Andy Croft reviews a new book out about the communist composer Alan Bush.
The composer Alan Bush (1900-95) is usually described as a man of unresolved contradictions, an Establishment figure who was also a dissident, the outsider who enjoyed the comfortable life of the insider. Bush was Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music for over half a century but, on at least two occasions, he was blacklisted by the BBC. When his first piano concerto was performed on the BBC Third Programme in 1938, Adrian Boult led the orchestra and choir straight into the national anthem in order to “balance” the revolutionary implications of the chorale finale. And, although his first opera Wat Tyler won the 1951 Festival of Britain opera competition, it was only performed once in Bush’s lifetime in the UK. Like all his operas it was premiered in the GDR.
Joanna Bullivant’s newly published book, the first full-length study of Bush’s life and music, is long overdue and wholly to be welcomed. Despite the inexcusable cover price and a sometimes over-academic introduction, anyone interested in Alan Bush’s music should get their local library to stock it.
The author works hard to rescue Bush from the usual modernist and anti-communist orthodoxies that compare his work unfavourably to composers Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippet, or which routinely claim that he sacrificed his talent for his political commitments. Trying to separate Bush’s music and his politics is impossible, she argues, as both were bound up with his sense of his musical and moral responsibilities in an era of crisis.
At the heart of the book is an account of the many projects in the 1930s and 1940s — most notably the 1939 Festival of Music for the People — in which, working with the London Labour Choral Union and the Workers’ Music Association, Bush tried to take classical music out of the concert hall. There is an excellent discussion of Bush’s Cantata The Winter Journey in relation to Tippet’s A Child of Our Time and Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and a suggestive comparison of the ritual elements in The Winter Journey and Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Bullivant explores the various competing influences on Bush’s thinking and practice, from Hanns Eisler to Arnold Schoenberg and Christopher Caudwell to Paul Hindemith. And, among Bullivant’s accounts of his four operas, is a fascinating study of the musical components of The Sugar Reapers, his opera about the Guyanese liberation struggle.
She is also good on Bush’s relations with those German composers such as Eisler, Georg Knepler and Ernst Meyer who came to London as political refugees after 1933. And, instead of the usual caricatures of Bush being a pawn of the GDR authorities, she argues that it was the other way round — Bush’s thinking and practice had a significant influence on the socialist state’s musical culture. And, for those critics who have dismissed Bush as a “Stalinist,” Bullivant reminds us that there were two sides to the cold war. According to Bush’s recently released MI5 files, during the so-called phoney war the secretary of the communist party’s William Morris Musical Society was an MI5 agent and when he was co-opted onto the party’s national cultural committee in 1950, his nomination papers were intercepted by MI5 and,in 1957, it prevented Bush travelling to British Guiana in order to research local musical traditions.
The book might have benefited from less theory and more biography, especially concerning Bush’s relationships with his principal librettists‚ among them Montagu Slater, with whom he wrote the Communist Manifesto Centenary pageant in 1948, Randall Swingler, who wrote the text for his first piano concerto and his wife Nancy, who wrote the words for three of his operas. Nevertheless, Bush emerges from this book as a major figure, one whose professional and political life was dedicated to creating a participative musical culture that was accessible, educational, enjoyable and radical.
Alan Bush, Modern Music and the Cold War by Joanna Bullivant (Cambridge University Press, £75). This article first appeared in the Morning Star.
Andy Croft has written and edited over 80 books, including poetry, biography, teenage non-fiction and novels for children. He writes a regular poetry column for the Morning Star, curates the T-junction international poetry festival on Teesside and runs Smokestack Books. He lives in North Yorkshire.