Musical Key to Europe – how to figure out the meaning of our project? A few interpretations are possible with the most obvious one that we are looking for partners for school exchange programmes to make the most of our school potential.

However, I am tempted to suggest a slightly different interpretation.

Most of us have chosen The United Kingdom as their mobility destination -England, Ireland, Scotland. Perhaps then, it is noteworthy to look for the key to understand British music, culture and traditions?

Somehow, it is the music that our road to Europe is paved with.

Where’s that British classics?

It is natural that the very thought of the British music evokes the sounds of popular music – from the earliest like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Genesis up to the latest stars. Some might mention Irish folk with its stepping dancers and -of course – the Scottish pipes. And… this is it. 

What do we know about the classical representatives? Yet nearly everyone recognizes Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Debussy or Dworzak, but when it comes to dropping a name of a British composer, embarrassment appears. There he is! George Friderick Handel! Right, but he was actually a German immigrant (Georg Fridrich Händel) tempted to move to  Great Britain by the perspective of earning loads of money as a composer and opera impresario.The 18th century’s financial prosperity in London seduced many more noble composers from the continent. One of them was the son of the great John Sebastian Bach – Johann Christian also known as the ‘London Bach’. But it was Joseph Haydn  - a modest musician of the Esterhazy Duke Family – that earned the reputation for being an absolute music superstar! Yet it wasn’t only money that London offered to its continental visitors. Most importantly there was the world-fame that awaited them in ‘The Empire where the sun never sets’.

The 19th was yet another century when lots of composers would pay a short or long visit to the British Isles. Singers, pianists, violinists including Mendelssohn who felt at home there. One could risk saying that Frederick Chopin’s decision to arrive in England and Scotland (April-November 1848) to improve his budget unfortunately triggered his death. The composer was terminally ill with tuberculosis and the British humidity  proved to be lethal. That, in turn, diminished the number of masterpieces he might have created – a year later he died. 

We could account for the dominance of continental composers in Britain with the quotation from Chopin’s letter written during his stay there:

‘ Here music is no art whatsover and nobody would call it art. You say ‘artist’ – they think ‘a painter, architect, wood-carver’. Here music is not an art but profession’

It is not surprising that with such an approach there were hardly any outstanding British musicians. It does not mean though, that there were not any. One could find some interesting composers starting with the Middle Ages. However it is partly due to our German friends who contributed to the fact that few British composers remained in the mainstream of the history of music. In the 19th century – when the framework of the music historiography was being established, most of the research was done in the German speaking countries. In consequence, German historians created a model of the history of music focused mainly on their compatriots constituting J.S Bach as its culmination. They claimed that everything that had happened in music before Bach was a preparation for his coming and what followed Bach was merely his ingenious heritage. In that way music of countries such as England, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia was pushed into the second league. Anyway, without going into too much detail of the music of other countries, let us focus now on the British early music.

Early music is the best!

The 9th and 10th centuries shaped a distinct model of polyphonic singing using the soft sound of the third and sixth intervals – so called- gymel

In the long run it resulted in introducing a modern triple-sound harmony to the continent – the ground on which major-minor system would develop in the centuries to come. Its leader was John Dunstable- nicely described as The Beatles’ great-great grandfather (by Danuta Gwizdalanka). Needless to say, Burgundian musicians are reported to have been stunned while listening to Dunstable’s singers. And yet the Duchy of Burgundy was the musical centre of Europe at that time.

In two next centuries to come, British music would miss its uniqueness  due to the trend to copy continental patterns, mainly French and Italian. The Renaissance stylistics, however, was a perfect means of artistic expression for Thomas Tallis, John Taverner and William Byrd – masters of a mass cycle and motet. A group of composers ( Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes and John Wilbye) introduced the madrigal to the British ground -at that time the most wonderful genre of secular vocal music from Italy. Others created the foundation for modern instrumental style – those were the „English virginalists” (harpsichord players William Byrd, Orlando Gibbins, Tomas Tomkins) followed by Dutch and Northern Germany artists as well as lutenists with an ingenious John Dowland in the forefront ( his music was later paraphrased by Sting in his “Songs from the Labyrinth”). These things happened under the reign of Elizabeth I – the golden age for the British art. The British plunged straight into their music to such an extent that they somehow overlooked the arrival of a new style – baroque. While most continental musicians were playing and singing the sophisticated music with basso continuo, the islanders still relished the post-Renaissance sound of a  consort of viola da gamba performed by its specialist – an eccentric musician-soldier, William Lowers. 

Turbulent events of the 17th century did not favour the development of music, and it was only after The Stuarts had been restored that the baroque style could finally thrive on the River Thames. By the end of the century Henry Purcell had earned the reputation of Orpheus Britannicus .This prematurely deceased composer of vocal and instrumental music ( died at 36) was mostly famous for ‘An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”. Apparently, it was Purcell’s masque “The King Arthur” that most accurately reflected the spirit of the emerging Empire. Its very form is a unique creation combining the features of a spoken drama ( so much adored in the land of Shakespeare and Marlow) with an opera -Baroque most significant music genre. However, what we find interesting is the content of this patriotic-propaganda panegyric in which a legendary monarch from the  remote middle-aged past is invoked to praise the power and beauty of the kingdom Anno Domini 1691. This theme is so significant that later Handel would use it in his oratorios.

Handel – this Saxon immigrant came to Britain in 1712 after he had voluntarily given up his service for the Hannover prince elector. Ironically, two years later the offended employer followed Handel to England as the newly elected British king – George I. A rumour has it that in order to please the king, Handel composed his famous “Water Music” and played it along with the orchestra on a boat following the monarch’s ship on the Thames. In fact, the composer won the recognition both of the royal family and the British music lovers. In London Handel was mostly interested in opera, however his theatres experienced constant ups and downs with an unfortunate indication to the latter ones. His sympathetic protector, princess Anna inspired Handel to create a piece that would flatter the British vanity and in which the British could compare themselves to the biblical chosen race. Since the biblical theme didn’t  go in tune with the theatre, Handel reached for a genre that he had already been  familiar with – an oratorio. In consequence, a series of masterpieces was born ( Judas Maccabeus, Solomon, Israel in Egypt) in which the British were able to find a vision of their power, the royal court – majesty and glory, and the composer himself -fame and…money. As Handel’s life abounded in paradox, it turned out in time that it was his most modest oratorio “Messiah” whose premiere was actually in Dublin, Ireland,  that gained timeless fame.

After Handel’s death in 1759 his music began to have an even stronger impact on the British cultural life. We can venture to say that his works, with particular focus on the oratorios, overwhelmed the musical reality in Britain, thus not allowing other composers to step out of the shadow ( has anybody in Poland ever heard of John Stanley, Tomas Linley or Thomas Arne?). This proved to be the case for many years to come and when juxtaposed with Chopin’s theory about a poor status of a musician in Britain, it is no longer a surprise that until the first half of the 20th century there were hardly any world famous British composers.

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The British, however, do try to convince the world that there have been some noteworthy musicians. They do so by means of HIP ( Historically Informed Performance) which should be understood as interpretations based on historical performances ( i.e. performed on period instruments). British musicians have been masters of that stylistics, just to mention : Academy of Ancient Music, The Consort of Musicke, Gabrieli Consort & Players, The Hilliard Ensemble, King's Singers, New London Consort, Tallis Scholars, Taverner Consort and Players, The English Concert, English Baroque Soloists, plus hundreds (!) of outstanding instrumentalists, singers and conductors. 

Owing to their activity that has its roots in the early 60’s of the 20th century, we have been given a chance to get familiar with the works of numerous, surprisingly intriguing early musicians from the British Isles. The phonographic market has also contributed by releasing countless CDs every year. In this context a special place is given to a record company Hyperion and its series “The British Orpheus” which includes 50 records. That very number suggests that the canon of the British composers goes far beyond those few names cited above. 

Therefore, I encourage you to enjoy listening to what played loud in the  British hearts and ears many centuries ago.


Witold Paprocki


( tłum. Agnieszka Feliniak)



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