Taken from programme note for the "Alan Bush and Aaron Copland Centenary Focus Concert" by Adam Summerhayes (violin), Catherine Summerhayes (piano), and Joseph Spooner (cello) - Purcell Room, 3 April 2000.
John Amis is a Patron of the Alan Bush Music Trust.
by John Amis
Alan Bush was a star behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950's and 60's. He was accepted as an equal by the likes of Shostakovich and Khachaturian, and more than that, he was performed, his four operas receiving eleven productions in Soviet Russia and East Germany. What a contrast back home in the UK, where he had only one opera, Wat Tyler, staged. True, the others were given studio performances by the BBC, as if the Corporation was trying to make up for an attempted ban on broadcasting his music in the 1940's (thwarted by the determined efforts of Vaughan Williams). Why? Because Bush did what the Bible tells us you cannot do: he served two masters - music and the Communist Party. His music never had the wide recognition it deserved here, despite being hailed as masterly by such eminent musicians as Michael Tippett and Hans Keller.
Bush was born just in the reign of Queen Victoria, on December 22nd, 1900, with a silver spoon in his mouth. He never had to earn his keep and lived in his own substantial house outside London, quite comfortably off. He was generous with his money, always ready to help his friends or the Party and its offshoots. Like Britten, he was a pupil of John Ireland, and like Britten, he was a good pianist and conductor. After studying in Berlin (musicology and philosophy) he married and settled down in England, joining the Party in 1935. He wrote music for the working-class movement, took part in Labour pageants, spoke at meetings and was a political agitator. At the same time, he was a devoted Professor of Composition at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, a post he held for fifty years. His political affiliation alienated him from those who could have programmed his music: this despite success on local and international fronts with his Dialectic for String Quartet (1929), and the Concert-Piece for Cello and Piano (1936). Both these works use a kind of serialism, not atonal, but relating every note of the composition to its main themes, just as Beethoven had done in his Grosse Fuge. Indeed both works inhabit a world similar to that work of Beethoven, masterpieces of intellectual toughness tempered by passionate lyricism.
With Russia in the Second World War as an ally, Bush was happy to join the British Army, in which he served as a Private, spending most of his time scrubbing floors. 1948 was a watershed in his life, the year in which the chief Soviet composers were hauled over the coals and told to develop nationalism in their music. Bush took this directive to heart and his music became more lyrical and less tough. He put behind him such works as his formidable hour-long Piano Concerto (with a finale in which the chorus exhorts revolution) and the First Symphony in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is represented by lewd notes on the bassoon. The next symphony was the Nottingham, very lyrical, to be followed by The Winter Journey, a truly lovely cantata telling the Christmas story in terms intended to follow the Party line. Bush enjoyed the success of his operas in the Communist countries, three of them based on librettos by his loving wife, Nancy. Alan was big enough not to feel bitter about his treatment in this country, going as far as to say to me once "Well, I suppose you might say, that I asked for it..."
Reading about his life you might be forgiven for thinking that Bush was something of an ogre, a red-hot Commie of the champagne variety, but in fact he was a delightful man and a good sport who had many devoted friends who all treated him with respect and affection. He wrote music for head and heart, and many times managed to combine the two elements. The Winter Journey, the lute songs from Wat Tyler, the love music from the opera Men of Blackmoor (about trouble at t'mill), the three pieces you will hear tonight, Dialectic and many other works, these are masterly and enduring.
I visited Alan not long before he died and found him lively and contented, telling me stories about his wedding and so forth, but his memory of the last fifty years had disappeared and, supreme irony, he was not even aware of the crumbling of the Soviet Union. He had a pacemaker fitted when he was ninety-four, but he weakened and died on Hallowe'en, 31st October, 1995.
As Colin Mason wrote in the 5th edition of Grove's Dictionary: "His range is wide, the quality of his music consistently excellent. He has the intellectual concentration of Tippett, the easy command and expansiveness of Walton, the nervous intensity of Rawsthorne, the serene leisureliness of Rubbra. He meets these contemporaries on their respective home grounds in Dialectic, the Violin Concerto, the Concert Piece for Cello and Piano and Nottingham Symphony. He is surpassed only in melody, as are the others, by Walton, but not even by him in harmonic richness, nor by Tippett in contrapuntal originality and the expressive power of rather austere musical thought, nor by Rawsthorne in concise, compelling utterance and telling invention, nor by Rubbra in handling large forms well..."