Monday, 4 May 2009

Montague Phillips: In May Time

In a review of Montague Phillips’s orchestral works I recalled how I had been introduced to his music through his songs – in particular Through a Lattice Window and Sea Echoes. Since those far off days I have kept an eye open for more of Phillips’ works, especially those written for piano. Unfortunately they seem to be a little bit scarce in the second-hand music shops. However I have been lucky enough to peruse the Three Country Pictures, the Village Sketches and the Dance Revels. Now the beauty of these works is that they are playable by the so called ‘gifted amateur.’ As I recall they are not great works of art, but are attractive pieces that are skilfully written and lie well under the hands. The ‘suite’ genre was pretty well widespread in the first half of the 20th century. We need only think of Felix Swinstead, Thomas Dunhill and of course, that master of the form, Eric Coates.

In May Time is a good example of this particular genre. It was originally composed for the piano and was orchestrated by the composer in the mid nineteen-twenties. Lewis Foreman points out that the original score was written for very young piano students – and I am sure he is correct. However the transcription has a subtlety about it that belies this innocent genesis. There are four attractive movements entitled, On a May Morning, Daffodil Time, Spring Blossoms and May-time Revels. The first performance appears to have been given by Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in that town on 4th May 1924. An appropriate date indeed!
One criticism, perhaps, of this suite is that the four movements suffer from sameness. There is not an obvious slow movement. However, the starting point of this work appears to be the dances from the composer’s opera, The Rebel Maid. Perhaps there is also a nod or two in the direction of Sir Arthur Sullivan and Merrie England by Edward German.

There is no need to read any kind of programme into any of these pieces – except to recall that Montague Phillips lived in Esher, which in those days were closer to the countryside than perhaps is the case in 2009. The composer always responded to the rural environment and this work is no exception. It is a charming portrayal of the mood of an English spring day.

The work opens with an attractive dance like movement- On a May Morning- that contrast the strings and woodwind in the principal tune. The middle section is completely different – will o’ the wisp woodwind figurations that contrast with a romantic tune on the violins. Soon the opening material returns with great gusto. There are few allusions to the big tune before the movement closes with a short coda.
Daffodil Time is perhaps the slow movement. ‘Graceful’ would be the operative word here. In spite of the fact that this movement is a bit more reflective than the other three, it is still hard to suppress images of the happiness and the hope of spring.
Spring Blossoms is perhaps the cutest movement of this suite. There are pretty tunes and counter melodies a plenty. The middle section is an attractive theme which is played over and over again – always supported by woodwind fluttering above the melody. Perhaps the first butterflies are on the wing? Spring Blossoms ends quietly.
May-Time Revels probably owes most to The Rebel Maid. It is a good going dance from start to finish – complete with percussion and fine brass playing. There is a short reflective middle section that dances its way to the restatement of opening the ‘Allegro con Spirito’ material.

In May Time can be heard on Dutton CDLX7158

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