Raising their voices: why the English song festival is nothing about misty-eyed nostalgia | Classical music

For three days every April the impossibly beautiful town of Ludlow, Shropshire, fills up with music for the Ludlow English song weekend. As its artistic director let me hastily deconstruct the title. The Weekend is a long one; we offer more than song; and as to being English – how long have you got? Terms and conditions apply. We are 14 miles from the Welsh border and I’m a proud Scot, so we’re acutely aware of what flags are running up our flagpole. The core of our repertoire, though, is the golden period of song spanning the first half of the last century, stretching from Hubert Parry to Benjamin Britten, and taking in Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Gerald Finzi and John Ireland along the way. Our thinking is this: if you love Britten, you’ll find his mothership in Aldeburgh; if you’re drawn to Vaughan Williams and his circle, there’s no single point of pilgrimage. That’s the gap our Ludlow weekend seeks to fill.

Parry (1848-1918) is one of my heroes, by all accounts the kindest of men. His musical upbringing was entirely Germanic, his address book full of his German friends. Translate any of his fine songs into German and they would pass for shining examples of the lieder tradition, the ghost of Johannes Brahms smiling over his shoulder. But many of the younger composers Parry mentored at the Royal College of Music decided to break away from this Teutonic sound world – before, during and after the first world war. Their decision was aesthetic and nationalistic. Parry watched in agony as some of his brightest and best, such as George Butterworth, left for France, not to return. Ivor Gurney did come back, but scarred inside and out. Bridge took a decade to process the war, going on later to invent an entirely new way of composing.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), one of English music’s lost voices.

Song holds a mirror to all these composers. Each of them found a path to a new vernacular, in some cases with an explicitly nationalist agenda. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams collected folk songs, drawn to the freshness of their harmony and directness of communication. As teenagers Gurney and his friend Herbert Howells walked around Gloucester all night long, unable to sleep after hearing Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis at the Three Choirs festival. Tudor church music opened a door to them: reaching backwards proved to be radical – and radically English. Then, crucially, in the poetry of AE Housman and Thomas Hardy composers found lyrics that spoke to them directly: poetic voices that unlocked their creativity, that took English song in a decisive new direction, distinct from German lieder, far from the perfumed world of the French mélodie.

Into my heart an air that kills / From yon far country blows, Housman wrote A Shropshire Lad. What are those blue remembered hills, / What spires, what farms are those? Housman’s ashes are buried in the grounds of St Laurence’s church in Ludlow, the town’s magnificent “cathedral of the Marches.” He is more physically connected there to Shropshire than he ever was in his lifetime: the Ludlow of this dry classics professor was a creation of his imagination, those “blue remembered hills” a potent fantasy. No matter. Housman inspired music from whole generations of English composers: not just Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, but Arthur Somervell, Ernest John Moeran, Ireland, Arnold Bax and many more.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Do we dare describe him as conservative? Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). Photograph: Alamy

The festival takes a particular interest in Finzi (1901-1956): it was originally set up to encourage performances of his music by an august group of supporters, the Finzi Friends. They have been fighting a brave battle as for decades the music of Vaughan Williams and Finzi was written off as “cowpat”, with the term “pastoral” applied sneeringly to both. The postwar supremacy of Britten was not kind to more traditional outliers, nor was the prominence given by the BBC and others to the modernist composers that followed after. In the 1950s, Vaughan Williams sensed that his strongly tonal musical language was drifting out of fashion, even on the home terrain of the cathedral-based Three Choirs festival. “Uncle Ralph came to see me in Oxford, and told me what he knew about the Three Choirs,” Finzi wrote to his fellow composer Herbert Sumsion in 1955. “He said ‘we are all out of it, I’m out of it , you’re out of it, Howells is out of it’, and though most critical, was very entertaining.” Finzi and his pals could only watch from the sidelines, with varying degrees of bitterness. Composer Edmund Rubbra wrote to him: ‘I’ve just tried to call you after hearing Britten’s Hardy settings, Winter Words. They were just awful, I thought: vulgarly illustrative and boring beyond words.”

Enough already. In Ludlow we are a broad church. We find room for Finzi, Howells Rubbra – and Britten, too. But the central challenge in programming is how to celebrate English song without creating a parallel, misty-eyed fantasy of a lost England. It’s become a particular challenge since Brexit, where any flag flying is open to misinterpretation and any implied nationalism can be misunderstood. Do we dare describe Finzi as conservative? Is that positive or negative? I have no desire to become a musical version of Jacob Rees-Mogg. So, if we program more Finzi than Britten it’s largely because Britten needs no further championing. Instead, let’s champion Elizabeth Maconchy and George Newson, say; or County Wicklow’s Ina Boyle and Glasgow’s Erik Chisholm. And let’s put them next to new work from young composers just setting out on their journeys.

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)

We’re fighting preconceptions not only about what constitutes an English song, but also how it should be performed. Some received opinion has it that our repertoire should be the province of light voices, with emphasis placed on sensitive poetic delivery. Well, as Little Britain would have it, Yeah but, no but. I’m defiantly of the opinion that with shrewd choice of songs bigger voices can be transformative. As can be bigger piano playing. Later this week our little corner of Shropshire will parachute into central London, when Wigmore Hall celebrates Ludlow English song day over four concerts on Saturday. Our singers’ roll call includes Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones and Nicky Spence, none of them blushing violets. Next April, Ludlow welcomes Wagnerians Rachel Nicholls and Brindley Sherratt. I look forward to finding orchestral colors in their piano accompaniments, trying to match them in scale and showing that there is more passion and depth to this music than it is often given credit for.

Some years ago I had a meeting with a local bigwig in the hope of support, moral or financial. It didn’t go well. Scowling, he said: “Are you niche?” The word hung in the air like a bad smell. On the point of gushing how welcoming we are, how diverse, how all-embracing, it dawned on me that yes, damn it, we are all those things and niche, too. There are more English songs to be discovered, past, present and future. Seams of gold run through those blue remembered hills and our modest three-day festival will carry on mining them. I now wear my Shropshire niche badge with pride. Just please don’t call me English.

Ludlow English song day is at Wigmore Hall, London, on 22 October. The Ludlow English song weekend takes place next April.

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