A lifetime ago Vaughan Williams wrote an essay called “Who wants the English composer?” Then, when such an idea was little more unusual than a woman preaching or a dog standing on its hind legs, there was no very clear answer. Now, though, works by English composers from the musical renaissance that began in about 1880 and is still continuing are perhaps more popular than ever.
The vogue in the musical world to mark anniversaries is particularly helpful to our composers. Last year much fuss was made of Elgar on the 150th anniversary of his birth. This year Vaughan Williams is everywhere, 50 years after his death. Next there is a chance to mark not only Elgar again, should it be felt necessary, on the 75th anniversary of his death, but also Holst and Delius, who died within weeks of him in what still stands as English music’s annus horribilis of 1934.
Finzi and Walton had their centenaries in some style in 2001 and 2002 respectively; and if you think things are quiet on the Britten front at the moment, the celebration of his own centenary in 2013 will probably put all else in the shade. He is not just our only genius, after all, but also the only one whose music has ever travelled readily across the Channel.
Two other forces have also been brilliant in the past few years in furthering interest in and awareness of English music. The first is Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3 and now too of the Proms, who shares none of the prejudices of some of his predecessors about the English school but understands that some of their work measures up more than equally to that of some of their European contemporaries.