I was exploring Duncan Honeybourne’s excellent recent CD of British piano music from the Grand Piano label. The advertising blurb explains that this new recording ‘traces a trajectory from…Edwardian poetry to prepared piano.’ It presents several ‘evocative, descriptive and exciting miniatures.’ These in turn reflect ‘pastoral, light and experimental’ traditions in British music. Composers featured on this disc included Leo Livens, Evangeline Livens, Constance Warren, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington, John Longmire, Howard Skempton, Peter Racine Fricker, David Power and Peter Reynolds.
One work stood out for me. I have long been an enthusiast of Julius Harrison. Little recalled in 2019 except for his wonderful Bredon Hill: a rhapsody for violin and orchestra, which was inspired by the Worcestershire countryside, he has charmed and entertained me when I have been lucky enough to come across his music.
He is represented on this CD by a single extract from his piano suite Severn Country. There are three movements: ‘Dance in the Cherry Orchard (Ribbesford)’ ‘Twilight on the River (Bewdley)’ and ‘Far Forest’. Alas, Honeybourne has chosen to play only the final piece. The work was composed in 1928 and published by Winthrop Rogers.
Geoffrey Self in his biographical study Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse (Scolar Press Aldershot, 1993) explains that in 1927 the composer began work again, after a ‘fallow period of three years.’ The first new work to appear was a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘I know a bank’ (1928). The same year he wrote the present Severn Country for his sister Christine. In this suite, the composer revisited places recalled from his childhood. It explored the same ‘vein of nostalgia’ as the Worcestershire Suite (1920), originally for orchestra, but also arranged for piano solo.
I did check out the geographical references of the Severn Country Suite. Ribbesford is a tiny village in the Wyre Forest region of Worcestershire. It has a lovely church dating back to the 1100s although the present building is largely 15th century. The church was renovated in 1878. There is a wonderful Burne-Jones window, made by William Morris. Today, the church is fortunate in regularly using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer rather than something more pedestrian. I did try to find the Cherry Orchard on Google Maps but failed. Harrison was not specific where the ‘Twilight’ fell on the River Severn at Bewdley. It could have been anywhere over several miles of riverbank. Finally, I wondered about ‘Far Forest’. It has a kind of A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh feel to its name. There is a village on the A4117 with that name, some four miles from Bewdley. But it is not really close to the banks of the Severn. Yet, it is on the edge of Wyre Forest which does extend towards the river. So maybe this is where he had in mind.
‘Far Forest’ is a well-balanced piece that is full of contrast. Although lasting a mere two and a half minutes, there are at least three sections. The opening is powerful and direct as if we are walking briskly to the ‘Far Forest’. There is a little cadenza at about halfway, before the music starts to become less urgent. The mood eventually become quiet and meditative. I have not seen the sheet music for this piece, but the composer seems to re-present the vibrant opening theme reimagined as a wistful coda. The harmonies as gentle and present little in the way of challenging dissonances.
An unsigned review in Music and Letters Jan 1929) gave a very short opinion of this work; ‘Julius Harrison, in Severn Country provides three short pieces for those who like sweet things. The second is especially so, just saved by a touch of Ravel in the last two bars.’ I feel that ‘sweet’ might be a little disingenuous. The Musical Times (January 1929) reports that Harrison’s ‘sincere and picturesque sketches [are] thoughtful music written with a directness and a sense of effect.’
Geoffrey Self (op. cit.) insists that this present work does not ‘have the colour and verve of the Worcestershire Suite (1920) making it ‘less potent.’ However, it poses few technical problems in performance’ and Self suggests that it would ‘repay the attention of amateur pianists.’
Never mind the amateurs, I hope that Duncan Honeybourne or another professional pianist also sympathetic to British music will record the entire Severn Country suite. And there are some other tantalising piano works by Julius Harrison including Wayside Fancies (1948), Autumn Days (1952) and the early Rhapsody, Intermezzo and Capriccio (1903).
Julius Harrison’s ‘Far Forest’ can be heard on Grand Piano GP789. It was released during 2018.