by Alan Bush (October 1981)
In Ernst Hermann Mayer's great book English Chamber Music, written in London in 1940 and 1941, he described chamber music as "the most intimate and elaborate of all musical forms...The essential attitude of the chamber musician is a kind of inwardness...A performance of chamber music seems to originate solely in the desire of the musicians to seek diversion and enjoyment through their own playing." He was writing of the English chamber music of the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Already towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries this situation began to change. Audiences were invited by aristocratic music patrons to listen to the work of their household composers, of whom Haydn was perhaps the most striking example. Haydn's eighty-two string quartets and his numerous works for other chamber music combinations provided a kind of cultivated entertainment music for an aristocratic patron and his guests. During the 19th century concerts of chamber music began to be held in public. Intimate as were some works by Mozart and Beethoven, this term could not be correctly applied to the Grosse Fugue, Op. 133.
For the last one hundred years or more chamber music has been written for concert performance by nearly all professional composers of rank, with a few exceptions such as Berlioz and Mahler. The score of Richard Wagner's one string quartet, composed at the age of sixteen, has been lost.
Students of composition in music conservatoires in all European countries have always been expected to produce chamber music works alongside works in other genres. I did this myself, but all those works I destroyed fifty years ago. On leaving the Royal Academy of Music, London, I continued to study composition from 1922 to 1927 with one of the leading English composers of that time, John Ireland, whose achievement was chiefly as the creator of solo songs and piano music, though he also wrote choral and orchestral works and some chamber music. The first four works which I wrote during this period of study were all chamber music works. They comprised a Fantasy for Violin and Piano Op. 3 (now lost), a String Quartet, Op. 4, a Quartet for Piano and Strings, Op. 5, and Five Pieces for Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Horn, Op. 6. These were followed by some songs and Symphonic Impressions for Orchestra, Op. 8. Since then I have written many chamber music works, which include works for varied string combinations, including one for double-bass and piano, Op. 93, and piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and also for recorders, this last is Op. 82. My most recent work is my Concertino for Two Violins and Piano, Op. 94, which I completed in February 1981. Only a few of these works could be described as intimate; they are all intended for concert performance.
With the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, I resolved from 1924 onwards to do what I could to advance the cause of socialism in Britain. I worked as a conductor of working-class choirs in London and composed songs for them to sing, the first, 'Song to Labour', being written in 1926. I realised that straightforward uncomplicated music was required if the significant text was to be intelligible to audiences, either in halls or at street corners. There was a considerable difference at that time in idiom between those workers' songs and my professional concert music. I had also come to the conclusion that there would be a development in the quality of musical works of art, if all the tones of which they consisted were organised thematically as well as harmonically and rhythmically. Up to that time in the works of even the greatest composers, tones which were organised in this threefold manner were combined in the same work with other tones in which thematic organisation was absent. This principle of thematic organisation in all voice parts is one which I have applied down to the present day.
But there remained one other fundamental principle, which I only arrived at after an important conference held in Prague in 1948, the principle that national character is an essential ingredient in musical art today and will remain so for an unforeseeably long period of time. The scientific reasons for this theory I have endeavoured to set forth in a paper which I read to the Congress of the International Folk Music Council, held in Edinburgh in 1969. This paper, 'National character an essential ingredient in musical art today' was published in my book, In my eighth decade and other essays (1980).
In my works which pre-dated 1948, English intonations were often combined with the West European chromatic vocabulary of chords, which had been developed at the beginning of this century. This combination produced inevitably some eclectic features, which I was able to overcome when the principle of national character had become clear to me.
Of my earliest chamber music works, Dialectic for String Quartet, Op. 15, written in 1929, provides a characteristic example of thematic organisation. From the opening unison theme, five subsequent contrasted themes are all derived. A development section follows, and in the recapitulation the fifth subject is sounded against the second and the fourth against the third. The exposition is objective in feeling, the development highly emotional, and the recapitulation ends with an expression of purposeful optimism.
It is difficult in chamber music to express or even to suggest the theme of social struggle. But I have achieved this by various means in at least six of my works. In my Meditation on a German Song of 1848, Op. 22; in the Three Concert Studies for Piano Trio, Op. 31, the third, a positive and lively dance movement, is given the title 'Alla Bulgara', being based on a folk-dance from Bulgaria. The people of Africa inspired my Three African Sketches for Flute with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 55, based on folk melodies from three different parts of Africa, and the Meditation and Scherzo for Double Bass and Piano, Op. 93, includes a 'Meditation' on the Ballad 'Geordie', a north of England folksong about a young woman whose loved one has been unjustly executed and who remains faithful to his memory. In one of my two recent chamber music works, Pro Pace et Felicitate Generis Humani, Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, Op. 89, the opening and closing sections present popular Russian and Soviet melodies, and between them are introduced American and English well known political songs, the 'Ballad of Joe Hill' by Earl Robinson and 'The Family of Man' by Fred Dallas. In another recent work, Voices from Four Continents, Rondo for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 91, the continent of America is represented by a song of Victor Jara of Chile, Africa by a song by the Mozambique composer, Dombo, Asia by a Vietnamese revolutionary song, and Europe by Lev Knipper's 'Steppe Cavalry'.
As far as professional music is concerned, it is in my four operas that people's struggles in different historical periods and in different parts of the world are presented. For amateur choirs there are my numerous choral songs, written between 1926 and 1961, the most recent being Song of the Cosmonaut, in honour of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Thus, there is no lack of material for the composer who aims in his or her work to reflect movements in which men and women are striving for the peace and progress of mankind.
© 2001 Alan Bush Music Trust