A soul-shaking hill-scape

By David Hackbridge Johnson – an extract from the book, ‘Ramble on Music’

When I was about 16 my parents took us all on the first of several  family holidays to the Black Isle, a remote peninsula to the east of Inverness.  Although I had been in the country before, this holiday was the first time I really felt the presence of nature.  It was a feast for the senses that I have never experienced before; the sky with its changing colours and passing clouds of different shapes and density, the leaves of trees wet with dew in the mornings, the smell of wood smoke and burning vegetation, the sound of the cockcrow and the scurry of hens.  Not many people live on the Black Isle; nature has a firm grasp on this unspoilt territory.  We used the Black Isle as a base from which to travel into the mainland of Scotland, visiting many villages and lochs.  The rolling, valleys and streams were beautiful and the purple heather and ferns captivated me .  I well remember the beautiful fishing town of Ullapool, where I noticed for the first time in my life the kind of light that only exists in the presence of the sea.  I seemed to feel an energy pass through me - not something I can be specific about - but I definitely had a physical sensation in the presence of these riches.  I suppose I could never be regarded as a nature lover since I have always lived in towns and always will, yet occasionally I will seek a necessary experience of the solitude and magnitude of the hills and rivers. 

All these scenes of nature could be depicted in music, many composers have done so.  Certain works of Bridge, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Delius immediately conjure up pictures of the English countryside when I listen to them.  Often such composers use folksongs in their works.  Interest in folk song was acute in the years surrounding 1900; witness the field-work of Vaughan Williams, Sharp, Holst, Grainger and Kennedy-Frazer.  Whenever I hear folksongs I am immediately transported to the winding lanes of Devon or the gentle rolling hills of the Borders. 

Folksong in music can be something of a contentious issue.  Elizabeth Lutyens dismissed composers who associate themselves with folksong and landscape, as members of the 'cowpat school' - one of her most inspired jokes.  (Composer Hugh Shrapnel, who studied with Lutyens, remembers vividly how funny she was - lessons were always peppered with amusing incidents.  He also relates the fact that she never listened to what anyone else was saying, and that her anti-Semitism had all the students squirming.) We might expect such an attitude from Lutyens; she had signed up to Stravinsky's absurd notion regarding music's ontological purity.  She also no doubt suffered at the hands of the fuddy-duddies whose blinkered attitude to any composer interested in modernist styles deprived many of the oxygen of performance.  Folksong is often dismissed after the manner of Lutyens.  It is considered a limitation when used in concert music.  English composers particularly are criticised in his way.  I remember having a fascinating debate with composer Edwin Roxburgh on this subject; he felt that Bartok had been much more resourceful in his use of folksong than English composers.  I am not so sure about that - Brigg Fair by Delius is an amazing set of variations on a folksong.  In it are found many extraordinary things that could be analysed for their purely musical resourcefulness, rather than for their reference to cows revolving in a field.  Because of the difference in speech intonation, the folk music used by Bartok will always sound rather exotic to English ears, yet our own folk music is all too familiar in its lilting rhythms and old modes.  Perhaps deep down this music is so ingrained that we can't invest in it the trappings of modernism. 

Vaughan Williams wrote many folksong inspired pieces yet not all of them are pictorial descriptions of the countryside.  In fact I would like to consider three works by Vaughan Williams that to me are quite as shocking as the music of expressionism.  On Wenlock Edge, for Tenor and Piano Quintet sets poems by A.E. Housman.  Housman is regarded quintessentially as the poet of the English countryside.  Literary critics such as Germaine Greer consider him a rather bad poet and certainly very dated.  I think Housman has been misunderstood - his themes of betrayal, loss, recollection and hidden emotions are surely relevant to any age.  The fact that he set his poems in a half imaginary Shropshire should not beguile us into thinking that he represents a dated literary offshoot - a poetic 'cowpat'.  After all, the lads are still dying in their hundreds.  No one who has visited Shropshire can fail to be moved by the beautiful countryside, yet that is not all there is in Housman and it is not the only concern of Vaughan Williams either. The music of On Wenlock Edge is utterly ethereal and as expressive as anything in Alban Berg.  The musical language is also extraordinary; true, he does not favour the dissonant intervals of Bartok or the Second Viennese School, yet his use of consonant intervals is often subversive.  This free use of consonant intervals reaches its apogee in the Symphony No. 3, 'Pastoral'.  In giving this symphony that subtitle, Vaughan Williams has been able to wrong-foot listeners and musicologists alike.  It is categorically not a piece about the countryside, surely any fool can realise that.  It is rather his profound reaction to the events surrounding the Great War.  These are not recollected in tranquillity; Vaughan Williams did active service it must be remembered, indeed he lost many friends in the carnage.  The way the supposedly friendly parallel triads bleed into each other in his work makes it one of the most shocking and moving experiences in music.  The third piece I would like to talk about is the Tallis Fantasia.  This is such a familiar work and its warm bath of string tone seems so comfortable, that we forget the incredible impression this work made and indeed still makes to people who hear it for the first time.  It is a thoroughly modern piece of music, not a nostalgic backward look to the golden age of Tudor composers.  It is a work that had a profound effect on other composers, among them Herbert Howells.  Lots of contemporary composers surely owe a lot to this work - John Tavener, Harrison Birtwistle, Arvo Pärt. 

Both Vaughan Williams and Bartok wrote folk music of their own invention.  The two composers became so steeped in folk music that it affected the way they wrote their own melodies.  A composer who best exemplifies the influence of folk music on his own writing is Percy Grainger.  He made many folksong settings but there are also a large number of works where his own melodies sound like folksongs.  He also wrote a masterpiece for ever associated with the landscape of Scotland - Hill-Song No. 1.  It is thought that Grainger's visit to Scotland in 1900 was his liberation as an artist.  His experience of the countryside might have led to a number of pictorial works.  His remarks about Hill-Song No. 1 reveal something rather different.  He wanted to write a 'soul-shaking hill-scape' and in his conversations with Delius he was at pains to point out that he didn't want to describe the hills but he wanted to encapsulate 'the nature of the hills themselves'.  What does this mean?  I find it helpful to consider the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins in relation to Grainger's concept.  Hopkins speaks of the 'inscape' of an object - that is, it's essence.  These are difficult concepts indeed, and will have the ontologists tapping their, oh, so neatly folded spectacles against the spines of their learned tomes.  Yet part of human experience surely, consists of our attempts to describe the world in which we find ourselves.  We may not always do this to the satisfaction of the philosophers, yet these attempts may be worth expressing in any number of ways according to the individual.  Grainger was an idiosyncratic thinker to say the least, so we can't be surprised if he shuns a lovely Argyllshire-inspired tone poem and instead, writes a through-composed, organically conceived structure lasting some 20 minutes, where the 'hills themselves' are depicted.  One day, to satisfy the ontologists, I would like to prove the greatness of Hill-Song No. 1 in purely musical terms.  The way the music evolves from bar to bar, spreading vegetally across a large canvas without any recourse to conventional development or recapitulation, reminds me of Schoenberg's Erwartung.  Schoenberg's harmonic language is of course far more radical, yet in terms of compositional procedure, Erwartung shows a lot in common with Grainger's work.  Grainger was essaying this type of composition many years before Schoenberg, yet he has not been given credit for this and remains a somewhat marginalised figure.  What comes forth from both composers is the emotional force of their responses to natural drama - be it the drama of Grainger's landscape or of Schoenberg's female protagonist.  I will have more to say about Grainger later - he wrote several masterpieces worthy of extended discussion.

I have not visited the Black Isle for many years and during the time of my holidays I did not know Grainger's Hill-Song No. 1.  Had I done so, I might well have sung his soul-shaking melodies as I tilted my head to hill and horizon. 

©David Hackbridge Johnson, 8/2006