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British Classical Music Makes a Comeback

Photo: Alison Balsom, trumpet.

England has always been underrepresented in the history of Classical Music. There have been, of course, spurts when British composers or performers have made significant contributions to this tradition, but, more often than not, foreign musicians have dominated England’s musical world and drowned out the work of its native sons and daughters.

In the program of Alison Balsom’s April 20 performance, works dating from the period between English composer’s Henry Purcell’s death and English composer’s Edward Elgar’s ascent to international relevance exemplify a time when the most celebrated musical figures in England were outsiders, starting with George Frederic Handel.

Wandering interests

George Frederic Handel was only nine years old when Purcell died in 1694. Handel was still a young man when he moved to London in 1712, and although he became a naturalized British subject, his musical endeavors were always outwardly focused on styles from mainland Europe, such as Italian opera, German polyphony and a variety of chamber forms, like the concerto.

Ms. Balsom’s program includes Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op. 6, no. 7, and even pairs it with Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso no. 12 in g Minor to show that this type piece was not of English origin. The program reinforces this international influence on Handel’s music with arrangements of works by Italian composers, Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in B-flat, Op. 7, no. 3 and Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major, RV 230, further demonstrating Handel’s wandering interests in foreign styles and his failure to bolster the innovations of the native British musicians who had come before him.

An example for others?

This point is not trivial, because earlier English composers had created traditions of their own, and Handel’s choice to ignore these may have set a precedent for the other international composers who made their careers in England.

The works by Henry Purcell on the evening’s program, on the other hand, embody the English musical traditions that Handel, and those who followed him, left untouched. Note that there are no Purcell concertos, and even his excerpted operas King Arthur and The Prophetess are very different from Handel’s. We also have unusual-looking titles like Chacony in g minor and Fantasia on one note, works that resemble coeval forms developed on The Continent, but are unique to Purcell and England’s innate musical sensibility.

This native idiosyncrasy of Purcell’s works did not re-gain international prominence until the final third of the nineteenth century. And, if this presence hibernated after Purcell’s death, it awoke with Elgar, learned to walk with Ralph Vaughan Williams, came of age with Benjamin Britten, and is enjoying a golden age at the present.

A new golden age

Encapsulated by the ultra-successful Proms concert series, which started 201 years after Purcell’s death, British Classical Music currently enjoys a perfect position between Continental Europe’s self-imposed erudition and America’s cloying populism. Here, world premieres and beloved standards are honored together, and all before audiences of millions.

Alison Balsom, who headlined the final concert at the 2009 Proms, is a bright, shining emblem of a thriving musical world replete with skilled minds and performers who understand their culture’s origins as well as guide it into the future. It’s very fitting for her April 23rd performance to be filled with the varied sounds and styles of the baroque period, because that era marked the turning point into obscurity out of which British Classical Music has re-emerged just over the last century and a half.