Em Marshall and the English Music Festival

(This is the second in a series of articles in which we highlight organisations or individuals who are making a contribution to the preservation and renewal of our diverse heritage).

Although classical music from the Continent and America is quite widely appreciated in England, many of us have never even heard of some of our own composers.  Our musical heritage is crowded with figures such as George Butterworth, who wrote limpidly pastoral music based on English folk tunes, Frank Bridge, responsible for some gorgeous string music (one of English music's particular strengths), or Frederick Delius, whose complex orchestral textures evoked the English landscape as well, in their own way, as Butterworth's work. Then there are even more obscure figures, such as the Afro-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose work, although largely unheard-of today, was justly popular during the Edwardian age. Even some of our better-known composers --Vaughan Williams or Benjamin Britten, for example-- are known to the general public for only a couple of pieces: in the case of Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending and Greensleeves, and, in Britten's case, the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Those of us who love English music have had to pursue our interest in the face of what occasionally seems to be a conspiracy of silence about our classical music heritage, and much official contempt towards it.

Enter Em Marshall, a 20-something on a mission to change all that.
Marshall is passionate about English music, so much so that, starting this year, lovers of the genre will finally have the opportunity to attend an annual English Musical Festival that she has organised in the Oxfordshire countryside. This year's festival, entitled "Heirs and Rebels", will run from October 20-24. We discussed the project with her earlier this year.
What was the background and train of thought which led you to take on this project?

I read Greats at Oxford (Brasenose College), but music has always been my main love. I 'discovered' English music at an early age - my father used to sing me Linden Lea [Vaughan Williams' setting of a pastoral poem by William Barnes -Ed.], so I grew up with the sound world. When I was about six I heard Holst's St Paul's Suite and, discovering that it was about a school, begged my parents to send me there. So I went to St Paul's, where the then director of music encouraged me, allowed me to indulge my interest further and teach myself the organ, harpsichord and so on. I spent all of my teenage years listening to anything I could get my hands on - mainly English music (though not exclusively). When I was 14 I became a Founder Member of the Vaughan Williams Society and the chap who owned and single-handedly ran Thames Publishing (a specialist music publisher) took me under his wing and opened up the world of English music to me further. He introduced me to minor composers I'd never imagined existed, took me along to all his meetings with authors, composers and relatives of composers (Howells' and Dyson's daughter, Vaughan Williams' widow, and so on), taught me all he knew about English music, took me to innumerable concerts and opera performances and CD recordings, and I then worked for Thames Publishing with him until his death in 2000.

Over these years I came to realise what an incredible body of music there is. Some of it still unrecorded, some unpublished, and very little of it (apart from the really well-known pieces) played. Much of it is of the very highest quality - well-crafted, inspired, brilliantly-constructed works. This is what led me to start thinking about doing an English Music Festival, so it's been something I've wanted to do ever since my teens. With it I want to put English music back on the map. This is more than just an annual 5-day event: I want it to revolutionise the image of English music, which is unjustly seen as pastoral and superannuated, fuddy-duddy and imperialistic. It's not. A lot of it is dynamic, exciting, and incredibly progressive and forward-looking (just look at the Vaughan Williams symphonies). I want people to recognise this fact and I want to see a lot more recordings and performances of English music both nationally and internationally. I want to raise its profile and put it back at the heart of our national culture.

Your main focus is on the early twentieth-century, when English classical music was at its most flourishing. How do you account for the creativity of this period?

I think it is an extraordinary and inexplicable phenomenon. Some people may attempt to explain it by increased access to musical education, by the establishment of the music colleges in
London and the main provincial cities, by the proliferation of music festivals, by the formation of professional orchestras throughout the country and by greater access to music through broadcasts, gramophone records and so on. I think that these all played a part, but they cannot alone explain the remarkable occurrence of just so many utterly brilliant composers all springing up at this time.

In an interview for The Stage, you apparently referred to the festival as 'elitist', and it appears that much of the advance publicity has appeared in Conservative publications. Do you have any plans to use the festival, once established, as a means of helping English people from less privileged backgrounds become aware of their musical heritage?

I can't think that "elitist" was my word! I am concerned that the festival may be seen as elitist (simply because classical music, like opera, is seen as an elitist activity), which I do not in the least intend it to be. I am hoping to include jazz and folk elements to broaden the appeal and will be doing a lot of educational work in both state and private schools. My aim with the festival is to give as many people as possible, regardless of their background, nationality, class etc, a taste of this wonderful music.

Is it your intention to avoid featuring more experimental ('modern') composers? (I notice that Michael Tippett (who wrote A Child of Our Time) for example, is conspicuously absent).

Yes. The focus of the Festival is the early twentieth century, and although I include composers from medieval times to the present day, the present-day composers featured are the more "accessible" and tonal ones. This is because there are plenty of concerts and even festivals (Huddersfield, for one) that focus on contemporary music.  It's done enough already.

From the programmes that are posted on the site, it appears that you will be featuring both better-known and lesser-known works from a range of composers. Could you explain the rationale behind this?

I am including a few better-known works as a draw. Many people might find it off-putting going to a festival with no works that they are familiar with, but I am tending towards the lesser-known works, even whilst programming well-known composers such as Holst, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Purcell and Britten. For example, in the first year I've programmed Elgar's piano quintet and Bridge's "There is a Willow", but the Holst is not the Planets - it's the First Choral Symphony, Beni Mora, Choral Fantasia and Cloud Messenger, and there's no sign of The Lark Ascending for Vaughan Williams. Rather, it's Dona Nobis Pacem and Flos Campi. It is the less well-known but still brilliant works that I want to bring to light and to increase recognition of. Holst is an incredibly original and inspired composer, but most people only know the Planets. I want them to be drawn by the inclusion of a composer they known, but to go away having heard something new.

How would you characterise the reaction that you have been getting so far? Do you think the festival is tapping into a pre-existing interest?

Absolutely. The response I've had has been overwhelming. In the first few years, before I'd put out any publicity about the festival whatsoever, enough people found out about it by searching on the web and by word of mouth to fill the entire abbey. I have people phoning from Australia and the States regularly, saying that they're booking their flights to come over for the festival already. And the Friends scheme I've just launched has been
hugely successful. Friends get good discounts and member benefits, whilst their donations help me tremendously by giving me the up-front money I need to run the festival at this stage. The response I've had from the music world, too, has been incredibly encouraging.

Could you describe the venue in which the festival will be held? What sorts of orchestras and artists are you hoping to feature?

The main Festival venue will be the medieval Abbey at Dorchester-on-Thames, a beautiful building with excellent acoustics. I'll also be using other local churches (Sutton Courtney for example) as well as the Abbey guesthouse and other local venues. Artists will range from Julian Lloyd Webber to David Owen Norris, Paul Silverthorne, Patrizia Kwella, Endymion and Tonus Peregrinus.

Many thanks to Em Marshall for her time. Further details about the English Music Festival can be found at  --Isabel Taylor
Copyright Isabel Taylor 2006.




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