Saturday, 11 August 2012

Rubbra: Visions of Albion

Some ten years ago I had something of a compulsion to hear as much of the music of the English composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) as possible. I found his music very much to my taste, though in the intervening decade I've not listened to any more of his pieces - until now. 

Rubbra's music is of the kind that rewards the closest attention, especially the cycle of eleven symphonies which forms its backbone. His style is driven by melody and in his works you will hear a flow of singable melody throughout piece after piece. The themes within a single movement usually grow out of its initial melody (or motif), ever-evolving new melodies as they go. The process is evolutionary - or, to use a popular term, 'organic'. In this respect he is quite close to late Sibelius. The old rigidities of sonata form, complete with second subjects and development sections, are alien to his mature style. This method of composing is often called 'intuitive' but it calls for considerable control over the used material as each work grows. 

Now, a work driven by singable melody might sound like easy listening. What deepens Rubbra's music and makes it more difficult is that those melodic lines are expressed through polyphony - a form of counterpoint inspired by the composers of Renaissance England. His scores, therefore, can be full of melodic lines singing away at the same time. These have a tendency to break, Bach-like, into formal structures such as fugues or passacaglias. His works are, as a result, rarely crowd-pleasing. His music isn't pastoral nor is it folksong-inspired (in contrast to so much British music of its time). It isn't modernist either, nor impressionistic, nor does it place any great importance on orchestral colour for the sake of orchestral colour (i.e. it isn't glamorous). It is content to unfold its stream of singing polyphony through subtle harmonies, often to serene, ecstatic, radiant, visionary effect - though it can be strongly emotional too. 

Rubbra was a visionary type, inspired (like his teacher Holst) by Eastern mysticism and loving the Metaphysical Poets of Stuart England, later fervently embracing Roman Catholicism. He aimed at creating music of beauty and substance, music that (by fusing the spirit of Tudor polyphony with a modern sensibility) would would sound timeless. In his best, most luminous works I think he achieves that. The occasional use of the term 'The English Bruckner' to describe him might give you a sense of where he is coming from (though his symphonies are nowhere near as long as those of the great Austrian!)

Perhaps the place to begin is at the end. The magnificent Eleventh Symphony from 1979 is a single-movement, 15-minute symphony which exemplifies the qualities of Rubbra's music as just sketched out. It opens in a mood of mystery with a French horn playing a theme dominated by the interval of a perfect fifth. This interval remains a key player throughout as new melodies grow with seeming naturalness out of the ur-theme (the loveliest beginning at 9.37 on the linked video) and the music passes through other moods (serenity, exultation), always beautifully. The symphony may be small but it has the strength of a slumbering giant awakening. 

Like most composers, Edmund Rubbra took a while to evolve a personal style, though the essentials were there from the start. Going back to the other end of his long career, the First Symphony - an impressive début which wowed the audience at its première in 1937 - you can hear that Rubbra could write dramatically as well as serenely. The passionate opening movement is like the gradual dying-away of a great storm and is full of the spirit of symphonic striving, with resolute brass conflicting with tense, scurrying strings at the angry start before a mood of expansiveness begins to seep into the music and the tensions ease. The second movement is based on an old French dance called a Perigourdine. You'll hear its eight-bar tune at the very start. This tune comes again and again but is set against an ever-changing background which carries it from cheerfulness towards a manic state in a way that transforms the movement into a sort of danse macabre. (I hear the voice of his teacher Holst here). The longest movement by some margin, the closing Lento, is the one where the visionary aspect of the composer's art comes to the fore. To a quiet march rhythm, it begins like a scene of mourning before building to a powerful climax around five minutes in. This subsides onto an beautiful passage dominated by high strings. A return to the mournful mood of the opening leads to a prolonged climax at around ten minutes in, with those high strings singing a chant-like melody with radiant passion over a marching rhythm. An expectant stillness leads to a richly contrapuntal section and (eventually) a mighty concluding peroration. No wonder the first audience was impressed. 

In my opinion, the finest of Rubbra's eleven symphonies is the Sixth. The first movement should win over any remaining doubters. It has a mystical slow introduction which returns at the movement's end and frames a delightful allegro that has plenty of Italian sunniness to it. The even-more-mystical slow movement, Canto, is sublime. It displays the timeless, serene, visionary side of Rubbra better than anything else. I wrote in a diary when I first heard it that "I kept holding my breath throughout it". The movement has so much to recommend it that it would be pointless pointing the finger at particular passages - though, that said, I will now do so! Please listen out for the modulation just before the end as it is a 'tingle factor' moment for me (and hopefully for you too). The Scherzo - a boisterous movement with an unexpected ending - provides necessary contrast. The Finale is more elusive but fascinating, with a very beautiful opening passage. 

Talking of very beautiful opening passages, please try that of the Fourth Symphony as well. Its serenity provides another 'takes your breath away' moment in Rubbra's output. The passage mingles consonances with dominant sevenths and modulations and yet creates a feeling of stillness that is remarkable. The movement, through the composer's characteristic processes, then expands into more epic territory. The movement grows out of another ur-motif - this time a falling fifth and rising major third. After the noble expansiveness of this wonderful movement comes a short Intermezzo - a wistful waltz-like section that acts as light relief between the substantial outer movements. The polyphonic Finale comes in two parts - the first quiet, dark and inward-looking, the second full of epic striving. I think the first movement is in a league of its own here.

The symphony Rubbra himself was proudest of was his Ninth, the Sinfonia Sacra. This is a choral symphony (as someone else's Ninth Symphony had also been!!), with oratorio-like uses of Latin hymns and Lutheran chorales depicting the Resurrection. Serene, restrained and radiant, this piece is one you may need to hear a few times to fully appreciate. Repeated listening certainly brings out the symphonic processes particular to the composer which underlie the work. The stepwise rising-and-falling theme you here at the very start is the ur-theme from which much else springs. 

The symphony that always just about managed to maintain a foothold (or a toe-nail hold) on the repertory was the Fifth. The first movement is one of the glories of Rubbra's polyphonic style, using singing melodies and weaving them into a powerful symphonic statement. All the melodic lines grow out of a phrase heard  almost immediately, introduced by a solo oboe and containing the intervals of a perfect fifth and a tritone, the struggle between which (one stabilising, the other destabilising) plays such an important role in the symphony. The roots of the style in Renaissance polyphony becomes overt as the movement proceeds - as I'm sure you will hear for yourselves. The central Scherzo again seems to come as light relief after the intensity of the first movement. It fairly skips along. If it seems, despite the cheerfulness of its Renaissance dance-like tune, to be generating a surprising amount of symphonic energy that is because its tune and rhythms are constantly being modulated through key after key. The long Grave section that opens the final movement returns us to the mood and music of the first movement. Its bleak introspection eventually gives way to an Allegro vivo that is surprisingly uncomplicated and cheerful. At the end the symphony again dips back quietly into the mood of its opening. I have to admit that the finale of this piece fails (I think) to meet the high standards of Rubbra's usual symphonic writing. Please see what you think though. 

The Seventh Symphony is, in contrast, a wholly successful piece. Its first movement Lento should appeal to those who enjoy Bruckner,  those who enjoy Mahler and those who enjoy Rautavaara, with its mystical and beautiful opening, gorgeous shifts of harmony and powerful growth. That opening passage is one of Rubbra's finest, with harp and horn adding their magic. A short fate motif assumes prominence as the movement proceeds, driving it on. The central Scherzo is a delight - full of engaging rhythms and (unusually for the composer) orchestral colour, with a Renaissance dance-style trio. The finale takes the form of a Passacaglia and Fugue and is a movement of deep beauty and contrapuntal mastery. It seems to have been written in memory of the composer Gerald Finzi and begins in elegiac mood. Listen out for the lovely duet (about halfway) between solo violin and celesta, just before the fugue begins. 

The final symphony I can offer you is the Third, the one where the composer's admiration for Sibelius shines through (especially in some of the woodwind writing) from time to time. It has a lighter, more relaxed tone than the other symphonies I've reviewed and has a first movement full of energy and attractive melody. You will immediately notice that it sounds more Classical than any of the other symphonies and it comes closer than any of the others to using Classical sonata form. There's a good natured scherzo to follow with a charming tune and a particularly laid-back air - at least for the most part. The start of the slow movement is particularly lovely, wistful, with lots of aching yet restrained dissonances adding to its emotional tug. The rest of the movement doesn't (I think) maintain this high standard. The final movement takes the form of a set of a theme, variations and fugue and is a pleasant listen. If you listen to this movement and then listen to Rubbra's excellent contemporaneous orchestration of Brahms's Handel Variations you might get an idea about where this somewhat uncharacteristic movement came from.

The Rubbra symphonies (and, of course, there are three others) are one of the hidden treasures of British music and I hope you will take the chance to explore them.

Further listening:
Variations on "The Shining River"
String Quartet No.2
Lyric Movement
Sinfonia Concertante
Two Sonnets by William Alabaster
Viola Concerto 
String Quartet No.4  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your overview of Rubbra's symphonies. I'm just getting into them and this will be a nice companion. Thanks!