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How has the South Downs landscape influenced musicians?

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Image of Daniel Grimley
Daniel GrimleyResearcher of music, landscape and cultural geography, University of Oxford
September at Devil's Dyke, South Downs, West Sussex
September at Devil's Dyke | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The landscape of the South Downs stretches from Hampshire to East Sussex, much of which is cared for by the National Trust, and has long been celebrated as an inspiration for literature and visual art. Its influence on musical creativity is no less remarkable, with musicians throughout history responding to the natural environment and the human stories associated with these special sites. Discover some of the music our places in South Downs have influenced here.

Folk songs inspired by South Downs

The Sussex Weald, at the foot of the Downs, was a crucial area for nineteenth-century folk song collectors such as the Reverend John and Lucy Broadwood.

The Copper family from Rottingdean near Brighton also assembled a unique collection of Sussex tunes, many of which were notated by collector Kate Lee, one of the founders of the Folk Song Society. Members of the family still maintain the tradition of live performance today.

Famous composers

Edward Elgar rented a cottage from the landscape painter Rex Vicat Cole at Brinkwells, near Petworth House, during the First World War; here he composed his Cello Concerto and a series of eloquent chamber works which evoke the countryside beneath the escarpment.

Elgar’s younger contemporary Arnold Bax lived in rooms above the White Horse Hotel at Storrington after the Second World War.

His tone poem Summer Music was intended as the ‘depiction of a hot windless June mid-day in some wooded place of Southern England’. John Ireland’s Downland Suite for Brass Band was similarly motivated by the composer’s love for the area.

Sheep grazing and view to the coast from the Slindon Estate, South Downs, West Sussex
Sheep grazing on the South Downs | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Modern musical influences

More recent musicians have been no less moved by the history and atmosphere of the Downs. Richard Hill titled his 1978 prog rock album Chanctonbury Ring, after the prehistoric hillfort atop Chanctonbury Hill on the South Downs.

A Lost Village, a track by the Brighton-based duo Grasscut from their cartographically-inspired 2010 album 1 Inch: ½ Mile, is based on the site of an abandoned settlement, Balsdean, tucked away in a hidden valley in the Downs.

Enter Spring by Frank Bridge

Perhaps the most striking musician to have been inspired by the Downs was the early-twentieth-century composer Frank Bridge. Born in Brighton in 1879, Bridge spent much of his professional career in London.

In 1923, he moved to Friston, near West Dean and Cuckmere Haven, where his friends included the artist Majorie Fass. Here, Bridge wrote his rhapsody Enter Spring, originally entitled On Friston Down.

A musical response to the landscape

Bridge’s work was influenced by the work of European modernist contemporaries such as Stravinsky, Ravel, and Alban Berg, rather than folksong. But the soaring lines and striding rhythms of Enter Spring are no less inspired by walking along the coast path above the Seven Sisters.

It is hard to imagine a more evocative musical response to the Sussex landscape and to the graceful horizons of the Downs themselves.

This article was written by Daniel Grimley. Daniel is a researcher of music, landscape and cultural geography from University of Oxford, specialising in Scandinavian music and early twentieth-century English music. Daniel is particularly interested in the ways in which landscapes shape our responses to music and sound. This is a Trusted Source article, created in partnership with University of Oxford.

View of Devil's Dyke from Saddlescombe Farm with sun breaking through clouds, West Sussex

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