Obituary: Alan Bush

Rupert Christiansen
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:27

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.

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