Sunday, 6 January 2008

An Interesting Find (Robin Milford)

Second-hand book browsing can be compulsive. But when the second hand bookshop specializes in music it can become a time consuming and expensive pastime.
I always keep a weather eye open for rarities. Especially long forgotten piano pieces by obscure British composers. Alec Rowley, Thomas Dunhill and Felix Swinstead are all grist to the mill. But every so often one finds something special. A signed copy.
A wee while ago I was digging amongst the choral music in a York book shop. I spotted a 6d piece of music - like millions produced for choirs and glee clubs. ‘It was a lover and his lass’ by Robin Milford. At the top of the page in small spidery writing was the legend - “Dr. Vaughan Williams - from Robin Milford, January 1942’ The bookseller had priced it 20p.
I was impelled to search further through the pile of yellowing sheets. And behold another signed copy of ‘Songs of Escape - Five Songs for Unaccompanied Chorus.’ Same dedicatee, same signature.
Some 20 inches of paper pile later I found a third. ‘Joy and Memory - A song cycles for children’s voices and Piano.’ This time the dedication was ‘with love’.
Total investment 80p. But here was a piece of history. Ephemera yes, but musical history.

Of course, I had heard of Robin Milford. He is certainly not in the top twenty of British composers, but he is a figure to reckon with.
I knew a few of his orchestral works and songs - from the excellent Hyperion Disks - ‘Fishing by Moonlight’ and ‘Songs by Finzi and his Friends’ I can remember hearing an elderly pianist and organist - Kenneth Dawkins - playing an organ piece. What it was I have forgotten. And then I recalled my piano stool. Long had I known a set of miniatures called ‘Littlejoy’ produced in the Oxford Piano Series - Four sketches of medium difficulty headed with the quotation –
“And now tis little joy
To know I’m further off from heaven
Than when I was a boy.”
Words by the poet Thomas Hood.

I rushed to Grove for the facts. But it was not helpful (Why is the current Grove so short on information on the obscure composers that I am interested in?)

In a nutshell, Robin Humphrey Milford was born in Oxford in 1903. He had a slight advantage over the rest of us as his dad was head of Oxford University Press. All the pieces I had found in the shop were published by this company.
Robin had been educated at Rugby and later at the RCM. He studied under Holst, R.O. Morris and Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams.
He had private means and so was able to spend his life composing. Milford was prolific. Groves mentions a Violin concerto in G minor (1937); an oratorio ‘A Prophet the Land’; a full scale opera ‘The Scarlet Letter - still unperformed.
Michael Hurd thinks that Robin’s ‘creative gifts, though slight, were genuine and not without individuality.’
It would appear that large scale works were not Milord’s forte. It is with the smaller pieces that he has had most impact: the songs, the piano pieces and the choral music.
And that was all Grove could tell me. Passing another secondhand bookshop in York - which had for sale a copy of Grove 1954 edition, I looked up the composer’s entry. It was four times the length of Hurd’s. But perhaps the article length represents the composer’s perceived worth at a particular point in time.

So here was my three pieces of Milford. Part of the smaller scale works. And copies of these had been sent on publication to his teacher, RVW. I wonder what the master thought of his pupil’s efforts?
For my part I played through the works on the piano. They are good but not great: simple, pleasant, diatonic and in a straightforward practical style.
But who said all music must be masterpieces?

Article about Milford at MusicWeb

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