After Henry Purcell's death in 1695, the English music scene pretty much disappeared from the map until the premiere of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations in 1899.
While it is true that, during these years, European masters like Handel and Haydn overtook England, the artistic death of the nation's own music is as startling — and surprising — as the creative renaissance that began with Elgar's masterpiece and continued into the 20th century.
That renaissance, unfortunately, blossomed in relative obscurity: aside from a handful of works by the likes of Elgar, William Walton, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, much of this music remains unknown to audiences.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is partially rectifying that situation with this season's Winter Festival, "An English Musical Renaissance, 1900-1930" (February 11-25), which presents works by a dozen composers in four concert programs, with a bit of Purcell himself as inspiration.
The decision to limit this festival to the last century's first three decades is explained by cellist David Finckel, the Chamber Music Society's co-artistic director along with his wife, pianist Wu Han.
"It's what we call the 'inch wide, mile deep' approach to artistic experience," Finckel explains. "If you cast too wide a net, you can't go deep enough, and it's part of our job to make the vast literature of chamber music comprehensible. If we're going to do something people are unfamiliar with, we'll do a lot of it — that's how we get excited as well."
Finckel also admits to another reason why 1930 is this festival's cutoff date. "I'm a huge Benjamin Britten fan," he says. "I even learned his solo cello suites before his string quartets. So I thought we should end this festival before Britten really kicked in and, beginning in the mid-1930s, took it all to another level. Maybe someday we'll do a big Britten festival."
The idea for "An English Musical Renaissance" comes from Finckel and Wu Han's belief that the Chamber Music Society should serve both the art of chamber music and the audience. Finckel says, "To make sure our audience has access to the masterpieces of the literature and the often-heard favorites, we should play great works by lesser-known composers and less familiar works by famous composers.
"In our research of neglected or underperformed chamber music, this era in English music was definitely high on the list," he continues. "Our wonderful staff made three dozen CDs of English chamber music, which we carted around the world and listened to. Through repeated listenings, we settled on this festival's programs, choosing works that we felt wear well and really deserve to become part of the literature."
Bookending the festival are works by two of England's most important composers. The first concert on February 11 begins with Henry Purcell's Fantasia Upon One Note, followed by Vaughan Williams's exquisitely crafted Phantasy Quintet.
"The Purcell fantasia is there for a very specific reason," Finckel says. "The Vaughan Williams quintet that follows Purcell begins with a solo viola playing another one-note fantasia, with an early-music sound. You can line up many of these works in different ways and find the most amazing transitions, even in those separated by centuries."
Ending the festival on February 25 are two towering works written after the First World War: Walton's C minor Piano Quartet and Elgar's A minor Piano Quintet. "I performed the Walton Quartet last summer in Aspen because I wanted so badly to play it," admits Finckel. "It turned out to be a tremendous crowd pleaser, with a last movement that's like early English rock-and-roll: it's driving and incredibly appealing to play and hear.
"And the Elgar Quintet is appealing in a way that only Elgar can do: it contains the most noble sentiments, all of them deeply felt."
Other ear-opening works in the festival include those by Frederick Delius and Benjamin Dale. "Delius's otherworldly violin sonata [which will be performed on February 23] was written after he went blind," Finckel notes, "and it's a transcendent work by one of the quirkiest musical personalities around. Dale was not the most prominent English composer, but his Romance [also on February 23] is unbelievably soulful. It was brought to our attention by violist Paul Neubauer — who will be playing it — and it's a spectacularly beautiful piece of writing."
As Neubauer's recommendation shows, there was much support from musicians wanting to take part in this festival. "It's great that when we take on a project like this, of the musicians we approached, everybody was willing and eager to play new repertoire," Finckel declares. "I'm very excited to hear some of these performances."
It's also gratifying to Finckel that many of these works will be played by the Chamber Music Society for the first time. "What an incredible opportunity this will be for us to play this wonderful music and to discover new things that we want to hear and to perform for our audience," he says. And this music will not be tucked away on some shelf after the festival: one of the society's touring programs for the 2007-08 season is scheduled to be an English program, and there are also preliminary plans for several artists of the society to record several of these works.
"Hearing certain music once is better than nothing, but these composers are part of our history," Finckel says. "And who knows? People like to hear new things — maybe they'll go out and look for more music by Eugene Goossens after hearing him here [on February 13]."
The audience at the Chamber Music Society's Opening Night concert in September got a sneak preview of the festival's offerings: a pair of John Ireland works for violin and piano (Cavatina and Bagatelle), and Sir Arthur Bliss's delectably eccentric Madame Noy for soprano and chamber ensemble.
"Why we put those pieces on the Opening Night program was to show both sides of what this festival will be," Finckel explains. "There's both a warm, fuzzy, and sentimental side and an edgy, experimental, avant-garde side — and it's great to have them all wrapped up in one festival."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.