Unsung heroes: 5 British Musicians Who Have Been Overlooked

Peter Collyer, Programme Manager for Classical Instrumental and Academic Studies has complied a list of the top five British Musicians who have been overlooked in musical history and why we should look again at their greatness.

Michael Tippett (1905-1998)

Michael Tippett is probably the most neglected British composer of the twentieth century, certainly as far as current concert programming is concerned. A quick glance down the alphabetical list of composers to be featured at this year’s BBC Proms reveals a significant British presence –  Alwyn, Arne and Arnold, Britten, Bax Butterworth etc, but skip down to T and you won’t find Tippett. Tippett’s music is certainly a great deal more challenging than many of his British counterparts, but surely no more so than the most complex works by, for example, Peter Maxwell Davies or Oliver Knussen. Michael Tippett seems, quite simply, to have fallen out of fashion. He was a key figure in our history here at Morley having being appointed Director of Music in 1940 and taking on the unenviable task of maintaining the musical life of the college after it was nearly flattened by a bomb. Tippett remained at Morley until 1951, his tenure interrupted for two months in 1943 when he was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for refusing to undertake ‘non-combatant duties’ as a conscientious objector.  His Morley concerts combined old with new, introducing wartime audiences to the early music of Monteverdi, Dowland and Purcell as well as more recent compositions by Hindemith, Stravinsky and Bartók, and this is a tradition we have maintained to the present day. A good starting point from which to explore Tippett’s music is his Concerto for Double String Orchestra, first performed here at Morley College.


Jeffrey Skidmore

The highlight of my final year as a freelance viola player was my participation in the recording of A French Baroque Diva: Arias for Marie Fel with the Birmingham-based group Ex Cathedra and their conductor Jeffrey Skidmore. Skidmore has always been too focused on his music making to indulge in the sort of self-promotion that is so prevalent in the early music scene and as a result he doesn’t enjoy such a high media profile as some of his contemporaries. However, he’s a ‘musician’s musician’, commanding great respect from those who play and sing under his direction. His work isn’t limited to his brilliant historical performance projects; Ex Cathedra also has one of the most innovative outreach and community music programs in Britain.


William Shield (1748-1849)

Britain’s forgotten composer of the late Classical period, Shield was born in Gateshead in 1748 and came to London in 1772 to play the violin in the Covent Garden Orchestra. His work as a composer got him noticed in royal circles and he was appointed ‘Master of the King’s Musick’ in 1817. It has been suggested that his operas were the forerunners of the modern musicals, and he certainly produced some lovely melodies and beautifully crafted scores, as shown here in a concert performance of one of his songs by Joan Sutherland (a musician who, incidentally, was not British and who was impossible to overlook!).


Fanny Davies (1861-1934)

The standard music history narratives are centred on composers and their works, and this is inevitable considering that compositions are the most obvious legacy of any period in music history.  As a performance-practice scholar I have become more interested in the legacy left by past performers, and in this respect Fanny Davies is a key figure in British music history. Davies was recognised as one of the greatest pianists of her age, but she remains important to us now as a direct link back to the romantic performance tradition of 19th century Germany and, most importantly, Clara Schumann, another woman musician who significance is hugely underrated today. Davies studied with Clara Schumann, and the easy marriage between a formidable technique and deep expressive conviction for which Clara Schumann was renowned can be heard clearly in Davies’s playing of Robert Schumann’s piano concerto, despite the limits of early recording technology.


Harry Legge (1914-2000)

The first time I came through the doors of Morley College it was as a member of Harry Legge’s Rehearsal Orchestra in the early 1980s. Legge was a viola player in Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as well as an accomplished conductor, and he identified the need for an orchestra that gave young musicians the experience of working through the symphonic repertoire under professional conditions. He founded the Rehearsal Orchestra in 1957 as a residential course at the Edinburgh Festival and by the time I joined it in 1982 there were also regular weekend courses in London, hence the visit to Morley. Harry was renowned for his patience and humour as he guided many of us through the most difficult repertoire and equipped us with the skills to survive ‘the business’. His efforts received  recognition during his life with the award of an OBE in 1982, but he trained so many of the orchestral musicians currently working in Britain that there can be no doubting his qualification as an unsung hero as far as the present day is concerned.


Peter Collyer, Programme Manager for Classical Instrumental and Academic Studies has complied a list of the top five British Musicians who have been overlooked in musical history and why we should look again at their greatness.

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