Thursday, 28 July 2016

Anthony Burgess: The Man and his Music

Whilst reviewing ‘Opening the Door…to the music of Roy Heaton Smith’ I realised that I had not posted my review of this present CD on my blog. It dates from 2007. With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 
When John Turner gave me the ‘heads up’ about this CD, I was confused. I had never heard of a composer called ‘Anthony Burgess’. Yet here was a double-disc CD dedicated to his achievement. I mentioned this to a friend. She said, was he not the Third or Fourth Man? After a deal of head-scratching we resolved that he was probably not Antony Blunt, Guy Burgess nor any of the ‘Cambridge Five’. Then the penny dropped. ‘Clockwork Orange.’ Every teenager of my generation had lied about their age to see this film at the cinemas in the early nineteen-seventies. I did not enjoy it. I still prefer Ealing comedies to Stanley Kubrick’s edgy, dystopian masterpiece. But I recalled Burgess had written the novel on which the film was based. I never read the book.  Googling his name I discovered that he was much more than an author. His occupations are listed as ‘novelist, critic, composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist. Enough activity for a dozen lifetimes.
It is with Burgess’ musical activities that this CD is concerned. Burgess’ musical achievements are considerable: he wrote piano music and songs, a massive setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, an operetta ‘Blooms of Dublin’ to a libretto based on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ as well as three symphonies and chamber music for a variety of instrumental forces. Apparently he composed in excess of 250 works. His first symphony was written when he was only eighteen years old. Yet searching Arkiv reveals only a disc of three ‘Quartets for 4 Guitars’ in their listings. It is currently unavailable. MDT and Crotchet return zero hits. 
David Wordsworth has written that Burgess ‘described his music as ‘‘post tonal’ – perhaps neo-romantic’.

Anthony Burgess: The Man and his Music is effectively presented as two recitals – back to back. Each CD contains two compositions by Burgess as well as a wide-ranging selection of pieces by contemporary composers. Casting my eyes down the batting order reveals a number of names that I have never heard of before, a few that are ‘famous’ and one or two that ring a bell.
Beginning with four ‘well-known’ composers, Gordon Crosse’s ‘The Thing with Feathers’ was written in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the composer Peter Hope. There is a literary connection to Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’. It is an attractive piece that is full of sunshine and bird calls. I am pleased that Crosse is composing again after an intermission of many years.

Alan Rawsthorne wrote incidental music for the 1961 Stratford-upon-Avon production of Hamlet. The composer wrote sections for recorder and also for wind band. The music has been realised for recorder and piano by David Ellis. I love this music: for me it is the major discovery on this disc.

Herbert Murrill is known to those who haunt the organ loft for his impressive Carillon but remains largely undiscovered for the majority of listeners, in spite of his ‘Country Dances’ for orchestra being recently released on Dutton Epoch.  The present ‘Sarabande’ was described as ‘A Christmas Greeting for Pau Casals.’ It was formerly published for violin, viola or cello. Interestingly, John Turner considers that the piece was originally conceived for recorder (an instrument that Murrill played). The ‘violin’ part, when transposed up an octave ‘fits the treble recorder like a glove, being extremely idiomatic as well as in perfect range.’ Whatever the original instrumentation, this piece works well. It is reflective music that has a melody that seems to be something heard a long while ago.

Mátyás Seiber was an émigré from Budapest who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1935. His achievement is inclusive: as well as composing he worked as a teacher and an administrator. Seiber has written a wide range of scores, including the cantata Ulysses, choral settings based on Hungarian folk tunes, a clarinet concertino, film music and and an opera. The present ‘Pastorale’ was originally written in 1941 for recorder and string trio. The work was later expanded for flute and strings and a ‘Burlesque’ was added. The ‘Pastorale’ has a definite feel of folk-music and is written in a rhapsodical style.

The West-Country composer Nicolas Marshall (b.1942) studied with Anthony Milner and Lennox Berkeley. His career so-far has included conducting, lecturing, playing the piano as well as composing. He has produced a varied sonata that features an acerbic opening ‘con moto’ followed by a more introspective ‘elegy’. The finale is technically difficult – with double tonguing and incisive rhythms: this truly ‘fizzes with energy.’ The sonata was premiered in 2005 and was commissioned by The Friends of Fulbourn Hospital. It is not a work that I warm to; nevertheless it is well-balanced and technically effective for both instruments.

Alan Gibbs, born 1932, studied composition with Mátyás Seiber. After National Service he was head of music at Archbishop Tenison’s School in London. He remained there for more than 30 years. He has composed incidental music, an opera, Verity Street, chamber works and incidental music for radio. ‘Blithe Spirit’ refers to Shelley’s poem rather than the wonderful film starring Rex Harrison and the gorgeous Kay Hammond. This short piece was written in 2000. It is a skittish number that uses a variety of technical effects on the recorder – some of which seem harsh.  Whether it reflects the poet’s intention is a matter of opinion. Personally I feel it is a little to extrovert to express the thought of ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.’

Wilfred Josephs’ Sonatine, Op.4 was written sixty years ago: it retains its fresh and sunny prospect. The opening movement has ‘cheeky wrong notes’ the ‘elegie’ is a little more thoughtful, whilst the concluding ‘caprice’ is pure fun. It is a piece that I would expect to be in the repertoire of all recorderists. A joy to listen too.

I did not enjoy Barry Ferguson’s ‘The Untamed has a Language but no Word’ –both the title and the music are longwinded. There may be some attractive moments as the work progresses, but it left me a cold as the ‘snow-covered island’ that inspired the piece.

I have yet to come across something by David Dubery that did not impress and satisfy me. The present Sonata is no exception. Although this work is short, almost like a Sonatina, the material demands greater attention. There is a lot of harmonic and textural variety in the opening ‘andantino’. The slow movement is more ‘chilled’ with a blue-note here and there. It has the mood of a ‘pop’ song – and that is no criticism. The finale is inspired. The piano and recorder work together to produce a toccata-like texture. The middle section has a good old fashioned tune that contrasts vividly with the preceding filigree. There is a reprise of the opening theme of the first movement that brings this miniature masterpiece to a conclusion.
David Dubery was born in South Africa in 1948 but has lived in the United Kingdom since he was a teenager. His music includes several orchestral tone poems (I want to hear these) choral works, songs and chamber music.

Roy Heaton Smith is a Manchester lad – having been born in Middleton in 1928. After working as an accounts clerk he studied piano with Noel Walton (William’s brother) and composition with Richard Hall.  He subsequently studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and then the Royal Academy of Music in London. His catalogue includes a Clarinet Concerto. The beautiful ‘Sonatina alla Fantasia’, Op.23 was written when he was still a student in Manchester, but was subsequently dedicated to John Turner. The middle section ‘chorale’ where solo tenor recorder passages are interspersed with rich chord on the piano is particularly successful. The final ‘jig’ is totally effective and uses the descant recorder.  

The unfortunate tale of Peter Pope should be a sobering lesson to us all. He was born in 1917 and studied musical composition at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland. In 1939, he won a scholarship which enabled him to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Managing to escape the German invasion of the city he escaped to Britain on a Spanish trawler. After active service with the Royal Army Medical Corp in North Africa he returned to his musical studies. A major event in his career was a performance of his Piano Quintet at the Wigmore Hall in 1948. It was a critical success. Alas, he became ensnared in a fanatical sub- Christian sect that prohibited any involvement ‘with the creative arts.’ It was to be a number of years before he saw sense and escaped their clutches. Unfortunately, his musical career had been halted: he was unable to pick up from where he had left off. This did not stop him composing. According to the liner notes his subsequent works include a Clarinet Concerto, a Concertino for flute and string trio, a number of piano sonatas, various instrumental sonatas as well as a deal of chamber music and songs. Peter Pope died in 1991 with virtually all his music still in manuscript.
The present Recorder Sonatina is the only work by Pope to have been commercially published (at present) and dates from 1939. This short work opens with a delightful ‘allegro molto moderato’ which is a vigorous dialogue between the two soloists. Considerable use is made of canon and fugal devices. The movement closes quietly. The ‘lento molto’ has a lovely melody that is skilfully supported by delicious chords. The finale is a rondo that fairly scampers along. This Sonatina is no ‘lost masterpiece’ and does not imply a ‘misplaced genius’ but based on the skill and craftsmanship that clearly informs this work, I look forward to hearing more of Peter Pope’s music.

The ‘Sonata alla Danza’ is a recent work from the Bristolian composer Dick Blackford. This is a charming study in English ‘pastoralism’ in spite of the fact the each of the movements has a baroque title. The main thrust of this sonata is in the opening ‘bourree.’ The Sarabande is an exploration of landscape. The composer uses both the treble and the bass recorders in this movement. Of all the recorders I like the bass one the best. The finale makes use of every recorder in the book. To me it is all a little too complex –effect for effect’s sake.  The piano part carries a huge amount of interest in this work, often outshining the recorder.  I hope that John Turner will forgive me if I say that of all the pieces on these two CDs this is the one I should like to hear arranged for flute or oboe and piano.

Christopher Wright’s Sonata was composed in 2007. Wright was born in Ipswich in 1954. He studied composition at the Colchester Institute under Richard Arnell and later Alan Bullard. In 1993 he gave up his post as a schoolmaster and turned to full time composition.  He has written a number of concertos (horn, violin, oboe and cello) choral works and a quantity of chamber music including there string quartets.  Like most of the pieces on these discs the sonata is immediately approachable.  The opening movement is like a dialogue between the recorder and the pianist. It does feel at times a little disjointed and edgy. The middle movement is a long song that is not quite as free-flowing as the liner notes suggest. There is a good sense of balance between the reflective ‘minuet’ and a more aggressive ‘trio’ section.  The final movement is also antagonistic. The composer dabbles with ‘jazz-based rhythms’ that do not seem to quite come off. The middle section seems unrelated to what has preceded.

I loved John Sullivan’s short, well crafted ‘Joie de Vivre’ (2009). This work was composed in a tuneful, approachable style more akin to the best of British light music. Sullivan is a Mancunian composer and music teacher, born in 1951: he has composed a wide variety of music including music for wind and brass ensembles, chorus and also for electronic resources.

Finally, I will consider Anthony Burgess’ contribution. His first work on this CD is the Sonatina which was composed around 1990.  It was written for his son Andrew who had originally taken up the oboe but later switched to the recorder. The score had a number of lacunae but these were reconstructed by David Beck.   The Sonatina is written in three contrasting movements. John Turner suggests that it was written in emulation of Lennox Berkeley’s similar work composed in 1939.  Like most of Burgess’ works presented here is written in what might termed a ‘spicy but accessible’ modern style.
The ‘Tre Pezzetti’ was published in 1994. They are neat, concise little numbers. The word ‘pezzetti’ is quite simply Italian for pieces! Nothing too difficult to get to grips with here.
The Sonata No. 1 in C was composed is dated Good Friday 1990 and was duly published in 1992 at the instigation of Andrew Burgess Wilson.  The work was conceived for bass recorder, an instrument that the composer suggested had no existing compositions. He deemed that his work was the ‘first of a possible repertoire’: he was to compose another three sonatas for this instrument.  Due to tonal balancing issues, John Turner has chosen to play the first and the last movement on a descant recorder with the bass recorder used in the middle ‘largo.’ It is an attractive, lightweight work that has memorable, almost ‘Arnoldian’ tunes. The bass recorder is especially effective.
The final work on this recital is Burgess’ short, undated ‘Siciliano’, written for the tenor recorder and piano: it may have been part of a larger work. John Turner is correct in describing this music as ‘beguiling.’  It brings this two-disc recital to a reflective conclusion.

The liner notes are a model of their kind.  The short, but informative introduction about the musical side of Anthony Burgess’ career by David Wordsworth is pitched just right. The remainder of the programme notes are written by John Turner and give detailed information and opinion on each of the works presented. Helpful biographical notes on the composers are also provided.
The sound recording is typically excellent; I did notice one or two distortions on some of the high notes of the soprano recorder.
As usual, with any project that John Turner turns his hand too, this is a major success. From the playing of both the soloists that is perfect, through the liner notes, the design of the CD and the selection of the programme, I am totally impressed.

I enjoyed most of the pieces on this double-CD set: I reiterate my suggestion that these eighteen works are taken at a leisurely pace. I would find it difficult to digest nine sonatas or sonatinas for recorder and piano at a single sitting.
I noted above that some of the composers presented here are ‘well-known’ other less so. It is good to see that Metier is giving an opportunity for the second groups’ music to be heard. I was particularly impressed with Peter Pope, David Dubery and John Sullivan. Let us hope that we can hear more music from their pens, as well as from the others in the near future.

Track Listing:
CD 1
Anthony BURGESS (1917-1993) Sonatina for recorder and piano (c.1990)
Nicolas MARSHALL (b.1942) Sonata for recorder and piano (2005)
Alan GIBBS (b.1932) Blithe Spirit (2000)
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) ‘The Thing with Feathers’ (2010)
Wilfred JOSEPHS (1927-1997) Sonatina Op.4 (1953)
Barry FERGUSSON (b.1942) ‘The Untamed has a Language but no Words (2012)
David DUBERY (b.1948) Sonata for recorder and piano (2011)
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) arr. David ELLIS (b.1933) Interludes from Hamlet (1961 arr.2005)
Roy Heaton SMITH (b.1928) Sonatina alla Fantasia, Op.23 (1950/51)
Anthony Burgess Tre Pezzetti (1994)
Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952) Sarabande (c.1950)
Peter POPE (1917-1991) Sonatina for recorder and piano (1939/48)
Dick BLACKFORD (b.1936) Sonata alla danza (2011/12)
Christopher WRIGHT (b.1954) Sonata for recorder and piano (2007)
Mátyás SEIBER (1905-1960) Pastorale (1941)
John SULLIVAN (b.1951) Joie de Vivre (2009)
Anthony BURGESS Sonata No.1 in C for recorder and piano (1990)
Anthony BURGESS Siciliano (?)
John Turner (recorders) Harvey Davies (piano)
METIER msv77202 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Opening the Door…to the music of Roy Heaton Smith

Roy Heaton Smith is probably a new discovery for many listeners. Based on the music presented on this double CD, he is most worthy of the dedicated work that has been put into the production of this unique retrospective.
A few notes about the composer are essential: I rely on the liner notes for this information. The composer was born in Middleton, Manchester in 1928 and died there in 2014.  He began composing as a teenager, however, the ‘day job’ as an accounts clerk did get in the way. He studied piano with Noel Walton, Sir William’s brother, and composition with Richard Hall.  In 1950 he won a scholarship to attend the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) where he had additional studies with Hall.
Heaton Smith won the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize for his Phantasy for voices and string orchestra. For much of his career he was Head of Music at the Queen Elizabeth High School in his home town. He held this post from 1960 until his retirement in 1984.
The liner notes tell us that Heaton Smith wrote a good deal of music in a wide variety of forms. More details about these will be helpful as there is little information on the Internet or in the standard reference works.
The listener will be struck by a number of musical influences in Heaton Smith’s music. He was clearly inspired by Shostakovich, Britten and Bartok, amongst others. Notwithstanding, his music is original and is not a pastiche of these composers. He certainly was not one of Vaughan Williams’ ‘corn-merchants’ (Elisabeth Lutyens) nor did he aspire to the Manchester avant- garde represented by Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.

The opening tracks on CD 1 present the delightfully whimsical Three Bagatelles, op.46 for recorder, viola and clarinet. Most likely written for Heaton Smith’s own use, this work was probably never performed. The opening ‘scherzo’ is vivacious, the ‘dance’ restrained and the final ‘capriccio’ is ‘knockabout’ in its wayward humour. I love it!

Of more serious moment is ‘A Suite of Variations’, op37 for viola and piano. This work lasts for nearly quarter of an hour and presents six well-considered variations, preceded by a reflective theme played on the solo viola. The music progress through a sad ‘berceuse’, an affecting arioso and a nervous toccata. The last three variations include a deeply felt ‘elegy’ a none too light-hearted ‘intermezzo’ and a thoughtful finale. The Variations were written in 1955 and dedicated to Brien Stait: it was a prizewinning work in the SPNM’s (Society for the Promotion of New Music) Harry Danks Viola Competition. It was first heard in The Great Drawing Room of the Arts Council of Great Britain, St James’ Square, London, on 6 July 1955.

I found the ‘Pastoral’ a magical experience. It quite clearly out-Britten’s Britten in its effectiveness, colourful scoring and musical interpretation of the text. This piece is based on a long poem by the Heaton Smith and is set for medium voice, recorder and viola. It was composed in 1969.  The balance of the parts is near perfect in its portrayal of the composer’s imaginary, but captivating pastoral landscape.

The liner notes give little detail about the Introduction and Variations, op.24 for violin and piano. Yet, this one of longest and most impressive works on this CD. It was first performed at Aberystwyth University during July 1951 by the composer’s friend Brien Stait and an anonymous pianist.  After a short ‘introduction’ played ‘feroce’ the soloists present a lovely romantic tune. This is followed by four variations.  The music is a well-judged balance between aggression and reflection.

The composers Henri Duparc and Gabriel Fauré have provided the inspiration for the ‘Trois Chansons Romantiques’, op.22 for mezzo-soprano and piano. They were composed during 1950 whilst Heaton Smith was studying with Richard Hall at the Royal Manchester College of Music. These songs are evocative settings of poems by Alfred de Musset, Paul Verlaine and Henri Chantavoine. In spite of their ‘retro’ feel these are commendable ‘chansons’ that are both satisfying and musically perfect. I would have appreciated an English translation of the songs, as schoolboy French does not stretch to the subtleties of a literary translation of these beautiful words.

The earliest piece on these CDs is the melancholy Passacaglia. This was the first movement of a string quartet that was subsequently abandoned: either not completed or discarded. The music was composed during the autumn of 1948, but was not finalised until May 1950. The liner notes suggest that it was never performed until the present recording was made.  The music is not serial, in spite of the use of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. There are 17 variations which maintain the mood of the opening cello solo, but provide interest by subtle string writing. It is a very beautiful piece that is far removed from the contemporaneous music of a Ralph Vaughan Williams or a Humphrey Searle.

The String Quartet written between 1951-4 is a different kettle of fish. It presents a buoyancy and energy in the ‘overture’ that chases away any gloom.  There is a reflective ‘second subject’ but this is more a pause than a change of mood. The second movement is a set of variations which fulfils the function of the ‘slow movement and finale.’  This begins with a pizzicato cello solo, followed by a gradual increase in tension until the short but dynamic ‘presto’ clears the air. The composer has a masterly understanding of string writing. In spite of being a work of its time, it is a little masterpiece. Once again the present performance would appear to be the quartet’s premiere.

I was delighted by the ‘early’ ‘Sonatina alla Fantasia’, op.23 for soprano recorder and piano, composed in 1950/1. This short, but highly inventive little piece has three ‘linked’ movements: there is considerable self-reference between the opening ‘allegro moderato’ and the closing ‘allegro scherzando.’ The middle movement is a measured ‘andante molto’ that contrasts chordal passages for piano with unaccompanied recitative from the recorder.  Just here and there I found hints of Malcolm Arnold’s exuberance, especially in the fast sections.

There is a neo-classical ‘grittiness’ about the Sonatina, op.19 for piano solo (1949). The liner notes state that it reveals the influence of Stravinsky, Bartok and Poulenc. The bitonal ‘allegretto con moto’ is followed by a less-than-restful, but beautifully contrived ‘lullaby,’ The rondo is a tour de force, counterpoising irregular motor rhythms (if that is not a mix of metaphors) with less dynamic and almost Ireland-esque interludes. It is a complex and virtuosic work that belies the title: this Sonatina is no teaching piece. This is a work that deserves to be in the pianist’s repertoire.

I did not warm to ‘A Vision of the Future’ which is a ‘heartfelt diatribe against conflict’ composed in 1966. It is a setting of two ‘verses’: one by the composer and the other by Alexander Pope. This is just a little bit too ‘pacifist’ for my taste. I am very proud of the men and women who fought against Hitler in the Second World War, ‘In the desert and jungle/In frozen seas/Men died…’  I do not regard their sacrifice as futile (‘And for what?’). I concede the idealistic hope for peace demanded by Pope: we all do. The musical onomatopoeia is just a little bit over the top. On the other hand, I can well imagine other listeners declaring this ‘Vision of the Future’ a masterpiece, and there are certainly some wonderful moments in the work.

The Four Folksong arrangements, op.26 for medium voice, clarinet and piano were composed in 1948/9 and were revised in 1951. Tunes that were once upon a time very well-known have been extracted from the National Song Book (1905) published under the auspices of Charles Villiers Stanford. There are settings of ‘Robin Adair’, the Northumbrian ‘The Keel Row’, a wistful ‘Farewell Manchester’ supposedly dating back to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s retreat from the Lancashire city on his way up the road to Culloden. The final song is a setting of words by Alfred Percival Graves (1846-1931) ‘Good Morrow, Mistress Bright’ which brings the set to happy ending.

I found the ‘bonus’ track absolutely delightful. The Divertimento for clarinet and strings was taken from a radio broadcast made during March 1958. Stanford Robinson conducted the BBC Northern Orchestra. This work, as the title would suggest, is ‘light’ rather than profound. I found myself thinking of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as the music progressed.  In fact, the composer was influenced by Schubert’s German Dances! The old AM broadcast has been restored by Richard Scott. It is a wonderful ‘find.’

The soloists are totally committed to Roy Heaton Smith’s music. It is unfair to pick out ‘favourites.’ However, I loved Clare Wilkinson’s voice in all the vocal works. And John Turner has brought his renowned enthusiasm to both the production and the performance of this music. The liner notes are excellent, with musicians’ biographies and lots of photographs. A little more analysis of some of these unknown works would have been of great interest. The texts of all the songs are helpfully included, except the translations as noted above.  

I am not sure what other works Heaton Smith composed: I do know there is a well-regarded Clarinet Concerto in the catalogue. I guess that much of his output has remained in holograph. The only piece I had heard before reviewing this CD was the ‘Sonatina alla fantasia’, op.23 which appeared on the CD ‘Anthony Burgess: The Man and his Music’ (Metier MSV77202). I hope that more detail of Heaton Smith’s achievement will emerge, both in the musical press and on CD. Based on this present two-CD exploration of his music, any forthcoming performances will be essential listening for all enthusiasts of British music from the second half of the 20th century. 

Track Lisitngs:
Three Bagatelles, op.46 for recorder, viola and clarinet (1958/9)
A Suite of Variations, op.37 for viola and piano (1955)
Pastoral, for medium voice, recorded and viola (1969)
Introduction and Variations, op.24 for violin and piano (1950)
Trois Chansons Romantiques, op.22 for mezzo-soprano and piano (1950/1)
Passacaglia, op.18 (b) for string quartet (1948/50)
String Quartet, op.34 (1951/4)
Sonatina alla fantasia, op.23 for recorder and piano (1950/1)
Sonatina, op.19 for piano (1949)
A Vision of the Future, for medium voice, viola and piano (1966)
Four Folksong arrangements, op.26 for medium voice, clarinet and piano (1948/9, rev.1951)
Divertimento, for clarinet and string orchestra (1957)
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), John Turner (recorder), Linda Merrick (clarinet), Benedict Holland (violin), Alistair Vennart (viola) Harvey Davies (piano), Ewa Tytman (piano)  (Sonatina), Solem String Quartet,
Stephen Walters (clarinet) and the BBC Northern Orchestra/Stanford Robinson (Divertimento)
DIVINE ART dda 21228 

Friday, 22 July 2016

‘Some Chamber Music by Arnold Bax’, by Hubert J. Foss: Part II

The second instalment of Hubert J. Foss's article on Bax from The Dominant, Dember 1927:

This is, of course, a mere defect of Bax's quality of fluency, and one that seems -from the symphony, the harp and viola sonata, and the second quartet—to be lessening with maturity. But the same defect is present elsewhere—in ' I heard a piper piping’ no less than in the chamber works. I am not always convinced by the extended recitative passages in Bax, by the opening of the oboe quintet, for example, as well as the second movement, and in places in the other works. They indicate a looseness of direct thought which is easily pandered to with so fertile an imagination by means of sounds.
This same looseness of thought and its helpful but dangerous colleague—that most engaging musical imagination—come into reference again when the form of Bax's works is considered. All these works are planned upon a big scale; they have space inherent in them, and display a largeness of idea and a sense of dramatic values that are in themselves important.

But there comes a typical moment at the end of the long exposition of the piano quintet when one instinctively utters: 'Can he keep up to this level?'; and the answer is: 'He almost does '. It is partly that the composer has said so much, but partly that one knows his resources lie rather in fluency than in power. After this there is indeed much left to hear with intense feelings; there are the quieter passages, there are passages of strength, there is emotional fullness; but there is no really big moment. The repetition in varied forms (with extreme ingenuity) of the thematic material does not, somehow, carry one through; the harmony intensifies, but the structure does not help; the notes themselves become more full of passion, but the great moment is past. One longs for the simplicity of the first statement, just as in the oboe quintet for some quiet, wise utterance from the oboe to replace its antic lyricism, and to solve the problems set by this too subtle mind.

I have mentioned before the first movement of the quartet—its opening magnificent, its end a disappointment. Compare in this connexion the fugal passage in the last movement of the same work. This is a moment where, with such a subject, the strictest fugue (even if not carried to a close) could have done nothing but produce the climax which one lacked with the present lapse. Instead we are led to a sombre passage on the lower strings (lento), which, however welcome as a new mood, is but a substitute for what we were expecting.

This mood is often to be found in Bax's works—in the quintet (first movement), quartet (last movement), and oboe quintet (second movement) as well as in the symphony[1], in the form of a chorale. I do not quite understand it; musically, it has a 'churchy' effect, and is at the same time negative, sombre, and harmonically sober. It always seems to me to be Bax at his most ineffective, and yet in use it often succeeds, if it does not always.

After such comments upon a thesis, it would be ungracious not to offer proof on the positive side in favour of Bax's quieter moods and their great beauty. My notes are full of them; they are to be found in every work, particularly at the endings, when his musical thought seems to be transfigured, and his invention is taken up with endless harmonic and contrapuntal variations upon homely chords. They preside over the most beautiful of his songs and shorter works (' Youth' and 'Across the Door')[2]. They are the backbone of his works, for which all the rest of the music is acting a foil.
My conclusion at the end of the concert, borne out by study of the scores—was that the quartet was the finest of the four works, and with the symphony, perhaps his best work of all. It has immense skill, a really magnificent opening, a lovely second movement, and a fine ending. In it comes some, if not quite enough, of the hardness of structural purpose that I find lacking in Bax. For all the quintet's splendour, I find the second quartet the more satisfying.
Hubert J. Foss The Dominant December 1927.

[1] At the time of writing, only the First of Bax’s Seven Symphonies had been performed. The early Symphony in F remained in short score. It has now been orchestrated by Martin Yates and issued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7308).
[2] ‘Youth’ was a setting of a poem by Bax’s brother, Clifford. It was made in 1918. ‘Across the Door’ was the fourth song in the cycle Five Irish Songs (1921). The words of this song were by Padraic Colum.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

‘Some Chamber Music by Arnold Bax’, by Hubert J. Foss: Part I

Hubert James Foss was born in Croydon on 2 May 1899. He was a composer, pianist, music editor, educationalist, author and composer. Foss was educated in classics at Bradfield College, Berkshire. At the age of 20 he was assistant editor of the wartime journal Land and Water.  In 1924 he became musical editor at Oxford University Press, and founded their music department.  Foss died in London on 27 May 1953.  In 1933 he published Music in my Time which is still important to music historians examining music from the first third of the 20th century. He is best remembered for his Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Study (1950) which was the first book-length analysis of the composer’s life and music.

Almost exactly five years ago, an orchestral concert[1] was given to indicate the range of Arnold Bax's talents; on October 20 last, a chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall demonstrated his achievement in chamber music.[2]
The length and variety of these two solitary exhibitions have been their special value. They have enabled musicians to stop and make a sudden critical survey of Bax's music; to wonder, could any other English composer produce an equal accumulation of effect? This prolific and varied talent not only survives, but even needs, such an ordeal as this for displaying itself; so that these concerts have helped to establish Bax as a big composer. He is not yet fully recognized as a big composer; though some of his works have been performed on the continent (at Prague, Salzburg, Berlin, and Paris chiefly), and at Cleveland, Ohio, one may say he is virtually unknown outside Great Britain, and even here there is a tendency still to regard Bax as a promising young man and not as a real composer. With such a catalogue of works at 44, and one of such a quality, his magnitude must surely be accepted; and any criticism of him must be founded upon this base.
[Only such an assumption, therefore, permits one to examine—without any attempt at assessing finally an imagination which has not yet reached its fullest powers—certain characteristics in the four works of Bax recently heard in London—the quintets for piano and strings and for oboe and strings, the sonata for viola and harp, and the second string quartet.
I should add that his chamber works number, besides these four and many smaller works, two piano sonatas, two violin and piano sonatas, a quartet and quintet for strings, a quintet for strings and harp, two trios for violin, viola, and piano and flute, viola, and harp respectively, a phantasy and a sonata for viola and piano, a sonata for 'cello and piano, and 'Moy Mell' for two pianos (four hands), all of which, as well as the choral and orchestral works, are integral to a consideration of the whole Bax!] (Originally a footnote in the article)

Bax's sheer ability to compose music is phenomenal; his invention of sounds never ceases. One wonders, vaguely, as one has wondered of Reger, whether there could in the future be another Bax: whether, mathematically, music could stand it. But Bax writes sounds where Reger often writes notes. The thousand and one musicians who so seriously toy with composition might well despair at the score of, say, the second quartet. But it is not a mere collection of counterpoints, a charming interlaced pattern printed upon a leaf.
It is a map of effects in sound, planned only by intimate knowledge and imagination. The music in Bax is so essentially on the instruments, and the paper notation nothing but a skilfully used aid to the players—an order of procedure not common enough among composers. Compare in this connexion the opening of the second movement of the quartet, or the lovely end to the first movement of the oboe quintet, the last movement of which shows Bax's capability in a clearer texture than he usually contrives. There are times, of course, when the mere music pleases one more than its presence at a particular juncture; one of these, I think is the ending of the second string quartet’s first movement. The E major statement of the second theme (itself not quite convincing to me) leads so suddenly to an exquisite twenty bars of coda, where the first subject, of which we had hoped great things, dwindles to a slightly acid reminiscence in a passage of exquisite sounds.
The Fantasy-Sonata for viola and harp is, technically the highest achievement I have met of Bax’s musical invention. It is extraordinary that with this limited combination he could have devised sounds that are always interesting for so long a time. Even on a first hearing, one could recognize the superb musical thought for the instruments employed, the beautiful writing for them, if one would not dare come to a final aesthetic judgement about the work as a whole. As a technical feat at least this work is remarkable.
In this ability of Bax’s to fit his musical thought to the instruments, to pin it on to them as it were, does one find a trace of the failure of his musical individuality? His mastery of the physical capabilities as well as the characteristics of the various ‘sound producers’ is obvious; and it is as right as it is inevitable that these distinctive characters should affect his musical ideas as they are born in him. But I feel that sometimes the sounds are too much for him, as if they had escaped beyond this proper limit. He produces a complicated texture for the string quartet with as much apparent ease as the organist a single chant, and it seems to me that his very talent leads him sometimes away, not only in matters of form, but also in the quality of the musical thought itself.
The sounds may be more appropriate to the instruments, that is to say, than they are to the final effect of the work; most of all perhaps in the oboe quintet.
So much good and new music from these works passes through one's mind during performance and a study of the scores that one tries, at the end of it all, to decide what one has really liked best without reference to any earlier feelings one may have had about other works of Bax. Always I find myself saying: 'What a moment!' or 'How beautiful! 'about the quieter, more veiled, more softly romantic passages—about that superb entrance on the piano of the second subject proper in the piano quintet, for example. Whatever this may tell of the reagent, it must also, and I firmly believe does, tell something of the cause of the reaction, too.

It is not misleading to speak thus precisely of a certain mood in Bax's music, for his themes and tunes wear their hearts upon their sleeves. The meaning of a particular work may be obscure and its moods elusive and remote, but, in external characteristics, the musical ideas in it are well, almost excessively defined. In sharpest contrast to this softer music comes the music always spoken of by annotators as 'rough', and in preferring the former I am not forgetting such fine things as 'Beg-Innish',[3] or the emphasis of the oboe at the end of the quintet, or the magnificent opening of the quartet—the finest passage at the concert perhaps. There remain those times when Bax. speaks rhetorically, as in the opening theme of the quintet, and others when the piano bangs and the oboe brays because we are all, as it were, going to be violent now—by way of contrast.
There are the sul ponticello and martellato[4] passages, the heavy chords on the strings and the elaborate passage work—fortissimo—when the effect seems perhaps a little unreal and flimsy in comparison with the effort—a feeling never present in me in the moments of lyrical harmony or reminiscence, however complicated in texture.
Hubert J. Foss The Dominant December 1927.
Continued in next post...

[1] The concert of Arnold Bax’s orchestral works was organised by his publisher, Murdoch, Murdoch and Co., London and was held on 13 November 1922 at the Queen’s Hall. It featured The Goossens Orchestra and its conductor, Eugene Goossens, the Oriana Madrigal Society under Charles Kennedy Scott, Harriet Cohen, piano, Lionel Tertis, viola, and John Coates, tenor. The concert opened with the tone-poem, The Garden of Fand. Songs were sung by John Coates and accompanied by Bax: they included ‘The Market Girl’, ‘I heard a Piper Piping’ and ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’. Harriet Cohen gave a performance of the Piano Sonata No.2 in G major in the first half, after the interval she played the piano character pieces ‘Lullaby’, ‘Hill Tune’ and ‘Burlesque.’ The Sonata was followed by ‘Mater Ora Filium’ for unaccompanied double choir. The next work was the Phantasy for viola and orchestra, which is effectively Bax’s ‘Viola Concerto.’
In the second half Coates sang the Four Traditional Songs of France. The Oriana Singers presented two carols, ‘Of a Rose I sing’ and ‘Now is the time of Christymas’. The second half of this marathon concert closed with the orchestral transcription of the piano piece, Mediterranean. An exhausting evening!
[2]  The Arnold Bax [Chamber] Concert held at the Wigmore Hall on 20 October 1927 included four major chamber works. The String Quartet No.2, the Fantasy-Sonata for harp and viola, the Oboe Quintet and the Pianoforte Quintet.  The players were Maria Korchinska, Leon Goossens, Harriet Cohen and the Virtuoso Quartet (Marjorie Hayward, violin; Edwin Virgo, second violin; Raymond Jeremy, viola and Cedric Sharpe, cello.  The String Quartet No.2 was completed at Glencolmcille, County Donegal, on 18 December 1924. It had been premiered by the New Philharmonic Quartet at the Grotrian Hall (formerly the Steinway Hall) on 15 March 1927.  The Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp was dated ‘April 1927.’ It is dedicated ‘To Madame Maria Korchinska.’ It was first heard at the Grotrian Hall on 10 June 1927. Raymond Jeremy was accompanied by the dedicatee. The Quintet for oboe, 2 violins, viola and cello was completed at the end of 1922. It was dedicated to Leon Goossens.  The first performance was at the Hyde Park Hotel on 11 May 1924, with Goossens and the Kutcher Quartet. The final work played at this long concert was the early Piano Quintet composed between June 1914 and April 1915. It was dedicated to Edwin Evans. The premiere was a private performance on 19 December 1917 at the Savoy Hotel. Harriet Cohen was the pianist along with the English String Quartet, which included the composer Frank Bridge (viola).
[3] ‘Beg-Innish’ was the fifth song in the cycle of Five Irish Songs (1921). The text was written by J.M. Synge.
[4] The terms sul ponticello and martellato mean ‘play near the bridge’’ and ‘hammered’ respectively.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Thomas Dunhill: First Year Pieces for pianoforte

I have remarked before that pianists are often in a hurry to get away from ‘educational music’. Naturally, there is always going to be the desire to play something that sounds virtuosic and impresses the listener. Yet, the piano repertoire is full of short pieces of more or less worth designed to help the young pianist develop their technique. English composers have not been backward in producing this kind of teaching music. Pianists of a certain age will recall playing pieces by Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead, Walter Carroll and many others.  Some of this music is downright simple and easy to play. But there are pieces that seem to be designed to trip up the careless pianist. And the best of it leads the player to concentrate on the development of one or other matter of technique, no matter how basic.

I was in a charity shop the other day when I came across an album of ‘First Year Pieces for pianoforte by Thomas Dunhill.’ It is not the place for a full biography of the composer, save to point out that he studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford, wrote a diverse range of music including his operetta Tantivy Towers, an impressive Symphony in A minor and much chamber music. He is probably best remembered today (where recalled at all) for his song ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ (W.B. Yeats) and his piano music for young pianists. I should add that he did write some ‘concert works’ for the piano as well. Dunhill was born in Hampstead on 1 February 1877 and died in Scunthorpe on 13 March 1946.
‘The First Year Pieces’ were published by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1935. They have been republished and anthologised over the years by the Associated Board and have often been used in examinations up to Grade 2. I guess that the problem with these pieces in 2016 is that their titles are probably a little tame, and will not readily appeal to young players.

First Year Pieces:
Melody in C
The sheep on the downs
The old windmill
The old abbey
A little hush-song
Where the nodding violet grows
On the river bank
A song of Erin
Gavotte in G
A sad story
Swaying branches
Jock plays the bagpipes

Each piece is a little tone poem, which exploits a very traditional style of harmony. There are relatively few accidentals and modulations are kept to a minimum. 
Each piece is melodic, written in varied style using relatively straightforward rhythms of crotchets and quavers. The numbers are marked by a considerable change of mood and style. For example, the Celtic mood of ‘A Song of Erin’ is followed by the almost Bachian ‘Gavotte’, then an ‘arpeggiated’ Swaying Branches.  Jock plays the bagpipes introduces characteristic grace notes and a ‘double pedal’ in the left hand.  The circular motion of 'The Old Windmill' is captured by a little ostinato phrase played by the right hand. 'The Old Abbey' is the only piece to make use of chordal progressions, including mild (major seventh) dissonance.

Although these pieces are ‘easy’ there are occasional traps for more advanced pianist when sight reading. The keynote of each piece is musicality, in spite of the elementary level of technique required. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

William Walton: Symphony No.2 on HMV LP Part II

John McCabe began his review in Records and Recording (May 1974) by admitting that ‘Walton’s Second Symphony is immediately up against the most formidable competition in Szell’s famous performance on CBS Classics.’ He admitted that the coupling with his ‘favourite Walton piece, the Hindemith Variations’ made that disc appealing. He considers that Previn’s reading of the Symphony is ‘seldom drastically different from Szell’ but he gives it ‘a subtly new slant and if anything emphasises its symphonic manner.’
McCabe recalls much of the negative criticism the Symphony received at its premiere. It was felt that it was ‘slighter’ than the great First Symphony (1932-35): critics believed that it was too conservative in light of the efforts of the rising avant-garde. It was deemed to have been spun out of slender material. McCabe insisted that as one gets to know the work (he was writing 13 years after its premiere) the ‘formal properties’ and the ‘delightful colourings’ come into focus.
The remainder of McCabe’s review is a detailed comparison between the Szell and the Previn versions of the Symphony.  For example, the slow movement is ‘equally luscious and velvety, if a shade darker [and] a little more memorable here and there’. Previn brings out ‘most satisfyingly the [first] movement's large-scale stature…but like Szell’s it is a ‘scintillating performance.’ Previn uses a classical approach to the final Passacaglia that points up the ‘variations [as] decorations of a through-bass.’ The conclusion is that there is little to choose between them, save that I guess he leans towards Previn’s account.  

The review concludes by suggesting that the LP is ‘aided by stunning playing [by the LSO] and a sonorous beautifully balanced, warm recording, it is a magnificent achievement.’ McCabe realises that some reviewers (Leslie East, for example) who would have rather had one of Walton’s major works as a coupling will be disappointed.  However, the ‘splendid’ performances of Portsmouth Point is ‘powerful and vigorous’ and Scapino is ‘scintillating, but warm and rather less aggressive than one sometimes hears.’  The performance of Lambert’s The Rio Grande is ‘admirable.’  John McCabe concludes his review by hoping that André Previn would turn his attention to the Hindemith Variations and the Gloria. Alas, he never did.  

Sunday, 10 July 2016

William Walton: Symphony No.2 on HMV LP Part I

I sometimes wish that I had not been so quick off the mark in getting rid of my vinyl following the advent of CDs.  In 1975 I was the proud owner of André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in William Walton’s Symphony No.2. This was released on the HMV Label, ASD 2990 and was coupled with the composer’s overtures Portsmouth Point and Scapino. An added bonus was Constant Lambert’s wonderful The Rio Grande for chorus, pianist and orchestra.  
At this time, I had not heard George Szell’s recording made in 1962 with the Cleveland Orchestra on Columbia SAX 2459. This LP included Walton’s Partita. It was subsequently re-released in 1965 on Columbia 33CX 1935, this time coupled with the Hindemith Variations.  Szell’s recording of the Symphony had been made during February and March, 1961. As will be seen in John McCabe’s review of the Previn disc, and comments in The Gramophone below, this was the benchmark recording for many years.

When, in the late ‘eighties I bought the Chandos version of the symphony, (CHAN 8772 CD) with Bryden Thomson conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I put the Previn LP to one side: I have not seen it since. However, I do have the CD reissue, so all is not lost.

William Walton’s Symphony No.2 was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1957 and was completed in 1960. It was given its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival on 2 September 1960, and was simultaneously broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under John Pritchard.

Leslie East, writing in Music & Musicians (December 1974) suggests that ‘Middle-period Walton can be stodgy and predictable and, in spite some fine moments, the second symphony, does…fall into these categories. Previn’s devotion to Walton’s music is always evident, and the LSO tackle the symphony’s trickiness with customary fluency. Nevertheless with Walton well represented in the catalogue, why not more Lambert?’
Further on in the review East suggests that the record producers would have been better substituting Lambert’s Music for Orchestra, instead of the two Walton Overtures.  In 2016, it is still a matter for concern that there are only two recordings of Music for Orchestra in the catalogues: Barry Wordsworth conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Lyrita SRCD.215 (1999) and a ‘historical’ recording by Constant Lambert and the Philharmonia Orchestra made in 1948. This is available on Dutton CDBP 9761.

JW (John Warrack) writing in The Gramophone (May 1974) states, ‘Previn’s feeling for Walton’s music assures exuberant performance here. He drives vigorously through all the rowdiness of Portsmouth Point and touches the dry lyricism of Scapino, and though I doubt it will replace the standard Szell version –gives a performance of the Second Symphony that is particularly successful at responding to the melancholy in the best movement of the three, the Lento.’ The remainder of his review examines Lambert’s The Rio Grande.

It is often hard to forget the recording of a work that one first heard. Since 1974 there have been a number of versions of Walton’s Symphony No.2 released. These include CD releases of both Previn and Szell. The new Chandos disc featuring Edward Gardner conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra has received many plaudits in recent months. These are listed in full on the MusicWeb International National Discographies pages. 
The next part of this post will concentrate on John McCabe's essential review of the Previn LP.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Malcolm Arnold: The Roots of Heaven - film music

After nearly fifty years of enjoying classical music, I have yet to work out an ideal strategy for listening to film (and ballet) music which is divorced from the media it was originally intended for.  Take the present score for  The Roots of Heaven. There are twenty tracks or ‘cues’ derived from a film lasting in excess of two hours. The longest element (apart from the ‘Overture’ which was written as a separate piece in the manner of an operatic overture) is the violent ‘Elephant Hunt.’ Most of the other cues are between one and two minutes in length. Sometimes they seem to finish in mid-sentence.  
Often there is a huge disparity in mood and emotion which in the film would be obscured by the progress of the dialogue and the screenplay. Fundamentally, this score does not seem to have an internal logic. Taken as individual elements, there is much here that is attractive to the ear. On the other hand, some of this music is clearly make-weight and was written ‘against the stop-watch.’ All the above can be predicated on the score for David Copperfield as well.

Another issue that exercises me are the plots themselves. For example, the story of The Roots of Heaven does not appeal to me (the underling morality is as vitally important today as it was then). But it is not a film I would choose to watch. Again, I personally do not go for Dickens’ adaptations for the big screen. So, in both of these examples, the present recording of the musical score is not acting as an aide-memoire to my enjoyment (or otherwise) of the films. 

So how can I engage with this CD? I try to think of a single ‘plot’ word or ‘dramatic situation that can be applied to the film, for example David Copperfield can be defined as ‘overcoming adversity’, concluding with a ‘positive outcome’. With The Roots of Heaven it would be ‘obsession’ and ‘battling the monster.’ I would try to hold these ‘abstractions’ in my mind and largely forget any details of the film I know or have surmised. Only in this way can I genuinely appreciate the music.

All this said, it is imperative to emphasise that Arnold’s skill as a writer of melody and of orchestration is never more apparent to listener as these short tracks slip by. For example, The Roots of Heaven makes considerable (and effective) use of exotic instruments such as the marimba and maracas.  David Copperfield has one of the most beautiful themes ever written for the cinema. Arnold is able to compose music that matches all moods and emotions from the most violent to the deepest tragedy by way of romance, comedy, wit and the overcoming of insuperable odds.

I do not need to rehearse the plot of either film save to say that The Roots of Heaven is about one man’s crusade to save the African elephant from destruction and that David Copperfield is the story of a boy who succeeds in his struggle against considerable adversities after being sent way to London following his mother’s death by his stepfather.
For the record, David Copperfield was Arnold’s last film score and was completed in 1969. The Roots of Heaven was composed in 1958.
This disc, in its Marco Polo incarnation was extensively reviewed on MusicWeb International by Ian Lace, Gary S. Dalkin and Adrian Smith.

In spite of my reservations about having a correct or satisfying listening strategy for these scores, I did enjoy this disc. The sound quality has been criticised by reviewers in the past, however I found the playing of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under William Stromberg perfectly satisfying. The liner notes are seriously impressive.  There is a short ‘foreword’ by the composer written in 2001. John Cox has provided a near-dissertation length analysis of both films scores preceded by an introduction to Malcolm Arnold as film composer in general.  John Morgan, who has realised the score of David Copperfield, has contributed some ‘arranger notes.’  This whole package is a model of how analytical notes could and should be written for film (and ballet) music which is divorced from its original context. 

I guess that I would rather have ‘suites’ of music made up from these two film scores. This has been admirably done by Chandos with composers such as William Alwyn, Miklos Rozsa, Clifton Parker as well as Arnold himself.  Or perhaps some of the documentary films could be used to create a ‘tone poem’ – for example the British Transport Film on the Channel Islands. Yet the other side to this coin, is, that by using only ‘the best bits’ of Arnold’s scores, there is so much attractive and atmospheric music that would be lost to the listener. It is a circle that cannot easily be squared. 

Track Listings:
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
The Roots of Heaven (1958)]
David Copperfield (1969)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg
NAXOS 8.573366 (previously released on Marco Polo 8.225167)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.  

Monday, 4 July 2016

Gustav Holst, by Edwin Evans

The music critic Edwin Evans was born in London on 1 September 1874. He received a general education in Lille and in Luxembourg. Evans had music lessons from his father, but was largely self-educated in the subject. After working in the Stock Exchange and banking he was destined to be a financial journalist, however, he turned to music, where he became an authority on Russian music. Evans was a champion of Debussy, and Ravel as well as the rising generation of British composers. He was music critic for the Pall Mall Gazette (1912-23) and then the Daily Mail, from 1933 onwards. Edwin Evans died on 3 March 1945.
The present article was written for the short-lived music journal The Dominant, which ran from November 1927 to November 1929. It was edited by Edwin Evans and was published by Oxford University Press.
The present article on Holst is a little prolix in its style, however it is worth presenting.

It is characteristic of the way in which Holst is regarded by his more intimate associates that those of them whom we approached with the request for a pen-portrait denied their competence, implying that the subject required greater eloquence than theirs. To his collaborators and his pupils he is somewhat like those revered figures of the remote East in which he once found stimulation: guru and musician in one. And the strangest thing is that he is the last man in the world to have sought or encouraged such reverent hero-worship. It may even have caused him some moments of irritation. He has too much common sense to be an exalté and would be entitled to regard as a peculiarly pernicious slander anything that implied pretensions beyond those of an honest and conscientious craftsman.

In the absence of the' close-up 'which an intimate associate could have given, the duty has devolved upon me. Holst and I were born within three weeks of each other [1], and have been acquainted very nearly half the time that has elapsed since then. A quarter of a century ago, to a month or two, I wrote my first article on the works of Vaughan Williams [2] —works some of which he has since discarded. The preparation of this article naturally brought me into personal relations with the composer, who roused my curiosity by the enthusiasm with which he spoke of the work of a confrère who had been a fellow-student with him at the R.C.M. This was Holst, who was then about to relinquish trombone-playing to take up teaching at Dulwich [3].

Though our respective occupations precluded close and constant meeting, we had many talks together, and my impressions of both the man and the musician date from then. Reviewing them for this occasion I find them strangely little altered. He has grown, his ideas have developed, his range has widened, but in all essentials his outlook is what it was then. For a young composer he was unusually free from all indefinite aspirations. He knew quite well what lay before him to do, and was concentrated upon the problem, technical and musical, how best to do it. This tenacity of purpose has remained with him, and is a more powerful factor in his make-up than the attribute which has impelled him to seek spiritual adventure—and texts—in Vedic or Gnostic hymns [4]. He has been credited with mysticism. To me he appears more of an idealist without ideals—far too practical to encumber his philosophy with imagined ideals, but at the same time so keyed as to be an idealist without them, serving a high purpose but always less conscious of its height than of the demands of its service. I find it difficult to imagine him carried away by any elation other than that of the artist content with his work. And here begins an apparent paradox, for, just as vagueness and diffidence are often associated with a morbid degree of self-criticism, one might imagine this calm self-possession to reflect a lack of it. But precisely because Holst knows his purpose so well he is a severe judge of the degree in which he has achieved it.
Some time ago I had occasion to ask him if there were any prospect of his reverting to chamber-music. He replied that he was then engaged upon something that might be chamber-music or might be rubbish,[5] and in due course he would let me know which form it had ultimately taken. Concerning a recent work [6], of which little has been heard, he confided to me that he had been in some doubt whether it was music or not, and was gradually inclining to the latter view. But I have preserved a card which came with a newly printed score: ' Hope you'll like it. I'm afraid I do'. There speaks, not the man who is sometimes querulously dissatisfied with his work because it does not fulfil an aspiration which is probably nebulous to himself, but the man who knows his task, is the best judge whether he has performed it well or ill, and at the same time sufficiently objective to be able to deliver either verdict without any disturbance of equilibrium. That this calm sense of values should be associated with an outward manner suggesting diffidence to the point of timidity is only the obverse aspect of the same apparent paradox, and equally explicable.
Gustav Holst, by Edwin Evans, The Dominant April 1928.

[1] Gustavus Theodore von Holst (Gustav Holst) was born on 21 September 1874. As noted above Evans was born in 1 September of that year. Holst died on 25 May 1934.
[2] Edwin Evans: Modern British Composers VI, Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Musical Standard, 25 July 1903.
[3] Holst taught at the James Allen School in Dulwich from 1903-05.
[4] For example, The Hymn of Jesus (1917) made use of the Gnostic and apocryphal The Acts of John. Holst also composed four groups of ‘Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.’ The Hindu Vedas include some of the most ancient sacred texts that have come down to our age. Holst’s settings were composed between 1908 and 1912.
[5] It is not known exactly which work Evans was referring to here, however a good surmise would be the ‘Terzetto’ for flute, oboe and viola dating from 1925, or possibly the ‘Phantasy Quartet on British Folk Songs’ (1916). This latter work was withdrawn by the composer in 1919.
[6] Possibly Egdon Heath which was given a disastrous London performance on 23 February 1928. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Pianoforte Music of John Ireland by Katharine E. Eggar (Part II)

The ‘Rhapsody’ and the ‘London Pieces.’
The Rhapsody [1] is a noble composition, heroic in style, and is the longest and, in the composer's estimation, the most important of his piano works after the sonata. It is difficult, but not insurmountably so on the technical side. The rendering requires much insight, for there is nothing of the superficial showiness of the Lisztian Rhapsody about it: nor is it a mere string of inconsequent subjects, with ebullitions of meaningless excitement in between. The form is very compressed, and there is practically no repetition. (Mr. Ireland finds the Rhapsody a congenial mould for new ideas, and his latest orchestral [2] work has this title).
Of the three London Pieces [3] the delightful and original ‘Ragamuffin’ is probably the best known. Who does not enjoy the pert and sudden antics, the droll posturing, the tongue-in-cheek and mock decorum of this alluring little gutter-snipe? ‘Chelsea Reach’ is marked ‘Tempo di Barcarola’ and seems to embody the flow of the river and the clash of church bells. ‘Soho Forenoons’ is less frequently played, perhaps because the significance of the title has eluded people. Like Arnold Bax's clever sketch of the musicality of the Spanish, French and Italian Rivieras, which he calls Mediterranean, [4] it is the impression on an observer of the mixed foreign element that keeps the shops, frequents the restaurants and jostles one on the pavements of Soho. The indication of the tambourine, the snatches of Italian opera style and sundry ‘intentional crudities’ bring up very vividly the appropriate background of recollection.

In Country Mood.
In contrast to these impressions of London, Mr. Ireland has given us a couple of Countryside sketches—‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ [5] and ‘The Towing Path’[6]. Composers of the Mendelssohn period were inspired by the idea of brawling mountain torrents to write elegant pieces which meandered decorously through drawing rooms under the fingers of accomplished young ladies. Mr. Ireland, typical of our more wayward period, has been inspired by the (in reality) very sluggish little canals of the Amberley marshes, to give us all the freshness of their delicious name—the babbling music of a running stream with the joyous summer breeze above it.
In ‘The Towing Path’ he has succeeded in redeeming the time of 6/8 from its frequently banal associations, and investing it with the placid charm of a summer's day by the Thames—a charm as potent now as it was 350 years ago, when Spenser [7], depressed at his ‘long, fruitless stay’ at Court, walked forth to ease his pain.
Calme was the day, and through the trembling ayre
Sweete breathing Zephyrus did softly play....
When I.... walkt forth to ease my payne
Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hemnmes,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meades adorned with daintie gemmes....
Sweete Themnmes! runne softly till I end my song. [8]

The very last piece that Mr. Ireland has written is another out-of-door impression. He calls it ‘On a Birthday Morning’[9] —a morning in the early year, ‘when wild March winds upon their errand sing,’ and a healthy mortal rejoices to feel their buffets. The music is full of joyous energy: its clear, bold melody swings along on a sharp, stimulating, regular rhythm, accumulating such an astonishing variety of harmony as to leave the listener at a first hearing rather breathless, it is still in manuscript, but will no doubt be in print very shortly, with a companion piece of quieter mood-called ‘Soliloquy’[10].

Musician's Music.
Of the published pieces, there remain to be mentioned the Four Preludes,[11] written 1913-1915, and the more recent ‘For Remembrance’[12].
Three of these I place in a special category. I should call them Musician's Music. ‘It's not a concert piece.’ said their author of the one for which I was expressing a particular affection; and to some musicians, no other recommendation will be needed. They have that peculiar quality of intimacy which makes some particular piece, or movement, or it may be only a passage, here and there among all the music that one knows, satisfying and precious in a way which cannot be explained. The three pieces I allude to are ‘The Holy Boy’, ‘The Undertone’ and ‘For Remembrance’.
The title of the first may have mystified some of us and set us wondering if it were a folk-tune. It is enough to say that Mr. Ireland has never used any modal tunes (except to make a vocal setting of ‘The Three Ravens’)[13], and that he wrote ‘The Holy Boy’ one Christmas Day, and in his transcriptions of it for violin and for 'cello has given it the sub-title of ‘A Carol of the Nativity’. But the appeal of all three pieces being of such a subtle kind, it is difficult to say anything about their beauties without brushing the bloom off the grape. Still, one may point out the skill of the craftsmanship. The basses in the Nativity Carol are a study in themselves, and the art by which the music's utter simplicity is achieved must be admired by any musician worthy of the name.
‘The Undertone’ is constructed on a repeated melodic figure in a measure of five, and the mood is sombre. A similar idea is carried out, with the greater freedom and resource which seven years' experience has brought, in ‘For Remembrance’. Not for those who feel affinity with music based on perfect abstraction from feeling and dependent on nothing but ingenuity in superimposing planes of tonal values, is the wistful tenderness of this short piece with its dragging semitones, its answering ascents and descents, its sudden smiles of harmony, its brief grandeurs of spacious trebled melody—bitter-sweet in its flavour as all intimate remembrance must be. Even among those who value music by their psychological response to it, there may be only a few to whom it will appeal. But to those few it will be a pearl of great price.
Katherine E. Eggar: The Music Teacher (June 1922) with minor edits to the text.

[1] The Rhapsody referred to here was completed during March 1915 and was first heard at the Aeolian Hall, London. The pianist was William Murdoch (1888-1942). A Rhapsody in C sharp minor has subsequently been discovered and is usually regarded as the First. It was composed around 1905.
[2] Mai-Dun: Symphonic Rhapsody for full orchestra was composed between 1920 and 1921. It was inspired by Maiden Castle in Dorset.
[3] John Ireland’s London Pieces for solo piano were composed between 1917 and 1920. The three character pieces are ‘Chelsea Reach’, ‘Ragamuffin’ (Autumn 1917) and ‘Soho Forenoons’ (February 1920). They are amongst the composer’s most popular and best loved piano pieces.
[4] Arnold Bax’s piano piece ‘Mediterranean’ was composed in 1920. Lewis Foreman has described it as ‘a classic musical picture postcard, probably evoking a holiday which Bax and musical friends…took in [Barcelona and] Majorca in 1913.’ It was later orchestrated in 1922.
[5] ‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ was the second of Two Pieces for solo piano composed by Ireland in 1921. It is a portrayal of an area of water meadows, ditches and streams just north of the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It has been described as a ‘musical watercolour.’
[6] ‘The Towing Path’ is a musical appreciation of the River Thames at Pangbourne. It was composed whilst Ireland was staying in the vicinity during 1918.
[7] Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was a renaissance English poet best remembered for his allegorical poem ‘The Faerie Queen.’ Other important works include the cycle of love sonnets, the ‘Amoretti’ and the pastoral ‘Epithalamion’ which was a celebration of the poet’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594.
[8] From the opening 15 lines of Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion.'
[9] John Ireland wrote ‘On a Birthday Morning’ in 1922: it carries the dedication ‘Pro amicitia’ (For Friendship). The identity of the dedicatee was Arthur George Miller, who was a chorister at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. It was his seventeenth birthday. Ireland and Miller were to become close friends during the nineteen thirties. Craggs reports that in 1932 Ireland made a will leaving all his estate to Miller. The composition was duly published in 1922 by Augener & Co.
[10] ‘Soliloquy’ is a short piano piece, written in 1922. It is dedicated to the pianist Edward Howard-Jones who gave the work’s first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 26 May 1922. Alan Rowlands suggested that the piece was inspired by ‘one of [John] Masefield’s shorter poems.’
[11] As Katharine Eggar notes, the [Four] Preludes were composed over a two year period.  Stewart R. Craggs (A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography, 2nd Edition, Ashgate, 2007) cites the manuscript evidence for dating as follows: ‘The Undertone’ Chelsea, January 1914; ‘Obsession’ Autumn 1915; ‘The Holy Boy’ Chelsea 25 December 1915; ‘Fire of Spring’, Chelsea April 1915.  There first performance was given by Ireland at the Aeolian Hall on 7 June 1918. ‘The Holy Boy’ has been arranged in a number of versions.
[12] ‘For Remembrance’ is the first of ‘Two Pieces for solo piano’ composed in 1921. There is no suggestion that the title implies any particular memory. The mood of the piece is elegiac and makes use of Ireland’s typically bitter-sweet harmonies.
[13] ‘The Three Ravens’ is a rare setting by Ireland of a traditional melody and text. It was composed in 1919. The song has been arranged for cello and piano by Julian Lloyd-Webber.
Notes by J France.