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Our British composers of the past 400 years have so much to offer that we couldn't include it all, but here's a selection of some of the top songs and orchestral music that make us proud.
Handel’s lively piece is a perfect way to kick off our A-Z of the best British music. Its real title is simply ‘Sinfonia’, from Act III of Handel’s opera, Solomon, composed in 1748, but the ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ is much more impressive.
“But of all the world's great heroes, there's none that can compare, with a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.” It’s rousing, it’s patriotic, and the lyrics are brilliant, but the origin of this piece is unclear. Some think it’s from British musician John Playford’s 17th Century dance books, but others have hinted it’s from a Dutch march…
Brash trumpets, military rhythms, and a lush string tune thrown in for good measure, Walton’s Crown Imperialhas won the royal seal of approval. It was first performed at George VI’s coronation in 1937, and again for Queen Elizabeth’s in 1952. Prince William and Kate Middleton used it as a recessional at their wedding.
A great concerto by British composer Jon Lord, inspired by life in the city. ‘Durham Awakes’ uses the Northumbrian pipes, a variant of the bagpipes, to give a rustic folk-music feel to the piece.
Poignant harmonies, soaring string lines, rolling timpani – Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ from his Enigma Variations has become something of a classic tear-jerker, played at solemn occasions and memorials as well as historic patriotic moments.
Two big hitters on the British composition scene are responsible for this rapturous piece: Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and Romantic Ralph Vaughan Williams. Ethereal strings hum Thomas Tallis’ original theme, composed in 1567, which takes on a new identity as the lush pastoral music swells.
It’s a traditional British folksong favourite, which we’d like to believe was composed by Henry VIII for his future love, Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, that’s probably not true, but it’s still an enduring example of Tudor music – Vaughan Williams was inspired by the piece to compose his Fantasia on Greensleeves, complete with the rich strumming of a harp.
Spine-tinglingly exciting, there’s so many fantastic moments of Handel’s Messiah that we’re almost hard pressed to pick a highlight. The heavenly choirs of the jubilant ‘Hallelujiah’ chorus just about come out on top, however. Altogether now, please be upstanding…
From the first few brassy opening notes on the organ to the triumphant full choir, in just over five minutes, Sir Charles Hubert Parry manages to fill the piece with choral ecstasy and prayerful reverence in equal measure. He’s good at that: Parry’s also responsible for composing the English anthem, ‘Jerusalem’.
'Jerusalem' is another J which is certainly closer to us geographically, but we couldn’t miss out Holst’s The Planets. There are so many good moments in ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’ that it’s hard to fit them all in, but it’s a must listen, with its cheeky glockenspiel cameo appearances and its swelling horn waltz. And Holst set the words to ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ to the tune in the middle.
Written by a British composer and covering the battles between the Britons and the Saxons, it’s hard to get more British than Purcell’s semi-opera, King Arthur. What’s more, its full title is King Arthur or, The British Worthy: a fine example of English Baroque music.
Soaring and swooping, Vaughan Williams’ delicate The Lark Ascending is based on a poem about a skylark: “He rises and begins to round, He drops the silver chain of sound…” Beautiful.
Delius composed some great British choral music, of which Mass of Life is just one example. It’s not really a religious Mass: it’s a setting of Nietzsche’s text from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but the complex text and vast orchestra combine to create a British masterwork – even if the words are in German.
If you’re only familiar with Holst’s The Planets, his underrated choral music shows off another side to the great British composer. Building up from a low bass note to a warm full chorus, this peaceful setting of the Biblical ‘Nunc Dimittis’ text proves Holst isn’t just a one-hit-wonder.
If there’s something we Brits do well, it’s pastoral music. And there are few pieces more pastorally-inspired than this lovely tune by Delius, complete with its trademark cuckoo calls.
There’s something quintessentially British about a military march. Booming drums, the dignified pomp of the trumpets, and the fantastic ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ tune thrown in for good measure – splendid!
We maintain it’s not cheating to choose ‘Quilter’ for Q – as the composer of so much great British music, almost all his vocal works deserve a mention. His settings of Shakespeare’s poetry combine slushy piano lines and emotive vocal music for a double hit of British beauty.
The clue’s in the title with this punchy patriotic air from Thomas Arne. It was written at the height of the British Empire and it’s strongly associated with the British Navy, but it’s still popular today for a 2012 Britain.
All three movements of Elgar’s Serenade have something wonderful to offer British music. From the quirky opening movement, through the relaxing second, to the a skipping pastoral tune in the final ‘Allegretto’ section, it’s plain to see why Elgar retains his place as one of Britain’s greatest composers.
‘Trumpet Voluntary’ by Purcell? It’s certainly a stirring British anthem, but it’s not actually called the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’, nor is it by Purcell! The popular wedding music is actually by Jeremiah Clarke, and it’s called The Prince of Denmark’s March.
So many of our typically British pieces are Romantic pastoral favourites, so it’s great to champion some of our living composers. Paul Mealor’s hauntingly sublime choral music, performed at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, is a wonderful example of what our composers are capable of.
You may have heard Delius’ luscious string music, but what about his operas? Pastoral strings and shimmering harps, accompany the crisp English words, but there’s some stunning instrumental music in there as well: ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ is a must-listen.
Harpsichords, regal strings, and brassy horns: what more could you want from a majestic Baroque masterpiece? Every movement is a triumph, so it’s no wonder King George I enjoyed them so much when he heard the first performance at a concert on the Thames.
If you think it’s a cop out to pick a xylophone piece for the letter X, have a listen to Pitfield’s buzzing Xylophone Sonata and think again! Pitfield cited Vaughan Williams and Delius as influences, but his sonata is a fun-filled example of British eccentricity rather than pastoral charms.
Composed by Benjamin Britten on a theme by Purcell, the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra manages to squeeze two of our best British composers into one piece. The theme is played first by the whole orchestra, and then passed around the instruments, section by section, until all the players have their own variation.
The first piece ever broadcast on Classic FM on 7 September 1992, and the last piece in our A-Z, Handel’s anthem has been sung at every British coronation since 1727. It’s not just the jubilant choirs exclaiming “Long live the King!” that make it a royal favourite – the three trumpets and timpani certainly add a fair amount of excitement to the piece.