Just before Britain’s greatest music festival begins this year has seen the release of the very first recording of a piece of music that was first performed at a Promenade (that gives the game away) concert in July 1945. If I tell you that it was composed by Alan Bush, a victim of the cultural cold war, it may help explain why Fantasia on Soviet Themes, Op24, has taken so long to be recorded and released.
Alan Bush had studied under Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music and in the late 1920’s studied music and philosophy in Germany. He had joined the ILP in 1925 and the Communist Party in 1935. He is probably best known today as being a founder member of the Workers Music Association in 1936.
He wrote a succession of musical pageants in the 1930’s, including the Pageant of Labour in 1934, Towards - Tomorrow a Pageant for Co-operation in 1938 and a Festival of Music for the People in 1939. The Bush Fantasia on Soviet Themes was composed in 1942, orchestrated in 1944 and consists of a succession of Soviet songs, Gramophone describes it as, “a tuneful medley of no great consequence”. The BBC Music Magazine however gave it 4 stars.
I suspect context is all and misses the emotional connection a simple medley of Soviet Songs would have in 1945 showing just how grateful we where for the Soviet sacrifice in the war.
On the disc this piece is one of the book ends of Bush’s 2nd Symphony, the Nottingham. In 1949 the City of Nottingham held a week of celebrations marking 500 years since its Royal Charter. The musical centrepiece of the celebrations was the premiere of the Nottingham Symphony which had been commissioned by the Nottingham Co-operative Society. Its first performance was on June 27 in the city’s Albert Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Dedicated to the people of Nottingham a bound copy of the score was presented to the Lord Mayor. It is a fascinating work; it was the first major orchestral work by Bush after attending the Second International Congress of Composers and Musicologists in Prague in May 1948.
There he met with other Marxist composers and signed the document later to be known as the Prague Manifesto. He subsequently claimed that the conference had a significant affect on his approach to composition. The Nottingham Symphony was clearly influenced by the socialist realist principles that underlay the Manifesto.In the symphony Bush adopts a direct musical language, clearly does not shy away from politics, and draws on an English national style rejecting avant-garde musical techniques. This all point to the impact of the Prague Manifesto on his work. The symphony opens with evocations of an Arcadian past in Sherwood Forest and ends with visions of a Utopian future in the Goose Fair.
It seems a long way from the war yet marks two moments in British cultural life: a time when the labour movement made a serious attempt to make musical culture available to all, and the convergence in Britain of international socialist realism and English national music.
Two years later this convergence was underlined by another Bush work, Wat Tyler. An opera described as a work of “English socialist realism.” It was a prize-winner in an open, competition to write a national opera for the Festival of Britain.
Clearly there was some disappointment that he had won as unlike the Nottingham he had to wait until 1974 for a public performance of Wat Tyler in Britain
Before the symphony on this splendid disc released by Dutton Epoch with pianist Peter Donohoe and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates is Africa. This is a Symphonic Movement for Piano and Orchestra, Op73, written in 1972. It was inspired by a UN resolution of that year and contains in one movement an Evocation of Sharpeville. Needless to say in Britain it has hardly been heard or performed.
Does music and politics mix? Of course it does - this is a terrific disc and it is not too late to hear these impressive pieces for yourself and clebrate a time when the Co-op had the confidence to commission a Symphony!