Sunday, 22 March 2009

Sir Eugene Goossens: The Eternal Rhythm - tone poem.

My most recent ‘great discovery’ in English music is Sir Eugene Goossens’s early tone poem The Eternal Rhythm. I was ‘mugging up’ on this composer for a MusicWeb review of the new Chandos release of his First Symphony and Phantasy Concerto when I discovered a reference to this work in an advert for the 1920 Promenade Concert season. I had never heard this piece before, but suddenly realised that it may have been recorded by Vernon Handley in his 3CD retrospective of Goossens’s music. And so it was. I listened to the work and was stunned.
Any discussion of this work is heavily dependent on the programme notes written by Meurig Bowen and Phillip Sametz for the ABC Classics CD release.
The Eternal Rhythm is believed to have been composed in 1913, although there appears to be no definite date. The work received its first performance at the Promenade Concerts on 19th October 1920. There were apparently two further performances: firstly, at one of the composer’s ‘contemporary concerts’ in June 1921 and secondly, at the inaugural concert of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) during December 1922.
Certainly there appears to have been little further hearings of this work after that performance. In fact Goossens suggests in his autobiography, Overture and Beginners, that the work had been lost or perhaps even destroyed. Fortunately a copy of the score and the orchestral parts turned up at J.& W. Chesters and allowed Vernon Handley and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to make the ‘World Premiere Recording’ in 1995.

The CD sleeve notes make a very pertinent comment: they suggest that if Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Goossens teacher at the Royal College of Music, had “set his pupil the task of creating a Franco-German tone poem, with Debussy, Ravel and Richard Strauss glowing on every page, The Eternal Rhythm would have fitted the bill magnificently.” I would go a little further and suggest that Goossens has taken a cue from Frank Bridge, harmonically from Fred. Delius and, perhaps more vitally, Arnold Bax, in the genesis of this work. However, this piece is not about ‘hunting the influence.’ It is not a parody or a pastiche of anyone’s music.

From the first bar to the last, this work shimmers with a kind of impressionism that is relatively rare in music- especially English music. Perhaps Bridge’s Summer or Enter Spring are called to mind. Certainly it is unfair to suggest that this work does not have an ‘English’ feel to it although I felt that at times the mood of this work was more ‘Celtic’ that Gallic, but was still in the tradition of early 20th century English music. The musical imagery may well suggest a hazy day on the Downs as much as a jog round the Rings of Kerry.

Finally the author of the CD notes wonder why the composer chose to suppress, or even destroy this work. Perhaps it was due to criticism that he somehow lacked his own voice? Maybe he felt that this work ‘played into their (these critics) hands? For example R.H. Hull wrote in Music & Letters (October 1932) “An early concern with rhythmic devices which had attracted him in the music of foreign contemporaries had incited Goossens to a similar ingenuity in a number of somewhat imitative writings. In The Eternal Rhythm he utilises previous knowledge to speak very much his own mind. This composition is a vital summary of artistic experience up to the moment combined with resolute promise of release from external influence”. Yet even here Hull in not suggesting parody. He admits that it is a synthesis rather than a copy.

Finally, all these concerns do not trouble the listener after ninety years have passed. We are fortunate in having a piece of music that is well constructed, brilliantly scored and downright interesting. It is a work that both entertains and moves the listener. What more can anyone ask of a work? One thing is for sure- if The Eternal Rhythm had been composed by a Frenchman or a German it would have been in the repertoire, both in those countries and also in British concert halls. It is that impressive!

This work can be heard on ABC Classics 476 7632

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