Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Percy Whitlock: Wessex Suite

The Wessex Suite is a work that evokes summer holidays by the seaside. Early in 1934 Percy Whitlock suggested to Richard Austin that he write a suite for orchestra. Austin was Dan Godfrey’s successor as conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. At this time Whitlock was still organist and choirmaster at St Stephen's Church. However it was not until September 1937 that the suite materialised. It was written under the nom-de-plume of Kenneth Lark.

The Suite is in three movements - Revels in Hogsnorton; The Blue Poole and March: Rustic Cavalry. Revels in Hogsnorton derives from a mythical village created by the popular comedian Gillie Potter. It is a 'thirties ‘Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh’. This is an attractive waltz with a distinctly ‘modern’ trio.
The second movement is truly lovely. The title, The Blue Poole is a concatenation of two beauty spots. The Blue Pool on the Isle of Purbeck and of course Poole harbour itself. The movement opens with a brief upward phrase for saxophone. Then there is a cadenza for solo violin. There is a rocking motion in the accompaniment; a gorgeous tune is given to saxophones. The vibraphone is heard in the background. Muted brass lead to a variation of the tune; a harp glissando leads into a middle section. Then suddenly it is up-tempo. The xylophone is busy with figurations. Then the mood music returns, first for strings, then into the languorous theme- even the two solo violins seem slightly out of tune- just as it may have been in some far off performance. The movement ends quietly, with a vibraphone added note chord. It is a perfect picture of lazy days by the seaside.

The last movement is entitled Rustic Cavalry – seemingly related to Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. This march has been well described as ‘rousing and swashbuckling’ – and it certainly is. Elgar, however, is the musical inspiration rather than the Italian operatic composer. Malcolm Riley, the Whitlock scholar, has noted allusions to Froissart and mentions the fact the Radio Times billed this work as the Rustic Chivalry March. Elgar had prefixed his score of Froissart with ‘When chivalry lifted high her lance on high.’ Listeners have also detected references to the First World War Song – 'It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'. I do not quite understand what it is doing in a Wessex Suite; it does not really help with tone painting of a holiday by the sea. However, perhaps the clue lies in its description as swashbuckling. Is it meant to refer to things piratical and nautical? Who knows? But it rounds off what is an attractive and thoroughly enjoyable work.

No comments: