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A Pagan Symphony - The Mystical Influence in English Classical Music

By Sue Aston
Published at Imbolc 2000

Recording my album ‘Sacred Landscapes’ took me on a journey that went far beyond my passion for the Cornish Landscape that inspired it. As a composer myself, I have absorbed a great deal of inspiration from the natural landscape, particularly the isolated areas of Cornwall which are rich in legend and folklore.

My journey was also very much a spiritual one and I felt compelled to find out whether any other composers had felt the same way. My research into this subject is startling, as it uncovers a wealth of well known composers who also had an affinity with the landscape and with nature based spirituality. This article focuses on Bax, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bantock and Butterworth, all composers who were heavily influenced by nature and mysticism.

Our quest begins towards the end of the 19th century, when there was a reaction in Britain against Victorian restraints and outmoded religious practices. In parallel with the philosophies and activities taking place throughout the continent and Russia, visionary people were seeking a new kind of spirituality based on the old nature based belief systems.

When contemplating the ingredients that make up the essence of Paganism, the images that come to mind are being in tune with nature, the spirit of the wild landscape, and the powerful energies that permeate the ancient sacred sites. Such influences were found in the works of many British composers for despite their more formal religious backgrounds, ranging from Catholicism to Hinduism, the common link between them all is the sacred aspect of being at one with the natural world.

Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax was born in 1893, and it is in his compositions that Pagan themes are particularly abundant. His music powerfully conveys the mysticism of elemental forces. Bax described himself as a ‘tireless hunter of dreams’. His music is Romantic in style, and it possesses the qualities of a Celtic nature. His works display vision and mysticism, and as a composer he was a dreamer who tirelessly pursued his goal. He sought inspiration from the wild Scottish coasts, which adds a dark energy to his music, in contrast to Elgar who preferred the gentle pastoral atmosphere of the Malvern Hills.

Bax’s mother was of a religious disposition, and she introduced him to the beauty of Nature. She also encouraged him to read widely, and this led to his interest in Celtic and Scandinavian mythology. As is common with many composers, Bax drifted away from organised religion. He had an inquiring mind, and discovered his spiritual beliefs in more mystical areas.

An early childhood memory reveals Bax’s love of Nature. As a young boy, he walked to the top of Arundel Park and watched the sunset. For him ‘The hour was immortal’ and he likened the experience to Norse mythology. He also experienced much pleasure from playing in his garden, which was surrounded by rows of sycamore and chestnut trees.

Bax’s music reveals him to be a pantheist, and his seven symphonies and later works draw from sensual experiences. The haunting melodies he writes are intensely beautiful and are typical of the Celtic lyrical style, featuring ornamental embellishments to convey emotional sadness. This is in contrast to the harsh, barbaric sections of his music, which evoke a primal and foreboding atmosphere.

Bax was greatly influenced by the poems of Yeats, which nurtured his youthful Celtic ideals. He decided to travel to Ireland, and discovered that he was ‘in a considerable state of spiritual excitement’. He explored the barren, remote corners, which were full of myth and legend. Bax soaked up the native language, and wrote poems under the pen name ‘Dermot O’Byrne’. As a poet, he found it easier to directly express himself regarding the magic and beauty of the rugged land and seascape. Bax did not reproduce folk songs in his music, rather he used them to create his own original work which employed modal harmonies.

Mystical experiences occurred often to Bax, and during a stay at a country cottage in Breaghy he observed ‘flame-like people’ called the Sidhe as they revealed their unearthly lights along the ridges of the hills at twilight. At another time, he saw the image of the Druid Sword of the Old Irish god Mananaan Maclir as he contemplated the sea.

His music is spiritual and evocative of Nature, as opposed to purely nationalistic. His inspiration was gained from remote, uninhabited places where few went to visit.

The sea was the greatest source of inspiration for Bax, and he was fascinated by it all his life. The tone poem The Garden of Fand of 1913 features the enchanted Atlantic Ocean, and the tone poem Tintagel of 1917 depicts the sea breaking against the cliffs. The slow movement of the third symphony reveals a shimmering seascape, and the fourth symphony describes the rough sea on a breezy sunny day. The darker aspect of the ocean is present in Winter Waters. Before Bax died he looked out to the Atlantic at sunset, as if his spirit would soon be set free to be at one with the ocean.

Bax’s second tone poem In the Faery Hills incorporates Irish folklore, and is based on the story of Oisin and how his harp was cast into a deep pool because his singing was too sad for the isles of revelry.

The influence of the poems of Shelly and Swinburne are apparent in Spring Fire of 1913. The Pagan theme of the quickening sensation which occurs during the arrival of Spring’s energy is featured: - ‘The driads, maenads and bassarids fly dancing and screaming through the woods, pursued relentlessly by Bacchus and Pan and their hordes of goat-footed and ivy-crowned revelers’

In 1915, Bax wrote ‘a nature poem for orchestra’ entitled Nympholept, which was rich in the Pagan spirituality that was close to his heart. He also wrote Enchanted Summer, which evokes a pastoral scene based on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.

The tone poems are of a very descriptive nature, but powerful imagery can also be seen in his chamber works. In the second violin sonata Bax creates a melancholy atmosphere, which was also present in the tone poem November Woods. The sonata features a fast waltz entitled The Grey Dancer in the Twilight. The violin evokes a macabre spectral scene of a dancing demon.

Bax’s fascination for the sea also appears in his chamber works for cello and piano. The Sonata and Sonatina depict the sea at night. I have also used the cello in my own work to give an impression of depth in King Arthur’s Kingdom, which describes waves crashing against the rugged landscape of Tintagel in North Cornwall.

Bax’s own spirituality was earthy, and his treatment of sacred songs goes against convention. He wrote several carols, including Now is the time of Christymas and The Boars Head. He combines the songs with dance rhythms to create a scene of heady village celebration. Indeed, the carol tune The Boars Head soon becomes dominated by the persistence of heavy dance rhythms. This reveals that Bax felt unable to write music of a religious nature in a conventional way - he had to break free from restrictions.

Most composers were influenced by Beltane, and Bax is no exception. He wrote Morning Song - Maytime in Sussex for piano and orchestra. My own composition Beltane Fantasy sets the scene of drinking and merry making during the ‘Obby Oss’ celebrations which take place at Padstow in Cornwall.

Bax was a brilliant pianist, and this resulted in four piano sonatas which he wrote between 1910 and 1934. The first sonata describes the ecstasy he felt from the beauty of the landscape, and the third sonata expresses once more his love for the sea.

The seven symphonies of Bax convey the paradox that is present in Nature. The first symphony explores the dark and light aspect of the natural world, and forms the blueprint for the remaining six symphonies. This also shows the powerful darker side of Bax as a composer. The first symphony features a primitive war dance and the author Colin Scott-Sutherland writes that it is ‘as if awaiting the command of the sorcerer-priest’. The third symphony was influenced by the remote and rugged Scottish Sea and landscape, which followed Bax’s holiday in Morar on the West Coast. It is full of Scottish folklore and legend.

During this time, he wrote Winter Legends, a symphonic concerto for piano and orchestra. The virtuoso piano is set against the backdrop of a stark and bleak orchestral landscape.

Vaughan William’s described Bax as having ‘something of the fawn in his nature…he seemed not to belong to this world but always to be gazing through the magic casements…waiting for the spark from heaven to fall’. Bax followed through the surge of his inspiration without compromise, and seemed to seek pure beauty more than any other composer. A common theme runs throughout all his work, and was his need to find security in the power of omnipotent Mother Nature in an uncertain and ever changing world.

I can relate to Bax’s attraction to water, as I have found holy wells to be of great fascination to the composing process myself. In Madron, a piece for solo violin, I create a wild and moody atmosphere redolent of the elements. Madron is a special place near Penzance in Cornwall and is the site of a somewhat submerged well and ruined baptistery. Another holy well that has inspired me is situated at Sancreed in West Penwith. The dark and powerful energies here are earthy and overpowering. Earth Sorrow tells of how Methodists tore down the clouties here.

Clouties are rags tied to the trees as prayer offerings. As the rag naturally disintegrates, so healing takes place. The locals still use this place a great deal, and I was saddened when I learned that the clouties had been brutally removed in this way. After all, we are all praying to the same divinity in the end, it is merely how we express ourselves through worship that causes the divide.

Edward Elgar

Elgar was one of Britain’s greatest composers, and his deep love of Nature was a strong influence on his work all throughout his life. He was born in 1857 in an idyllic country cottage at Broadheath, near Worcester, a place that is surrounded by the most beautiful countryside.

The allure of the Malvern Hills was great for Elgar. One of his greatest pleasures would be to go for long country walks and bike rides from which he gained immense inspiration for his music. Elgar’s affinity with Nature was encouraged by his mother, whose own childhood, as the daughter of a farmer, had been spent communing with Nature. Ann Elgar chose the cottage where Elgar was born because of its setting amid the natural landscape, surrounded by big fir trees. She taught her children to be in tune with the seasons, Elgar wrote: -

‘We were encouraged to go out in all weather during the whole of the year. Although we honestly loved the winter we welcomed the beautiful time of spring… The resurrection of sleeping nature with its yearly miracle awoke’.

When Elgar was six, he attended a Catholic School, and it was here that he started his very first music lessons. As soon as school had finished for the day, he would break free from the austere confines and would be found sitting down by the river with his manuscript book ‘trying to write down what the reeds were saying’. This early memory stayed with him throughout his life, and years later when he was rehearsing the London Symphony Orchestra, a friend of Elgar’s, W.H. Reed, recalls that he told the orchestra to ‘ Play it like…something you hear down by the river’.

The great British poet William Wordsworth was also deeply influenced by the power of Nature during his own childhood. He wrote ‘The child is father of the man’, which shows how childhood experiences create the adult you become.

This was very much the case with Elgar who, at the age of twelve, wrote a musical play along with his brother and sisters, which would later become The Wand of Youth. Elgar wrote: -

The scene was a woodland glade, intersected by a brook; the higher side of this was our fairyland; beyond, small and distant was the ordinary life which we forgot as often as possible. The characters on crossing the stream entered fairyland and were transfigured’.

Then the ‘Fairy Pipers’ play the two ‘old people’? into a mystical sleep, until they are woken up by an array of fairy lights, and find themselves transported back as children, full of youthful wisdom. The music, which is very fey and enchanting, mirrors the subject matter. It is interesting to note that Elgar’s surname can be traced back to its Saxon origins as ‘Aelfgar’ which means ‘fairy spear’!

The faery realm inspired my own composition Bound in Gossamer Threads. The music describes an area of the Land's End peninsula called the Gump, which is a stretch of moorland around the northeast of Carn Kenidjack. There are many tales in this area of mystery lights (sometimes known as faery lights), and the area itself is full of mystical significance with many ancient stones and sites. In fact, Carn Kenidjack is also known as the 'Hooting Carn'.

You can easily imagine the ancient peoples of the area looking up at the Carn and feeling connected with the land. The area is also rich in folklore about the Faery, and this is where the title of this music comes from. The legend tells of a man who, on the night of a harvest moon, saw strange lights over the area, and, on closer inspection, saw its faery treasure. Enchanted by the music emanating from the area, he quickly fell asleep. On waking, he quickly found himself alone on the moor, tied to the ground by thousands of gossamer threads.

The effect Elgar’s childhood experiences had on his music are evident in his earlier chamber works. The Andante con Variazione of 1878 for wind quintet was also known as The Evesham Andante, as though Evesham itself gave the very music to him. The Serenade for Strings in E minor of 1892 caused his wife Alice to describe her impressions of it in a poem, she wrote that the melodies ‘tell of far and flowery meads, Of rivers fringed with wavering reeds, Of hills awakening to the spring.’Of the slow movement she writes ‘they seem Hushed to a finer mystic dream…’

The influence of Pagan themes can be clearly seen in Elgar’s dramatic work of 1898, the cantata Caractacus. The subject matter revolves around the legend of an ancient Briton defending his camp on the Malvern Hills. The story tells of Druids and people who are at one with the forest and the natural world. Ironically, it is the setting of this work which was its downfall, as Elgar’s wish to depict an English folk tale set in his homeland led to it not being considered lofty or substantial enough to be staged. Elgar apparently favoured the story because of its strong links with the Malverns. Typically, there are passages of music which show Elgar’s attraction to the landscape, and they are by far the high points of the work. Caractacus opens with an evocative introduction setting a mysterious night time scene. The Woodland Interlude which introduces scene three is atmospheric of the forest and shows Elgar’s love of trees. The forest is situated close to the River Severn, which was a place of utmost importance throughout his life.

Elgar’s love of water can be seen in his Enigma Variations of 1899. He writes that the ‘Enigma’ theme depicts himself ‘sitting by desolate streams’, just as he used to as a young boy. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the ‘Enigma’ theme with people over the years trying to fit a famous tune around it as a counter melody. Professor Jack Westrup writes that he perceives the theme to be merely a ‘record of a very personal experience, possibly of an emotional character. That experience may be associated with the River Teme'. The strong ties Elgar had with this river is shown when at one time he wanted his ashes to be scattered in its waters. This highlights the idea of him returning to Mother Nature, rather like Bax. The Sea Pictures of 1899 continue this affinity with the watery landscape, and the dream-like quality of the music conveys a dark and brooding picture of the ocean. Elgar writes that his intention is to open the work by illustrating the idea of ‘lone sea breakers’.

The memory of the trees at Broadheath where Elgar grew up and of the pine trees at a cottage in Spetchley where Elgar stayed while his father tuned instruments is evident in his work The Dream of Gerontius of 1900. The music portrays ‘The summer wind among lofty pines’?.

During the composition of The Apostles in 1903 Elgar sought enormous inspiration from the atmosphere at Longdon Marsh near Birtsmorton. Although this work is of a biblical nature, it is interesting to note that the power of Nature and the landscape is the driving force behind Elgar’s writing. The work is set amid the backdrop of the cycle of the day and includes beautiful musical interpretations of the moment before dawn, the rising of the sun, through to sunset and finally dusk.

The Introduction and Allegro for strings of 1905 is a rich, dramatic work which again is laced with images of the countryside. In a similar vain is the Violin Concerto of 1910. This is possibly his greatest creation and is a culmination of Nature’s influence on the composer. It was written mainly at a house called ‘The Hut’ near Maidenhead, which was an idyllic setting as the River Thames flowed past the edge of the lawn. The first movement is rousing and grand while the slow movement is delicate and reflective and this he calls ‘Wind flower’. The nationalistic finale mirrors the wild natural landscape of the Malverns and is described by Jerrold Northrop Moore as being ‘full of the winds of autumn’.

It is highly possible that the legend of King Arthur had input on the Second Symphony of 1911, as Elgar was known to visit Tintagel during the composition of this work.

Elgar harks back to his childhood in The Starlight Express, a children’s Christmas fantasy play that he wrote in 1915. The script is reminiscent of The Wand of Youth and reflects Pagan themes: - ‘May runs laughing into June - the scene is set in mountain, forest, lake… Night slowly brings her mystery and beauty into the world…’

In 1918, Elgar retreated to a remote country cottage called ‘Brinkwells’. Jerrold Northrop Moore describes it as being set ‘…deep in the western woods of Sussex. The cottage was half surrounded with farmers’ fields, and as the harvesting came near the house through the summer of 1918, the chamber music began.’ Here Elgar’s creativity seems to be in tune with the cycle of the seasons of the year. His wife describes the second movement of the Violin Sonata as containing ‘wood magic’. Indeed, all the chamber music has this innate quality, as Elgar’s life was now totally submerged by Nature. The Piano Quintet followed, and Elgar sought inspiration from the skeletal image of the branches of dead trees silhouetted against the skyline at dusk. The chamber music culminates with the Cello Concerto of 1919. It is a passionate, yet at times bleak work, and only months after it was finished his wife died. Elgar told a friend to listen out for the theme of the Cello Concerto after his own death; ‘If ever you are walking on the Malvern Hills and hear this - it’s only me - don’t be frightened.’

As Elgar came to terms with the death of his wife, he drew comfort from Mother Nature by returning to his Worcestershire roots. He sought solace from his love of the water and he wrote the Severn Suite in 1932. He died two years later.

Elgar’s music was redolent of the English landscape, and another composer who was equally influenced by this was Vaughan Williams.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 at Down Ampney near Gloucestershire, so like Elgar his birthplace was also in the heart of the English countryside. James Day describes the setting of the house which was ‘surrounded by trees, rhododendrons and azaleas…The terrace of the house commands a splendid view over the surrounding countryside…’ His childhood roots remained a constant source of inspiration to him, and this is revealed in the Whitsun hymn tune that he went on to compose later on in his life, which he named Down Ampney after the place where he was born.

Although his father was a vicar, Vaughan Williams was himself agnostic. It is evident however that he absorbed the atmosphere of the sacred spirit by immersing himself in the beauty of the landscape. He was a man who was very much interested in mysticism, and it was through music that he expressed his own particular spirituality.

Like Elgar, Vaughan Williams also enjoyed bike rides and long country walks, and while on holiday it was not unusual for him to walk for twelve or fifteen miles during a day. His second wife, Ursula, describes this passion: -

‘The walks were usually in Wiltshire or Dorset, parts of the world Ralph loved: the green roads and open skies of the Great Plain with its summer flowers, thymey smells, and an infinity of larks rising above the bleached grass and the pale coloured chalk country were very much to his taste.’

Vaughan Williams adored Salisbury, and he gleaned inspiration from the beauty of the Plain, the cathedral and Stonehenge. He describes the way that this magical place affected him in a letter to Ursula : -

‘I have been for wonderful walks on the downs - they were perfect - sun, high wind and wonderful July field flowers - the kind I like best.’?

Folksong was of paramount importance to him, and throughout his life he spent years travelling around England in order to collect as many tunes as he could from people who still upheld the old traditions. This would have naturally led him to meet people who were steeped in the customs of Paganism, and included folksingers, Morris dancers and country farmers.

Vaughan Williams collected an array of folk songs from Kings Lynn, and this gave birth to the symphonic impression In the Fen Country for orchestra in 1904. Simona Pakenham describes the stark quality of the work, which mirrors the bleak lowlands of East Anglia as ‘a truthful impression of that flat wind - swept coast, where the largest wild flowers in England grow and the most romantic wading birds inhabit.’ The Norfolk Rhapsody of 1906 continues in the same vein, as the essence of the Norfolk landscape is evoked with sensitive scoring by the composer.

In 1909, Vaughan Williams composed the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, which was the setting to music of the first of six poems by A.E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Ravel’s music was an influence on Vaughan Williams at this time, and the results of this show in the use of rich tone colour. The atmospheric opening of the work depicts a stormy gale blowing the trees, and this is masterfully interwoven into the score with a rapid ascending figure in the strings. Bredon Hill is the most ambitious and pictoral song which is descriptive of its location in all its glory during both the summer and winter months, and features the tolling of a funeral bell. The final song, Clun, finishes off the song cycle in a more tranquil mood, and sets the scene of an undulating river bathed in sunlight.

Vaughan Williams’ love of the sea was apparent in the Sea Symphony, also of 1909. At that time, much of his composition took place in his study, which overlooked the Thames. The work is very mystical in nature, and spiritual in its concept. Vaughan Williams incorporates the analogy of a journey on the sea with the soul’s journey into the unknown. This reflects the questioning mind of the composer as an agnostic.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis of 1910 has often been compared in musical stature with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings. Indeed, both works are the epitome of the passionate and dramatic use of the string orchestra. The ‘Tallis Fantasia’ was inspired by the Norman grandeur of Gloucester Cathedral. There is no doubting the sacred nature of this piece, but it is the encapsulation of the beauty of the stained glass windows in sunlight, and the impressive acoustic which resonates from the cathedral stone that Vaughan Williams draws from, rather than an austere lofty religious theme.

From my own experience, the church at Warleggan (which is near Bodmin in Cornwall) inspired my own music of the same name. The inspiration here was different in that the images conjured up were dark and foreboding. I walked up the hill to the Church, and a sense of apprehension descended upon me. As I entered the Church, I immediately experienced the crushing effect of the atmosphere of the place. To begin with, I thought that I was going to faint, although I was feeling perfectly well and alert, but I could not understand the rushing noise in my ears. I swallowed hard, expecting my ears to pop, but still the noise persisted. The sound was almost electronic in a way - as though there was a motor boat droning away under the floor. I remember feeling a sense that something powerful was present with me as I entered the church - it was a most disarming experience. I experienced the phenomenon sometimes described as the 'Hummadruz'. It is also known as 'the singing' and can occur on moors and in old churches.

The Lark Ascending of 1920 by Vaughan Williams is a Romance for violin and orchestra, and beautifully depicts the trilling song and soaring flight of a bird set against the background of a quiet country landscape. Vaughan Williams revised the score while staying with friends in the Cotswolds, and the lyrical nature of this tone poem in infused with the very essence of the English natural landscape.

The Pastoral Symphony of 1921 was written as a result of Vaughan Williams’ experiences during the war. It is atmospheric of the bleak war-ridden landscape of France, yet reminiscent of the English landscape, which Vaughan Williams yearned for. He wrote that he composed the music not to depict ‘lambkins frisking’ but to convey ‘the song of the soldier far from home and thinking of a landscape he loves’. He goes on to describe ‘a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset’. Its subject matter lends itself to being a ‘war requiem’? without words, and has been compared with Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

A sunset has the power to transport us from the mundane and into a place within our hearts where we can feel both humbled and closer to our spiritual beliefs. The music for Song of the Sun was written after witnessing the myriad of colours, which burst along the skyline at Pentire and Sennen Cove in Cornwall.

The cathartic nature of this symphony reflects a sense of peace after the harrowing effects of war, and was written in many ways to heal the hearts of the nation. Many people used the term ‘Pantheism’ to describe the Nature Mysticism that was interwoven into this and many other works by Vaughan Williams. A critic from the ‘Musical Times’ described his impression of the symphony after its first performance as ‘A dream of sad happiness - a requiem for Pan with no word of grief’.

Simona Pakenham poignantly sums up the impressions of this skillful work in her book about the composer: - It is not a picturesque landscape, a smiling sunlit picture or a summer twilight…Its colours are soft, green and brown and grey, its trees bare of leaves, its sky clouded; but it has something of the strength and promise of a ploughed filed in its bare directness that is invigorating as a summer landscape cannot be’.

She imagines that Vaughan Williams ‘could hear the stirring of the sap in the trees and the movement of the roots under the earth’.

Vaughan Williams wrote his first opera Hugh the Drover in 1924 in which folk songs are used to depict a tale of Gloucestershire village life. He respected country folk and their down to earth nature, and wanted to paint as a real a picture as possible. The story is set during the Napoleonic war, and is a tribute to the Pagan customs of rural England. Vaughan Williams draws from stories he had heard in English country pubs to inject realism into the story, and features Morris Dancers and Maying ceremonies.

Another work, which richly absorbs its inspiration from the English landscape, is An Oxford Elegy of 1949. It was written for speaker, chorus and small orchestra, and features poems by Matthew Arnold, the words of which exude the fragrance of Nature in her summer glory: -

‘Roses that down the alleys shine afar,

And open, jasmine - muffled lattices,

And groups under the dreaming garden - trees,

And the full moon, and the white evening star.’

The seasons of winter and spring are also explored, and it is a work that harks back to the style and mood of his earlier compositions.

The traits of Paganism apparent in Vaughan Williams’ music culminate in one of his final and most powerful works - the Symphony No. 9 that was completed in 1957. It received its first performance only four months before the composer’s death in 1958. The symphony contains a wealth of enigmatic and mystical flavours, which are masterfully displayed in the scoring for large orchestra. It is the climax of Vaughan Williams’ vision as a prophetic composer. Originally, the symphony was called Wessex Prelude, and the finale was to be called Landscape.

He planned this symphony with the setting of Salisbury in mind. The Plain and Stonehenge were places of great importance to this composition. Indeed, Vaughan Williams wrote that Stonehenge gave him ‘a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend.’ His wife Ursula tells how he found the floodlighting of the cathedral to be breathtaking, he was ‘spellbound by the beauty’ of the cathedral ‘transformed to gold’. The ‘ghostly drummer’ of Salisbury Plain is also featured as a dramatic episode during the second movement. The composer’s love of the novels of Thomas Hardy features prominently in this symphony, Tess of the D’Ubervilles in particular, as Stonehenge is where the heroine spent her last night.

It is not surprising to learn that The National Trust commissioned him to write music for the film The People’s Land, which told of the beauty of the English countryside. Vaughan Williams was deeply nationalistic and proud of his country’s heritage and wrote ‘I believe that the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs one’s religion, are essential to our national health.

Despite the fact that the countryside of Surrey and Leith Hill Place had started to become industrialised during the 1950s, this did not spoil the lasting image of Vaughan Williams’ childhood memories of a landscape rich in natural beauty. He was able to retrieve the images, which were forever etched in his mind when it came to using their inspiration for his compositions.

Throughout his life, Vaughan Williams was always deeply influenced by the history, traditions and landscape of his country. The nature of his work led him to come into contact with people who earned their living by being closely linked to the land, however he was never class-conscious despite his own position in middle class society; rather he became a spokesperson for the people of the nation. His view on religion was that organised worship made him feel ‘such a humbug’. He expressed his spirituality and love of Nature through the power of his music.

Gustav Holst

One of Vaughan Williams’ greatest friends was the composer Gustav Holst. Despite his German name, Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874. Throughout his life, Holst experienced a great feeling of being at one with the landscape around him, and, like Vaughan Williams, he expressed this through the nationalistic lyricism of folk song.

Vaughan Williams described Holst’s music as exploring ‘mystical regions’, and he tells how it appeals ‘to the storekeeper on the lonely Yorkshire coast’. This shows that his music suits people who appreciate the natural world around them.

Holst’s first jobs as a musician were as an organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, a small Cotswold village, and he also became the conductor of a choral society based at Bourton on the Water. Like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Holst also found great joy in walking through the countryside, and the locations of these appointments fuelled his passion for the Cotswold Hills, and were obviously the seeds from which his inspiration would germinate.

Conventional religion did not interest Holst, and he felt himself drawn towards Hinduism. He believed in the concept of Dharma and the idea of life after death, and this eastern influence also led to his love of astrology. Holst’s beliefs are revealed in a letter to a friend: - ‘…everything in this world - is just one big miracle. Or rather, the universe itself is one.’

In 1892, Holst wrote a two act operetta entitled Lansdown Castle. It was also referred to as The Sorcerer of Tewkesbury. A great deal of the plot takes place in the Sorcerer’s den, and sorcery and the use of a magic mirror are important ingredients of the plot. The audience found some of the music to be controversial, as one of the songs features a distorted Anglican chant, which was used to invoke magic.

The Cotswold Symphony of 1900 encapsulates the drama and lyricism of the heart of the English countryside, and harks back to the time when Holst first took up his appointments in that area. The second movement has moments of poignant beauty, and was written as an Elegy to William Morris.

Holst composed a number of songs based on the theme of Maytime, including Now is the month of Maying and a much later work The morning of the Year.

In 1905, Holst was commissioned to write a collection of hymns, one of them being In the Bleak Midwinter. The words are by Christina Rossetti, and Holst sought inspiration for the music by visiting country villages which had important ties for him. One such place was Bossiney in Cornwall, where Holst visited on holiday. For me, this has special significance, as I composed Rocky Valley after visiting this magical area myself. Rocky Valley is an enchanted place near Tintagel, and is also the site of a ruined mill. There is a famous carving of a labyrinth on one of the rocks there and it is a place where spirits and fairy folk may well be seen. The other two tunes which Holst wrote were called Sheen, which is a place in Richmond where he had recently moved to, and Cranham, which is a village in the Cotswolds where Holst was said to have composed this work. In fact, there is a cottage which bears the name ‘Midwinter Cottage’ where Holst is thought to have stayed.

A Somerset Rhapsody was the product of Holst’s desire to orchestrate a selection of folksongs, which he had collected from the Somerset area. The image Holst wished to conjure up was that ‘of pastoral country becoming filled with human activities but surviving them all’. Folk song and country traditions were important to Holst, and a few years later he even orchestrated a collection of Morris dance tunes.

The Planets was one of Holst’s most successful and memorable works, and the majority of the composition took place at Thaxted. Holst stayed at an idyllic three hundred-year old cottage, which was located at the top of a hill and surrounded by cornfields. The essence of the natural landscape is infused into this work, and culminates in the popular British hymn tune I vow to thee my country, the tune of which is taken from Jupiter. The influence of Holst’s interest in astrology is at its strongest here.

Whilst staying at Thaxted, Holst became friends with the vicar of the church, Conrad Noel. This relationship resulted in the composition of sacred music, which had very strong underlying Pagan themes. Noel was interested in restoring ancient buildings, and wanted to revive the pre-Christian religious rites such as folk dancing and singing by incorporating them into his own church services. This was obviously quite a sensitive issue for some members of the congregation, however, on Whit-Monday, there was indeed Morris Dancing during a garden party at the vicarage! Holst described this to a friend: -

‘it was a feast - an orgy. Four whole days of perpeptual singing and playing either properly arranged in the church…or still more impromptu in ploughed fields during thunder storms…’

For Holst, this experience resulted in the Hymn of Jesus in 1917. Despite its title, the text of the song describes expressing worship through dancing, an idea which is prevalent throughout non-Christian religions, including Paganism.

In 1927 Holst wrote Egdon Heath for orchestra which was inspired by the wild moorland between Wool and Bere Regis which is depicted in the first chapter of Thomas Hardy’?s; The Return of the Native. The novel itself is laced with Pagan themes, and the landscape reflects an atmosphere of stark beauty. The music itself creates a bare and mysterious setting. Holst met Hardy during this time, and Hardy suggested that the image to convey was that of the heath during the month of November as opposed during summertime. Holst dedicated this work to Hardy who died the following year.

Both Elgar and Holst used music as the vehicle through which the sacred could be expressed, as both were disinterested in organised religious practices. Holst was influenced by the barbaric cross rhythms of Stravisnsky and added the modal harmonies of folk song in his music to evoke the atmosphere of man kinds primitive nature and the tribal instincts which were widespread in pre-Christian times.

Granville Bantock

Granville Bantock was born in London in 1868 and possessed a most colourful personality indeed. Bantock was an avid reader, and as a young man he discovered Milton’s Paradise Lost. He came to the conclusion that Lucifer was a heroic figure and, as opposed to the usual stereotypes that describe the image of the devil, he saw Lucifer as merely the darker side of God. He sympathized with the rebellious nature of the devil, which was seen to be battling against the conventional order of things. Bantock composed some Monologues based on this theme which he entered for a scholarship while he was studying at the Royal Academy of Music.

After Bantock left Music College, he became greatly interested in ancient eastern philosophy. This fuelled his Romantic nature and led to rich and lavish colours in his music. He felt himself to be at one with the spiritual world. He went on to marry Helena, who was an established poet and, due to their mutual interests, they were seen to be soul mates.

The Bantocks had four children, all of whom had exotic names, which reflected whatever their parents’ particular interests were at the time of their birth. One of the houses they lived at was called ‘Broad Meadow’, and was a beautiful old manor house situated in Kings Norton in Birmingham. It had the most incredible garden, and was surrounded by trees. Bantock’s interest in oriental culture was immense, and his study accommodated statues of Indian gods and buddhas, and on his bookcase stood a figure of the old god Pan.

Bantock was indeed a maverick, and had a very passionate nature. There are even photographs in existence showing him wearing Bardic robes and oriental costumes. His love of reading developed his interest in mysticism, astrology, eastern religions, and led to him study Persian poetry. It is possible that his Celtic ancestry inspired him to explore the history of ancient cultures.

In 1900, Bantock took the position of Principal of the Birmingham School of Music. This has special significance for me, as this is where I studied and I often remember hearing lecturers refer to his name.

In 1902 he composed a tone poem called The Witch of Atlas which was based on Shelley’s poem. The music is delicately scored, and uses the potential of the instruments to the full by incorporating a wide range of techniques to create a unique musical atmosphere.

Bantock’s passion for oriental mysticism resulted in Omar Khayyam in 1906. It is written for choir and orchestra and uses Persian poetry as its setting. His strong interest in mysticism led to a number of works based on Pagan themes, and in 1914 he composed the choral ballet entitled The Great God Pan for which his wife wrote the words. Further compositions of this nature were the Pagan Chants for tenor and orchestra of 1923, the very fine Pagan Symphony of 1928 and the Pagan Poem for flute and piano of 1932.

Bantock wrote two further symphonies which again highlight the wealth of his interests - the luxurious Hebridean Symphony of 1915, and the Celtic Symphony of 1940. The majesty and power of the wild landscape is apparent in these works. The folk songs of the Hebrides were important to Bantock, and his Celtic Opera of 1924 The Seal Woman features many of these lyrical tunes.

The most incredible coincidence that has occurred to me whilst writing this article was to discover that Bantock used to live in a house in the same location as myself when I was a student as the Birmingham Conservatoire. The house was situated at the top of a hill in Wheeley’s Road, Edgbaston, which is exactly the same house that I used to live in! However, it was the Bantock family’s least favourite residence, as they found it to be a most ugly building. With this in mind, Bantock named the house Tir-nan-Og, which in Gaelic refers to the mythical ‘Land of the Ever Young’.

During this time, Bantock developed an interest in spiritualism, and would often hold seances at his home with friends. Many of these friends were talented artists who presented him with their paintings depicting fairy folk and people of the Otherworld.

Walking has been an interest shared by all the composers so far, and Bantock was no exception. During a stay at a bungalow in Wales, the family would spend all day exploring ancient sites and visiting ruins; again, this links in with our own family holidays in Cornwall, where we spend days trekking around desolate spots in search of obscure holy wells!

A common theme which runs throughout Bantock’s entire choral works is the concept that life is brief, and one should live each day to the full. This spiritual idea is derived from his love of reading books on philosophy. Bantock’s composition reflects his passion for reading about subjects ranging from spirituality to philosophy, and his inspiration seems to emanate mainly from the wealth of knowledge he absorbed from books, in contrast to Elgar and Vaughan Williams whose lives in the countryside was their main source of inspiration.

George Butterworth

The life of George Butterworth was tragically short, yet productive. He was born in 1885 and died at the age of thirty-one during active service. He composed a small number of works, yet they were accomplished and reflected his interest in Morris dancing and folk song collecting.

Butterworth’s first main orchestral work was the Two English Idylls and is very lyrical and pastoral in mood. He employs the use of folk songs, which were collected during visits to Sussex. The first tune highlights the beauty of Nature in the early morning and is called Dabbling in the dew. The scoring and harmony are highly imaginative and pave the way for his later works.

In 1911, Butterworth completed the song cycle Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad, based on the poems of Housman. The theme that runs throughout the anthology is that of the fate of a young countryman, who appears in various guises. The music reflects the nature of the words, and is rich in the atmosphere of the English countryside. Again, the use of folk song compliments this mood. The Bredon Hill song cycle was written the following year, and continues in the same vein as the Six Songs.

Butterworth was a chief exponent at Morris dancing, and film footage exists of him dancing with other members of the English Folk Dance Society. It was important to him to keep this traditional Pagan custom alive, and he collected Morris dances with Cecil Sharp, some of which were published in The Morris Book and in Morris Dance Tunes. At times he would travel to the most remote parts of the country in order to seek out villagers who could give him details of obscure dances that they had used to perform. Butterworth even collected sword dances from the North East of Britain. He was also an avid collector of folk songs, and Folk Songs from Sussex is an example of how he set these traditional tunes to musical accompaniment.

Butterworth’s greatest orchestral composition was the rhapsody A Shropshire Lad of 1911. The music is evocative of an English Edwardian summer in the countryside, and has often been compared with Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony. Here, Butterworth’s original melodies can be seen to emulate the folk songs that he collected. The Banks of Green Willow of 1913 is another orchestral work steeped in folk song. The composer describes it as a ‘musical illustration to the folk-ballad of the same name’. The song cycle Love blows as the Wind blows is descriptive of Nature. Here, Love is seen to be transient and changeable like the Wind, and is contrasted to the more permanent and stable aspects of Nature, such as the stars, rivers and dew.

Although Butterworth’s life was centered around London, he felt himself drawn to the countryside and to the simplicity of rural life. He was in his element while meeting country folk who helped him with his Morris dance and folk song collecting.

There are many more composers, such as Delius, Grainger, Ireland, Finzi and Warlock who were also influenced by mysticism and Paganism, indeed, since researching this subject, it has been enlightening to discover the extent to which this has been the case. The aspects that link all these British composers together, is the spiritual stirring they all experienced while visiting wild, isolated parts of the country, and the inspiration they derived from being close to the elements and the windswept sea. Their artistic nature required total freedom in which to express their spirituality. The austere confines and doctrines of conventional organised religions were felt by them to be suffocating, and it is the natural landscape and beauty of pantheistic poetry and philosophy that enabled them to express their beliefs.

About the author

Sue Aston graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire with a B A (Hons) in music, and a GBSM performing diploma with Distinction. She has played with the ‘D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’, ‘The Corinthian Orchestra’ and ‘Orchestra da Camera’. Sue features on Gordon Giltrap’s album ‘Music for the Small Screen’, and has recently appeared on Chris De Burgh’s album ‘Quiet Revolution’.

The CD ‘Sacred Landscapes’ is available for £12.00 (inc p&p) from Genius Loci Music, 49 Whitemoor Drive, Solihull, West Midlands, B90 4UL, or telephone the Credit Card Hotline on 0121 733 8918.


Spirit of England, Jerrold Northrop Moore, William Heinemann Ltd, 1984

Portrait of Elgar, Michael Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 1987

Heritage of Music, Music in the Twentieth Century, Jerrold Northrop Moore and Michael Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 1989

Elgar Companion, Christopher Redwood, Moorland Publishing Co., 1982

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Oxford University Press, 1988

Vaughan Williams, Paul Holmes, Omnibus Press, 1997

Vaughan Williams, Michael Hurd, Faber and Faber Ltd., 1970

The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Michael Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 1964

Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Discovery of his Music,Simona Pakenham, Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1957

Vaughan Williams, James Day, J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd., 1961

Gustav Holst, Imogen Holst, Oxford University Press, 1988

Gustav Holst, The Man and his Music, Michael Short, Oxford University Press, 1990

Granville Bantock - A Personal Portrait, Myrrha Bantock, J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1972

Arnold Bax, Colin Scott-Sutherland, J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd., 1973

Whom the Gods Love: The Life and Music of George Butterworth, Michael Barlow, Toccata Press, 1997


‘Sacred Landscapes’


‘A Pagan Symphony’

‘A Celtic Symphony’?

‘The Witch of Atlas’


‘The Garden of Fand’


‘Morning Song – Maytime in Sussex’

‘November Woods’

‘In the Faery Hills’


‘Two English Idylls’

‘A Shropshire Lad’

‘The Banks of Green Willow’


‘The Wand of Youth’

‘Enigma Variations’

‘Introduction and Allegro’ for strings

Violin Concerto

Violin Sonata

Second Symphony

Cello Concerto


‘Cotswold Symphony’

‘A Somerset Rhapsody’

‘The Planets’

‘Egdon Heath’

Vaughan Williams

‘In the Fen Country’

‘The Norfolk Rhapsody’

‘On Wenlock Edge’

‘Sea Symphony’

‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’

‘The Lark Ascending’

‘Pastoral Symphony’

Symphony no. 9

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