Monday, 16 June 2008

Trevor Duncan: St. Boniface Down – a tone poem.

Trevor Duncan (1925-2005) is more often than not associated with the March from his Little Suite which was used to eternal memory in Dr. Findlay’s Casebook. It has been the subject of many recordings over the years. Of course, this was not the only work that Duncan wrote. Amongst his better known works are the 20th Century Express, High Heels, Children in the Park and The Girl from Corsica.
Many people have gone for a walk along the beautiful St. Boniface Down which is located in the Isle of Wight near the town of Ventnor. When I was last there it was a lovely sunny day with a slight breeze. At a height of just under 800ft the view over the English Channel and the ‘roads’ towards Portsmouth Sound was truly stunning. Interestingly there is supposed to be a wishing well on its southern slope – which requires the ‘wisher’ to walk from the south without looking back! Yet it was not the scenery or the view that initially inspired Trevor Duncan to compose this music. It was a girl. In fact it was C. Gurrieri who is rather more famous as The Girl from Corsica (1959) He had met this femme fatale who was half-French and half-Corsican on holiday. The relationship was supposedly ‘spiritual’ but it is quite obvious that she made a considerable impression on him!
The composer has stated that “the work celebrates a silent walk along the ridge of St. Boniface Down; it was followed by a beautiful correspondence for some weeks”.

St Boniface Down is a miniature tone poem that was written in 1956. Rarely for Duncan, it was not a commission but was composed because he wanted to write it: it was a cathartic work.
The piece opens enigmatically and creates a misty mood. Duncan’s use of percussion and woodwind here is surely reminiscent of Mercury and Venus from Holst’s Planets. The first main theme tries to establish itself- yet this very slow music does not emerge from its initial unfocussed mood. The strings try out what appears to be a new tune: they are supported by comments from the woodwind. The tempo is still slow but soon the ‘big’ tune and an apparent counter melody begin to assert themselves. Harp arpeggios lead to a seeming climax which does not fully materialise. The music eases off before a reflective tune for oboe and then horns is presented. The music becomes misty once more – as if a sea fret had blown up the English Channel. Suddenly a folksong-like tune is heard supported by tuned percussion. The strings and French horn reflect on this theme before a few Delius-like horn cadences lead to the final bars. The close is quiet and largely depends on percussion and woodwind. St Boniface Down is a relatively long piece of ‘light’ music lasting for just over seven minutes.
Two questions arise about this piece – firstly, what is the genre and, secondly, one of dating.
I am never happy with critics who consign music written by Farnon, Duncan, Coates et al to the one single category of ‘light music’. Now it is self-evident that this little tone poem is not in the same league as Bax’s Garden of Fand or even William Alwyn’s Magic Island. It could be argued that it is ‘mood’ music or maybe even a ‘characteristic piece.’ Yet I believe this would be disingenuous: in St. Boniface Down there are many echoes of Fred. Delius and Gustav Holst: perhaps even a nod to Vaughan Williams in a few bars. Yet this is no whimsical album-leaf using musical clichés but a well constructed and beautifully orchestrated essay. In fact this is a serious piece of music that is written from the heart, but uses a musical language that is readily accessible to most listeners. And finally, what is probably most important, is that it succeeds in creating its effect and manages to communicate its romantic message.
Dating is a problem. Traditionally The Girl from Corsica was dated as being composed in 1959: according to conventional wisdom, Trevor Duncan had met this enigmatic lady the previous year. Yet the dating of St. Boniface Down is 1956, at least on the CD sleeve notes – some two years before he was supposed to have had that brief relationship. I look forward to someone clearing this minor mystery up for me!
Interestingly, Duncan made use of the poetic rhythm of a line of poetry by Paul Verlaine: -“Il pleure dans mon coeur comme il pleut sur la ville.” One naturally wonders if the composer’s walk was done during a day of light rain? Certainly the music hints at a misty day.
St. Boniface Down is available on Marco Polo 8.223517.

1 comment:

Webrarian said...

I've had the CD for a long time, but had never listened to this track in any detail - though I know the place well.

What a sad little piece. I'm as intrigued as you over the true sequence of events.