"Enormous life-giving hope and faith..." "An unmistakable voice:"
Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998)
Composer, writer, pianist, editor, teacher, broadcaster, husband, father.
This is a biography written from the perspective of a fellow composer, musicologist and general music-maker. It is likely the only long-form article about its subject apart from Bush’s own very informative and entertaining writings. I have acknowledged the sources of (and hyperlinks to) my copious quotations, but have also used knowledge from family connection, and most of the musicology is my own. For a concise but witty and characterful portrait of the man and his music, read the obituary by Lewis Foreman.
(First encounters with this composer?
is my friendly audio intro with commentary!)
"Ah! I love writing for the human voice, and that’s because I was a choirboy. I spent five years between the ages of eight and thirteen singing all day." (Interview)
Geoffrey Bush maintained a warm and appreciative memory of his choristership at Salisbury Cathedral - an immersion in all sides of music and musicmaking. In later years he dedicated more than one composition to the cathedral, including Missa Brevis Salisburiensis (unrecorded as yet). After Salisbury, he was awarded scholarships to Lancing College and then to Balliol College, Oxford, for his 1940 BA and 1946 doctorate in Classics and Music.
Thriving in college musical life, he joined the Bach choir and accompanied the Balliol Players’ theatre productions, as well as attending regular recitals where he occasionally played his own works (source). Thanks to this environment and an inate spirit of optimism, he fast became an excellent musical collaborator, and an ambitious and stylistically unrestrained composer with a love for interesting combinations of genres and groups. The rhapsodic and emotionally powerful violin sonata dates from this time (first recorded 2017).
When war and conscription interrupted Oxford studies, Bush as a conscientious objector chose to serve by looking after disturbed children at the Hostel of the Good Shepard, Tredegar. (He remained a committed pacifist, supporting the CND and the Anglican Pacifist Council.) Several manuscripts sent later to someone at the institution seem to indicate he had quickly become deeply involved with life there, including musically. Indeed, while in Tredegar, Bush wrote a puppet opera: The Spanish Rivals, produced at Brighton in 1948 and for the Festival of Britain in 1951.
“While still a schoolboy he had the good fortune to become an unofficial pupil of John Ireland" (John Quinn). This began a lifelong friendship till Ireland’s death in 1962, “culminating in Bush having roles in the John Ireland Trust, promoting his music” (source). The musical result of their relationship can be seen not only in Bush’s music but also in his important orchestrations of his friend and mentor (e.g. A Dowland Suite), the orchestration of Ireland’s third piano concerto which was released just after Bush’s death, and “splendidly idiomatic performing editions of various fragments” (Foreman).
Leaving Balliol, Bush “succeeded John Ireland as Church Organist at St Luke’s, Chelsea” (source), and “joined the staff of the Extra-Mural department at Oxford University in 1947, moving to London University in 1952 where he taught at their Extra-Mural department for over 40 years: Staff Tutor in music; Senior Staff Tutor 1964-80; Music Consultant 1984-87. As a composition tutor, Bush was just as much loved for his open, encouraging, stylistically unrestrictive approach as for his welcoming, friendly, optimistic and quirky character. (“Several students remember his generosity with Mars bars as an accompaniment for their studies of modern music” (Foreman). “He was a wonderfully sympathetic person, remarkable for his equable temperament and urbane intelligence. His lectures gripped his students, and no one ever felt Bush was talking down to them. He was selflessly devoted to the PRS Members Fund, which he chaired for 11 years.” For 20 years of this time, he was also Visiting Professor at King’s College, and as “a firm champion of adult education, he was also the moving spirit behind the London University External Diploma in the History of Music” (ibid).
Broadcaster and writer
In addition to his academic capacities as teacher and researcher (below), Geoffrey Bush “was a popular broadcaster on BBC music programmes, and the author of several books” (MusicSalesClassical/PrestoMusic),
including Musical Creation and the Listener (a rigorous but friendly examination of this subject), Left, Right and Centre: essays on composers and composing and An Unsentimental Education and other musical recollections.
In these writings, comments Lewis Foreman, “his voice is unmistakable, particularly his precise mode of expression, throwaway humorous remarks, and occasionally waspish asides.” “An ardent champion of English music, he wrote widely on the subject, also contributing regularly to BBC Radio 3 programmes, including Music Magazine and Music Weekly.” (British Music Collection/MusicSalesClassical)
Academic musicologist; musical diplomat
His academic work brought several historical English composers back into wider appreciation, carefully preparing for publication the works of Arne, Sterndale Bennett and others. He edited numerous volumes of the Musica Britannica series (four of them devoted to 19th-Century Song) and John France notes “there are definitive editions of songs by Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, and John Ireland [also much Elgar] to his credit.” It is thanks to this work that those composers now have a higher reputation than they did in the first half of the 20th century.
Bush’s own music is profoundly influenced by some of these earlier styles, more deeply than can easily be described; yet his music is always instantly recognisable – as Geoffrey Bush. Numerous pieces directly pay homage to certain historical English composers, especially Matthew Locke (c.1621-1677): Hommage to Matthew Locke for 3 trumpets and 3 trombones, Air and Round-O (Hommage to Matthew Locke) for 3 wind instruments, and Psyche, a suite of Locke arrangements for strings; also lesser figures whom Bush was eager to redeem from the low opinion of the earlier 20th century through his editing, writing and speaking (e.g. A Little Concerto on themes of Arne for piano and strings).
Yet while he championed British music, the spirits of Poulenc and even Ravel are alive in much of his music, along with Hindemith, Prokofiev, Stravinsky etc. “His lectures on 20th-century music, which inspired many generations of first-year BMus students at King's College London, showed a wide first-hand knowledge, and no special pleading as far as British composers were concerned” (Foreman).
“Elected Chairman for the year of the Composers Guild of Great Britain, in 1964 Geoffrey Bush visited the USSR as delegate of the Guild” (ibid). He wrote about this odd experience in Left, Right and Centre. He also served on the Arts Council and for the Performing Rights Society, including when sometimes called upon to arbitrate on breaches of copyright.
“Geoffrey Bush's agreeable personality was manifested in his music, which (…) was often leavened with good humour and a gentle spirit” (James Reel). His musical style is characterised by a very poised, almost Classical, sense of balance. There is enormous life-giving hope and faith in it. Quite a lot of the repertoire is tonal, often neo-Classical, with a gift for fantastic tunes, poignant restraint and spinetinglingly bittersweet harmonic progressions. However, the tonal side of Bush’s music is generally referred to without acknowledging the side that is much less so, darker, explorative, even quite scary, which is also of central importance. These pieces are less likely to appear, for example, in a list of 'key works' like this one for newcomers to Bush.
A striking example is the Sonatina Nr.2 for piano: entirely atonal and freely composed out of 8-note rows and interval-play, which I have performed in small recital context and would love to do so again along with the exquisite, quasi-tonal Sonatina Nr.1. They were originally written for the composer's own radio-broadcast performances. Yet even in these, a feeling for balance, restraint and catharsis is paramount, coming from Bush’s nurturing in the days of Walton, Hindemith and Stravinsky when composers were disciplined to watch out for extraneous ‘sentimentality.’
Another example of this dark, non-tonal but carefully balanced style is the pacifist chamber-opera The Equation (X=0), composed of continuous, contrapuntal semi-recitative. It is a very powerful anti-war parable adapted from John Drinkwater's 1917 play. My string adaptation of music from this opera is designed to promote the original.
Nevertheless, Bush strongly believed it wrong to see stylistically familiar music as 'lesser,' on condition that it does the things music ought to: open the heart and mind, cheer the spirit, give you ideas, and glorify God. He talked about that in a quirky and wide-ranging interview (1991) which you can read here.
Some instrumental works
Several expertly-crafted, emotionally brilliant and impressive works were written at an early age. They include Bush’s most often played orchestral piece, Overture: Yorick, and, also popular, Natus est Immanuel for strings and the Rhapsody for Clarinet and Strings. Astonishingly, Yorick even made it into an excitedly ceremonious pathé news clip in 1949, as I discovered when researching. Others include the exquisite neoclassical oboe concerto and several excellent works that remain unrecorded and virtually unperformed (a number of orchestral overtures and pieces for large and small ensembles, incidental music to The Merchant of Venice; A Little Concerto on Themes of Arne both for piano and strings, which may finally be premiered this year, and Three Little Pieces for strings and others, not counting the unrecorded operatic works).
“His large portfolio of compositions eventually included no less than six operas and also two symphonies” (Quinn), diverse chamber and choral music, and a concise repertoire of finely-honed piano music which he wrote for himself to perform – often in radio-broadcast concerts and talks.
The emotional and intellectual core of Geoffrey Bush’s work, though, is his prolific, profound and uniquely genius oeuvre of songs. Cycles like Farewell Earth’s Bliss, The End of Love, Yesterday and Five Medieval Lyrics represent not just part of the great English art-song tradition but even an unacknowledged pinnacle of it, and quite beyond the scope of what many other English composers’ songs actually do. This is partly because of a combination of a personal genius for song and a love for writing and playing it, whereby Bush would always return to the comfort and joy of writing songs when feeling somewhat dejected or uncertain how to proceed with a grander project. But it’s also partly the result of a lifelong close collaboration with singers, starting as a chorister and continuing as a performance collaborator with many much-celebrated singers. An example is the CD entitled ‘A Little Love Music,’ where Bush plays with Ian Partridge, Teresa Cahill and Benjamin Luxon. We sometimes expect a composer’s own piano performance to be a bit touch-and-go, or of lesser skill than their composing, but on the contrary: even though various good pianists have recorded excellent CDs of Bush’s songs, the composer’s own playing turns out to be the most electrically brilliant, acutely precise, colourful and perfectly timed, with a welcoming of much more emotional darkness and scariness than the other interpreters allow.
As chamber musician at the piano, Bush’s ability for emotional connection with collaborators and for impeccable timing is also demonstrated in the recordings for wind and piano; and he can be heard playing the orchestral organ part in the popular cantata A Summer Serenade. In principle he only performed his own music, on the grounds of not being qualified to interpret other people’s, but in his periodic song recitals he always enjoyed programming a range of well- and little-known music, rather than just his own.
James Reel writes: “Opera for Bush was essentially an expansion of song.” This is true inasmuch as they were equally important genres for this composer, to be returned to throughout his life. However, I believe the central creative mode in these works is not song but drama: the powerful sense for tragedy, relief, catharsis, introspection, melancholy and childlike joy, and the impeccable comic timing. Bush’s works in general often cause intakes of breath, spontaneous laughs and other reactions from audiences, as can be heard in live recordings. The music dramas and operas range from the 1940s’ semi-opera Twelfth-Night: An Entertainment, (and the unpublished puppet opera The Spanish Rivals as above, whose overture survives), through The Blind Beggar's Daughter ('A ballad opera for young people of all ages,' 1952/64, text by Sheila Bathurst), If The Cap Fits (1956, on Molière), the contrastingly dark and non-tonal The Equation (1967-8, adapting John Drinkwater’s 1917 play), to the masterful and ever-surprising operetta Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1972, on Wilde), and finally two works dated 1988: Love's Labours Lost and The Cat Who Went To Heaven (on a novel by Elizabeth Coatsworth). The latter, uniquely, is for chorus, actors, dancers/mime group, 7 wind instruments, 1 percussionist, piano and cello. Other stage-related works include incidental music to The Merchant Of Venice, for soprano, tenor and mixed voices with winds, percussion and cello (1964).
Just one of these stage works has been recorded: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, a top-quality interpretation by significant performers, which was given an excellently detailed review by John France. “The libretto, the music and the performance line up to present a hugely satisfactory and ultimately entertaining stage work. (…) I would love to see a full performance.” It seems Bush was drawn to Oscar Wilde when playing Gwendolen Fairfax at Lancing College. Drawing on the styles of Wilde’s own times, refracted through the composer’s own lens, Bush “has avoided the use of a simplistic musical language that may have been acceptable in some ‘comic operettas’ of the past. I think that he has created a perfect fusion of his own style that ‘compliments the great subtlety of elegant wit and irony of the libretto.’”
All the operatic works are carefully conceived for efficient, economical performability, not by sacrificing quality or effect but by their duration, instrumentation, scene changes etc. Most or all are single-act works with few or slight requirements for making any physical scene-changes. They use chamber orchestra or smaller ensembles, no choir, and no gratuitous obbligato small roles. Their economy of means increases the power of the drama, as I would testify from The Equation.
The Equation belies the idea of Bush’s music as conventional, tonal, or all light-hearted. Through-composed in lyrical, contrapuntal quasi-recitative, it is set both in the Roman camp outside besieged first-century Jerusalem, and also atop the city wall: pairs of soldiers on each side go through parallel introspections and political-personal dilemmas, and lose their friends by committing parallel assassinations. We feel their righteous zeal, at the same time as sorrow for its tragic result. The opera speaks to the artist, the home-lover, the idealist and the political zealot, as these characters dream of the wonderful poetry and music they will write after victory in war. The Jewish sentries yearn furiously for the day of the Lord bringing peace on Earth, while the Romans dream of an ideal, benevolent state and a perfect law, but are periodically perplexed by the spine-tingling refrains and laments from an offstage soprano chorus of Jewish captives (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” from Psalm 137). The economy of means concentrates the sense of directionality and formal tragedy. The “stark, tragic conclusion” questions the use of war, from the Greek context of Drinkwater’s original all the way to the Vietnam War of the opera’s own time. The Equation was produced in a church, in the religiously mixed Golders Green borough of London, as a very powerful act which people seem to have remembered vividly. If one Bush opera could be re-produced soon, this should probably be it.
Last years and death
A Wigmore Hall 70th birthday concert for Bush “was a typical spectrum of his enthusiasms (…), styled ‘A Celebration of English Song 1850-1990,’ including his own. The hall was packed and Bush went on stage dressed characteristically in a bright red pullover and sporting an equally bright yellow bow tie. No one present could believe the anniversary this youthful and energetic figure was celebrating” (Foreman).
Geoffrey Bush died in February 1998, with a manuscript in progress on his lap.
Legacy, ideas, beliefs
“Among his honours and awards were being made an honorary fellow of the University College of Wales in 1986 and the Royal Philharmonic Society's prize for his overture Yorick, one of his most often-performed pieces.” (James Reel)
A passage that follows below, about legacy and neglect, quotes a very typical mention of the tuneful tonality of Bush’s music. In truth, this characterises only part of Bush’s oeuvre. I very much hope my substantial curated series of audio selections shows that. Geoffrey Bush is equally compelling, if not more so, in his less tonal music, whose fantastical feeling of darkness and swashbuckling adventure is totally unique and never forgotten once felt. Rather, he held both a natural receptivity and a logically-argued welcoming attitude to all sorts of music without the low/high distinction. In the same way he passionately used his prose, talks and composition to exonerate nineteenth-century British music from scornful twentieth-century ideas of ‘sentimentality’ and ‘domesticity’ (see Consort Music: Six Victorian Sketches for strings, and essays), he argued gently but sincerely that the division of musical styles into more and less worthy of art was one that limited and betrayed music itself.
“Unfortunately, Bush’s music, which is [often] tonal, tuneful and accessible, fell out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, a fate he shared with many other fine British composers" (Quinn), and he has been “largely the preserve of [some] enthusiasts of 20th century British music. He is never heard on Classic FM and rarely features on Radio 3” (France).
However, through the decades, recordings of the most superb quality have continued to be made by artists who know this music. For a neglected composer, it’s wonderful that the posthumous commercial recordings are so consistently excellent, satisfying and profound. In the decade leading up to this centenary year, several have been made, which are linked to the Bush Centenary page of this website. They include world-premiere recordings of the violin sonata and pieces for strings and orchestra, and at least two albums of the songs that were so deeply important to this composer and central to his work. Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson wrote that Bush's very important oeuvre of songs is gradually entering the repertoire, in their programme note for a performance of the late Songs of the Zodiac for 2020’s Oxford Lieder Festival.
John France, reivewing a CD, writes “Geoffrey Bush is a composer who demands reassessment,” and one can read online comments describing the 'disgrace' of completely neglecting ‘a composer of such stature.’ Many other critics, suspecting the same, seem to have been restricted by only having heard a few of Bush’s works. The lack of any celebration at all of the 100th anniversary does rather show that Bush is quite simply not on the radar; and the fact that the BBC’s ‘Composer of the Week,’ in all its decades, has never featured him, is pretty astonishing. It is very difficult to pin down, and can no doubt be debated, whether that points to a culture of ‘in’ and ‘out’ people at the BBC. Yet at the same time, all through the years, Bush has remained a firm fixture among amateur choral societies – in the UK, North America and elsewhere. Hardly a year has passed without some registered performance of the beloved Christmas Cantata, sometimes more than one in different places, and often A Summer Serenade as well as certain songs and piano pieces which have an abundance of amateur representation on Youtube.
Reclaiming the repertoire
I am convinced that the wider oeuvre of this unique and extraordinary composer is set to enter wider recognition, and the starting points for that are the following necessities:
A) Representation of the composer in the literature – more-than-perfunctory entries in reference works; inclusion in the standard account of British 20th-Century music, and then musicological representation.
B) Complete publication. (While numerous pieces are unpublished, almost all the ensemble and orchestral music is only available for hire, at significant weekly/monthly costs plus performance fees, etc. which prohibit ordinary performers and discourage budget-bound orchestras and choirs.)
C) Recording the many unrecorded works. These include five of the six brilliant operatic works or music dramas (which were carefully conceived with efficient performability and practicality in mind), as well as pieces from across the rest of the genres.
D) Through artists’ choice and through the above points, entry into mainstream repertoire.
In the literature
“There is no formal biography of Geoffrey Bush. However, the composer’s two semi-autobiographical volumes, Left, Right and Centre: Reflections on Composers and Composing (London, 1983) and An Unsentimental Education and Other Musical Recollections (London, 1990), were both published by Thames. Apart from that, the interested listener must rely on the usual encyclopaedia and dictionary entries as well as CD liner notes, obituaries, and record reviews, several of which are available online. There is an entry in the National Biography prepared by John Warrack.”
Extras – amusing quotes from Lewis Foreman
"He was an active tennis player, but an armchair cricketer. In a typical remark on the failure of Sterndale Bennett's piano sonata The Maid of Orleans he wrote: "Since Bennett was a cricket enthusiast, it may not be inappropriate to recall that even Bradman was dismissed for nought on his last Test appearance. Bennett's last innings was also a failure."
"He once, in all seriousness, told me he was overpaid as a teacher but underpaid as a composer."
"His activities extended outside London, to the Extramural Centre's Summer School at Westonbirt, for many years. The critic Robert Layton remembers playing through Schumann's Piano Concerto with Bush on a second piano as early as 1948. Later the end-of-course pantomime assumed legendary status, with Bush year after year being the prime mover, writing cabaret songs in great haste and playing them all. On these occasions another of his passions would become evident - Broadway musicals."
Bush was "a stern critic of his own earlier music:" at Lancing College, Jasper Rooper demanded self-criticism, and Bush destroyed everything he had written to that date. "'Looking back', remarked the composer, 'I rather regret my lost innocence.'"
A Curious Addendum
Geoffrey Bush was excited to discover that his father Christopher Bush had been the pseudonymous detective-fiction writer Michael Home. Geoffrey maintained a lifelong interest in crime fiction, and even collaborated on a couple of works.
One of these was a story with fellow composer Bruce Montgomery, who wrote fiction under the name Edmund Crispin. (And one of Bush’s essays on the arts is entitled Who Killed Bruce Montgomery?)
The other crime collaboration was with my grandfather: the dramatist, novelist, TV drama director and producer John Elliot. He co-wrote a detective thriller with the eager Geoffrey Bush, but I never expected there was any trace of it. In researching this, I found the BBC record of it and the Radio Times listing! It was called ‘Never Die’ and was aired on BBC Television, Boxing Day 1959.
And it’s very strange to see what odd sports were broadcast on national Christmastime TV in 1959…