Sound and Vision: Following the trail of Britain's musical greats

Sir Malcolm Arnold, who died last month, is to be remembered with a festival in his native Northampton. But Adrian Mourby finds that following the trail of Britain's musical greats can prove far from easy

English composers are an untidy, awkward lot, living all over the place and writing about the most unexpected things. Cultural tourists trying to travel in their footsteps will not find it easy. Frederick Delius was born in Bradford, lived his life in Grez-sur-Loing and wrote music about Paris. Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham, spent time in Reading as professor of music and wrote a tone poem about Egdon Heath. William Walton was born in Oldham, lived on Capri and wrote about Portsmouth Point.

Literary pilgrimages are so much easier. With poets you know where you are. Keats, Wordsworth, Hardy and Dylan Thomas - they lived in one place and usually wrote about it. This country is littered with poet walks but anyone who wants to commune with the landscape of their favourite British composer may find it frustrating. Northampton's decision to celebrate the life and work of Sir Malcolm Arnold (20-22 October) has encountered the problem that Sir Malcolm's birthplace was demolished long ago and he never wrote about his home town. In a long life (Arnold died last month aged 84) the composer wrote Welsh, Cornish and Scottish dances as well as overtures celebrating Sussex and Peterloo, and a Manx suite.

The romantic notion of visiting a composer's birthplace and mystically imbibing how his music grew out of that environment is, mostly, a pipe dream. The organisers of the Arnold Festival have pulled together a few concertos, one symphony and some film scores. These will be given at the Derngate Theatre, a worthy building erected in 1983, but not exactly the Bayreuth to Sir Malcolm's Wagner.

The problem is that a composer's life is peripatetic. He goes where there is work. Later on, assuming he's successful enough to live where he wants, that's what he does. Walton never returned to 93 Werneth Hall Road, Oldham, and Delius didn't go back to 6 Claremont, Bradford. The city holds an annual Delius festival at St George's Hall, but attempts to keep a Walton Festival going in Oldham petered out. Blue plaques aside, there is little to see in either place.

Ralph Vaughan Williams also frustrates the musical pilgrim. He was a hugely successful composer in his time, but even fans have to concede the shrines are simply not available.

"White Gates (his home for 18 years) in Dorking was pulled down some years ago," says David Betts, secretary of the RVW Society. "Leith Hill Place would be ideal but it is leased to a school by the National Trust and not visitable, and Down Ampney, where he lived as a child, is now privately owned." The society has put up display panels in Down Ampney Church where Vaughan Williams's father was vicar. "They can be viewed whenever the church is open," says Betts, but he adds in frustration: "We have hopes that the situation will improve."

There are, however, two great exceptions, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar. Despite being internationally successful, both composers stayed remarkably close to home, drawing inspiration from the world into which they were born.

Benjamin Britten came from a Lowestoft family and the east coast infuses his work, particularly Peter Grimes, the great tragic English opera that he wrote at the Old Mill in Snape which he and Peter Pears converted. Now a private home the mill isn't open to the public but a plaque declares that Britten lived here 1937-47 and wrote his first opera within.

In 1967 Britten and Pears moved six miles away to the Red House at Aldeburgh where they set up the Aldeburgh Festival and the composer lived until his death in 1976. The place almost has the air, despite its intellectual rigour, of a tourist attraction and for anyone who knows Britten's Sea Pictures it is unmistakably a part of the landscape that inspired him.

Much the same can be said of Edward Elgar and Worcestershire, although the big problem here is that there are too many extant shrines. In his 76 years Elgar lived in 25 houses and flats including Broadheath, his birthplace, Malvern, Worcester, Hereford, Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Malvern is deeply associated with Elgar because of Ken Russell's TV biopic and its annual Elgar festival, but of all these homes the birthplace is the biggest hitter.

For details on the Malcolm Arnold Festival go to the website at explorenorthamptonshire.co.uk

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