A land without music? Parry, Holst and Elgar to you, Schmitz
Of all the wounding things that foreigners have said about the English people, it is hard to think of an insult more savage than that directed at this country in 1904. They have called us perfidious. They have called us a nation of shopkeepers. They have said that we are in love with our nannies. Nowadays they tell us that we are the fattest, drunkest people in Europe, and that our children leave primary school with the vaguest understanding of reading and writing.
At all these barbs, we just take a deep breath. But when a German critic called Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz composed a dithyramb of abuse of the English cultural scene, just over 100 years ago, he included a jibe from which we have never really recovered. It stung. It made us blink like puppies suddenly kicked, and until now we have never had the nerve to fire back at Schmitz — because we have a terrible feeling that he may have been on to something. England, he said, is Das Land Ohne Musik.
Since this is nowadays — thanks to Labour’s abolition of modern languages — a land without German, I will translate. England is the country without music, said Schmitz, and in his verdict on our attainments he was, for a German, quite mild. In the 1840s, the German poet Heinrich Heine had been on a tour of England, and had soaked up quite a lot of the early Victorian cultural scene: the wife crunching something out on the upright piano, the chap in whiskers yodelling over her shoulder.
advertisementTeufel! said the German. Mein Gott! “These people have no ear either for rhythm or music and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is all the more repulsive. Nothing on Earth is more terrible than English music,” said the shell-shocked aesthete, “except English painting.”
And how have we reacted to these teutonic assaults, my friends? I am afraid we have responded with more or less complete acquiescence. We cough. We shuffle and we hang our heads. We look at the world’s top composers, the real megastars, and in the first rank we see nothing but Germans or Austrians: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. And when we get on to the second rank we find Wagner, Haydn, Rachmaninov, Shostakovitch, Mahler, Brahms, Verdi, Puccini, Mendelssohn and so on (extend the list as you like).
Where are our lads? What was going on in this country from about 1700 to 1900? There may have been plenty of Thomas Hardy-style scraping of fiddles and stamping of feet, and there may have been plenty of peasant lasses hitching up their skirts and dancing round the barn. But where is it now? How much of it has been recorded and how many original English compositions, dating from that period could you expect to find in a record store in Berlin?
It seems there was one chap called Thomas Linley, who died prematurely, in a boating accident, in 1777, and whose death was keenly lamented by Mozart. But it is stretching things to blame boating accidents for our failure to produce a first-rank composer from the entire romantic or classical period.
In our despair we turn to the deep socio-economic explanations. Perhaps it was our usual vice of snobbery; perhaps the English did not esteem the composers of music in the way they were esteemed on the Continent. Perhaps our monarchs spent too much time hunting or rogering to think it worth sponsoring the creation of great art.
Or perhaps we were simply too good at literature (where, of course, we have a series of heavyweight champs), and too blessed in our freedom of expression, so that artistic temperaments did not feel the necessity to sublimate their feelings in music or painting.
It sounds like a feeble excuse, doesn’t it? Whatever the cause, we have tended to acknowledge the dreadful truth of Schmitz’s insult, and in 1964 the critic Colin Wilson said that “much English music has the insipid flavour of a BBC variety orchestra playing an arrangement of a nursery rhyme”. English music has been the subject of reflexive embarrassment, like Morris dancing. We associate it instinctively with corduroy-jacketed professors in sandals, their spectacles fixed with Sellotape, descanting madrigals before Sunday lunch.
For children of my generation, the idea of great English composers was about as plausible as the idea of great English tennis players or the great English Austin Allegro. And as soon as you put it like that, you start to wonder whether we are, in fact, falling prey to the characteristic English vice, and doing ourselves down.
Because at the very moment that Schmitz was composing his insult, English music was on the verge of an extraordinary inflorescence, an explosion of talent that we have tended to forget — precisely because it is English. Parry and Vaughan Williams were founding the Royal College of Music, and leading British composers away from the German tendency, and there are many who would say that, for the rest of the 20th century, we left the Germans standing. This week in Dorchester on Thames, in the ancient and beautiful abbey with its perfect acoustics, I humbly invite you listen to the works of Vaughan Williams and Elgar and Holst, Britten and WH Reed, Algernon Ashton, Gerald Finzi and many others. There will be the BBC concert orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber, and above all there will be the chance to test for yourselves the truth of what Schmitz had to say.
Now I must be frank with you. I am just the president of this English Music Festival, the first and quite possibly the last of its kind. I cannot vouch for the genius of all the pieces you may hear. Though I love music, and though I passionately want more music in schools, and more hymns, I should confess that I once failed Grade One piano.
I leave it to my colleague Simon Heffer, who raves about this stuff, and above all I hope to leave it to you to judge. But my proposition is that England overtook Germany, in music, at almost the moment Schmitz spoke; and even if you don’t go for Vaughan Williams, let me end with a knock-down argument. What would you rather take from the 20th century: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or Nina Hagen’s 99 Red Balloons? Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Schmitz.