Northern Innovation and the British Music Collection

Sound and Music

Searching for a Musical Modernist North in England
Curated by Alexander Kolassa on behalf of Sound and Music, using the contents of the British Music Collection

This exhibition is an exploration of contemporary and experimental music in the English industrial North. The North is unique in its cultural heritage, but how—I thought—might this culture have interacted with contemporary music? The region is not often associated with contemporary music, which itself is often assumed to lack regional associations.

In part, I am interested in reappraising what significance our country’s industrial north might have had for the direction modern British music has taken over the past 60 years. In the process, I might also hope to highlight some role models for young would-be musical innovators born and bred in that mythical, and somewhat capricious, region known to many—from the ominous signs dotted along the M1—as THE NORTH. 

Finally, this has been a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know the British Music Collection (BMC), now housed at the University of Huddersfield’s Heritage Quay archive facility. This exhibition serves the parallel function, then, of bringing some of the BMC's contents to light, and I encourage users to click on panels to get a closer look at some of the items I have highlighted. 

I hope to have told a story here, albeit an abstracted one. Structurally, this exhibition—which is split into a number of sections—begins with some historical details, then draws attention to some key ensembles and music traditions (particularly that of the Brass Band), and finally focuses on a few key individuals and works.

Frederick Delius - North Country Sketches, score extract
Delius Lived Next Door - Pub

You won’t often hear of composers coming from ‘provincial’ regions of the UK before the two World Wars, and the twentieth century was a period of great social change which unlocked— arguably—a great deluge of creativity and innovation in the arts (of which the work here is simply a drop in the ocean). There are a few names I thought it might be worth drawing your attention to though (but this is by no means exhaustive).

Left panels: Frederick Delius (1862-1934) is perhaps the most famous composer to have come from the North. Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, to a wealthy German family tied to the city’s then thriving textile industry, Delius went on to find international recognition. The piece 'North Country Sketches' (1913-14) is said to, in part, evoke the barren, even desolate, beauty that characterises the Yorkshire moors. On the bottom you can see a pub that sits next door to the building where Delius was born (‘Delius Lived Next Door). I spent a good deal of my time there in the year before I travelled to University to study music full time; so this picture is a good place for this story to start – for me at least. 

Right top: William Baines (1899-1922) was a pianist and composer from Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Though he died very young (of tuberculosis), William Baines left an impressive catalogue of about 150 works. Most of these were for piano, and they’re remarkably impressionistic in style. For a young man who never really left Yorkshire I find his achievements all the more impressive. To the right you can see an extract from a document kept in the BMC detailing his life and a snippet from his 'Seven Preludes' (1917).

Right bottom: John Foulds (1880-1939) was born in Manchester, and, though his music has begun to get some of the attention it deserves, most people will probably not have heard of him. His output seems rather eccentric in hindsight: in his lifetime he wrote music in ‘modes’ derived from Indian classical music, and for traditional Indian instruments, and he was using quarter tones in the 1890s(!); you might even hear him prefiguring someone like Messiaen. Some of his orchestral works are truly epic in scale too (his 'A World Requiem' is beyond Mahlerian in scope and was only recently revived at the BBC Proms 2007). Though he worked successfully as a composer in his lifetime (if, primarily, off of the back of his ‘light’ music), he remained something of a periphery figure and the extent of his innovations have never been truly recognised; and yet, so often, it is the periphery from where innovation so often comes. The picture you see on the right comes from a programme booklet (held by the BMC) commemorating his life and work.

William Baines - Seven Preludes, score extract
John Foulds
Slaithwaite Brass Band collection, University of Huddersfield's Heritage Quay

No musical account of the North would be complete without at least some mention of brass bands. The University of Huddersfield’s Heritage Quay holds some other collections of relevance here, including historical materials belonging to the Slaithwaite Brass Band. The panel to the left gives a taster of that collection, and as well as scores and instrument parts (now over 100 years old) Heritage Quay has a permanent exhibition sharing some of Slaithwaite Brass Band’s history for visitors who wander through. It was particularly interesting to see bands championing the advanced harmonic idioms of Wagner (through concert arrangements of his opera music) in the late nineteenth century!

Those brass bands with connections to the historical industries of the North have not been untouched by developments in contemporary music and a great deal has been done to build an exciting and challenging contemporary Brass Band repertoire in the late twentieth century(1). The panels to the right give some indication of that. Particular attention has been drawn to the relationship between conductor and composer Elgar Howarth (1935- ) and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Elgar Howarth was associated with the so-called ‘Manchester School’ of composers (including Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle) who did much to bring radically avant-garde music into our country’s concert halls from the 1950s onwards (and all coming from the North, I might add). As conductor and composer of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band he played a central role in fostering a contemporary music Brass Band repertoire.

Grimethorpe Special LP - Elgar Howarth and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band
Harrison Birtwistle - Grimethorpe Aria

The BMC had the above LP in their collection. Grimethorpe Colliery Band with the (delightfully named) Besses o' th' Barn Band play a number of then new works, including Howarth's own 'Fireworks', a sort of Britten's 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra' but for Brass. To the left you can listen to Harrison Birtwistle's seminal contribution to the repertory, 'Grimethorpe Aria' (1973). Birtwistle himself was born in Accrington, Lancashire - a mill town.

BMC's Brass Band scores
Harrison Birtwistle - Salford Toccata, score extract
George Benjamin - Altitude, score extract

Left: Some of the BMC's collection of modern Brass Band scores.

Left: An extract from Birtwistle's 'Salford Toccata' (1989), his second piece composed for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Left: Written at the request of Elgar Howarth for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, 'Altitude' (1977) is a very early work by a then 17-year-old George Benjamin.

John McCabe - Cloudcatcher Fells

'Cloudcatcher Fells', by Liverpool born John McCabe (1939-2015), and performed above by Bradford's Black Dyke Band was composed as a test piece for the 1985 finals of the National Brass Band Championships(2).

'Fell' is a word of Nordic origin particular to the North, and refers to a hill or mountain. The piece attempts to evoke, in particular, regions and fells found in the English Lake District.

Yan Tan Tethera - Programme Booklet
'yan, tan, tethera...' counting explanation

Harrison Birtwistle's 1984 chamber opera (or 'Mechanical Pastoral), 'Yan Tan Tethera' is well represented in the BMC archives: 

Left top: A rather eerie front cover from the programme booklet of a performance of Yan Tan Tethera.

Left bottom: From the same programme is a helpful explanation of the 'yan, tan, tethera' counting system used by 'shepherds counting their sheep, fisherman assessing a catch and knitting women minding their stitches'. It is northern in origin and probably has something to do with the region's Nordic-influenced history.

Right: Extracts from the score. Note the text - perhaps the only time the famous Yorkshire contraction 'from t'North' has featured in an opera?

Harrison Birtwistle - Yan Tan Tethera score extract
Kenneth Leighton interview extract

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) was born in Wakefield and having studied in Oxford and in Italy on a Mendelssohn Scholarship, went on to teach at the Universities of Leeds, Oxford and, having been appointed the prestigious Reid Chair of Music, Edinburgh. 

He has been described as 'too conservative for modernists, not conservative enough for conservatives' (see panel with review on the right); a keen analytical eye, however, might notice an element of Schoenbergian dodecophony in the extract from his 'String Quartet No. 2' (1957) below.

The quote in one of the panels to the right is taken from an interview kept in the BMC, which can also be seen to the left.

Kenneth Leighton - String Quartet No. 2, score extract
Kenneth Leighton, CD Review from Gramophone magazine

'I still feel I’m a Yorkshireman—very much so—because I have all the natural qualities of one. I think this of my music too, because of a certain directness and a common sense attitude[…] I’m still the little boy from Wakefield. It’s something I’ve grown away from, but it’s still very important in my make-up’ (the introduction to the article states that, though he has lived away from Yorkshire for much of his career, that he is still a ‘Yorkshireman to the core’)'

Robert Sherlaw Johnson obituary, by Robert Saxton

Robert Sherlaw Johnson (1932-2000) was born in Sunderland. He taught at a number of places in the North but ultimately took up a position, formerly Kenneth Leighton's, at Worcester College, Oxford. Having studied in France with Olivier Messiaen, he went on to be an early and major proponent of Messiaen's piano music and was a prolific composer in his own right; he was also a lifelong performer on the Northumbrian smallpipes(!). 

The obituary above, written by former student Robert Saxton, contains details about his life.

To the right is an extract from an opera he wrote for performance by the Oxford University Opera Club based on folklore from his North East home, 'The Lambton Worm' (1978). The BMC also owns a Betamax recording of the opera!

Robert Sherlaw Johnson - The Lambton Worm extract
The Lambton Worm
Bernard Rands - Madrigali, score extract
Bernard Rands - promotional material from the BMC archives

Bernard Rands (1934-) is an internationally renowned composer originally from Sheffield but now based in the USA. In the quote above (and to the right) he explains that a musical upbringing—including coalmining brass playing uncles from the local colliery—contributed greatly to his success.

The score extract on the left is from the final movement of his 'Madrigali' (1977), a title no doubt inspired by his years studying in italy with Luigi Dallapiccola and Luciano Berio. You can see him discussing his music in a video to the right too.

“My many uncles—all of them coalminers—were prominent members of the colliery choirs and brass bands. Thus the many family get-togethers which helped to alleviate the oppressive fears and deprivations of the war years usually ended with some sort of music making.”

Bernard Rands - Adieu, the composer and his work
Wilfred Josephs - A Tyneside Overture, score extract
Steps along the Road to Manderley, newspaper extract

Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997) was born in Newcastle and maintained a lifelong connection to the region of his birth - just take a look at the two score extracts ('A Tyneside Overture' and 'Northumbrian Dances') on both sides of this panel. He was an extraordinarily prolific composer (he composed 12 symphonies) who wrote brilliantly for both high-brow and popular music idioms. This included much music for TV and film, including title music for the BBC's iconic 'I, Claudius'.

He began his professional life as a dentist, but after he won the composition competition of the City of Milan and La Scala in 1963 (then the biggest in the world) he resolved to compose professionally. The piece that won him this accolade was his 'Requiem Op. 39' that combined the typical Latin requiem text with the Hebrew prayer of the dead, the Kaddish. An analysis of that piece can be seen on the right. 

To the left is a newspaper extract I found in the BMC discussing some of the difficulties involved in the staging of his first opera, 'Rebecca', by Opera North. In fact, this was the first new opera that Opera North commissioned.

Wilfred Josephs - Requiem programme note
Wilfred Josephs - Northumbrian Dances, front page
Gibson Mill, Hardcastle Crags
Trevor Wishart - Heritage Quay's public exhibition of some of his works
Trevor Wishart - Vox 6, score extracts
Trevor Wishart - collage of scores in the BMC 

Trevor Wishart (1946-) comes from a working-class background in Leeds. He was educated at the Universities of Oxford, Nottingham, and York and has since worked mostly as a freelance composer. His early works are often experimental, participatory and rooted in music theatre; some examples of scores held by the BMC can be seen in the panels on the left. A major pioneer of sound art, he is the author of a significant book  on the subject ('On Sonic Art'); his catalogue of works includes major tape-collage pieces, and he has composed music (or, indeed, sound) for educational contexts. 

In the middle panel on the left are two extracts from 'Vox 6' (1988); his 'Vox' compositions form a cycle of experimental vocal and electronic pieces and number 6 is the last. This is perhaps the first piece of 'contemporary' concert music to incorporate rap and I was particularly tickled by the instruction that 'rapping must never be diffident, knowing, camped-up or ironic. Performers should put aside any personal embarrassment or urbane “knowingness”.' Note also his comments about the pronunciation of the word dance: 'if in doubt, consult a Yorkshireman'!

The quote to the right expresses his aesthetic approach succinctly: though his music is, in many ways, challenging and experimental, it remains rooted in real life.

'My attitude to the arts is strongly influenced by my origins in an ordinary working class home in Yorkshire. Although my work has now achieved international recognition, I continue to hold the view that serious art has to relate to the wider context of human life and meaning, and not merely to the concerns of its professional practitioners[...] I have no interest in either boring or outsmarting my audience, as music is, in the end, what other people make of it.'(2)

Northern Minimalism: The North Shore, Gavin Bryars
Northern Minimalism: The Durham Strike, Howard Skempton
Northern Minimalism: North for orchestra, Graham Fitkin

Gavin Bryars (1943-) was born in Goole, Yorkshire. After an early association with the English experimental music scene and figures like improviser Derek Bailey, has gone on to be the one of the country's most recognised composers. The minimalist piece to the left, 'The North Shore', refers to Whitby's North Yorkshire coast.

Howard Skempton (1947-) was born in Chester. His stripped-back minimalist aesthetic has been described with the epithet: 'the emancipation of the consonance'. 'The Durham Strike' (1986) holds, it seems, associations with the politics of the North.

Graham Fitkin's (1963-) 'North for orchestra' (1988) was commissioned by the Northern Orchestral Consortium and Yorkshire Promoters' Group. Fitkin has given little away about the piece's extra-musical genesis, but I could hazard a guess...

Gavin Bryars performing
John Casken - Orion Over Farne, score extract, programme note, and article extract from The Listener (1985)

John Casken (1949-) was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire and studied music at the University of Birmingham. Other than the years he spent studying in Poland with Andrzej Dobrowolski, Casken has seldom left northern England (he held teaching posts in Huddersfield, Durham and Manchester).

The piece, highlighted through images, audio and video, below and to the sides of this panel, is Casken's 'Orion Over Farne'. Its title refers to the Farne islands off the coast of Northumberland.

John Casken talking about Basil Bunting
John Casken - Orion Over Farne, audio extract

John Casken has written a number of pieces inspired by the modernist poetry of Basil Bunting (1900-1985). Basil Bunting was himself a product of the North and his work is rooted heavily in the imagery, landscapes and mythology of the region. 

'Orion Over Farne' takes it's title from a line in Bunting's long poem, 'Briggflatts'; Casken's 'to fields we do not know: A Northumbrian Elegy' for unaccompanied chorus does also, and an extract from the score can be seen on the right. The text for 'to fields we do not know' is a collage of Northern texts, which, as well as passages from Bunting's 'Briggflatts', also features a setting of (the northern) Saint Bede's 'Death Song' in the original Anglo-Saxon.

Basil Bunting
John Casken - to fields we do not know, score extract and text

'Yes, I live there, and I teach there. I identify with the north of England very much: I'm a northerner, and I've never belonged to the south. The North has a quality I admire, a tough resilience.'(3)

Farne Islands
Patrick Drumm - To the Ancestral North
Patrick Drumm - To the Ancestral North

Composers do not have to be from the North to be inspired by it. A quick search in the BMC archives yielded a few examples of ways in which the region might influence composers. I have included two examples here. 

Above is a musical extract from a piece called 'To the Ancestral North' by Patrick Drumm. It is a setting of the poem of the same name by northern poet James Kirkup. It was written whilst the composer lived in York and is a response to the region's strong Viking heritage.

Jennifer Fowler (1939- ) is an Australian composer based in the UK and has written a number of pieces that might be said to have been influenced by Northern themes. This includes a work for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano setting a letter of Charlotte Bronte ('Letter From Haworth', 1983), and a 'Lament' (1987) for Northumbrian Smallpipes. 

Below is an extract of a setting of (the unofficial anthem of Yorkshire) 'On Ilkley Moor'. It is part of a set of songs on the theme of 'food' called 'Eat and be Eaten'. Helpfully, the BMC also owns a recording of the piece.

Jennifer Fowler - On Ilkley Moor, from Eat and Be Eaten
Jennifer Fowler - On Ilkley Moor, instructions and text
Haworth Moor

The image on the right is a collage of a few other items from the BMC that I identified, but in the end could not be highlighted. The composers represented there are:

Bill Hopkins; Edward Gregson; Timothy Salter; Reginald Brindle (newspaper obituary); Peter Anthony Monk; Peter Maxwell Davies; Latif Freedman (Five Durham Songs, Three Songs of Industrial Lancashire) and Geoffrey Winters' Yorkshire Suite (plus extract from from the West Riding movement)

Miscellaneous scores from Northern composers
Yorkshire Evening Press except about the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Finally, I thought it was worth highlighting one final collection also held at Heritage Quay, and that is the materials belonging to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The presence of the festival, a major and international meeting place for practitioners of contemporary music, is living proof of the significance of the North as a hotbed for musical innovation.

To drive the point home, the image on the right shows three major names in contemporary music meeting in Huddersfield: from left to right, John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and Pierre Boulez.

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Press Collections
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Press Collection, 1989


(1) Paul Hindmarsh, 'Building a Repertoire: Original Compositions for the British Brass Band, 1913-1998', in The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History (Oxford University Press, 2002, edited by Trevor Herbert)

(2) From the entry on Trevor Wishart in 'Contemporary Composers' (St. James Press, 1992, edited by Brian Morton and Pamela Collins)

(3) From the interview with John Casken in Paul Griffiths, 'New Sounds, New Personalities: British Composers of the 1980s in conversation with Paul Griffiths' (Faber Music, 1985)

See also:

The webpage for the Wilfred Josephs Society

I would be happy to share any further details and sources with anyone interested in exploring some of the themes covered here further. My email address is

See my website and blog at:

Credits: Story

Curator — Alexander Kolassa
Thanks to — Angharad Cooper and Sound and Music; Harriet Harmer, Ann Clayton, Robert Clegg and the staff at Heritage Quay 
Special thanks to — My Dad, photographer Andrew Kolassa, for some of the extra pictures that have been included here (see more at 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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