The Music of Albion (part one)

Concurrently with the phenomenon of the forerunners who pioneered a revival in spiritual thought and activity from within Britain after around 1890 there was a delicious emergence of truly British music  brought forth by a disparate group of composers that followed on from Edward Elgar to create a body of work that we can truly call ‘the music of Albion.’

Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics
The opening night of the 2012 Olympics in London (photo credit: Matt Lancashire Wikimedia CC Licence)

When the 2012 Olympics were held in London the Musical Director of the opening ceremony Rick Smith wrote: ‘Music is Britain’s cultural heartbeat; it’s a perpetual act of revolutionary thought. From William Blake to the Beatles via the Clash and the Chemical Brothers, the soundtrack of our lives fizzes and hums all around us like a stray signal from a radio dial that your internal antenna just can’t help but tune into. Two hundred years ago Goethe said that architecture was like frozen music. Well in today’s Britain the inverse is true, music is the fluid architecture all around us. The isle is full of noises. The soundtrack writes itself.’

How did this musical transformation happen? Here, we’ll trace what Danny Boyle, the Artistic Director of the 2012 opening ceremony, called ‘a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world.’

There is an artistic vision with the belief that we can build the New Jerusalem and that it will be an inspiration for everyone.  So where better to start than with Hubert Parry (1848-1918) who provided a musical setting for Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, the words coming from the preface to the epic ‘Milton’ poem (1808) and not the complex later ‘Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.’ Here are a couple of the now well -known verses, inspired by the story of Jesus travelling to England with his uncle, the tin merchant, Joseph of Arimathea and visiting Glastonbury:

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

‘And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green,
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen.’

Note that Blake is posing a question rather than asserting the event yet Parry’s music lifts these words to an inspired level – the heart is uplifted, the spirit sings. We are carried through to:

‘I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.’


This was 1916, in the middle of the First World War when all was bleak and deathly disastrous. Yet this ‘Jerusalem’ idea was taken up almost immediately by the Suffragettes as an anthem in their campaign to gain the women’s vote and in fact Parry gifted the copyright to them. Parry commented, ‘People seem to enjoy singing it.’  This was an understatement as its reputation has grown over the last one hundred years so that it is now viewed as an unofficial National Anthem. In fact King George V said he preferred ‘Jerusalem’ to ‘God Save the King!’ The Labour Party sing it; it’s always part of the Last Night of the Proms at the Albert Hall; and it was used as the flags of the world approached the mini Tor in the Olympic Stadium in 2012. Although it is not considered to be a hymn by the Church of England it was also sung at Prince William’s wedding ceremony in Westminster Abbey sealing its central role in matters of the nation’s heart.

Hubert Parry by Emil Otto Hopp 13 November 1915

Hubert Parry was a teacher at the Royal College of Music and taught two of the emerging music composers of the future revival in British music; Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 and Holst in 1874. There is some wonderful detail about these two composers and their relationship in Rob Young’s ‘Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’ (Faber & Faber 2010). It is recommended reading and in the preface quotes Blake from ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’ (1810), ‘The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients called the Golden Age.’ Young maps out in the chapter ‘An Orgy on the Green’ the emptiness of British music creativity earlier in the nineteenth century compared to that in Europe and how Parry’s students at the Royal College of Music decided that they must re-kindle the future of music in Britain. This is what they set out to do.

Edward Elgar by Charles Frederick Grindrod, bromide print, circa 1903

Edward Elgar, about 15 years older than these students, had in fact started the task but was too linked to what Young calls ‘the bluff Old World patriotism’ of Queen Victoria’s era. By linking with the newly formed Folk Song Society Vaughan Williams began to understand and delve into the ‘old music of the people,’ the oral traditions and melodies of time past. Vaughan Williams pioneered an English (and sometimes British) pastoral school following on from William Morris’ prognostications in ‘News From Nowhere.’ There was to be a future for British music ‘woven with rich threads from its past.’ In their work they set out to combine sixteenth century Tudor polyphony, metaphysics and Romantic visionaries. This was to be a startling blend.


Ralph Vaughan Williams pensive portrait of the composer in his later years
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Out of this came one of Vaughan Williams most successful pieces ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,’ first performed at Gloucester Cathedral in September 1910. George Hall wrote in the sleeve-notes to the ‘Vaughan Williams Orchestral Works’ CD that it was a work of passion, mystery and spiritual exaltation. The Tudor composer Tallis was re-worked into this new ‘folk classical’ style in what Peter Ackroyd in his ‘Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination’ (Chatto and Windus 2002) called ‘English antiquarianism becomes a form of alchemy’. Vaughan Williams lived until 1958 thus spanning from the era of Wagner to the birth of rock n’ roll, encompassing a vast tract of musical development in these islands. Ackroyd quotes Vaughan Williams, ‘If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls.’ Out of this understanding he produced his masterpiece ‘The Lark Ascending’ in 1914, still one of the nation’s favourites in the 21st century. It is the perfect representation of a summer’s day in the English countryside with the lark flying ‘till lost on his aerial wings in light’ as was written in a poem that inspired the piece.

Group photograph of Cecil Sharp and his Morris Dancers at Burford
Cecil Sharp and his Morris Dancers at Burford

To understand what was happening during these years it’s important to see the links between Cecil Sharp (and his folk song collecting) and Gustave Holst and Vaughan Williams. There was a definite cross pollination between these new classical composers and the oral traditions of the old folk songs and their melodies. The new composers were intent on fusing the modal harmonies of folk song with the French influence of Ravel and Debussy. Indeed Vaughan Williams contributed fifteen songs he had collected to book two of Cecil Sharp’s ‘Folk Songs of England.’ After the First World War (which had a profound effect on those who survived) Vaughan Williams produced his ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ where he managed to weave the folk melodies into the very fabric of his new music. There is a contemplative sound to the music but beneath the surface the disturbing anguish of what had been experienced at war can be clearly heard. The fourth and final movement ‘Lento’ has a soprano voice wordlessly singing to us about all that has gone before. It is quite remarkable and moving. Holst rated this piece over every other orchestral work.

Half length portrait of Gustav Holst 1909
Gustav Holst

It was Holst who was producing ‘Somerset Rhapsody’ (1906-7) and acknowledging William Morris in the Elegy of his ‘Cotswold Symphony’ (1900). His daughter Imogen later wrote, ‘Folk songs finally banished all traces of Wagner from his work.’ Holst pioneered music education for women at St Paul’s Girls School where he taught from 1905-1934. No doubt he was influenced by coming into contact with Alice Buckton at Chalice Well in Glastonbury who he would visit for meals, inspiration and long discussions about drama, music and spirituality. ‘The Heart Worships’ and ‘A Vigil at Pentecost’ were written to enhance Alice’s dramas. A review of his work shows the immense vista he covered with works Christian, Hindu and pagan and providing music for the words of Tennyson, Walt Whitman and Christmas carols. Indeed Holst was something of a world music pioneer studying Sanskrit texts and incorporating eastern teachings into his work. Through his studies he came to firmly believe in the concept of unity and Rob Young quotes him, ‘Of reaching an indescribable state of existence where sound and colour are one.’ Through his friend and fellow composer Arnold Bax he was introduced to astrology and this ultimately inspired him to his greatest work, the orchestral ‘Planets’ suite. Bax and Holst became astrologers producing birth charts for all their fellow composers and from his cottage in rural Essex he spent several years creating this master work. ‘The Planets’ was premiered at Michaelmas (29th September) 1918 shortly before the end of the First World War. By then Holst had completed his ‘Hymn of Jesus’, his most visionary work drawn from the apophryca of the Acts of St John where he realised ‘the heavenly spheres make music for us.’ This is the first known setting to music of any of the Gnostic scriptures and in many ways signalled the way for the later Orthodox music of John Taverner.  However, the fame accrued from ‘The Planets’ was hard for Holst to deal with and he began to partially withdraw from public life. 

The composer Arnold Bax
Arnold Bax

We cannot leave this period without a quick view of the works of Arnold Bax and Rutland Boughton whose work was flowing into this golden stream. Although born in London Bax was to be influenced by Ireland and Irish culture for most of his life. After early interest in William Morris and Cecil Sharp Bax and his brother Clifford went to Dublin to meet W. B. Yeats who took them to meet George Russell (AE), the mystical poet and painter. This visit proved fruitful and invigorating for the Bax brothers. Yeats and company were creative, radical souls and Bax loved his exposure to the mysticism and politics simmering in Ireland. Ireland’s faery nature atmosphere soon affected Bax’s work beginning with ‘Cathaleen-na-Hoolihan’ in 1905, the first of his tone poems. After reading ‘The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin)’ by Yeats Bax found himself immersed in the Celtic twilight and his work flowed forth – ‘The Garden of Fand’ in 1916, ‘November Woods’ in 1917, ‘The Happy Forest’ in 1921 and perhaps his masterpiece ‘Tintagel’ in 1919 after a visit to Cornwall in 1917 with the young pianist Harriet Cohen. He dedicated this tone poem to her and it became the most popular of all Bax’s compositions. When it was performed in Leeds in 1922 Bax wrote that his intention was ‘simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of…Tintagel, and more especially of the long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny day, but not a windless, summer day.’ Bax brings through the music the echoes of King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde. Another moving Bax piece ‘The Garden of Fand’ calls on the saga of Cuchulain, the great hero of Irish legend, later to be eulogised in a spoken word piece by Van Morrison.

The composer Rutland Boughton
Rutland Boughton

Rutland Boughton remains a somewhat background figure despite his pioneering work in establishing a Glastonbury Festival, actually in Glastonbury, 57 years before that other festival was birthed at Pilton by Michael Eavis. The story of Rutland Bouton’s struggle to initiate this festival with Alice Buckton concerning the Arthurian legends is well told in Patrick Benham’s ‘The Avalonians’ (Gothic Image 1993) so it will not be repeated here. Sufficient to say that Boughton’s dreams of ‘a second Bayreuth’ featuring the ‘Birth of Arthur’ at Glastonbury met obstruction at every turn. Despite ongoing support from the likes of George Bernard Shaw and its continuance after World War One things did not go well. Boughton’s main contribution to the rebirth of Albion could be his setting of Fiona Macleod’s ‘The Immortal Hour’. This libretto adapted from the plays and poems of William Sharp (aka Fiona Macleod) was previewed at the Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury on August 26th 1914. When ‘The Immortal Hour’ was finally taken to London in 1922, to the Regent Theatre at King’s Cross, it ran for 216 consecutive performances followed by several successful revivals. The audiences were spellbound yet its last modern performance was at Sadlers Wells in 1953, almost fading from view except in esoteric circles. The festivals in Glastonbury were wound up in 1927.

It is as if the zeitgeist which was propelling this renaissance departed the scene for a short time. As Dion Fortune wrote from her Chalice Orchard abode at the foot of Glastonbury Tor in 1934:

‘I often wonder whether the life of Avalon will ever stir again, or whether we shall be no more than a tourist town and market town…and I, for one, hope she will make good her footing, and impenitent heathen though I am, that I shall hear her Angelus from my high veranda.’

Interlude: A Circle of Perpetual Choirs

A landsacpe photography in high summer of the Malvern Hills
The Malvern Hills (Wikimages)

Ley lines, crop circles, orbs. There are many wonderful, confusing, contentious phenomena that occur around and throughout these Isles. Let’s add another one; A Circle of Perpetual Choirs.

This idea revolves around a small village called Whiteleaved Oak situated in a valley at the southern end of the Malvern Hills on the junction of three counties; Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. In the Welsh Triads (Iolo Morganwg’s ‘Triads of Britain’) there are mentioned three ‘Cyfangan’ (a harmonious song or uninterrupted choir). The 90th Triad declares ‘The Three Perpetual Harmonies of the Island of Britain’, located at three sites. This is where things get tricky and somewhat difficult for there is much disagreement over the location of these three points. In the original text the Island of Affalach would appear to be Glastonbury, Caer Garadwg could be Stonehenge or York and Bangor could be either Bangor in Gwynedd or Bangor-on-Dee nearer to Liverpool. However, John Michell, writing in ‘City of Revelation’ in 1973 and in ‘The Measure of Albion’ in 2004 posits Stonehenge, Glastonbury and Llantwit Major in south Wales (where sat the Celtic college of St. Illtydd) and then suggests a fourth point at Goring-on-Thames.

The glorious though unproven point is that in each of these places resided choirs of 2,400 dedicated saints or holy people perpetuating the praise of God with the purpose of maintaining the enchantment and peace of Britain. Thus a complete system would engage 7,200 singers 24 hours a day, day in, day out.  Michell went on to examine the correspondences and dimensions of these points in relation to each other and found geometry and numerology that suggested a ten sided circle (a decagon). His theory can be read on pages 112-116 of ‘The Measure of Albion’, with a chart of all the co-ordinates of the ten sites on page 138. These ten points provide a circular configuration which has Whiteleaved Oak at its centre. In ‘Walking in Albion’ Richard Leviton explains this idea of the Perpetual Choirs more fully (pages 186-191) suggesting the choirs are a terrestrial copy of something that exists in the heavenly realms: ‘What are they singing to us and the Earth? The theme song of Albion, which changes in every epoch.’  Imagine these Perpetual Choirs singing – they sing to Gaia and Albion.

The Music of Albion (part two)