A Blog about the Wardour Castle Summer Schools 1964, 1965

Composers at School – Meirion Bowen

The 1965 WCSS received a particularly interesting review from Meirion Bowen (written 2 years he first met Michael Tippett). The article is notable for its review of the discussions that took place at Wardour regarding drama in music. It represents an early account of the event and channels the significance of the discussion that took place, even if Bowen would have rathered composers who explored ‘objectively the various issues.’ It’s also an account that aligns with Anthony Gilbert’s comments that the WCSSs were where ‘a whole new set of conventions were drafted’, especially when Bowen comments that the discussion was a ‘search for new idioms’ and a ‘new musical language’.

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Some quotes about the discussions of opera at the second  Wardour Castle Summer School.

This from Meirion Bowen:

[At the] Bath Academy of Art […. Tippett met] newcomers such as the rising stars of the postwar English avant-garde, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle. The latter trio organized two summer schools focussed on contemporary music at Wardour Castle, in 1965 and 1966 [sic]. Tippett once joined in a memorable seminar there at which all four of them discussed the operas they were currently engaging in writing.’ (Bowen, Meirion (1997), Michael Tippett (London: Robson Books), 40.)

Which is expanded by Michael Hall:

Even without the benefit of hindsight, one can see the direction in which all these interests and activities are going. The intensification of dramatic forms and now the involvement of the visual strongly suggest opera. And so it was. In August 1964, shortly after the first performance of Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments at the Cheltenham Festival, Goehr, Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle inaugurated the first of two summer schools of music which they held under the presidency of Michael Tippett at Wardour Castle. As it happened, the talk, certainly in private, was of opera. Unlike the situation on the continent where opera had become de trop, Britain was experiencing an operatic renaissance. Two years earlier Tippett had some approval with King Priam and was now well and truly embarked on The Knot Garden; Maxwell Davies had virtually completed the first act of Taverner, while Goehr was mulling over Arden Must Die. Both Richard Rodney Bennett and Malcolm Williamson had produced operas that year, and Britten, the doyen of them all in this field, had unveiled Curlew River, the first of his church parables. Clearly British composers, even young ones, had no reservations about the anecdotal or the referential! (Hall, Michael (1984), Harrison Birtwistle (London: Robson Books), 27.)

Did Birtwistle’s contribution to the discussion involve Punch and Judy?

Hall’s comment that there were ‘no reservations about the anecdotal or the referential’ has wide-reaching implications for the understanding of British modernism during this period. My work on David Lumsdaine suggests that these discussions of opera are important for instrumental works too: Kelly Ground, for example, is a composition that established Lumsdaine’s place within an avant-garde, in part through references to Boulez, Webern, Stockhausen and Ligeti. 1

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