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Five English composers you (almost certainly) won't have heard of before.

Updated on April 29, 2015

I am passionate about the culture of my country, and that of the British Isles as a whole. I feel that a lot of English music does not get the recognition it deserves. There really are some wonderful buried treasures awaiting discovery which will light up the life of any serious music lover. In this hub I would like to present a very brief overview of five English composers who remain almost unknown even in Britain. Do they deserve this neglect? Judge for yourself!

Let’s begin with the earliest of the five:

Canterbury Cathedral, where John Ward served as chorister.


Composer # 1: John Ward.

Details of Ward’s life are sketchy. John Ward was born in Canterbury, England, probably some time in the 1580s. He began his musical life as a chorister at Canterbury’s famous cathedral. Most of his working life was spent as a member of the musical establishment within the household of an obviously very wealthy gentleman named Sir Henry Fanshawe.

"A Satyr Once did Run Away". A madrigal from Ward's First Set of English Madrigals 1613

Ward’s musical output can be divided into three categories – sacred music, music for viol consort and secular madrigals. Ward’s music has sometimes been criticised for stylistic conservatism, and he was certainly no musical pioneer. Yet his music has emotional depth and range. A Satyr Once did Run Away is a four-part madrigal setting of words by Philip Sidney. It is light and charming, and stands in contrast to Come Sable Night, a six-part madrigal whose dark intensity reminds us of the music of Ward’s better-known English contemporary John Dowland. Both these madrigals are from Ward’s First Set of English Madrigals from 1613. John Ward died in London in 1638.

"Come Sable Night" from Ward's First Set of English Madrigals 1613

Deserving of Neglect?

I think not. The late 16th, early 17th century is a very rich musical period, yet I think there is room in this crowded field for John Ward. His style is refined and his manner is sometimes cool, yet his best music has real depth.

For our second composer we move on a century or two:

Composer # 2: Reginald Spofforth.

Spofforth was born in Southwell, in Nottinghamshire, England, in 1769. He died in London in 1827. So he is a near-exact contemporary of the slightly better known Ludwig van Beethoven. But whereas Beethoven was a pioneer whose work altered the whole course of music, Spofforth was very much a creature of the 18th century. Beethoven’s musical media were the symphony, the concerto, the sonata and the string quartet. Spofforth’s favourite medium was – the glee.

"Hail Smiling Morn" by Spofforth. All parts sung here by David Solomons - a one-man choir!

Glees are lighthearted, unaccompanied part-songs. They were popular in England around the mid 18th century. Glees were very much the pop music of the day. A successful glee could be a good earner. Instead of the hit parade, prestigious gentlemen’s clubs would offer big prize money to successful glees. Glees were sometimes sentimental, sometimes humorous, sometimes bawdy. Like the modern pop song, glees were quite easy to perform and were popular among all social classes. Glees continued to be produced into the 19th century, during which century interest in this form started to die out.

"L'ape e la serpe" by Spofforth.

Deserving of neglect?

Possibly. Popular, light music is vulnerable to the tides of taste and fashion. How much of the popular music of today will last for a century or so? Probably not much. Still – let’s hope that Spofforth’s “Smiling morn” continues to smile for a little while yet.

Composer # 3: Cipriani Potter.

Full name: Philip Cipriani Hambly Potter. Born London 1792, died London 1871. Potter lived through a period of tremendous musical, artistic and political upheaval. Apart from his composing activities, Potter spent his life as a pianist, and conductor and a teacher. But he certainly rubbed shoulders with the Great and Good. Potter visited Beethoven in 1818 and was described by Beethoven as “a good fellow”. In 1855, Potter enjoyed the honour of having one of his symphonies conducted by Richard Wagner, who was sympathetic to Potter and who prepared and performed his symphony with great care.

Complete performance of Potter's Symphony no 6 in G minor.

Potter’s main work consists of a series of symphonies, nine or ten in number, though some appear to be missing. Potter was a warm admirer of Schumann and Brahms and, to some extent, his music reflects this. Potter’s appreciation of his great German contemporaries seems to have led to his undervaluing his own work and achievements and, presumably, explains why Potter composed little after the 1830s

Deserving of neglect?

Potter’s music is tuneful, engaging and satisfying. Is that enough to merit lasting fame? In Potter’s case, I’m not sure. But I really do think that there is a case for the occasional performance of a Potter symphony. And where better to perform it than during the great British summer music festival known as the Proms?

Our next composer takes us into the 20th century…

Composer # 4: Denis Browne

William Charles Denis Browne was born in Leamington Spa, in Warwickshire, in 3 November 1888. He studied classics and music at Clare College, Cambridge, graduating in 1912. For a year or two he earned a living teaching, performing and writing. His career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War 1. Denis Browne was killed in action in Gallipoli on the 4th of June, 1915, aged 27.

"Diaphenia" by W Denis Browne

He left us little more than a handful of songs. But those songs, with their lyrical power and harmonic inventiveness, project a distinctive musical personality. Had the war not intervened we can only guess at what he might have gone on to achieve.

Deserving of neglect?

In a word, no. But, having left us so very little, it is hardly surprising that he is overlooked.

Composer # 5: Sorabji.

Our last composer is a fascinating and controversial figure, who really deserves a hub to himself. If Denis Browne left us too little, Sorabji arguably left us far too much.

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was an intensely private man. Very little is known about his personal or private life. He was born in Chingford, Essex, on the 14th of August 1892 and he died in Winfrith Newburgh, Dorset, on the 15th of October 1988, at the age of 96.

Corfe Castle village centre. Home to K. S. Sorabji.


Sorabji’s major works are of colossal length and immense difficulty. For example, his Opus Clavicembalisticum is a work for solo piano in twelve sections, to be played without a break. In performance, the work lasts nearly five hours. Sorabji’s Piano Sonata no 5 is estimated to last approximately 6 hours. His Jami symphony lasts an estimated four and a half hours, the third movement of it runs to nearly two hours.

Opening of "Opus Clavicembalisticum" played by John Ogdon.

These enormous durations are filled by music of such complexity and difficulty that they are only performable by musicians of exceptional virtuosity and stamina. Not surprisingly, Sorabji’s music was very rarely performed during his lifetime. Sorabji himself made matters worse by banning performances of his own music – not that people were queuing up to perform it! For further information about this strange and fascinating figure, visit the Sorabji Archive.

Deserving of neglect?

Well – he certainly didn’t court popularity! But I think that enough people are now interested in him to ensure that he never entirely disappears from view. Sorabji attempted to do things with music which had never been done before. Immersion in one of Sorabji’s larger compositions is rather like a spiritual experience. You are completely taken away from the everyday world around you – given a wonderful holiday away from Planet Earth, with all its pleasure and pains, delights and disasters.

Today, I think that music is going through a prolonged “fast food” phase. The function of music in recent times is to give us an intense, short-lived “buzz”, to provide quick gratification without asking anything of us in return. These days, in Britain at any rate, even classical music is often packaged and presented as if it were some sort of therapy – we are invited to “chill” with Chopin or “bliss-out” with Bach. Sorabji’s music is as far removed from this as you can possibly get. Sorabji would be disgusted at the idea of his music giving a quick fix or a cheap thrill. Sorabji’s music is not aimed at feelings or emotions but at consciousness itself. I believe that if mankind lasts for a few more centuries, future generations will look back on the 20th century and will see what we failed to see – the towering figure of Sorabji dwarfing most of the popular, millionaire “artists” of today.

Sorabji: Transcendental Study no 71


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