Interview with Em Marshall-Luck, Founder of the English Music Festival
It often seems as if much of what is termed ‘English classical music’ falls into two main categories. There’s the stuff that conjures up images of an unspoilt Home Counties landscape where, up above, the lark forever ascends, or alternatively there’s the kind of rousing, patriotic fodder thundered out on the Last Night of the Proms. More often than not the music in question comes from a familiar swathe of English composers who all flourished in the early twentieth century, such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, Delius, and Warlock, with maybe just a touch of Parry or Coates thrown in for good measure. Not that the regularity with which these headliners are re-interpreted, re-imagined and re-recorded detracts from their musical credentials. Each of these composers produced a body of work full of astonishing inventiveness and virtuosity which fully deserves repeated listening. But are there no other English composers worthy of attention who were also producing work around the same period as their more illustrious peers? As it turns out, there were quite a few, many of whom deserve better than the obscurity to which they and their music have been relegated over the years. To address just this issue, as well as to keep English classical music firmly in the repertoire, regular Albion contributor Em Marshall-Luck founded the English Music Festival. It recently celebrated its eleventh year of existence, while Marshall-Luck also launched the EM Records label in 2011, followed by EM Publishing. The common impetus behind all these ventures is to make English music accessible to all, whether through live performance, recordings, or publications of musical scores. Just prior to the 2017 English Music Festival, which, as in previous years, took place in Dorchester Abbey and surrounding venues, Em was kind enough to give me an interview about her endeavours and the subject of English music in general.
What was your involvement with music prior to launching the first English Music Festival in 2006? Was it as a musician in an amateur or professional capacity, or were you otherwise actively involved?
I went straight into setting up the EMF after university (it took several years to set up!), but I had been involved in the music world since the age of fourteen —working with a music publisher from that age onwards, and serving on the committees of various British composer societies. While at Oxford I had a stint at the Three Choirs Festival, was a Hesse Student at the Aldeburgh Festival, and worked part-time at Music at Oxford, which created a job for me!
Founding a festival of any kind seems a daunting prospect. Was it an uphill struggle between having the initial idea and actually holding the first one?
Yes, although I was fortunate to have a huge amount of support from the beginning, despite the detractors who said that I would never be able to achieve it! I spent several years firstly trying to find the right venue, then trying to find funding for the first event, and then working on publicity and trying to spread the word about this new event. I was lucky in having the support of many musicians — quite a few of whom I had made contact with through my prior musical involvements — who were immensely enthusiastic about what I was trying to do. The easy and fun bits were programming and finding artists to be involved; the difficult and time-consuming were finding funding, trying to raise awareness, garnering local support and trying to persuade journalists to tell people about the Festival.
Can you give an overview of the ongoing challenges of holding the Festival?
Funding is the main challenge for any festival, and we are far from immune to this problem! We’re lucky to have a loyal and strong following amongst private individuals, many of whom support us through our Friends’ Scheme, but each year we need to raise a further c. £40-50K from grant-making Trusts and Funds, although this is becoming increasingly difficult as these see us as “established” and therefore no longer needing their help. We have never managed to secure any on-going sponsorship, and local companies in particular don’t seem particularly interested in what we’re doing, which is disheartening. We also hit our heads against a brick wall with the Arts Council each year, as despite high-level meetings and our jumping through all the hoops that they set, they never support us.
A common theme informing the founding of the Festival and the record label seems to be an emphasis on introducing the audience to forgotten or neglected areas of English music — in particular, that of the early twentieth century. Why do you think so much of that music wasn't well known when you started to champion it, and how did you come to be aware of it?
I became aware of English music from a very early age — my father singing Linden Lea to me as an infant was, I’m sure, the catalyst for my love of this genre— while discovery of Holst’s music when I was seven kindled my life-long love of his music in particular, and interest in English music in general. Attending St Paul’s Girls’ School prompted me to explore the music of Vaughan Williams and Howells, and set me on a path that led to working for the various composer societies and the music-publisher, who introduced me to all the obscure composers whose music had been so neglected. As to why this was: there are a variety of reasons and I could write a long essay on this subject! But in brief: the fact that concert repertoires are involuting and major concert halls and festivals don’t like to programme works outside the ever smaller clique of popular classics (or contemporary music, which brings in grants) is due to the fear of poor audiences. There is also the fact that the British aren’t very good at blowing their own horn and promoting their own thing, especially music of this period, as if terrified of being seen as imperialistic or jingoistic, and the (totally unjustified) bad press that English music has received, being portrayed as pastoral and anachronistic.
As well as the music, there's been a wide range of speakers at the festivals with various musical or familial links to English music. What have been some of the most memorable encounters from this aspect of the Festival?
I think our panel discussions and seminars have been the most memorable ones for me, including a seminar on “Is there a future for the British Choral Tradition?” in 2009, and a composers’ panel discussion just before our most recent New Commissions Concert at the EMF in Dorchester, which lined up all the composers involved and got them discussing and debating methods of composition, inspiration, and how composers today write works. Another extremely successful and exhilarating one was before the Richard III Commissions concert that I held at the Yorkshire Autumn EMF in 2015, when again the composers discussed amongst themselves their responses to Richard III and why, and how, they wrote their works as a result of their feelings towards the monarch and his representation in history.
The Festival seems to have gone from strength to strength each year. Because of this, did a record label seem like a natural progression, and what other factors were involved in establishing the label?
Yes, it was indeed a natural progression. I was finding myself sitting in our concerts and thinking “It’s great that these people here can hear these works that would otherwise be lying totally unplayed and unheard, but what about those who can’t get here… or those who would like to hear them again?!” The publishing arm, EM Publishing, is another natural extension. Another reason why much of this music is unplayed is that the scores aren’t easily available — there are only crumbling old manuscripts in libraries and archives, so we set out to publish scores to enable the works to be played and heard. (The books came about by accident — another natural progression!) There’s quite a lot of administrative work and behind-the-scenes tasks to be done when setting up and running a record label, but we were lucky to have the help of Nimbus in guiding us through at the beginning.
Has there been any one particular work that's been performed at any of the festivals or appeared on a record which you'd always wanted to share with an audience who might not otherwise have been exposed to it: one that, for instance, epitomised why the Festival or label was set up in the first place?
The work that most readily springs to mind is Holst’s The Coming of Christ, as it was finding out about this in particular that really kindled my desire to set up the Festival to enable such works to be heard. Holst was commissioned to write it in 1927 by George Bell, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, as the incidental music to a mystery play, with words by John Masefield. It received its première the following year at Canterbury Cathedral, in a hugely successful performance that attracted an audience of six thousand people and hugely positive reviews, including one that read “Since the murder of Thomas à Becket, Canterbury Cathedral has not been the scene of a more startling event than the performance of John Masefield’s The Coming of Christ.” But it hadn’t been recorded at all, nor performed in a public concert since that première in Canterbury Cathedral, until we did it at the EMF and subsequently recorded it on EM Records.
Are there any composers from the early twentieth century who remain, even now, in relative obscurity due to the lack of performance and/or recordings?
Yes, there are still composers whose names aren’t as well known as they should be, such as Bainton, Hurlstone, Bowen, Cyril Scott, Norman O’Neill and Armstrong Gibbs, and I try to programme them where possible. We’re just about to release a disc of cello and piano music, Sea Croon, which has some gorgeous works on it and includes a number of more obscure composers such as Austin and Burrows. There’s also Percy Sherwood, whose staggering Double Concerto for Cello and Violin we’ve just recorded with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and which we staged at last year’s EMF — a work full of a combination of boisterous tunes and melting beauty.
Are there any consistent qualities inherent in English music of the early twentieth century that you respond to in particular?
I find a tremendous amount of power in English music (look at Howells’s large-scale choral works, for instance, or pretty much anything by Vaughan Williams), yet this fierceness and intensity is tempered by a searing beauty of melody, and it’s not over-the-top — there’s an element of control and restraint that keeps the passion simmering beneath the surface rather than spilling over, and I think that it’s a lot more potent for that restraint. I also find a great deal of wistfulness, nostalgia and yearning in it, which speaks to some deep part of me — a longing for a better time, unspoilt countryside and nobler people, perhaps!
How do you go about deciding what to include on each record release? Is it, for example, a thematic choice, interesting musical juxtapositions, or other considerations?
It depends on whether artists approach me with a ready-made programme, or something comes along that I want to record. For the latter, it usually starts with one piece or set of pieces by a composer whom I believe needs to be recorded, and it’s a question of finding other works that will complement the chosen piece, in terms of style, genre and mood (and, if my husband is involved, a meaningful key progression throughout the disc!) It’s also important to me to have as much unfamiliar music as possible whilst also recognising that market forces have a part to play as well, so that I therefore need to include at least one fairly well-known composer or work to attract purchasers!
All the EM Records releases contain at least one world première recording. How do you decide on each one, and is there still a sizeable backlog to choose from?
As previously mentioned, the programme of the discs tends to be worked around the world premières, which are very much the starting point. I keep a “wish-list” of works which haven’t yet been recorded, adding to it whenever I hear about a work that I believe requires a recording, and which would be possible for us to record at some point. I then discuss the works on the list with EM Records artists and together we work out what it will be possible to record and in what order. Sometimes we can obtain funding for a particular programme, and that then enables that particular disc to be made more quickly. There are indeed many works still requiring first recordings and we are at no risk of running out at present! We also record a fair amount of contemporary music, some of which I have commissioned myself for the EMF.
On the subject of English music, and its pastoral elements in particular, how do you respond to criticisms such Elizabeth Lutyens’ famous reference to the “cow-pat school” and Peter Warlock's description of Vaughan Williams' music as “just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate”?
Such criticisms have, clearly, badly damaged the reputation of English music and have played a large part in its neglect. But whilst there are, of course, works that are based on folk music or are pastoral in feel (and none the worse for this, as they are pieces of immense beauty), to tar the whole of English music with this brush is obviously ludicrous. One need only listen to a few bars of Foulds's Three Mantras, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, or Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi to see that not all English music — not even of the early twentieth century-- could possibly be called ‘pastoral’; it is a ridiculous assertion and one that will be revealed as untrue to anyone who cares to have a proper listen to this genre!
For me, some of the most glorious aspects of English music are the song cycles and song composition in general, with the work of Gerald Finzi being a particular favourite. Do you have a favourite song composer in this tradition, and why?
It would be hard for me to choose one single song composer. English solo song is very dear to my heart, and means more to me than almost any other genre. The songs of Roger Quilter are amongst my favourites. Their apparent simplicity is misleading: they are so beautifully crafted and exquisite as to be, in my opinion, absolutely perfect, and I find them heartrendingly moving. But I couldn’t live without songs by Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Warlock (both the moving and the boisterous works!) or Gurney, and I also deeply love songs by Britten, Elgar, and Holst.
For those who don't attend concerts or regularly buy recordings, radio would seem to be the most readily available source for hearing English classical music. However, in the UK — beyond the confines of Radio 3— a lot of what's most readily associated with the English music tradition is broadcast as endlessly repeated bundles of ‘smooth classics' or flag-waving favourites. Is that a fair assessment of the situation, and does it concern you? Or is any outlet for music by English composers better than none?
I agree that what one hears on Classic FM is depressingly limited, although this probably isn’t limited to English music — I suspect that it is across the board! However, I think that there is hope, as you intimate, in Radio 3, which, especially in the past six or seven years, has done a lot to try to promote more neglected British composers. I am also pleased and surprised by how many EM Records discs are played abroad on foreign radio and see this also as a positive sign.
Are there any contemporary English composers who, in your opinion, have embraced the early twentieth century tradition and developed it in particularly innovative or exciting ways?
We’ve been lucky to work with many composers in the EMF and EM Records. My mission has been to find those who have an ‘English’ musical sensibility and who are rooted in and inspired by the great tradition of English music whilst, importantly, not writing pastiche, but using their own voices and being progressive and exciting in unique ways. Richard Blackford, Paul Carr, Paul Lewis, Richard Pantcheff, Christopher Wright, Francis Pott, David Owen Norris, David Matthews, Joseph Phibbs, John Pickard, and Lionel Sainsbury are amongst those whom I see as exemplifying this.
The interview was conducted by Mark Jones. Many thanks to Em Marshall-Luck for her time.