Sunday, 13 July 2014

When Nottingham Co-op Commissioned a Symphony

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! 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Co-op Congress 2014

Co-op Congress last weekend in Birmingham could have been a very miserable gathering given the events around the Co-operative Group. Ironically if it had not been for that crisis around our biggest member this would have been one of our best ever years.

There are over 15 million memberships in the over six thousand co-ops in the UK and despite the travails at the Group turnover in the sector is up to £37 billion. I was particularly delighted that Yorkshire based Suma, the wholefoods distributer, was named as Co-operative of the Year. Suma is a worker co-operative with 140 owner/members, no hierarchy, no CEO and with a radical commitment to equal pay.

It turns over £34million a year and has doubled sales in the last decade. Last year it was able to pay a well deserved bonus of £4,750 to each and every owner/member.
To celebrate they are receiving a visit by current TUC President Mohammad Taj of Unite to mark Employee Ownership day on July 4th.

There where other bright spots at Congress too. On the Friday before we went down  the Pershore Road in Birmingham with ICA President Pauline Green to launch Britain’s first ever student housing co-op.

If any section of society has been shafted by austerity it is young people. The Students Co-operative Movement grew out of the ant-fees movement. They argue that students have been led up a cul de sac by student union politics as a training ground for new labour apparatchiks.

Rather than passing resolutions and waiting they decided to get on and do things for themselves. They began with student food co-ops and bike co-ops and now they are trying to challenge the dreadful blight of poor quality housing and exorbitant rents.

This new Housing Co-op has received substantial financial support from the PhoneCo-op and technical support from Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services, a very good example of Co-op Principle Six in action - Co-operation amongst Co-operatives.

Whilst there was no escaping the shadow of the Co-op Group there was a confidence and vibrancy at congress this year. Sensibly we had changed the format to make the whole event as participatory as possible under the theme of Co-operation How?

The debates focused on two main issues, How do we promote the co-operative message and secure our identity? Also; How do we take participation in co-operatives to the next level? The discussions being both wide ranging passionate and informed.

BBC business news reporter Steph Mcgovern, who acted as facilitator on Saturday, commented that it was the best conference format she had ever experienced. Hopefully we have begun the process of making Co-operatives UK an open, democratic, participatory learning organisation. Truly practicing what we preach.

The sponsor of this year’s congress was symbolic of a new deepening relationship between the co-operative and trade union movements. It was Unity Trust bank, itself a result of such a partnership, and now marketing itself as ‘Proud to Bank Co-operatives’.

Also involved where the Musicians Union who are working to develop worker co-operatives to protect both musicians who work in entertainment and in music education.

One of the best and most articulate contributions to the weekend’s discussions came from the Deputy General Secretary of the NAS/UWT Patrick Roach who spoke about the challenges in education and the opportunity that Co-operative Schools present at the annual meeting of the Co-op College.

The rate of Co-op Schools development has been incredible and we are now working on a proposal to get the law changed so that they can be formed as Co-ops on a proper legal basis.

Other success stories included the work done by Peter Couchman and the Plunkett Foundation, who have worked tirelessly to protect pubs for their communities. They have estimated that community ownership has helped to date to save 4,000 years of pub history.

Of course we could not have a party without an end of the pier show. Except rather than an end this was a new beginning, as Simon Opie explained how Community Ownership had raised some £600,000 to save Hastings Pier. He explained that the previous owners had not understood that the pier was vulnerable to the sea!! And they had been required to rescue the pier form the dead hand of private ownership.

Clearly the home of Robert Tressell still has some Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ working to make a better world. There is a lot of work to be done and we are not out of the woods with the Co-op Group yet but the whole event does give us some space for quiet optimism.

Nick Matthews is Chair of Co-operatives UK