How has the South Downs landscape influenced musicians?
The landscape of Sussex and the South Downs has long been celebrated as an inspiration for literature and visual art. Its significance as a site of musical creativity, however, is no less remarkable. Musicians have responded to the sites and sounds of the Downs, to the natural environment, and to the human stories associated with particular places and locations.
Collectors and composers
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 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.
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.
More recent musicians have been no less moved by the history and atmosphere of the Downs. Chanctonbury Ring was the title of Richard Hill’s 1978 prog rock album.
‘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.
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’.
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.