“Against the stream”: intersections of music and politics in the conception, composition and reception of Alan Bush’s first three symphonies

2017-05-17T02:02:08Z (GMT) by Waters, Julie Anne
Alan Bush (1900–95) was a committed Marxist and British Communist Party member. With the focus on his first three symphonies, composed between 1939 and 1960, this thesis examines the evolution of Bush’s aesthetic attitudes in relation to Marxist and communist ideology, and the impact of this on the conception, composition and reception of the symphonies. While there is a perception that Bush’s politics negatively influenced his art music and its dissemination and reception, few have tested this by detailed examination of individual works or his relationship with specific British organisations. This thesis argues that the symphonies—the Symphony in C (1939–40), Nottingham Symphony (1949) and Byron Symphony (1959–60)—are significant as landmarks in Bush’s politically committed aesthetics and compositional method, and that the reception of the works serves as a test of the effectiveness of his methods and of prevailing assumptions about his reputation. The symphonies cover a significant time span in terms of Bush’s creative development, have politically inspired programmes and show how his left-wing connections led to performance opportunities that may not otherwise have been available. The symphonies also chart aspects of his musical and ideological journey from the late–1930s to 1960. Although Bush on occasion diverged from the Party line, the thesis establishes that his aesthetic views were consistent with his Marxist beliefs and Party cultural policies over the given period. Going against the broad trajectory of English music history, the symphonies reveal a shift from his politically influenced but compromised engagement with musical modernism in the Symphony in C, to an affirmation of English socialist realism in the national and accessible Nottingham Symphony, and finally to the more complex musical “nationalisms” and growing internationalism represented by the Byron Symphony. In addition, the symphonies are associated with significant moments for Bush, such as his attendance at the Second International Congress of Composers in Prague and his signature of the “Prague Manifesto” in 1948. The thesis demonstrates that the widespread perception of Bush as an outsider neglected by the English musical establishment is belied by the complexity of his relationship with organizations such as the BBC. Archival sources confirm that he had much ongoing support from a number of influential BBC administrators and that his politics do not appear to have been a significant barrier to performance of his symphonies (and many other works). Moreover, his political activism in organizations such as the British Composers’ Guild does not appear to have damaged his reputation amongst British composers. On the other hand, Bush was at times prepared to conceal or dilute the political intentions underlying his music in order to have his works performed. Using many previously unexamined primary sources, combined with analysis and interpretation of the symphonies’ scores, this thesis contributes to the scant body of literature on Bush and the intersections of music and politics in his compositional output and reception. Although travelling against the stream in many ways, Bush was very much part of the flow of British musical culture.