Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:


TEACHER & GUIDE - AS I KNEW HIM by Gary Higginson

Over many years, first at Cambridge then at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Edmund Rubbra carved out a distinguished second career as a teacher. Many fine composers went through his hands with, I'm sure, each a story to tell. I knew Rubbra from 1971 until his death in 1986 and was a pupil for about 3 years. Here are some thoughts about him and about some of his methods as a teacher of composition.

I first came across Edmund Rubbra's music whilst still at school, when I bought the old Lyrita LP of the 7th Symphony which I have always loved (conducted by Boult). Once established as a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I wanted composition lessons. Going in to see the Principal, Alan Percival and entering the inner sanctum in the old building I was told that Dr. Rubbra "only came in twice a week and only took on certain students, however if I submitted, as requested, a recent work" etc.... I did so, a totally inadequate piece I felt for such an eminent composer and scholar. After a short while and to much joy I was admitted to have, at first, half an hour a week with him. My first lesson was in November 1971, I wrote not too favourably in my diary "he pulled my piece apart and recomposed it".

As was the pattern with Rubbra's generation and it still holds true for good training nowadays, I had to write a Theme and Variations. The theme, which I had written the previous year, had to be carefully and thoroughly delved into. Rubbra never altered a note of my music but added ties, suspensions and passing notes, immediately making each part (even with piano he taught one to think in terms of SATB) more contrapuntal, more of itself. I wrote one variation at a time, when it was approved I moved onto the next, it took about four months to finish the six variations as each one was subjected to the same contrapuntal analyses. The bass would move up in scales where it once jumped, the alto would sustain an inner pedal inaddition to my own alto part now rising above. He would do this in an improvisatory way at the piano, humming in that curious nasal voice which was like his own slightly squeaky speaking voice and adding and tying as he went, then he would present it to me in a complete performance.

When I later gave the first public performance of the work I felt a little embarrassed as I felt that it was truly a joint composition. However he had not at any point dictated the actual material. And I remember after finishing the last variation he said enthusiastically "very good, a very personal composition, very original."

As he saw more and more of my music he stopped re-composing it and worked more by encouragement and suggestion. My own music became increasingly contrapuntal which I was then, and still am, rather proud of. Next I had to write a Fugue in my own style. Then, two-part pieces for Clarinet and Oboe, or Oboe and Cello, then for a single instrument. Each part had to be individual and perfectly conceived for the instrument perfectly contrapuntal yet a solo line and capable of standing alone, and in my own style and language. He would put aside the language and study the piece, as hopefully, successful, flowing out with his own emotional impact. I wrote in my diary on January 28th 1972 Rubbra had said "You must not put side by side Webern and say Tippett, and say one style is right and another wrong but look for form and emotional content." He was always very open minded and had, as a young man, written about music for various journals when he had got to know Webern and early Tippett and much else.

Early in 1972 I produced my first major orchestral work later played by the college orchestra. Rubbra taught me that every note must be heard and that the score should not be overloaded - not even with counterpoint. Like a barber, he would thin out, removing lines which had no focus or aim, adding a pedal or tying notes across the bar before they move off in semiquavers once other lines are still. Neither did he like too much doubling of parts, a lesson he learnt from, he said, a performance of his Double Fugue Op 9 and of his 2nd Symphony Op 45; one of the few works which he seriously revised, cutting out counterpoint etc.

After a while I started to have a 1 hour lesson per week and that gave us time to talk. I was asked to write a String Octet by a coached chamber music group, but in rehearsal the professor in charge became exasperated and threw the score onto the floor. I left the rehearsal in tears. A week later Rubbra had sorted it out and the work was successfully played. I never found out how he managed to placate the professor concerned, but it was an excellent performance.

I remember setting Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' and incorporating some spoken passages. Rubbra did not really like this idea and tried to persuade me to change it. This was at about the time of the 9th Symphony, premiered in Liverpool which includes a long spoken passage from the Bible which he later found awkward and made excuses for its presence.

We also had a chance to discuss other composers. He understandably loved the music of the renaissance polyphonists but admitted to me that that after having heard a series of Lassus' programmes, he found the music 'boring" but loved Palestrina. Of modern composers he liked (1974) John Tavener whom he thought would 'go places'. Tavener shared with Rubbra a deep Catholic faith at that time and I suspect that Rubbra felt on the same wave-length.

He knew but would hardly say a word about his friends and contemporaries, Tippett, Wordsworth, Walton, Britten, but one day he played over Holst's 'Evening Watch' with me. He kept shaking his head and murmuring "Oh dear - rather weak" or "where is the movement" or "not one of his best pieces." He was at times critical of Holst although very influenced by him and in his teaching speaking of Holst's incredibly broad general interests which often emerged in the lessons.

I was lucky enough to watch the 10th Symphony grow, as, by then, at his own request, he was often given gaps in his teaching day to rest and possibly to sketch. I would often see him staring across the London skyline out of one of the upstairs windows for long periods. I saw the manuscript on a number of occasions and sat near the composer at its first performance. He knew every note of the piece intensely and I believe every bar of every piece he had written likewise, but his favourite work was the one he had just completed.

As a example of this intensity and indeed single-mindedness I remember after I had known him for about a year we both got off the tube at Blackfriars and seeing him walking just 10 yards ahead of me I decided to draw up closer. His coat and his collar up, simply walking in a straight line, head bowed, not noticing what was about him. He was, no doubt in some deep private cogitation which the ephemera of life failed to touch. I decided not to tap his shoulder but to walk on behind, leaving him to his thoughts.

In 1974 the 'Guildhall School' mounted the first London performance of the 9th Symphony at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Holborn conducted by Harold Dexter. (a performance about which very little is known). I sensed that my fellow students would not be in sympathy with the work. The style would seem outdated and the orchestration ponderous and the religious certainty of the text unacceptable. Many of them expressed concerns over coffee after one run-through, but I loved it and still do. The following week Rubbra came to talk to us. He was noticeably nervous, and as a little man had to make himself very erect and to hold up his head to make his presence carry to the back. He knew that students might well be a little hostile as the press had been the previous year at its first performance, but he spoke with an assertive frown and determination which was so like him. He could appear a little severe to students.

He obviously felt the hurt that had been inflicted on him through fewer and fewer performances but never mentioned it, indeed I had to press him to tell me about his own music. When he did he would strengthen his back and discuss form and melody in a clear, direct manner and never touch on the background stimulation.

In 1975 he completely retired, his students put on a thank-you concert at the Guildhall, I remember the excitement of giving the first ever performance of The Mystery Op 4 no 1 written in 1922 and at that time unpublished. He had remembered everything about the piece and lived every moment when I sang to him in his study. I saw him on Saturdays at his home in Gerrards Cross, at a time when he began to take on the appearance of a saint, gentle and smiling and uncomplaining. I arrived one Saturday and he had just finished that afternoon a song "Fly, envious time" Op. 148, a setting of Milton whom he loved. He sang it through with great excitement three times, I then had a go at it. Then he smiled and said "I wonder if they will like it?" It was to be his last song.

Only on one occasion did he tell me that a performance of a work had been better than he had ever known and that was c .1985 a rare lunchtime radio performance of his 5th Symphony conducted by Del Mar (I think) but sadly not heard since, he reckoned that he had heard every detail for the first time.

Rubbra had a stroke in 1979 brought on, he said, by the effort of completing the 11th Symphony. He was unable to write for a while and our correspondence dried up. I was for a while working at a girl's school in Malvern and the choir learned several of his pieces but had particularly enjoyed and performed his Three Bird Songs Op. 46. The choir (34) wrote to him with a tape of the songs and asked for his signature, he signed 34 pieces of paper for each member of the choir! He said that he hadn't heard the songs for 40 years. Likewise when I sang some of his early songs at his home one day in October 1985 (the last time that I saw him) including the still unpublished 'Who is Sylvia' Op. 8 no 3 he said that he hadn't heard them for 50 years.

When you listen to Rubbra you get the man himself stoical yet flexible, calm yet powerful, earthly but sacred, sensitive yet overpowering, severe yet easygoing. Still, Rubbra's achievements are underestimated, especially as a teacher. Perhaps the centenary in 2001 will give a real chance for an in-depth and rational assessment of his large output and of his contribution to 20th Century musical life.

To end, a typical story told by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler who recorded the composer's 10th Symphony. When he first met Rubbra Schönzeler asked him, "Tell me, how do I pronounce your name. is it Rubbrar or Rabbra?" "Oh no" said the composer, 'Edmund."

© Gary Higginson April 1998

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links but you can also purchase from:

Return to Index