Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Francis Chagrin: Aquarelles (Portraits of Five Children)

I remember a school friend of mine coming into the music room at Coatbridge High School way back in 1972. He announced that Francis Chagrin was dead. Now I must confess that I was not sure who he was talking about – whether it was a lady Frances or a male Francis! However John soon explained to me that it was a man and that his great claim to fame was having written the film score to The Colditz Story, which at that time was all the rage. I guess I never thought about Chagrin again until I bought the Lyrita lollipop disc and discovered the Overture: Helter Skelter. However over the years I have heard comparatively little of his music – there is a Renaissance Suite and the Chandos release of selected film music. But what of the three Symphonies, the chamber works or the songs? Virtually nothing. It is a field worth exploring.
The latest release from Dutton, 'British Light Music Premieres: Volume 5', introduces most listeners to a delightful work from this composer’s pen – the five Aquarelles. I guess that most folk, even enthusiasts of British Music, will be unaware of this piece.
The programme notes point out that the work had its genesis as a series of piano pieces. It was composed in 1950. In 1952 it was published in two versions – solo piano and the present edition for string orchestra. Apparently Chagrin had three children in mind- most likely including his own sons, Nicolas and Julian. However the composer felt that listeners may want to hear characteristics of their own children, so he added three more miniatures…
Aquarelles is a collection of five contrasting miniatures – the shortest lasting a mere thirty-six seconds. However, the mood of these pieces is actually quite diverse.
The work opens with a forward little ‘prelude’, which harks back to the 18th century. However there is a bite to the harmony which ensures that it does not become pastiche. Serious matters are considered in the ‘andantino’ which is actually quite moving: not quite Dolly’s Funeral, but definitely deeper thoughts than should occupy a child at play. I love the ‘allegretto’ – it is certainly not ‘childish’ yet it conjures up for me a walk in Regents Park with a ‘special friend.’ Perhaps the gorgeous ‘andante con espressione’ is the heart of this work; a simply delightful tune surely encourages all adults to look wistfully back at their past or to eye fondly their grandchildren and hope for the them the very best that life can offer. The last movement is a kind of ‘jig’ that banishes most, if not all reflection.
Naturally for such a work there is little in the way of criticism in the musical press. However the July edition of the Musical Times did a short note on this score when it was published in 1952. “Modern music is often beyond the powers of the average pianist…[They]…supply a need here, and might well be included in a school concert, by older pupils. There is nothing startling or brilliant in these pieces, but they indicate a composer with a sense of imagination, and they has the delicate elusive quality of a watercolour.”
Francis Chagrin’s Aquarelles can be heard on Dutton CDLX 7209

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