A symphony famously snubbed at its scheduled premiere last year will finally be heard at the Three Choirs Festival tonight.
Scandal is not entirely unknown in the classical music world, but it is difficult to think of a precedent for one which took place in Brighton early last year.
The audience assembled for a concert by the Brighton Philharmonic was surprised to be treated to a brief speech by the conductor Barry Wordsworth, former musical director Birmingham Royal Ballet, announcing that the advertised premiere of Andrew Gant’s A British Symphony would not be taking place because he had decided that he “did not believe in the work”.
What made this last-minute change of programme even more remarkable was that Rodney Atkinson, the Euroscptic elder brother of comedian Rowan Atkinson (and author of Treason at Maastricht) who had commissioned the symphony, was in the audience with a party of 20 guests.
Even odder, Andrew Gant, whose day-job is being organist and choirmaster at Her Majesty’s Chapel, insists he has never been given a full account of what prompted Wordsworth’s change of heart.
Tonight, the people of Worcester can enjoy what was denied their counterparts in Brighton when Adrian Lucas finally conducts the delayed premiere of A British Symphony.
Gant, who is adamant about not being drawn into recriminations over the earlier incident, would no doubt be far too diplomataic to mention that tonight’s orchestra, the Philharmonia, is a step or two up the musical ladder from the Brighton Philharmonic.
In fact, it’s been a momentous few days for him: his one-woman opera Don’t Go Down the Elephant After Midnight was premiered by Patricia Rosario at London’s Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival over the weekend.
“I’m the composer, my job was to write this piece,” he says. “I wasn’t given an explanation, but it was a long time ago and now I have an exciting opportunity to have a premiere, and this is how I want the piece to be heard.”
He explains that the genesis of the symphony began when he was redsident composer with the Avison Ensemble in Newcastle, where Rodney Atkinson heard him conduct a piece he had writen for chorus and orchestra.
“He had in mind a piece which would be a kind of musical celebration, using particular musical resources, to express a particular kind of idea, and he asked me if I would be willing to write it. I was very excited by the proposition.
“His idea was to reflect the unity and at the same time the diversity of the United Kingdom through folksong. I have always worked with folksong, and I think it’s a wonderful resource. So that’s how the idea of a symphony based on folksong came about.
“There’s no point in doing something like that unless the two of you are in agreement about what should happen. I had a list of songs and he had a list of songs.”
In all, ten folksongs provide main themes over the symphony’s 35-minute, four-movement span, while others are referred to in passing. They range form immediately familiar ones like Greensleeves and Men of Harlech to more obscure beauties like the Hebridean song Sea Sorrow.
As you might expect, the spirit of Vaughan Williams, currently a high-profile figure as the 50th anniveray of his death is being marked at the Proms and elsewhere, haunts this music, not just as a composer influenced by folksong but as an actual collector in the field and as the editor of The English Hymnal.
It is the combination of the last two roles which explains why two folksongs used by Gant, Our Captain Calls All Hands and The Ploughboy’s Dream are likely to be much more familiar to listeners as the hymn He Who Would Valiant Be and the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem respectively, but isn’t there something dangerously cliched about classical music based on folksongs?
Their discovery came as a revelation to Vaughan Williams and his friend Holst at the beginning of the 20th century, yet within 20 years the folk-rhapsodies composed by them and their followers were being lampooned as the “cow-pat school”.
“I think we are growing out of that now,” says Gant. “Vaughan Williams is known today as a very serious figure who took folksong for what it is, a wonderful expressive resource.
“In any case, the use of folksong has been going on for ever, from Josquin and Bach to composers who came after Vaughan Williams, like Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies.”
Not just in little Britain, he points out. Folk song has also been an important inspiration for such unimpeachable representatives of European modernism as Bartok, Ligeti and Berio.
? Adrian Lucas conducts the premiere of Andrew Gant’s A British Symphony with the Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra at Worcester Cathedral tonight at 7.30pm, alongside music by Elgar, Howard Ferguson and Tchaikovsky (Box office: 0845 652 1823).