First published in Clarion: the newsletter of the Alan Bush Music Trust (Autumn 1998).
Professor Mellers is a Patron of the Alan Bush Music Trust.
by Professor Wilfred Mellers, O.B.E.
I first met Alan Bush in the early years of the 1939 War when I was running a series of concerts in a smallish provincial town. I invited Bush to introduce a programme of his own music. He himself played some of his early music for piano and conducted a choir in a number of songs written for "workers". The effect of this concert on the sleepy solemnity of a provincial town was electric: but what I principally remember is that the vitality of Bush's temperament established direct communion between himself and an audience that was unlikely to be prejudiced in his favour.
The programme of the concert included two groups of works that seemed to be utterly disparate. The piano works were sophisticated, complicated, intellectual and in some ways Central European, rather than English in technique. The choral pieces, if not precisely in the "English choral tradition", were deliberately simple and direct in style. They were intended to be sung, and were sung, by musically untrained people not only with enthusiasm, but also with sensitivity. Some of the pieces didn't pretend to be other than politically "occasional", but some of them, notably Toulon, were music of considerable nobility.
As his idiom matured, the private and the public aspects of Bush's art fused, the "serious" pieces gaining in lucidity, the "popular" ones acquiring subtlety and depth. The most impressive evidence of this still lies in his Dialectic for String Quartet, the technique of which may be called cosmopolitan, while remaining a personal creation, and an astonishingly sustained piece of musical thinking for a man of twenty eight.
Significantly, Dialectic's procedures anticipate the completely "thematic" method of composition Bush evolved in later works. If one compares with Dialectic a work written in 1950, the English Suite for Strings, one can see that the new work has adapted the methods of Dialectic to a national and traditional style. This absorbs aspects of British folk song and of the fantasia techniques of English composers of the seventeenth century. The culmination of which is a passacaglia on the (revolutionary) folk song The Cutty Wren, in which the seventeenth century technique of "divisions on a ground" is imaginatively reborn.
Similar qualities are to be observed in the lovely Winter Journey cantata, which adapts the heart of the Christian story to Bush's vision of a world redeemed.
From this improbable, but for Bush logical, mutation sprang also the sequence of his opera beginning with the overtly revolutionary Wat Tyler, in which a ripe traditional style grows "dialectically" from the European stylisations of his earlier work. Bush remained staunchly faithful to his "Russian" Marxism during the years in which it was discredited; but what matters is his powerful attempt to re-establish an English tradition meaningful to his country's past, present and future.
In the years to come whatever the nature of our styles and our preconceptions about music's purposes, we will be on the right track if we can make music as local as The Cutty Wren, as "universal" as Dialectic.