Dr Edmund Rubbra, CBE (1901-1986)
Composer, pianist, music critic and teacher
In 2016 BBC Radio 3 chose as its Composer of the Week Edmund Rubbra, one of the most important English composers of the 20th century, but almost forgotten in the years since his death. The centenary of his birth was marked in 2001, with new recordings and live performances of his work and, in 2016, the 30th anniversary of his death was similarly marked by performances and recordings, including one by The Sixteen of four of his works.
Harry Christophers reflects on why it is that Edmund Rubbra is not better known as a choral composer. "I think one of the simple things is that his music is difficult. He isn't easy to rehearse in half an hour and produce an evensong ..... As we rehearsed and started recording, the choir really began to enjoy the music and see its great worth. It's up to us today to be showing that he is a really great composer." His son, Adrian Yardley, adds that "Vaughan Williams regarded him really highly and regarded him in many ways as a successor to him."
So, I have written this piece to help bring attention to an English composer about whom many, like me, may have known little if anything. It has been of particular interest to me to learn about the man and his music because, earlier this year, I discovered that I am related to Edmund Rubbra.
(Charles) Edmund Rubbra was born in Northampton in 1901, into a working class family, the elder son of a clock and watch maker. He began composing music while still at school and at 17 he arranged a concert locally of music by Cyril Scott, whom he admired. When Scott received a copy of the programme from the minister at Rubbra’s church who had attended the concert, he decided to take Rubbra on as a pupil. This lead to Rubbra’s gaining a scholarship to study composition at Reading University, where Gustav Holst was one of his teachers, and counterpoint at the Royal College of Music with one of the great theorists of the day, R.O. Morris.
As a young man Rubbra worked as a pianist, and took on whatever teaching, performing and journalistic work came to hand. During the Second World War he formed a trio, which continued for some years after war ended. In 1947 he was received into the Catholic faith, and in the same year he was appointed lecturer in music at Oxford University, remaining there until 1968. In 1961 he had also joined the staff of the Guildhall School of Music, where he taught composition until 1974. He became a member of the Royal Academy of Music in 1970 and fellow of the Guildhall School of Music in 1966. In 1960 he was appointed CBE. He was awarded honorary degrees from Leicester, Durham and Reading and when his friend Vaughan Williams heard of Durham University’s intention he wrote Rubbra a short letter: ‘I am delighted to hear of the honour which Durham University is conferring on itself.’
In 1934 Rubbra gave a piano recital of music by Debussy which was broadcast on BBC Radio. This was the first of many programmes in which he appeared, either performing or talking about music, or in which his own works were played, conducted by, among others, Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Henry Wood. In March 1996, ten years after his death, the BBC selected him as Composer of the Week, describing his cycle of 11 symphonies as ranking ‘alongside that of Vaughan Williams’ and most recently, in September, Radio 3 broadcast five programmes of conversations with his sons Benedict and Adrian about their father’s life and work, including performances of his music. He was a shy and retiring man, described by Robert Layton as ‘possessing a beatific smile and great personal charm. Always courteous ... he radiated warmth and spirituality. His deeply religious nature shines through much of his music.’
In 2012 the Bodleian Libraries acquired the archive of Edmund Rubbra. It includes letters from friends and colleagues, including Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Henry Wood, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult, Ernest Moeran, Lennox Berkeley, Arnold Bax, Egon Wellesz, Zoltán Kodály, Jean Sibelius and others. Gerald Finzi was a particularly close and personal friend, evidenced by the inclusion in the archive of an almost complete collection of scores by Finzi, signed by him and dedicated to Rubbra.
Edmund Rubbra produced over 160 works. He belonged to the same generation as Sir William Walton, Sir Lennox Berkeley and Sir Michael Tippett though he had little in common with them. He is perhaps best remembered for his eleven symphonies, but he also wrote instrumental music, chamber, choral and piano music. He never stopped composing; the year before his death he had begun work on his 12th symphony. His music has been unjustly neglected, perhaps because its wide-ranging nature makes it difficult to categorise. Robert Layton describes it as having ‘a sense of organic continuity that is both highly developed and immediately evident to the listener. Perhaps the most distinctive and individual quality that shines through his most inspired music, such as the opening of the seventh symphony or the Missa in honorem sancti Dominici (op. 66, 1948), is breadth and serenity.’ Sir Adrian Boult commended Rubbra’s work by saying 'He … has never made any effort to popularise anything he has done, but he goes on creating masterpieces!’
For more about Edmund Rubbra …
- Edmund Rubbra was the subject of Desert Island Discs in 1981.
- BBC Radio 3 chose Edmund Rubbra as its Composer of the Week, broadcast Monday 19 - Friday 23 September 2016. Donald Macleod was joined by Edmund Rubbra's sons, Benedict and Adrian, who discussed their father and his music. Unfortunately, the programmes are not currently available.
- The Sixteen recorded four works by Edmund Rubbra including the Tenebrae Motets, and they made a short film about the recording. In it, Harry Christophers and Rubbra's son, Adrian Yardley, talk about the music and the man, and Harry Christophers also addresses the issue of why Rubbra’s music is not better known.
- Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist, by Leo Black, The Boydell Press, 2008
- YouTube: recordings of many of his works can be found on YouTube.