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THE CORRESPONDENCE OF ALAN BUSH AND JOHN IRELAND (1927-1961) compiled and edited by Rachel O'Higgins

ISBN- 13: 978-0-7546-4044-8

ISBN- 10: 0-7546-4044-2

ASHGATE 2006 - 60


It is perhaps difficult to imagine two men who, during a friendship of some thirty years, seem more different in their philosophies. Alan Bush is socially and politically aware; John Ireland, twice Bush's age, a liberally minded conservative and doubting Anglo-Catholic. The younger man is shunned by the establishment of the day for his Marxist beliefs; the elder, the essential English composer, popular - though he would protest this - as seen by the continuous traffic of his then publisher's sales ledgers. A glance at the lists of compositions provided in these pages would seem to underline by their titles this divergence: Relinquishment (1), Dialectic, a Byron Symphony, Resolution Overture on the one hand and on the other Amberley Wild Brooks, Equinox, Song of the Spring Tides, Satyricon ...?

"The integration of social and artistic conceptions determined the choice of theme and subject in Bush's work. The revolutionary struggle of the people, the conflict of the individual in a hostile society and his role in it, the striving for peace, the anti-colonial struggle and friendship among nations became his favourite themes." (2) wrote Boris Kotlyarov.

and further, Ronald Stevenson:

"Alan Bush's way out of the impasse which was the no-man's land of post-Wagnerian chromaticism was through what he termed 'total thematization'. That is to say that every bar, every phrase in an entire movement is derived from the theme." (3)

In complete contrast, John Ireland, while sympathetic to the aims of Bush's convictions - if not the means of their delivery (4) - showed little concern for politics. His preoccupations were mystical, an awareness of Nature; nothing at all of the week-end rurality of the 'Georgian' poets. He was also conscious of the darkness of pre-history that lay behind the scene - his inspiration literary, influenced by the writings of Arthur Machen (5). In the 1950s he became sensitive to the writings of the young Jocelyn Brooke (6)

And yet, through these letters there emerges a fraternal bond between these two seemingly disparate personalities that has nothing to do with Master and Pupil other than a common interest in each others' creative work.(7)

When Bush came to study composition with Ireland in 1922 he had already established himself as a RAM prize-winner with his early Piano Sonata in B minor op.2 1921 (8) and as a brilliant pianist. He later had Schnabel as his teacher in Berlin where he also studied philosophy and musicology. On the evidence of this early work, op 2, it seems clear that Bush must have known and been influenced by, the music of John Ireland whilst at the RAM. Beyond the friendship that grew between the two there are clear indications of that influence. One has only to listen to the third movement (Grave) of Bush's Piano Concerto (op 18 1935-7) - a long chordal string passage, underlined by oboe - to hear echoes of John Ireland's 'dialect', especially from Ireland's Piano Concerto of 1930. It is also strange to hear that influence in the unlikely conception of 'Voices of the Prophets'.

Despite the divergence in viewpoint on other matters (9) Ireland took a keen interest in Bush's progress while Bush diligently, as pianist and conductor of the London Strings, promoted the music of his mentor - "my revered teacher" - especially the Piano Sonata, and the Concertino Pastorale. (10)

The 160 letters in this volume cover the years 1927 to 1961, the first letter dated 26 January 1927 - (following on the five years during which Bush was studying with Ireland and in close contact. The last is dated 30 November 1961, a few months before Ireland's death. The bulk of the letters are from the elder to the younger, the former seemingly failing to retain the letters; those quoted here are from carbon copies kept by Bush. Nevertheless there is a reasonable continuity that, with the help of copious footnotes paints a fascinating picture not only of the two men, but also of the underlying musical climate in this country at the time pre- and post-War England.

The correspondence is divided into three sections - the inter-war years: 1927-1938; The Gathering Storm and War 1939-45; and the post-war years 1946-61. With each of these sections comes an Introductory survey, painting the background picture. The book also provides a helpful chronology, lists of compositions and dates, biographical notes of those personalities mentioned in the course of the text, and some ancillary material by way of essays by Ireland on Bush as a student, and by Bush on 'These Things shall be'. At first sight the plethora of footnotes looks daunting - yet coming immediately after each letter reference is rendered easy since only one or two pages need to be scrutinised unlike the practice of notes being at the end.

We have come to expect quality from this publisher in what could without exaggeration be called quality productions. This volume is no exception, doing justice to the assiduous research undertaken by Alan Bush's daughter Rachel O'Higgins. The book is therefore an obligatory volume for the shelves of all interested in British music in the 20th century.

Colin Scott-Sutherland


1 In a radio interview with John Amis, Bush was asked what he was relinquishing? He replied "A certain course of action" (adding sotto voce, "of an amatory nature").

2 'Time Remembered' - an 80th birthday Symposium ed. Ronald Stevenson 'Bravura', Kidderminster 1981, the clearest expression being in his four operas.

3 Ronald Stevenson, The Music Review. Nov. 1964 Vol. xxx No. 4 p.332

4 Vide letters 62 and 63 - the only occasion when a disagreement on political matters caused some forthright language

  1. Ireland once said "How can anyone understand my music if they haven't read Machen?"
  2. Jocelyn Brooke, author of the 'Orchid' trilogy, 'The Scapegoat' and 'The Dog at Clambercrown'. In the latter Brooke described his reaction to Ireland's music - "The dominant image evoked is of a wooded and remote countryside, silent and frostbound in the early twilight of a winter evening. It is the dead season yet there is a subtle half-realized feeling of Spring in the air: a stirring of bird-life in the woods, the catkins lengthening upon the hazels, the first celandine, perhaps, gleaming precociously in the sheltered hedgerow. After a day of rain and unbroken cloud, the western sky is suddenly clear, a broad rift of brightness palely green over the humped outline of the wood".
  3. Ireland told me once that he continued to listen to all new music on the radio whether or not he liked it in the end.
  4. The Sonata, though printed, was never issued. Corder however hailed it as a successor to the Sonata of Benjamin Dale!
  5. The letters contain details also of various financial transactions between the two, with Bush giving Ireland financial support and dealing with mortgage charges over Gunter Grove and latterly Rock Mill. The reader will find these various matters of only minor interest.
  6. In the radio interview with John Amis mentioned above Bush explained that in writing music for such events as the 1974 Pageant of Labour, this he considered music 'for use' whilst not denigrating its sincerity or the quality of this work, he considered his more serious music as coming within the 'professional'sphere.


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