Julie Waters on Alan Bush
By: Julie Waters
December 13, 2016
How does an Australian become interested in the English composer Alan Bush?
I came to Alan Bush indirectly as a result of my interest in Russian music, especially the piano works of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Shostakovich! While learning some of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues I found out how interventionist the Soviet Union had been in trying to impose socialist realism on its composers. I thought it might be interesting to explore how music and politics intersected in a country where there was no such compulsion. So when choosing a subject for my doctorate I began looking at British composers. To my surprise, I discovered there had been a strong radical element in British musical life, especially in the 1930s. Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Elisabeth Lutyens, and various other names cropped up, but the name that recurred most frequently was that of Alan Bush. I had never heard of this composer. I found out that not only was he a committed communist, but he had been a leading figure in bringing leftwing ideas to English musical life. Critical opinion seemed to be divided about him: some critics claimed his political beliefs had a detrimental effect on his compositions; others claimed the opposite. I was intrigued. And so I decided to examine his music and reception in the context of his political and aesthetic beliefs.
Can you summarise his story?
Alan Bush (1900-1995) was a British composer, conductor, teacher, lecturer and writer. His large compositional output includes four symphonies, four full-length operas, two concertos, and much fine piano, chamber, and vocal music. He had a privileged background but in his mid thirties became a Marxist and joined the British Communist Party. He thus straddled two very different worlds. He was President of the Workers’ Music Association and a lifelong supporter of the working class musical movement. He had close connections with composers from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and particularly close links with the GDR, where all of his operas were produced. On the other hand, for over fifty years he was a Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. He was actively involved in numerous British musical organizations, including the Composers’ Guild (of which he was an early President). And while he introduced radical ideas into British musical life he remained widely respected by his peers.
How did you go about finding out the salient aspects of his life?
After exhausting the secondary sources, I travelled to Britain to locate the primary sources. I had a number of extended visits there (five at last count) and worked in various archives – the Bush archive at the British Library, the BBC Written Archives, and the Bush archive at Histon, Cambridge. I was able to locate many valuable resources (including Bush’s voluminous correspondence, books and articles written by him, and musical scores and recordings). I came to know Bush’s daughter, Dr. Rachel O’Higgins. Rachel helped me on many occasions by giving me access to her father’s personal papers and copies of unpublished musical manuscripts. Other Bush experts also were supportive. For example, the historian John Lowerson helped by giving me copies of rare recordings, both of Bush’s music and of interviews Bush had given with various people. In Australia I was privileged to interview John Amis, the British broadcaster, who was a great friend of Bush. My only regret is that I never met Bush himself – he died some years before I began my research.
The BBC is important to British cultural life. What was Bush’s relationship to the BBC and how did you separate fact from fiction?
Bush’s relationship with the BBC was a longstanding and complex one. Many of his supporters believed that the BBC neglected him because of his politics. However, as I point out in my program, this criticism is not really borne out by the evidence. I tried to separate fact from fiction by investigating the extensive files relating to Bush held in the BBC archives at Caversham. These files, ranging from 1928 until 1982, documented his relationship with the BBC as composer, performer, conductor and speaker. And they demonstrate that he had much ongoing support from a number of influential BBC administrators.
Is Alan Bush’s music entering British musical life now?
Alan Bush’s music has always been a part of British musical life. However, it is true that it is currently enjoying a resurgence of interest. Each year there are new recordings and more of his music is released in score. A trust has been established to promote his music. Scholars are also taking a serious interest and his music is increasingly being discussed at international conferences. Some years ago I gave a paper on him at the British Academy in London; remarkably, at that conference, two other papers also focused on his music.
Bush believed that music was not autonomous, but a social practice having political and social implications
As a committed communist how did Bush apply this to his music?
Bush believed that music was not autonomous, but a social practice having political and social implications. He often used ‘progressive’ texts for his vocal music and politically inspired programmes for his instrumental music. Sometimes he would use the melodies of well-known political songs, or even the title of a work to associate it with political struggle. Later he came to believe that he should make his music more accessible, and drew on folk influences and the English modes.
What sort of music should the listeners expect from your program?
Many of Bush’s works are highly organised thematically, make use of contrapuntal procedures, and exhibit a tight working out of small motifs into long phrases. Listeners can expect to hear a range of works that show his musical development from the 1920’s to the late 1980’s. They will hear chamber works (like his superb Dialectic for String Quartet) and part of his Symphony in C, which shows his interest in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. They will also hear later works that show his shift to a more accessible and nationally influenced style.
Tune in to Illuminations on Thursday 12 January at 8pm to hear Alan Bush – Against the Stream with guest Dr Julie Waters