British composers in the early 20th century

British composers in the early 20th century

Jeremy Dibble gives an overview of British composers in the early 20th century and their context.


At the turn of the 20th century, British music had undergone many changes. In the last decades of the 19th century a transformation in terms of cultural values witnessed the efforts of its composers and practitioners to make music a vital, living component of society instead of merely a pleasing appendage.

Various elements made this possible. Singing had always been a seminal part of our national musical consciousness, underpinned by a tradition of church and cathedral choirs, a burgeoning network of choral societies, the oratorio tradition of Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the well-established Victorian notion that, in being good for you, singing instilled the principles of self-improvement and social interaction. After the reforms of John Stainer at St Paul’s Cathedral, cathedral choirs pursued a new level of performance and discipline which remains the envy of the world. A new energy also pervaded the choral society which raised the visibility of choral festivals in Birmingham, Leeds, Norwich and the Three Choirs (Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford) who boasted large, well-trained choruses and fuelled a culture of major commissions from native composers.

With the invitation of the great Austrian conductor, Hans Richter, to London in 1879, orchestral concerts at St James’s Hall, the Crystal Palace and later at Queen’s Hall (London’s preeminent concert venue until it was destroyed during the Second World War) proliferated and the standard of orchestral playing rose exponentially. Richter’s productions of German opera at Drury Lane came to rival the two Italian opera companies which had largely enjoyed a monopoly in the genre. And while the idea of a national opera struggled to assert itself, in spite of the efforts of Sullivan’s Ivanhoe (1891) Stanford’s Shamus O’Brien (1896) and others, the Carl Rosa Opera Company’s performances of opera in English, and his commissions of operas from indigenous talent, did much to plant the idea of the need for a national opera house. 

London’s smaller concert venues, namely the Bechstein Hall (later renamed as the Wigmore Hall), the Aeolian Hall and the smaller hall at St James’s Hall became the focus for chamber music and, during the 1890s, the song recital (led by figures such as the baritone Harry Plunket Greene). And to this, more fundamentally, the critical effect of a new appreciation of music’s value must be added. 

Even before the 1870 Education Act, when music gained a status within the elementary curriculum (overseen first by John Hullah and, later, by Stainer), a new awareness of the need for a national conservatoire had been established by the Prince Consort. It was an idea pursued through the finite life of the National Training School for Music (1876–82) but finally realised in the foundation of the Royal College of Music (RCM) in 1883 under the direction of Sir George Grove and the patronage of the Prince of Wales. The reputation and momentum of the RCM also helped to revive the fortunes of the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) which had, at one stage, faced closure in 1866, and the rapidly increasing standards of both institutions encouraged the opening of others in major centres such as Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

The achievements of the Edwardians

The passing of the Victorian age was marked by the death of Sullivan in 1900 and Stainer in 1901. To a large extent their careers had been eclipsed in the 1880s and 1890s by the presence of Hubert Parry (1848–1918), Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924), Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847–1935) and Frederic Hymen Cowen (1852–1935) whose creative lives blossomed during the late Victorian era and especially during the reign of Edward VII. Parry and Stanford were appointed to the staff of the RCM in 1883, the former as Professor of Music History, the latter as Professor of Composition. In 1895 Parry succeeded Grove as Director the RCM and occupied the position of Heather Professor of Music at Oxford, while Stanford held the position of Professor of Music at Cambridge from 1888 until his death. With Mackenzie as Principal of the RAM from 1888, these men exerted a great deal of influence over British music for a generation or more. 

The influential presence of Anglicised Teutons in England such as Joseph Joachim, Richter and Edward Dannreuther meant that German musical values, particularly in the sphere of instrumental music, remained dominant in the concert hall, opera house and choral festival as well as in education, though musicological writings, especially those of Parry, were more singularly influenced by the evolutionary theories of Spencer and Darwin. Symphonic music enjoyed a period of considerable productivity with Cowen’s ‘Scandinavian’ Symphony (1880), and a more national spirit informed Stanford’s ‘Irish’ Symphony and Parry’s ‘English’ Symphony (both 1887). 

Richter’s stature as a conductor gave rise to Parry’s more challenging Fourth Symphony (1889; rev. 1909) which was heard by the young Elgar, though it was Elgar’s First Symphony (1908) under Richter’s aegis which, with its many national and international performances, crowned without question the symphonic achievements of the Edwardians. Elgar’s 'Enigma' Variations (1899) also established his name as a preeminent composer of orchestral music, though these were significantly anticipated by Parry’s Symphonic Variations (1897) and Stanford’s Variations for Piano and Orchestra on Down Among the Dead Men (1898).

Autograph score of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations

Autograph score of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations_Add_MS_58004_f001r

The 'Enigma' Variations was the first work to bring Elgar to public recognition. This is the full score of this work in the composer’s own hand.

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It was, however, in the sphere of choral music that the music of Parry, Stanford and Elgar reached its apogee. Although Parry’s Scenes from Prometheus Unbound at the Gloucester Festival (1880) is often credited with the beginning of modern British music,[1] it was with Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) along with Judith, directed by Richter at the Birmingham Festival of 1888, that British choral music came of age. Other landmarks include Stanford’s Revenge, Te Deum and Stabat Mater at Leeds (1886, 1898 and 1907 respectively), and his Requiem at Birmingham (1897), and Mackenzie’s Rose of Sharon at Norwich (1884). Elgar began to make his mark locally at the Three Choirs Festival with his oratorio The Light of Life and King Olaf (both 1896), but his national reputation was established by Caractacus at Leeds (1898), The Dream of Gerontius at Birmingham (1900) under Richter, and two further major oratorios for Birmingham, The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906), works which were almost operatic in their dramatic power and use of Wagnerian techniques of leitmotiv and orchestral orientation.

A new generation and the tone poem

Regarded as the most respected teacher of his era, Stanford hoped that he might lead a new school of British composers.[2] Instead, however, his methods, based on the organic models of Brahms (see his Musical Composition of 1911), encouraged a wide diversity of styles among his pupils. The same might also be said of his counterpart at the RAM, Frederick Corder (who encouraged his pupils to study Wagner and Richard Strauss). The progressivist cult of Wagner and Strauss (whose music was all the rage in early Edwardian London) encouraged those such as William Wallace (1860–1940) and Granville Bantock (1868–1946) to explore the symphonic poem. Wallace is often credited as the first British composer in the genre with the Tristan-inspired The Passing of Beatrice (1892), but it was Bantock, very much the enfant terrible at the turn of the century, who took the symphonic poem to new heights in a cycle of six works which included Thalaba the Destroyer (1900), Dante and Beatrice (1901), the ‘orchestral drama’ Fifine at the Fair (1901) and The Witch of Atlas (1902). Frederick Delius (1862–1934), the maverick cosmopolitan – born in Bradford but self-exiled in France – who drew his inspiration from a wide range of sources such as America, Germany and Norway, also produced the Strauss-enthused Paris (1899), Lebenstanz (1901; rev. 1912) and Appalachia, a set of orchestral variations based on a slave song heard sung at the end by an eight-part chorus.

After gaining a reputation in Germany, Delius rapidly became well known in England through the support of Henry Wood and especially Thomas Beecham, two figures who epitomised the growing cult of the conductor. In addition to later works such as Brigg Fair (1907) and In a Summer Garden (1908), Delius was acclaimed for his choral works such as the melancholy Sea Drift (1903), the epic A Mass of Life (1904–5) based on his admiration of Nietzschean philosophy, and the Weltschmerz of The Songs of Sunset (1906–8), while Beecham was an ardent advocate of his experimental fourth opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet which was revived in London in 1910 and which contained one of his best-loved orchestral tone poems, A Walk to the Paradise Garden. Some of Stanford’s pupils, namely Frank Bridge (1879–1941) explored the tone poem in Mid of the Night (1904), Isabella (1907) and the impressionist Summer (1916), though it was the Corder pupil, Arnold Bax (1883–1953) who, inspired by myth, legend and the Celtic Twilight, made the tone poem a speciality in the first part of his career with In the Faery Hills (1909), The Garden of Fand (1913–16), November Woods (1917) and, most famous of all, Tintagel (1917–19).

Delius: Brigg Fair (printed score)

Frederick Delius, Brigg Fair, annotated by Thomas Beecham

Printed score of Frederick Delius' Brigg Fair with Thomas Beecham's distinctive blue pencil markings.

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Frederick Delius’s Brigg Fair (1907) is a set of variations for large orchestra based on the folksong ‘Unto Brigg Fair’. Delius heard the latter arranged for solo tenor and choir by his friend, the composer Percy Grainger, who himself had heard the song performed by Joseph Taylor in the town of Brigg, Lincolnshire, in 1906. The eminent conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, was an enthusiast for Delius’s music, performing and recording much of it and later acting as the editor of the collected edition of the composer’s works.

This recording was made for Columbia in 1928 as part of a concerted programme of recording Delius’s major works that Beecham undertook at the time. According to Eric Fenby, this recording was heard by the composer himself, who remarked “That is how I want my music played.” It was re-released by EMI in 1990.

Folk song, nationalism and exoticism

Folksong collecting had begun to gather momentum in the late 19th century, and the antiquarian discovery of the traditional carol dates back even further to the 1820s. Both proved important sources to two Stanford pupils, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) and Gustav Holst (1874–1934). As ‘late developers’, both composers spent much of their early years as composers attempting to develop a national English style by way of assimilating the music of Wagner, and, in Vaughan Williams’s case, the music of Parry and Elgar (viz. Toward the Unknown Region (1907) and A Sea Symphony (1909)). One of the most vibrant elements in that development was folksong collecting which both men undertook around England in company with others such as William Gillies Whittaker, a pursuit which complemented the interest Vaughan Williams had acquired in hymnody through his editorial role for the English Hymnal (1906).

Vaughan Williams's 'Fantasia on Sussex folk tunes'

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'Fantasia on Sussex Folk-Tunes' for cello and orchestra, Add MS 57471

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes is based on five folk songs that he collected in Sussex. The composer had originally withdrawn the work, but Ursula Vaughan Williams nevertheless later allowed the work to be published and recorded.

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Usage terms Fantasia on Sussex folk tunes for cello and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams © Oxford University Press 1982 & 1984.  Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Oxford University Press

While folksong gave rise to arrangements for choir, orchestra and other forces – prime examples being Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsodies (1905–6) and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912), and Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody (1907) – a deeper assimilation into the very fabric of harmony and structure inspired works such as Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge (1909) and The Lark Ascending (1914; rev. 1920) and Holst’s Two Songs Without Words (1906). Folksong was one vital aspect of the music of the Australian-born pianist and Frankfurt-educated Percy Grainger, who, besides collecting tunes in Britain and Scandinavia, used folk melody to shape the highly original and sophisticated variation forms of his arrangements, such as Green Bushes (1905), Molly on the Shore (1907), Shepherd’s Hey (1908) and Mock Morris (1910–14).

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending, Add MS 52385

This manuscript, a fair copy of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s arrangement for violin and piano of one of his most popular works, The Lark Ascending, contains extensive cuts, additions and corrections in the composer's hand.

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Usage terms ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams © Oxford University Press 1925. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.  All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Oxford University Press

Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending, performed by David Greed (violin) and the English Northern Philharmonia, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0119912.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Folksong was important to Holst though his reservoir of influential exotic sources included Indian culture and the study of Sanskrit. A visit to Algeria in 1908 prompted the innovative orchestra suite, Beni Mora, the last movement of which, an experimental ostinato, was based on the repetitions of an Arab pipe figure. His best-known orchestral work, The Planets (composed between 1914 and 1918), was inspired by astrology and Greek and Roman mythology, furnishing him with an experimental platform for many new techniques including ostinato, bitonality and polytonality in movements such as ‘Mars’, ‘Saturn’ and ‘Neptune’. The most enduring movement, however, has been ‘Jupiter’, principally because of its muscular diatonic tune in the ‘trio’. Such diatonic tunes had been advocated by Vaughan Williams in the English Hymnal and had gained currency in unison tunes such as the patriotic effusions ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘England’ by Parry (though ‘Jerusalem’ later became more closely associated with the women’s suffrage movement). Holst’s tune did not become a hymn until 1921 when it was adapted to the words ‘I vow to thee my country’ by Cecil Spring-Rice, though its popularity was largely due to its inclusion in Songs of Praise, a hymn book published under Vaughan Williams’s editorship in 1925.

Gustav Holst: The Planets

Gustav Holst, 'The Planets', Add MS 57881

This manuscript shows the arrangement for two pianos of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus from The Planets, Holst's most famous work.

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Gustav Holst, The Planets, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. 4. Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0232058.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Gustav Holst: 'I vow to thee, my country'

Gustav Holst, 'I vow to thee, my country' for voices and orchestra, Add MS 57880

The music for Holst's ‘I vow to thee, my country’ was adapted from a section of the Jupiter movement of his orchestral suite The Planets.

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[1] See Walker, E., A History of Music in England (Oxford University Press: London, 1907), 300; Colles, H. C., Oxford History of Music, vii (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1934), 468-9; Hadow, H., ‘Sir Hubert Parry’, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 45 (1918-19), 136-7.

[2] Dyson, G., ‘Charles Villiers Stanford by some of his Pupils’, Music & Letters, 5 (1924), 197.

© Jeremy Dibble 2018

  • Jeremy Dibble
  • Jeremy Dibble is a Professor of Music at Durham University. The author of monographs on Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, John Stainer, Michele Esposito and Hamilton Harty, he specialises in British and Irish music of the 19th and 20th centuries and has contributed many essays to books on the subject. His most recent publication is British Musical Criticism and Intellectual Thought 1850-1950, an edited set of essays, with Julian Horton (Durham). He is presently working on a book on the musical style of Frederick Delius. Also a specialist in English church music, he is the Musical Editor of the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.