Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Half Centennial: Revisiting Anthony Milner’s Chamber Symphony, op.24 (1968)

Anthony Milner is often regarded as a composer of music largely inspired by the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, his musical achievement was far wider, with a fair number of ‘absolute’ works, including the present Chamber Symphony.

Milner was born in Bristol on 13 May 1925 into a devout Christian family. After schooling at the Benedictine-run Douai School in Berkshire, he studied at the Royal College of Music with Herbert Fryer and R.O. Morris. There were further lessons from the émigré composer Mátyás Seiber. Much of Milner’s career was spent teaching: at Morley College, where he befriended Michael Tippet, the extra-mural department of music at London University, King’s College, Goldsmith College and the Royal College of Music. Milner had a strong transatlantic connection with appointments at Loyola University and the University of Western Ontario. Anthony Milner died in Spain on 22 September 2002.

The Chamber Symphony was composed during 1967/68. As the title implies, it was scored for a small orchestra with no trumpets, trombones or percussion. Other works written around this time included the Festival Te Deum commissioned by the Leicestershire Schools Music Festival as well as several anthems.

The first performance of the Chamber Symphony was given on 31 March 1968 in the Woodford Green Town Hall during the final concert of the Woodford Music Society season. The New Cantata Orchestra of London was conducted by James Stobart.
Dominic Gill reviewing the concert for The Financial Times (1 April 1968) wrote that ‘the Chamber Symphony is a short work, barely 15 minutes long…its three movements are in no sense avant-garde; the music is mild, serious, honest and straightforward, not overtly derivative – though one senses a kind of compromise between Vaughan Williams and the second Viennese school.  It is lyrical: not the harsh lyricism of Schoenberg’s [two] ‘Kammersymphonie’, but something more childlike and comfortable.’
Whether Schoenberg’s ‘exemplars’ would be regarded as ‘harsh lyricism’ in 2018 is a matter of opinion. These (Schoenberg) are well-constructed works that are dynamic and often quite beautiful. It is also unfair to accuse Milner’s Chamber Symphony of being ‘childlike.’ The work is mature, well-constructed and masterfully orchestrated. Although, I do concede that there is a charming innocence about much of this music, especially in the final movement.  
Gill (op.cit.) describes the progress of the music: ‘The first movement is a good-humoured allegro, developed from the material in the opening bars, followed by a denser – and lonely – ‘adagio’, in which the orchestral playing several times obscured what must have been a high point – as, for example, the rather beautiful horn figuration taken up by the flute that slides wistfully to the oboe at the movement’s end.  The final ‘allegro’ is a virtuoso rondo, rhythmically the most interesting of the three, with some Stravinskian textures that work up to a strong climax.’ 
The Financial Times review concludes by suggesting that ‘the orchestra…barely held it together. Judgment will have to wait for a much more definitive performance.’  

The New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart gave at least one other performance of the Chamber Symphony. This was on 25 April 1968 at the St Pancras Town Hall, Euston Road, London in a Redcliffe Concert of British Music. There is a short review of this concert in the Daily Telegraph (26 April 1968) ‘I.A.’ began by noting that the concert had some unfamiliar music. It opened with Haydn’s Symphony No.83 ‘The Hen’, which is hardly the best-known (37 current recordings compared to 94 for the Symphony No.94 ‘Surprise Symphony’). This was followed by Alan Rawsthorne’s accomplished Divertimento for chamber orchestra (1961-62) and Francis Routh’s Violin Concerto.  This latter work was receiving its premiere: the soloist was Yfrah Neaman. The final work in the concert was the first ‘London’ performance of Milner’s Chamber Symphony.
I.A. wrote that Milner’s work was in ‘another class’ to the ‘meander[ing]’ Routh. He thinks that in the Symphony ‘sometimes...the outer movements seem to be musicians' music, not lyrical enough to take flight, but then by contrast, the middle, slow movement did just that, with woodwind weavings and a memorable free-ranging horn tune.’ Milner's score ‘showed skilled planning, writing and imagining.’
It seems that the New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart had sorted out some of the gremlins present in the Woodford premiere. I.A. writes that the ‘woodwind and brass (horns) were equal to the demands made on them’ but the ‘string playing made one want to hear this work again, with a virtuoso body like the English Chamber Orchestra.’

Writing about the same concert, Ernest Chapman (London Musical Events, 23 June 1968) suggested that the Chamber Symphony was ‘... expertly written with a slow movement notable for its sustained melodic impulse.  The outer movements, while always keeping the ball in play, could have done with more of this poetic element.’    

The looked-for definitive account probably came with a Radio Three broadcast made on 28 October 1983 by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Howard Williams. It was the work’s first, and possibly last, broadcast performance.  
Listening to this recording on YouTube,  reveals a Symphony that is approachable, satisfying and, in my opinion, an important addition to the symphonic repertoire of the 1960s. The ‘adagio’ is quite simply gorgeous.
As such, I feel that there should be a modern reading of this work made available, or at least a remastered issue of the 1983 broadcast.

Finally, Paul Conway (MusicWeb International 3 February 2003) has written that ‘…the Chamber Symphony of 1968…whose cool spikily expressionist style is articulated by an ensemble of modest proportions…is characterised by pungent rhythms and idiomatic solo woodwind writing.’ This pithily sums up the Symphony’s impact. Milner was never afraid to make use of expanded tonality, as in this present Chamber Symphony.  On the other hand, he was adept at intensifying this apparent limitation to his requirements, and produce work that is always fresh, vibrant and satisfying. He was never a ‘slave’ to the prevailing avant-garde.

With thanks to Paul Conway for his invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.  And also to MusicWeb International where it was first published. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Dame Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916)

I omitted to post this review on my 'blog' in 2016: so here it is now...
There is a rule of thumb that states British opera did not truly exist until the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the days following VE Day. Palpably this is not true, but it is believed by many opera enthusiasts. There are the Savoy Operas, but these are usually regarded as being as less than ‘serious’.  In fact, even the briefest glance at the listings of British opera (operetta) over the years prior to Grimes, reveals a large number of works. Well known examples include RVWs Hugh the Drover, Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet and Edward German’s Merrie England. There are plenty of others. Two major genres are represented here: grand opera and light opera or operetta.
The Boatswain’s Mate falls into the category of ‘short opera’. And therein lies one of its problems. It needs a programme partner. Few opera goers would be prepared to spend a considerable sum on a performance lasting a mere one and half hours. It needs its Cox and Box

A few notes on the composer may be of interest to listeners. Ethel Smyth was born on 23 April 1858 in Sidcup, Kent. She was the daughter of a Major General in the Royal Artillery. Smyth studied abroad under the German musician Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and at the Leipzig Conservatory. Early successes included the symphonic Serenade in D major for orchestra and the Overture: Anthony and Cleopatra which were first heard at the Crystal Palace. In 1893 she presented her Mass in D at the Royal Albert Hall.  She was a prolific composer of operas with her most famous being The Wreckers, inspired by the seas and history of Cornwall. It was preceded by the comic opera Fantasio and Der Wald.  Other stage works were to follow The Boatswain’s Mate, including Fête Galante, Entente Cordiale. During a two-month term of imprisonment in Holloway she wrote an oratorio, The Prison. There were also a number of skilful chamber works.
Her political activities often overshadowed her music. She was active in the Suffragette movement and the Woman’s Social and Political Union. Her volumes of autobiography including Impressions that Remain, Streaks of Life and A Final Burning of Boats make entertaining and informative reading.
Smyth’s music is of great quality: it is characterised by powerful melodies and competent scoring. One feels that is she had been male, her star would have risen as high as Elgar, Parry and Stanford. In 1922 she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Ethel Smyth died in Woking on 8 May 1944.

The Boatswain’s Mate was written during 1913/14 whilst Smyth had taken a step back from the militant politics of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Apparently, she toyed with the idea of setting J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. She put this to one side and chose to devise a libretto from the short story The Boatswain’s Mate by W.W. Jacobs printed in the Strand Magazine (August 1905). The music was composed whilst she was on a ‘vacation’ for six months in a Hotel in Helouan, Egypt.  The political struggle was not totally forgotten: her The March of the Women and the song ‘1910’ from Songs of Sunrise for unaccompanied choir, commemorating the violence of ‘Black Friday’ (18 November 1910) are woven into the overture.
The Boatswain’s Mate was premiered at the Shaftsbury Theatre on January 28 1916 and was performed by the Beecham Opera Company. It was conducted by the Smyth herself.

I do not intend to plot spoil. One or two brief pointers will be of significance. The first thing to surprise the listener is that the action is set in a pub. I guess before I read anything about this opera I imagined that it would reflect the high seas, or at least some seaport such as Plymouth or Portsmouth. I felt that it would follow in the wake, as it were, of The Wreckers. However, all the action is set in The Beehive, a remote country inn.
Secondly, there has been much argument as to whether this is a ‘feminist’ opera of not. It is possible to analyse it as such, but equally imaginable to consider its heroine as a ‘feisty’ woman, who manages to outwit a calculating suitor and (possibly) falls for his competitor in her affections. In other words, a straightforward battle of the sexes, where the woman wins.
Musically the work is written in two diverse parts, although ostensibly in one act. The first part has a selection of arias and interludes sung by the soloists. This is interspersed with spoken dialogue, in the same manner as Gilbert and Sullivan in their Savoy Operas. The style could also be defined as ballad-opera. The second ‘part’ is musical throughout, with all ‘dialogue’ sung in the manner of a music drama. I am not sure why she created this obvious disparity: I am not completely convinced that it adds to the end result. The music is always enjoyable and never ceases to hold the listener’s attention.
And finally, Ethel Smyth not only uses her famous march: she also weaves a number of folk tunes into the proceedings. This includes ‘Bushes and Briars’, ‘Lord Randall’ and ‘O Dear what can the matter be?’

The recording quality of the of the music is ideal. The clarity of the singing is never in doubt. It would be disingenuous to pick out any individual soloist. All of them give a sympathetic and convincing performance. The Lontano Ensemble provide an intimate, chamber quality to the proceedings.
The liner notes are comprehensive. The first section presents an essay by Christopher Wiley on ‘The Boatswain’s Mate in the context of Smyth’ life and works.’  Another major essay by the present conductor Odaline de la Martinez, examines ‘The Music of The Boatswain’s Mate.’  Finally, David Chandler considers the operetta’s ‘Source, Adaptation and Emphasis.’ The usual biographies of the cast and performers are given. Most important of all, the libretto is printed in full (including sung numbers and dialogue).  As a package this is exceptional. It is exactly how ‘revived’ operas should be presented.

Included in this 2 CD set are two historical treats. Firstly, there are ‘significant’ extracts of The Boatswain’s Mate recorded (unbelievably) on 2 October 1916. This century-old recording is surprisingly good. But then it should be. It was made by The Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. I am not too sure what the recording history of this work is, but reading the liner notes it would appear that a number of records were issued featuring the Overture followed by eight songs/arias/interludes from the operetta.
The final indulgence is the overture from Ethel Smyth’s other opera The Wreckers. This was recorded in 1930 with the composer again conducting The Symphony Orchestra. It has been released on Symposium 1202 in 2000. However, it is valuable to have it here as a pendant to the present opera. One cannot help noticing just how far recording technology progressed in the post First World War years. As a matter of interest, another version of this overture was recorded by Sir Alexander Gibson in 1968, along with works by German, Harty and MacCunn. (HMV ASD 2400)

This the first recording from Retrospect Opera. This is a registered charity whose mission is to record selected British operas of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They combine expertise in performing, editing of music and scholarly research.  The aim is to allow listeners to hear and understand the ‘wealth of British operatic heritage.’ All the profits made from this CD release will be ploughed back into further projects. Retrospect Opera has an excellent website. Other operas being produced will include Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes and Solomon and Burnard’s Pickwick. I understand that plans are being made for a recording of Smyth’s Fête Galante.

The Boatswain’s Mate is an ideal candidate for concert performances. No complicated sets, scenery or props are needed. The cast is limited to about eight principals and only a chamber ensemble is required.

Let us hope that two things result from this outstanding new release from Retrospect Opera. Firstly, a wider appreciation of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music, with increased performances of the present opera and possibly the other five. And secondly, a greater demand for listeners and singers to explore the proud heritage of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian (V) operas that have for so long lain under the cloud of negative comparison with Peter Grimes.

Track Listings:
Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916) Complete Opera (Edition prepared by Dr Valerie Langfield
The Boatswain’s Mate (extracts from the 1916 recording) The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth
The Wreckers: Overture The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth (rec.1930)
Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez.
Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman) Ted Schmitz (The Man) Rebecca Louise Dale (Mary Ann) and Chorus.
Rec. September 2015 and April 2016 St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London, UK.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

William Blezard: Variations on a Sea Shanty for piano

William Blezard was born in the North Country at Padiham in 1921. His parents worked at a local cotton mill. However, there was much music in the household as William’s father sang tenor on a semi-professional basis. After some self-taught practice on the piano and harmonium, Blezard was discovered whilst playing at a local cinema. Apparently, a member of the audience was so impressed with his performance and recommended him to her brother, a local mill-owner, who paid for the young man’s lessons.
Later, he was then fortunate enough to win a Lancashire County scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and Frank Merrick and composition with Herbert Howells. A further study of orchestration was taken with Gordon Jacob. Unfortunately, his academic career was interrupted by five years of war service in the RAF. During the war he served in the North of Scotland as a Morse code operator.
After early success in winning the Cobbett chamber music prize in 1946, Blezard was appointed student composer at J. Arthur Rank’s Denham film studios where he worked extensively with the ubiquitous Muir Matheson. He married Joan Kemp Potter who was a fellow student at the Royal College of Music.
Much of his subsequent career revolved round the theatre where he was well regarded as an accompanist and musical director. Some of the big names he has worked with include Honor Blackman, Marlene Dietrich, Max Wall and Joyce Grenfell.
William Blezard died in Barnes in 2003 aged 81. His final musical performance was the night before his death.

The Variations on a Sea Shanty is one of Blezard’s longest piano pieces. And I must say that it is seriously impressive from start to finish. It has everything one could possibly imagine about a work with that title. Yet this is not ‘drawing room’ music nor tunes to be played by ‘Grade 5’ students. This is a full-blown set of variations that requires all the resources of an extremely competent pianist. Parkin himself likens the scale of parts of this work to Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.
The work was written in 1939/40 at the beginning of the Second World War – presumably when the United Kingdom was suffering great losses to allied merchant shipping. The theme is ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor.’ It is often hidden in the pianistic outworking and then suddenly become quite explicit. Some of the variations are aggressive and angry – suggesting storms or violence on the high seas. Often calm descends on the evening scene. Perhaps the sailor has moved on from being ‘fighting drunk’ to a more reflective mood? Or maybe he is thinking of his girl in Liverpool or Southampton? I think that what raises these Variations from a good work to a great one is the skill that Blezard has used in transforming and reworking the basic material. He has used a variety of pianistic styles -from John Ireland through English pastoralism to ‘Savoy Hotel lounge.’ Dissonance is well used in conjunction with more conventional musical devices. Yet the styles never seem to clash or be out of balance. The theme and the variations are well unified in both their design and implementation. One of the techniques that Blezard used is a variation within a variation. The closing pages are totally triumphant – the drunken sailor has sobered up and is now quite simply one of the Royal Navy’s finest. 

Variations on a Sea Shanty can be found on The Piano Music of William Blezard: Volume 2 SWCD27. Alas this CD now appears to be deleted from the catalogues. It is worth hunting down in the second-hand record stores. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Tivoli Garden-The Tivoli Youth Guard Band: 'Dedicated'

Few people will have been to Copenhagen, Denmark and not made their way to visit the Little Mermaid. When I was last there, this iconic statue had been lent to Japan and had been replaced by a hologram. Equally essential to any visit to this great city is an exploration of the renowned Tivoli Gardens. This is a large amusement park and pleasure garden that dates from 1843: it is the original ‘Disneyland.’  There are so many attractions here, but the secret of the Garden’s success is that there is something to suit every taste. From historic rides such as the 1914 roller coaster, to the latest high-powered dare-devil adventures there is something for all the family. Coupled with this, is the attractive and imaginative architecture, the historic buildings and the transformation of the Gardens by night into a veritable fairy-land. 

Music plays an important role in the daily events with classical concerts, rock music and the Garden’s own Big Band and Late-Night Orchestras. Part of this musical activity is the Tivoli Youth Guard Band founded in 1844. This consists of girls and boys aged from around 8 to 16 years of age. The liner notes for this CD point out that the average age is 13 ½. There are several sections: the Corp of Drums, the Marching Band and the Honour Guard Platoon.  There is also a small eight-piece band selected from the Guard. The Guards dress in uniforms which evoke the ‘senior’ Royal Danish Guard who are frontline troops, protect the Royal Family and provide ceremonial duties.
The present CD is divided into three sections. Firstly, a selection of ‘formal’ concert pieces performed at the Tivoli Gardens. Secondly, a recording of a parade through the Gardens with nearly 100 members of the entire Guard. And finally, two ‘bonus’ pieces played by the eight-piece band.
Just a brief overview of the highlights (for me). Several pieces played here were composed by the Guard’s composer in residence, David Palmquist. The main event is the challenging Tivoli Suite, composed in 2016. This work is eclectic and features several musical styles. The Suite presents a march, oriental tunes, a pantomime waltz, a rip-roaring, big-band infused, roller-coaster ride, late-night jazz and fanfares accompanying the traditional firework display. It is my favourite work on this CD, and is splendidly played.
H.C. Lumbye is most famous for his Champagne Galop, complete with popping corks. His other masterpiece is the Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop (not included here). Several other Lumbye pieces are featured on this CD: King George I's Honorary March, the Hesperus Waltz, and the charming Princess Thyra Polka
I was delighted to find Canadian-born composer Robert Farnon’s music represented on this CD by the Farnon Fantasy. This work was dedicated to the Tivoli Youth Guard, and was premiered during the 1980s with the composer himself conducting. It is appropriate to have this included on this CD during Farnon’s centenary year (2017).
The 8-piece band play the final two tracks: Lumbye’s Dagmar Polka and Bjerre’s In love in Copenhagen. They are real treats.

I was unable to locate the ‘dates’ of several of the composers of this music in the liner notes, or with a simple internet search. The recording details are only given in Danish, but are easily workable out! I was a wee bit disappointed with the booklet for two reasons. Firstly, the English translation seems to be a curtailed version of the Danish, and, secondly, the text is overlaid on artistic splashes of mottled colour which can make it hard to read for older eyes.

Notwithstanding, this is a delightful CD: it is full of attractive and entertaining music played with great enthusiasm, passion and care.

Finally, on my last visit after seeing the Little Mermaid (hologram) and the Tivoli Gardens, I included a stop at the Nyhavn for a herring platter washed down with a ‘locally produced lager’ making the day ‘probably the best in the world’! This CD brought back many memories of Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen!

Track Listing:
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST (b.1979) 170 Years Anniversary March of the Tivoli Youth Guard
H. C. LUMBYE (1810-74) Hesperus Waltz
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST The Tivoli Suite: Salute to Fru Nimb; Promenade of the Peacock; Rutsch!; Tivoli by Night; Tivoli Fireworks Fanfare
H. C. LUMBYE King George I's Honorary March
Ib GLINDEMANN (b.1934) Festivoli Suite: Intrada; The Merry Parade  
H. C. LUMBYE Princess Thyra Polka
Robert FARNON (1917-2005) A Farnon Fantasy
H. C. LUMBYE Champagne Galop

Parade in the Tivoli Gardens
ANON. March of the Flag     
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST The Signal of the Tivoli Youth Guard
Dan GLÆSEL (1928-1999) The Tivoli Youth Guard in Gala        
Nell Krogh LARSEN The Caravan
Arne Ole STEIN Salute March of the Tivoli Youth Guard
Henrik MADSEN The Merry Corner
Stig NORDESTGAARD Georg Carstensen's March
Martin HOLTEGAARD The Fountain       
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST The Thousand March
ANON. Step Down

Bonus Tracks by eight-piece band 
H. C. LUMBYE Dagmar Polka
Bent Fabricius BJERRE (b.1924) In love in Copenhagen
The Tivoli Youth Guard Band/David Palmquist
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Folk Songs of the Four Seasons-Suite (1949)

In 2012, Dutton Epoch released the World Premiere Recordings of several ‘early and late’ works by Ralph Vaughan Williams (CDLX 7289). These included the Serenade in A minor (1898), the Dark Pastoral for cello and orchestra (1942-43, orchestrated 2009), the Bucolic Suite (1900/01) and the present Folk Songs of the Four Seasons: Suite (1949/52). The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Martin Yates.

In 1952 Roy Douglas arranged several numbers from Vaughan Williams’s Folk Songs of the Four Seasons for orchestra alone. There are five movements:
‘To the Ploughboy’ and ‘May Song’.
‘The Green Meadow’ and ‘An Acre of Land’.
‘The Spig of Thyme’ and ‘The Lark in the Morning’.
‘The Cuckoo’.
‘Wassail Song’ and ‘Children’s Christmas Song’.

Roy Douglas has given a detailed description of the work’s genesis and progress. In 1948 ghe had completed his work as RVWs amanuensis for the Symphony No.6 in E minor and was currently working on revising and correcting the full score of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Then, RVW asked him to ‘vet’ and make a fair copy of the complete Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. This editing clearly sparked an interest in the work. In 1952, after working on the score of the Sinfonia Antartica, Douglas ‘busied himself with a reduced scoring of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. A couple of years later, he revisited the score and ‘was charmed afresh by many of the settings of the folk-songs, and…conceived the idea of making an orchestral suite from some of the most attractive and suitable movements.’ After gaining approval from composer and publisher he began work.
Roy Douglas concluded his remarks by pointing out that the ‘Suite was published and is occasionally performed though not as often as I could wish, for V.W. had, with characteristic generosity, insisted that I should receive the lion’s share of the royalties.’

There has been little attempt at following the order of the carols as presented in the full score, although, the swing of the seasons does begin with the opening number, ‘To the Ploughboy’ and closes with the joy of Christmas. The songs are presented as written by RVW without any further musical development.

Martin Murray (Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, October 2012) wrote that ‘this is a charming compilation of material from the choral version and is a worthwhile discovery in its own right.’ Murray concludes by noting that the scoring is light and airy’ and that the entire suite ‘is thirteen minutes of pure enjoyment.’

In January 2013, Andrew Achenbach reviewed the CD in The Gramophone. After commenting the other works on this CD he writes: This merely leaves the colourful and breezy five-movement suite that Roy Douglas compiled from the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons.’ Achenbach considered that Martin Yates ‘presided over enthusiastic, spick-and-span performances.’ 

I find that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is an almost perfect summing up of Vaughan Williams’s work with folk-song. In its orchestra-only guise, the listener is free to concentrate on the melodies rather than worry about the texts. Roy Douglas’ scoring is magical and reveals fresh delights in these well-chosen selections from the complete score. 

Monday, 1 January 2018

A Happy and Prosperous New Year
To All Readers of
The Land of Lost Content

Some Significant British Composer Anniversaries for 2018:

Henry Charles Litolff

150 Years:
Granville Bantock
John W Ivimey
Frederic A Lamond
Hamish MacCunn
John Blackwood McEwen
Joseph Speaight

A J Potter

I guess that I never realised that Henry Charles Litolff, famous for his Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102, was a British composer. In fact, he was born in London on 7 August 1818 to a Scottish mother and a French (Alsace) father. After studies with Ignaz Moscheles, he made his name as a virtuoso pianist. Litolff travelled extensively throughout the world. He wrote a considerable amount of music, including a dozen operas, five concertos Symphonique, several chamber works and a huge corpus of piano solo pieces. He was the founder of the publishing firm Collection Litolff. He led a colourful life, that included an elopement, several marriages, escape from prison and ‘exile’ in the Netherlands. Litolff died in Paris on 5 August 1891.

Perhaps the biggest celebration this year is the 150th anniversary of Granville Bantock. His name is widely known amongst British Music enthusiasts and needs no introduction. His best-known work is the Hebridean Symphony. Bantock had many influences, including Greek and Roman mythology, Celtic folklore and Eastern traditions.

I imagine that few people will recall the life and music of John W Ivimey over the coming year. Which is a pity. I have ‘read’ his Organ Sonata’ and it is definitely a work that demands revival. His main contribution to music would appear to be comic opera of which he wrote about twenty examples. There is also a ‘grand opera’ The Rose of Lancaster, a symphony, some chamber music and several songs. He was born in Stratford, London on 12 September 1868 and died on 16 April 1961.

Joseph William Speaight is a largely forgotten composer, pianist and organist. There does not appear to be an entry in the current Grove’s Dictionary for him (there is one in the 1966 edition). He was born in Shoreditch, London on 24 October 1868. After study at The Guildhall School of Music under the pianist Ernst Pauer and composition teacher Robert Orlando Morgan, he spent much of his life lecturing at his alma mater, and latterly at The Trinity College of Music, London. Speaight died in Ware, Hertfordshire on 20 November 1947. His catalogue of compositions is extensive, with two symphonies, three symphonic poem, a piano concerto, much chamber music and many piano pieces. I was unable to find any recording of his music.

A trio of important Scottish composers were born 150 years ago this year: Frederic A Lamond, Hamish MacCunn and John Blackwood McEwen. I will be revisiting all of them in the coming year. So, nothing to add at this point. 

Finally, A.[rchibald] J.[ames] Potter is a composer that I had never heard of. An Ulsterman, he was born in Belfast on 22 September 1918 and died at Greystones, County Wicklow on 5 July 1980. Since preparing this blog post, I have made it my business to hear some of his music, which has been released on the Marco Polo label. This includes the beautiful Rhapsody under a High Sky, the Fantasia Gaelach and the Sinfonia Profundis. The Rhapsody has already gone on to my Desert Island Disc list. He is a composer that I will consider exploring in subsequent posts. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Winter from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons – the recordings

In 2009, the Albion Record company issued the first full recording of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (ALBCD010). The CD also included the suite In Windsor Forest which was a series of songs extracted from the opera Sir John in Love.  The performers include The Choir of Clare College Choir, Cambridge, English Voices and the Dmitri Ensemble conducted by David Willcocks
John Steane, reviewing the CD for The Gramophone (November 2009), writes that ‘A world-premiere recording of works by Vaughan Williams is surely at this date something of a world event. The scope is modest, but the appeal of such grace of spirit and mastery of means transcends such limitations.’  Although the choral forces on this disc do not match the 3000 plus of the Albert Hall premiere, the ‘effect…is delightful.’ Steane notes that ‘the orchestrations have the unfailing touch of a composer fully engaged in his task and the recording does full justice to the generous, affectionate work…’

The appraisal by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International (September 2009) is extensive and imaginative. He begins by noting the fact that this is ‘an almost completely unknown work’. He thinks it strange that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons concludes with ‘winter’ but understands that ‘it is largely Christmas that is celebrated rather than the icy chill of mortality.’  As to the four Winter songs, Barnett writes: ‘The Children's Christmas Song’ shows RVW's compassionate humanity when he writes with touching effect of the poor children at Christmas ‘wandering in the mire’. Wassail Song has the ale-jar clinking power of the John Barleycorn movement…In Bethlehem City is a silvery carol cherishable for any Christmas watch service. The final section God Bless the Master has that wonderful sense of journey done, homecoming summation and sky ascendant victories. RVW writes with light in his pen and light shines through these cleverly laid out and lovingly performed movements.’ 

Ronald E. Grames, writing in Fanfare (January/Febriary 2010) gave a long, considered review of this work. He presented a brief history of its genesis reminding readers that it posed a ‘unique practical challenge for the composer. Vaughan Williams surmounted the limitations splendidly, alternating and joining the large chorus of unison singers with a smaller chorus of those capable of part singing and a select a cappella chorus.’ Not only was choral writing successful, but the composer produced ‘a sparkling orchestral accompaniment of bright, exuberant winds and dark viola-rich strings…’ Finally, Grames sums up the work by suggesting that ‘the cantata demonstrates Vaughan Williams's talent for sounding both contemporary and nostalgically familiar while respecting the folk originals in style and spirit.’

In the same year (2009) Naxos issued an anthology of ‘seasonal music’ on a CD entitled In Terra Pax (8.572102). Included on this disc was the ‘Winter’ section of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. The music is sung by the City of London Choir accompanied by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton.
The CD was reviewed by Steve Schwartz for Classical Net (June 2012). Schwartz writes that ‘I’d previously heard this in churches at Christmas with piano accompaniment only, so it was a particular pleasure to hear it with the orchestra.’ Finally, David Vernier Classics Today (November 2009) pointed out the Naxos CD ‘program ends in grand style with Vaughan Williams’ ‘God bless the Master’…You can’t help but be caught up in the joyful spirit that’s apparent throughout all the performances on this disc, from the soloists and accompanists to the choir and orchestra.’ 

From my own perspective, Vaughan Williams has created a magical impression of ‘Winter’ as seen through the perspective of a traditional Christmas. It is a well-written work that overcomes all possible technical obstacles. It is hard to imagine that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is not in the repertoire of choirs across the county. As noted in the first part of this post, the work is an exploration of the Four Seasons: there is no reason why any single ‘season’ cannot be excerpted as appropriate to the time of year. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: ‘Winter’ from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons - Part I

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s contribution of music to the Christmas Season is extensive. The listener need only think of the cantata Hodie, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, the masque On Christmas Night and the nativity play The First Nowell. Add to these numerous arrangements of carols and seasonal folk-songs for several hymn-books. One Yuletide work that seems to be largely forgotten is the final section of his Folk Songs of the Four Seasons.

RVW wrote in the programme note for the premiere: ‘When I undertook to write a Folk Song Cantata for the Women’s Institutes I set my mind to work to find some unifying idea which would bind the whole together. It was not long before I discovered the necessary link—the calendar. The subjects of our folk songs, whether they deal with romance, tragedy, conviviality or legend, have a background of nature and its seasons.’  For the ‘Winter Season’ RVW wanted to express ‘the joy of Christmas…set in its true background of frost and snow.’ (cited Kennedy, Michael, A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1996).
The cantata was written during 1949 and presents 15 traditional folk songs arranged for women’s voices and orchestra.  The ‘Winter’ section contains four well-known carols: ‘Children’s Christmas Song’, ‘Wassail Song,’ ‘In Bethlehem City’ and ‘God bless the Master’.
Michael Kennedy has written (The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, OUP, 1964) that Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is ‘a labour of love, an old and practised hand returning to his first enthusiasm, an enchanting work, gay, touching, invigorating and timeless.’
There is a detailed essay by Lorna Gibson on 'Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Women’s Institute’ in the Journal of the RVW Society No. 30 (June 2004): 7–8. A major section of Frank Howes’ The Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, London, 1954, presents a considerable analysis of the entire work.

The work was first performed in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 June 1950, during the National Singing Festival of [the] National Federation of Women’s Institutes. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.  This included RVWs Fantasia on Greensleeves, George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Tune and Air, Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings and an arrangement by Arnold Foster of RVWs Prelude on the Welsh Hymn Tune Rhosymedre. The Festival opened with ‘Jerusalem’  and concluded with ‘Land of my Fathers’.
Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of her husband, wrote that ‘The Albert Hall was packed, and when the choirs rose to their feet it was strange to find that the audience seemed far fewer than the performers…’ She relates that ‘when they started to sing there was a freshness and sweetness in their voices that matched the songs…’

The four carols selected for the ‘Winter’ section are presented in varying vocal and instrumental arrangements. ‘The Children’s Christmas Song’ is preceded by an introduction, before the two-part chorus sing the boisterous folk-song collected from the village of Hooton Roberts (near Rotherham) in Yorkshire.
We’ve been a while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves so green,
But now we come a-wassailing,
So plainly to be seen.
For its Christmas time, when we travel far and near;
May God bless you and send you a happy new year.
The ‘Wassail Song’ is written as a unison song with an added elaborate descant. The accompaniment is robust, reflecting the virility of the words. The tune was collected by Vaughan Williams in Gloucestershire. It is a drinking song to reassure the people of a bountiful crop of corn next season. This carol was included by the composer in Five English Folk Songs, composed in 1913.
‘Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of the white Maple tree;
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.’
The third carol, ‘In Bethlehem City’, is a beautiful arrangement for three parts (soprano I, soprano II and alto). Apart for a very short introduction, it is unaccompanied. This is adapted from the carol ‘A Virgin Most Pure’.
In Bethlehem City in Judea it was
That Joseph and Mary together did pass,
All for to be taxed when thither they came,
For Caesar Augustus commanded the same.
Then let us be merry, cast sorrow aside,
Our Saviour Christ Jesus was born on this tide.
The final folk-song of ‘Winter’ is ‘God Bless the Master of this house’. This is part of the Sussex Mummers Carol, which was originally collected by Lucy Broadwood.
All the voices join in unison with an optional descant. There is a hearty accompaniment with many parallel first inversion chords supporting this expansive ‘lento maestoso’.
God bless the Master of this house
With happiness beside;
Where e’er his body rides or walks,
Lord Jesus be his guide

The Times (16 June 1950) described how thousands of members of women’s institutes from all the country had assembled at the Albert Hall to give the first performance of the RVW’s new work. As to the music, the critic noted that the 15 songs ‘are lightly strung together and arranged so as to provide [a] variety of texture for massed unison voices and for two-and three-part smaller choirs: a few are unaccompanied; some have descants; in a word, the greatest ingenuity has been employed to avoid the tonal monotony of unrelieved female voices.’
These folk songs are a perfect fusion of ‘the English tradition and the English composer’ that results in music of ‘immediate and penetrating appeal to the emotions, because it speaks to us of what is in our bones.’ As to the performance itself, the ‘result was astonishing for its accuracy, homogeneity of tone...diction, confidence of attack and precision of ensemble.’ It is hardly surprising that after the work concluded the composer himself conducted the final folk-song (‘God bless the Master’) as an encore. The remainder of the concert included English orchestral music conducted by Sir Adrian.
Frank Howes (op. cit.) well-summed up the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons : The effect of so many voices singing with simple sincerity melody that was bone of their bone, composed specially for English women dwelling in the English countryside, by a composer who more than any other has steeped himself in our native traditions was extraordinarily moving.’ 

Monday, 25 December 2017

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Bellini: Madona of the Meadow

Before the Paling of the Stars
Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow,
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world his hands had made
Born a stranger.

Priest and king lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem;
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem;
Saint and angel, ox and ass,
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on his mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless lamb of God was he,
Shepherd of the fold:
Let us kneel with Mary maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With saint and angel, ox and ass,
To hail the King of Glory.
Christina Georgina Rossetti

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Angela Morley: Snowfall

One of the most evocative little pieces of Christmas music I know is Angela Morley’s arrangement of the well-known song ‘Snowfall.’ The melody was composed by Claude Thornhill (1909-65) who was an American pianist, composer, arranger and band leader.
Snowfall was originally written as a piano piece in 1941. It was later arranged as a ‘signature tune for Thornhill’s band and it was first recorded at Liederkrantz Hall in New York City. It can be heard in its ‘original form’ on YouTube.Snowfall’ was covered by dozens of artists including Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Henry Mancini and Manhattan Transfer.

In 1959 Warner Bros. asked Angela Morley to rework a selection of Christmas tunes she had released previously on a 10” Philips LP. Several extra numbers were added. As part of this project, Angela Morley’s arrangement of ‘Snowfall’ was released on the album Happy Holiday: Christmas in High Fidelity (Warner Bros.WS 1341) in 1958.
It is a little confusing when considering any piece by Angela Morley as she changed name and sex in the early ‘seventies’ – until that time she was known as Wally Stott. However, although ‘Snowfall’ was arranged in 1958 it is now assigned to the composer’s latter name. Morley is best known for her scores to the films Watership Down and The Slipper and the Rose. She also wrote music for the Goons and for Hancock’s Half Hour as well as many short pieces of light music. She died in January 2009.

The added magic that Angela Morley has brought to her arrangement of ‘Snowfall’ is all to do with the orchestration. She has created her ‘winter wonderland’ by using a thesaurus of instrumental devices. Icicle-like percussion, slippery woodwind effects, shimmering strings and misty horns and saxophones all lend their colour to this wintery tone poem. It is really a chilly piece, with only a few suggestions of warmth. It is the sort of music that evokes memories of a walk in a snowbound wood with one’s lover, with only the thought of a warm inn and a cheery fire some distance down the road. 

Angela Morley’s arrangement of Snowfall is currently included in The Golden Age of Light Music: Christmas Celebration (GLCD 5185) which also features ‘Christmas Sleigh Bells’ (‘Romance’ and ‘Troika’ from Lieutenant Kije) by Sergei Prokofiev and arranged by Morley. 
Angela Morley’s arrangement of Snowfall can be heard in YouTube

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Percy Whitlock: Carol from Four Extemporizations.

In 1933 Percy Whitlock composed his Four Extemporizations for organ. The titles of the pieces are: Carol; Divertimento; Fidelis; Fanfare. Peter Hardwick has pointed out that the word Extemporization is something of a misnomer. Despite Whitlock’s expertise at improvisation, the only piece in this collection that has the feel of something devised at the organ keyboard is the third, ‘Fidelis’. However, this is hardly problematic.

Firstly, what is a Carol? I guess that most people associate the ‘form’ with Christmas: that is why I am posting about this piece in the days running up to the 25th December. However, a ‘carol’ (derived from the French ‘carole’) was originally a pagan round dance in which the participants sang a chorus or refrain whilst dancing in a circle. The leader of the group would sing the stanzas. A few of these original ‘carols’ have survived, such as some old Wassailing songs. Another source of carols would have been the medieval mystery plays. One well-known example is the ‘Coventry Carol’. It was not until after the Reformation that the word gained its current meaning, that of a Christmas song typically celebrating the Nativity, the Angels, the Shepherds and the Magi. However, it is possible to have seasonal carols for other times of the year, as well as secular ones.
It begs the question, therefore, as to what image or mood was in Whitlock’s mind at the time of its composition.

Whitlock’s ‘Carol’ is the first of the four extemporizations. It was dedicated in ‘Homage to F.D.’ Even a cursory hearing will disclose that the inspiration can be none other than Frederic Delius. Yet this is not an aimless ramble in a summer garden in search of the first cuckoo of spring. Despite the enthusiastic use of secondary 7th and 9th chords, double pedalling and a Delian 6/8-time signature, this organ piece is formally well-constructed and shows a considerable advance in Whitlock’s harmonic language. It is music that paints a pastoral scene rather than highlighting theology or Yuletide folk-traditions. Yet there is something that does chime with the winter season. I think that amongst the earth standing hard as iron in the Bleak Mid-Winter, there is the hope of springtime and the eventual warmth of summer days. In fact, look out for the cuckoo call at bar 11 with the typical falling minor third (A-F). In this case it is played by the thumb of the right hand in the lower manual, whilst the second and fifth fingers are playing on the swell.
There is no doubt that this piece is one of the most impressionistic works that Whitlock composed. It seems futile to argue whether this is pastiche or parody. Clearly, Delius is the model, for virtually every aspect of the composition. However, Whitlock has been sensitive in paying his homage. The registration is subtle with much swapping of manuals, the use of string stops to provide an unfocussed accompaniment, and the judicial use of solo stops such as the ‘clarinet’ and ‘orchestral oboe.’

The Four Extemporizations were reviewed in the January 1934 issue of the Musical Times. The critic ‘O’ explained that ‘an extemporization may be called a wandering of the thoughts given some immediate form in art.’ Turning to the ‘Carol’ he suggests that Whitlock ‘seems to have been thinking the same thoughts Delius so often has thought, and as a result there is a movement in pastoral time, lilting along, with caressing, indecisive harmonies.’

In 1933 Oxford University Press published the Four Extemporizations with subsequent reprints in 1961 and 1992. This latter was reprinted in the collection The Complete Shorter Organ Music of Percy Whitlock.  There have been several recordings of this work: I would recommend Graham Barber playing the Organ of Hull City Hall. (Priory PRCD 489, 1994). There is a YouTube posting of the Carol being played by George Thalben Ball.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Michael Alec Rose: Il Ritorno

The biographical notes on Michael Alec Rose explain that he is a composer of symphonic, chamber, piano, vocal, wind ensemble, ballet and theatre music.  Although he was born, trained and now works in the United States, he has had many performances of music in Europe. As the background notes to the works on this CD explain, he has a strong connection with the United Kingdom.  At present, Rose teaches at the Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, Nashville. As part of his work there, he has co-directed six rounds of an International Exchange Programme with the Royal Academy of Music. 
Stylistically, his music has echoes of Brahms, Copland, Bartok, Crumb, and a touch of minimalism.

I had to take this CD slowly. Having a natural preference for orchestral and piano music I do not instantly warm to works written for solo violin or violin and viola duo. If I choose to listen to chamber music of this type it is always limited to the sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach.  Yet, it is good to come out of my comfort zone and explore music that I would not normally put into the CD player. And the encouraging thing is, I enjoyed these four imaginative compositions. Each work is finely played, and (in my opinion) perfectly interpreted by the two soloists Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Diana Mathews (viola).

I began with Mornington Caprice, which is a duo for violin and viola. It was composed in 2015 and dedicated to the present violist. The work is inspired by the well-known painting by Frank Auerbach: ‘Mornington Crescent-Early Morning’ (1991). Most Londoners will know this part of the world as a station on the Northern Line. Many people will have walked past the Crescent on a stroll along Eversholt Street between Euston and Camden Town. And there are several interesting pubs in the area.
Rose gives a long, detailed 700 odd-word programme note on this work which presents information overload. From my point of view, this is a perfect little piece of suburban musical landscape painting that creates an evocative mood. It is important to keep Auerbach’s painting as an aide-memoire. Bartok may be a clue to the sound experience. Finally, I do not know why Rose feels he needs to be embarrassed (expressed in the liner notes) by his early enjoyment of the film Mary Poppins. For many, this film presents an idealised portrait of the London which need not be limited to childhood.

The first work on this CD is Unturned Stones: duo for violin and viola. This was composed in 2012. Rose points out that the old saying ‘leave no stone unturned’ has explained ‘the virtue of studying a landscape so thoroughly that nothing about it remains unexposed.’ On the other hand, he muses that it may be ‘best to leave things alone, without imposing our own wills upon them’.  I am not quite sure about his philosophical underpinning of this piece (Zen, the Talmud, singing to a stone etc.) but the net result is an impressive concatenation of these two instruments. Sometimes bantering along in a minimalist manner and at other times in a concentrated dialogue, this is an involved but ultimately attractive score. I think his basic assumption is ecological: we are stewards of the Earth, not its Master.
There are three movements: ‘Eppur si muove’ (And yet it moves), ‘A Courtesy Towards Being’ and finally ‘A Coming Home to the World.’

Diaphany takes its inspiration from the Sea Nymphs (Nereids) in the British Museum (Room 17). Rose points out that this marble frieze was sculpted for ‘an obscure Xanthian dynast’ predating Alexander the Great.  He considers that these figures are ‘music in stone.’  The title is derived from the word ‘diaphanous’, which suggests a quality ‘characterized by such fineness of texture as to permit seeing through.’  More convoluted, is Rose’s noting that the word ‘Diaphany’ can be changed into ‘Diaphony’ by the alteration of just one letter. This ‘new’ word, in Greek, refers to the concept of ‘dissonance’ and also ‘a more recent term for two-part medieval organum’ (parallel fourths and fifths, sung or played).  I am not convinced that I would think of ‘Nereids’ if I heard the music without the programme notes, however the entire piece is characterised by luminosity, timelessness and translucent scoring.

The big work on this disc is Il Ritorno: Perambulation for solo violin (2013-2015). This is a huge ‘landscape’ piece inspired by Dartmoor. Rose first visited this enigmatic part of Devon in 1991. The present work was written especially for Peter Sheppard Skærved. He writes that it has taken him quarter of a century ‘to figure out how to translate my experience into a music that reflects every aspect of the moor…’ Fundamentally, the composer regards Dartmoor as his spiritual home. He has visited there eighteen times.
There are six movements, each of which examines a facet of the moor or folks’ relationship to it: ‘Preamble’, ‘Bearings’, ‘Silence’, ‘Water’, ‘Stone’ and ‘Song’. The composer has written in the liner notes a detailed and poetic discussion of the music’s soul, but I guess that it boils down to this: he has portrayed two essential (and antithetical) aspects of Dartmoor’s being: permanence and change.  And look out for the deliberate (I hope) vocalisations from the soloist during this work!  I was not convinced that I was going to enjoy this 33-minute piece. How wrong can one be! It is a magical and deeply-felt exploration of Dartmoor, that reveals new characteristics of the landscape at almost every bar. Quite beautiful.

The programme notes written by the composer are extremely detailed, gnomic and somewhat verbose. I wonder if listeners will read and inwardly digest them from end to end? The insert includes biographical details of the composer and two soloists. There are several photographs including a distant view of Frank Auerbach’s ‘Mornington Crescent-Early Morning’ and the Nereids in the British Museum.

I enjoyed this CD. I have not heard any other works by Michael Alec Rose so have little on which to form a generalised opinion of his musical aesthetic. Based on the four works on this present CD, Rose is a composer who can develop and maintain interest using the slenderest of instrumental resources. He is clearly inspired by many extra-musical subjects which, in my opinion, is a good thing. 

Track Listings:
Michael Alec ROSE (b.1959)
Unturned Stones: Duo for violin and viola (2012)
Il Ritorno: Perambulation for solo violin (2013-2015)
Mornington Caprice: Duo for violin and viola (2015)
Diaphany for solo violin (2016)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Diana Mathews (viola)
MÉTIER msv28574 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Humphrey Searle: Night Music, op.2 (1943) - the Recording.

I remarked at the end of my post about Humphrey Searle’s Night Music that it seemed remarkable that there is only a single recording of this work. At the time its composition, there was plan for Decca to record all the pieces that had been selected for inclusion in the Committee for the Promotion of New Music rehearsal concerts. In fact, few, if any of these were ever recorded.
In 1996, CPO records released the first of two CDs featuring the cycle of symphonies by Humphrey Searle. This included Symphonies Nos, 2, 3 and 5 (CPO 999 376-2). Three years later, the two remaining Symphonies were issued. Included on this second CD were two orchestral works: the present Night Music, op.2 (1943) and the Overture to a Drama, op.17 (1949). Except for the 1st and the 2nd Symphonies, which had been released on Decca SXL 2232 and Lyrita SRCS 72 respectively, these are all premiere recordings.

Reviewing the recording of the Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 & 5 Michael Oliver (MEO) (The Gramophone February 1997) praised the ‘performances and recordings [which] are so good that a companion disc of his First and Fourth Symphonies would be welcome [eventually released]. Enthusiastically, he suggested that this symphonic cycle ‘might lead to a demand…for recordings of [Searle’s] strikingly original trilogy of melodramas for speaker and orchestra, Gold Coast Customs, The Riverrun and The Shadow of Cain. [yet to happen].
MEOs final thought was ‘Dour and grey Searle certainly wasn’t; there’s even a brief hint of jovial humour in the Fifth Symphony. Indeed, this disc demonstrates that among British symphonists of his period (Arnold, Frankel, Fricker, Lloyd, Rawsthorne, Simpson) Searle stands higher than most.'

Robert Layton (The Gramophone, May 1999) summed Searle’s symphonic success. Readers are reminded about the ‘ongoing success’ of CPOs Benjamin Frankel symphonic cycle. Layton suggests that ‘at his best, Searle is a rewarding composer under whose dodecaphony beats a human heart’ in spite of his music not being immediately ‘accessible’.  He notes that the Fourth Symphony is ‘perhaps Searle’s most austere and elusive work…a formidably gripping piece.’

The major review of the CPO recording of Night Music was presented in The Gramophone (April 1999).  Once again, the task was taken up by MEO. He believed that this CD ‘gives and admirable indication of the sheer variety that lies behind the off-putting label that Humphrey Searle has acquired in many people’s minds: atonal Cheltenham Symphonist.’ Regarding Night Music, which he considers to be an ‘uncommonly assured and accomplished op.2’: it presents a ‘likeable’ work in spite of its ‘battery of learned contrapuntal devices.’  He concludes that the entire CD contains ‘admirable performances’ and is ‘finely recorded.’

A specific comment about Night Music appeared in Philip Haldeman’s review for the American Record Guide (July 2005). He thought that it ‘is more contrapuntal and linear than anything else here. The mood is nocturnal, but not lush, with piquant woodwinds that seem to mock the more serious aura of night.’ A few months later, Jerry Dubins writing in Fanfare (September 200) thought that Night Music, dedicated to Webern on his 60th birthday, (1943) contains some of the creepiest horror-movie music you've ever heard. 
I have come to enjoy Night Music and think that it makes an excellent introduction to Humphrey Searle’s musical achievement.

Alun Francis, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Humphrey Searle Symphonies No.2, op.33, No.3, op.36 and No.5, op.43, CPO 999 376-2, 1996. 
Alun Francis, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Humphrey Searle Symphonies Nos.1, op,23, No.4, op.38, Night Music, op.2, Overture to a Drama, op.17 CPO 999 541-2, 1999.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Some thoughts on Humphrey Searle’s Night Music for Anton Webern (1943)

Since first hearing Humphrey Searle’s Night Music, op.2 (1943) on the 1999 CPO CD release, I have considered that it is an interesting introduction to his music. Stylistically, the work is a balance between the astringency of Webern and the expressionism of Alban Berg. There are some moments that could be defined as ‘romantic’ in their sound: this is hardly surprising when one considers that Liszt was one of Searle’ influences.

During the late 1930s Searle had studied with Webern in Vienna. Conventionally, the Austrian master’s influence on the composer first became apparent in Night Music which was composed for Webern’s sixtieth birthday: he was born in 1883.  It is not ‘technically’ a twelve-tone work, but pushes atonalism to the boundaries and uses several procedures that were common to exponents of that style such as contrapuntal devices and pointillistic orchestration. Searle’s first completely 12-tone work was the Intermezzo for eleven instruments, op.8 written in 1946.  Unfortunately, this work has not been recorded.

During the 1939-45 war years Searle had not felt able to compose strict twelve-tone music so his style nodded to Bartok. His formal Opus 1, the Suite for string orchestra (1941-2) dated from this period.  The composer himself, (ed, Layton, Robert & Searle, Humphrey, Twentieth Century Composers 3, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972) explained that he and Elisabeth Lutyens were amongst the first to adopt the twelve-tone technique beginning around 1939. They were joined in this endeavour by the ‘exiled’ composers Egon Wellesz, Roberto Gerhard and Mátyás Seiber.  Searle insisted that as a ‘group’ they were not writing serial music all the time, and ‘each wrote a good many tonal works as well as their twelve-note compositions’.  It is a fact that much of their music was not particularly well-received by concert goers. However, Jenny Doctor (The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922–36: Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge University Press, 1999) has suggested that the resistance to serial music may not have been quite as strong as later writers have implied.

Searle (op.cit.) briefly discusses his Night Music. He quotes a review of the score from Musical Opinion (March,1948): ‘This work is dedicated to Anton Webern on his sixtieth birthday (1943) and as one might expect from such a dedication, is atonal, gaunt in style and melodically spiky. There is nothing in this work to suggest that the composer is British – or doesn’t that matter to British composers anymore.’  The background to this ‘conservative’ criticism was ‘the domination of Vaughan Williams and the English folk-song school, to which all British composers were expected (by some people) to adhere.’ The Musical Opinion reviewer also suggests that Searle’s Night Music ‘is strikingly dull’ which probably implies a similar view of Webern’s oeuvre.

Night Music was inspired by the contrapuntal forms explored in Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering (1935) It is unfortunate that Webern never heard the work, as he was accidentally shot by an American soldier on 15 September 1945.
Night Music is scored for a chamber orchestra with single woodwind, horn, trumpet, trombone, single percussionist and strings. This allows the musical argument to develop with clarity and transparency. David Sutton-Anderson (Liner Notes, CPO 999 541-2) suggest that the entire work ‘show[s] a control of resources and command of structure remarkable for an opus 2.’

The premiere, under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of New Music, was given on 4 February 1944 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constant Lambert at an ‘experimental rehearsal’ at the Royal College of Music. Other music included Norman del Mar’s Flute Concerto and Francis Chagrin’s Piano Concerto. After the concert, the music was discussed by the audience. One of those in attendance was the society’s President, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who certainly made his presence felt. More about that in a subsequent post.

The Times critic (unsigned, 9 February 1944) suggested that of the music heard at this concert, the most profound and challenging was Searle’s Night Music. He considered that ‘this work, whose dark colour was well suggested by the title, showed undoubted originality.’ The structure of the piece presented itself as ‘music of patterns’ with the ‘orchestration serving to clarify the polyphonic structure, with an economy of material that at times left the music bare and exposed.’

In ‘An Interim Report on Humphrey Searle’s Music’ (Music Survey, I, 1949) Richard Gorer has mixed views on Night Music. On the one hand, he recognises that ‘the advance on the previous work [Suite No.1 for strings, op.1, 1943] is so extraordinary, it appears almost incredible.’ In fact, it was the piece that first drew the attention of the musical cognoscenti to the composer. On the other, Gore thought that the work ‘always appeared a little incoherent from the formal point of view.’   
Many years later, in his conspectus of Searle’s music, Edward Lockspeiser (Musical Times, September 1955) wrote that ‘…here [Night Music] Searle was obviously inspired by those fragile wisps of phrases of his master [Webern] pieced together, as in some of the works of Debussy, by the aid of eloquent silences.’

‘E.L.’ reviewing the score of Searle’s Night Music in Music & Letters (July 1948) wrote: ‘Mr. Searle has obviously been tempted in this youthful work to emulate some of the Schoenbergian processes of orchestration. The violin solo answered by the trombone followed by a horn solo and leading to two isolated pizzicato notes on the viola is an example of this wilful disintegration of the orchestra. Much of the writing is contrapuntal, with canons and inversions galore.  All of which is an indication of the musical school to which the composer has elected to belong and where he is attempting to hammer out a style of his own.’

Finally, Robin Hull (Penguin Music Magazine, 8, February 1949) simply noted that Night Music ‘will be remembered for the keen interest that it aroused in Searle’s individuality as a composer, and deserves in every respect to become more widely known.’
After nearly seventy years, the quality of this work is unimpaired, but its popularity with all but the most enthusiastic listener is virtually non-existent. It is hard to believe that there is only a single recording of this work. 
A subsequent post will examine the reception of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recording of this work on CPO 999 541 2.  It can also be heard on YouTube.