I was recently invited by Classical Underground’s Philip J. Conlon to discuss the work of twentieth-century British composer Alan Bush. Classical Underground is a community radio show based out of the University of Toronto, and focuses on uncovering less well-known composers whose work, for political reasons or otherwise, has been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.
Alan Bush was a British composer writing from the early 1920s straight through to the 1980s — a long and distinguished career by any measure. He was also a hard line communist who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1935, shortly after a stint as a member of the Independent Labour Party. He became assistant choral conductor for the London Labour Choral Union, eventually taking over for Rutland Boughton. Perhaps Bush’s most meaningful endeavour was his work on founding the Workers’ Music Association, which is still in existence today.
He made his living composing musical works (and through this receiving commissions for them), and taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His style is difficult to place, frequently disrupting any certainty that one may ascribe to his compositional method — perhaps reflective of the turbulent first-half of the twentieth-century in which he was living. He is at once a traditionalist — tonal, melodic and motivic; yet, modern, often flirting with serialist tendencies one may hear from the work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Many of his works, such as Prelude and Fugue on a Mixolydian Mode, op. 108, are reflective of his modalism.
It was his political views at the time, and, more specifically, his solidarity with the British left, that prevented his music from being broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1940-41 the left, as a result of its frustration with Britain’s foreign and domestic policies regarding Hitler’s fascist expansionism, created the People’s Convention, of which Bush was a signatory. The BBC ban was levied against all signatories of the Manifesto, which called for friendship with the Soviet Union and a People’s Government. These resolutions did not sit well with those whose colours ran less red than the signatories’, including the Music Department at the BBC.
It wasn’t until Ralph Vaughan Williams, Britain’s preeminent, poster-child composer at the time, pulled one of his commissioned pieces from the BBC in protest that the ban was lifted shortly thereafter. The ban also caught the attention of the House of Commons and Winston Churchill — it was actually discussed in several sessions of parliament ca. 1941. Between the years 1947-1960, however, his music was seldom heard in his own country even though no official ban was in place. It was the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union that welcomed him and his music with open arms during this time — no doubt due in part to Bush’s tendency towards Zhdanovaschina, or the doctrine of Socialist Realism that pervaded the USSR’s cultural policy in the 1940s.
Have a listen to the program for more information. CIUT keeps an archive of each program for one week, so it won’t be up for long:
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