The English Musical Renaissance: Twentieth Century British Composers &
Peter J. Pirie
New York: St. Martin's Press. 1979.
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's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas
Tallis (1910) comes after Bartok'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 Bartok.
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." Bartok
admired it. I agree with Bartok, 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.
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