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British Music Society


British Music: The Journal of the British Music Society
Volume 26 2004
Editor: Roger Carpenter
Celebratory Music of the Masters of the Queen’s (King’s) Musick in the Twentieth Century; Alastair Mitchell
Frederic Austin - "a most versatile musician"; Martin Lee-Browne
Edwin Rose (1898-1958): the diffident ‘genius’; Alan Gibbs
"Waking up England": W Denis Browne and The Comic Spirit; Philip Lancaster
"What the Minstrel told us" -Ronald Stevenson, Bax and the North; Cohn Scott-Sutherland
Published by the British Music Society


Produced annually, British Music is the flagship publication of the British Music Society, a body that plays a vital role, among others, in unearthing, promoting and preserving British compositions that otherwise may never have seen the light of day. Its aims are pursued through publications, recording ventures (the Society has its own label) and live music events.

It is many years, I think, since I last saw a copy of the Journal so I was a little shocked, before I got stuck into the content, at the sight of something that still looks a little like an old fashioned school magazine in terms of production standards. More of that later.

Within this slim but densely packed volume I found a wealth of revelatory material. Of the five items, four are about little-known composers. The fifth article, one of the shortest, comprises a brief history of the office of Master of the King’s Musick and details of the contributions made by some of its incumbents. The author, Alastair Mitchell, is writing what will become, I hope, a published book on the subject and this is a welcome glimpse at what is to come.

The article is timely because we have a new Master of the Queen’s Musick in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies who has not yet had time to show what he is to make of the role. The office itself is one of those archaic British institutions that can be likened to the House of Lords. It is recognised as an anachronism and frequently comes under threat but in the end it is one of those things that survives on the grounds that if it isn’t broken, you don’t fix it. It is true the House of Lords has been treated to some fixing lately but that will only help to preserve it from abolition. What these institutions provide for public life partly depends on the quality and quantity of the contributions from the members. The previous holder of the "Master" title, Malcolm Williamson, certainly put the office under threat through his inactivity during his 28 year spell. When he died last year, some obituaries did not hold back and there were calls for abolition of the post. Williamson did not succeed in breaking the institution but it falls to Maxwell Davies to do a bit of patching up.

Of the remaining four articles, two are quite short: one on organist and choir master Edwin Rose (1898-1958), described by Lord Robbins at a memorial event as "a genius" but whose extant compositional output is minute, and the other on Ronald Stevenson, now in his mid-seventies and still going strong as composer. His output has been considerable and I am inspired to explore it further.

The other two contributions are quite meaty and contain some detailed discussion and even analysis of works. The one on W. Denis Browne(1888-1915) concentrates on the ballet, The Comic Spirit. But there is also plenty of fascinating biographical material. Denis Browne was one of those great talents, such as Rupert Brooke, cut off in his prime by the First War. Browne was at school and at Cambridge with Brooke and was with him when being shipped to fight in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. Browne it was who chose the spot under a tree on the island of Skyros at which to bury his friend. Not long afterwards, Denis Browne was shot and killed while attacking entrenched Turkish positions.

The substantial piece on Frederic Austin (1872-1952) is a skilful distillation by Martin Lee-Browne of the book he wrote on his grandfather published in 1999. It contains some updated material so will be welcomed by Austin fans who have already read the book. For someone like me who has not read the book, it provided a fine insight into a man of many parts who I knew more of as a leading baritone of his day than as a composer. Yet his compositions were often successful, well received and were conducted by Wood and Beecham among others.

I enjoyed reading this Journal and am resolved to ensure I catch up with it annually from now on. I liked the balance between detailed musical discussion and entertaining biography. Some very English anecdotes pepper the texts. My favourite concerns Austin - a likeable man - and his only enemy, Philip Heseltine (the song writer Peter Warlock). After an argument (about Schoenberg’s music, would you believe) Warlock sent Austin a "composition" in the form of unpunctuated words and no spaces. It began:


The musical discussions are usually aptly accompanied by musical examples. I would have found these very useful, particularly in the case of Austin for they would have helped me to get a feel of his styles. I say "would" because they are so badly reproduced that they would have taxed even one of Beethoven’s long-suffering copyists. At least a couple were quite illegible.

Now no printer, surely, would let pass undecipherable text, yet this one has put out some unreadable music in a specialist musical publication.

This takes me back to the cheap look of the journal that I implied earlier. Apart from the music examples, this may not matter. It is, no doubt, a matter of cost. Yet in these days of cheap, high-tech printing methods I would have thought a better standard could be achieved, even for a cash-strapped British charity. Dare I suggest it is time to look into the option of farming the printing out to China. Not a very British solution perhaps, but then pragmatism is often cited as a British virtue.

John Leeman

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