Angles on Saxons: Before tonight's Prom of Walton, Delius and Vaughan Williams, Bayan Northcott scrutinises the Englishness of English music

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TONIGHT's Henry Wood Promenade Concert would have resounded to the broad sway of Sir Charles Groves, but for his sad demise a few weeks back - an utterly English figure in an utterly English programme, it might be thought.

Yet one only had to corner Sir Charles in the briefest conversation to suspect a fraught and searching sensibility behind the deceptively bluff persona. And what of the works Vernon Handley will now be conducting in his memory? Walton's comedy overture Scapino was actually inspired by a French artist's engraving of an Italian commedia dell'arte character and reveals a stylistic tendency perhaps closest to Prokofiev. Delius, who composed his Double Concerto in 1915, preferred to live in America, Germany, Scandinavia, France or anywhere rather than his native Bradford and cleaved to the philosophy of Nietszche. As for A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams: this comprises settings of Walt Whitman by a composer who completed his musical studies with Max Bruch in Berlin and in Paris with Ravel.

Granted, Walton came of age in the heyday of Diaghilev's Russian ballet and always inclined to the Italian south, while Delius was born of German stock in the first place. But surely no composer was more archetypally English than Ralph Vaughan Williams? In his earlier years he certainly seems to have felt the need to counter the Germanic bias of his predecessors, Parry, Stanford and Elgar, with a more indigenous manner derived from Tudor polyphony and folk song. And in Grand Old Age, his influence was duly attacked by a new generation, anxious to re-engage with the Continental avant-garde, for 'nationalism gone sentimental', as the fierce young Maxwell Davies put it.

Yet mere insularity could hardly explain the extraordinary sweep of his development from the pleasantries of such early drawing-room songs as 'Linden Lea' of around 1900 to the fearsome force of the Fourth Symphony some 35 years later - nor the admiration of Ravel and Bartok, who praised respectively On Wenlock Edge and the Piano Concerto; or Copland, who confessed his view of Vaughan Williams as an unexportable conservative was shattered by the Fourth Symphony itself. Neither could mere nationalism account for his scope. If, for instance, the spectral finale of his Sixth were to be spliced into one of the bleaker Shostakovich symphonies, one wonders how many unknowing listeners would notice any stylistic disparity. Still more saliently: were it not so well known, Debussy's prelude 'The Girl with the Flaxen Hair' could quite easily be passed off as School of Vaughan Williams. He is known to have loved Pelleas et Melisande, yet Debussy's surely seminal influence upon his curvilinear melodism and modal, organum-like harmonies never seems to get discussed. Has the received view of English musical history served to obscure some of the most interesting affinities in his music?

The nub of this view is that though once - in the era of John Dunstable at the beginning of the fifteenth century - English music led Europe, it has languished ever since in an offshore condition, alternately resisting and embracing the influence of the Continental mainstream. Occasionally that influence has proved almost overpowering, reducing our nineteenth-century talents, for instance, to pale imitations of Handel, Mendelssohn and Brahms, so that the resulting resistance of the Vaughan Williams generation had to swing to extremes, leading to an equally extreme embracing of the Schoenberg influence after the Second World War - and so on, and on. Inherent in this is the notion of the 'English time lag' in which we are supposed to show a certain knack for finding further possibilities in trends already exhausted on the Continent. So William Byrd is heard as belatedly synthesising the entire Renaissance heritage, and Elgar as finding freshness in the idioms of Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak.

None of this is actually untrue. Indeed, it is occasionally truer than we know. It took the echt Austro-German ear of Hans Keller to discern that the Continentally-orientated Elgar was in fact more deeply - because less consciously - steeped in the typical pentatonic scales of English folk-song than many a committed subsequent folklorist. All the same, the assumption that music history evolves as a kind of Darwinian process obscures the extent to which what we call tradition is often only a back-projection of individual synthesis. In retrospect, Haydn's central role in fathering the Classical style out of the ruins of the Baroque might seem obvious enough. Yet the disparities of his stylistic choices and his unpredictable development were arguably as idiosyncratic as the brilliantly empirical idiom which the apparently more peripheral Purcell threw together from French, Italian and English sources.

Maybe it is less realistic to seek the Englishness of English music in specific stylistic usages than in lasting biases to more general tensions such as have helped to define all European cultures since at least the ancient Greeks: such issues as sacred versus secular, town versus country, high art versus the vernacular, professional versus amateur. It has often been observed, for instance, that many of the most radical innovators of the modern movement - Schoenberg and Stravinsky in music, Pound and Lawrence in literature - tended, paradoxically, to reactionary politics, as if they needed the psychological insurance of authoritarianism against the uncertainties of artistic risk.

Admittedly, the right-wing leanings of such Englishmen as Elgar and Walton may have reflected more a simple discomfort over their humble class origins. But what has been striking ever since Sir Hubert Parry used, apparently, to bemuse his aristocratic dinner guests with Blakean visions of socialism, is the leaning of most of our subsequent composers to the left - not always, perhaps, in active political engagement but in a firm commitment to music as a communal activity and to the sustaining of accessible styles through the incorporation of the musical vernacular. Holst and Vaughan Williams were directly inspired by the socialism of William Morris; Tippett and Britten took their stand from the Marxist and pacifist movements of the Thirties; Simpson and Maxwell Davies, maybe, from the post-war Labour vision. But their cumulative tradition continues in the involvement of countless contemporary composers in school projects, amateur and non-establishment music-making.

No doubt from the standpoint of the Continental modern movement from Schoenberg to Boulez, primarily concerned with professional innovation, the English leaning towards the amateur has seemed artistically reactionary. How could a composer like Vaughan Williams produce a consonant, placid Pastoral Symphony in 1923 after the musical revolutions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and the apocalypse of the First World War? Yet even if we disregard the suspicion that the piece is actually a covert requiem for the fallen, or its remarkable originality in sustaining a sonata structure without recourse to Austro-German dramatics, or the fact that Vaughan Williams's folklorism was part of a socially conscious search for a 'People's Music'; even if we regard the work simply as the pleasant, provincial bit of landscape music it has too often been taken for, history may still have a surprise up its, literally, Green sleeve. For with the consciousness of environmental crisis, what Tippett has called 'the pastoral metaphor' looks set to take on an altogether more central significance.

Royal Albert Hall (Box office: 071-823 9998); broadcast live on Radio 3.