TEN YEARS OF ENGLISH MUSIC
Who could have foreseen, way back in the autumn of 2006, that a festival entirely devoted to the lost, forgotten and undiscovered composers of the English Musical Renaissance (roughly the period between the 1880s and 1920s) would reach its grand 10th anniversary milestone? Thanks to the vision, belief, patient work and single-minded determination of the festival’s founder, Em Marshall-luck, this unique concert series has now become an established event — attracting some of Britain’s finest performers, from the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor, Martin Yates, to that newly emerging star of recitals and opera, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge — who, at this year’s event, gave a magnificent performance of works by Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Sir Edward Elgar.
This year’s May Bank Holiday was a busy time at Dorchester Abbey in rural Oxfordshire, the abbey being the main concert venue of the weekend festival. An eager and devoted audience of English music enthusiasts enjoyed the world premiere performance of Vaughan Williams’s score, Fat Knight — an intricate and atmospheric blend of sequences from the composer’s Falstaff opera, Sir John in Love. With scenes of medieval ale-houses and a spectral Windsor Forest, all embroidered with folk tunes, such as “Greensleeves”, the piece fully suited the splendid BBC Concert Orchestra — specialists in the music of these islands.
Saturday morning at the abbey brought a change in tone, era and ensemble, with The Queen’s Six — a group of brilliant young men who usually work and sing at St. George’s Chapel within the walls of Windsor Castle. Making their journey to Dorchester-on-thames, they brought with them the music of the time of Elizabeth I — madrigals and motets by Byrd, Tallis and Orlando Gibbons, the composers of what might be termed the first English musical renaissance. However, The Queen’s Six had one humorous surprise for us: a witty song all about those Tudor and Elizabethan luminaries sung to the tune of “Widecombe Fair”! The concert ended in noble mood, with the singers paying tribute to our longest reigning monarch (now celebrating her 90th birthday!) with “God Save The Queen”.
Other highlights from the weekend included the intense and energetic Concerto for Violin and Cello by a contemporary of Elgar (but now almost completely forgotten) Percy Sherwood. Violinist, Rupert Marshall-luck — with his colleague, cellist Joseph Spooner — soared to great heights, accompanied by the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by the charismatic John Andrews. But their concert began with a work very much in our own time, the Overture Ad Fontem (“To the source”) by Daniel Gillingwater (born 1963). Thoughtful, well-constructed and very much belonging to the tuneful, tonal world of an older English tradition, Daniel’s composition bodes well for the future of our music.
With talks and much socialising, a festival bus-ride to nearby Sutton Courtenay church (this was for a Shakespeare afternoon — complete with tea and cake!), a late-night line-up of traditional fiddle-playing from the folk musicians of the Old Swan Band and some 1930s’ nostalgic numbers from the New Foxtrot Serenaders, the 10th festival was a resounding success. Just like Daniel Gillingwater’s overture, the occasion took us to the source of our music: to the meadows and hill-forts of Oxfordshire, to the upper reaches of the Thames, and into the very heart of what it means to be English.