Saturday, 1 November 2008

Percy Whitlock: Holiday Suite

Percy Whitlock’s Holiday Suite is one of my favourite pieces. The titles of its three movements express much of the emotion that surrounds the thoughts of a holiday by the sea in England. It is an epitome of much that has passed into history as people head to Benidorm and Gran Canaria. However, holidays at Bournemouth and Llandudno will always be with us. And as long as people enjoy the simple pleasures of life this music will serve as a reminder of much that is precious in the British psyche. This may be strong words for a slight piece –but this is what ‘light’ music is about – approachability. 
A friend of mine who does not claim to understand or appreciate the complexities of Bartok String Quartets or the transcendental piano music of Franz Liszt finds this Holiday Suite full of evocative images. And these are images of her holidays too. Memories of girlhood at Scarborough and Bridlington are evoked in these three movements. And who is to say that Max Jaffa is not as important to musical enjoyment as Yehudi Menhuin? Certainly neither of these two gentlemen! 
Three movements and one enigma. The suite opens with a fine Waltz: ‘In the Ballroom.’ This is in the spirit of so many similar pieces by Eric Coates – a fine English Dance. We feel that at times it is a somewhat restrained movement. Perhaps it is a tea dance? But then the orchestra breaks out into a fine sweep, which along with the saxophones leads back into a typical lilting swing. Then a short codetta and off into the next eight! I can so easily see a pre-war audience moving gracefully around the ballroom. The Ballroom in the title is of course the one behind the Bournemouth Pavilion Concert Hall.

The second is a delightful polka that manages to incorporate the good old English tune ‘Cherry Ripe.’ This had been done already by Frank Bridge in one of his string orchestra pieces and of course by Eric Coates in his London Suite. Whitlock would have known both these works. It is the composer’s delightful sense of humour that gave this piece the back to front title – ‘Spade and Bucket’ Polka. It is a well-written miniature, which certainly evokes thoughts of major excavations on the beach!
The last movement is entitled quite simply, ‘Civic March.’ Yet there is an enigma here. The Performing Rights Society has this listed as the ‘Picnic March’. However the score and the parts all have the current title of ‘Civic March’. I asked Malcolm Riley about this discrepancy and he is of the opinion that the official title links it in nicely to the ‘municipal’ – the ballroom and the Pavilion belonging to the town council. However I have listened to this march a number of times and I am unable to imagine processions of aldermen and the newly made Mayors and civil dignitaries and their partners. For me the music is too bright and breezy. There is an open-air quality to this tune. Perhaps it is easier to imagine the Famous Five off on a picnic with their ginger beer and jam sandwiches: it fits in with the idea of ‘being at the seaside.’ The last thing I would want to do as a child is watch a lot of old fogeys dressed up in outdated clothes shamble along the High Street! However, I will defer, for scholarships sake and concede that this last movement is a rather bright and gay ‘civic’ march. Hmmph.
Listen to Whitlock’s Holiday Suite on Marco Polo

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