(or ‘Maybe the English weren’t totally shit at Classical Music after all!’)
Look look! Shiny new web pages!!
Part of the new concerted effort to be, organised, particularly when it comes to gig hunting.
In other news, I’ve fallen in love again. His name is Jenkins, and he’s been dead for over 300 years. Don’t tell Hannah.
It all started when fellow Morris dance band member Taissa sent me a Facebook message thus:
That was it – a YouTube clip with no context. But she deduced that I would recognise the tune as ‘All In A Garden Green’ – one of the favourites at the Bastard Session.
It’s another one of these fascinating ‘folk’/’classical’ crossovers. But really, it’s from an age when that sort of definition is meaningless. It appears in Playford in 1651. In those days it was just a tune.
It sounds like this:
(Please excuse the cheesy graphics, Diary, and steel yourself for some more later!)
I found the words to All In A Garden Green in one of my ancient songbooks the other day – I can’t remember which. But it was certainly pre-1900, and probably pre-1850. Maybe a *lot* pre. So it has had words for some time. Perhaps it was a popular ballad before being a famous tune. (I imagine my local Early Music expert, Dan Allen, might know.) There is also a Playford tune that sounds very similar, called ‘Gathering Peascods’.
But here Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, a Dutch composer, has decided to write variations on it. So presumably it was one of those international tunes, that you discover versions of in many different countries. And it was presumably popular enough for composers to consider it was worth putting their own spin on it.
Sweelinck seems like a bit of a dude. Amongst the first major keyboard composers in Europe, according to the huge all-seeing unblinking eye that is Wikipedia. But it got me wondering whether any English composers had done anything similar with ‘All In A Garden Green’.
I don’t automatically ask ‘What about the English?’, Diary – whatever you may think. It’s just that this was clearly a tune that was very popular in England in the mid 1600s, and is still popular in English folk sessions today.
But if I’m honest, the real reason why I went off on an internet search to find English composers’ attempts at this tune was because I wanted to confirm or disprove something that I’ve suspected for a long time: that, generally speaking, the English have always been shit at Classical Music.
And now the obligatory qualifications. (Sigh.)
This is a generalisation, and there are some very good English Classical music. Indeed, many of the best of the Playford tunes that I play in sessions were written by Henry Purcell. And his brother Dan. (Well, ‘Daniel’ technically, but Dan sounds mildly more amusing.)
But I think it’s useful, and fair, to compare tendencies within cultures. France just produces more great chefs, both in quantity and in quality, than pretty much anyone else. Brazil produces better football. Japan makes better horror movies. Yes these are generalisations, and they change all the time. Cultures suddenly emerge with unexpected strengths, such as Scotland’s computer game industry.
And with that in mind, I’ve always found English Classical composers to be… frankly, a bit rubbish. And I’m fine with that. Everyone can’t be good at everything.
Elgar has some good moments. Vaughan Williams is alright. Tippett was innovative in his way, as was Benjamin Britten, as was John Taverner. But I don’t think any of them are as good as, say, French composers like Debussy and Satie. Never mind Puccini, Bach or Beethoven. And none of them come close to Hadyn and Mozart.
English music definitely gets better for me when you get earlier. Does John Dowland count as a classical composer? Rather than a pro-emo singer-songwriter? If so then he’s proper Premier League. I don’t know the works of Thomas Tallis that well – I should know more. And of course the crazy Purcell brothers are marvellous. Handel is very good, but he counts as German. Sorry, he really does. Gustav Holst is also great. He was born in England, although as the name suggests he might well have got some of his sparkle from his Swedish, Latvian and German family influence.
In a nutshell, what I think sounds wrong with most English classical music is that it’s just trying too hard. Elgar apparently said that he wanted to be the Shakespeare of music, and that sums it up for me. There’s a desperation to be big bad hitters, on the same level as Beethoven or Wagner. But what it lacks is something Shakespeare has in abundance: unselfconscious, unaffected joy. Shakespeare’s works have an extraordinarily vidid language of imagery, and deal with big themes in elegant plots with brilliant characterisation. But what drives it all along is a playful, mischievous sense of humour and a sense of wonder at the world. Even in his tragedies he can’t stop essentially breaking into Paul Whitehouse’s “Brilliant!!” character from The Fast Show.
Hamlet starts off this archetypal miserablist:
… I have of late—but
wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that…
But before you know it…
… this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire…
Ooop, you’re supposed to be being miserable there, right?
… why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!
It’s almost like he can’t help himself.
Anyway, that’s a passion and a lust for life that I hear in Mozart, and loud and clear in Beethoven’s Ninth. But sorry, Elgar never comes close, except for a whisper of it in the Enigma Variations.
To me, it seems like the English Classical composers are terrified of a good tune. Anything emotional, rather than intellectual. Good tunes are fine if a little mocking (like ‘Pomp and Circumstance Marches’), or if they’re educational (like ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’). English Classical music, to me, takes the joy and energy and passion and humour of the great composers and tries to stuff it and display it in a glass cabinet.
And just when I’d come to think that the only decent English composers are the ones you’ve heard of, and even they’re not that great, I look for English composers who have done variations on ‘All In A Garden Green’, I discover John Jenkins.
Such a wonderfully mundane name!
According to Sauron/Wikipedia, he was quite like Haydn: quiet, pious, industrious. Just spent pretty much all his time just churning out music. “He just shits this stuff out!” his late 17th Century contemporaries used to say! Probably.
I would *love* to do that. I would love to be in a position where I am just churning out music. That would be me being a very happy bunny. No more stressing about whether an idea is ever actually going to get written, or if it is written, finished.
But he also reminds me of Haydn because he puts ‘catchy melody’ right at the heart of what he writes. Not complex puzzles like Bach, or big romantic gestures like Beethoven, or a new exciting “This is going to change everything!” scale* like Schoenberg.
(*Spoiler: it didn’t.)
And recently I’ve been listening to almost nothing else.
This, dear Diary, is his Division for 2 Basses in C Major. It starts sweet, and then, after a minute, kicks up a gear.