“Where are the composers?” asked the great Wagnerian conductor Hans Richter on his appointment to the Hallé Orchestra in 1899. His question epitomised 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. Britain was Das Land ohne Musik.
“Who wants the English composer?” asked the composer Vaughan Williams a few years later, in the RCM Magazine 1912. It was the same question, put with a slightly different emphasis, and reflecting an aesthetic truth about music: if a culture is to inherit from one generation, and pass on to the next generation a living musical tradition, this is something created equally over a period of time by the composers and the performers within that culture speaking together. The best music is music made by the best performers. If Britain in the romantic period of the nineteenth century really was, as it was perceived as being, “the land without music”, it meant that this was not happening, and that the musical culture was divided.
Fifty years later, in the optimistic atmosphere of the 1950s, summed up by the Festival of Britain in 1951, it seemed to three young alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, the singer Norman Tattersall, the composer 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 concerts in St Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Square, Kensington, starting in a small way with performances that were informal, exploratory, experimental. They grew to include a choir, the Redcliffe Festival Choir, spread over four years, 1957 – 1961, and were called the Redcliffe Festival. It soon became clear that such a format was not enough for the realisation of the ultimate goal, and that a new answer was needed to the question posed by Richter and Vaughan Williams, who in the last year of his life was the President of our newly founded Redcliffe Festival. So, two books were written in an attempt to find one: the first one covering the early period, up to the nineteenth century, Early English Organ Music; and the second covering the period since 1945, Contemporary British Music. Meanwhile the Redcliffe Festival was metamorphosed and became The Redcliffe Concerts of British Music in 1963/64, and concerts were moved to the Arts Council Drawing Room, at 4 St James’s Square. From there in 1967, when the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room were built, they moved to a more permanent home on the South Bank, 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 22 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, the performances which made the strongest impact generated their own creative momentum and future growth. While preparing the material for Contemporary 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 be 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.” Could the concert be framed with our joint classical favourites? “I know exactly which ones”, came the response.
The sixth season of Redcliffe Concerts ended thus on 11 May 1970:
Symphony in A major, K.201 Mozart
Double Concerto, Op.19 Routh
for violin, violoncello and orchestra
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Autumn Music Panufnik
Symphony in C major, K.200 Mozart
The success of the concert was ongoing, and led to the breaking of a 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 his Violin Concerto (City of London Festival, 1972), and Redcliffe Concerts commissioned his next symphony, Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony No.4, Redcliffe tenth season, 1974).
The Queen’s Silver Jubilee
1977 was the year of the Silver Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II, and Redcliffe Concerts were invited, along with the orchestras and other organisations, whose concerts were sponsored by the London Orchestral Concert Board, to include in their season a concert that specially celebrated this event; the long tradition, the place music held in the life of the nation, and the royal connection with British music. However, just in case anyone got the wrong idea, our Chairman, William Glock, gave a firm warning that we were not to look for any special funding for this concert from the Arts Council. There would be none!
This invitation acted paradoxically as the greatest encouragement for us, as it was official endorsement of the work and purpose of Redcliffe Concerts, even if it did confirm the refusal of the Arts Council to fund them. We planned a concert round the theme of joy in music–making, and the programme which is our third illustration would span three centuries, and it would draw special attention to an unknown British composer of the Georgian period, Samuel Wesley (1766 – 1837), whose music was much performed and broadcast after 1973 by Redcliffe Concerts, following the first performance in modern times of the Confitebor in York Minster the previous year. The concert would, indeed must, also include a new piece of joyous music of today. The occasion would be a gala concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Guest of Honour would be the Minister for the Arts, Jack Donaldson, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbury. 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! “