Obituary: Alan Bush

There was one extra-musical fact that dominated the career of Alan Bush, a fact that alienated and antagonised: his staunch and paid- up membership of the Communist Party. If the bourgeois musical world accused him of sacrificing the purity of art to ideology, then ironically enough it simultaneously refused to forget his politics when it judged his music.

But Bush himself was neither a compromiser nor a relenter. He was not a romantic socialist, like Rutland Boughton and the folk-song revivalists, but a hard-line subscriber to a rigid Marxism which put the requirements of the revolutionary proletariat at the head of the composer's responsibilities. The result, however, was not the brash and brassy populism that one might expect.

Bush was something of a wunderkind and in the 1920s it looked as though he might become Britain's first great international pianist - he studied with three of the most distinguished teachers of the inter-war years, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Tobias Matthay and Artur Schnabel - but composition won out, and from six years of lessons with John Ireland he learnt the sophisticated and restrained craftsmanship which marked his music from the beginning. A work of 1929 for string quartet, Dialectic, has a tightness and austerity of organisation remarkable for a period of English music when fulsome lyricism was the norm.

In the early Thirties he studied philosophy and musicology in Berlin, and the experience proved a turning-point. It was here that he came into close contact with Bertold Brecht and Hanns Eisler, whose influence radicalised his political leanings: back in England he joined the Communist Party in 1935 and founded the Workers' Music Association, for which he did sterling work as a conductor. There were still contradictions. His Symphony in C (1939) portrayed in its three movements the bourgeoisie, the sufferings of the working class, and its final triumph, but not in an idiom calculated to appeal to the masses.

During the Second World War, Bush was ostracised, and Vaughan Williams once threatened to sever all links with the BBC unless they lifted a ban on the broadcasting of an avowed Communist's music. In the later Forties, he was an enthusiastic visitor to Stalin's Soviet Union and was deeply shaken by the infamous decree of Stalin's controller of culture, Andrei Zhdanov, in 1948 against "formalism" and "dissonance" in modern music. "Who accused you of formalism?" he was later asked. "I accused myself," he replied; a remark that speaks volumes about both his isolation in Britain and his monastic severity of temperament.

He resolved to simplify and communicate more broadly. His first opera, Wat Tyler, which won a prize in the 1951 Festival of Britain opera competition but failed to secure a professional performance in his home country for over 20 years, contains rousing choruses as well as a generally more relaxed and accessible style of melody and harmony. As well as several attractive chamber and instrumental works, there followed a ballad on the Aldermaston marches, songs for the "Asian Struggle", as well as an opera on the trade- union martyr Joe Hill. It is significant that this music had far more exposure in East Germany than it ever found anywhere further west.

Bush was an impressive figure with a penetrating gaze and somewhat unbending manner. His sincerity and integrity could not be doubted, but the unbendingness reaches into his music, too, for all its economy and intelligence. Perhaps his masterpiece is the Violin Concerto of 1948, a work as beautiful and refined as any in the genre since Walton's. It was surely of this level of his achievement that Vaughan Williams was thinking when he paid his candid tribute to Bush on his 50th birthday. "Alan Bush has rather fantastic notions of the nature and purpose of the Fine Arts. Luckily for us, when the inspiration comes over him he forgets all about this and remembers only the one eternal rule for all artists, 'To thine own self be true'."

Bush, needless to say, would have demurred.

Rupert Christiansen

Alan Dudley Bush, composer, conductor, pianist: born Dulwich 22 December 1900; Professor of Composition, Royal Academy of Music 1925-78; conductor, London Labour Choral Union 1929-40; founder, Workers' Music Association 1936, President 1941-76; served Royal Army Medical Corps 1941-45; Chairman, Composers Guild of Great Britain 1947-48; author of Strict Counterpoint in the Palestrina Style 1948, In My Seventh Decade 1970, In My Eighth Decade and Other Essays 1980; married 1931 Nancy Head (died 1991; two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Watford 31 October 1995.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent