What does it mean for music to be “English”?

Posted on: December 17, 2019

“Following the first world war, stability and reassurance, folksong and archaic modality, the refuge of unspoilt rural idylls, had become the prevalent direction of English music,” writes Philip Clark in Wednesday’s (12/11) Guardian (U.K.). “Vaughan Williams deserves respectful understanding. As an ambulance driver during the war, he had witnessed Europe at its most destructive…. But, almost a century later, the instinctive suspicion within the UK’s mainstream classical music culture for central European music feels far less forgivable. On 11 December, the London Philharmonic’s Isle of Noises [festival of British music and] the London Contemporary Music Festival” both presented concerts, “and it’s hard to imagine two more radically divergent perspectives on music made in England. Isle of Noises … has focused on the bucolic tonality of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Arnold Bax and George Butterworth. The LCMF has become noted as a jamboree of composed music, free improvisation, electronics and sound art…. Yes, English music is Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton. But music made in Britain is also … Cornelius Cardew, working for Stockhausen and falling under the spell of John Cage; it is Jonathan Harvey assembling pieces at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s electronic music studio in Paris.”