Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Alec Rowley: Train Journey

Ever since I began to learn to play the piano, I have been conscious of the music of Alec Rowley. Early on, I found a set of Five Miniature Preludes and Fugues in the piano stool. Now these are hardly to the standard of JSB, but the important point was that I could play them! A few years later I learnt his evocative Hornpipe which is still a favourite of mine. Last year on this blog I noted the fine sea sketches called Outward Bound.
The other day I was in an ephemera shop and came across a work of Rowley’s that I had never heard of – the ‘twelve little pieces for beginners’ called Train Journey. Now technically speaking these are what in the old days would have been called preparatory or even elementary pieces – probably only just scraping into Grade 1 level. Yet, I was impressed by these little numbers and their presentation. The sheet music was published in 1945 by Edwin Ashdown of London. The pieces are not mentioned in Beryl Kington’s biography of the composer.
For interest sake, and because I guess no other musicologist has written or will write about this work, I will list the titles:-
At the Station
Off We Go
Tickets Please
A Block on the Line
Continuing the Journey
Through the Tunnel
Cattle Grazing
Fog on the Line
Crowded Carriage
Wayside Factories
Soldiers Passing
End of the Journey

I guess that what impressed me as I played these pieces through was that they were tiny, miniature tone poems. From the pastoral 6/8 tune given to the livestock, through the simple 'rhythm of the rails' to business of the factories, each of these pieces encourages the young player to exercise not only their fingers, but their imagination. Each one becomes slightly harder as the journey progresses. To assist the young pianist the composer has provided a text for each piece. The lines of verse are actually ‘barred’ so they can be sung along to the tune! I will only quote one:-
Here are we at our journey’s end,
See the train’s just round the bend,
Tired and sleepy, quite are we,
Now very soon we’ll be home for tea.

Naturally there is little of innovation here; however there are a few felicitous harmonies in these elementary pieces. For example there is single bar of ‘whistle’ sound based on two minor second chords. Continuing the Journey again opens with the whistle and has some good 3/8 railway onomatopoeia. Wayside Factory nods to an old study by Burgmuller and the Soldiers Passing is a real miniature march. Rowley uses a well placed dominant thirteenth chord in the End of Journey.
Now this is all rather tame for today's more ‘sophisticated’ children, but something tells me that quite a lot of young pianists whose teachers or parents shelled out the 2/- for this music would have enjoyed the pieces. And who knows, in those days before political correctness ensured that boys played with dolls, it may have encouraged one or two lads to stick in at their piano studies. They could play Alec Rowley and dream of being a train driver!
Alec Rowley wrote a deal of music that is rarely heard these days. There are a number of major pieces including Sonatas, Piano Concertos and a wealth of music for the organ. However, I guess it is the educational pieces that have so far survived the test of time.

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