Thursday, 23 October 2008

Montague Phillips: Charles II Overture

The listener does not need to be a historian to enjoy what is probably one of Montague Phillips’ masterpieces – the Charles II Overture. However an understanding of some of this great king’s achievements will certainly add to the perception of this work.
For one thing the King had a reputation as a fun-loving monarch who presented a complete contrast to the dour and quite oppressive atmosphere of Cromwell and his Commonwealth. It was the age that we can perhaps refer to as ‘Merry Olde England.’ The king enjoyed the sporting life, in particular horse racing. But it was not just entertainment that inspired him. He was a great patron of the arts and sciences. He launched a major rebuilding of that bastion of pageantry, Windsor Castle and laid the foundations of the Greenwich Observatory. He was patron for the Chelsea Hospital, founded for war veterans who even today wear their distinctive uniforms. He founded the Royal Society. But perhaps most significantly for the architectural skyline was his support of Sir Christopher Wren’s design and building of St Paul’s Cathedral. Of course there was the down side to his reign – he had to face the immense problems caused by the plague and the Great Fire of London.
And there was the romance too. Throughout his reign he had a string of ‘lady friends’ the most famous of these being Nell Gwynne. He was the father of some 13 illegitimate children, all of whom he supported financially.

All of this activity is well described in this overture –except perhaps his fecundity! I accept that in many ways it is like a film score. Not so much the costume dramas that the BBC would make nowadays – but more the nineteen fifties. It is not too difficult to imagine the images flicking past in an early example of glorious ‘Technicolor.’

The works starts immediately with a vigorous upbeat opening – it could almost be described as swashbuckling. There is definitely something of the sea about it. Soon there are some pseudo fanfares suggesting the approach of the Royal Party. However this mood dies away quickly and is replaced by what may be regarded as the heart of the overture. With music that is totally worthy of Sir Edward Elgar the mood becomes romantic. This section perhaps alludes to a secret meeting between Charles and Nell Gwynne at ‘The Dove’ public house in Hammersmith? Or maybe it is a view of Windsor Castle across the Great Park? Who knows? But this romantic string theme quite takes hold of the work. There is something about this music that reminds me of Percy Whitlock’s Organ Symphony, although I doubt any cross influence it must have been the music that was in the air at this time. Both works were composed in 1936. The romantic mood subsides a bit only to be replaced by a short passage for ‘string quartet.’ After some harp arpeggios the music gets back into the swing again. A rather good fugato for strings leads into music of pageantry. After another lull the bustle and ceremonial begins for the last time. With music that William Walton would have been proud to have composed, the overture reprises the opening material and a last restatement of the romantic theme. The build up to the impressive coda is made all the more impressive by the effective brass writing. The work concludes with the listener totally engulfed with joi d’vivre. Long Live the King!

Hear this work on Dutton 7158


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