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Just as Britain’s greatest music festival begins comes this release of the very first recording of a piece of music that was first performed at a Prom in July 1945.
It was composed by Alan Bush, later a victim of the cultural cold war, and that may help explain why Fantasia On Soviet Themes has taken so long to be recorded and released.
Bush, who studied under Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music and in the late 1920s was a student of music and philosophy in Germany, joined the Independent Labour Party in 1925 and the Communist Party in 1935. He’s probably best known today as being a founder member of the Workers’ Music Association in 1936.
He wrote a succession of successful musical pageants with progressive themes in the 1930s, including one on co-operation, and composed the Fantasia On Soviet Themes in 1942. It’s a succession of Soviet songs which Gramophone magazine described as “a tuneful medley of no great consequence,” though the BBC’s Music magazine awarded it four stars.
The mixed reviews don’t reveal the emotional connection provided by this simple medley of Soviet songs, reflecting how grateful people in Britain were in 1945 for the Soviet sacrifice in the war.
The Fantasia follows Bush’s Second Symphony, the “Nottingham,” which marks the week of celebrations in 1949 marking 500 years since its Royal Charter. The musical centrepiece of the celebrations was the premiere of the symphony, commissioned by the Nottingham Co-operative Society and dedicated to the city’s people. Its first performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra came on June 27 in the city’s Albert Hall.
It’s a fascinating piece, 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. Bush subsequently claimed that the conference had a significant effect on his approach to composition. The Nottingham Symphony was clearly influenced by the socialist-realist principles that underlay the Manifesto.
This splendid recording with pianist Peter Donohoe and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates communicates Bush’s direct musical language. It clearly does not shy away from politics and draws on an English national style which rejects avant-garde musical techniques. This all points 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 second world 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 it was not a popular choice in some quarters. Unlike the Nottingham Symphony, Bush had to wait until 1974 for a public performance of the opera in Britain.
The Nottingham is preceded by Africa For Piano and Orchestra, written in 1971, which received its premiere in Halle, East Germany, the following year.
It was inspired by the UN resolution condemning apartheid and contains in one movement an evocation of the Sharpeville massacre. Needless to say, in Britain it has hardly been heard or performed.
The recordings are very impressive, demonstrating not only that music and politics mix. They’re also a reminder of a time when the Co-op had the confidence to commission a symphony.
nAfrica For Piano and Orchestra/Symphony No 2 “Nottingham”/Fantasia On Soviet Themes is available on Dutton Epoch, price £10.99.
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