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Music in the Landscape:
How the British
Countryside Inspired our
Em Marshall (Robert Hale, £25, *£22.50)
The troubling thought occurs that, of the composers represented in Music in the Landscape, only Gustav Holst (for one work) and Benjamin Britten are known in the rest of Europe. Colin Davis and Roger Norrington have done their best to sell Elgar and Vaughan Williams abroad, but most
of the names in Em Marshall’s invaluable book will be known solely to the British.
Or will they? After years of Classic FM exposure and a prominent slot on the Last Night of the Proms, surely Gerald Finzi has generally been ‘heard of’. The tale of his short life, the places he loved, his eccentric ‘struggle against the demise of the rich horticultural heritage of English apple varieties’, his death from-of all things-chickenpox, is lovingly told here. Arnold Bax (the third greatest English symphonist) is also richly represented on CD now, yet I suspect that it’s news to most people that he had an Irish alter ego or that Tintagel draws on Arthurian legends to portray his relationship with Harriet Cohen.
One of the delights of this handsome book is the connections it reveals: the fact, for example, that Tintagel was also where Elgar completed his Second Symphony. But that leaves us with Bantock, Holbrooke, Boughton, Harty, Ireland, Howells, Gurney, Moeran and a gallimaufry of ‘Other Composers’ (although no women, curiously). For anyone who has stumbled on their music-and who could forget the six harps of Bantock’s glorious Celtic Symphony, Howells’s grief-stricken choral settings or the songs Gurney wrote when he was dodging trench mortars?
Miss Marshall usefully locates each work in time and place. Indeed, Music in the Landscape would be an ideal volume to keep in the car, as this reviewer discovered for himself recently in passing the village of Down Ampney, Vaughan Williams’s birthplace. It provided all the necessary background and the location came to life.
As the author herself acknow-ledges, the inspirational sources of landscape do have their limits. Yes, some of Britten’s music evokes the Suffolk horizons and the beating North Sea, Bax does capture November woods in riot, and Gurney takes us on a virtual tour of Gloucestershire beauty spots, but many of these composers conjure nothing but their own sound-worlds. It could be argued, for example, that Vaughan Williams drew more from literature than from landscape.
Nevertheless, it’s always fascinating to know the story behind great music, and this book offers a wealth of anecdote and insight together with lavish illustrations. Some of these are historical portraits (‘Elgar enjoying the countryside’), some of them simply depict the British and Irish countryside-and so seductively that you will just have to go and listen to one of these composers.
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