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, (Elliot) Carter, (John(!)) Adams,
(John Luther) Adams, (Olly) Wilson, (Roger) Nixon, (Ben) 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
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
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 me today.
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!
kinds of courses were
you teaching to the adults?
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
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
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
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.
Obviously, you write so that you yourself enjoy
exactly it, yes! Exactly it.
BD: Do you
consider the audience at all when you’re
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.
Yes. I was going to remark that your music
much more from the tonal school than from the atonal school.
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
[Laughs] You’re talking about the German
music of the current century?
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.
[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
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
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
Stephen was actually commissioned to write an opera for
Vienna. That’s a very fine piece.
heard the name, but I don’t know that
I’ve heard any of his music.
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
Mozart, of course, but who is?
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!
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?
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
BD: So you
only perform your own music?
public, yes. In private, that’s another
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 an interpreter.
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
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 those?
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?
first-rate performers, a conductor who
really cared for the piece and a general commitment all around.
BD: Do you
have some advice in general for
performers who are going to perform your works in public?
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.
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
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
joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
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, like politics.
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
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
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
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!
right, that’s right. A composer
ought to be, really, or it would help him if he was.
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
BD: It just
worked that way?
GB: It just
had to, yes. That was exciting!
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
[Laughs] I think it’s largely by
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 horrified?
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
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
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
BD: I was
wondering more of science and
GB: Yes, that
is absolutely true
there! Yes, science and technology have seen a staggering
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.
[Laughs] Moving this back to the concert
hall, is it surprising to you that audiences today seem to demand that
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
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?
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 concert-going public.
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.
[Laughs] I don’t think they would,
really! And perhaps — let’s face it — it doesn’t altogether
BD: Well, let
me ask the great big philosophical
question, then. What is the purpose of music?
[Laughs] That’s another one I
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
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
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,
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
“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. [See my Interview with Robert
Ward.] 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?
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
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.
Right. Will the music on Lyrita be coming
back on CD?
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.
recordings do have a
certain sense of permanence and universality.
very good recordings, indeed, yes.
And he’s done a wonderful job in putting so many British works into the
BD: I do hope
that they do come back out on CD
to gain even more recognition.
Yes. I’m hoping that perhaps Eric Parkin
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
made. It’s about a one or two years job, at least. So keep
your fingers crossed for me.
[Laughs] I certainly will! I
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!”
advice, indeed. It’s been wonderful being
able to chat with you across the ocean today.
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
BD: Well, in
my business, that’s fine. It makes for an interesting
23, 1920 Died: 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.
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
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
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.
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.
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 Internet Radio.
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
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