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This article is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.

The Sound of England David Martin

TO SOME people England appears the most secular and pragmatic of countries, equally immune to religious dogma and secular ideology. To others it is wrapped in the numinous gleams and obfuscating fogs of the national myth. After a year of jubilation, nicely counterposed to economic and political gloom, it is useful to look at the myth of England and trace some of the threads of English self-understanding. (I say English because any examination of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish myths would introduce intolerable complications.)

One way into the labyrinth is through the odd connection between the religion of England and music. At first sight the connection is not very promising, since England was without a strong native musical tradition from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. But at second sight several important issues make their appearance. Why has English music so marked a national accent? How far has English music fed and reflected the sense of English identity?

These questions immediately lead on to others. In what way is there a special partnership in England between poetry and music just as there is a special partnership between painting and story telling? Is the predominance of singing and balladry and oratorio over opera and "absolute" music somehow related to the democratic sensibility of Englishmen and their rejection both of Baroque monarchy and political revolution? And, finally, is there a unique union of feeling for music, for nature and for religion which allows Englishmen to ...


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