Redcliffe Concerts of British Music

Genesis and Evolution

“Where are the composers?” asked the great Wagnerian conductor Hans Richter on his appointment  to the Hallé Orchestra in 1879. His question epitomized Britain’s one-sided musical culture, as it was perceived in the context of the richly burgeoning European musical traditions of the  high romantic period of the nineteenth century.

Das Land ohne Musik

“Who wants the English composer?” asked the composer Vaughan Williams thirty years later. It was the same question, but put with a slightly different emphasis, and reflecting an aesthetic truth about music; if a culture is to inherit and pass on a living musical  tradition, this is created jointly over time by the composers and the performers speaking together. The best music is performed by the best performers. If Britain really was the land without music, it meant this was not happening, and the culture was divided.

In the optimistic  atmosphere of the 1950s, summed  up by the Festival of Britain in 1951, it seemed to three alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, Norman Tattersall, Roy Teed and myself, that the time was ripe for bold and innovatory ideas to be tested in the performance of new music. So began some performances in St Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Square; starting in a small way with performances that were informal, exploratory, experimental. They grew to include a choir, spread over four years (1957-61), and were called the Redcliffe Festival.

It became clear that such a format was not enough for the realisation of our ultimate goal. We needed a new answer to the question posed by Richter and Vaughan Williams. So I wrote two books in an attempt  to find one; for the early period, Early English Organ Music; for the period since 1945, Contemporary British Music. Meanwhile The Redcliffe Concerts of British Music were founded in 1963/64, and concerts were moved to the Arts Council drawing room, at 4 St James’s Square. From there they moved to a more permanent home on the South Bank in 1967, when the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room were built, and they were supported financially by the London Orchestral Concert Board, representing the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Greater London Council.

The South Bank remained the home  to an annual season of Redcliffe Concerts for 22 years, until 1989 when, following the abolition of the Greater London Council, the London Orchestral Concert Board ceased to exist. During those years more than 150 20th century British composers had their work either commissioned or performed; more than 450 individual artists appeared, more than 60 orchestras, ensembles and choirs contributed.

Among such a wealth of creative music making, performances which made the stongest impact generated their own popular response and future growth. Three such were:

Andrzej Panufnik

While preparing the material for Contmporary British Music I met many composers for the first time. Andrzej Panufnik stood out, the preeminent Polish composer and conductor, who fled his country in 1954 for political and artistic reasons, and began a new life in England, becoming a British citizen. His work, as he described it to me, as composer and conductor, and his real-life experiences in Warsaw during the war, which would have broken a lesser man, and for which music was the spiritual metaphor, seemed to me the very heart of  the western musical tradition. I invited him to conduct a concert of his choosing in the next season of Redcliffe Concerts. “With pleasure”, he replied, “and I shall balance my new work with one of yours”. I asked whether the concert could be framed with our joint classical favourites. “I know exactly which ones”, came the response.

So the following year, 1970, the sixth season ended thus on 11 May :

Symphony in A major, K.201                   Mozart

Double Concerto, Op.19                        
       for violin, violoncello and orchestra
       – world première

*      *      *

    Autumn Music                                       Panufnik
      – London première

    Symphony in C major, K.200                   Mozart

The success of the concert was ongoing, and led to the breaking of a  recent period of silence in London for Panufnik’s music. The London Mozart Players, and Harry Blech asked him to do some more work with them. Other colleagues commissioned new works. Yehudi Menuhin commissioned a Violin Concerto (City of London Festival 1972), and Redcliffe Concerts commissioned his next symphony, Sinfonia Concertante (Redcliffe tenth season 1974).

Electronic Music

On 15 January 1968 Redcliffe Concerts gave the first-ever concert in Britain of Electronic Music by British composers. It was the work of Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff, who did the most to establish and advance professionally the technique of composition by computer in this country. The event was, outwardly, a spectacular success. A sell-out, a packed Elizabeth Hall, a taxi queue extending to Waterloo station, and reviews far longer and more detailed than was normally the practice, some showing insight, particularly  those in scientific journals like Wireless World and Computer Weekly,  all reflecting a high level of public curiosity, fed by the novelty value of the new technology.

One result of the concert was to stimulate the setting up of computerized studios in music colleges and the music departments of universities throughout the country. The concert had demonstrated the stage reached in computer technology in this country. Cary and Zinovieff were asked to give another Redcliffe concert the following year, 1969,with  live instruments to supplement and modulate the computer-generated sounds. A computer by itself could not make music without  a composer’s creative ordering.

Two British composers were researching seriously into using the computer as an integral part of their materia musica, Harrison Birtwistle and Jonathan Harvey. Each was commissioned by Redcliffe Concerts to compose a piece. Birtwistle’s Chronometer (1972) was based on  the ordering of clock mechanisms; Harvey’s Inner Light 1 (1973) was pure abstract research into the harmonic spectrum, the continuous transitions, and changing “degrees of determinacy” in the relation of computer-generated sounds to instrumental sounds. It was a work-in-progress, to be continued.

The concert  of Electronic Music on 26 November 1973 was the fourth and last  in the Redcliffe Concerts series :

    Inner Light   1                                    Jonathan Harvey
–  commissioned first performance

Chanson de Geste                              Harrison Birtwistle
–  first London performance

Continuum  II                                    Tristram Cary
–  revised version

China Music                                      Hans Werner Henze
–  first London performance

The story has a postscript. Just as the four Electronic Music concerts show a  development in  the use of the new medium, so Birtwistle and Harvey pursued it in their later works; Birtwistle in the opera The Mask of Orpheus, for which Zinovieff wrote the libretto and electronics are integrated for the first time as part of the orchestral sonority; and Harvey in a piece for soprano and electronics From Silence, which is the point of arrival  of his earlier researches. At a 50th birthday concert for him in 1989, the work was performed twice, and followed with Inner Light 1, written fifteen years earlier .
British musical tradition          The Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration

1977 was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and Redcliffe Concerts were invited, along with the orchestras and other musical organisations whose concerts were sponsored by the London Orchestral Concert Board, to  include in their season something that specially celebrated the royal connection with British music, the long tradition, the place music held in the life of the nation. However, just in case anyone got the wrong idea, we were firmly warned by the Chairman, William Glock, not to look for any special funding for our concert from the Arts Council. There would be none.

It was an official endorsement of  the work and purpose of Redcliffe Concerts, and it  acted as the greatest encouragement. We planned a concert round the theme of joy in music-making. It would span three centuries; it would draw attention to an unknown composer of  the middle period, who had been discovered  by us and  much performed already (whose portrait incidentally hangs in the Duke’s Hall of the Academy); it would, indeed must, include a new piece of joyous music of today. The occasion would be a  special gala concert, and the guest of honour would be the Minister for the Arts, Lord Donaldson.

26 September 1977

Birthday Ode for Queen Mary (1694)              Purcell
Come ye sons of Art”

Piano Concerto Op.32 (1976)                          Routh

Ode to St Cecilia (1794)                                   Wesley

It was indeed a joyous concert, and Lord Donaldson addressed the reception afterwards with these words; “If that is British music, I like it; and I will support British music in any way I can, except with money.”

Francis Routh signature

Francis Routh – 2012