Monday, 28 January 2008

Rubbra at the BBC

This month we will publish a new book by Leo Black, Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist. Black, a pupil of Rubbra in the 1950s, presents the first full-scale study of his symphonies for fifteen years and a biographical sketch throws light on legends about the BBC and Rubbra as well as the vexed question of the composer’s mysticism. In this short piece, Leo Black reflects on tutorials with Rubbra and programming his music at the BBC:

Harmony and counterpoint “tutes” with Edmund Rubbra at Oxford half a century ago were decorous affairs. In a quite small room just on the left as you went into the Music Faculty building on Holywell Street, he would look through the exercises one had prepared during the week, and home in on anything that gave him cause to enquire, as a totally rhetorical question, "Did you really hear that in your head?" He was in his earliest fifties, robust but gentle, with a well-tended goatee beard, and his manner radiated an inner calm; to those on no kind of personal terms, with no inkling of his private life, it was convincing. Had we only known it, his marriage of the previous twenty years was even then breaking up in quite spectacular fashion, set against which he'd become converted to Roman Catholicism a few years before. Needs must when the devil… whoops, not quite the right cliché.

A decade later, there I was working in the Music Programmes Department of BBC Radio at a time when William Glock, brought in as Controller, Music, had diagnosed a chronic anaemia in the matter of red blood from abroad. I'd been working for the leading purveyor of the newest noises, Universal Edition Vienna, so I was in the shop window and found myself recruited to up the Stockhausen Quota. This and that piece of manifest nonsense soon had me disillusioned with my place alongside the avant-garde, where there seemed to be very little red blood and a lot of what the great contemporary master of insult, Kingsley Amis, called “pee-talking”, but the radio output was large enough to let a long-standing love of the First Viennese School and a feeling for the best products of the Second earn me my keep for many years still. Someone less on my mind than most was my old tutor, for whom I did regrettably little (another Oxford ex-pupil, Robert Layton, proved more loyal). That's a debt I hope my new book will help to repay, though in it I do have to pour a little cold water on the more lurid rumours of a Glock-led conspiracy to suppress the music of so well-established and major a composer. As he said, “in 1963 there were 26 broadcasts of Rubbra's music, and one of Stockhausen's”.

The main thing is that the past few years' vigorous catch-up course in Rubbra's music has confirmed to me how right Vaughan Williams was when he named Rubbra as his principal successor in the role of English symphonist. I stand by my title!

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