Alan Rawsthorne by Marius Flothuis

by | Oct 31, 2021 | Uncategorized

Marius Flothuis (1914 –2001) was a distinguished Dutch composer and musicologist. This essay on Rawsthorne is a section of a chapter in hisHedendaagse Engelse Componisten (Amsterdam: H. J. W. Becht, 1949), translated into English by Olive Renier and published as Modern British Composers (Stockholm; London: Continental Book Company; Sidgwick & Jackson, [1950?]). In this remarkably detailed and frank survey, showing evidence of an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the field of study, the author does not refrain from negative criticism where he feels it is justified. Bearing this in mind, it is pleasant to note that he has virtually nothing but praise for Rawsthorne.


Robin Hull says that Rawsthorne ‘though less spectacularly gifted than Britten, may yet stand in evident range of equality with him’.1 Here he hits the nail on the head. Like the two other composers with whom we are concerned in this chapter2 he is less productive than Britten, but his works are less unequal. It is an old truth that a composer must go on writing, whether the result be good or bad. Tchaikovsky said that a composer must exercise his craft daily, like a shoemaker, lest he lose his skill. But before publishing the results, it is necessary to exercise one’s critical faculty. What Rawsthorne has given to the world is among the best that his generation has produced. And this generation of his is represented in Holland by, among others, van Lier and G. Landré, in Poland by Palester, in Italy by Dallapiccola, in Czechoslovakia by Kabelácˇ, in the Soviet Union by Shostakovich.

It was not till he was twenty that Rawsthorne began to study music seriously at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he specialised in piano and composition. He continued his studies on the continent (one of his teachers was Egon Petri) and was later teaching music at the School of Dance Mime at Dartington Hall. Since 1935 he has lived in London. His first international recognition was at the London Festival of the ISCM of 1938, when his Theme and Variations for Two Violins was performed; a year later his Symphonic Studies were produced in Warsaw, and in 1946 his Cortèges, in London.


Theme and variations, symphonic studies – here we again have the play element,3 and we can add to this his Theme and Variations for String Quartet and the central section of his Piano Concerto,4 which is in the form of a chaconne. For him, more than for the others in whose work we have noted this element, it is the natural form of his musical thought. Not only is the variation form the expression of steadily regenerated musical ideas, and not merely a game of sounds, but in his work as in that of many other composers of today, the sonata form tends to be cast aside – it has become for many composers nothing more than an irksome constraint. His Piano Concerto consists of a toccata,5 a chaconne and a tarantella, and the form of the toccata approaches more the rondo than the sonata. This concerto is, I believe, not only one of Rawsthorne’s best pieces, but one of the best in modern English music. It is an engaging work, almost un-English in its lack of restraint, but typically English in its excellent structural control, and in its instrumentation. All modern English composers of note are skilled in instrumentation. The French have won for themselves the reputation for fine orchestration, but the English do it as well, in a different way. Their orchestration is more stark; they work more by melodic lines and concertante effects than by colours and nuances – with the exception of Britten, who combines the two types.

Reviewers of Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto frequently compared it with Prokofiev’s work. It is true that there are links between the chaconne and the Prokofiev of the third piano concerto, but even if we admit that this movement is not of such high standard melodically and harmonically, the comparison is in favour of Rawsthorne. It is interesting that Rawsthorne’s music often shows relationship with that of the young Dutch composers. The polytonal combinations in minor thirds (with dominant function) and in major thirds (with tonic function) are also to be found in his work. The melodic parallels are still more obvious. If one compares the following examples of Rawsthorne’s Violin Concerto:6

with a theme from the second string quartet of G. Landré (1943)

page10image82655312 page10image82655680

or the first bars of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of Bartók (1935), the melodic connection is so great that it is possible to say that a new melodic consciousness is being born here.

Chromatic or half-chromatic successions within a rather small compass, with only a few repetitions of tones (a remnant of the doctrine of Schoenberg?) are the chief characteristics of this music. Such agreement in the style of composers from different countries may be of great importance in the future, for a common language, generally understood, is one of the pillars on which a sound musical culture rests.

But in dealing with the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto we have upset the Rawsthorne chronology, which must now be restored. Among his oldest works is the Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937), already noted, a masterly contribution to the scarce literature for this, for the composer, rather thankless combination. Each variation, of which there are nine, has its own title; they are thus, in the strictest sense, ‘character variations’. The play element is to the fore, and indeed the combination of two violins does not of itself lead to dramatic conflicts, but there are moments


music for The Captive Heart, and in the Violin Concerto of 1947.
In contradistinction to the sharp outlines of the Piano Concerto we have in the Violin Concerto a structure more rhapsodical in nature. The piece has less virtuosity than the Piano Concerto and the accent is on lyricism in the first of the two movements. The play element is entirely in the background except in a few figure passages and in the cadenza. In the second movement, in which tempo and pace repeatedly change, and much use is made of variation technique, it takes its rightful place again. The piece is dedicated to William

Walton and closes with a quotation from Belshazzar’s Feast.
The most recent work of Rawsthorne is a concerto for oboe and string orchestra (first performed in 1947 by Evelyn Rothwell), and he is at present working on a quartet for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. He too, it seems, is inspired by English wind playing.8



of repentance and of seriousness, as for example variation 4, ‘Rhapsodia’, and variation 5, ‘Notturno’. Two years after this, Rawsthorne produced a similar work for string quartet.7 Between these two came the Four Bagatelles for piano (1938), which make us wish for more and greater works for the piano. Pianists have not been overspoilt by modern composers. The list of minor works is concluded for the moment with the publication in 1940 of some songs, ‘Away Delights’, and ‘God Lyaeus’ (the poems by John Fletcher), and ‘We Three Merry Maidens’; and also the amusing piano suite for four hands The Creel.

The first of the orchestral works was the Symphonic Studies (1939), in which the idea of variation is interpreted in a characteristic manner. It is a piece of much virtuosity, a sort of Brandenburg Concerto on a larger scale. One gets the feeling that the composer is reconnoitring a territory, one with which he is soon familiar. For there followed the Piano Concerto (1942), the ample overture Cortèges (1945) and the brief Street Corner (1944). Cortèges is made up of various marches. The allegro is a pas redoublé, the introductory adagio, which returns later, a marche funèbre. All these works are dominated by a strong rhythmical impulse and the frenzied joy of music-making. But the chaconne of the Piano Concerto shows another, more serious side to Rawsthorne, which is continued in the ‘Prisoners’ March’ from the film


2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Robin Hull, ‘What Now?’ in A. L. Bacharach, ed., British Music of Our Time (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946). I cannot verify this, as the words seem to be absent from the 1951 edition, which is the only one I have. They look as if they might have been translated from English into Dutch and then back into English again – perhaps

rendering them ‘double English’ – ed.
Lennox Berkeley and Michael Tippett.
The ‘play element’: see the Editorial.
Later known as the String Quartet No. 1 and the Piano Concerto No. 1, respectively. Actually ‘capriccio’, although Mellers, too, refers to its toccata-like qualities.

Later known as the Violin Concerto No. 1.
The Theme and Variations for String Quartet, later known as String Quartet No. 1. Flothuis had earlier drawn attention to the quality of the wind solos in the second movement of Lennox Berkeley’s Piano Concerto; earlier still to Bliss’ Oboe Quintet and Clarinet Quintet, where Frederick Thurston is mentioned by name.