Pirie is the sort of unacademic, evocative, easily knowledgeable writer on music that Britain has come to specialize in. And...



Pirie is the sort of unacademic, evocative, easily knowledgeable writer on music that Britain has come to specialize in. And his judgments here are always unhackneyed and thoughtful, even when most subjective. But this study of 20th-century British music (a Renaissance indeed after the dark ages--""we were virtually silent""--that followed Purcell) is handicapped by Pirie's self-imposed format: a ""strict chronological narrative,"" year by year from the 1890s on, taking up each new work as it appears--so that the composers are continually being picked up, dropped, and returned to a few pages later. As a result, individual developments become hopelessly disjointed--while Pirie doesn't really succeed either at creating a sense of overall shifts or recurring patterns. Still, there's much that's worthy here. Unlike Frank Howe (The English Musical Renaissance, 1966), Pirie downplays the roots provided by conservative old-timers Parry, Stanford, and Mackenzie, emphasizing instead foreign influences. And he eschews the labels (""Late Romantic,"" etc.) often used in British musicology, presenting the major mid-Renaissance figures in fresh, accessible terms: Elgar above all, ""an eclectic whose influences were strongly Latin. . . the greatest composer England has produced"" (many would disagree); sensuous Delius, whom Pirie finds patently superior to his mentor, Grieg; Gustav Hoist, whose ""cold, thin chords. . . once fashionable, are beginning to date as badly as Cubist furniture""; and austere, serene, slow Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom Pirie characterizes (along with the folk-music revival he symbolized) as overrated and inhibiting. Pirie has lesser-known favorites whom he endeavors to champion: ""consistently underestimated"" Frank Bridge (who influenced Britten); placid John Ireland; unfashionably vehement Arnold Bax. And he is perhaps best on recent giants Britten (his ""curious"" harmonic idiom is ""at once Mahlerian and pre-Tristan"") and more adventurous Tippett, though he is probably overenthusiastic about newcomers Ferneyhough, Maxwell Davies, and Birtwistle. Throughout, there are marvelous evocations of individual pieces: the offbeat sforzandos in Elgar's Second Symphony, striking ""across the music like the despairing blows of a man fighting for his life""; Vaughan Williams' Eighth, whose ""orchestration is merely reckless. The vibraphone is just nasty. . . ."" But the off-putting structure and fierce subjectivity make this a resource of limited value, best used in conjunction with the very different, somewhat complementary Howe study.

Pub Date: Feb. 29, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1980