Christopher Gunning Speech

on Rubbra's music at the June 8 Concert

  Christopher Gunning at work  

How I came to be Rubbra’s student

“I studied under Edmund Rubbra for three years at the Guildhall School of Music, where he was Professor of Composition, having already lectured at Oxford University.

One of the main reasons for going to the Guildhall – I also had an offer from the Royal Academy of Music – was because I wanted to study with Rubbra. That turned out to be a slightly mixed blessing, as I will explain later…

Rubbra: the composer

Rubbra was born [in Northampton] in 1901 and when he was a music student there were many varied and conflicting musical streams. Elgar was coming towards the end of his life but was writing some of his best music, Delius was still creating impressionistic compositions, and then, on the Continent, there was Schoenberg.

It’s extraordinary to think that Schoenberg was alive at the same time as Elgar. You might still want to turn down the volume when Schoenberg’s music is played on Radio 3 but there’s no question he was a great man.

So it might have been rather confusing to be a young composer at that time but Rubbra showed incredible independence. Schoenberg’s atonality was not for him.

Rubbra had studied with Gustav Holst and Cyril Scott. Now largely forgotten, Scott wrote very chromatic music and was called ‘the English Debussy’. But Rubbra also studied with a very important man who was not known as a composer – R.O. Morris, the expert on counterpoint. Rubbra loved his lessons with Morris, and there is a lot of counterpoint in Rubbra’s music.

A second feature of Rubbra’s music is a real understanding of tonality, and what it can do. There was also a fairly serious emphasis on form and intent.

It’s sometimes said that there’s a lack of colour in Rubbra’s music. That’s intentional on his part. He didn’t want the colour of Stravinsky. Some people consequently find his work a bit grey. I must admit that I did at first but if you persevere with it you find it’s unbelievably deep.

Rubbra: the teacher

I vividly remember going in to his room for my first lesson. I was shaking like a leaf. I was always hesitant about playing him pieces, partly because Rubbra had the most fantastic ‘ear’. I learnt that early on in my lessons with him. He’d stop me and say: “Shouldn’t that be an E flat?”

I also remember showing him a piece I had written and he played it straight off – note perfect. He could sight-read anything.

We should ask, of course, is it possible to teach composition at all?
A lot of very good composers have been self-taught and have worked it out for themselves.

Rubbra’s approach was to take a student’s piece and improve it. That could be quite a shocking experience as you can get very attached to your own work. I would walk out of some lessons and think ‘that’s not my work any more’ but it was a helpful experience all the same.

What Rubbra used to do was play through a student’s piece quite fast and then suggest alternatives. He would always want to know where a piece was going. What he was trying to do was get me to be more focused, to use the material I already had and turn it into a better piece.

We also did quite a lot of analysis of other people’s music. On one occasion, for example, we analysed Bartok’s 6th String Quartet, which he considered the pinnacle of Western music. It was fantastic for me to learn how Bartok had put it together.

Rubbra could also be quite critical of my work, however, and he would sometimes cut the lesson short after 10 minutes. I became convinced that he didn’t like me but, when I spoke to other students, one by one they confirmed that they were all having the same experience as I was.

From then on I made sure that I asked him to teach me something rather than cut the lesson short. If I asked him to, say, go through counterpoint with me then he would. In fact he would then become an enthusiastic teacher again. I remember he taught me Renaissance counterpoint. It was wonderful. I came out of one lesson shell-shocked. I remember telling someone that it was like having a lesson with Palestrina. Rubbra understood counterpoint so well.

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Rubbra: the man

Rubbra became a Catholic and then a Buddhist. He was terribly interested in things from the East. When I would arrive for my lesson he would often be staring out of the window as if in trance. He had that [an interest in Eastern religion] in common with Gustav Holst, who became a friend of Rubbra’s.

He was a very kind man but he could also be strangely distant. Rubbra was also a serious man – I can only think of two occasions in three years when he cracked a joke. I remember that one week I didn’t have much work to show him because I had been working in a bar. He responded by saying: “Ah … counter pint rather than counter point”. That was one of the two jokes I remember him making.
But it was an incredible relief to know that he had a sense of humour.


There came a time when I was not prepared to accept that Schoenberg was not worth listening to. If you mentioned Schoenberg in one of Rubbra’s lessons then you had had it. And, in any case, I had decided that I wanted to write film music. Rubbra couldn’t help me with this.

I therefore went to Richard Rodney Bennett* who was a facile (in the sense of fast) composer. He had studied with Boulez and he changed me completely. Suddenly I was an atonal composer. He also taught me film scoring and that was very helpful.”

*Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) wrote music for films and television. His scores for Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974) earned him Academy Award nominations. He also composed orchestral works, piano solos, choral works and operas.

Contribution by - David Budge

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articles by David Budge

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