Sunday, 26 October 2008

Herbert Sumsion: A Mountain Tune

Herbert Sumsion is most often associated with the organ loft at Gloucester Cathedral than with secular instrumental music. He held the post of organist there from 1928 to 1967 and was heavily involved in the Three Choirs Festivals over that period. His choral and organ music is widely known amongst those who “sing in quires and places.” Of course the cognoscenti will know that he wrote a number of chamber works including two Piano Trios and a String Quartet. Yet a look at his catalogue shews a small but select group of orchestral works. These include an Idyll, At Valley Green for orchestra, Lerryn, for orchestra, an Overture, In the Cotswolds, for full orchestra and the present piece.
A Mountain Tune was originally composed for cello and piano in 1940 and was dedicated ‘To Alice’. Philip Lane writes that this dedication gives “some clue to their original inspiration some 14 years earlier when he and his bride spent a ‘composing’ honeymoon in the White Mountains in New Hampshire.”
In many ways this piece epitomises the English Pastoral tradition. Of course there are echoes of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and Fred. Delius. However, there is an originality which denies any suggestion that somehow this work is pastiche or parody. The simplicity of the main theme perhaps belies the complexity of this string writing.
Kenneth Avery in Music & Letters (July 1947) writes that “this is a peaceful little work.” He notes that it is “of simple construction; its tunes are very charming, and the harmony is smooth and appropriate, being rather reminiscent of John Ireland at times.” He concludes his short notice by suggesting that “there should be no hesitation about including it in programmes, as both professional and amateur orchestras will find it congenial – to say nothing of the audiences.”
In spite of the fact that dedication alludes to a New England stimulus for this piece, it would seem that something more local is the true inspiration. Perhaps the title would be better called A Hill Tune rather than A Mountain Tune – but that had already been used by Arnold Bax. I would plump for Chosen Hill as a suitable candidate.

A Mountain Tune is available on ASV CD WHL 2121

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