Charles Edmund Duncan Rubbra (May 23, 1901 – February 14, 1986) was a British composer, who composed both instrumental and vocal works for soloists, chamber groups, and full choruses and orchestras, was greatly esteemed by fellow musicians, and reached the peak of his fame in the mid-20th century. Rubbra was born on May 23, 1901, at Semilong in Northampton, England. He was the brother of the engineer Arthur Rubbra. His parents encouraged him in his music, but they were not professional musicians, though his mother had a good voice and sang in the church choir, and his father played the piano a little, by ear. Rubbra’s artistic and sensitive nature was apparent from early on. He took piano lessons from a local lady with a good reputation. His uncle owned a piano and music shop.
In 1912, Rubbra moved with his family a little more than quarter of a mile away to Kingsthorpe, moving again four years later so that his father could start his own business selling and repairing clocks and watches. Rubbra started composing while he was still at school. One of his masters, Mr. Grant, asked him to compose a school hymn. He would have been very familiar with hymn tunes, as he attended a Congregational church and played the piano for the Sunday School. He also worked as an errand boy whilst he was still at school, giving some of his earnings to his parents to help with their finances. At the age of 14, he left school and started work in the office of Crockett and Jones, one of Northampton’s many boot and shoe manufacturers. Later, he took a job as a correspondence clerk in a railway station. In his last year at school he had learned shorthand, which was an ideal qualification for this post. He also continued to study harmony, counterpoint, piano and organ, working at these things daily, before and after his clerk’s job.
Rubbra’s early forays into chamber music composition included a violin and piano sonata for himself and his friend, Bertram Ablethorpe, and a piece for an excellent local string quartet. He used to meet with the keen, young composer, William Alwyn, who was also from Northampton, to compare notes. Rubbra was deeply affected by a sermon he heard given by a Chinese Christian missionary, Kuanglin Pao. He was inspired to write Chinese Impressions – a set of piano pieces, which he dedicated to the preacher. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in things eastern. At the age of 17, Rubbra decided to organize a concert devoted entirely to Cyril Scott’s music, with a singer, violinist, cellist, and himself on the piano, at the Carnegie Hall, in Northampton Library. This proved to be a very important decision, which would change his life. The minister from Rubbra’s church attended the concert, and secretly sent a copy of the program to Cyril Scott.
The result of this was that Scott took Rubbra on as a pupil. Rubbra was able to obtain cheap rail travel because of his job with the railway, so he was able to get to Scott’s house by train, paying only a quarter of the usual fare. After a year or so, Rubbra gained a scholarship to University College, Reading. Gustav Holst became one of his teachers there. Both Scott and Holst had an interest in eastern philosophy and religion, inspiring Rubbra to have further interest in the subject. Holst also taught at the Royal College of Music and advised Rubbra to apply for an open scholarship there. His advice was followed and the place was secured. Before Rubbra’s last term at the Royal College, he was unexpectedly invited to play the piano for the Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre on a six-week tour of Yorkshire, since their usual pianist had been taken ill. He accepted this offer despite its meaning he missed his last term. This provided him with invaluable experience in playing and composing theatre music which he never regretted and which stood him in good stead for his later dramatic work. Rubbra’s songs are not well known, but they spanned his whole composing lifetime: Rosa Mundi, Op. 2, was the first published, in 1921. In the mid-1920s Rubbra used to earn money playing for dancers from the Diaghilev Ballet. At around this time he became firm friends with Gerald Finzi. The vast majority (42 of 59 works) of Rubbra’s choral works have religious or philosophical texts, in keeping with his interest in these subjects. His first choral work was his Op. 3, written in 1924. Although Rubbra was a fine pianist, his works for solo piano occupy only a minor part of his output. He did, however, write a great diversity of chamber music, throughout his career. He considered that his Violin Sonata, Op. 31, which he wrote in 1932, was the first of his compositions to be taken seriously in the musical world. His First String Quartet was composed only a year later.
In 1933 Rubbra married Antoinette Chaplin, a French violinist. They toured Italy together, as well as giving recitals in Paris and radio broadcasts. They had two sons, Francis and Benedict. In 1933, he wrote a one-act opera, still in manuscript, which he originally called Bee-bee-bei, but renamed The Shadow. It reflects his interest in the East, as it is set in Kashmir. It was not until 1937 that Rubbra’s first symphony was completed. Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 4 followed in quick succession, the fourth being completed in March 1942. Rubbra is also well known for his 1938 orchestration of Johannes Brahms’s piano work Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. In 1941, Rubbra was called up for army service. After 18 months he was given an office post, again because of his knowledge of shorthand and typing. While he was there, he ran a small orchestra assisted by a double-bass player from the BBC orchestra. The War Office asked him to form a piano trio to play classical chamber music to the troops. Rubbra was happy to oblige, and the trio, with William Pleeth the cellist, Joshua Glazier violinist, and himself on the piano, took six months acquiring a repertoire of chamber music. “The Army Classical Music Group” was formed and later expanded to seven people. They travelled all over England and Scotland and then to Germany, with their own grand piano. After the war, Rubbra became a Roman Catholic, writing a special mass in celebration, the Missa Sancti Dominici, Op. 66. The Cello Sonata of 1946 was dedicated to William Pleeth (the cellist in The Army Classical Music Group) and his wife.
For a long time Rubbra was not satisfied with his first string quartet, although Ralph Vaughan Williams was very interested in it. Finally he thoroughly revised it, and published it in 1946, with an inscription to Vaughan Williams, and destroyed the original finale. Three other string quartets followed at long intervals. His Fifth Symphony was started in August 1947. Also at this time, the University of Oxford was forming a faculty of music. They invited Rubbra to be a lecturer there. After much thought, he accepted the post. From 1947 to 1968 Rubbra was a lecturer at the Music Faculty and a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford. The army trio kept meeting, playing at clubs and broadcasting, for a number of years, but eventually Rubbra was too busy to continue with it. It is a measure of the high esteem in which Rubbra was held in the 1940s, that his Sinfonia Concertante and his song Morning Watch were played alongside such works as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Kodály’s Missa Brevis and Vaughan Williams’s Job, at the 1948 Three Choirs Festival. When Vaughan Williams heard that the University of Durham was going to confer an Honorary D.Mus. on Rubbra in 1949, he wrote him a very short letter.
In 1952, Rubbra received a request from the BBC to write a piece for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The result was Ode to the Queen, for voice and orchestra, to Elizabethan words. In connection with the same celebration, he was invited by Benjamin Britten to contribute to a collaborative work, a set of Variations on an Elizabethan Theme. He initially accepted, but later withdrew; Britten then asked Arthur Oldham and Humphrey Searle to take his place. The sixth and seventh symphonies followed in 1954 and 1957. All three of his works for brass instruments were commissioned. One of them, Variations on “The Shining River,” was a test piece for the Brass Band Championships of Great Britain, 1958, held in the Royal Albert Hall. He also orchestrated Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, though when this was recorded by Frederick Fennell and the London Pops Orchestra in 1959 for Mercury, he was not given due credit on the LP sleeve or label.
On Rubbra’s retirement from Oxford in 1968, he did not stop working; he merely took up more teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his students included Michael Garrett and Christopher Gunning. Neither did he stop composing. Rubbra’s last four symphonies show a change of approach. These symphonies were composed between 1968 and 1979. Rubbra’s Second Piano Trio, Op. 138, was first performed by the members of The Army Classical Music Group, who got together again especially for this performance in 1970, though Glazier had now been replaced by Gruenberg. Fly Envious Time, Op. 148, was his last song, in 1974, being inscribed “in Memoriam Gerald Finzi.” The last string quartet was written in 1977 in memory of Bennett Tarshish, a young American admirer of Rubbra’s work, who died in his thirties. His last choral work was Op. 164, written in 1984, only two years before his death. He also wrote for children’s voices and madrigals, as well as producing masses and motets, including the Nine Tenebrae Motets, Op. 72, setting the Responsories for Maundy Thursday in an intensely dramatic manner. Indeed, he kept up this activity right until the end of his life. He had, in fact, started a 12th Symphony in March 1985, less than a year before his death in Gerrards Cross on February 14, 1986. Rubbra’s last work was his Sinfonietta for large string orchestra, Op. 163, which was commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra of New York, for performance in 1986, as part of the tricentennial celebrations of the founding of New York. This work was dedicated to Rubbra’s sons, Adrian and Julian, and received excellent press reviews.
Rubbra did not base his composition on formal rules, preferring to work from an initial idea and discover the music as he composed. His style is more concerned with the melodic lines in his music than with the chords, and this gives his music a vocal feel. He found his method of composition, working from a single melodic idea and letting the music grow from that, to be very exciting. The most famous of his pieces are his eleven symphonies. Although he was active at a time when many people wrote twelve-tone music, he decided not to write in this idiom himself. Instead he devised his own distinctive style. His later works were not as popular with the concert-going public as his previous ones had been, although he never lost the respect of his colleagues. Therefore, his output as a whole is less celebrated today than would have been expected from its sheer merit and from his early popularity.
My collection includes the following works by Edmund Rubbra:
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 103 (1959).
Improvisation for Violin and Orchestra, op. 89 (1956).
Improvisations on Virginal Pieces of Giles Farnaby, op. 50 (1939).