by Simon Jenner
Alan Bush (22.12.1900-31.10.95) is one of the most remarkable, prolific, and neglected of that group of British composers born at or soon after the turn of the century, including Rubbra, Finzi (1901) Walton (1902) Lennox Berkeley (1903), Richard Addinsell and Gavin Gordon (1904), Tippett, Rawsthorne, Constant Lambert, Christian Darnton, William Alwyn (1905), Benjamin Frankel, Elizabeth Lutyens, Arnold Cooke (1906), Elizabeth Maconchy (1907), and Howard Ferguson (1908). Remarkable, as his fate resembled the similarly Marxist-inspired Darnton: baffled ostracism. Darnton in fact gave up composing altogether from 1948 to 1968, feeling his music was incompatible with the party line. The CP-card-carrying Bush proved more resilient. After composing such masterpieces as Dialectic for String Quartet Op 15 (1929), and the Busoni-length and choral finale Piano Concerto Op. 18 (1938), he tuned his lyre to Zhdanov's truth in 1948: reject Western academic formalism, write whistling symphonies for the workers. And for his Marxist beliefs he suffered a virtual blacklist from 1938 to about 1953. Then, after a small window in the 1950s, he was tacitly blacklisted with many other British composers for paradoxically aesthetic reasons, by the fiercely modernist William Glock, Controller of BBC Radio 3, from 1959 to 1972. Naturally it had a tone-row effect in concert and other contemporary musical life.
His musical style - as evinced in his earlier, Leipzig-trained period (where the RCM Professor became the student, learning philosophy) is cumulative, toughly argued post-Busoni with a lapel of Englishness. Later work was more thoroughgoingly diatonic - bizarrely in voluntary line with Zhdanov's crackdown. The humanitarian Bush with a political broom.
Wigmore Concert, 1 November 2000
There was a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore, on 1st November 2000, and after the concert a memorable wine-flooded celebration in the basement Bechstein Room. It was there that John Amis first gave an excellent lecture to aficionados of Alan Bush. He played recordings of the quartet Dialectic we'd hear complete and live later, and interviews he made himself with Bush in the BBC at various points, 1968, 1978, 1985 - one I recorded. At one point, there was silence at a question. I laughed at Bush's obviously disapproving silence, and everyone joined in. It transpired that Bush fell silent at questions he disliked before answering, so I was right.
First in the concert was a chamber piece for flute and piano, Three African Sketches, Op 55 (1960). This used, as the title suggests, melodies from southern Africa, and the date lends a clue as to the immediate political inspiration (the Sharpsville massacre) that possibly occasioned it. This was paradoxically, a beautifully crafted suite of necessarily melodic character, not meant for ungainly development. The variations are textured and the whole a delightful answer to the French flute tradition.
After this came the Dialectic Op 15 (1929), played by the Bochmann quartet, who recorded it for Redcliffe. Its near 15 minutes are hypnotic. The conversation between instruments, the Busoni-like textures (and harmonies), are subsumed in an already mature style, one that famously weeded its own thorniness later on. The sweep of argument is always tested against the grain of other voices that both underscore and sustain it, or question or even undermine. But it still soars in a kind of hoarse lyricism to its end. Its impact is visceral, one feels the thew of quartet-writing in this work as in few other British quartets.
Then Wills Morgan with Richard Black at the piano sang Voices of the Prophets, a four section work, unusually consisting of declamatory prose: Isaiah Chapter 65, Milton's 'Against the Scholastic Philosophy', Blake's 'Selections from Milton' and the weakest piece, ironically a poem, made up for Bush's music - Peter Blackman, from 'My Song is for All Men'. But it contained much compassionate fervour that Bush found poetic - which is what matters. Morgan is a real driving force, as we discovered later. A superb (black) singer from Wolverhampton he trained at the RAM and Cleveland Institute, has recorded these pieces with the Artsong Collective - being one of the founding members - for CD. It's one of two versions now available (the other on Redcliffe, with Philip Langridge), both superb, but Morgan brings something that accords particularly well with Bush, a burning conviction and projection, as well as the superbly burnished tone you'd expect. His championing of lesser-known composers was something he confided later. His rendering of the four sections was particularly notable for differentiation between the rather monumental angry qualities of the first two, difficult to bring off with what in the Milton is in fact prose. The Blake section allowed a more declamatory style, shot through with lyricism, and the last touchingly, in making something more of the blond, Asian and black babies in arms of the poet's sentiment. Bush's humanity, as well as his humanitarianism shone out in the selection and setting of this last piece, which afforded a touching, moving relief to the monolithic qualities earlier.
After an interval we settled down to Peter Jacobs, and Bush's 24 Preludes Op 84 of 1977. The nearest British analogy is York Bowen's 24 Preludes of the 1930s, or far earlier, Stanford's. Perhaps if Rawsthorne had attempted a cycle it might have sounded superficially similar. But in fact like Bowen, Bush is keen to differentiate and stylise his pieces in a more chameleon manner that Rawsthorne possibly wouldn't have. For instance, No 16 'Rustics' evokes a post-Herbert Howells manner. The first piece slowly winds the cycle up, in an elegant lyrical andante that the second dispels more smartly. One of the staples of British piano writing, the chunky chordal progression, alternates with a filigree of steel wire. Each piece contrasts effectively, sometimes unexpectedly, if lacking say, the character of Frank Bridge or Arnold Bax, to name the two finest British composers for piano - an extensive but not always bejewelled field. Since Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton and Britten all wrote very little for the piano. These constitute, with John McCabe's pieces of the same period, the finest British piano music of the 1970s.
The Trio Voices from Four Continents, for clarinet, cello and piano, Op 91 (1980) rounded off the programme. Its inspiration might have been Ronald Stevenson's Piano Concerto 2 'The Continents' of 1972, which essays a kind of grand tour in a more symphonic manner. The trio was more characterful than the flute and piano Sketches, though without the melting simplicity of the second sketch to provide a highlight - it probably needs more listening to. Bush always improves with repeated hearing.
Bush Centenary Concert, Maida Vale, 19 December 2000
There were just two items in this concert, the Tippett 2nd Symphony of 1957, and the Bush Piano Concerto, Op 18, of 1937, completed on his 37th birthday in fact.
There aren't many times when the Tippet plays as overture to something larger, but this was one of them... It's still quite a shock to see a work such as this - where the original BBC leader's meddling in string-rhythms caused the breakdown of the first movement under Boult in 1957 - laid out so neatly, and dispatched so joyously. All of our party were quite transported, particularly Judy Anderson, with what Professor Ian Kemp referred to as 'the trumpet-tongue of genius'. Horns were prominent in three of the four movements, particularly, with a fantastic rush of adrenalin, at the close.
The four-movement layout is fairly conventional, almost classical, and classical energy is much to the fore. In fact the inspiration was pre-classical - hearing in Lake Lugano some tapes of Vivaldi with 'pounding cellos and bass Cs'. (Vivaldi's baroque energies, of course, fed early classicism). The sharp versus flat tonal feel of the work opposes the 'C' vigour with lyrical or what several have termed 'feminine' lyricism, defining the floated, layered effect of the shimmering tonalities. The first movement recalls the horn-calls of the Piano Concerto of two years earlier, and the fresh palate of it and the Midsummer Marriages. At the same time the development seems to presage the mosaic-like sudden quality of his very different second opera King Priam and the Second Piano Sonata of 1962. The second movement bathes in a rather magical language, developed from the first's episodes, and enjoys what the BBC programme writer pursues with the operas as 'a world of hieratic ritual and rapt meditation'. What it really does foreshadow is the astonishing beauty of the second act of King Priam, and in particular the reconciling meeting between Priam and Achilles, when each gently prophesies the other's death by their respective sons. This was some way off, and to underline that, the scherzo returns to the Vivaldi-cum-Beethoven motor rhythms, and the finale follows the opening with a four-part fantasia plan, again, not developing the parts exactly.
The curiosity of seeing the Tippett after so long is partly in realising that for so many there are now no difficulties at all. Its lithe contours and energy look almost diminutive laid out in the Maida Vale studios. The performance was particularly exhilarating, perhaps the breezy prelude to the hard graft of the 50-odd minute Piano Concerto next.
It ought to be pointed out that since the BBC don't see fit to serve the invited guests or let you pay, a quite legitimate way of getting one's coffee is to grab it from the open canteen a little before the interval ends, when some of the minders have gone offguard. They then think you're on the staff.
Alan Bush's Piano Concerto was superbly despatched by Rolf Hind, who showed no signs of weariness throughout. And was almost note-perfect in a work demanding a kind of Busoni-like panache and heavy purposeful tread in sections that don't skitter. The overall impression is of a gnarled masterwork, that Bush is often at his best when most expansive, as in his operas, but here is in a world freed from his self-imposed Zhdanov-inspired simplicities, that thinned out many of his works' textures after 1948.
The furore of the first performance, apposite for March 1938, is famous enough. Not for scandalising the audience, but galvanising it in the revolutionary choral finale, to an exuberance that caused the conductor, Adrian Boult again, to turn round and unexpectedly perform the National Anthem out of self-preservation! It certainly was the main reason why Bush was banned by the BBC, effectively for 15 years, even though the official ban was lifted after the intervention of composers like Vaughan Williams. The work is in fact one based on a revolutionary work based itself on Beethoven's extraordinary Choral Fantasy Op 80 - Busoni's five-movement Piano Concerto Op 39 with choral finale. Only the all-male chorus there is singing the praises of Allah, and Randall Swingler's text in the Bush, to those of - if anything - Lenin in London. In fact the text is more humane than publicity suggests - Swingler was the nephew of the Archbishop of Canterbury and could never quite exhort the machine gun. But the text is remarkable enough. The BBC programme writer seemed still faintly disturbed by it, though noted that even the Times, Listener, and Musical Times all praised it in 1938 - though suggesting the National Anthem might have sounded unusually expressive for the audience after such a tract.
But Bush's scale is the most impressive thing. Two things emerge quite clearly. Bush was most inspired when writing challenging piano music he performed himself, and when setting texts. The first is thorny, dialectic in the sense of his String Quartet, generating a terrific rhythmic pulse that leaps coruscating into argument. The other quality already hinted at, is the memorable thematic material of the sung text. The style of the former recalls Busoni, Hindemith, but most of all this remorseless, yet exhilarating logic neither of these composers displays in quite the same way, unless the Busoni Toccata of 1920. The sound-world is basically diatonic, with lucent harmonies cross-hatched by a scumble of chromatic cross-harmonies that nevertheless don't obscure the essential tonality. Hind often exploded little rhythmic bombs across the keyboard, then pulverised them into meaning. Paul Conway has written of the way these build up inexorably, with an intellectual rigour and power that makes the work seem far shorter than its 57 minutes.
One can only agree; each of the three movements seems to lead so directly from the last, without a tonal shift in the scherzo or slow movement in the way say Tippett might employ, that to differentiate the first three movements is quite difficult. They seem peculiarly cumulative, and the finale an arrival, a sudden exhalation. If you can imagine dragging a piano up The Ascent of F6, without the nihilist-imperialist-Freudian ending, you might get some sense of the vertiginous struggle. And the piano stayed in tune. The material is related, or at least familial in character if not theme. The moto perpetuo of the first movement leads logically into a scherzo of irregularly-barred cakewalk-like rhythms. Conway suggests 'a wild stratospheric ostinato like a music-box gone out of control' and this is exactly it. Both movements seem to push for the kind of release that a regular finale can't offer. The slow movement allows the piano respite, where it ripples in somewhat later, commenting on bass-noises in the orchestra. Like the ostinato rhythms, the sense of something rising irregularly but massively from its foundations, to be eventually shouted from the rooftops, as it were, isn't far off. One might of course expect something Gothic from this - not what Bush intended. Yet the same inspired disproportions here are recalled in some Britten works of the 1930s, like his Ballad of Heroes Op 14, with a text also by Swingler, or Piano Concerto Op 13 or the co-operative Mont Juic Suite he wrote with Berkeley.
'Friends, we wish to speak a little of this performance', spoken by the chorus, really does thrill with a kind of historical immediacy; a sense of something urgently relevant despite the sixty intervening years. The Apollo Voices, and later baritone Ashley Holland who had the most beautiful solo line to sing, dispatched the exhortations to betterment without sending them up. But the very quiddity of recited prose brought one back to the irregularly-barred scherzo, and the curious resolutions of mere musical formalism. After such cynical politics, and the knowledge of Bush's own political naiveties (which he never foisted on anyone, least of all his students) the kernel of Bush's idealism shines through. Bush's edifice seems a far more honourable and enduring Utopia, or hymn to a Millennium, than the one they refused to build down the road in Greenwich. The applause was loud, but not boisterous.
© 2001 Simon Jenner