Music and malice in Britten's shadow

...the only ever time I ever heard [Sir Arthur] Bliss really angry was when he was talking about Bill [William Alwyn], who at that time had not yet received a single performance at Aldeburgh in spite of living so near. I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could; those who suffered from his jealousy (all of course normal married men) included Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and a number of other genuine composers. With his works framed in nothing but avant-garde Britten was able to shine - and went to his death a millionaire, complaining that he didn't get enough performances.
That is the pugnacious Ruth Gipps writing to Doreen Carwithen, widow of the composer William Alwyn and a fine composer in her own right. Ruth Gipps (1921-99), seen above, was a concert standard pianist and oboeist and her output as a composer included five symphonies. Early in her career she was a victim of gender discrimination and despite being a leading candidate was passed over for the permanent post of conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra because the appointment of a woman chef conductor was considered "indecent".

Ruth Gipps' views on Britten were, for understandable reasons, extreme. But there is some truth in her assertion that the careers of William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, Lennox Berkeley, William Alwyn and other what she terms "genuine" composers suffered under the shadow of Britten in the post-war years. If we look to America for a comparison, Aaron Copland was in a position similar to Britten as senior national composer, but Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein and David Diamond did not suffer the same eclipse as their English peers, although others such as Paul Creston, Vittorio Giannini and William Grant Still were marginalised.

But there are reasons beyond those alleged by Ruth Gipps why these composers struggled to emerge from Britten's shadow. In 1945 the premiere of one work changed the direction of contemporary music in Britain and there was no American equivalent to that first performance of Peter Grimes. Not only did Britten become his country's senior composer but the success of his masterpiece meant that the output of several generations of British composers from Vaughan Williams to Gerald Finzi would be forever labelled regressive. Malice was inappropriate but also inevitable and Finzi wrote to a friend after the Peter Grimes premiere saying "It's beyond me, the Britten boom".

Gerald Finzi is an interesting case study as his reputation has struggled for more than a half century to emerge both from Britten's shadow and from genre stereotyping. In a typical programme or sleeve note Finzi is cast as a quintessentially English composer whose melancholic output was shaped by his rural childhood and isolation from the musical mainstream.

In fact Gerald Finzi was born in London in 1901 of wealthy parents of mixed European Jewish descent and he was very aware of his Jewish lineage. Until he was 21 he lived in urban Harrogate while studying music. From 1926 to 1933 lived in London where he studied with R.O. Morris, whose other students included Michael Tippett, before teaching at the Royal Academy of Music.

Like both Britten and Tippett, Gerald Finzi was a committed pacifist, he followed the rise of National Socialism closely and was distressed by the increasing anti-Semitism in Germany. During the Second World War he worked for the Ministry of War Transport and on his own account assisted German and Czech refugees. Finzi was encouraged in his composing by his close friend Benjamin Frankel who was born in London of Polish-Jewish parents and studied serial composition with Hans Keller. Frankel, seen below, was for some years a member of the British Communist Party and his Violin Concerto is dedicated "in memory of 'the six million'", a reference to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Of course there was the bucolic Finzi who finally settled in the country where he saved strains of English apples trees from extinction . But Finzi's biographer Stephen Banfield suggests that the pastoral style which became increasingly evident in the composer's later works was more a reaction against what Ruth Gipps called the "avant-garde Britten" than the result of natural development. Finzi's pastoral style reached its apogee in his final work, the evocative Cello Concerto, which has sylistic similarities to Elgar's iconic concerto for the same instrument. Finzi composed his Cello Concerto in 1955; this was the same year that Stockhausen started composing Gruppen for three orchestras.

Thankfully, despite the musical style police, we do not need to choose between Stockhausen and Finzi and today the Cello Concerto is deservedly finding a place in the repertoire alongside Gruppen. But there is no doubt that Finzi's style is far more distinctive both in his earlier works and when he is writing for the voice. Nowhere is this more so than in Dies Natalis, his setting for tenor or soprano and string orchestra of texts from Centuries of Meditation by Thomas Traherne which was given its first performance in 1940.

Finzi, seen in the photos above and below, composed several Traherne settings and his passion for a recondite 17th century metaphysical English poet is sometimes invoked as evidence of the composer's melancholy and conservative nature. But in fact Traherne's poetry appears in some surprising places. For instance his verse appeared in the lyrics of the 1960s psychedelic folk group The Incredible String Band, in the 2006 film Amazing Grace about the abolition of slavery, and in a 1992 science fiction novel by David Zindell. Traherne's poetry was also a strong influence on Thomas Merton, who cites him numerous times in his journals and essays.

Many of Finzi's compositions evolved over long periods and Dies Natalis, which translates as Day of Birth, was actually started in the mid-1920s. But it was only in response to a commission for the 1939 Three Choirs Festival that Finzi completed it. Dies Natalis, which despite its title is sung in English, is a celebration of childhood innocence which is often heard at Christmas. There are five movements opening with a lyrical instrumental Intrada and the structure follows that of a Bach cantata. Although Dies Natalis was completed on schedule, the 1939 Three Choirs Festival was cancelled due to the outbreak of war and the first performance was delayed until January 1940 when it was given by the soprano Elsie Suddaby, one of the sixteen original soloists in Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, with Maurice Miles conducting his own string orchestra.

Fortunately Dies Natalis is well served in the CD catalogue. The 1964 recording by tenor Wilfred Brown and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer's son Christopher Finzi that started the Finzi revival is still in the EMI catalogue and must be the first choice. Also recommended is the Hyperion disc with John Mark Ainsley and the Corydon Orchestra conducted by Matthew Best while at budget price there is a Naxos release sung by James Gilchrist. An audio sample of Gerald Finzi's incredible string cantata can be heard here.

* Tenor Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia are performing Finzi's Dies Natalis in Cambridge Feb 7, in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Feb 9 and in Norwich on Feb 13 and I will be presenting the pre-concert talk with Mark in Norwich. The Cambridge concert is being recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Feb 11 and after the concert tour Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia will be recording Dies Natalis for release by Harmonia Mundi. Also in the Britten Sinfonia concert is music by another composer identified by Ruth Gipps as being in Britten's shadow, William Walton's Sonata for Strings. Mark Padmore is singing the role of the Evangelist and directing the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra and Choir in performances of Bach's St John Passion at Snape over Easter.

* Shedding some light rather than heat on Ruth Gipp's comment about 'millionaire' Britten may be helpful. When Peter Pears died in 1986 his and Britten's estates were constituted into the Britten-Pears Foundation which supports Aldeburgh Music and the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears Libary, Archive and Red House complex. The Foundation also supports the recording and publication of Britten's music, the work of young composers and human rights and pacifist causes.

* Ruth Gipps is correct in asserting that William Alwyn's music was neglected at the Aldeburgh Festival under Britten's curatorship. But in 1985, nine years after Britten's death and while Aldeburgh was under Peter Pears stewardship the Festival commissioned and gave the first performance of Alwyn's Third String Quartet in Blythburgh Parish Church, a few hundred yards from Alwyn's home. The Quartet was the composer's last major work and he died just three months after the performance. If you do not know Alwyn's three magnificent String Quartets, and you should, here is a hot tip. The Rasumovsky Quartets outstanding 2005 recordings of the Quartets for Dutton are available new from Amazon resellers in Britain and the States for £2.43 or less plus delivery. Need I say more?

* Christopher Finzi achieved some prominence in other areas after his father's death as biographer Stephen Banfield tactfully describes:

Church Farm in any case saw radical change as Christopher married Hilary du Pré (Jacqueline's sister)in 1961, started a family, ceased to be a professional cellist, took up chicken farming and eventually divided the house, which he had extended, for the use of several families in the 1970s mould.
* Header quote is from the recommended The Innumerable Dance, the Life and Work of William Alwyn by Adrian Wright (ISBN 978184383412). Other sources include Gerald Finzi, an English Composer by Stephen Banfield (ISBN0571195989)

* Maurice Miles conducted the first performance of Dies Natalis. More on the forgotten maestro here.

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Vecchio John said…
Judging by the following Berkeley was hardly a "normal married man" - howver one defines that term:
Pliable said…
Yes VJ, I was aware of that but thought it best to simply quote what Ruth Gipps wrote.

When I was writing this piece I had a feeling it might be one of those posts and I think I may be right....
Halldor said…
Ruth Gipps is a fascinating figure; do you have a source for the CBO "indecent" comment? Worth adding that in the mid-1940s it would have been fairly unusual for any orchestral player to be appointed principal conductor of the same orchestra, also that the CBO certainly didn't have any problem with playing Gipps' music; it premiered both her first and second symphonies, her piano concerto and her prelude "The Cat".

There seems to have been quite a lot of fairly unpleasant (and personal) internal orchestral politics surrounding Gipps in Birmingham in the 1940s; while there can be no doubt that gender prejudice was a serious problem for her (as for any ambitious female musician of the period), there may have been several other - perhaps equally unfair - reasons why she was never especially likely to be offered an official conducting position with the CBO.
Pliable said…
Halldor, thanks for that and as you say Ruth Gipps is a fascinating figure who deserves a full post to herself.

At the risk of sounding like a slipped disc I have to report my source for the "indecent" quote is an unattributed Wikipedia article -

You are almost certainly correct that there were other reasons why she was passed over for the CBO appointment. After reading her letter to Doreen Carwithen I suspect people skills was one of them.

But if this post brings Ruth Gipps, Doreen Carwithen, William Alwyn, Gerald Finzi et al to a wider public it will have worked.
Halldor said…
Another online source ( )
suggests that the comment may have pertained to Gipps' conductorship of the City of Birmingham Choir - then, as now, a separate organisation from the CBSO.

If there was any truth at all in the prurient rumours that circulated in Birmingham about Gipps in the mid-40s, that Wikipedia article's description of Weldon as her "associate" is a something of an understatement. But orchestras, like many close-knit, closed communities, have a habit of seeing smoke without fire, especially with an individual as gifted and strong-minded as Gipps.

The short-lived in-house magazine that she edited for the CBSO is still a delightful read!
Pliable said…
Ruth Gipps on YouTube -
Ninox said…
I wonder if the musical style police have gone into hibernation?
I have the feeling that we are now allowed to listen to whatever we like. Hopefully, this is not at illusion.
I remember when Pierre Boulez told us we shouldn't listen to Britten at all; and if memory serves me correctly some other police directed us to prefer Tippett - a belief confirmed by the way in which Alan Bennett's Britten speaks archly of "Tippett" in The Habit of Art.
I first heard Walton's Piano Quartet at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1973. Walton was there, and cheerfully acknowledged the applause. I knew that his opera The Bear was first heard at Aldeburgh in 1967. I read somewhere that there was some tension involved; but can't locate the details at the moment. I did find however that The Bear was performed with another one act opera: Lennox Berkeley's The Castaways.
I didn't know of Dies Natalis or Traherne until I read Mark Padmore's fascinating article in The Guardian.
Pliable said…
Ninox, I think you are right, the music style police have gone into hibernation.

I was just looking at the readership figures for this post. They have reached "viral" levels, and let's remember that's for a post about Gerald Finzi not John Adams.

Good riddance to the music style police.
Peter Young said…
thanks Pliable for bringing Dies Natalis to people's attention - a great masterpiece I think!
I had a quick look to see what Lady Walton said in her book about the premiere of The Bear since the book is full of all sorts of stories about Britten and Walton. However her only negative note is that on the opening night Britten and Pears ignored the conductor (James Lockhart) even though it was a good performance, because they disapproved of him!
Pliable said…
I'm surprised VJ hasn't flagged up the Walton and Britten anecdote, it's near the end -
Pliable said…
I had my iPod on shuffle mode this morning and it played one of John Jacob Niles' settings of Thomas Merton's poetry.

This made me realise the major omission I had made in this article, now rectified, by not mentioning Thomas Traherne's influence on Thomas Merton.

For more on the Niles-Merton songs see -
Gavin Plumley said…
Thank you for this post. Odd that yesterday I was listening to the Brown recording of Dies natalis. It has not been bettered. I think that recent soprano recordings tend to unbalance the delicate tessitura of the piece as a whole.
Elaine Fine said…
Thank you for mentioning Gipps and providing a picture of her. I'm performing her Fantasie for viola and piano this coming Friday, and find her writing exquisite. It is a great pleasure to play her music.

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