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Culture of Great Britain


Artistic and cultural life in Britain.

Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren.

Westminster Abbey.

St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Tower of London.

Festivals of music and drama.

The Bath Festival.

The Chichester Theatre Festival.

The Welsh Eisteddfod.

The Edinburg Festival.

The national musical instrument of the Scots.

12 Music and musicians.

13 Art Galleries.

14 The art of acting.

15 British Drama Theatre today.


Artistic and Cultural Life in Britain

Artistic and cultural life in Britain is rather rich. It passed several
main stages in its development.

The Saxon King Alfred encouraged the arts and culture. The chief debt
owed to him by English literature is for his translations of and
commentaries on Latin works. Art, culture and literature flowered during
the Elizabethan age, during the reign of Elizabeth I; it was the period
of English domination of the oceans.

It was at this time that William Shakespeare lived.

The empire, which was very powerful under Queen Victoria, saw another
cultural and artistic hey-day as a result of industrialisation and the
expansion of international trade.

But German air raids caused much damage in the First World War and then
during the Second World War. The madness of the wars briefly interrupted
the development of culture.

Immigrants who have arrived from all parts of the Commonwealth since
1945 have not only created a mixture of nations, but have also brought
their cultures and habits with them. Monuments and traces of past
greatness are everywhere. There are buildings of all styles and periods.
A great number of museums and galleries display precious and interesting
finds from all parts of the world and from all stage in the development
of nature, man and art. London is one of the leading world centres for
music, drama, opera and dance. Festivals held in towns and cities
throughout the country attract much interest. Many British playwrights,
composers, sculptors, painters, writers, actors, singers and dancers are
known all over the world.

Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren

Inigo Jones was the first man to bring the Italian Renaissance style to
Great Britain. He had studied in Italy for some years, and in 1615
became Surveyor-General of the works.

The style he built in was pure Italian with as few modifications as
possible. His buildings were very un-English in character, with
regularly spaced columns along the front.

His two most revolutionary designs were the Banqueting House in
Whitehall and the Queen’s House at Greenwich. The plan of the latter,
completely symmetrical, with its strict classical details and the
principal rooms on the first floor, influenced architecture in Britain.
But not during the lifetime of Inigo Jones. All those who followed him
had to adapt this new foreign building technique to English ways and
English climate, English building materials and English craftsmen.

Christopher Wren was the man who did it. He was a mathematician, an
astronomer and, above all, an inventor. He invented new ways of using
traditional English building materials, brick and ordinary roofing
tiles, to keep within the limits of classical design. He, like Inigo
Jones, was appointed Surveyor-General to the Crown when he was about
thirty years old, and almost immediately he started rebuilding the
churches of London, burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren’s
churches are chiefly known by their beautiful spires, which show in
their structure the greatest engineering cunning.But Ch. Wren also
influenced the design of houses, both in town and in the country.The
best-known buildings designed by Ch. Wren are St. Paul’s Cathedral in
London and the Sheldonion Theatre in Oxford.

The period of the Industrial Revolution had no natural style of its own.
Businessmen wanted art for their money. The architect was to provide a
facade in the Gothic style, or he was to turn the building into
something like a Norman castle, or a Renaissance palace, or even an
Oriental mosque. For theatres and opera houses the theatrical Baroque
style was often most suitable. Churches were more often than not built
in the Gothic style. The twentieth century has seen great changes in
Britain’s architecture.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

It is safe to say that the three most famous buildings in England are
Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is the work of the famous architect Sir Christopher
Wren. It is said to be one of the finest pieces of architecture in
Europe. Work on Wren’s masterpiece began in 1675 after a Norman church,
old St. Paul’s, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. For 35 years
the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral went on, and Wren was an old mall
before it was finished.

From far away you can see the huge dome with a golden ball and cross on
the top. The interior of the Cathedral is very beautiful. It is fall of
monuments. The most important, perhaps, is the one dedicated to the Duke
of Wellington. After looking round you can climb 263 steps to the
Whispering Gallery, which runs round the dome. It is called so, because
if someone whispers close to the wall on one side, a person with his ear
close to the wall on the other side can hear what is said. But if you
want to reach the foot of the ball, you have to climb 637 steps.

As for Christopher Wren, who is now known as ‘the architect of London’,
he found his fame only after his death. He was buried in the Cathedral.
Buried here are Nelson, Wellington and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Those who are interested in English architecture can study all the
architectural styles of the past 500 or 600 years in Cambridge. The
Chapel of King’s College is the most beautiful building in Cambridge and
one of the greatest Gothic buildings in Europe. It is built in the
Perpendicular style. Its foundation stone was laid in 1446, but it was
completed sixty-nine years later. The interior of the Chapel is a single
lofty aisle and the stonework of the walls is like lace. The Chapel has
a wonderful fan-vaulting which is typical of the churches of that time.
We admire the skill of the architects and crafts men who created all
these wonderful buildings.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is a fine Gothic building, which stands opposite the
Houses of Parliament. It is the work of many hands and different ages.
The oldest part of the building dates from the eighth century. It was a
monastery — the West Minster. In the 11th century Edward the Confessor
after years spent in France founded a great Norman Abbey. In 200 years
Henry III decided to pull down the Norman Abbey and build a more
beautiful one after the style then balling in France. Since then the
Abbey remains the most French of all English Gothic churches, higher
than any other English church (103 feet) and much narrower. The towers
were built in 1735-1740. One of the greater glories of the Abbey is the
Chapel of Henry VII, with its delicate fan-vaulting. The Chapel is of
stone and glass, so wonderfully cut and sculptured that it seems unreal.
It contains an interesting collection of swords and standards of the
‘Knights of the Bath’. The Abbey is famous for its stained glass.

Since the far-off time of William the Conqueror Westminster Abbey has
been the crowning place of the kings and queens of England. The Abbey is
sometimes compared with a mausoleum, because there are tombs and
memorials of almost all English monarchs, many statesmen, famous
scientists, writers and musicians.

If you go past the magnificent tombstones of kings and queens, some made
of gold and precious stones, past the gold-and-silver banners of the
Order of the Garter, which are hanging from the ceiling, you will come
to Poets’ Corner. There many of the greatest writers are buried:
Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson,
Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. Here too, though these writers are not
buried in Westminster Abbey, are memorials to William Shakespeare and
John Milton, Burns and Byron, Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray
and the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Here in the Abbey there is also the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a
symbol of the nation’s grief. The inscription on the tomb reads:
‘Beneath this stone rests the body of a British Warrior unknown by name
or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the

In the Royal Air Force Chapel there is a monument to those who died
during the Battle of Britain, the famous and decisive air battle over
the territory of Britain in the Second World War.

The Tower of London

The Tower on the north bank of the Thames is one of the most ancient
buildings of London. It was founded in the 11th century by William the
Conqueror. But each monarch left some kind of personal mark on it. For
many centuries the Tower has been a fortress, a palace, a prison and
royal treasury. It is now a museum of arms and armour and as one of the
strongest fortresses in Britain, it has the Crown Jewels.

The grey stones of the Tower could tell terrible stories of violence and
injustice. Many sad and cruel events took place within the walls of the
Tower. It was here that Thomas More, the great humanist, was falsely
accused and executed. Among famous prisoners executed at the Tower were
Henry VIII’s wives Ann Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

When Queen Elizabeth was a princess, she was sent to the Tower by Mary
Tudor (‘Bloody Mary’) and kept prisoner for some time.

The ravens whose forefathers used to find food in the Tower still live
here as part of its history. There is a legend that if the ravens
disappear the Tower will fall. That is why the birds are carefully

The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror to protect and
control the City of London. It is the oldest and the most important
building, surrounded by other towers, which all have different names.

The Tower is guarded by the Yeomen Warders, popularly called
‘Beefeaters’. There are two letters, E.R., on the front of their tunics.
They stand for the Queen’s name Elizabeth Regina. The uniform is as it
used to be in Tudor times.

Their everyday uniform is black and red, but on state occasions they
wear a ceremonial dress: fine red state uniforms with the golden and
black stripes and the wide lace collar, which were in fashion in the
16th century.

Every night at 10 p.m. at the Tower of London the Ceremony of the Keys
or locking up of the Tower for the nigh takes place. It goes back to the
Middle Ages. Five minutes before the hour the Headwarder comes out with
a bunch of keys and an old lantern. He goes to the guardhouse and cries:
‘Escort for the keys’. Then he closes the three gates and goes to the
sentry, who calls: ‘Halt, who comes there?’ Headwarder replies: ‘The
Keys’. ‘Whose Keys?’ demands the sentry. ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Keys’, comes
the answer. ‘Advance Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well’. The keys are
finally carried to the Queen’s House where they are safe for the night.
After the ceremony everyone who approaches the gate must give the
password or turn away.

Festivals of Music and Drama

Post-war years have witnessed a significant increase in the number of
festivals of music and drama though not enough has been done to involve
the general public in these activities. Some of the festivals, however,
are widely popular and it is with these that the book deals. A number of
other festivals of music and drama, less well known but sufficiently
important to be mentioned, are also included in the list below.

The Bath Festival

The number of festivals held in Britain every summer goes on and on
increasing but few are as well established or highly thought of,
particularly in the wider European scene, as the Bath Festival.

In June when the city is at its most beautiful the festival attracts
some of the finest musicians in the world to Bath, as well as thousands
of visitors from Britain and abroad.

Under the artistic direction of Sir Michael Tippett, composer, conductor
and one of the greatest minds in British music today, the festival
presents a programme of orchestral and choral concerts, song and
instrumental recitals and chamber music, so well suited to the beautiful
18th — century halls of Bath. The range of music included is wide and
young performers are given opportunities to work with some of the
leading names in their fields.

But the festival is not all music. The programme usually includes
lectures and exhibitions, sometimes ballet, opera, drama, or films, as
well as tours of Bath and the surrounding area and houses not normally
open to the public, often a costume ball, maybe poetry — the variety is

Much goes on in the city at festival time and many organisations produce
a bewildering complexity of events to cater for all tastes from bicycle
races and beer gardens to a mammoth one day festival of folk and blues.

The Chichester Theatre Festival

The fame achieved by the Edinburgh Festival, to say nothing of the large
number of visitors that it brings every year to the Scottish capital,
has encouraged many other towns in Britain to organise similar
festivals. Those at Bath, Cheltenham and Aldeburgh have all become
considerable artistic successes, even if they haven’t brought as much
business to these towns as the local shopkeepers had hoped for.

The latest festival town to join the list is Chichester, which has
earned a great deal of prestige by building, in record time, a large
theatre holding over one thousand five hundred people. Here will be held
each year a theatre festival in which many stars from the London stage
will be eager to participate.

The first season scored a considerable success. The repertoire consisted
of an old English comedy, a sixteenth- century tragedy and a production
of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in which every part was taken by a top star.

But the chief interest of the Chichester Festival is the new theatre
itself, which has an apron stage. Most of you will know that the apron
stage, which was common in Shakespeare’s day, projects out into the
auditorium. With an apron stage there is no proscenium arch, or stage
sets of the kind we are used to in the modern theatre. This calls for
the use of an entirely different technique on the part both of the
players, who have their audience on three sides of them instead of just
in front, and the producer. The players must make proper use of their
voices, which, to a generation accustomed to mumbling into microphones,
is not easy.

Chichester itself is a small country town in the heart of Sussex, and
the theatre stands on the edge of a beautiful park. Unlike Glyndebourne
where the entire audience wears evening dress, the clothes worn by the
audience at Chichester are much less formal; but as the festival is held
in the summer the pretty frocks of the women make an attractive picture
as they stand and gossip outside the theatre during the intervals, or
snatch hasty refreshments from their cars in the park.

The Welsh Eisteddfod

No country in the world has a greater love of music and poetry than the
people of Wales. Today, Eisteddfod is held at scores of places
throughout Wales, particularly from May to early November. The habit of
holding similar events dates back to early history and there are records
of competitions for Welsh poets and musicians in the twelfth century.
The Eisteddfod sprang from the Gorsedd, or National Assembly of Bards.
It was held occasionally up to 1819, but since then has become an annual
event for the encouragement of Welsh literature and music and the
preservation of the Welsh language and ancient national customs.

The Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales is held annually early in August,
in North and South Wales alternately, its actual venue varying from year
to year. It attracts Welsh people from all over the world. The programme
includes male and mixed choirs, brass-band concerts, many children’s
events, drama, arts and crafts and, of course, the ceremony of the
Crowning of the Bard.

Next in importance is the great Llangollen International Music
Eisteddfod, held early in July and attended by competitors from many
countries, all wearing their picturesque and often colourful national
costumes. It is an event probably without parallel anywhere in the
world. There are at least twenty-five other major Eisteddfods from May
to November.

In addition to the Eisteddfod, about thirty major Welsh Singing
Festivals are held throughout Wales from May until early November.

The Edinburgh Festival

It is a good thing that the Edinburgh Festival hits the Scottish Capital
outside term time. Not so much because the University hostels — and
students’digs — are needed of provide accommodation for Festival
visitors but because this most exhilarating occasion allows no time for
anything mundane. It gives intelligent diversion for most of the twenty
— four hours each weekday in its three weeks (it is not tactful to ask
about Sundays — you explore the surrounding terrain then). The
programmes always include some of the finest chamber music ensemble and
soloists in the world. There are plenty of matinees; evening concerts,
opera, drama and ballet performances usually take place at conventional
times — but the floodlit Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle obviously
doesn’t start till after dusk, and late night entertainments and the
Festival Club can take you into the early hours of the morning.

In recent years, about 90,000 people have flocked into Edinburgh every
year during the three weeks at the end of August and early September.
The 90,000, of course, does not include the very large numbers of people
who discover pressing reasons for visiting their Edinburgh relations
about this time, nor the many thousands who come into the city on day
trips from all over the country.

They wouldn’t all come, year after year, to a city bursting to capacity
if they didn’t find the journey eminently worth-while. They find in
Edinburgh Festival the great orchestras and soloists of the world, with
top-class opera thrown in; famous ballet companies, art exhibitions and
leading drama; the Tattoo, whose dramatic colour inspires many a hurried
claim to Scottish ancestry.

Since the Festival started in 1947 as a gesture of the Scottish
renaissance against post-war austerity, much has blossomed around it.
Every hall in the city is occupied by some diversion: and you may find
Shakespeare by penetrating an ancient close off the Royal Mile, or
plain-song in a local church. «Fringe» events bring performing bodies
from all over Britain and beyond, and student groups are always
prominent among them, responsible often for interesting experiments in
the drama. Then there is the International Film Festival, bringing
documentaries from perhaps 30 countries; Highland Games, and all sorts
of other ploys from puppet to photo shows.

The National Musical Instrument of the Scots

The bagpipe was known to the ancient civilisations of the Near East. It
was probably introduced into Britain by the Romans. Carvings of bagpipe
players on churches and a few words about them in the works of Chaucer
and other writers show that it was popular all over the country in the
Middle Ages. Now bagpipes can be seen and head only in the northern
counties of England, in Ireland and in Scotland where it was introduced
much later. Bagpipes have been used ill most European countries. It is
also native to India and China.

In Scotland the bagpipe is first recorded in the 16th century during the
reign of James I, who was a very good player, and probably did much to
make it popular. For long it has been considered a national Scottish

The sound of the bagpipes is very stirring. The old Highland clans and
later the Highland regiments used to go into battle to the sound of the

The bagpipe consists of a reed pipe, the ‘chanter’, and a windbag, which
provides a regular supply of air to the pipe. The windpipe is filled
either from the mouth or by a bellows, which the player works with his
arm. The chanter has a number of holes or keys by means of which the
tune is played.

Music and Musicians

The people living in the British Isles are very fond of music, and it is
quite natural that concerts of the leading symphony orchestras, numerous
folic groups and pop music are very popular.

The Promenade concerts are probably the most famous. They were first
held in 1840 in the Queen’s Hall, and later were directed by Sir Henry
Wood. They still continue today in the Royal Albert Hall. They take
place every night for about three months in the summer, and the
programmes include new and contemporary works, as well as classics.
Among them are symphonies and other pieces of music composed by Benjamin
Britten, the famous English musician.

Usually, there is a short winter season lasting for about a fortnight.
The audience may either listen to the music from a seat or from the
‘promenade’, where they can stand or stroll about, or, if there is room,
sit down on the floor.

Concerts are rarely given out-of-doors today except for concerts by
brass bands and military bands that play in the parks and at seaside
resorts during the summer.

Folk music is still very much alive. There are many foul groups. Their
harmony singing and good humour win them friends everywhere.

Rock and pop music is extremely popular, especially among younger
people. In the 60s and 70s groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling
Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd became very popular and

The Beatles, with their style of singing new and exciting, their
wonderful sense of humour became the most successful pop group the world
has ever known. Many of the famous songs written by John Lennon and Paul
McCartney are still popular. Some of the more recent rock groups are
Eurhythmics, Dire Straits, and Black Sabbath.

British groups often set new trends in music. New staff and styles
continue to appear. One of the most popular contemporary musicians and
composers is Andrew Lloyd Webber. The musicals and rock operas by A. L.
Webber have been a great success both in Britain and overseas.

The famous English composer of the 19th century was Arthur Sullivan.
Together with William Gilbert, the writer of the texts, he created
fourteen operettas of which eleven are regularly performed today. In
these operettas the English so successfully laugh at themselves and at
what they now call the Establishment that W. S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan
will always be remembered.

Art Galleries

If you stand in Trafalgar Square with your back to Nelson’s Column, you
will see a wide horizontal front in a classical style. It is the
National Gallery. It has been in this building since 1838 which was
built as the National Gallery to house the collection of Old Masters
Paintings (38 paintings) offered to the nation by an English Private
collector, Sir George Beamount.

Today the picture galleries of the National Gallery of Art exhibit works
of all the European schools of painting, which existed between the 13th
and 19th centuries. The most famous works among them are ‘Venus and
Cupid’ by Diego Velazquez, ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Nicolas
Poussin, ‘A Woman Bathing’ by Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, ‘Lord
Heathfield’ by Joshua Reynolds, ‘Mrs Siddons’ by Thomas Gainsborough and
many others.

In 1897 the Tate Gallery was opened to house the more modern British
paintings. Most of the National Gallery collections of British paintings
were transferred to the Tate, and only a small collection of a few
masterpieces is now exhibited at Trafalgar Square. Thus, the Tate
Gallery exhibits a number of interesting collections of British and
foreign modern painting and also modern sculpture.

The collection of Turner’s paintings at the Tate includes about 300 oils
and 19,000 watercolours and drawings. He was the most traditional artist
of his time as well as the most original: traditional in his devotion to
the Old Masters and original in his creation of new styles. It is
sometimes said that he prepared the way for the Impressionists.

The modern collection includes the paintings of Henri Matisse and Pablo
Picasso, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon and Graham
Sutherland, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, the chief pioneers of pop
art in Great Britain. Henry Moore is a famous British sculptor whose
works are exhibited at the Tate too. One of the sculptor’s masterpieces
— the ‘Reclining Figure’ — is at fees Headquarters of UNESCO in Paris.

The Art of Acting

From the fall of the Roman Empire until the 10th century, acting hardly
existed as an art in Western Europe; only the wandering minstrels gave
entertainment in castles and at fairs. In England, the first real actors
were amateurs who performed Miracle and Morality plays, which were
religious in character. In the Elizabethan age, the first professional
theatres were opened. At the time of Shakespeare there were at least six
companies of actors. Shakespeare himself joined the Earl of Leisester’s
company, which under James I became known as the ‘King’s Men’. There
were also companies of boy actors. All the women’s parts were played by
boys. It was very difficult for most actors to earn a living on the
stage, even in a London company, and many of them fell into debt. When
Shakespeare arrived in London in 1586, the acting was very crude and
conventional. There was almost no scenery, and the actors were dressed
in the costumes of their day. But when ‘The Globe’ was opened to the
public in 1599, it started the golden age of the theatre in England.

In the first half of the 17th century the influence of the Puritans was
bad for the popular theatre, and it was not before the restoration of
the monarchy in 1660 that theatre going again became a popular habit.
The most popular plays were comedies. The first part played by an
actress was that of Desdemona. Nell Gwynn was the first English actress.

By the beginning of the 18th century the most popular type of play was
the sentimental comedy. The acting was artificial probably due to the
influence of French actors.

But, later, under the influence of David Garrick and some other actors,
acting became much more naturalistic. David Garrick was one of the
greatest actors known. But even at his time acting was not very popular.
An actor whose acting had offended the audience had to ask pardon on his
knees before a full house before he could continue in his profession.
During the 19th century acting became more and more naturalistic. Like
in Shakespeare’s time, the best actors understood the importance of the
teamwork of the company. One of the most famous actors of that time was
Henry Irving. He was the first actor to be knighted. By the 1920s
naturalistic acting reached a peak in the performance of Sir Gerald Du
Maurier. He hardly appeared to be acting at all.

At present most acting still continues to be naturalistic. Designers
make the settings as realistic as possible. Modern producers and
directors Peter Hall, Peter Brook and others are trying out new styles
of acting. Some go back to Greek methods, with a revival of the chorus;
others are making use of the audience in helping to interpret the play.

British Drama Theatre Today

Britain is now one of the world’s major theatres centres. Many British
actors and actresses are known all over the world. They are Dame Peggy
Ashcroft, Glenda Jackson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and others.

Drama is so popular with people of all ages that there are several
thousand amateur dramatic societies. Now Britain has about 300
professional theatres. Some of them are privately owned. The tickets are
not hard to get, but they are very expensive. Regular seasons of opera
and ballet are given at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London.
The National Theatre stages modern and classical plays, the Royal
Shakespeare Company produces plays mainly by Shakespeare and his
contemporaries when it performs in Stratford-on-Avon, and modern plays
in its two auditoria in the City’s Barbican Centre. Shakespeare’s Globe
Playhouse, about which you have probably read, was reconstructed on its
original site. Many other cities and large towns have at least one

There are many theatres and theatre companies for young people: the
National Youth Theatre and the Young Vic Company in London, the Scottish
Youth Theatre in Edinburgh. The National Youth Theatre, which stages
classical plays mainly by Shakespeare and modern plays about youth, was
on tour in Russian in 1989. The theatre-goers warmly received the
production of Thomas Stearns Eliot’s play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’.
Many famous English actors started their careers in the National Youth
Theatre. Among them Timothy Dalton, the actor who did the part of
Rochester in ‘ Jane Eyre’ shown on TV in our country.

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