English String Music
Listen while you read: English String Music Playlist
String music has a strong tradition in England, particularly in a long line of folk music from the very early days of the Anglo Saxons. It came into full bloom in the 19th and 20th century when a number of talented English composers found an affinity with the luscious sound of strings. In the 19th century, the giants of English classical music Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge and of course Vaughan-Williams were at work. They were followed in the 20th century by the great Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten who explored more dissonant harmonic variations in their string compositions.
From a small village near Worcestershire, Elgar is often associated with string music by virtue of his enigmatic cello concerto. His Serenade for Strings in E Minor, composed as his reputation began to grow in England and abroad, shows his extraordinary understanding of the nuances of string music.
Holst, of Nordic descent and born in Cheltenham, composed his Brook Green Suite late in life. He named it after the ground on which stood St Paul's Girls' School, the place where he had taken on the role of music master in 1905 and where he enjoyed teaching until his death.
Hailing from much the same area of the country, Vaughan-Williams had always had a particular passion for traditional folk music, which led him to compose not just for strings but also for older instruments like the harp. His Five Variations of Dives and Lazarus, commissioned for the World Fair in New York in 1939, explores the beauty of this traditional English melody.
Frank Bridge, from Brighton in the south of the country, studied under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College in London where he played viola, fostering his long of string instruments. He is most highly regarded for this kind of music, particularly chamber music, which he composed in the late-Romantic idiom.
It was in fact under Frank Bridge's private tutoring that Benjamin Britten studied (later he composed his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in homage to his teacher). Inspired by an uncompleted suite of prose poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud about his peregrinations from Reading to continental Europe, Britten wrote Les Illuminations for strings, dedicating the poem Being Beauteous to his lifelong companion Peter Pears.
His music and perspective on life was shaped by his deeply-held humanitarian and pacifist beliefs, much like his contemporary Britten. Michael Tippet, the only one of these composers to have been born in the capital, spent much of his time in London and his works for strings reflects his interest in the traditions of English music.
Listen to the luscious string music of these fine English composers with our special playlist.