»That seems British to me«

Donald Runnicles performs works by British Composers with the Staatskapelle in the 8th Symphony Concert. A Talk about the sound of the island in times of Brexit.
08.03.2017

Mr. Runnicles, you were born in Edinburgh and now you are coming to Dresden with Elgar, Britten and Vaughan Williams. Is there something like »British music«?

I am working on the answer to that question for quite a while now and I have to tell you: I still do not have a definite answer to it. In the end we all use the same notes, the same keys, the same possibilities. Something that does exist though are British composers who were shaped by the national traditions. The British sacral music was very important fort hat matter, for example Tallis or Byrd. You can hear that in Elgar’s music, but especially in Vaughan Williams‘ »Fantasy on  theme by Thomas Tallis« which is on our programme. Both composers like to cite British folk music sometimes, but is it English because of that? I can only say that this kind of music seems very English to me, but that might also be, because I grew up with this tradition.

They also were not really typical Brexit composers so to say: Britten always liked to orientate himself to the US. You are performing Elgar’s »In the South« about a family vacation in Italy. It is widely known that Wagner and Strauss were his role models …

… and still we can agree that his music sounds differently and he found his own way.

Maybe nature is the key to our answer: Britten was inspired by the bluff coastline in Aldeburgh, Elgar by the gentle hills of Malvern Hills …

… of course, you see, Richard Strauss was also climbing the mountains for his »Alpensinfonie«. There is a problem at this point though. Would we really hear that Debussy’s »La Mer« is about the sea if we did not know the title? I doubt it. It is the same with Britten’s »Sea interlude«: Of course, if we know the plot of »Peter Grimes« we will know immediately that it is about the bluff coast, about the surge and the spray, that we do not see where the sky ends and the sea starts. But if we did not know that, could we not just understand the music as a spiritual landscape? Or something utterly different? Could we differ between the atlantic ocean and the pacific ocean just because of the way the notes are combined? You see, I am very indifferent when it comes to that question.

Let us try it with another option and decline the British music history: Elgar became famous by wiriting England’s secret anthem, »Pomp and Circumstance«, but was out of fashion when he was older. The new shooting star was Vaughan Williams. What happened between those two generations?

I am afraid that a whole world and a whole worldview collapsed at this time. Elgar celebrated the old victorian and imperialistic England, he was a passionate Edwardian and he loved the King and his nation above all. The world of wars in South Africa and colonialism were not a problem for him. Then the first world war happened and showed everyone that the world is not as stable as they thought it was. Elgar realised that, but kept on writing his music as he did before. He was definitely mourning in the slow movement of his second symphony at the end of an era, triggered by the death of the king. However, he never really accepted the new ways. Vaughan Williams was totally different. He experienced the war as well, but his generation knew that old values will go down and how cruel humans can be. He reacted to those experiences with his music and that opened the ears to modernism. Vaughan Williams was in Paris, knew Ravel, knew the music of Alban Berg. Very often I have the feeling – especially in his forth and sixth symphony –, that he showed the fragility and brutality of the world in his music.

That means that the history of a country can definitely influence its soundtrack.

Indeed, but other nations did experience that as well. Still, the question about national music stays interesting to me. In the US I found a book called »The English and their History« some time ago. It seems that, as oldest nation of all, England has an inferiority complex. You do not experience such a complex in the music of Brahms, Wagner or Strauss, but you do in the works of British composers. Maybe this complex is also responsible for the »British humour« that helps us to cover up our fears or simply laugh about them.

You are British as well – do you have this complex too?

Of course! Maybe this is because of the role that culture plays in our country. Elgar had this complex because he always asked himself if he, as an autodidact, would be able to assert himself. You can hear that in Britten’s music as well, like Shostakovich he had to write film music very often as well to earn some money. I experienced that as well: When I wanted to become a conductor my parents warned me. They thought that it is not a real job and urged me to become a teacher instead. We do have many amateur orchestras and choirs, but it is difficult to make a living as professional musician. I just understood the difference to Germany when I started my first position in Freiburg: In a very small city culture suddenly had a central place in the community. That is a great achievement and creates a strong self-consciousness for the artists. Unfortunately this is not the case in Great Britain.

Now we start to get on the track of British music …

Maybe it is just an individual matter. Sometimes we only discover our homeland when we leave it. That happened to Britten: When he went tot he US with his partner Peter Pears to find a new life, he suddenly felt homesick, especially for his little fishermen’s village Aldeburgh. I feel similarly: I certainly do love Europe, the US, the travelling, Berlin, do not necessarily want to go back to Scotland, but I do know that there is something that makes me feel connected to that place and that this is my home.

Is there something like a »feeling at home sensation« in the music too?

I would definitely say that I can hear the »British« in some works.  There are even moments when a simply chord is enough to take me to a whole new world. Just take the beginning of Vaughan Williams‘ Fantasy, a simply G major chord. I hear it and immediately I find myself in a cathedral. This works with a composer like Sofia Gubaidulina as well by the way. At the beginning of her »Fachwerk« we have a simple F major chord which immeadiately carries me off to her unique cosmos of sound. She uses this typical Russian folk instrument, the Bajan, and again we have the question: Ist hat the reason why her music is so »typically Russian«?

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