Special feature: Edmund Rubbra, the forgotten British symphonist

Hello again, everyone! I’ll be continuing my blog posts weekly for at least the next two weeks, but I’ll be heading to the Brevard Music Festival for a month and a half starting in late June to study composition and write orchestral and chamber works. I also have a trip to Iceland planned just before I head back to college, so I’m not sure what my schedule will look like for most of the summer – I’ll provide more updates when I can, but I’ll at least try to maintain a biweekly schedule for my posts.

That aside, today we’ll be looking at (in my opinion), one of the most underappreciated orchestral composers of the 20th century – the Englishman Edmund Rubbra. Although Rubbra’s music was enormously popular in Britain in the mid-20th century and greatly appreciated by fellow musicians, much of his work has fallen out of fashion today; I hope this special feature will give his compositions a slightly larger audience.

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Rubbra in 1961 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Rubbra was born in Northampton on May 23, 1901. Although his mother sang in a church choir and his father sometimes played the piano by ear, his parents were not trained musicians; they nevertheless encouraged his musical pursuits. More so than many composers, Rubbra’s experiences in his youth shaped several aspects of his music. For instance, when he was walking with his father one morning around the age of ten, the composer was transfixed the “downward drifting sounds” of distant church bells in Northampton, inspiring him to frequently use downward scales in his musical textures later in life.

Rubbra began his musical training as a piano student, taking lessons from a local lady who owned a moderately worn instrument. The pianos on which he practiced at home were far less used and of better quality, as Rubbra’s uncle owned a piano shop and lent his family demonstration pianos. Potential buyers of these pianos would go to Rubbra’s house, where he would play Mozart’s (in)famous “Sonata facile” to demonstrate their quality; if a piano was bought, Rubbra’s family earned a commission and a new demonstration piano would be brought in to replace the old one. With the aid of these instruments, the future composer made substantial progress in his early piano studies.

However, this improvement was cut short in 1915, when Rubbra was sent to work for the Northampton shoe company Crockett & Jones; a few years later, he took a job as a correspondence clerk in a railway station. It was during this time that Rubbra’s interest in composition began to develop – while continuing to study piano outside the hours of his job, he also studied organ, harmony, and counterpoint. He also became active in the Northampton chamber music scene, writing a string quartet and a violin and piano sonata for himself and the violinist Bertram Ablethorpe, and also befriended fellow young composer William Alwyn.

At the age of 17, while still working as a clerk, Rubbra planned a concert of works by the British Late Romantic composer Cyril Scott at the Northampton Library. Unexpectedly, this concert turned out to be a life-changing one; a minister from Rubbra’s church who had attended was an acquaintance of Scott and sent the latter a concert program, eventually leading to Rubbra becoming Scott’s pupil and setting him on the path to a career in composition.

A year later, Rubbra gained a scholarship to University College, Reading, where he studied with, among others, Gustav Holst. On the latter’s recommendation, he then applied for a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, further developing his compositional style. Near the end of his time at the Royal College, Rubbra took up a position with the touring Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre, giving him experience playing and writing music for dramas; he also earned money by played with dancers from the Diaghilev Ballet in the mid to late 1920s.

Although not rich in biographical detail, the next decade was one of the most fruitful periods of Rubbra’s career. In addition to a string quartet, several sonatas and sonatinas, and a number of vocal pieces, Rubbra began composing the pieces for which he is best known today – his eleven symphonies. Completed in 1937, his first symphony is an excellent example of his overall writing style – while his harmonies and orchestration differ to some extent from late Romantic composers like his mentor Cyril Scott, the symphony maintains a focus on melody and evokes a “pastoral” sort of atmosphere that many of Rubbra’s British contemporaries and immediate predecessors strove to emulate.

Like much of the British male population, Rubbra was called up for army service in 1941. Given an office post after 18 months due to his clerkship skills, he spent the rest of his time running a large orchestra along with a former BBC Orchestra double bass player. Shortly afterward, the War Office asked Rubbra to form a piano trio to play to the British troops; along with the cellist William Pleeth and violinist Joshua Glazier, he formed the “Army Classical Music Group” which was later expanded to seven people. Ultimately, the group performed not only in England and Scotland but also in Germany, traveling in a lorry with their own grand piano.

After the war, in 1947, Rubbra converted to Roman Catholicism, writing a mass to celebrate the British victory. In the same year, he was appointed as a lecturer at the new Department of Music at Oxford, serving as a lecturer and fellow of Worcester College until 1968. Pieces composed Rubbra’s time at Oxford include his lyrical 1953 viola concerto and the 1958 Sonata in C for Oboe and Piano.

The immediate postwar period was also the height of Rubbra’s fame – it is an indication of the regard in which his music was held that his Sinfonia Concertante and song Morning Watch were played alongside the likes Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Vaughan Williams’s Job at the prestigious Three Choirs Festival in 1948. A particular high point of Rubbra’s career came when the BBC commissioned him to write a piece for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, leading to his Ode to the Queen for voice and orchestra in 1953.

After his “retirement” from Oxford in 1968, Rubbra continued to teach, moving to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his students included the contemporary composers Michael Garrett and Christopher Gunning. He also continued to compose right up to the end of his life; although his last completed symphony, his eleventh, was finished in 1978, he began sketching plans for a twelfth symphony a year before his death. Written late in his life, Rubbra’s one-movement eleventh symphony includes many of the ascending and descending motifs that are hallmarks of his work while producing a much more dreamy and atmospheric texture than his earlier symphonies. Although Rubbra’s later symphonies were less popular with concert audiences than his earlier examples of the genre, I find them to be more developed and quite pleasant to listen to.

Rubbra passed away in Gerrards Cross, a town in south Buckinghamshire, in 1986 at the age of 85. Although his music, which encompasses symphonies, concerti, solo and chamber works, choral compositions, and songs, was highly esteemed by his contemporaries (the legendary conductor Sir Adrian Boult once said that Rubbra “has never made any effort to popularize anything he has done, but he goes on creating masterpieces”), his work has largely fallen out of the repertoire even in Britain. Rubbra’s symphonic masterpieces and his colorful works for small ensemble form a unique part of British musical history and deserve many more hearings today.

If you enjoyed this article or any of the others I’ve published, please leave a like or a follow, and see you next week!

(All the information for this post, was, helpfully enough, derived from Wikipedia, with the assistance AllMusic to find the years of completion for some works.)

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