place it in a pigeonhole of cultural history, something has gone wrong with either our ears or the piece itself.

Finally, for Pirie, "advanced" is often a synonym for "good," and "advanced" means essentially Schoenberg and his followers. This leads to the paradox that if major British composers had only adopted dodecaphony, they would have been in the forefront behind. For me, the sole job of the artist is to create something beautiful and powerful. Influence may issue as a by-product, but not striven for as a goal. That sort of thing matters only to critics and musicologists who want their job made easier or to those who for some reason never gave up playing "king of the mountain" past the age of ten. If artists are doubly lucky, they will create the sublime or the beautiful in their own way. Twentieth-century English music is a treasure of wonderfully individual composers, strong-minded people whose music you can identify after a few bars and who have turned tonality to powerful new purposes. The fact that they don't sound German, French, Russian, Lower Slobbovian, or even (in the greatest of them) too much like each other seems to me something considerable in their favor. Furthermore, the fellow who says something first isn't necessarily the one who says it best. The one who says it first and best is very rare. But best is the goal. As Shaw once remarked, "But in art the highest success is to be the last of your race, not the first." Haydn came before Mozart. Nobody came after Mozart to continue that style.

In short, Pirie's book has dated badly. Someone should do an update.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz.