CLASSICAL MUSIC / Radical with a conservative toutch: In 1992 everyone had heard of Rutland Broughton and his opera, The Immortal Hour. Andrew Green suggests it might be time for a revival

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The Independent Culture
I WAS once so rash as to ask the biographer of a lesser-known English composer and teacher why his subject had continued to write music when demand for it fell away. 'Because he was a composer,' was the justly contemptuous reply. Make do with a similar answer for Rutland Boughton.

The success between the wars of his music-drama The Immortal Hour was too monumental for his own good. Two other operas, the nativity piece Bethlehem and Alkestis, have had their days - so, for example, has the first oboe concerto. But what of the remaining seven music-dramas (from The Birth of Arthur to Avalon), six ballets, three symphonies, a range of concertos, symphonic poems, overtures, quantities of chamber and choral works, and nigh on a hundred solo songs? When John Wallace last week performed in Derby what he rates as 'the trumpet concerto Elgar never wrote' - a hugely challenging work completed by Boughton in 1943 - the Boughton family gathered from here and there to make the most of a rare opportunity. They were luckier this time - the concerto's premiere involved a trek to Kircaldy in 1989.

In 1922 The Immortal Hour enjoyed what is probably the longest run of consecutive performances of any opera, anywhere in the world: 216, at London's Regent Theatre. Further pre-war London outings followed in 1923, 1926 and 1932. Elgar called it 'a work of genius.' Marriages were made in the foyer as lovers found their swooning synchronised with the tale of the faery princess who falls for a mortal king only to be inveigled back whence she came. The hypnotic quality of this 'English Pelleas' had people sleepwalking back to the box-office time after time. Princess Marie-Louise saw it on 52 occasions. . .a certain Miss Parker, 133.

Much of the success lay in the performance of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Princess Etain. 'She looked so decorative, moved so beautifully,' recalls Sir John Gielgud, who went just the twice. 'She had such a feeling for this unworldly personality. . .I took an enormous shine to her.'

Ffrangcon-Davies said the opera drew both 'hard-headed businessmen and porters from Billingsgate.' Michael Hurd, whose radically revised and enlarged biography carries the authority of personal friendship with Boughton over a decade, agrees the work possibly tapped a Twenties escapist mood, but is adamant this doesn't render it dated. 'OK, no-one would compose on that subject today, but you could say the same for La Boheme.' Intriguingly, when the first complete recording emerged as late as 1983 it sold, says Hyperion Records managing director Ted Perry, 'extraordinarily and unexpectedly well.'

For all that The Immortal Hour provided Boughton with the only substantial income of his career (a princely pounds1,946 0s3d royalties in 1923 alone) the nature of the success niggled him - he is thought to have refused a knightood. Patronage from marchionesses and duchesses was the last thing a committed socialist could bite on, not least when the work had been envisaged for outdoor performance with a country ramble from scene to scene.

'He also reckoned it wasn't actually his best music,' says Boughton's daughter Jennifer. 'He believed his political views and personal behaviour prevented his broader acceptance as a composer.' Seen from this end of the telescope those drawbacks nonetheless make Boughton's life one of the most colourful of any English composer. For 'personal behaviour' read the fact that he was legally married to only one of his three 'wives' - the first having scruples about divorce. The stink in society was as putrid as it was predictable, but Boughton's nose didn't give a twitch. 'There was nothing underhand about the way he handled all the relationships,' says his son Brian. 'The children from each marriage were looked after as one family and there was no animosity between them or the wives.'

Boughton's near-lifelong socialism, akin in many ways to that of his friend and mentor Bernard Shaw, led him into the Communist camp - even to Moscow for the celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of the revolution. He went, he said, '. . .to learn from the example of the Russian Workers, more especially the musicians', in his support for the ordinary British singers and players he saw as exploited by establishments like the BBC. 'Comrade Boughton', Fleet Street dubbed him.

The influence of socialism on his music is nonetheless patchy, says Michael Hurd. 'Perhaps the best work here was Midnight, a setting for chorus of words by Edward Carpenter, with its hopes of a new day for the downtrodden. But generally speaking political influences were never as strong as emotional ones - particularly the ups and downs of his personal life. To tell the truth he was rather put out that the British Communist Party didn't make much use of him when he offered his services as a composer during the General Strike.'

Boughton's main personal contribution to social experimentation was the creation and tireless moulding of the Glastonbury arts festivals from their first year in 1914, events intended to dovetail with the flow of farming life. Opera, chamber music (even early music), theatre, art and poetry were all in the mix. Boughton's Glastonbury works, like those Britten wrote for Aldeburgh a quarter of a century later, took account of local amateur musical resources, which were nurtured by out-of-season education classes. London professionals came down as much for refreshment as employment. 'Glastonbury was Boughton's alternative society, with the arts accessible to all,' says Michael Hurd. 'He wanted greater opportunities for the artist away from what he saw as the back-stabbing environment of London.'

The festivals focused Boughton's attention on his long-standing plans for a cycle of music-dramas on the Arthurian legends - appropriate material for Glastonbury but inspired more by Boughton's memories of Bayreuth. Music-drama parted company with opera, he said, in focusing on 'the spirit of human beings' and on 'beauty of movement, colour, lighting - everything that has an emotional appeal.'

Where Bayreuth had its Festspielhaus, Glastonbury had its tiny municipal Assembly Rooms. Acute lack of cash and space meant that a piano did service as orchestra. Alan Melville, the conductor of the Hyperion recording of The Immortal Hour and engaged again for a first complete Bethlehem later this year, sang at the 1925 festival. A recent return visit to the Assembly Rooms left him 'marvelling at what Boughton did in such a small space and with such meagre, primitive resources - through sheer imagination and force of personality. Scenery, for example, would be suggested by the chorus on stage - castles, waves and so on.'

Boughton planned to build his own Festspielhaus in Glastonbury - a purpose-built national 'temple theatre'. But despite support from Elgar, Beecham, Henry Wood, Bantock and others, raising sufficient money proved ultimately elusive. No monument there, then, and the lack of a certain extrovert theatricality in the music-dramas has hindered their wider acceptance. 'Boughton should still be seen as the most important English opera composer since Purcell and before Britten,' says Alan Melville. 'With the right treatment the operas like The Queen of Cornwall could demonstrate their viability even now.'

Over time, Boughton grew dissatisfied with the attitude of Glastonbury locals to his artistic vision. For their part, the scandal over the wives left a residue of uneasiness, stretched then beyond breaking point when he turned a 1926 performance of Bethlehem by the Glastonbury Players at Church House Westminster into a propaganda piece for the locked-out miners, with a coal pit for backdrop and the nativity in a miner's cottage.

The great Glastonbury experiment over, Boughton withdrew to a small-holding in Gloucestershire to divert much of his idealism into honest toil on the land. Because he was a composer he continued to compose. . . 'We were often woken in the middle of the night by the piano as he worked,' remembers Brian Boughton. 'He maintained a deep dislike of what he called the 'cacophony' of moderns like Schoenberg, Berg and even the later Stravinsky.' For all his more 'advanced' views, he remained by personality a late Victorian.

'If we're re-assessing the work of Havergal Brian,' says Michael Hurd, 'then surely we should look again at Rutland Boughton. The thematic material is certainly superior. A string of works deserve to be heard regularly.' Jennifer Boughton insists that right up to his death in 1960 there was never an ounce of bitterness from her father at his neglect. 'What concerns me is that the musical hierarchy has somehow decided for the rest of us. People should have the opportunity to make up their own minds about him.'

Michael Hurd, Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals, Clarendon Press 45 pounds

(Photographs omitted)