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Alan Bush, aged about 18
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Writing Home
The Composer Speaks
by Alan Bush
In My Eighth Decade
by Alan Bush
The Byron Symphony
by Alan Bush
The Composer and Criticism
by Alan Bush
Some Thoughts About My Chamber Music
by Alan Bush
My Studies and Friendship with John Ireland
by Alan Bush
Recollections of the Royal Academy of Music's Centenary Celebrations, 1922
by Alan Bush

This essay appears in an extended form in In My Eighth Decade and Other Essays by Alan Bush, published by Kahn and Averill, London (1980).

The book can be ordered from The Alan Bush Music Trust, 7 Harding Way, Histon, Cambridge CB4 9JH (e-mail address:, price: £8.50 (including p&p).

In My Eighth Decade
by Alan Bush

It is more than fifty years since I started to ask myself what the world was about...

In 1934 I became convinced that the facts about life... were convincingly explained or brilliantly foretold between... 1844 and 1896 by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.

Marxism is... a potent and invaluable guide to action in politics. But there are problems on which Marx and Engels wrote little, those of art and morals, especially the latter. The problem of personal responsibility faces everyone. Are our deeds inexorably determined by our emotional condition at any given moment... or, are we in possession of free will, even if we don't appear often to exercise it? It is very difficult for a materialist, as a Marxist must certainly be, to find room for free will... I have found the answer, as I believe, in Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Etre et le Neant, where he gives an explanation of how the structure of human consciousness makes freedom of action (or inaction) not only possible but inescapable. We are therefore doomed to be free...

As I am a composer and a performer of music, it is important to me to understand art to the best of my ability. I have found historical materialism the only adequate explanation of the facts of musical history and the only objective method by which anybody can hope to arrive at a critical evaluation of any particular work of art...

I was the youngest of a family of three boys. My father and mother were both members of Victorian middle-class families, my father one of thirteen children, ten of whom grew to maturity, my mother one of six. Both were brought up as conventional Anglican Christians. My father was a complete philistine in religious and philosophical questions; in politics he took no active part, though he always voted Conservative. My mother retained vague remembrances of her religious upbringing but never went to church herself, though she required us boys to attend... This rule was not so strictly insisted upon by her as to prevent my father from taking us quite often on Sundays to the London Zoo, which roused in me an interest in the animal kingdom which I have never lost... My mother, as a girl, had shown considerable talent as a graphic artist, but a professional career in this field was considered disreputable by her parents and therefore forbidden. Her proposals to become a doctor or a nurse were likewise discouraged... So, as a last resort, she adopted matrimony as her profession and accepted my father's offer. Her immense energy and formidable organising capacity were therefore concentrated on her household and family. Her efforts to organise the less essential details of my life caused some tension at times, but she never interfered in any decisions I took in matters of career, pursuit of education, or marriage.

Alan Bush in 1963

My parents separated after 35 years of marriage... My father died in 1934 at the age of 68, my mother in 1950, at 87. The last five years of her life were burdened by physical disabilities, so much so that at one point she attempted suicide...

My childhood was happy. My mother was devotedly affectionate, my father invariably kind and attentive. Except during the grouse-shooting season, he spent his Sundays with us three boys as a matter of course. The tension between my parents did not become apparent until I was about sixteen years old.

My parents sent my two elder brothers, Alfred and Brinsley, to private preparatory boarding schools. At these establishments Alfred's health was badly neglected, while Brinsley was flogged every now and again... so they were both brought home and for a year or more we were all taught by tutors or governesses. Up to the age of twenty-five I was extremely delicate and owing to my delicate health, I continued to be taught privately until at eleven I went as a day-boy to Highgate School until Christmas 1917...

I was not getting my musical education at school, but privately... At the time of my fourth birthday, my mother asked what I would like for a birthday present. I said: "a piano lesson"... Ever since, except for the years 1941-45, which I spent in the British Army..., I have been practising the piano off and on under a succession of teachers... My piano-playing... developed my powers of sight-reading and later, as a student of the Royal Academy of Music, I was, perhaps, the second-best sight-reader in the building, the uncrowned king of this domain being my fellow-student, Reginald Paul.

In August 1914, the First World War broke out. At its beginning, this made very little impact on our family life... During the Easter holidays of 1915 or 1916, something momentous happened to me by chance. I was walking through the streets of Highgate when I noticed a brass plate... bearing the inscription "Branch of the Hornsey Public Library". Up to that moment I did not know that such an institution as a public library existed. I walked in and... I was amazed to discover that people had written serious books concerning the problem of what the world was really about in its essence (philosophy) and what human beings had or were making of their lives (politics). This was the beginning of my general education...

One truly wonderful book which made the greatest impression on me of any that I read at that time was Ernst Haeckel's Riddle of the Universe... Following this, I came upon Darwin's theory of natural selection... I adopted mechanical materialism as my world outlook. Life became my Pantheon and homo sapiens the object of my devotion... I remember particularly two early sociological works by H.G.Wells, Anticipations and Mankind in the Making... I thus became aware of the fact that human society was not organised in a way which enabled all men and women... to live out their lives to the full... On the contrary, it was geared to promote the material advantage of a small group of rich families and to maintain their power over the poor...

The First World War... broke down the walls of countless bourgeois family strongholds. In 1917, my eldest brother, Alfred, was killed in Flanders... I deserted for the time being the Hornsey Branch library for the incense-and guru-haunted premises of the Theosophical Society, of which I was a member for several years...

From 1915 onwards, I began to compose short pieces, some of which pleased... my teacher of that time, William Wooding Starmer... My constant and developing musical activity decided me to devote my life to music... I entered the Royal Academy of Music as a student in January 1918, remaining there until July 1922. I studied composition with Frederick Corder, piano with Tobias Matthay, and organ with Reginald Steggall. After this I continued my studies privately in composition until 1927 with John Ireland and in piano Benno Moiseiwitsch and his assistant, Mabel Lander, and for the year 1928 in piano with Artur Schnabel.

While a student at the Royal Academy of Music, a young composer, Michael Head, won a composition scholarship and entered Frederick Corder's class. We became friends and in 1921 I visited his home and came to know his younger sister Nancy. She became my wife in 1931 and our life together has brought days, months, years, and indeed decades of ever deepening happiness. Besides this, it was my rare good fortune that in my wife I found the librettist of three of my four full-length operas, three children's operas and numerous other vocal works...

After I finished my studies at the RAM, where music was music and life was life and never the twain seemed to meet, I discovered that there were in existence, organisations of working-class people whose aim was the establishment of the rational society of socialism. I became aware that a socialist state had been set up in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1924, I joined the Independent Labour Party, at that time the socialist wing of the Labour Party. A year later I became an active member of the London Labour Choral Union, whose aim was to promote the cause of socialism through musical activity. It was led by the famous English composer, Rutland Boughton. I wrote songs for this organisation. Moreover, I began to take part in general working-class activities, such as parliamentary elections as a canvasser, and, later, the hunger-marches. In 1929, the ILP, influenced by Trotskyism, disaffiliated from the Labour Party, so I resigned from it and joined the Labour Party.

By this time I had realised that I must learn more about the world, more about politics. To this end I entered Berlin University as a student in 1929 and started on a systematic study of philosophy, with musicology as my second subject. In due course I came into contact with the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin and with the music of composers associated with the German working-class movement, such as Hanns Eisler, whose world-outlook was that of Marxism. Economic problems, my marriage and the threatening rise of Hitler Fascism in Germany decided me to return to England in the summer of 1931, after only two-and-a-half years as a student in Berlin University. Already 30 years old, I abandoned any attempt to take a D.Phil. in Berlin, which would have taken nearly three more years.

My studies and my experiences in Berlin in the early 1930s, the world economic crisis, the failure of social democracy in the Weimar Republic to prevent the seizure of power by German Fascism, the high culture and heroism of the Communist workers of Germany - it took all this to bring me from the mechanical materialism of my boyhood to Marxism, the world-outlook I adopted in 1934. I joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1935.

For me, as a musician and as a man, Marxism is a guide to action. It challenges me to express through musical art the feelings of men and women, above all in their struggles to create a condition of social organisation in which science and art will be the possession of all and in which they will themselves be no longer exploiters nor objects of exploitation.

Among those of my compositions in which this challenge has been most clearly taken up are my four full-length operas, one of them a prize-winner in the Arts Council Opera Competition of 1951. It has been my inestimable good fortune to see them all produced in seven different opera houses of the German Democratic Republic, as well as one in a London opera house and another one in two opera houses of the USSR.

The first step along the road which led to my fruitful and happy association with the Leipzig Opera House was taken in Berlin in 1931, when I entered the Grosses Schauspielhaus to hear the first performance of Die Massnahme, a Lehrstueck by Bertolt Brecht with music by Hanns Eisler. Three years later in London, I met the composer with two of his former students and fellow fighters with him for working-class power, Ernst Hermann Meyer and Georg Knepler. All four of us were active musically in the British working-class movement. Songs by Eisler and Meyer became famous in Britain and in 1934-5 I conducted in different districts in London ten performances of Die Massnahme in an English translation...

The opera houses of the German socialist state have provided me with the opportunities and therefore the instigation to create the three full-length operas which have succeeded my first opera, Wat Tyler... I did not write Wat Tyler with either Leipzig or the GDR in mind. An English Marxist historian, Hyman Fagan, had suggested the English Peasant Rising of 1381 as a good subject for an opera as early as 1938. During the period that I was serving with the British Army, my wife, Nancy, and I visited Maidstone, where John Ball, one of the leaders of the rebellion, was freed from imprisonment in Maidstone Goal... Nancy wrote the libretto in 1947 and I started to compose the music in 1948. In 1951... I asked my friends, Eisler, Meyer and Knepler, to arrange an occasion on which I could sing and play it through to possibly interested people... Those present included the composer Rudolf Wagner-Regeny and Hans Pischner, then music director of the Berliner Rundfunk. Dr. Pischner... decided to record an extensive radio version of Wat Tyler in German translation, which I conducted in 1952, with singers from all over the GDR and Choir and Symphony Orchestra of the Berliner Rundfunk. A decision to produce the opera in the Leipzig Opera House in May 1953 was quickly taken and I went home to England after the most exciting period of my professional life.

The world premiere of Wat Tyler took place in September 1953. I spent 14 days before the premiere in Leipzig and my practical education as an opera composer began... The success of the premiere... was an exceedingly important event in my life, not only because it put me on the map as an opera composer, but because it introduced me to Karl Kayser, who was present at the performance.

My wife and I wrote our second opera, Men of Blackmoor, with a first performance in the GDR in view. A proposal to produce the opera in Weimar in November 1956 was made by Karl Kayser, then the intendant there... It was decided that I should produce the opera with Kayser's general advice and detailed assistance. This arrangement worked out well and the three months I spent in Weimar in the autumn of 1956 were the happiest of my professional life, though not of my personal life, because my wife had to remain in England... and only came over for the premiere.

Shortly after the premiere of Men of Blackmoor I returned to England, but not before Karl Kayser had expressed an interest in the idea of my writing a third opera. In 1959, I made the journey to British Guyana to collect material for an opera about the struggle of the Guyanese people in 1953 against British imperialism... The world premiere of The Sugar Reapers, or Guyana Johnny (its German title) took place in December 1966... As in the case of Men of Blackmoor, the Radio of the GDR recorded an extensive radio version of the opera...

I then wrote my fourth opera, Joe Hill: the Man Who Never Died, to a libretto by the American playwright, Barrie Stavis, which was produced at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin, in September 1970.

It remains for me to relate some facts of my personal life... Nancy and I had a family of three daughters. To one of them, a tragic chance befell; at seven years old she suffered sudden death in a street accident. The passing of thirty-six years has not effaced, has hardly dimmed the remembrance of this cruel disaster. Our two other daughters, our sons-in-law, and our seven grandchildren have all greatly enriched our lives...

One certainty remains. Homo sapiens, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals, as Shakespeare described... through the mouth of Hamlet, will not become extinct in a world war, even in a nuclear war. In some habitable territory... men and women will build new and glorious socialist states, but under difficulties which our unconquerable species need never have encountered.

(May 1980)

© 2001 Alan Bush Music Trust