Alan Bush – 100th anniversary

Written by: David Wordsworth

Alan Bush would have been 100 years old on December 22nd 2000. When I got to know him, around the time of his 85th birthday, it seemed as if he would make it to his century. I have a letter from him in 1987 telling me how difficult it was to write seven-part harmony! The result was the Septet Op.118. Well into his ’nineties, Alan still stood tall and strong, his enthusiasm for work undiminished.

Although a telegram from Her Majesty would not have been high on Alan’s list of priorities, he would I know have been hoping that his music might be remembered. Thankfully in a series of centenary concerts at the end of last year some works were revived; the BBC just managed to save its skin by performing and broadcasting Bush’s monumental Piano Concerto. With the formation of the Alan Bush Trust (details below), the promise of more CDs and the long-overdue publication of Nancy Bush’s fascinating little biography, “Alan Bush – Music, Politics, Life” (Thames Publishing), maybe the tide is on the turn.

As far as the countries of Eastern Europe were concerned in the 50s and 60s, it was not Britten or Tippett that were the important figures in British music, but Alan Bush – all of his operas were staged behind the ’Iron Curtain’. By contrast, in the UK, with the exception of Wat Tyler, they remain unstaged and unknown, apart from the very occasional broadcast of studio recordings. Sadly, in some quarters, Alan became better
known for his politics than for his music. Apart from a small, loyal band of followers, the musical establishment turned its back on Alan when he joined the Communist Party. There is a famous story of Vaughan Williams, on hearing of the BBC’s ban on Bush’s music during the war, threatening to withdraw all his work from broadcasting – an extraordinary show of support from the then Grand Old Man of British music. The BBC backed down, but thereafter, although not exactly a ban, broadcasts and performances were few and far between – apart from a guilty effort around the time of important anniversaries – 80th, 85th, 90th birthdays.

It always amazed me how matter-of-fact Alan was about all this, never showing a trace of bitterness or regret. I remember him telling me, in that wonderful voice of his – a sort of booming, southern-counties accent in which every syllable would be carefully enunciated – that “Opera Magnates in this country are not friends of living composers”. From someone who spoke the longest sentences of anyone I have ever met, this is the model of economy.

Perhaps because of his firmly held political views, his commanding voice and imposing stature, Alan had something of a reputation of being rather fierce. Actually, just the opposite was the case – I remember him as warm, friendly, generous and funny; he was an enthusiastic writer of letters (on what looked like the oldest typewriter in the world) – Alan Bush was a man of huge intelligence and, at his best, an astonishingly good composer.

As far as his music is concerned, Dialectic (for string quartet) is a masterpiece, worthy to stand beside pretty much the finest of twentieth-century Quartets. There are not many British composers who have made such a distinguished contribution to the piano’s repertoire – from opposite ends of his career, Relinquishment, Op.11 and the 24 Preludes, Op.84 are especially worthy of attention. For those who like slightly less of a
technical challenge, the Six Short Pieces, Op.99 would be a good start.

The composer once reprimanded me in a friendly way for praising his cantata The Winter Journey – he felt it lacked revolutionary ardour or something – but it’s a beautiful work and any choir looking for an approachable, unusual work for Christmas would do well to investigate this. The solo cantata, Voices of the Prophets, for tenor and piano, providing one ignores some of the silly text, is truly magnificent. Bush obliged most
instrumentalists with interesting works – players of the flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, all the string family, organ, harpsichord, even the Northumbrian Pipes, can find a work in the Bush catalogue. Amongst his orchestral music the Dorian Passacaglia and Fugue, Op.52 is a masterpiece by any standards, while the Variations, Nocturne and Finale on an English Sea-Song for piano and orchestra could become popular given half a chance. Something that I would really love to see revived is the autumnal Piano Quintet, Op.104, written in 1984. I remember a performance at Bush’s 85th-birthday concert in London given by John Bingham and the Medici Quartet – I don’t know if it has been heard since (I suspect not) – this is amongst the very best of Alan and deserves a recording.

It is impossible to cover all 120-odd-opus numbers, especially as several works have yet to be performed, which is a lamentable state of affairs. Let us hope that the centenary celebrations of this extraordinary man spur on the rediscovery of a remarkable and individual musical voice.



ALAN BUSH – MUSIC, POLITICS AND LIFE by Nancy Bush (with an essay on the music by Lewis Foreman) is published by Thames Publishing (distributed by William Elkin Music Services)

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