Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Alan Richardson: The Dreaming Spires for piano solo.

I guess that few people know much about the composer Alan Richardson. Type into Google and you are as likely to get references to the erstwhile Dean of York Minster! Certainly not the same person… Of course those who have learnt the piano will have come across a number of his works which have been used as ‘grade’ pieces by the Associated Board. The first time I came across his music was when I found a copy of his ‘Sonatina’ in a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow. I was never able to play it, and it was relegated to the ‘reserve’ pile of music. It has not reappeared since the last house move! As a matter of interest this work was given its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949. 
Alan Richardson was born in Edinburgh in 1904, and moved to London in 1929 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Prior to heading south, he had worked as a ‘jobbing’ pianist with the BBC in Scotland. In London, he studied with Harold Craxton. He was later to marry his teacher’s daughter, the oboist Janet Craxton. He was to write a number of pieces for her including A French Suite, a Reverie and perhaps best known of all, Roundelay.
Richardson wrote a great deal of piano music, many of which have attractive topographical titles, such as Over the Moors, On Heather Hill and Jack in the Green. Other pieces emphasise the rhythmical, such as Scallywag. He was appointed Professor of Piano at the RAM in 1960, a post he held until his death in 1978.

I have long known The Dreaming Spires. Once again it was found in a second-hand bookshop. This time it was on a youthful holiday in Llandudno. (The bookshop is still there, and thriving!) It was always just about beyond my gift, although I can make a better ‘hash’ of it now that I could 35 years ago. Yet the picture on the front of the sheet music always impressed me, as did the longish inscription inside the cover. For someone who idolised RVW’s Oxford Elegy as epitomising the English landscape (and the English Cathedral sound before it was confused by Series 3 & Common Worship) it was essential. I take pleasure in quoting it in full:-

Runs it not here, the track by Childsworth Farm,
Up past the high wood, to where the elm-tree crowns
The hill behind whose ridge the sunset flames?
The signal-elm, that looks on Ilsley Downs,
The Vale, the three lone weirs, the youthful Thames?
--This winter-eve is warm,
Humid the air; leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers;
And that sweet City with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty's heightening,

Only recently did I dig it out from my pile of piano music and give it another whirl. And additionally, I found that Philip Sear has made an exceptionally good recording of it on YouTube. Of course, he unlike me, does not stumble at the various ‘difficult’ bits, especially in the more demanding and perhaps slightly less evocative ‘episodes.

The ‘best’ bit is the refrain, which is played ‘moderato con poco moto’ and is loosely based on a series of major seventh and ninth chords although Richardson is not afraid to use common chords at cadence points. For me it is almost as if the music is hinting at peals of bells without writing a full carillon! The main melody rises over an octave and a half in the first two bars; it is this theme that dominates the piece. The first episode consists of a juxtaposition of three separate one and two bar ideas and is repeated. I wonder if the contrast is just a little too severe?
The refrain returns in a foreshortened form before the next episode in Db major encourages the piece to slow down a little. The interest in maintained in the left hand melody. Once again it is repeated – which is not convincing. I would rather he had somehow expanded and varied this episode. However the refrain returns and the work ends optimistically with a short coda based on the opening phrase.

Interestingly for a work that is a relatively minor addition to the repertoire, there are a number of references to it in the literature. Of course a few of these refer to the version that the composer prepared for violin and piano. But I imagine the sentiments are the same.

S.G. in Music and Letters (July 1937) suggested that this work was ‘fluent, easy refrain with contrasting episodes that show a distinct inventiveness. Of course he was reviewing the violin and piano version of this piece – but his contention that the music was of “moderate difficulty” applies to the piano solo version as well.

The reviewer in the Musical Times (March 1937) notes that the piece “begins exceedingly well with a simple but not undistinguished tune…” I agree with his thoughts that the episodes in this ‘rondino’ are less satisfying and less interesting. Another reviewer in the Musical Times (April 1937) was impressed by this work and felt that although ‘it is not modern, [it is]…enjoyable.”

The idiom of this piece is definitely old-fashioned – but only in a positive sense. Richardson was not a composer who followed the latest trend. His style was to a certain extent neo-classical – although he was prepared to use ‘modern’ harmonies, which were still fundamentally tonal. This piece is melodious and well constructed. The composer was not extravagant with ideas and was able to produce music that is both enjoyable and urbane.
Listen to Philip Sears playing The Dreaming Spires on YouTube


eleanorgamper said...

Alan Richardson was my piano teacher in the early 70's. I used to make a veritable safari from my home in Kent to his house in Kidderpore Avenue. He was a lovely man and I think he was the first really great teacher that I ever knew.

John France said...

Thanls for that. Would be you be prepared to email me at the address below and tell me more about him?


David Lucas said...

I was pupil of Alan Richardson at the RAM from 1961-65.He as a kind and gentle teacher who was very astute at spotting technical deficiencies in your playing and giving you ideal pieces to overcome them. He was also very keen on extending repertoire. As a result I learned many new pieces that otherwise I would never have thought of. He was loved and respected by all of his students and known universally as "Mr. Richardson". Whether his lessons we at the RAM or up at Kidderpore Avenue, they were always a delight. To this day I try to maintain the standards that he set to all of his pupils.

John France said...


Thanks for that lovely tribute to AR. He is a composer who is largely forgotten, but produced a lot of fine piano pieces that deserve being played and recorded. Would love to hear more from you about RAM life in the early 60s


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading this - thank you. I played the Sonatina for my Grade 8 some thirty years ago, and am currently working it up again (having been out of practice for over twenty years). There is some very tricky fingering but, once you've figured it out, I think it's actually an easy piece to play as the long runs are 'logical' and seem to flow out of the hands. However, figuring out the fingering is the big deal!

John France said...

Thanks for that. Well done! The Sonatina is not a cinch any means.


M.J.E. said...

     I know this piece well. From the 1970s on, I used to regularly visit second-hand book-shops and music stores, and used to buy lots of music, including a lot of obscure pieces that seemed interesting, and I gradually acquired perhaps a couple of dozen Alan Richardson pieces, and I like his work a lot. This is one piece I found (I think I found it new, not second-hand, some time in the 1970s). I ended up playing it a lot, actually, because I used to visit my grandmother regularly and stayed overnight with her, and often played the piano she had; and there was a group of various pieces, mostly obscure, that she seemed to especially like and asked me to play again and again (from visit to visit) - and "The Dreaming Spires" was one of these.
     I would love to get more Alan Richardson pieces - would in fact like to have his complete piano works, but I suppose that would be near-impossible. One of my favourite works by him is the Two Country Pictures, called respectively "Shepherd's Warning" and "Shepherd's Delight", which I consider wonderful impressionistic pictures of nature, and I have often played these, too. I would have to say that Alan Richardson is one of my favourite British composers - and there are lot of those that I like.