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Tonic to the Nation: Making English Music in the Festival of Britain
by Nathaniel G. Lew
Hardback, 248pp, published 2016 (2017 in front piece)
ISBN: 9781472458230

The Festival of Britain, which opened on 3 May 1951, was designed to be a discovery and a celebration of the successes of the nation: past, present and future. It encouraged a war-weary country, still suffering from austerity, to understand that future possibilities in the sciences and the arts were an essential part of the post-war rebuilding of peoples’ lives. It attempted to balance their spiritual needs with their physical. At this time, the United Kingdom had undergone a major political and social revolution following the end of the Second World War. The National Health Service, Social Welfare and State involvement in many industries and services were rapidly becoming the norm. Along with this, was the government’s participation (meddling?) in the ‘native production and performance of art.’

The Festival is most often recalled for the architecture such as the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery and the only surviving building, the Royal Festival Hall. Others were more impressed by the fun-fair at Battersea which attracted more than 8 million visitors. Less understood is the fact that the Festival was not just London-based, but encompassed events throughout the country. There were arts festivals in many towns and cities, for example, the Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary British Music, the revival of the mystery plays in York and a Highland Festival in Inverness.

There have been a number of books examining the history and cultural impact of The Festival of Britain. These include A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain, 1951 by Mary Banham and Bevis Hillier (London, Thames & Hudson, 1976), Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age by Barry Turner (London, Aurum Press, 2011) and The Festival of Britain: A Land and Its People by Harriet Atkinson and Mary Banham, (London, Tauris and Co., 2012). Typically, these cover the entire spectrum of the event.

Tonic to the Nation: Making English Music in the Festival of Britain by Nathaniel G. Lew is an exploration of British music played, commissioned and revived during the 1951 festival. I believe it is the first study to do this. The author’s concern is two-fold. Firstly, to examine the impact of the ‘newly chartered’ Arts Council in its efforts to devise a massive programme of music the length and breadth of the country. It focuses on the ‘inner workings’ and ‘decision-making processes’. Secondly, Lew explores the impact of this repertoire on the future of British music in the post-war period. He insists that ‘These projects were not merely directed at bringing audiences to hear new and old national music, but share broader goals of framing the national repertory, negotiating between the conflicting demands of conservative and progressive tastes, and using music to forge new national definitions in a changed post-war world.’ The author explains that his approach is more about the roles of the institutions that placed commissions and organized performances, rather than concentrating on the composers and their music.

Nathaniel G. Lew is currently Department Chair, Associate Professor of Fine Arts: Music at St Michaels College, Colchester, Vermont in the United States. He studied at Berkeley, Yale and Cambridge Universities. Lew’s particular interest is twentieth-century British music, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and especially the place of opera and its ‘relationship to institutions and the broader culture.’ This serves as an important foundation for the current volume. Lew has also made a study of the Austrian émigré composer Richard Stöhr (1874-1967) who settled in Vermont in 1939. Aside from musical research and teaching, he directs Vermont’s only professional choir, Counterpoint, which performs a wide-range of music, and specialises in works by ‘local’ composers.

After the usual front matter, there is a long introduction to the book’s topic. This is followed by five lengthy chapters:
- 1. Old Music: British Repertory in London
- 2. …and New: Commissions and Premieres
- 3. On Stage: Festival Opera Productions
- 4. …and off: The Opera Commissioning Scheme
- 5. This is our moment: National Elements in Festival Operas.

The main discussion concludes with a brief ‘Afterword.’

I guess I was disappointed that more than half of the text of this book was devoted to opera. I felt that more emphasis on orchestral and chamber music in the various centres around the British Isles would have been of considerable interest. But bearing in mind the author’s expertise, the concentration on opera is understandable.

The first chapter examines the repertoire of ‘Old Music’ played at various events in London, such as that year’s Promenade Concerts, BBC broadcasts and the special ‘1851 Week.’ The resultant programme marked the end of the British Musical Renaissance, as perceived at that time, with emphasis on Tudor music, Purcell and the established 20th century composers. There was a shortage of music from the Victorian period. The exceptions to this were performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas and some choral and liturgical music by Parry and Stanford. A few other works from this period were heard. Lew points out that little interest was shown in ‘rehabilitating marginalised composers’ like John Foulds, Rutland Boughton or Havergal Brian and avant-garde and ‘dissenting’ composers such as Kaikhosru Sorabji. This ‘Festival Consensus’ was dominant in concert programming until the ‘real burst of experimentalism’ arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s with William Glock at the BBC.

There follows a study of works officially commissioned by the Festival committee. This explores the processes behind the placing of the commissions and the music itself. There were two kinds of works. Firstly, those specifically composed for the event: William Alwyn’s ‘Festival March’, George Dyson’s ‘Song for a Festival’, Gordon Jacob’s ‘Music for a Festival’ and Edmund Rubbra’s ‘Festival Te Deum.’ The second group included Peter Racine Fricker’s Concerto for violin and small orchestra, Thomas Wood’s ‘The Rainbow: A Tale of Dunkirk’ and Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.2, all designed to be ‘free-standing concert works, less tied to the Festival occasions…’ However effective these commissions may have been, Lew feels that they appealed to a ‘broad national concert going (and radio listening) audience not just to avant-garde elites.’ Perhaps the proof of the pudding lies in their survival rate. Out of the seven works, none have an established place in the repertoire in 2016. British music enthusiasts will have the available recordings of the Alwyn and Rawsthorne in their collections. The rest appear to have sunk (largely) without trace. (They may be available on a single recording or on YouTube).

A major discussion of the Festival opera productions commissioned and/or premiered by the Arts Council and other bodies is given. These include the now largely forgotten John Socman by George Lloyd, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. This chapter also majors on Brian Easdale’s The Sleeping Children commissioned by the English Opera Group and Peter Tranchell’s The Mayor of Casterbridge as part of the Cambridge University contribution to the Festival. Much of this is breaking new ground in post-war musical commentary.

One of the most controversial elements was the Festival of Britain opera competition. After the undoubted triumph of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), it was deemed a good idea to commission a number of operas for the Festival. The organisers were overwhelmed by the number of applications and proposals for the competition. Lew details them in Appendix 3: they make fascinating reading. Problems arose when it was revealed that three of the four winning competitors were not ‘British.’ Karl Rankl and Berthold Goldschmidt were German Jewish refugees who had come to Britain in the years prior to the war. Arthur Benjamin was an Australian by birth (although residing in the UK) and, problematically at that time, Alan Bush was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Lennox Berkeley and Wilfred Mellers were considered by the judges but ultimately rejected. Lew gives a detailed account of this process and the controversy as well as examining the ‘winning’ operas.

There is a fascinating chapter considers the ‘national elements’ present in the operas given at the Festival. Lew examines the considerable extent to which these works draw on ‘a range of nationally marked settings, subjects, characters, cultural referents, idea and symbols.’ Topics featured in these operas were ‘English settings and folklore’ as well as a ‘heavy admixture of oriental and Celtic exotica, continental folk tales, aristocratic escapades, and verismo slices of life.’ The author weighs the extent to which these nationalistic trends, both positive and negative, were imposed on librettists and composers by the committees, or whether it was just ‘something in the air.’ He opts for the latter.

Of considerable interest and utility are the several appendices provided in this book. The first is a comprehensive catalogue of ‘British music performed in the London Season of the Arts.’ This details each work, by composer, with the performers, where known, the date and the venue. Reading this highlights a number of issues. The broad sweep of British music performed, from vast quantities of Henry Purcell (nearly five pages of listings) and William Byrd to the many works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. English Musical Renaissance composers like E.J. Moeran, John Ireland, the Master of the King’ Musick, Sir Arnold Bax and Alan Rawsthorne were all represented. On the other hand, modernist composers were barely included – one work only by Elisabeth Lutyens, three by Peter Racine Fricker and none by Humphrey Searle. Although Britten was heard, the number of performances does seem a little ‘light’ for someone who was regarded as one of the most significant voices at that time.

Appendix 2 is concerned with British works commissioned or premiered during the Festival of Britain. This includes the ‘Official Arts Council commissions, as noted above. The Welsh and Scottish commissions are also listed. The former produced Daniel Jones Symphony No.2 and William Hubert Davies’ Festival Overture. Unfortunately, the Scottish committee decided to hold a competition with a panel of judges including Herbert Wiseman, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells. There were no winners and no records exist for entrants. Lew suggests that the competition may have been abandoned. There is a schedule of Arts Council expenses for the Festival Commission: Vaughan Williams received £200 (about £6000 in 2016) for his The Sons of Light.

Further important lists are given of concert music commissioned by other organisations and competitions such as Cyril Scott’s Irish Serenade (Riddick String Quartet) and Malcolm (written here as Matthew) Arnold’s ‘A Sussex Overture’ for the Brighton Festival. There are details of uncommissioned concert premieres, which due to the ‘enormous quantity of music-making in the Festival’ may be incomplete. Here at least, Searle did get a look in with his Poem for Twenty-two strings at Cheltenham.
There is an inventory of opera commissions and premieres: the only two survivors, as mentioned above, are Britten’s Billy Budd and Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress. There were many other opera performances and theatre revivals such as Hamish MacCunn’s Jeannie Deans in Glasgow and Stanford’s The Travelling Companion in Swindon. This part of the appendices concludes with details of ballet commissions, premieres and revivals. A number of these have stayed the course including Sullivan/Mackerras’ Pineapple Poll and Arthur Bliss’ Checkmate (certainly as a concert piece).

The final appendix is a timeline of the ‘open opera commissioning scheme.’ This features composers who applied and who submitted proposals for consideration by the judges. A single example will suffice – Arnold Cooke entered an outline for an opera entitled Mary Barton: he used the pseudonym ‘Manounian.’ It was rejected by the judges meeting on 9 September 1949. Interestingly Cooke did complete the opera in 1954 ‘under his own steam.’ The usual bibliography will be of considerable use to students of the Festival of Britain with information about archives consulted and many published sources. The book concludes with a comprehensive index where the author has got Malcolm Arnold and Edmund Rubbra’s names correct.

The quality of the book’s production is first-rate. The font is clear, if just a little small for aging eyes, and is robustly bound. Although I understand that this is an academic book, I was a little disappointed that there were no photographs in the body of the text. It seems to me that there was considerable scope to have reproduced illustrations of Festival programme books, venues, composers and librettists. The only photograph (on the front cover) is an aerial view of the Festival Hall and the Dome of Discovery from the Mary Evans’ Picture Library.

In recent years, much scholarly attention has been given to the music of the English Musical Renaissance, in particular that of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Yet, there seems to have been comparatively little interest in developments post-1945. The general musical histories published by Blackwell and Oxford cover this ground to some extent. And there is a detailed survey in numerous articles in Grove’s Dictionary. There have been a number of individual studies of composers and musical movements, with the life and works of Benjamin Britten predominating. Recent post-Second Word War period studies include Philip Rupprecht’s British Music Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2015). On the other hand, many prominent composers are totally lacking in biographies or musical analysis: Humphrey Searle, Peter Racine Fricker, Iain Hamilton and Richard Arnell. The present book, therefore, fills an important gap in British Musical History with its examination of music, composers, librettists and performances from this hitherto largely ignored period.

All in all, this is an excellent study of the musical history of the Festival of Britain. Principally this book majors on the relationship between the newly-formed Arts Council, the Government of the Day, the BBC and other cultural bodies seeking to impose their stamp on the Festival. It is a well-balanced account that proclaims the huge success of the Festival and seeks to understand, rather than simply condemn, mistakes made by the organisers. Political evaluation of the event continues to churn around some 65 years after Festival closed its doors.

I noted above that the book is London-centric, with relatively little discussion about what events were taking place across the country. I understand that a line had to be drawn somewhere. This book is not a ‘record’ of events: it is fundamentally an analysis of the organisation and political underpinning that created a Festival that was largely successful in presenting the musical achievements of Great Britain. Lew concludes his study by suggesting that ‘even if the Festival of Britain did not bring into existence a significant new repertory of works, it incorporated the most concentrated effort in history to display Britain’s high art creativity in all its forms.’ In that it must be deemed a major accomplishment that has not been bettered in subsequent years.

This book will be of great interest to musical, social and political historians as they seek to better understand the cultural implications of post-Second World War Britain, and the attempts made to mould an artistic response to the both the optimism and the hardships following the end of hostilities.

John France



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