[REPOST] Arnold and Edmund and Ralph

...and William and Edward and Gustav and Ernest (aka "Old Raspberry" from his habit of, quite literally, falling down drunk).

Who, what now? British symphonists of the 1930s.

For whatever reasons, possibly not totally unrelated to the treesful of fireflies that eventually learn to flash in unison, there was a sudden renaissance of the symphony in England from about 1929. It is convenient (if doubtless not quite right) to date this from the premiere of Bax’s 3d. (Walton is reported to have bragged that his 1st (1933-35) would put Bax in the shade.)

The first half of the 1930s brought forth a rash of works, of which Vaughan Williams’s 4th is probably the most familiar. Holst and Elgar began symphonies in 1933-34 that they did not live to complete (Holst got through one movement; Anthony Payne’s partly-conjectural realization of Elgar’s sketches is a unique triumph of musical insight).

This grouping of works might be taken to end (again, with more neatness than plausibility) with E(rnest) J. Moeran’s Symphony of 1937.

There is a certain edginess that each of these symphonies partakes of, in its own way. Their respective composers’ styles are all quite distinct, but these works have a sound -- one had almost said, a message -- in common.

Many of them are considered breakthrough or transgressive works. The notorious violence of RVW’s F-minor symphony would not have been a complete surprise to anyone who was listening to the Benedicite or the Piano Concerto, let alone Job. Elgar’s disillusionment with the Jazz Age finds expression in music that is much more defiant than nostalgic; whereas Walton critiques his environment by picking out [what he sees as] the best bits and distilling them to biting acid. Holst’s isolated Scherzo

is well within the stylistic trajectory of his last decade, but finds a point of contact with Walton in its fast pace, short motives, and abrupt textural contrasts.

Moeran’s work is a little less aggressive than some of these others, but is certainly not foreseeable from his pastoral chamber music or such a winningly lovely work as his Violin Concerto. Moeran is better at beginnings than endings, but at least two of his beginnings in the Symphony (first movement and scherzo) are magnificently memorable. Listen to the line drawing in the first few phrases:

That leaves Bax, the success of whose Third does seem to have been a stimulus to the others, but the work itself may actually have been less of a model than his First (1921-22), which was received, at its premiere, as seriously transgressive. Bax’s 2d attracted less attention; it is very tempting to imagine that its first performance must have been gravely inadequate, as it is a very difficult work.

…and that leaves what is much the least familiar of these symphonies, the First of Edmund Rubbra (1937). Refresh your memory of RVW clashing flat 6 against 5 at the start of his Fourth:

then listen to the beginning of Rubbra’s First:

At first it may seem like a crib, but it is much more: not only does it add sharp 4 into the mix; not only is it a mirror instead of a canon; but the top voice is working with the same idea in diminution. Then Rubbra and RVW have completely different ways of solving the puzzle and showing us where we really are in the tonal universe.

Can you think of any other eight-year spasms of creation like this? Of course it is entirely inconceivable that it could happen today. I will go so far as to say that Tippett’s Fourth, the work that drew a merciful line under the whole postwar postwarriousishness, deserved a spate of imitators, some of which might have gone it better; but it did not happen, or, if it did, the works were not played – which, I suppose, is plausible.