Claudia Pritchard: All summer long, they'll be playing our song

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The Independent Online

You may not have seen any posters, but an impromptu festival of British music has just begun. It will close on Saturday 10 September at the Last Night of the Proms with pieces by the Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the elder statesman of British music, Benjamin Britten, and the sing-a-long-a-lollipops Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia and Jerusalem.

And it began with the arresting opening chords of I Was Glad for the entrance of the bride at the royal wedding on Friday, and the congregational singing of, yes, Jerusalem, music for both by the stalwart Sir Hubert Parry.

But splendid as the cheering power of such four-square music may be, spanning the summer months, like the delicate Clifton Suspension Bridge hung airily from Brunel's solidly engineered pillars, are compositions that not only illustrate the breadth of British music, but also show that it is quite the equal of work from further afield.

The British composer is the performing dog of classical music. For passion and drama we tend to look to the "-skys": Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky. For cast-iron technique and innovation (Vorsprung durch Technik, long before Audi), we rely on the German Bs: Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. But the composing world does not end at Calais.

The Proms will be studded with new music by composers living and working in this country, although there will be nothing by the wedding's star composer, Paul Mealor, one of dozens of composers, many far from household names, fulfilling commissions as cultural heirs to the British pantheon, from Gibbons and Purcell in the 17th century to Vaughan Williams, Britten and Bax in the 20th.

Yet while British music can hold its own on the international stage – a festival of British music has even become a regular event in St Petersburg, home of the monumental Shostakovich symphonies – there are two distinguishing characteristics that set it apart. One is the choral tradition demonstrated with such sureness by the singing of the choir at Westminster Abbey on Friday.

Much of the best British music has been written for such forces, or for the great choral societies, and the texts tend to be based on the scriptures. You may not hear it all without stepping on to hallowed ground. But just as the King James Bible has its agnostic and atheist advocates, so the miniature masterpieces of Stanford, Darke and Bairstow – virtually unknown outside their sphere – are tucked away for all to enjoy, like precious enamels conserved under dim lighting, a gift to the nation of a publicity-shy collector.

This choral tradition has fed into the remarkably high standard of singing in British opera and composition today – the brilliant James MacMillan, whose St John Passion created a landmark in British music two years ago, has a new opera, Clemency, premiering in London on Friday. English National Opera's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream – Shakespeare and the choral tradition made one flesh – opens two weeks later, Oberon sung by Iestyn Davies, product of St John's College, Cambridge and Wells Cathedral Choir.

British music's second USP is the willingness with which these shores have accepted those from other lands. Delius, born in Bradford, had Westphalian ancestry. Holst was born in Cheltenham, but was of Latvian and Russian descent. No diversity, no On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, no Planets suite. Land of hope and glory? You bet.