Become a Friend of the Trust
Contact us
Alan and Nancy Bush
Download this article 
Articles Home
A Recollection of the 1st Performance of The Nottingham Symphony
by Nancy Bush
The Complete Organ Works of Alan Bush
by David Bednall
The Correspondence of Alan Bush and John Ireland, 1927 – 1961
by Rachel O'Higgins
Northumbrian Impressions
by Chris Calver
"Rhapsody in Red" – BBC Radio 4
by Rachel O'Higgins
Recording Alan Bush's Piano Music
by Peter Jacobs
The English Production Of Wat Tyler, June 1974
by Rachel O'Higgins
Alan Bush Remembered
by Roger Steptoe
The Alan Bush Centenary Concerts
by Simon Jenner
Alan Bush
by Martin Anderson
Alan Bush (1900-1995) - 'Time Remembered'
by Michael Jones
More Than a Pleasant Way to Pass the Time?
by Duncan Hall
Alan Bush - An Appreciation
by John Amis
Writing for Music
by Nancy Bush
Alan Bush as a Composition Teacher
by Timothy Bowers
Alan Bush and the English Tradition
by Professor Wilfred Mellers

First published in "Time Remembered - Alan Bush: an 80th Birthday Symposium" edited by Ronald Stevenson, Bravura Publications, 1981. See also "Alan Bush: Music, Politics and Life" by Nancy Bush, Thames Publishing, 2000.

Writing for Music
by Nancy Bush

The first collaboration between my husband and myself as composer and writer took place in 1943, when he set a short poem of mine called Toulon for soprano solo, mixed chorus and piano accompaniment. The verses described the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon harbour in defiance of the Vichy government during the German occupation of France, an act of courage which I think raised the spirits of everyone in Great Britain during that dark period of the war. The work was written for the choir of the Workers' Music Association - the "W.M.A. Singers", as they were called - and it was sung by them in various broadcasts and at other concerts in the London area. Alan, who was then serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps at Milbank Hospital, London, was given permission by his Commanding Officer to conduct for the B.B.C. on these occasions.

For some years before this I had at Alan's request translated a number of choral songs, mostly from the German, which were added to the repertoire of the W.M.A. Singers and before that, of the London Labour Choral Union, the group of choirs which had preceded them. Alan was musical advisor of the Choral Union, following Rutland Boughton, and he became the chairman of the W.M.A. on its foundation in 1936. The first of these translations was made in 1929 of a choral piece called Brot und Arbeit (Song of Labour), with words by George Herwegh and music by Hans von Bulow. Even at this early stage I began to learn the value of choosing short plain words for the vocal line, if possible not longer than two syllables, and the need to build up a really singable climax in the last verse. I had only just begun to learn German, but Alan was then as always extremely encouraging and persuaded me to overcome my diffidence. The translations made between 1929 and 1943 - we were married in 1931 - were in a way an apprenticeship for our later work together.

Toulon was followed by something a little more ambitious, a children's opera in three scenes called The Press Gang. The (then) secretary of the W.M.A., Will Sahnow, suggested that composers might interest themselves in writing a short opera for schools and included among possible historical subjects the naval press gang of the 18th century. The Press Gang, which had solo songs, choruses and spoken dialogue, was written in 1946 at a time when the use of such works in schools was more of a novelty than it is today. It was followed in 1954 and 1964 respectively by two other operas for children, The Spell Unbound, a story of 16th century witchcraft with music in the Elizabethan style, and The Ferryman's Daughter which was about the Thames Watermen at Wapping Old Stairs in the 18th century. In 1947 we wrote another work for unaccompanied mixed choir, Lidice, which was sung by the W.M.A. Singers and conducted by Alan on the site of the Czech village which the Nazis had razed to the ground as a reprisal during the war. The poem ended with the word "immortality", a favourite of mine just then, but I remember that Alan would not accept this; he pointed out the weakness of ending a song, particularly for chorus, on a short unaccented syllable, and so reluctantly I had to change it to "immortal fame", which provided a vowel sound much more suitable for a final long note.

Nancy Bush in 1974, aged 68

In the same year, 1947, our collaboration in the field of full-length opera began and I started to collect material for the libretto of Wat Tyler, Alan's first work of this kind, which won an Arts Council prize in 1951. This new departure for both of us was intensely exciting. The dramatic story of the Peasant Rising of 1381 attracted us both; it seemed heroic, realistic and very English, but at first we were not sure if the wide-ranging epic material could be compressed satisfactorily into a stage work of three hours. However, we decided to make the attempt.

No doubt opera composers and their librettists have very different methods of working together. In our own case the idea of the general subject for each of our three operas has come first from Alan; the original suggestion of Wat Tyler was made to him a number of years before by the writer Hyman Fagan. After we have discussed the possibilities of the subject I begin the necessary research and background reading, for all are based on historical events. From this I plan the story, the characters and the suggested dramatic line, even to acts and scenes, all of which we discuss together at each stage and alter if necessary. If we are so far agreed, I now write the actual libretto in more or less complete dramatic form. Alan does not begin to compose until he has been able to read the finished text in detail. Most of his alterations are at this point in the nature of cuts - of words, single lines and sentences, occasionally a whole scene. As a composer Alan is not difficult to work with; after our first discussions he demands few drastic changes and is always willing to talk over suggested alterations before asking me to make them. I have always thought his cuts showed judgement, because they usually have the effect of tightening the dramatic line or of taking out some purely descriptive passage, which we both agree is a weakness in opera, where in performance one cannot hope to hear every word at the best of times.

The events and most of the characters in Wat Tyler were provided by history. But for Men of Blackmoor, our second opera, Alan's suggestion was the very general one that he wanted to write about miners. We agreed on the early 19th century as an effective period, background reading soon showed that Northumberland was a centre of the early difficulties and struggles of the pitmen and Alan was already attracted by Northumbrian folk music. We visited Newcastle together and spent some days in the city library over the Black Gate, where we were the only readers. Here the librarian gave us, amongst other things, a trunk full of little-known contemporary papers and pamphlets, not yet catalogued, and even an original Miner's Bond or contract of labour from the late 18th century, marked with crosses where the men could not write. From the list of pitmen here given I chose names later to be used for some of our characters. In gloomy November weather we sat reading beside a roaring coal fire and each day the kind-hearted lady caretaker, perhaps glad of a little company, insisted on providing us with a delicious loaded tea-tray for which she would take no payment.

When composing a long work such as an opera Alan felt the need of somewhere even quieter than our house in Hertfordshire, away from the telephone and from his friends. I think he also found a complete change of surroundings stimulating to invention. A great part of Wat Tyler was written in the small Gloucestershire town of Newent, where we stayed for the autumn of 1948 and the early spring of 1949. About five miles away in the remote countryside lived Rutland Boughton and his wife Kathleen, who were both most kind and hospitable to us.

Alan and Nancy Bush in Magdeburg after a performance of Wat Tyler in 1959

Almost every weekend we would ride our bicycles, our only means of transport, through the lanes and woods to their house in Kilcot, bringing the latest work done on Wat Tyler. In my memory there seem to have been no rainy days for these expeditions but always brilliant autumn sunshine and blue sky, while high on every side rose the red-ploughed fields and hedges tangled with brown and orange leaves, brambles and webs of old-man's beard. Rutland was always ready to listen to the music. He was critical and helpful, sometimes pleased and sometimes disapproving, not only of quality but of quantity. "What, is this all you've written this week", he exclaimed on one occasion when only a single aria was produced.

He seemed to like the libretto as a whole but felt from the beginning that Margaret, Wat Tyler's wife, had rather too anxious and negative a personality to be effective, and so I tried to make her respond with greater courage and enthusiasm to the plans for the peasants' march on London and to overcome her natural personal fears. Alan agreed that this was an improvement and I have always felt glad that we followed Rutland's advice in this particular.

Men of Blackmoor was composed on an Essex farm near Colchester and The Sugar Reapers in a small flint cottage in the remote Buckinghamshire village of Radnage. Of our three country retreats, I think Alan liked this one best of all. The cottage had once been the village sweet-shop, but the ground floor had been opened out to make one fairly large room, low-ceilinged and rather dark, but easily kept warm through an unusually ice-bound winter, and with books, table and upright piano conveniently at hand. There was a telephone but, with the exception of our own family, we never told anyone the number. Thus, in touch with the outside world ourselves, we were virtually cut off from all interruption.

Wat Tyler and Men of Blackmoor are set in 14th and 19th century England respectively and both have the basic idea of freedom and the struggle towards it in two different periods of history. Alan now wanted to choose a theme from the present day to complete the trilogy, but it was a long time before we could find a subject to interest us both. Finally, Alan decided to take a British colony as his background and turned to the history of British Guiana, as it then was, in the 1950's, when first efforts towards a democratic government by election had been made and then abruptly put down by the authorities. On his first attempt to visit the colony he was refused entry by the Governor for reasons never fully stated. But two years later the ban was raised and he made the journey with our elder daughter, Rachel O'Higgins, who helped him greatly in tape-recording local songs, dance rhythms, and speech both in Georgetown, the capital, and also up and down the colony. She took a valuable series of photographs of places and people, used later by producers in stage productions as a basis for costume and décor. I was not able to visit British Guiana myself but from these recordings and photographs, from verbal descriptions and also the works of contemporary Guianese writers I was able to build up a picture of life in the colony and, almost as important, to reproduce something of the vivid and idiomatic but ungrammatical turns of speech used by the African and Indian inhabitants. In this way I wrote the libretto for The Sugar Reapers or Guyana Johnny, as it was later renamed in the German translation used for its premiere in Leipzig in 1966. As in Men of Blackmoor, the story and characters were imaginary, while the social background and some of the events were historical. In one scene Alan wanted to use a series of African betrothal songs and dances known as the "Kwe-kwe", but the words of these were sparse, and at times unintelligible, so I had to write fresh words to already existing tunes, a new and rather difficult undertaking.

Alan and Nancy at home in 1978

The libretto for these operas were in each case prepared and written in about six months. The composition of the music and the final orchestration was naturally a much longer task, Wat Tyler taking in all two and a half years, Men of Blackmoor eighteen months, and The Sugar Reapers two years. All three works were first performed in the German Democratic Republic - in Leipzig and Weimar - and the excitement of each first night was in great contrast to the months of almost solitary work which had gone before. Alan spent some time beforehand working with the opera companies in rehearsal. I joined him for the last dress rehearsals and for the performance itself. It was always a wonderful moment for me to see the characters which had only existed in imagination come to life on the stage; more than this, to hear for the first time the full orchestration of the score. Alan often sang and played parts of the operas to me as he went along and I knew the vocal lines of some of the arias fairly well, but I could form little idea of the choral passages or of the whole orchestral setting until I heard these in the opera house.

There had been some difficulties and delays in the early stages of the production of Wat Tyler and although Alan has strong nerves, he felt the strain of this during the summer of 1953. He spent the last two weeks before the premiere in September in Leipzig, working every day at rehearsals and composing every night, because an extra orchestral interlude had been asked for at short notice. This was to take the place of the interval which had originally divided the end of Act 2 from the Epilogue but which the producer thought, quite rightly, would interrupt the continuity of action so near the end. Alan told me afterwards that when the long-awaited first night actually came he was too worn out to feel anything. The music that he had once thought so beautiful now seemed unable to rouse in him any response. He wondered, indeed, how the audience could possibly be interested in it and was genuinely surprised when there was applause after the first Act and a warm reception of the whole opera when the curtain finally fell.

My journey to Weimar for the first night of Men of Blackmoor in November 1956 was adventurous in another way. Alan was producing this work himself with the help and advice of the able director of the Weimar theatre, Karl Kayser. Therefore he went to the German Democratic Republic in September 1956. I was to join him in November but shortly before this the disturbing Hungarian crisis took place and there was a sense of danger in the air. Almost everyone I knew was full of foreboding and warned me against the very idea of a European journey at such a time. Weimar was uncomfortably near the frontier between East and West Germany. Some said that an invasion by the West Germans was not an impossibility, in which case any foreigners in the city might have been in an unpleasant position. However, I was determined to reach Alan if I could and also to be present at the premiere. My travelling companions were John Amis and Ernest Chapman, both of whom were to cover Men of Blackmoor for the British press. They declared with great spirit that, unless Alan sent a telegram to the contrary, nothing would stop them from going to Weimar for the performance. An encouraging telegram arrived at last which decided us and we set off, taking no notice of the gloomy faces of friends who came to see us off at Victoria and who obviously never expected to see us alive again. To our relief there was no political disturbance in Weimar after all. Alan and I were able to enjoy the first night and to hear and see our opera very well performed and staged in the theatre of this 18th century city with all its traditions of Goethe, Schiller and Liszt.

To Karl Kayser again we owed the first production of The Sugar Reapers (Guyana Johnny) in 1966, when he had left Weimar to become director of the five theatres of Leipzig, including the impressive new opera house there. Apart from myself and my daughter Rachel, visitors from England included Sir Thomas Armstrong, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, who arranged a visit to the city to coincide with the first night. John Gollan, General Secretary of the British Communist Party, was also there and a group of twenty-six English opera enthusiasts who travelled out especially for the occasion. Subsequently these three operas were given seven further productions between the years 1953 and 1973, five in the GDR and two in the Soviet Union. There was also a further sequel to the history of Wat Tyler. It had been broadcast in London by the B.B.C. in 1956, following the German premiere, but in 1974 it was staged in Great Britain for the first time at Sadler's Wells Theatre, by Keynote Opera, a society formed under the auspices of the Workers' Music Association, owing to whose untiring efforts in the face of great difficulties this London production was made possible. The opera was produced by Tom Hawkes and conducted by Stanford Robinson.

With the exception therefore of the choral pieces and of two solo songs, the main collaboration between Alan and myself has been in the writing of opera. Quite apart from the pleasure and interest of working together, such a partnership between husband and wife has some practical advantages. Not least of these, the persons concerned are always at hand to discuss or alter their work without having to arrange special meetings or to conduct a long correspondence, with all the tedium and frustration that this can involve. To be under the same roof with an irritable or over-exacting composer might have been another story, probably an unhappy one, but Alan has always been considerate and easy to work with. He is discerning and can put his finger at once on a weak point but he is never unreasonable in his request for change and, above all, is encouraging to the writer. Our work together has now spread over a period of more than thirty-five years. I am enthusiastic for Alan's music, which I not only admire but enjoy, and think myself fortunate to have been asked to write words for a composer who is able to express such a range of human feelings and whose understanding of life is so deep.