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By The Cynical Tendency
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A Time There Was

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The BBC has a set of linked programmes “A Century Of Music” looking at aspects of the Classical Music of Britain during the 20th Century which will run through to next summer. There is a great deal taken from archives in a number of the programmes. This post from five years ago, November 2013 is a parallel to these.

One of the iconic music films is Ken Russell’s 1962 “Elgar” which has as a central theme the composer’s relationship with the rural part of the Worcestershire and Herefordshire boundary and centring on The Malvern Hills. He was part of it as child and man and walked and cycled around the parishes and villages.

Tony Palmer, another maker of striking films about music makers made his “A Time There Was” about Benjamin Britten in 1980. Apart from the English setting and backgrounds there seems to be little connection between the two other than music. Britten was placed at Aldeburgh on the East Coast where he lived for much of his life and the opera “Peter Grimes” is based.

What matters in the Palmer film is that he was able to interview Britten’s sisters and brothers who survived him. A feature is their voices, the received pronunciation now alleged to be “posh” or “elitist” or upper class but then a normal speech for very many.

But when you start to study the documents now available there is another story. Because Britten was just as much a man of the area of The Malverns as Elgar, indeed more so in terms of his family history.

Elgar’s father was a Man of Kent, born in East Kent who moved to Worcester and married a local girl. Involved in local music and running a music shop. His younger son Edward was drawn into this world. It was from these lower middle class beginnings that Elgar had to make his way.

In the earlier generations those of the Elgar family who can be traced were largely in ordinary occupations substantially farming connected. They were not in the labouring class but certainly not much up the class scale. His mother, however, was a Greening and they were very ordinary rural people.

Britten’s father was a Charing Cross Hospital trained dentist who made a decent living and was able to educate his children to a good standard. His mother, given as Hockley but actually Hockey was from a lower background but they look very much like skilled men and tradesmen down the generations.

The father, Robert, was born in Birkenhead, his father Thomas, then a draper but later a dairy owner. It is said that Robert wanted to be a farmer but did not have the capital. There is more to it than that, because the family and most others were being thinned out by the gathering agricultural depression of the late 19th Century.

Before Thomas Britten the family were farmers and very much in the category of Yeoman farmers with decent sized holdings. The district where they were then settled for generations was by The Malverns and go back to at least the 17th Century.

It is difficult to see either of Elgar or Britten as “farmer’s boys” whose roots are in the “Middle England” of the time, yet essentially this is what they were. So if critics sneer about the “rural” and very “English” nature of some of their music and others from that general area then it is only what they were but their families before.

This world was one utterly foreign to the present younger two or three generations in this country, whether it is the English, Scots, Irish or Welsh kinds. They know nothing about the real history of the life as it was, whether it was the farming, maritime or other basic elements of Britain.

Anything they are told about the past reflects only the obsessions and propaganda of present politics and interests. As for agriculture most of the population is blissfully unaware of how or where what is grown or by whom. The vast majority see the green parts as either playgrounds, facilities for preferred wildlife or opportunities for property development.

Our own countryside and real rural history as it was almost within my memory is now a lost world and a lost people, almost as remote in modern society as the Aztecs or Ancient Egyptians. When we look at films about those who were close to it the reality of their own connection and the influence it may have had is never mentioned because it is never researched or understood in its own terms and context and the films are made by people with other agendas.

What I did not realise when shuffling through the records out of incidental interest was that it would become personal. A forebear in the direct male line in 1841 was working on a farm along the road from Britten’s farmer great grandfather also in the direct male line.

Going back further the other family links in the area turn up in the same villages and then merge. They look to be a group of Yeomen farmers, Parish Gentry, Husbandmen and the like of independent mind and running their own parishes as far as possible.

One of the connecting families is a Vobe. A branch of these turn up in Williamsburg in Virginia in the later 18th Century running the “Kings Arms” Inn. A local called George Washington often dined there.


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