Become a Friend of the Trust
Contact us
Profile
 Home
 News
 Profile
 Writing
 Articles
 Music
 Listen
 Gallery
 Timeline
 Trust
 Register
 Contact
 Search
Alan Bush and his daughter Rachel O'Higgins on arrival in British Guiana, August 1959
Download this article 



Profile of Alan Bush
by Rachel O'Higgins, March 2000

Alan Bush was born in Dulwich, London on 22 December, 1900. His father, Alfred Walter Bush, was a director of the firm of W.J.Bush & Co., manufacturers of Fine Chemicals and Essentials Oils, which had been founded about 1850, by his great-grandfather, William John Bush. His mother, Alice Maud Bush, was the daughter of Mr. George Brinsley, an estate agent. She was a talented artist and studied art at the Crystal Palace School of Art, but her Victorian middle-class family discouraged her from pursuing a profession either in art or in medicine in which she was also interested. She married Alfred Bush and had three sons, Alan Bush being the youngest.

Alan Bush was delicate as a child and was educated at home until the age of eleven. He then went to Highgate School until the end of 1917. In January 1918, he entered the Royal Academy of Music and was a student there until the summer of 1922. He studied organ with Reginald Steggall, piano with Tobias Matthay and Lily West, and composition with Frederick Corder. While at the Academy, he received many awards - these included the Thalberg Scholarship for piano playing and the Battison Haynes and Philip Agnew Prizes for composition. After leaving the Royal Academy of Music, he studied piano with Benno Moiseivitch and Mabel Lander, both former pupils of Theodor Leschetizky, from whom he learnt the Leschetizky method. In the mid-1920s, he studied piano with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. From 1922 to 1927, he studied composition with John Ireland. In 1925, he was appointed a Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, but was given leave of absence to pursue his studies in Berlin. In 1929, he entered the Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin, studying philosophy and musicology. He also gave a number of piano and chamber recitals in Berlin, often of his own compositions. He intended to take a degree in philosophy and musicology, but the with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, he was obliged to return to London and resumed his professional musical life in 1931.

Alan Bush aged 46 in Poland, November 1947

Early works include his String Quartet in A Minor (Opus 4), for which, in 1925, he won a Carnegie Award, and the Five Pieces for Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Horn (Opus 6). His quartet, Dialectic, (Opus 15) (1929), was another important work and composed in the form of a sonata; it is still regarded as one of his leading compositions and is one of Bush's best known works. Professor Westrup, described it in 1935 after its 1st performance by the BBC on 22 March 1935, "The writing has an almost Beethovenish directness...and the development of the whole work from the germs contained in the opening bars gives it an impressive unity". Dialectic was recorded most recently by the Bochmann String Quartet by Redcliff Recordings (RR013). His Concert Piece for Cello and Piano (Opus 17) (1936) was also regarded as a work of great maturity. Dialectic and the Concert Piece were performed at festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague and Paris in the 1930s. In 1931, Alan Bush resumed his position as Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy, and remained there until 1975, when he finally retired. In 1938, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. He married Nancy Head, the sister of Michael Head, a singer and composer, in 1931 and later the same year returned permanently to Britain and settled in Radlett, Herts. He had three daughters, though one was killed in a road accident in 1943.

In 1924, Alan Bush joined the Independent Labour Party, though when the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1929, he resigned from it and joined the Labour Party. In 1925, he became involved, along with Rutland Boughton, with the London Labour Choral Union and in 1929 became its Musical Advisor until the organisation collapsed in 1940. In 1936, he helped to found the Workers' Music Association. He became its first Chairman, until he was called up into the British army in 1941, when he was elected its first President, a post he held until he died in 1995. Alan Bush became the founder and conductor of the London String Orchestra in 1938, which continued with a break during the war until 1951. It was made up of many young, gifted string players of his day, such as Norman Brainin and Emanuel Hurwitz, who later made international careers.

In 1934, Alan Bush wrote the music for a big theatrical pageant, "The Pageant of Labour", put on at the Crystal Palace and conducted it with the assistance of Michael Tippett. In 1938, he was involved, as musical director, in two big musical events, a production of Handel's Oratorio, "Belshazzar" as an opera, and a huge pageant, at Wembley Stadium, staged by the London Co-operative Society. Finally, as a last effort before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, there was organised a Festival of Music for the People, ending with a Pageant in the Albert Hall, which was conducted by Alan Bush and in which Paul Robeson took part. In 1935, Alan Bush joined the Communist Party. Major works during this period include the Piano Concerto, (Opus 18) (1937), which was first performed in a BBC Contemporary Music concert on 4 March 1938, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, with the composer as soloist. This work was described by Kaikhosru Sorabji in the "New English Weekly" as a work "with a fine integrity of utterance and convincing power of expression that are indicative of a work of major importance". It later received three further performances, one on the Paris Radio with Miss Margaret Kitchin as soloist, and two in London, one of these being again with Miss Kitchin as soloist, with Alan Bush conducting. In the 1930s, Alan Bush's music was well thought of in the BBC and he was given many performances. As early as 1931, he had been commissioned by the Wireless Military Band to write a work for them and he provided Dance Overture, later re-scored for symphony orchestra. In April and November 1940, Alan Bush conducted two orchestral concerts at the Queen's Hall, and the programme included the first performances in Britain of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 (Op. 47), and Aram Khatchaturian's Piano Concerto with Moura Lympany as soloist. In March 1941, Alan Bush was placed under a ban upon his music and appearance in broadcasts by the BBC. The content of the text of the Piano Concerto had displeased the higher members of the Corporation, and he was one of the signatories of the People's Convention. This ban continued until 22 June, 1941, with the invasion by Hitler of the Soviet Union.

Alan Bush in uniform, during his time at Millbank Hospital, 1942-44

In November 1941, Alan Bush was called up and entered the Royal Army Medical Service, where he became a reception clerk in the Outpatients' Department at Millbank Military Hospital, Chelsea. He spent most of his period of service in London, where he organised an army choir and was able to continue to conduct his London String Orchestra, which gave numerous broadcasts, mostly on the BBC World Service. In 1944, Alan Bush played the piano part in the first performance in Great Britain of Shostakovitch's Piano Quintet, with the Philharmonic String Quartet, led by Jean Pouget. He was demobilised on 9 December 1945. Once the war was over, Alan Bush again pursued his career as a composer, and teacher, which continued almost until he died in 1995. He also conducted works by many British composers, such as Edward Elgar, John Ireland, Vaughan Williams and William Walton. He conducted his own orchestra works in a number of Promenade Concerts in London.

During the war, he composed little, but Lyric Interlude for Violin Solo with Piano Accompaniment (Opus 26) (1944), which was dedicated to the composer's wife, is generally regarded as a lyrical work of high quality and was described by the Times, 20th November 1961, as "an extended musical argument of absorbing logic and coherence". Once he left the army, began composing again, and one of his first works was a short cantata, The Winter Journey (Opus 29) (1946) with words by Randall Swingler. This was given its first performance at Alnwick Church, Northumberland, and broadcast from there. He also wrote a children's opera, The Press Gang, to words by Nancy Bush. This was first performed at St. Christopher's School, Letchworth in l947, and was later televised with Watford Children's Co-operative Choir under their conductor, Mrs Gladys Ritchie. In 1947-1948, Alan Bush was Chairman of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, and its Treasurer during 1956-57.

Alan Bush has more than one hundred orchestral, instrumental and vocal works to his credit (only a few of which have been listed here), together with four full length operas, Wat Tyler, Men of Blackmoor, The Sugar Reapers (entitled Guyana Johnny when it was performed in Leipzig) and Joe Hill: The Man Who Never Died. The libretti of the first three were by Nancy, his wife, and the libretto of the fourth was by an American playwright, Barrie Stavis. Wat Tyler, which received a prize in the Arts Council Opera Competition in 1951, was performed at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1974 to very great acclaim. Men of Blackmoor was performed by the Oxford University Opera Society and the Bristol University Opera Society, but has never had a profession production in this country. The world premiere of Wat Tyler was in Leipzig on 6 September, 1953, that of Men of Blackmoor on 18 November, 1956. The Sugar Reapers was first performed in Leipzig on 14 December 1966 and Joe Hill on 29 September, 1970 in Berlin. There were broadcasts of Wat Tyler, Men of Blackmoor and Joe Hill by the BBC and by the Radio of the German Democratic Republic. All four operas were staged on the Continent, in particular, in the German Democratic Republic and received more than twenty productions over a period of years from the 1950s until the 1970s.

The Three Concert Studies for Piano Trio (Opus 31) which was composed in 1947, and inspired by Bulgarian folk melodies, is described by Anthony Payne as "a high-water mark in Bush's mature art" (Musical Times, April 1964). This work was recorded by the Barbican Trio some years ago and is still obtainable on CD, I believe. Other works of note include his first Violin Concerto (Opus 32) (1949), which was dedicated to Max Rostal, who gave its 1st performance at a Promenade Concert on 25 August 1949. Then there was the impressive cantata Voices of the Prophets (Opus 41 (1953), which we are including in the Concert 2000. This was commissioned by Peter Pears in 1952, and sung by him with Noel Mewton Wood at the piano at the first performance in the Recital Room, Royal Festival Hall on 22 March 1953. This was followed by other instrumental works in the next few years, such as the Dorian Pasacalia and Fugue for Orchestra, (Opus 52) (1959), which had its 1st performance at the Cheltenham Festival, July 1961 and Variations, Nocturne and Finale on an English Sea-Song for Piano and Orchestra, (Opus 60), which was also performed at the Cheltenham Festival, on 7 July 1964 with David Wilde playing the piano. In 1969, Alan Bush composed a further song cycle for tenor and piano, Freight of Harvest (Opus 69), with words by Sylvia Townsend Warner. The next work was a work of entirely different scope: Africa, Symphonic Movement for Piano and Orchestra, (Opus 73). This was composed in 1971 and had its premiere in Halle (Handel's birthplace) on 16 October 1972. During the winter of 1971-2, Bush composed his Concert Overture for an Occasion, (Opus 74). The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the RAM, with which institution he was associated for over 50 years. Bush continued to compose throughout out the 1970s and 1980s. Works included chamber works, two further song cycles and works for viola and violin. Throughout his life, he composed many songs both for the labour choirs he conducted, for Welsh male voice choirs and to commemorate certain events. For example, he wrote a beautiful song with words by Nancy Bush to commemorate the destruction of Lidice by the Germans during World War II - Lidice for Unaccompanied Mixed Chorus (1947). He even wrote a song to commemorate the first journey into space by Gagarin, Song of the Cosmonaut, for baritone solo and mixed chorus with piano accompaniment in 1963.

Alan Bush on holiday in Italy

Alan Bush also wrote four symphonies. The first was Symphony No 1 in C, (Opus 21), which was first performed at a Promenade Concert on 24 July 1942, conducted by the composer. In a programme note on the symphony, Alan Bush wrote that the Prologue ushers in the three main movements, allegro molto, largo, and allegro moderato a deciso. In this symphony, the composer's intention is "to evoke the feelings of the men and women of Britain as they drove forward the contradictory movements in their social life during the nineteen thirties...the three main movements are more in the nature of mood pictures...". John Amis wrote in "The Scotsman" of the symphony: "This symphony was written in 1939-40 and reflects some of the stress of the times together with some of the composer's ideological comments. As usual with this composer, the work is put together with masterly skill, imaginative aspiration, and a command of his art that makes it compelling and fascinating. I would dearly like to hear it another half-dozen times to enjoy its strength of logic, its breadth of span, its lyricism". This was followed by the Nottingham Symphony (Opus 33) (1949), which received its first performance in this country in the Albert Hall, Nottingham and was conducted by David Ellenberg. The Nottingham Symphony was commissioned by the Nottingham Co-operative Society. It was commissioned by the Co-operative society to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the City Charter. Sir Adrian Boult conducted its first London performance at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 December 1952 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The third symphony, the Byron Symphony (Opus 53) (1959), with baritone solo and mixed choir was first performed in Leipzig on March 22, 1962 and its first British performance was in London in the Festival Hall on 6 June, 1962. Writing in the Guardian, 7 June, 1962, Colin Mason said "...There are excellent things in it...It is an original set of variations...(second Movement)...and leading up to a final splendid variation...Bush's musical treatment has something in common with Strauss's...This is one of the best things Bush has ever written...". His final symphony, the Lascaux Symphony (Opus 98) was completed in the early 1980s. It was inspired by a visit by Alan Bush and his wife, Nancy, to the Lascaux caves in France, where he saw the original cave paintings. He was excited by the idea that men in pre-historic times could depict their lives so vividly on the walls of their cave dwellings. This has been performed by the BBC fairly recently.

In 1968, he became a Doctor of Music of London University, and in 1970, the Doctorate of Music (Honoris Causa) was conferred upon him by Durham Univesity. He lived in Radlett, Herts from 1932 until his death in 1995. He had a very contented home life, being very happily married to his wife, Nancy, who collaborated with him both as a librettist for three of his operas and as the writer of lyrics for numerous songs.

His works have been performed in nearly every European country and in Canada, the U.S.A., South Africa and Australia. He made many appearances as composer, conductor, pianist and lecturer in Britain, Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia. A recent CD of "Music by Alan Bush" was produced by Redcliffe Recordings (RR 008).

Writing in Grove's Dictionary, 5th Edition, Colin Mason wrote: "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 four contemporaries on their respective home grounds in Dialectic (for string quartet), the Violin Concerto, the Concert Piece for Cello and Piano and the Nottingham Symphony. He is surpassed, only in melody, as are all the others, by Walton, but not even by him in harmonic and orchestral 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 instrumental invention, nor by Rubbra in handling large forms well...".