The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Culture

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries English musicians had a great reputation in Europe, both for their talent and for their originality. Today there is a revival of interest in these neglected composers. It was their experiments in keyboard music which helped to form the base from which grew most of the great harpsichord and piano music of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the following centuries England produced no composers of world rank except for Henry Purcell in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Elgar in the twentieth century. The music of Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and William Walton is performed all over the world today.

Benjamin Britten (1913—76) was not regarded to be modern in the musical sense of the word, but he was modern in his attitude towards his public. He composed music, particularly operas and choral works, that can be sung by ordinary people and by children. Some of his operas, such as Noyes Fludde (Noah’s Flood) are performed in churches every year, and people from the surrounding countryside sing and act in them. His opera Peter Grimes was warmly received not only in Britain but also outside the country. The festival which Benjamin Britten started in his little home town, Aldeburgh, on the North Sea coast of Suffolk, has become one of the most important musical festivals in Britain.

Benjamin Britten’s music, however, is traditional compared with the works of many of the younger generation of composers. The experiments of young composers, like Peter Maxwell Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett and John Tavener are having considerable influence abroad.

Many twentieth-century British composers, includingjtalph Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Britten, have been attracted and influenced by old English folk songs. The resurrection of English national music is closely connected with the name of one of the most popular 20th century composers, R. V. Williams, who began as a folk song enthusiast and enriched the English heritage of folk songs. His opera Hugh the Drover was a great success among the British spectators.

Based on ‘special relations’, there has always been a close cultural link between Britain and America, not only in literature but also in the popular arts, especially music. Before the Second World War Americans exported jazz and the blues. During the 1950s they exported rock’n'roll, and star singers like Elvis Presley were idolized by some young Britons and Americans alike.

In the early 1960s a new sound was heard, very different from anything which had so far come from the American side of the Atlantic. This was the Liverpool quartet, or ‘beat’.

The people responsible for the so-called ‘pop revolution’ in the West were four Liverpool boys (George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Star, real name Richard Starkey) who joined together in a group and called themselves the Beatles. They played at first in small clubs in the back streets of the city, and wrote their own words and music. They had a close personal relationship with their audience, and they expected them to join in.

Soon the group won the affection of people, because, as they developed, their songs became more serious. They wrote not only of love, but of death and old age, poverty and daily life. They represented the anger and bitterness of youth struggling for freedom against the ruling class, for a better future for themselves. In 1970—1 the parthership of the Beatles broke up, but their influence continued. When John Lennon was murdered in New York in 1980, he was mourned by millions of his supporters all over the world, not only because of his fame as a Beatle, but because he had dedicatd this fame to the cause of peace.

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