The Cow-Pat School

Mahlerman celebrates a quartet of great English composers once dismissively described as the ‘cow-pat school’…

My default position when asked, as I am from time to time, how one ‘gets into’ serious music, is to suggest tuning in to Classic FM. I don’t tune in myself however, as I don’t like music chopped-up into bits to suit the attention span of listeners, and I really can’t accept some jock, in love with the sound of his own chatter, jumping in at the end with an asinine comment. But….the station does serve as a useful way to get people listening to good music, even if it is ‘relaxing classics’, or ‘the most beautiful music in the world – ever’.

And if you were to run an eye over their current ‘top ten’, you would notice that four of that list are fully paid-up members of our thriving ‘cow-pat school’, a term (which stuck) conjured up by arch-modernist composer Elizabeth Lutyens (’12-Tone Lizzie’) sixty years ago to describe the pastoral school that she clearly had little time for. No sign of Sir Edwin’s little girl in the Top 300, and I don’t hear many paper-boys whistling her first success ‘O Saisons O Chateaux’, but the Classic FM list is splattered with musical bovine faecal matter that, put simply, people love. Today we will stay clear of the chart-toppers, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (1) and Tallis’ Fantasia (3), and take the overgrown path to some rarely heard dabbling beauties.

At Number 30 Tite Street, Chelsea, just before Christmas in 1930, the composer Peter Warlock died of gas inhalation – probably by his own hand. He was 36. His birth name was Philip Heseltine and, virtually self-taught, he created for himself a strange dual personality. Well born, and classically educated at Eton and Oxford he was however a rather weak, idealistic character who, though married briefly and producing a son, led a strange, disordered private life. An early dabbler in black magic and flagellation, he also experimented with cannabis, and became an expert composer of obscene limericks; the kind of chap we really like, here at Dabbler HQ. A closer look at his music reveals a minor genius, particularly for song; his devastatingly bleak song-cycle The Curlew, to words by WB Yeats was featured in an earlier Lazy Sunday. Here, from the Capriol Suite for string orchestra, the simple, affecting beauty of Pieds-en-l’air, the fifth movement of six.

The rehabilitation of Ralph Vaughan Williams, beginning a couple of decades ago, is almost complete – and he now stands shoulder to shoulder, if not slightly in advance of his great contemporary Elgar. Anybody doubting Elgar’s genius should, as quickly as possible, lend an ear to Gerontius or Falstaff, the Enigma or the ‘Cello Concerto; but even in these great works there is more than a whiff of the sentimentality and triviality of Imperial England, not to mention the bombast. The modalism of RVW expresses an altogether more personal vision with origins in folk song and the vocal polyphony of Tallis and Byrd. And although it is hard to think of anything more winningly melodic than the Serenade to Music, or more intoxicating than the stained-glass beauty of the Tallis Fantasia, the 4th Symphony can pin you to the wall in the same way that Sibelius or Bartok can. A few years ago one of my sons died unexpectedly, and when I was casting around for some suitable music to play at the modest service we put together in a daze (The Lion King theme is apparently very popular), I remembered the quiet, dreamy beauty of Flos Campi, an expressive, six movement pastoral for Viola, wordless Chorus and Orchestra. Along with Norman Blake’s version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ it ensured the day was a six-hankie job.

The English teacher, critic and composer Herbert Howells also lost a son (Michael, to polio in 1935) and, by most accounts of his life, he never really recovered his composure after this dreadful event, going on to dedicate a number of works to this lost child. He was considered a rather pale reflection of Vaughan Williams, a close friend, until the composition, in the mid-30’s, of Hymnus Paradisi. Still stricken by Michael’s death, the piece lay unperformed for almost twenty years, being first heard at the Three Choirs Festival in 1950 at the urging of RVW. Today we have a close relative of the Hymnus, composed in ’32/’33, the Requiem Aeternam from the sublime Requiem

Another acolyte of RVW was the English composer of the modal school Gerald Finzi and, though a Jew, all of his music has a strong ‘English’ stamp. The best of it has an unforced but deeply felt lyricism that will appeal to lovers of English poetry. There is very little overt drama to be heard, the music being mainly meditative and contemplative. When he died at 56 of Hodgkin’s disease and complications, England lost a still developing major talent. Here we have the early Introit for Violin and Small Orchestra, extracted from a planned Violin Concerto, and played by the LPO conducted by an early champion of Finzi’s music, and English music generally, the greatly under-appreciated Sir Adrian Boult.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

20 thoughts on “The Cow-Pat School

    November 6, 2011 at 11:05

    Probably just as well the YouTube videos don’t work on my iPad as I would be sure to need another 6 hankies if I listened to ‘You are my sunshine’ again!

    November 6, 2011 at 11:14

    Lest you should ever think otherwise; posts such as this provide a great service to those of us who have a love for, but shamefully meagre knowledge of, ‘serious’ music. RVW et al have brought a mellow joy to a corner of rural Yorkshire this Sunday morning and the Christmas picture framing proceeds apace!

      November 11, 2011 at 01:15


      I was rather moved by your words. Speaking of Christmas, if you liked the Finzi “Introit” in Mahlerman’s (quite wonderful) post, here is Finzi’s “In Terra Pax” – a little-known Christmas cantata.

      I hope you enjoy:

      Best wishes.


        November 20, 2011 at 14:00

        I enjoyed it very much, thank you.

    November 6, 2011 at 14:50

    Intriguing that this type of music is at once wistful and theraputic. Beautiful sounds and an absorbing post, Mahlerman, touching as it does on deeper issues affecting all of us. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss of a son. We are all blessed to have free access to music that transcends tragedy, as well lessening the tedium of everyday life (and lucky that there are radio stations to suit everyone).

    November 6, 2011 at 15:01

    An excellent quartet of pieces. Having heard Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi performed in Gloucester Cathedral, the place were it was first heard in public, I can testify to its power – the music itself is great but this was a memorable example of the way music and place can come together to make a deep and lasting impression. Going back much further, VW’s Tallis Fantasia was also first performed at Gloucester, in a concert attended by Howells (and his mate Ivor Gurney), which must have started balls rolling, and harmonies echoing.

    John Halliwell
    November 6, 2011 at 16:46

    I too was sorry to read of the loss of your son, MM.

    On the face of it, Elisabeth Lutyens seems a cold-hearted old buzzard. In my mind’s eye I see a tall, skinny bird, a dead ringer for Olive Oyl, as erect as a maypole, who embraced asceticism with a vengeance: sat composing in bleakest winter in an unheated study, unfurnished but for a desk, chair, and a photo of Schoenberg, who would give her the odd wink of encouragement at times of composer’s block; a woman with a long, noble beak that dripped suphuric acid rather than mucus. Whatever Elisabeth was, she was a poor judge of Vaughan Williams, Howells, Finzi and other notables of her ‘mind where you put your feet, it’s still steaming’ school of music.

    I came across Flos Campi on Vernon Handley’s (RLPO) recording of RVW’s 5th Symphony. It is a wonderful, very moving, piece. I should listen to it far more often than I do, but Handley’s version of the symphony is so outstanding I tend to ignore Flos Campi. Shame on me. As you say, Howells’ Requiem is sublime.

    I often wonder what marvels we were denied by WW1 and the death of George Butterworth. Surely, if he had lived, based on the small scale glories he left to us, he would, in time, have been up there with RVW and Elgar.

    Thanks for a great post MM

      November 11, 2011 at 02:10

      Hysterically funny, thank you. I get all the imagery.

      And thanks for reminding me about RVW’s 5th…must expore it more.

      I share your opinion of MM’s outstanding post.

  6. Worm
    November 6, 2011 at 17:27

    Thank you so much for this MM, a really lovely selection, marvellous words and marvellous music – and if that makes me a cow pat fancier then so be it! Another piece I would hold in similar regard to the British marvels you’ve posted above is Finzi’s Eclogue

      November 11, 2011 at 01:23

      Dear Worm,

      I only just discovered MM’s site. He clearly knows his stuff and I find it wonderfully informative. I was rather touched that he chose a couple of my YouTube Vids. Regarding Finzi’s Eclogue, I agree with you, so here is a vid I did of that work:

      Best wishes,


    November 6, 2011 at 20:08

    A wonderful selection Mahlerman. Thank you.

  8. Gaw
    November 6, 2011 at 21:40


    November 7, 2011 at 01:51

    From the picture I briefly thought you were going to do a post on the Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (Funky Dung) but this was much better than that would have been.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:22

    Mahlerman, you are becoming irreplaceable. This is superb and you are performing an excellent service for us undeserving philistines.

    I was also shocked and saddened to hear that you had lost a son. God bless you and God bless him.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:50

    Thanks – Recusant and others – for your kind words about my late son. Thanks also to the army of faecal fanciers – you have encouraged me to continue searching for the beautiful losers of music who, for one reason or another, find themselves beneath the underdog, always dining at the table next to the lavs…..

    November 8, 2011 at 09:48

    Excellent post about some of my favourite composers – Warlock and Finzi in particular. Cecil Gray’s biography of Peter Warlock is a tactful and mysterious tribute to the man. Yeats didn’t like composers’ setting his poems after hearing some Boy Scouts’ belting out one of his pale lyrics, and he and Warlock engaged in acrimonious correspondence. Warlock ended it by sending the poet a postcard of a Secretary Bird – a discreet brush-off.

    Finzi’s Cello Concerto is worth several listenings, and Lutyens will live on only as composer of music for Amicus horror films.

    Oh, and it was Warlock who dubbed Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony as a “cow looking over a gate”.

    November 8, 2011 at 11:20

    I was not aware of Warlock’s remark Martin – and rather wide of the mark if I may say so. Tovey remarked that Beethoven’s Pastoral was the work of a townsman, while RVW’s is that ‘of a composer whose native element is the English countryside’, an observation that has some merit I suppose. RVW’s Pastoral has always seemed to me one of his most beautiful and personal creations – and would have been included here, had I been able to find a suitable ‘snippet’ to give the flavour. I could not.

    November 8, 2011 at 11:43

    With you all the way, Mahlerman. I think the Pastoral is VW’s best work, and the most original English symphony.

    November 11, 2011 at 01:55

    Dear MM,

    I enjoyed, and was moved, by your post here. I’m slightly ashamed to say I don’t know what the “modal school” means (I shall find out), nor the musical expression “32/33” (likewise). However, I’ve always been keen to dig deeper and learn from teachers like you because it informs and impels one to explore deeper and gain greater appreciation. I wish I had gone to a better school but, paradoxically, in later life I’m enthusiastic to see what I missed.


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