4. The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, 1953 – 1989

              A single document, dated December 1974, deposited in the British Library in 2019, records that a special award was made by the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain to Francis Routh in December 1974, firstly to mark the tenth anniversary of his founding of the Redcliffe Concerts of British music in 1963/4, and secondly to stress that, in the ten intervening years since then, it was by means of the Redcliffe Concerts that British music had been “consistently promoted”. Both statements, though true, are at variance with the generally received wisdom of the time, and the popular assumptions about British music, according to which England, at the turn of the twentieth century, was Das land ohne Musik, the land without music.

             According to this reckoning, the history of British music was divided into three parts, of which the first part takes us from the early medieval period up to the well-documented golden age of Purcell and the Restoration, during which the British musical tradition flourished under royal patronage. The second part saw the gradual German domination of the English Court during the eighteenth century under the Hanoverians, whose musical representative was G.F.Handel. The third part witnessed the Austro-German musical culture of the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, from Beethoven to Wagner, gaining the preponderance of notoriety in the public conscience and society, and the British musical tradition becoming correspondingly side-lined. Thus, arose the widespread philistine belief that the period between Henry Purcell, who died in 1695, and Edward Elgar, who was born in 1857, appeared to be some sort of a musical dark age, and England to be a culture devoid of native composers, Das land ohne musik.

            Then, at the opening of the twentieth century, change was in the air. It came from an unexpected quarter, musicians themselves, the performing side of the profession; and it can be measured by the remarkable fact that between 1900 – 1945 no fewer than five permanent professional orchestras of world class were founded in London, which are still active to this day. Two of them, the London Philharmonic (1932) and the Royal Philharmonic (1945), were founded by the greatest conductor this country ever produced, Sir Thomas Beecham. His recordings of Delius, and his sponsorship of that composer at the Delius Festival in 1929, brought together the missing parts of a divided culture. Under his leadership, he brought together one of the best composers, Delius, with one of the best orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic. Of the other three London orchestras, the oldest is the London Symphony (1904), whose first conductor was none other than Hans Richter. The BBC Symphony (1930) was conducted until 1950 by Sir Adrian Boult, whose purpose was to perform and broadcast the best music internationally, particularly British music. The Philharmonia (1945) was founded by the head of the recording company EMI, Walter Legge, for the specific purpose of making excellent recordings, international as well as British music, with the best international conductors. Their first performance in October 1945 was directed appropriately by Beecham.

            When the war ended in 1945 the political and social environments changed. What before had been only theoretical ideas for the growth of a society which barely existed, became instead visionary and original plans for change in the public services, in economics as well as in all social and cultural affairs. These radical changes were brought about by leading members of Sir Winston Churchill’s coalition government. Those who proved the most effective were:

  • in education – R.A.Butler (Education Act, 1944),
  • in health insurance – Sir William Beveridge (National Health Service, 1948), and
  • in cultural affairs, including music and the arts – John Maynard Keynes who established the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1945

The optimistic atmosphere of the 1950s was summed up by the Festival of Britain in 1951. The victorious end of the war in Europe had led to a heartfelt relief on the part of the broad mass of the population, coupled with admiration and gratitude to the countries of the Atlantic Alliance, as well as the Commonwealth, who had shared their national resources so freely for the common good in the hour of need. It was a universally-felt mood, one of forward-looking comradeship, which affected every aspect of national life. As far as music was concerned, the growth of five permanent professional London orchestras was an expression of the public perception of music as a performing art, even if it sometimes led to the idolisation of the performer at the expense of the composer. Yet both composers and performers are equally necessary for the creation of a whole musical culture. Their work must be professionally managed and administered if each is to produce his contribution to the whole, and receive his proper recognition. The work of the RPO was professionally managed by Sir Thomas Beecham, and the musician – performers of all the orchestras were registered under an obligatory “closed shop” agreement with the Musicians’ Union. In a developed musical culture, both composers and performers must be publicly perceived to exist professionally; and in this respect the British Composers’ Guild fell disastrously short of providing professional status for composers.

               In 1942 the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes became Chairman of a small pressure group, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). He was invited to take this on, in addition to his numerous other appointments, by R.A.Butler, President of the Board of Education, whose vision was anything but small. He had set up the CEMA only two years previously, as a charity to fill a particular need, namely to help unemployed musicians, actors and artists provide entertainment and solace for the victims and casualties of air – raids on London. This was a cause which few would take exception to, and with a matching grant from the Pilgrim Trust, the Board of Education was enabled to supply funds, an office, and a paid secretary, so that an enlarged CEMA could put into effect something of the Pilgrim Trust’s pre-war tradition of adult educational work among the unemployed, as well as providing tours of plays, art exhibitions (“Art for the people“), and thousands of concerts and recitals, mainly in factories and canteens, on an amateur basis. In fact CEMA was directly, if surreptitiously, subsidising amateur dramatics, and performances of all kinds, to say nothing of flouting the laws and science of aesthetics, both of which were anathema to Keynes, the one on financial grounds, the other on aesthetic grounds. Indeed he held the creative artist in little short of veneration. For him standards were everything, and standards were being violated.

                 So the CEMA had to change, and change beyond recognition; which may well have been R.A.Butler’s intention all along. When he first invited Keynes to lead the CEMA, he gilded his invitation with the tempting suggestion, wrapped up in abstruse verbiage, that “it could evolve into something that might occupy a more permanent place in our social organization”. And so it proved. The formative years for decisive, organisational reforms were 1942 – 1945, and in no case was this more important than in the evolution of the CEMA itself, for which Keynes’s purpose was that an organisation should evolve from it, set up by royal charter, to be called “The Royal Council for the Arts”, which would be the channel for public funding for all the arts, on a professional basis. Each of the arts would be represented by its own specialist sub-committee, with its own chairman, its own constitution, its own power to make recommendations, on behalf of its members, to the central governing body, headed by a Director General, who would provide the money. Eventually the CEMA committee voted to call the new organisation the Arts Council of Great Britain. Otherwise Keynes’s inspired proposals were accepted in toto.

                 When considering music, however, Keynes was faced with an unexpected problem, not found in the case of the other arts. The professional information about music supplied to him was provided by the Musicians’ Union, representing only performers. The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, representing composers, did not exist in 1945, and therefore we must assume that he was supplied with no information at all about composers, who were thereby excluded from the official list of those eligible for public funding. This imbalance, whereby performers received subsidy, composers did not, remained a fatal flaw in the financial management of British music subsidy, which nobody thought to correct from the moment in August 1945, when the newly formed Arts Council, which was otherwise thoroughly professional, replaced CEMA, which was amateur.

                 The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain was founded in 1953 – 1955 by Sir Arthur Bliss for the purpose of supporting and representing the professional interests of living British composers. The need for such a practical Guild, and such a professional organisation of experienced composers, which would stand up for the full rights of their colleagues, and indeed without which they would have no rights at all, had been recognised since 1945, when the Arts Council of Great Britain had been set up by Royal Charter specifically to ensure that all creative artists received their legally due financial rewards for their work, which was their intellectual property.

                  The purpose of the Composers’ Guild was thus broadly speaking two-fold; first, it was advisory to its members on the rules and conventions of commissioning, and commissioning bodies such as the BBC, including the laws of copyright and royalties; second, it was informative on the practicalities of foreign tours, and contracts relating to foreign tours, particularly those relating to the British Council. Since it was the business of the British Council to promote and spread awareness of all aspects of British culture in foreign countries, it was very much the concern of the Composers’ Guild to keep the British Council fully informed and up to date about those composers whose works were to be performed in concerts and on tours abroad, and in particular to supply technical information about new works shortly to be heard.

                   Nothing binds people and countries together closer than a shared aesthetic between composers, such as one demonstrated in a new composition, which can be the strongest of all. This was one of the underlying principles behind the foundation of the Redcliffe Concerts in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the only organisation whose sole objective was the professional performance of British composers’ works, and this led to close collaboration with composers’ guilds in other countries, as well as the Goethe Institute in London, in setting up exchange concerts between our two countries, and sharing the costs between our respective national organisations. We shared many similarities already, which facilitated early communication. The Goethe Institute was the equivalent in Germany (or West Germany, as it was in the 1970s) of the British Council in Great Britain, with centres in the major cities of each country. The broadcasting authorities differed in their funding arrangements, the German radio stations being funded regionally, the BBC being funded with one nationwide licence fee.

                   Meanwhile, and independently, the Arts Council of Great Britain was founded by Maynard Keynes in 1942 – 1945 for the purpose of officially establishing the principle of public funding for all the arts in Britain. There had been a general decline in British music from the 18th – 19th century, following the decline in royal patronage during the same period. This had resulted in the general impoverishment of the arts, particularly of music, which suffered the progressive erosion of a living musical tradition. Keynes was starting from scratch. In 1945, at the end of a debilitating 5 year world war, the country was financially drained, and he found that to bring reality to his dream of making London the artistic capital of Europe, he would need his full measure of unique opportunities, coupled with an understanding of the true state of British music, opera and ballet, as well as the other arts at that time, and above all the right contacts in other countries, particularly in the United States of America. He was not merely seeking to bring about the transformation of the CEMA into a national arts council, but to provide something which had never existed before, even in peacetime; a body centrally funded by the Treasury, to provide funding for all the arts, to replace the private patronage, which had been destroyed by high taxes.

                    The chance came in 1944 with a unique set of circumstances, when the lease of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, came up for renewal. During the war it had been used, not for opera, but as a dance hall, and in April 1944 the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes were granted a five year lease to restore it “ as a centre of opera and ballet “. What clearer objective could there be for Keynes? He became the chairman of yet another committee, the Covent Garden Committee, set up specifically to manage the theatre on a sub-lease from the music publishers. Whereupon events followed inevitably, driven in the words of his secretary, “ by his electrifying sense of direction, prodigious hard work, and great powers of organisation,” all felt keenly by those who worked with him on the committees of CEMA and the Covent Garden Committee.

                    In the war years 1942 – 1945, when Keynes was gathering information about the professional state of the arts in Britain, and in particular the professional state of music from the point of view of performance and composition, the Composers’ Guild did not exist. This awaited a well – informed composer, with sufficient in-depth knowledge and experience of music, of every period and every country, to formulate and assess what was happening in contemporary music, and to set up therefrom an association of professional composers who thought likewise, and who saw the need for one in Britain.

                   Such a composer was Sir Arthur Bliss (1891 – 1975), who set about founding the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, with the support of other senior composers, such as William Alwyn (1905 – 1985), Alan Rawsthorne (1905 – 1971), Alan Bush (1900 – 1995), Michael Tippett (1905 -1995), and William Walton (1902 – 1983). These six prominent composers, apart from their understanding the necessity for the foundation of a Composers’ Guild in Britain, also shared another purpose in common. They had all been approached by a younger composer Francis Routh (b.1927), whose enthusiasm for the new in British music had led him to the realisation that new compositions were for the most part being neglected in performance, and that if a change were to come about at all, a special effort would be required to draw attention to those foremost composers whose music was already most performed, and to discover why. Each was invited to allow his name to be given as a patron of a new society, and his music to be performed in a new annual series of concerts, the Redcliffe Concerts of British music, being planned on London’s South Bank. These were destined to last for 25 years (1964 – 1989), and when they ceased to be given regularly, as already described, some of the best performances were selected as the basis of a new recording label for British music, Redcliffe Recordings (see Appendix A).

                       The unbalanced focus of the Arts Council away from composers was to prove a fatal flaw. On 1 March 1976 a symposium was held at the Goethe Institute in London to confirm and ratify the exchange of information about developments in music between Britain and West Germany (as it was then). The morning session of the Symposium was chaired by Francis Routh, Artistic Director of the Redcliffe Concerts of British Music; the afternoon session was chaired by Dr Klaus Schulz, Director of the Goethe Institut, London. The result, from the beginning of the conference, was a broad measure of agreement on a strategy for the administration of joint events, and after discussion, a unanimous recommendation to set up exchange concerts between Britain and Germany. The proposal before the Symposium was that these exchanges would be administered by two working parties, one on the German side, the other on the British side, who would also arrange exchange visits of composers between the two countries. The exchange programme of concerts would begin in 1976-77, with a British – German concert in London on 13 June 1976, presented by Redcliffe Concerts, and continue in Germany in June 1977. The purpose of the whole project, which was new and had never been tried before, was the establishment of communication between the two countries concerned, with the key people on each side working in the closest cooperation, confirming their agreement to the financial and artistic decisions in advance of the Symposium. The key people on each side, who had so far signified their support for the project by their presence at the symposium, and their willingness to serve as members of one of the two working parties, were named as:

On the German side:-    Dr Wolfgang Becker, (WDR Cologne)

                                       Dr Klaus Schulz, (Goethe-Institute, London)

                                       Walter Bachauer (WDR Cologne)

On the British side:       Hans Keller, (BBC, London)

                                      Barrie Iliffe, (British Council. London)

                                      Francis Routh, (Redcliffe Concerts, London)

                                      Lawrence Leonard, (Composers’ Guild, London)

            Since so much ground had been covered at the symposium, and new possibilities of collaboration between our two countries opened up, both chairmen sought to obtain confirmation from the key people on both sides, that they accepted and understood the points of agreement reached. As far as the British side were concerned, the principle of public funding for concerts, which was established by Keynes in 1945 when the Arts Council of Great Britain was set up, required the Arts Council to subsidise British musical events which took place in Great Britain, and the British Council to subsidise British musical events which took place abroad, since the spreading of British culture worldwide was their responsibility. Thus the British Council performed for this country the task that the Goethe Institute performed for Germany.

            In the case of the exchange concerts, the subject of our Symposium, the concert on 13 June 1976 was scheduled to take place in London, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and therefore we expected it to be subsidised, on the German side, by the Goethe Institute and by WDR Cologne, and on the British side by the Arts Council of Great Britain and by the BBC. However, in view of the statement by the Arts Council that they would subsidise only British performers, not British composers, the two chairmen of the Symposium jointly asked the Arts Council representative at the Symposium, John Cruft, secretary of the Arts Council music panel, to confirm whether his organisation would subsidise the concert proposed on 13th June 1976. John Cruft replied that no such financial support for the concert on 13th June could be expected from the Arts Council.

            Such confirmation at the highest level, that state funding through the Arts Council was indeed to be confined to performers only, and excluded British composers, not only cast an immediate and very unwelcome shadow of doubt over the whole day’s proceedings, by nullifying the important agreements just reached, and by exercising the most deleterious effect on the standards and quality of our musical culture in the years that followed. The negative results of such a fault-line in Arts Council policy being allowed to proceed unchecked in the 70 years since 1945, all the more so for being kept secret for so long, have mostly harmed not so much the British composers, against whom the policy was aimed, as the reputation of the Arts Council itself, which lost every last pretence of integrity in the musical world. This has only recently been fully identified in two authoritative magazine articles[1], which between them pronounce the last rites over ACE – “Arts Council England“ – all that is left of the Arts Council of Great Britain, after 70 years of “anti – art evolution.” In choosing to cease nurturing the musical art at grass roots level, or, in the authoritative words of the Charity Commission, “… educating the public in the arts and sciences, and in particular the art and science of music …” When offered the opportunity to do so on 1 March 1976, the Arts Council continued on the slow process of their own extinction, by becoming irrelevant.

            As for the Composers’ Guild, after it was founded by Sir Arthur Bliss in 1953, he continued to guide the committee in building up those activities which a fully developed professional musical culture needed for it to function properly; an updated list of members, a constitution, a set of rules, a house magazine Composer to reflect and promote the activities and research projects initiated by the Guild itself, and in due course to create a Music Information Centre, which would be a primary source of information internationally, with scores and recordings of new works by Guild members, and containing facilities for meetings, lectures, press conferences, concerts, recitals, a secretariat. These were soon acquired at 10 Stratford Place, London W1. As this activity far exceeded anything achieved by CEMA, it was clear that the Composer’s Guild would require financial subsidy. But since the Arts Council policy was not to subsidise British composers, who were the reason for the existence of the Composers’ Guild in the first place, it was also clear that their lopsided and philistine policy was inconsistent with Keynesian professionalism, on which it had been founded forty years previously. Matters came to a head in 1987, when the last issue of Composer magazine was published. In that year the Guild membership reached its highest total of 490, and the circulation of Composer magazine reached 750; but the Arts Council, faced with a deficit in the Composers’ Guild running expenses, withheld subsidy altogether, with the result that the Guild itself, by a show of hands at an Extraordinary General Meeting, ceased to exist, and changed from being an independent, professional organisation, properly constituted, to being merely an unofficial and ineffectual sub-committee of the Performing Right Society (PRS). It had lasted 34 years, 1953 – 1987.

            Bliss was 84 when he died in 1975. Fortunately, he was spared witnessing the crash of the Guild to which he had devoted so much of his life. He was active to the end, and recorded a short introduction to the broadcast of Metamorphic Variations on 22nd March 1975. His life work had two priorities: the first, in the private world of his musical creativity, was the constant need to nurture new professional performances. The second ensured that he occupied a position of true leadership of British music, the more so as his career reached towards its end. The evidence for this can be seen in the sheer number of public appointments he accepted, each of which directly furthered both priorities, and brought him into active contact with leading musicians, whose success gave him great pride.

Appointments held by Sir Arthur Bliss included:

  • President of the London Symphony Orchestra                                       1922-1972
  • Director of Music BBC                                                                           1942-1946
  • President of the Council of the Performing Right Society                        1954-1975
  • President of the Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary Music                1966-1975
  • Master of the Queen’s Music                                                                1954-1975
  • President of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain                              1953-1975      

Illustration 5
Composers’ Guild Special Award

5. Seven 20th century composers

[1] The Spectator 15 April, 2017 The decade the music died, Norman Lebrecht

The Spectator 1 July, 2017 Council of despair, Norman Lebrecht

We regret to advise that Francis Routh died peacefully on 27th November 2021
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