Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Lilian Elkington: Out of the Mists – a tone poem for Armistice Day.

HMS Verdun: bearer of the Unknown Warrior from France to Great Britian

Lilian Elkington is a name that most music listeners will be unaware of. Perhaps the fact that only a handful of works have survived from her pen makes it much more difficult to make an evaluation of her. Strangely, she does not feature in Groves Dictionary, so there is also little opportunity for biographical study.

However a few facts are known. Elkington was a pupil of Granville Bantock when he was professor at the Birmingham Midland Institute. She studied both piano and composition with him. Her first compositions were heard in 1921 at Harrogate and at Bournemouth.

Lewis Foreman sadly relates that after her marriage she gave up compositions and her recital appearances. Sadder still was that when her daughter was interviewed on BBC’s Woman’s Hour she did not realise that her mother had once been a composer.

But there is a happy side to this story. One day David Brown, the musicologist, was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Worthing. He discovered a parcel that contained virtually all the music that Elkington had written. This included the score and the parts of the only orchestral work to have survived - Out of the Mist. Naturally he jumped at the opportunity to purchase this. A few years later it was given its first modern performance by the Windsor Sinfonia under their director Robert Tucker.

It is scored for a standard orchestra of two flutes + piccolo, oboe + cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons + contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, strings.

This is an immensely satisfying work. It definitely leads the listener to music of the lost talent and the missed opportunities that befell the musical world when Lilian Elkington decided to run a family rather than compose music. It is surely a warning to us all. Yet Out of the Mists remains as a fine tribute to her. In it is possible to feel some of the sadness, the regret and possibly even the hope that those who saw, but survived the Great War felt.

I append the text from the original programme notes written by the composer:-
This short tone-poem is the outcome of a poignant memory connected with the war. The equal suffering and sacrifice of all classes in the cause of common humanity, which led to the honouring of the Unknown Warrior, have been felt by all, and have been well expressed by Laurence Binyon in the lines:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea:
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free, etc.

When the 'Unknown Warrior' was brought home to his last resting-place ‘there was a thick mist over the Channel, out of which the warship slowly emerged’ as she drew near to Dover. This explanation of the title will give the clue to the understanding of the music. The opening is quiet, with muted lower strings, as the ship feels her way through the murk. Slight rifts in the mist are hinted at by the use here and there of the upper strings; and the melancholy phrases enlarge as the ship creeps onward with her fateful burden. After a pause, mutes are removed, the air grows brighter, and the deep gloom upon men’s spirits is somewhat relieved, though the tension is still strong. Gradually the style enlarges and becomes more elevated as larger views of the meaning of sacrifice calm the spirit. The agitation of the soul reasserts itself, broadens, and leads to the final section, Largamente appassionata, ff, as with a burst of sad exaltation the representative of the nameless thousands who have died in the common cause is brought out of the darkness to his own.”
This programme note reprinted with permission from the musicologists David Brown and Pamela Blevins,

Out of the Mists is available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7122

3 comments:

G said...

I dearly love this piece. It is one the warmest, tenderest and most moving things I have ever heard. It has such richness, complexity and maturity in it's melody and form; such beautiful intense impressive modulation and orchestration and yet all seemingly effortless to the composer. A wonderful precious divine piece of music. What a tragedy she composed so little and maybe never knew just how good she was. Grant Townsend.

John France said...

Thanks for that comment, Grant

J

David Thompson said...

Heard the piece on the radio some 25ish years ago, and have been looking for a recording since - so thanks for the link (hope you get comission!)

Sorry to disagree on your warning though - our loss may well have been her gain!