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?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
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: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea