by Martin Anderson
The centenary of Alan Bush (he was born in London on 22 December 1900) has drawn forward a number of events celebrating his long and fruitful career, among them centenary concerts at the Wigmore Hall and Royal Academy of Music on the first two Wednesdays of November, a recording of the Piano Concerto in the BBC studios, the release (on the Musaeus label) of a CD of four of his song-cycles, and a mini-exhibition of photographs at the BMIC chronicling his life from boyhood to old age.
Bush died so recently on 31 October 1995 that he is still very much a living memory even for a relatively young generation: it is easy to close the eye and recall his imposing form looming through a concert audience or hear the full tones of his fruity Empire English resonate in the ear. That someone who sounded so much like an Establishment figure could maintain such unflinching loyalty to the Communist Party is only one of the many paradoxes of Alan Bush's life. His growing stature in British academic life existed alongside his marginalisation by the mainstream musical organisations, the BBC only the biggest among them. He was happy to excoriate capitalism from a position of considerable private wealth. His world vision was undeniably humanist at its centre, but he eulogised the most systematically savage social order ever devised on this planet; indeed, any suggestion that the Soviet Union was not an earthly form of paradise was summarily rejected as coming from suspect sources. He was no fool, but the sincerity of his beliefs was immune to reason. He is not easily understood.
Whatever the complexities of his psychological make-up, it is for the music that he will be remembered, and yet, despite the brief flourishing of centenary interest, the vast bulk of his output still lies unheard. And much of it is very good indeed. Perhaps the best known of all of his pieces is Dialectic (1929), for string quartet, which was aired again at the Wigmore Hall concert; and yet it is known more by reputation than as living music. The Hyperion catalogue used to boast a recording of it, as of the Violin Concerto (1948), but both are long since deleted; indeed, apart from new the Musaeus recording and Peter Jacobs' recital of piano music on Altarus, you can currently obtain on CD no more than a single string-orchestral piece, one chamber work and two versions of the song-cycle Voices of the Prophets. For a composer whose worklist fills almost two pages of the St James Press dictionary Contemporary Composers, that is an appalling state of affairs.
One can understand the reluctance of the record companies to take on board relatively costly options like the Byron Symphony (Bush's Third, written in 195960) though it contains some thrilling music and the imposing, contemporaneous Dorian Passacaglia and Fugue, also for orchestra. And a production of one of his four 'adult' operas (there are three for younger performers) would be an expensive business, too. But what stops musicians exploring his rich output of chamber and instrumental music? His catalogue contains pieces for violin, viola, cello, double-bass, clarinet, flute, horn, organ, Northumbrian pipes, cymbalom you name it, Bush wrote for it. And there are some real gems there a second hearing of the autumnal, achingly lovely Piano Quintet (1984) premiered at his 85th birthday concert (also in the Wigmore Hall) would probably confirm that it is a masterpiece.
Bush was not a natural melodist ΰ la Dvorαk, though he could produce an appealing tune when he set his mind to it. But he was a first-rate contrapuntist, and his harmonic world can glow with a rare internal warmth. It would be foolish to claim that everything he wrote was a masterpiece and equally idiotic to turn our backs on the many outstanding scores still awaiting assiduous attention.
© 2001 BMIC