Composer Geoffrey Bush
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
One of the many fun things about working for WNIB was the freedom I was given
to present programs. Besides the typical fare of single-composer shows
with music and interview, I also came up with gimmicks that allowed for unexpected
couplings of divergent styles. [To see a full list of the various series
and specials, go to my résumé.]
There was “Composers’ Alphabet,”
which displayed works by several composers whose last names started with
that month’s letter, and an instrument series
— which included voices — that, again, just drew on my guests’
works for that month’s specific solo. But perhaps
the most intriguing was the use of music by composers whose family names were
the same as U.S. Presidents. Each February there would be a program
with music by (Lou) Harrison,
(Elliott) Carter, (John(!))
Adams, (John Luther) Adams, (Olly) Wilson, (Roger) Nixon, (Hunter) Johnson,
and others who fit the criteria. The composers, though mostly American,
did not need to be from the U.S. I would mix and match various names
and pieces to make up the ninety-minute show, and after my conversation with
Geoffrey Bush in 1991, I added his music to that list.
Bush, an English composer born in 1920, was not a well-known name, but had
a strong reputation and by the 1980s was represented on several discs.
In the nineteenth century, it was the piano transcription which carried music
to the home; in the twentieth century, it was the phonograph record and the
compact disc. Apparently, the twenty-first century will rely on downloads
and other methods of streaming and digitizing music just as these words are
being beamed to you now from my website. Keep up and adapt, or get
left behind and die...
But before we are all reduced to the dust from whence we came, allow me to
give you this conversation I had with Geoffrey Bush. We arranged to
speak on the telephone, each in our respective homes; I was in Chicago and
he was in London. The sound was clear and there was no delay, so I
was able to use portions on the air in later programs. Now the entire
interview has been transcribed, and this is what was said . . . . .
I appreciate your taking a little time from your schedule to chat with
Geoffrey Bush: That’s
all right; pleasure.
BD: You spent quite
a bit of your career both teaching and composing. How did you divide
your time between those two very strenuous activities?
GB: I was very
fortunate because most of my teaching was evening teaching, to mature students
who would come after their day’s work. That meant I had the mornings
clear, which I composed, taught in the evening, and generally put my feet
up in the afternoon so as to get a bridge passage between them!
BD: What kinds
of courses were you teaching to the adults?
GB: They varied.
I suppose the most important one we had was a four-year diploma the students
could do for the University of London, covering roughly four centuries of
musical history. And I used to do the contemporary music section, the
twentieth century, but I also taught general appreciation to adults who just
wanted to enjoy music more. I have also a generally twentieth century
course for undergraduates at King’s College in London.
BD: How does one
get someone else to enjoy music more?
GB: That’s a good question. The answer is
to make them listen to it. The hardest thing, I think, for uninstructed
people, is to listen continuously, particularly in our twentieth century
situation when one is surrounded by noises one doesn’t want to hear; you
switch your ears off almost automatically. The task of a teacher in
the sort of class we’re talking about is to make them open their ears, and
also see that music progresses in time from one bar to the next, that they
hear one bar after another, just as they read one sentence after the other
in a book.
BD: So it’s not
just a series of notes, but it’s a complete thought?
BD: You say you
want to discriminate between noises and sounds they want to hear. When
you are writing music, do you particularly make sure that these sounds you’re
putting on the paper are going to be sounds they want to hear?
GB: A friend of
mine once said to me, “A composer must always remember that he has no prescriptive
right to have his music liked.” I think the only thing a composer can
do is to work as hard as he can, with complete sincerity, to put down what
he thinks and hope it will be useful and enjoyable to other people.
I don’t think he can take in their likes and dislikes more than that.
you write so that you yourself enjoy it.
GB: That’s exactly
it, yes! Exactly it.
BD: Do you consider
the audience at all when you’re writing?
GB: Of course,
if I’m writing a commissioned piece for a particular purpose, I pay attention
to that. My music on the whole does communicate fairly directly, so
I don’t think I have to take that too much into account. Other composers
perhaps have a more — what shall I say? — complex message than I have.
I was going to remark that your music is much more from the tonal school
than from the atonal school.
GB: That’s right.
That’s for a variety of reasons, I think. German music is, on the whole,
not very sympathetic to me, and I haven’t got really a constructivist or
mathematical turn of mind. In fact, my friends say I can’t count up
to twelve, and that’s why I’ve never been interested in serialism!
You’re talking about the German music of the current century?
GB: That’s right.
But German music has been a very profound influence on British music, as
indeed I think it probably has been on American, too, partly because of its
excellence and partly because it has always very generously encouraged the
music of other countries. It’s been a great place to visit and study,
and for English people to have their works performed. Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was welcomed in Germany
before it was welcomed in his own country! But the effect has been
to make our music rather too imitative of German models, instead of pursuing
our own line — which I hope we are doing more now.
BD: Do you feel
that you yourself are part of a line of English composers?
GB: Yes, I do.
In fact, that’s just what I do feel. It’s partly due to my training.
I was trained as a choirboy at Salisbury Cathedral, and there we sung an immense
repertory of church music — not only British composers,
but a large number of them stretching back to the Tudors and beyond, and right
up to the present day. And it gives one a great feeling of being part
of a tradition of music.
BD: Does it stretch
continuously back to the Tudors? Once you get back behind Vaughan Williams
and John Ireland, and perhaps Parry and Stanford, there seems to be a big
gap between then and Henry Purcell.
GB: Well, [laughs]
I’ve partly spent some of my life trying to disprove this. There’s
a whole series of publications now in a series called Music of Britannica,
which are the classics of British music. It was an edition started
in 1951, at the time of the Festival of Britain. If you look at that,
you’ll see there are, in fact, several works and composers dating from this
so-called blank period. Just to name one which I think will be familiar,
is Thomas Arne, composer of Rule, Britannia,
who wrote a great deal of excellent music! It is not as good as Handel,
not as good as Bach, but individual, and with a special flavor.
BD: With the advent
of the printed series and now with the recordings, do you see a renaissance
coming of these forgotten composers?
GB: Yes, I think
so; definitely, and particularly with the rediscovery of early music, the
early music movement and the discovery of the authentic instruments on which
these things should be played. To give you one example out of many,
because it’s the Mozart year, this year, I was asked to give a lecture on
Mozart’s English friends. I don’t suppose many people would know them,
but there was a wonderful family called Storace. The brother, Stephen
was actually commissioned to write an opera for Vienna. That’s a very
BD: I’ve heard
the name, but I don’t know that I’ve heard any of his music.
GB: Well, it’s
a very good opera, which is a Da Ponte libretto based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. It’s a good
piece. It’s not as good as Mozart, of course, but who is?
* * *
BD: Coming back
to your own music, have you basically been pleased with the performances
you have heard through the years?
GB: Yes, I think
I have. There are always disasters that happen around when there’s
not enough rehearsal time, or some frightful gremlin attacks the performance.
But in general, yes. And I’ve always found, in my experience, that
in a sense, the better the performer, the more keen they are and the more
able they are to give a good representation of your music.
BD: Are there ever
times when the performers discover something in your score you didn’t know
you had hidden there?
GB: Oh, yes, absolutely!
They can do it differently from the way the composer intends. I have
a very vividly memory when Sir John Barbirolli conducted my Overture, Yorick at the Charleton Festival.
He’d prepared it beforehand, and he played the fast bits too fast and the
slow bits too slow, and I’ve never heard such a good performance! It
was absolutely staggering! I felt quite drunk with excitement!
BD: Did you go back then and alter your tempo markings
in the score?
GB: No, it was
just his view of it. I don’t think anybody else could have done it.
BD: You are often
performer of your own music. Are you the ideal performer of your music?
GB: [Laughs] Not
really. In some ways, when another intelligence gets to work on it,
new layers are revealed. I think I’m a pretty good accompanist of my
songs, and the great advantage is I do know what, for me, are the right tempi.
I don’t have to explain those things. But I’m not a first-rate pianist;
I wouldn’t dare go into public with somebody else’s music!
BD: So you only
perform your own music?
GB: In public,
yes. In private, that’s another story.
BD: It would be
interesting to see if you could bring something different to other people’s
compositions, looking at it through the eyes of a composer rather than just
GB: Well, as I
say, I would do it in private, but I wouldn’t risk it in public. I’ve
got to have a certain sense of humility, you know!
BD: Probably false
modesty, I’m sure. A number of your works have been recorded, and some
new recordings are coming out. Have you basically been pleased with
GB: Yes, very pleased
indeed with the end product. It’s a fairly agonizing process, as I’m
sure you know because time is money. There’s only a certain amount
of time that’s available, therefore, to get the thing, as they say, in the
can. And to see the minutes ticking away sends a cold chill down my
spine sometimes. But the results are marvelous! I’m particularly
pleased with the recent recording of my Summer Serenade, conducted by Richard
Hickox, which I think is really quite staggeringly good!
BD: What is it
about that that makes it exceptional — or is it just
simply a first-rate performance?
GB: It’s first-rate
performers, a conductor who really cared for the piece and a general commitment
BD: Do you have
some advice in general for performers who are going to perform your works
GB: No, I don’t
think so. As I said, it’s not really complex music; just put your heart
into it. If they’ve got a sympathy for it, it’ll be all right.
BD: I’m assuming
that you get quite a number of commissions. How do you decide which
ones you’ll accept and which ones you’ll turn aside?
GB: I would accept
the ones particularly that the minute the commission came, ideas started
to come with it. That can quite often happen. I’d also accept
one that allowed me to do some sort of pet project. I’m very interested
in writing for the theater or for the stage, so anything that might give
me an opportunity to do that, which doesn’t come very often, I’d accept.
In some cases, I would say, “I’ll have a shot at it, but I don’t guarantee
anything.” I’ve just finished a new work for Eric Parkin, the English
pianist who plays a lot of John Ireland amongst other things, and I sent
it to him with these words, “This is exactly what you want, except it’s not
a sonata and it’s five years late.” [Both laugh] I find solo
piano quite difficult to write for. I did say to him originally, “You
know I’ll try, but I don’t promise.”
BD: Why is solo
piano particularly difficult for you?
GB: I don’t know,
altogether. I think it’s partly that you really have got to write an
enormous lot of notes! Take a French horn — you can put a French horn
on middle C for two pages and it’ll sound absolutely wonderful! With
a piano, you’ve got to find something for the man to do —
haven’t you? — or the thing will fall apart.
BD: So you’re more
of a tunesmith.
GB: Yeah, I think
that’s a reasonable answer. Yes, melody is primary with me. I
think it’s how I was brought up. I think it’s in my nature.
BD: Tell me the
joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
GB: Ah! I
love writing for the human voice, and that’s because I was a choirboy.
I spent five years between the ages of eight and thirteen singing all day.
In fact, we had three hours, roughly, a day, including practices and church
services. So I think I have a feel for the voice. I’m also, not
surprisingly, a tremendous admirer of Purcell, who above all knew how to
write for the human voice, particularly when setting English words.
Of course, it’s exasperating when you have a strong feeling for a climax,
and you feel you have taken the voice too high; you have to rethink the whole
passage. That’s one of the problems of writing for the voice.
Unless you write for a specific professional who has a very wide range, you
have got to take into account that most singers have a compass which is limited,
to some extent, at each end. But in any case, I suppose that’s true
of all kinds of composition. Composition is the art of the possible,
BD: But at least
with most instruments, you know exactly where they can go, and most notes
are fairly much the same at either end. Whereas the voice gets a little
bit different at the top and bottom.
GB: That is true.
That’s perfectly true, and of course it varies from singer to singer.
One of the important things is to make quite sure that you’re not asking
singers to sing impossible vowel sounds on impossibly high or low notes;
also not to block the voice in its lower register with the accompaniment.
All these things come with practice and experience, but I sometimes wonder...
I know one shouldn’t criticize one’s contemporaries, but I sometimes wonder
whether they wouldn’t write a little bit differently if they’d sung themselves.
BD: Do you think
that everyone who writes for voice should take a few voice lessons?
GB: Yes, I do.
A composer cannot have too much practical experience. Duly speaking,
he’d learn a lot of instruments, too. There was one man from British
musical history — he’s not a man of any significance in any other respect
— but he was first-class singer. He name was Tom Cook. A first-class
oboist, a first-class actor and singer, and at his benefit he also played
eight instruments in public! That’s the ideal! [Both laugh]
I’m nowhere near it!
BD: He seems to
have been a jack of all trades!
GB: That’s right,
that’s right. A composer ought to be, really, or it would help him
if he was.
* * *
BD: When you’re
sitting at your desk and you’re working on a piece of music, are you always
in control of that pencil, or are there times when you feel that the pencil
is guiding your hand across the page?
GB: When that happens,
that’s the most marvelous sensation! I’ve never forgotten an anecdote
of William Faulkner, the American novelist. He was apparently discovered
in a heat wave in a room in New York, at his typewriter, scantily clad and
bouncing up and down with excitement and saying, “They’re coming alive!
They’re coming alive!” Anyway, that’s a true anecdote or apocryphal,
but when the music comes alive and to some extent dictates what you’re going
to write, that’s thrilling! It really has come alive! For example,
one piece I remember, which I had planned a fortissimo ending, I was just
compelled to make it a pianissimo ending!
BD: It just worked
GB: It just had
to, yes. That was exciting!
BD: When you’re working on the piece and you’re getting
it ready, and you’ve got all of the notes down and you’re tidying up and
making the corrections, how do you know when to put the pencil down and say,
“It is finished and ready to be launched”?
I think it’s largely by instinct. Sometimes you feel you’ve got it
absolutely right. Sometimes one feels, “Well, I can’t get it any righter.”
A thing which I find very valuable, if it can be done, is to write the first
sketch and then put it in a drawer to sort of marinate, so to speak, for
a month. It’s extraordinary; when you get it out again after that period,
you suddenly see it with slightly different eyes, and you can see what needs
to be put right. I think at the end, one just hopes that it’s okay.
BD: When you come
back to it that first time, are you generally pleased, or are you generally
GB: I think generally
pleased, because if I’d been horrified, I should have probably been horrified
earlier and thrown it away before it got that far. I’ve done that before
and that’s very sad!
BD: Do you usually
work on one piece at a time, or have you got two or three going at once?
GB: I usually work
on one at a time. I have ideas for others floating around, waiting
to explored. And sometimes, as at this particular moment, I’ve got
two or three different ideas and I’m not quite sure which one to start on
first. But I expect gradually, as they clarify themselves in my mind,
it’ll become apparent.
BD: Is that the
craft, rather than the inspiration?
GB: I think it’s
a mixture of both, probably. It’s a little difficult to analyze what
one does, you know. As the work progresses, it sheds light on itself.
BD: Let me ask
a different kind of balance question. In your music, or perhaps in
music in general — concert music, which we’re talking about — where is the
balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?
GB: That’s a very,
very difficult question. I think I’d have to have about three weeks
notice before answering that one. I see no reason why music should
not have an entertainment value if you’re a composer of that particular character.
In my view, the composer’s task is to find out what sort of things he should
be writing, and that’s the apprentice composer. He shouldn’t really
be learning too much technique until he knows the sort of composer he is.
Then, if you’re a composer who likes entertainment, who’s able to entertain,
that’s the thing he should do — preferably, of course, with as much artistic
content as possible. Again, I’m sometimes worried by some of my contemporaries
who feel that to entertain is a rather shameful thing. I don’t.
BD: Where do you
feel that music is going these days?
GB: One never knows.
I think at every stage in musical history people have felt the limits have
been reached. It’s very curious. Perhaps the most interesting
thing about the twentieth century is the rapidity of change, the way in which,
for example, the complexities of serialism suddenly gave way to minimalism,
which again has had quite a short run. It’s very difficult to forecast
where it will go next.
BD: Is this peculiar
to music, or is this the way of everything in this century?
GB: I think it’s
particularly noticeable in music, but perhaps not so much in literature;
perhaps in painting.
BD: I was wondering
more of science and technology.
GB: Yes, that is
absolutely true there! Yes, science and technology have seen a staggering
rapidity of change, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons. Of course,
technology has really altered the face of music. The sheer invention
of the tape recorder has thrown the composition of music open to people who
can’t read or write! Suddenly, you might say, music’s been handed back
to the amateur — which is no bad thing, perhaps. It’s like most human
affairs — it’s both good and bad. I believe that human beings are basically
creative, and it’s a marvelous thing that people without necessarily a great
deal of professional skill are able to join in making music, just as most
people can write the odd poem and most people can draw something. It’s
very good. However, one shouldn’t put an exaggerated value on the end
product. That sometimes rather vexes me, when I open a newspaper and
find a sort of whole page devoted to a close analysis of the latest pop punk
record; doesn’t seem to be quite worth it.
Moving this back to the concert hall, is it surprising to you that audiences
today seem to demand that every new large-scale piece be a masterwork?
GB: Yes, they demand
it be a masterwork. It’s partly because big scale new works, don’t
appear that often — at least not in our concert halls. I don’t know
how well off you are in your country. Certainly operas are very, very
difficult to get produced over here simply because we haven’t got the resources.
We haven’t got the opera companies and they haven’t got the money to risk.
So not a great many new works are performed, so perhaps when one is done,
great expectations are aroused. And people would like to feel, perhaps,
they are present at the birth of a masterpiece. But it’s difficult,
certainly, to persuade the average concert-goer that he would like to hear
a new piece instead of just another Brahms symphony for the ninetieth time!
Do you have that problem?
BD: Oh, yes!
The repetition of the standard repertoire is just staggering. But do
you feel that audiences tend to want either a masterpiece or nothing — that
it’s an all-or-nothing proposition?
GB: I wouldn’t
say I’ve noticed that. When we say audiences, are we talking about
the ordinary concert audience? There is a small but vociferous audience
for some kinds of new music. I think they would expect to feel that
they were listening to masterpieces. I’m not so sure about the ordinary
BD: I just wonder
if the ordinary concert public would be able to discern a masterpiece if
you were to play the best of Brahms or the worst of Brahms.
I don’t think they would, really! And perhaps — let’s face it — it
doesn’t altogether matter!
BD: Well, let me
ask the great big philosophical question, then. What is the purpose
GB: Oh! [Laughs]
That’s another one I require several weeks to think about. If you want
a really deeply serious answer, the first thing is to glorify God.
The second thing is for man to enjoy — whether he’s
playing it, whether he’s composing it, whether he’s listening to it.
And also, if I’m not being too priggish, to open new worlds to him.
I remember somebody once came out of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and they said,
“For five minutes after hearing that work, I really believed I might be able
to be good!” It does take one to absolutely new worlds of feeling.
It’s rather a sort of grandiose answer, but it’s the best I can do!
BD: It’s a very
poignant answer, actually. You continue to write all the time.
Do you start immediately with the next piece once you’ve put the double bar
down on the previous piece?
GB: No, I put my
feet up with great gratitude, feeling I needn’t do anything for a bit
— unless, of course, there’s a new job absolutely waiting and
pressing to be done. I find composing quite hard work. Not so
much hard work, exactly, but there are moments when things go wrong, when
you get stuck, when you take a wrong turning, and they’re rather agonizing.
I’m rather inclined to be a bit slow in starting. I remember an American
composer, Robert Ward
— I expect you know him; he wrote The Crucible which I think was fairly
successful — saying, “I’m always very reluctant to
start, but once I get going, I’m carried along and enjoy it.” I think
that’s probably my case, in the reluctance to start. It’s nice thinking
about it and it’s nice finishing, but the middle bit’s a bit hard.
* * *
BD: You are in
your early seventies. Are you where you thought you would be when you
arrived at that age?
GB: I don’t think I had any expectations, particularly,
one way or the other. I think when one’s young, one has great ambitions
for oneself, but these soon take on a much more realistic air. I think
I’m very fortunate to be where I am now!
BD: Are there more
recordings coming along?
GB: I hope so.
A couple have just come out. My Songs
and Chamber Music for Wind and Piano
have just been released on CD.
Will the music on Lyrita be coming back on CD?
GB: Richard Itter,
who runs the firm more or less single-handed, has been rather slow in coming
to CD. But he’s at it now, and of course he’s got a huge catalog to
transfer. I had a card from him the other day saying he’d been held
up yet again, but perhaps in a couple of years time, he’d get my work on CD.
I shall certainly do my level best to keep him up to it! That’s very
important for a composer.
BD: The recordings
do have a certain sense of permanence and universality.
GB: They’re very
good recordings, indeed, yes. And he’s done a wonderful job in putting
so many British works into the catalog.
BD: I do hope that
they do come back out on CD to gain even more recognition.
I’m hoping that perhaps Eric Parkin will make a recording of my piano music
soon, but these things take a long time to set up, as I’m sure you know.
You’ve got to get the artist, the studio and the company to agree, and then
the record has to be made. It’s about a one or two years job, at least.
So keep your fingers crossed for me.
I certainly will! I certainly will. Do you have any advice for
younger composers coming along?
GB: No, I don’t
think I have more than what I’ve already said. The great thing is to
find yourself, and this is always difficult for a young composer because
he looks around and sees a certain type of music is in vogue at any given
moment. It looks as though that’s the way to get performed, that’s
the way to get published, that’s the way to get known. If that happens
to be your way, okay, but one must resist these pressures if that is not
the sort of music you should be writing. I would also say to a young
composer, “You’ve got to be very patient and believe in yourself; but remember,
it may be a long time before others will believe in you.” My last thing
is something that William Alwyn, the English composer, said to me when I
was starting. We both had a piece done in one of the Promenade Concerts.
He came up to me and he said, “Now remember this. Enjoy it because
you don’t know when the next performance is coming!”
BD: Good advice,
indeed. It’s been wonderful being able to chat with you across the
GB: Great, great!
I’ve enjoyed it, too, very much. I’m afraid composers are dreadfully
self-indulgent people. They leap at any opportunity to talk about themselves!
BD: Well, in my
business, that’s fine. It makes for an interesting interview.
Born: March 23,
February 24, 1998
Born in 1920, Geoffrey Bush was a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, and later
educated at Lancing College and Balliol College, Oxford. He joined the staff
of the Extra-mural Department of Oxford University in 1947, moving to London
University in 1952. Elected Chairman for the year of the Composers Guild
of Great Britain, in 1964 Geoffrey Bush visited the USSR as delegate of the
Guild. From 1952-1987 Geoffrey Bush was the Staff Tutor in Music at the Extra-Mural
Department of London University. An ardent champion of English music, he
wrote widely on the subject, also contributing regularly to BBC Radio 3 programmes,
including Music Magazine and Music Weekly.
Geoffrey Bush's catalogue of works is far-ranging in scope and content, including
2 symphonies, many smaller scale orchestral pieces, and music for chamber
ensemble. Bush's music is as varied as his tastes and interests. His Symphony 1 (1954) was first performed
at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1954 by the City of Birmingham Symphony
orchestra, conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. This symphony, as with the structures
used in much of his work, has its roots in neo-classicism. It was performed
at the Proms in 1958 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurice
Miles. Symphony 2 ("The Guildford")
was commissioned for the 700th anniversary of the City of Guildford in 1957.
Among the most popular titles from Geoffrey Bush's catalogue are the Concerto for Light Orchestra (1958),
and his two choral works A Christmas Cantata
(1947), and In Praise of Mary (1955).
His music for theatre is often witty, as shown in the scintillating one-act
opera Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
Perhaps Geoffrey Bush's most characteristic music is for voices: stage-works,
choral pieces and solo songs. With a natural affinity for a wide range of
texts (from Chaucer to Stevie Smith via Jonson, Wilde and Virginia Woolf)
- his music always serves to embellish and illuminate the given word.
© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on October 21, 1991.
Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.
This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final
moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have
also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues
his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical
You are invited to visit his website for more information about
his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full
list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the
photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
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