Monday, 28 December 2009

Peter Dickinson: New Naxos Release

Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934) Lullaby from The Unicorns (1967/82/86) Mass of the Apocalypse (1984) Larkin’s Jazz (1989) Five Forgeries for piano duet (1963) Five Early Pieces for Piano (1955-1956) Air (1959) Metamorphosis (1955/57)

Peter Dickinson (piano), John Flinders (piano: Forgeries, Early Pieces 2 & 4), Duke Dobing (flute: Lullaby, Air & Metamorphosis); Rev. Donald Reeve (narrator), Jo Maggs (soprano), Meriel Dickinson (mezzo), St James Singers, James Holland & David Johnson (percussion) John Alley (piano) Ivor Bolton (conductor) [Mass]; Henry Herford (baritone/speaker) The Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend [Larkin’s Jazz]

NAXOS 8.572287 [79:02]

I recently reviewed this excellent CD of music by the British composer, musicologist and academic Peter Dickinson. I felt that the best way to tackle this disc was to “join the composer on a musical journey. This will be not so much a chronological trip but one that introduces the listener to a variety of facets of the composer’s unique musical style. I guess that most listeners will be like me: they will know few if any of these works, unless they had been present at the concert performances.
After looking at some of the more directly approachable works on this CD I considered the most challenging piece, the Mass of the Apocalypse, which was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of the radical Anglican St James’s Church, Piccadilly. It received its premiere there on 15 July 1984. It is certainly not a work that could be used in any liturgical context and can only be performed as a ‘concert piece’. Structurally, it is a mish-mash of words collated from the Mass and from the Book of Revelation. This confusion is further increased by the use of the memorable prose of the Authorised King James Version for those parts of the work which are spoken against a background of music, with the sung parts conned from the less than satisfactory and somewhat pedestrian language of the now largely redundant ASB (Alternative Service book). The Mass is set for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, speaker and four-part chorus. Two percussionists and a pianist provide the accompaniment. I enjoyed this music in spite of its non-traditional format and the perplexity of styles. It is certainly a moving piece that will provoke a response from the listener of one kind or another.

A major part of this CD is given over to a live performance of Larkin’s Jazz. This is a rather unusual work written for a speaker and baritone (same person), small chamber ensemble including piano and percussion. It was commissioned by Keele University and was first performed in the chapel there on 5 February 1990. There is much of interest and the music is always engaging. The balance of the musical and the spoken parts is well contrived.

I concluded by noting that this CD has been issued to celebrate the composer’s 75th year. It’s an excellent CD with which to introduce the listener to the diverse sound-world of Peter Dickinson, a world that is always challenging and interesting but never lacks interest. It is a well-presented disc with an essential and informative essay by the composer. With nearly 80 minutes of music it represents good value for money. The ‘live’ first performances of the Mass and Larkin’s Jazz add interest and colour.
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Please read the full review on MusicWeb International

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony


Victor Hely-Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony is one of six works I always listen to at Christmastime. The others include RVW's Hodie, Finzi's In Terra Pax, JSB's Christmas Oratorio and Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born. Fortunately recordings of Hely-Hutchinson's work have rarely been unobtainable over the years since it was first heard in 1929. However, it is a work that is infrequently given in the concert hall or on the wireless.

Hely-Hutchinson is relatively little-known as a composer, professor and administrator. He merits only a handful of lines in Grove and has not yet been provided with a biography. So, a few notes on his lifetime's achievement will be helpful. Christian Victor Noel Hope Hely-Hutchinson was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 26 December 1901, the youngest son of the last Governor and Commander-in- Chief of Cape Colony, the Right Honourable Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson. He was educated at Eton and also studied at the Royal College of Music with Donald Tovey. He went up to Balliol in 1920. The following year he left Oxford before completing his degree: he had been offered a lectureship at the South African College of Music.' After three years in this post Hely-Hutchinson returned to London and joined the staff of the BBC in 1926. Later, he moved to the Corporation's Midland Region before taking up a professorship of music at Birmingham University, where he succeeded Granville Bantock. In 1944 Hely-Hutchinson became Director of Music of the BBC where he remained until his death in 1947. His works, apart from A Carol Symphony, include a Piano Quintet, a Violin Sonata, the orchestral Variations, Intermezzo, Scherzo and Finale (1927) and a number of settings of Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs. Grove's Dictionary suggests that he was an effective administrator rather than an important composer. It notes that few of his works are heard today. Fortunately Dutton recordings recently released his Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra "The Young Idea" which I commented on in my 'blog' in April 2008.

A Carol Symphony is really more a sequence of 'preludes' rather than movements in a classical or traditional sense. Some critics have worried about its internal cohesion, but typically most have been impressed by the unity of the work considering the small number of carols that the composer used.
Each movement is based on a single carol, with allusions to others, although the scherzo and the finale do have additional material. The entire work was designed to be played without a break;' although there are short pauses between the movements in the recordings.

The first movement 'allegro energico' makes an impressive presentation of Adeste Fideles, largely in the style of a Bach Chorale Prelude. It is a strong opening and never lacks interest. The scherzo explores God Rest ye merry gentlemen in a manner not dissimilar to the Russian School of Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev. One reviewer noted that 'Mr Hely-Hutchinson goes far towards beating the 'Invincible Band' in their own bandstand, so to speak'.' The 'andante quasi lento e cantabile' is truly lovely, although it has been suggested that the composer 'spreads mere picturesque-ness a little too thinly'. Yet, the use of the orchestra here is masterly. It is not 'effect for effect's sake', but a good use of colour and balance. The outer sections are based on the Coventry Carol with the 'trio' section making use of The First Nowell. Perhaps the introduction to The First Nowell section is the most memorable part of the entire Symphony, with its enigmatic harp theme leading to the presentation of the tune. To this listener at any rate, it is musically suggestive of a 'cold and frosty night.' The last movement is another 'allegro energico' which makes clever use of Here we come a-wassailing before reprising Adeste Fideles.' The composer makes fine use of various contrapuntal devices to explore these two melodies. It has been compared to some final movements of Stanford's symphonies and with some justification. However, like the elder composer's works, there is nothing pedantic about this finale, in spite of its textbook use of a variety of musical devices.

The Guardian[1] reviewer was impressed at the first performance of A Carol Symphony at a Promenade Concert on 27 September 1929. He noted that the work 'pleased the audience immensely ' and surely not only because he uses wonderfully persuasive traditional tunes in it.' He continues by suggesting that the 'work is extremely well turned out' although 'the treatment is scarcely more original than the thematic material, but the composer gives the impression of knowing exactly what he wants and getting it without any effort ' However there is a slight sting in the tail. He laments the fact that 'one sighed now and again for a little sympathy with modern thought but was consoled by the reflection that in two hundred years or so it will not matter that this work sounds about twenty years old today'.

The reviewer of The Times[2] noted that the Amateur Orchestra of London had furthered their 'commendable policy' of championing works that are outside the usual repertoire.' On Monday 15 December 1930 A Carol Symphony was presented at the Kingsway Hall in London. The reviewer stated that 'any competently written work employing carol tunes must make a strong appeal, especially at this time of year, and whether such a work is called a fantasia or a symphony or a suite ought not to affect one's enjoyment of the music.' However, he felt that this distinction was perhaps more problematic than a first glance would have suggested. He continues: 'it has often been demonstrated that folk-tunes do not readily lend themselves to symphonic development' and he believed that Hely-Hutchinson had stretched 'their capacities to the utmost by making his symphony in cyclic form.' Furthermore, the reviewer then suggested how the composer ought to have written the work. He should have allowed one carol or wassail song to 'suggest another, and let that suggest a counterpoint and so on.'' The problem seems to be that Hely-Hutchinson gave the impression of 'stopping at the end of each bit of tune to think what he could do next with it.'' The fundamental issue seems to be that the texture and the scoring of the work are perfectly appropriate ' it is the thematic treatment that lets the work down.

Yet, some years later, The Times[3] in a review of a recently released record[4] of the Symphony suggested that this was 'not only a work brimming over with gaiety but refutes the accepted and not unjustifiable generalization that folk tunes are recalcitrant to symphonic development'.' The reviewer is suitably impressed with the way that the composer has taken 'the half dozen best known and most hardly worked carols and symphonizes them by dissolving them in ostinato figures, of which the chief is a cross between Bach's Wachet Auf ' and an English country dance tune'.
This work is currently available on two CDs. The first is a reissue of a recording made by Barry Rose and the Pro Arte Orchestra made in Guilford Cathedral in September 1966.' EMI Classics CDM 7 64131 A more recent version appeared on Naxos 8.557099 in 2002 with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. This is also available as an MP3 download. Both recordings are impressive, although the later one has the edge on sound quality. On the other side of the coin, as Neil Horner at MusicWeb International has pointed out, the EMI recording does have fine couplings with RVW's Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Roger Quilter's Children's Overture and Ernest Tomlinson's Suite of English Folk Dances.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this article was first published

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Christmas Overture

I recently heard Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Christmas Overture, and was impressed. OK, I do not rate it at the same level as his glorious Violin Concerto, his excellent Symphony in A minor or even his best-known work the oratorio trilogy Hiawatha.
History does not seem to relate if the Overture was actually ‘conceived’ by Coleridge Taylor. However, it was definitely orchestrated by a ‘popular’ composer called Sydney Baynes, who is best remembered for his Destiny Waltz. As I understand it, Coleridge-Taylor’s music was originally conceived as incidental music for a ‘charming poetical fairy drama’ by Alfred Noyes -The Forest of Wild Thyme. Sir Beerbohm Tree had commissioned the music. Unfortunately the play was abandoned, apparently owing to a great similarity between it and Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird. Some of the enormous amount of music which Coleridge Taylor had written was reused in other works but the majority remained in manuscript. Realised works included the Three Dream Dances for piano, Scenes from an Imaginary Ballet Op.74 and finally an Intermezzo for orchestra.

It would be easy to write this Overture off as a ‘pot-pourri’ of Christmas tunes but even a cursory hearing shows a work that is well wrought and having a sense of purpose and consistency. In site of the occasional nod to Sir Arthur Sullivan and possibly Sir Edward German, this work has a deal of original material and is not all related to Christmas carols. However, look out for a good workout of Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels and God rest you, merry gentlemen.

Alas, the reviewer in The Musical Times Jan 1 1927 suggests that the overture, “...may please uncritical family circles at this season of the year, but it is a very weak piece of work…”
But perhaps slightly less damning is the critic in The Gramophone. He writes that Coleridge-Taylor's “Christmas is a right merry one, with Good King W., Hark the Herald, the bells, and country dancing. I see that he is said to have used in this and other pieces some of the music he wrote for Noyes' play, The Forest of Wild Thyme, intended for production in 1910, and not performed. There is not much in the overture save a gathering of tunes and a sparkle of Christmas-tree spangles, but it would go down well after dinner”. [Gramophone December 1932 p22 f]
However, I feel that this is largely negative posturing. The music is good well written music and the orchestration is full of seasonal colouring and certainly fulfils its festive expectations.

Listen to this work on The Night Before Christmas Naxos 8.570331

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

John Ireland: Piano Trios on Naxos

John Ireland (1879-1962)
Phantasie Trio in A minor (1908) Piano Trio No.2 in E (1917) Piano Trio No.3 in E (1938) Berceuse for violin and piano (1902) Cavatina for violin and piano (1904) Bagatelle for violin and piano (1911) The Holy Boy for violin and piano (1913/19)

The Gould Piano Trio Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); and Benjamin Frith (piano);
rec. 13 -15 June 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
NAXOS 8.570507

John Ireland’s Piano Trios are a critical part of his repertoire. Certainly they form an ideal way to explore his chamber music. And for once, I would suggest that the listener approaches these three works in the order they written.
The Phantasie Trio in A minor was one of many works composed for the illustrious Cobbett Music Competitions announced in 1907. The twenty-eight year old composer submitted this present piece alongside some 37 other entrants. It is probably reasonably well-known that the winner of that competition was Frank Bridge. However, Ireland scored a joint second with the now largely forgotten James Friskin. The winning pieces were performed at the Aeolian Hall on January 1909.
The Musical Times reports that this work was characterised by “extreme brilliancy and strenuousness and is rich in musicianship”. It is a sentiment with which even a cursory hearing will reveal. The same review notes that Ireland was called to the platform twice –and considering that Brahms Trio in B was also performed the writer felt that it was a “triumph for British chamber music”. Structurally, the work mirrors sonata form, but is written in one continuous movement with the four parts reflecting the exposition, the development, the recapitulation and a coda.
The great critic Edwin Evans felt that the Phantasie Trio marked the end of Ireland’s early compositional period and the starting point of a new direction. He conceded that there was a lot of characteristic ‘Ireland’ writing here. He noted that the mood of the work is “classical throughout, and [that] unity is secured not so much by derivation of the thematic material...as an affinity of themes which maintain their independence”. He concludes by suggesting that the “use of themes which are homogonous without being positively related often produces a better result, and the cohesion of this attractive trio is not the least of its many qualities.”
This Trio is a work that certainly deserved its prize and makes, in spite of Evans’s prose, an approachable introduction to John Ireland’s chamber music.
The Piano Trio No.2 is in complete contrast to the Phantasie. For one thing this work was composed in 1917, a time when the full horrors of the Great War were manifest. Both this work and the slightly earlier Second Violin Sonata are usually regarded as expressing the composer’s feelings about the tragedy and the loss of the Great War. Yet although the composer allegedly told the cellist Florence Hooton that the ‘allegro guisto’ section “evoked the boys going over the top’ this is not a ‘Battle of the Trafalgar’ type of musical confection. It is perhaps more to do with Ireland trying to cling to “the beauty that remained on the earth amidst the carnage and inhumanity of the battle.” In spite of alleged warlike allusions there is much in this Trio that has a ‘haunting beauty’ and interestingly the work concludes on an optimistic note bearing in mind the date of its composition.
The sleeve notes quote Fiona Richards in her book The Music of John Ireland (Ashgate 2000) “This is a work of mixed emotions, contrasting passages of stark textures and caustic harmonies with effusive moments and grim marches. The structure of the work is a succession of episodes exploring different mood, all of which are melodic metamorphoses of the first eighteen bars of the piece”. It is a wise and appropriate summary of what is not an easy work to come to terms with.
The final Trio is my personal favourite. I have long felt that this work describes a landscape – not in any pictorial manner, but quite simply manages to capture the mood of a day’s exploration on the Chanctonbury Ring and the South Downs. It is to do with the composer’s or the listener’s response to that landscape. But this is also more about mere picture painting. It is about Ireland’s response to the genre of chamber music, his personal stylistic development and manages to complement both the mature composer and the youthful enthusiasm of his earlier scores. It is perhaps no surprise that he dedicated the work to William Walton. I have noted elsewhere that although Walton is the dedicatee, there are quite a few nods to Vaughan Williams in these pages. This is perhaps most obvious in the scherzo where there even appear to be allusion to a kind of folksong. Perhaps the highlight of the work is the romantically overblown slow movement.
This Trio was composed in 1938 and does not really respond to the international situation that was already engulfing Europe. The score incorporates a deal of material salvaged from the withdrawn Clarinet Trio. That work has been recently recovered and realised by Stephen Fox. It was released on Naxos 8.570550. It is important to realise that this earlier score was completely reworked and expanded: it was not just an arrangement. The Trio in E is written in four movements, which on the one had are contrasting, but on the other are thematically related to the opening ‘allegro moderato.’

It would be very easy to ignore the four salon pieces which have been included as makeweights for this CD. Somehow Naxos were some 12 minutes shy of a full hour and decided to allow these charming woks to appear alongside the main event. Oh! that they had chosen to present the James Friskin Phantasie in A minor which came second equal in the 1907 Cobbett completion –assuming that the score and parts still exist.
But these miniatures are certainly worth reviving occasionally. As the sleeve notes suggest, the first two of these, the Cavatina (1902) and the Berceuse (1904), “show that Ireland had a gift for melody in the style of say Elgar’s Salut d’amour or Chanson de Matin”.
The Bagatelle is a piece that I have not heard before. It was composed in 1911 for Marjorie Haywood who was soloist in the composer’s substantial First Violin Sonata. All three of these works could be described as charming: none of them are essential.

We are on different territory with the final piece – The Holy Boy. This work, written in 1913, was originally the third movement of the Four Preludes for piano which were not published until 1917. This work has been ‘dished up’ in a number of different arrangements including for string orchestra, organ, four part choir and cello and piano. Lately it has appeared on a Naxos CD in a version for clarinet and piano. The sleeve notes suggest that the inspiration for this piece may have been the Georgian poet Harold Munro’s Children of Love, which begins with the lies “The holy boy/ went from his mother out in the cool of the day” and evokes a meeting between Jesus and Eros. Perhaps a more prosaic suggestion is that the inspiration for this work was a certain Bobby Glassby, a chorister at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. It is possible that it was both.
I enjoyed the playing by the Gould Piano Trio and felt that they had truly entered into the spirit of the music. They apply themselves with equal attention to the heavier Trios as well as the lighter salon pieces.
The programme notes are good and introduce these works well. There is so much that could be said about the Trios in particular, that it is quite a work of art to provide sufficient information in a manageable format.
Fundamentally, the competing versions are those on Lyrita, Chandos and ASV. What is the preferred version? Well, to paraphrase my late father – No one makes, and tries to sell, a bad version of the Ireland Trios.” Each of these releases is a great recording in their own right. I was ‘brought up’ on the Lyrita recording and have a certain bias towards that one. However, a comparative study notwithstanding, I suggest that this present release is a great investment. As I often say, all Ireland enthusiasts will insist on adding this CD to their collection.


With thanks to MusicWeb International

Sunday, 20 December 2009

"Holst, Cotswold Man and Mystic" By Marion M. Scott

This has been transcribed from the original typescript of an article written for The Listener May 1944. I have made a few minor edits to the text.
Thanks to Pamela Blevins for permission to use this document.


“I’m a Cotswold man,[1]” Holst once said to me and there was no mistaking the ring of pride in his voice. That settled once and for all any wonderment as to how far he was English. He was not only English but filled with local patriotism, typical of England’s counties. He loved his own one of Gloucestershire. It had more than a small share in shaping him to what he was, for it was during his weekly rounds when he trudged from village to village in the Cotswold Hills training small choirs, that he gained his masterly understanding of human folk and their voices. He could make contacts with any sort of musician from the most elementary amateur to the accomplished professional and could persuade them all to make music. But there was another element in his character alongside the vigorous, out-spoken, open-hearted Cotswold man – it was an element of which he himself was scarcely conscious, but which could be sensed as setting him a little apart from the warm familiar life of earth. It could not be assigned to any known county or country; it had more than a hint of exile from a native-land far-off in time and space; and it produced the same shiver of awe and chill that Flecker’s lines lay upon one in his poem “The Dying Patriot”
“West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides
I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young
Star-captains glow!

Holst and his music being indissoluble it was inevitable that both elements, though apparently incompatible, should appear in his music. They were held there in working partnership by his own mastery, sometimes with one element, sometimes the other gaining the ascendancy and both occasionally uniting – as in this great suite The Planets to produce a perfect synthesis.
The programme selected by the B.B.C. for the performance this year to mark the anniversary of Holst’s death (May 25th 1935) represents the whole range. On the one is the Holst who delighted in the warm life of country sights and sounds, in Folk songs, and the richly characteristic music of such Englishmen as Boyce[2] and Purcell. Conversely there is Holst the withdrawn visionary of Christian and Eastern mysticism, of occult lore, pre-history and thoughts as abstract and ageless as mathematics.

The Country Song for small orchestra, composed in 1906, dates from the time when he was first carrying into London work the impetus of his country experiences. He had been appointed Musical Director at the Passmore Edwards Settlement[3] in 1904, and in 1906 came the Musical Directorship of Morley College[4]. What he achieved at these places was something fresh (or else long-forgotten) in the relation between teacher and taught, and he raised Morley College music to an excellence that has set the standard for all similar colleges. Holst welcomed eagerly everyone who would come along and make music. No matter how inexpert they might be he swept them on by his enthusiasm into efficiency, and he gave concerts with so remarkable a collection of oddments for an orchestra that any other conductor would have collapsed at the gaps. Occasionally he felt some outside help was desirable and he must, I think have applied to the Royal College of Music (where he himself had been a pupil in the 1890’s) for volunteers. I was asked to go and Holst put me to lead the band. It was an experience full of excitement, for he was always tremendously keyed-up with enthusiasm and flung his whole soul into conducting us. So far as I can recollect his beat did not give the impression of either ease or grace, but it was very clear to follow and he got the results he wanted from his players by something which probably was a kind of telepathy.
It did not function so strongly at rehearsals, but on the night of a concert it was sure to be there, for Holst’s mind became incandescent with music. There were the years when he held the belief (which I later heard him formulate) that “the fundamental necessity in all art is emotion; everything must spring from that. The fostering of this latent emotion is nine-tenths of the problem of education”.
Further, he believed that the music we love is that which educates us. So at the Passmore Edwards Settlement and Morley College his students had the best music practicable in the programmes, - Bach, Mozart and plenty of folk-songs. These latter were usually in arrangements made by Holst himself. Through them he got down to something fundamental in the musical make-up of the London workers who formed his choir. I remember in particular the fascination of his arrangement of “On the banks of the Nile”[5] with its strange lilt in the singing of the dotted notes that was not at all a ‘classical’ rendering but slid along with its clipped rhythm in a sort of musical counterpart of our clipping English speech of every day.
Egdon Heath for full orchestra, which Holst composed in 1927 lies more than a world away from his early works. Nothing of his has provoked such violent reactions in listeners as this strange almost frigid piece. For by the time it came to be written Holst’s love of abstract thought had led him to jettison his ideas of the functions of emotion in favour of Stravinsky’s theory that music should be dissociated from emotion. Fritz Hart[6], Professor of Music in the University of Honolulu and a fast friend of Holst’s from their student days relates in his fine study of Holst – “Gustav, perhaps, did not go quite as far as Stravinsky, but he once told me, most earnestly that composers should sternly eschew what he described as the ‘domestic emotions.’”
Though later, as Fritz Hart points out, Holst began to see the brilliant Stravinsky’s weaknesses, the cold poison poured in Holst’s ear produced some chilling works. In one sense Egdon Heath is the supreme expression of this phase. But though orchestras as far apart as those in Paris, Boston and Melbourne have hated it, that does not necessarily mean the work is wrong. It was of all others the one that Holst was surest about himself, and his tone-picture of Egdon Heath considered with an open mind, comes extraordinarily close to Hardy’s description of “a place ...singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” But even more than to Hardy, I think Holst cast back to the Egdon Heath of pre-history. I once had the fortune to see Egdon (Wareham Heath) under its primaeval aspect. An eclipse of the sun fell that year on a spring morning. Sitting at the edge of the Heath with a friend I watched the birds and insects flitting over the winter-brown bracken and green bog-moss in bright sunlight. Silently the cheerful day dimmed; it grew so still we hardly dared speak; the great expanses of the Heath turned livid, and in the uncanny light of that darkness the world of pre-history welled up from the earth and possessed the landscape, cruel because unaware of feeling, inhuman because without sense of right and wrong. That to me is Holst’s Egdon.

In The Planets Holst found a subject ideally suited to his genius. Composed in 1914-16 he carried it through on a grandly spacious scheme of seven large movements and an exceptionally large orchestra, while his musical and intellectual concepts ranged freely through the solar system, depicting each planet under its astrological signification. In Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity Holst produced a magnificent consummation of Cotswold song and folk-song: and Mercury the Winged Messenger gives a measure of his own swiftness of spirit. These two movements have always found ready acceptance. But the remainder are even more worthy of attention and repay it a hundredfold: the effort is to penetrate their music and meaning.
Down to the least detail they are clairvoyant. Take the first bars of all- the opening of Mars. Though Holst sketched them before the War of 1914-18 the merciless rhythm hammered out by the bass is an almost exact replica of the rhythm made by the guns in France as they were heard daily in Kent during the summer of 1917. Or turn to Uranus the Magician. According to ancient beliefs in the lore of numbers 16 was called the ‘The Falling Tower’ or the ‘Uranus number’. Its unpleasant property was that just when everything is going splendidly and seeming on the point of fulfilment all would be dashed away and the victim left with nothing but his misery. Listen now to the last bars of Uranus where the old magician works up his enchantment into a terrific chord that blazes up FFF through the whole orchestra and then suddenly collapses PP into a moan and nothingness. Surely that is the Uranus number!
It is often said of good music that it is sincere. For Holst the word is too weak. Nothing short of intense truth satisfied him, whether it were metaphysical or material. It was a disturbing quality, making some of his work hard of acceptance, but it will keep it alive.

Marion M Scott May 1944
[1] Holst was born at 4 Clarence Road in Cheltenham Gloucestershire, England on 21st September 1874
[2] William Boyce (1711-1779)
[3] The Passmore Edwards Settlement was an adult education college located in Tavistock Square in London. It was financed by John Passmore Edwards. It is now the Mary Ward Centre.
[4] Morley College is an adult education college founded in South Bank area London in the 1880s.
[5] “On the banks of the Nile” – from Seven Folk Songs H85 No.1 1904 -14?
[6] Fritz Bennicke Hart (11 February 1874 – 9 July 1949) was an English composer, conductor, teacher and unpublished novelist, who spent considerable periods in Australia and Hawaii (Wilkipedia)

Friday, 18 December 2009

How they Make Music at Morley College

A Chat with Mr. Holst and a Sight of his Work there
Part 3

The Lighter Side.
But the lighter side of the Art is not excluded. English Opera as She is Wrote, is the title of a work produced in 1917, and rehearsed during an air-raid. The composer of this remarkable work- (rumour has it that there were several composers) "boldly wrote his first five acts in the five great styles of his predecessors in operatic tradition, reserving the over­whelming revelation of his own New Tradition for his sixth and last act". The success of the com­bined Traditions was so immense that the opera was repeated some ten or eleven times, and will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to be present.
Then on another occasion there was the first per­formance of a Futurist Symphonic Tone Poem in H, when Mr. James Brown introduced the work to the audience, and Mr. Holst conducted with two batons.

A Talk about the Music.
Having made these gleanings, I betook myself to the Hall again, and found Mr. Holst in the centre of an eager audience of performers, vocal and instru­mental, talking to them about the music for the concert. Brahms' Song of Destiny was his theme when
I slipped into a back seat, and he was having an accompaniment passage played through in skeleton ­on the piano to show the chord progressions (" the sort of thing," as he explained, "that you wouldn't expect to find before the XIXth century"), and another passage to show the curious effect of duple rhythm in 3-time.
Then came the Choral Fantasia, and a grand opportunity for that "inventive" faculty which the loss of the notebook required. I came to the conclusion, as I listened, that the audience in the lorry probably did not go to sleep during the invention of the History of Music. I give the improvisation more or less as it dropped conversationally from its author.
"This Fantasia seems to have been a study for the Choral Symphony", he began. "Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and the Choral was the ninth. I'll just tell you a few things about them that will help you to remember better than dates. Actual dates aren't so very important for you. Beethoven has been called the Father of Modern Music (so have a good many people). You will understand what is meant if you look upon Bach and Handel as the culmination of contrapuntal music applied for orchestra and chorus. Before 1600, there was no orchestra. During the seventeenth century, the orchestra was beginning, and German music was coming into being. The Germans have always been eminent in orchestral music. For about a hundred-and-fifty years you have music for orchestra and chorus being written. After 1750, purely orchestral music developed.
Between 1750 and 1820, you have the work of three great composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose musical centre was Vienna. These composers thought a great deal of outline and clearness, and a great deal of dignity of form. As a boy, I looked down on all that. I daresay some of you don't feel that it's very important. But you must under­stand what point of view these great people had in writing. Now Beethoven, who was the youngest of them, came to maturity at a time when the validity of forms and authority of all kinds was being questioned. It was the period of the French Revo­lution, and if you look on Beethoven and the French Revolution as doing the same sort of thing in their different ways, you will see what Beethoven stands for in the history of music. He freed the Sonata Form. Haydn and Mozart thought of their work in harmonic sections, and when it's not their best work the result's a bit prim. Now Beethoven's First and Second Symphonies are just Haydn. But the Third takes us into a new field. Up till then, a Slow Movement had been a placid, graceful, rather happy affair: the Slow Movement of the Eroica is a Funeral March. The whole Symphony, moreover, is twice the length of a Haydn - everything on a much larger scale. And so he went on thinking greater and greater things, till he wrote the Seventh Symphony, which is the greatest of all.
In the Ninth, two of the movements are in the form of an Air with Variations, and you can easily trace the resemblance between the air of the Finale of the Symphony (this is how it goes…) and the tune of the Choral Fantasia, which is also in Variation form.
The Fantasia itself is in two movements. The first is given to the Piano, and is in improvisation style, ending on a dominant seventh. At this point, the join of the two movements, there is a curious mark in the score, and this note: 'At this place the director of the music is to give a sign to the orchestra'. It does not say what sort of sign he is to give, and you must remember that at that period the conductor was not an estab­lished person, and the 'Director of the Music' was probably the first violin, or some competent musician who sat at a harpsichord with the score, ready to come to the rescue at critical moments.
Well, now it's time to get on to rehearsing, but just one thing about the end of the Fantasia. Those of you who took part in the Italian Opera Scene of famous memory will remember the convention of the endless ending. Well, listen to this ­(Mr. Holst ran over the formula on the piano -Tonic, Sub­mediant, Subdominant, Dominant; Tonic, Submediant, Sub­dominant, Dominant). It's just what Beethoven does for his Coda here. Of course, it's deplorable, but people unconsciously conform to the convention of their day, and Beethoven's audience never thought any the worse of him for giving them what they expected. And - there are probably things which we are doing today about which in a hundred years, people will wonder how we could go on repeating such worn-out stuff. Now the Register, please, and then we'll start on the Bach."

"I always do learn from my Pupils."
The Register was taken, and the Bach chorus was pronounced “on the whole, good. Basses, I want a little more of you. Move in a little-it will be a help to you if you get nearer the 'cellos".
He descended from the desk and came over to his Interviewer. "What would you like us to do now, as you've got to leave at 9 o'clock?" The Inter­viewer thought it would be interesting to hear the Brahms. “Certainly". He turned to the per­formers "We'll take the Song of Destiny next ...” There was a fluttering of music as the Brahms was sought. The conductor wheeled round again to the visitor, “Did you see that? Their faces fell! Some of them don't like Brahms -they'd like to go on singing Bach all night! …And to tell you the truth..." [Here he told me the truth] "Ha, ha! But I always do learn from my pupils."
He mounted the desk again, and all too soon the clock pointed to the fatal hour of nine. I crept towards an inconspicuous exit just as the wind were being exhorted not to hurry. But this advice was not enough to save them from disaster. A stop was necessary, and they were condoled with for the lack of the trombone which would have made their passage clearer.
"We'll go back to... You have no letters? Oh… Yes, what did you say? Yes, "free from care". Free from care. That's it. Start at "free from care". And with those happy words ringing in my head I made my way to Waterloo Station.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Leslie Cochran: Composer

Who was Leslie Cochran? A search of Google gives no real clues. Certainly the chap I am looking for is not a famous American cross-dresser and US street-person or vagrant. Nor is he the author of learned books of educational science. There is no entry in Grove or other musical reference works. More tellingly Philip Scowcroft makes no mention of him in his comprehensive study of light (and not so light) music on MusicWeb International. There is nothing on ‘Cecilia’ the Concert Programme search or the RCM catalogues.

What do we know? Virtually nothing save what he published:-
A Child's Song, Unison Song words by H. J. Timothy London: Stainer & Bell, 1935
Christmas Song; words by N. Ingall London: Augener, 1930
Facility "So easy'tis to make a rhyme"; words by Robert W. Service. London: Ricordi, c1957
In Autumn Song; words by A. Symons London: Stainer & Bell, 1928
The Oxen; words by Thomas Hardy London: Augener, 1927
Roll along Spring, Unison Song; words and music by L. Cochran. London: Stainer & Bell, 1936
Sussex Sketches, for Piano; London: Augener 1925
On the face of it he appears to be a minor composer. Yet I have a copy of his Sussex Sketches for Piano –and they are impressive. This collection of pieces was published in 1925 and at first glance represents a somewhat typical ‘twenties effort – most especially with the titles of each piece. Yet, bearing in mind that these five ‘sketches; are probably about Grade 6, they have sound world that is far removed from the typical character sketch or pedantic work of the period.
The five movements are:-
Blue Butterflies and Wild Thyme
Dew Pans
There is a little village I know
Three Lone Pines
A Right Merry Evening at “Ye Sussex Pad”

The first and second sketches nod to Bartok whist the last has all the panache of either Warlock or Moeran. Alas the Sussex Pad public house, which I believe was near Lancing in West Sussex, was destroyed during the Second World War. I would love to find out a little more about this enigmatic composer.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Susan Mohini Kane A Moment of Joy - a song recital and a journey

Susan Mohini Kane: A Moment of Joy Douglas MOORE (1893-1969) ‘Willow’ from The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956); Sara Carina GRAEF ‘Truth’ from Prayers from the Long History of Happiness; Cecile CHAMINADE (1857-1944) ‘Viens, mon bien-aimé!’ (1892); John DUKE (1899-1984) Be Still as you are Beautiful (1961); Ricky Ian GORDON (b.1956) ‘Joy’ from Genius Child (1993) Georges BIZET (1838-1875) Me voilà seule…Comme autrefois from Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Aria for soprano Un moto di gioia K579 (1789); Ned ROREM (b.1923) Silver Swan (1949); Fanny HENSEL (1805-1847) Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß? (1837) Op.1 No.3 Georges Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759) E pur così in un giorno ... Piangerò, la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare (1724); Joseph MARX (1882-1964) Selige Nacht (1913-14); Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) Pastorale (1921); Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957) ‘Mariettas Lied zur Laute’ from Die Tote Stadt (c.1920) [6:21] Susan Mohini Kane (soprano); Kristof Van Gryspeer (piano)

I would not normally highlight a CD of music that is not largely British on my 'blog'- however I am delighted to make an exception with the first release from Susan Mohini Kane. There are three good reasons for this. First and foremost she has been a great friend to English music by her interest in the composer Liza Lehmann. Her thesis, is well-argued, enjoyable and a vital contribution to British musicology. Secondly the inclusion of an aria by that honorary Englishman, Handel was an excellent choice and lastly the CD is presented as a journey - for the singer. It s a concept that I would like to see used more often in the devising of CD programmes - especially of vocal and instrumental music.
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I concluded my review by noting that "Susan Mohini Kane does not have a ‘big’ voice – she is no Anne Sofie von Otter, Renée Fleming or Montserrat Caballé. She is more at home in the middle to lower ranges of her voice. Yet the added value that she brings to these songs is a crystal-clearness of tone, her undoubted enthusiasm and minute attention to detail. Additionally she backs up her singing career with scholarly erudition. Her accompanist Kristof Van Gryspeer is always sympathetic and responsive to both Kane’s voice and the wide variety of moods and styles represented on this CD.
This is a CD to enjoy in the company of a gifted and enthusiastic singer: it explores ground rarely traversed by better known artists. A singular pleasure."

Please read my full review on MusicWeb International
At present this album can be purchased through CDBaby






Saturday, 12 December 2009

Gustav Holst: In the Bleak Mid-Winter.


Michael Short is surely correct in pointing out that many folk who have never heard The Planets or any other music by Gustav Holst will “nevertheless have derived great pleasure from hearing or singing … In the Bleak Mid-winter.” He suggests that although the composer never sought popularity or success for its own sake, he would have been pleased to know that this carol had been a success.
Interestingly, Imogen Holst writes that “the critical mind may reject In the Bleak Mid-Winter as sentimental, but the carol singer finds it entirely satisfactory”.

The carol was written at the express wish of Ralph Vaughan Williams who was the musical editor of the English Hymnal. Holst’s involvement with that project is another story.
In the Bleak Mid-Winter is the first of a group of Three Hymns for the English Hymnal [H73]. The other two were From Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, come down. The exact date of composition is not known, as the original manuscript has been lost, but is believed to have been 1904 or 1905. They were first published in the English Hymnal in 1906. Interestingly, these three hymns are not included in the composer’s personal list of works.

The tune that Holst wrote for these words was called Cranham. This was named after a village in Gloucestershire which lies between the towns of Cheltenham and Stroud. Holst lived in this village for a while and it was there, according to a strong tradition, that he wrote this music. The house is now called ‘Midwinter Cottage’.

Cranham’ has been criticised as capable of winning a contest for “the dreariest melody in a well-liked carol...” I disagree with this evaluation, although I do accept that the mood is more appropriate for the first ‘chilly’ verse than to the more theological verses that follow. However, bearing in mind that this is a hymn-tune and not an anthem or choral setting, it is a reasonably well-balanced and largely appropriate piece. There are slight problems with the irregular metre of the poem which necessitates the use of additional chords for some of the poem’s syllables, and I have heard this lead to some slight confusion in carol services...
The tune is written largely in F major with simple modulations to the subdominant and the relative minor. Harmonically, there is little to test the skills of even the most inexperienced choirs, however there are a few major third for the tenors and basses in the lower register that could lead to problems. The formal construction of Cranham is A (A) B A.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother,
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,-
Yet what I can I give Him
Give my heart.

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems edited by Betty S. Flower London: Penguin (1979, 1986, 1990)

Christina Rossetti wrote this poem in 1872 for Scribner’s Monthly, an American Magazine. However it was not published until after the poet’s death in 1904, so it was a ‘new’ hymn when Holst made his setting. It has always been a popular carol in spite of its somewhat introspective feel. Certainly the immediately attractive thing about this carol is that Rossetti appears to have transferred the location of Jesus’ Nativity from Bethlehem to a colder Northern landscape. It is not too hard to imagine the locality as being something similar to Robert Bridge’s 'A Christmas Poem' which was set by Gerald Finzi in his In Terra Pax.
It may be very easy to pick holes in the underlying thought of this carol, for example is it theologically correct to suggest that:
“Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain.”
No doubt the current Bishop of Croydon would find the text risible and would be unable to understand how ‘ox and ass and camel’ could possibly adore! Yet most people who will sing this carol over the Christmas Season will not be too perplexed by the philosophical and theological underpinnings of what is one of the most evocative expressions of the Nativity in the English language. The poet takes the reader or listener on a journey which on the face of it is simple, yet in actual fact represents to the Christian a journey of cosmic significance. To non-believers it is an epitome of what makes Christmas-time so special.

The first verse meditates on the nativity, translating the action from Bethlehem to England. The poet introduces chilly imagery, such as ‘Frosty wind made moan’, ‘Earth stood hard as Iron’ and ‘Snow on Snow’. The second verse juxtaposes the two Advents of Christ - his birth and his coming in glory at the end of the ages. Yet, the third verse is more homely: it suggests that the humble circumstances of his birth were not only sufficient but also appropriate to the necessity of the Incarnation: the whole of creation bows before Him. The fourth is particularly poignant, with the contrast between the human Mother and her new-born baby and the fact the Holy Angels were also in attendance at the birth of the Son of God. It is as if heaven and earth, man, beast and angels were joined in Universal praise. Finally Christina Rossetti asks herself and the singer or listener what it means for humanity. She concludes that ‘all’ we can do is bring our hearts.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter is found in many editions appearing in a wide variety of publications including Songs of Praise, The Oxford Book of Carols, Hymns Ancient and Modern (revised edition 1950) the Church Hymnal and the BBC Hymn Book of 1951. Furthermore, Leslie Woodgate has arranged this work for male voices and Holst’s daughter, Imogen has provided a version for female voices.
There have been countless recordings of this Carol made over the years, but perhaps is best known is that of King's College Cambridge (YouTube).
Other composers who have set these words include Harold Darke and the underrated composer Bruce Montgomery– of ‘Carry On’ film fame. Benjamin Britten incorporated the text in his masterly A Boy was Born. There is a less well-known version by Thomas B. Strong. Finally, in 1927 Eric Thiman set this poem for soloist and piano.

With thanks to MusicWeb International

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Peter Warlock: Beard made him a Genius -Composer with a Dual Personality

I found this 'review' of of Cecil Gray book on the composer in the Daily Express. It is a somewhat outdated view of the composer and his personality, but it is still worth posting as it shows how Warlock was regarded by a previous generation. Unfortunatey this view is still prevelant in musical circles today.

Disclosures regarding an English musical genius with an amazing dual personality that was strangely influenced by the growing of a beard, are made today.
They are contained in "Peter Warlock: A Memoir of Philip Heseltine," by Cecil Gray, with contributions by Sir Richard Terry, Robert Nichols and Augustus John (.Jonathan Cape, 10s. 6d.). Peter Warlock (whose real name was Philip Heseltine), creative artist, scholar, critic and, many think, our greatest songwriter since Tudor times, was found dead four years ago in a, gas-filled flat in Chelsea. He was only thirty-six.
"My memories of this extraordinary being," writes Augustus John, " will always be charged with the bitter and futile reflection that, had we but set out in time on a tour into Wales we had projected, that fatal hour might have been perhaps averted."
The coroner's jury' could not decide whether it was accidental death or suicide. And so died two personalities—Warlock and Heseltine. "Philip Heseltine, from a worldly point of view, was a failure," says Cecil Gray. " Everything he touched went wrong.

TRANSFORMED BY BEARD
"Up till the growing of the beard, and the appearance of ‘Peter Warlock’ he had not been conspicuously successful. But the Mild and Melancholy Philip, transformed into Peter Warlock, the Complete Man, was masterful and compelling".
"Peter Warlock" was a mask and protection against a hostile world by a sensitive nature. When Peter Warlock began to gain the mastery over Philip he gradually dropped his old friends and even his music changed from a tone of often dark despair to one of robustness and even irresistible hilarity. Cats fascinated him—and he had one which shared his passion for the music of Delius but arched its back angrily at any other music!
It was to Delius, the blind composer to whom he owed his deepest debt of gratitude. Delius- advised Warlock to take up music and "trust more in hard work than in inspiration".

Daily Express Monday October 29 1934 p15 col. 2

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

How they Make Music at Morley College

A Chat with Mr. Holst and a Sight of his Work there
Part 2
This fascinating, if humorous, description of an interview with Gustav Holst is well worth republishing. It was written by Katharine Eggar in the Music Student, Volume 13 (1921), 359–61. This is the second instalment. It is presented as in the magazine with a few minor edits.

Morley College at Work.
A couple of girl students were waiting - and yet we were twenty minutes before the time that College was due to open. I was given a seat, and a little confabulation took place between professor and students.
"And so you've come to let me hear how you've got on. Right! Well, let's get to work. Oh! Miss Eggar, please, you're not supposed to be here just now. You kindly won't listen, will you? This is unofficial". I did my best to imitate the Cheshire cat, and presently was allowed to come into existence again when the female soloist for the concert went through her two Brahms' songs with great sweetness of voice and simplicity of style. After that, I was summoned to the piano lid to look over the Dioclesian score, while Mr. Holst went through it with a student copyist, explaining where the cuts were to come; and by that time a student-composer had arrived with the manuscript of a song.
"Brought a song? All right. Brought, your wife to sing it? She couldn't come. How are we to manage? Well, here's a singer" (the copyist was hailed) -" You come and have a try. But you're not very great at reading, are you? Oh! Miss Eggar- you'll come and help, won't you? "
"But I'm not a singer".
"But then you can read. Come along- I do so want to see what this song's like. Now then, quite slowly. Ah - we'd better read the words through first”.
So we found that it was Bridges' Love on my heart from heave'n fell, and having all got our bearings, we slowly piped through the first verse of the beautifully clear, but by no means ordinary manuscript. Ques­tions and comments from Mr. Holst, accompanying, suggestions as to tempo from the composer, and several repetitions, made the song begin to take shape, and when a tenor joined the ranks of the singers we got a quite substantial performance, before the Class which wanted our room began to dribble in.
There was still some time before the Choir was due to come, so I was piloted upstairs to hear Miss Lasker giving a piano lesson in the Concert Hall. Mr. Holst disappeared, and in course of time returned with the Choral Class in his train, and having got these people to dispose themselves on the platform (which was rather disconcertingly arranged for theatricals), he proceeded to take them, with Miss Lasker's pupil tackling the piano part, through the Choral Fantasia.
By this time, people bearing instruments of all kinds had been stealing in, and Mr. Holst, telling the company to collect round the piano for a talk about the music, spied his Male Soloist (met out in Salonika), and called him up to go through his songs. After which he remarked, “Well, now, you won't want to hear what I've got to say to these people- I think you had better come downstairs and see the Vice-Principal, Miss Brennand, and get her to tell you something about the College, and then you can come back when we've started rehearsing".

The "Old Vic's” Offspring.
Accordingly, we descended into the depths, and found Miss Brennand in the big social room, where I was very kindly provided with an easy chair and a pile of reports. These explained (which was not news to me) that the Morley Memorial College developed out of work begun at the Royal Victoria Hall (affectionately, the "Old Vic"), in 1882. It was the" Old Vic” weekly popular scientific Lectures which kindled a desire for more systematic teaching and led to the institution of classes. These were largely made possible through the assistance of the late Mr. Samuel Morley, and the present building was opened as the Morley College for Working Men and Women, in September, 1889, "and from that date women students have been admitted on a footing precisely similar to that of the men" (Cambridge University please note!)

"Advanced Study".
The first object 'of the College is stated to be­ "To promote the advanced study by working men and women of subjects of knowledge, not directly connected with or applied to any handicraft, trade, or business". Clearly, then, music is a most appropriate subject, and it must have been those brave words, "advanced study," which stiffened the back of Mr. Holst when he took the burden of Morley's music upon his shoulders thirteen years ago and firmly declined to pander to the then existing taste. At any rate, the constitution of the College was on his side from the very first, and now that he has won the proper place for music, there is ungrudging recognition of its value to the student community.
Turning over some recent reports I lighted upon records of music studied and performed. They included Handel's Acis and Galatea, Beethoven's Second Symphony, Mendelssohn's Hebrides, Bach's Magnificat, parts of Purcell's Fairy Queen, and his Dido and Aeneas, the overture to The Magic Flute, Schubert's Rosamunde Music, a movement of a Schumann Symphony, one or two Haydn symphonies, a Mozart symphony, Dvorak's Mass in D, and many other works of foremost value. Then I read of the disorganisation of the War period, when first the teacher of the Elementary Harmony and Singing Classes, Mr. Cecil Coles, joined the Queen Victoria's Rifles, and subsequently Mr. Holst himself went off to Greece as musical organiser of the Y.M.C.A in our camps there, upon which Dr. R. R. Terry came to the rescue of his Morley students.

An interesting paragraph ran as follows:-" The music students had for some time past asked whether they might study some of Mr. Holst's compositions. At last their request was granted, and he gave them some of his most difficult work to study-the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. As in the course of things, the choir asked the meaning of 'Rig Veda,' Mr. Holst arranged that Dr. Mabel Bode should come and talk to the music students at their usual social gathering. A most inspiring lecture was given, followed by a performance of the very difficult songs, which were sung again with the greatest success at the June concert”. “Advanced study,” indeed, and intelligent study, moreover.

To be continued

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Eric Coates: London Bridge March on Pathe News

Recently I posted a short article about Eric Coates fine London Bridge March. The other day I came accross this superb Pathe Newsreel of this piece being condunted by the composer. At the start of the film,there are some fine shotsof the composer himself, sketching the score and looking out across London. He has the ubiquitious cigarette in his hand...

I need say no more - save this is an amazing piece of musical history.

Watch this film at Pathe News

Friday, 4 December 2009

How they Make Music at Morley College

A Chat with Mr. Holst and a Sight of his Work there
Part 1 by Katharine E. Eggar


This fascinating, if humorous, description of an interview with Gustav Holst is well worth republishing. It was written by Katharine Eggar in the Music Student, Volume 13 (1921), 359–61. It is a long article so I will ‘blog’ it in three installments. It is presented as in the magazine with a few minor edits.

Of course you know where Morley College is? Next door to the ‘Old Vic’ in the Waterloo Road, Lambeth. And that being so, my journey to it from Campden Hill, by way of Ham­mersmith, is only to be understood by unmasking the dark designs of Mr. Holst when he consented to be 'interviewed' on the subject of his Morley College work. If you were to ask him to explain, he would say briskly, "Always bribe your interviewer. So of course I bribed her - with an egg for tea."
So our interview started (would that all interviews had such a pleasant background!) over a - well, to be brief, a scrumptious tea at Hammersmith, was continued under difficulties in Stations, Lifts and Tubes, and reached its final stages at the College itself.

How the Composer Invents.
At tea, I must confess, our attention wandered to other subjects of mutual interest, but when we recollected the serious business of the occasion, I learnt that Mr. Holst had been connected with Morley for about thirteen years. When I asked him whether any special circumstances had led to his being appointed to what has been such a remark­able piece of work, he said characteristically, "Oh! somebody died, and so I went there". Then I noticed a worried look coming over his face, and after diving about in half-a-dozen pockets, he remarked that he had lost his notebook. "All the things I was going to say to the people to-night. What can I have done with it?" More vain searchings, and I said soothingly that no doubt he could remember what he had put down. "Oh! but I never remember anything. I call my note­book my memory. No, it's not to be found. Well, I must invent something. I'm always having to invent things. The best bit of inventing I ever did was an impromptu ‘History of Music’ one night during the [Great] War, out in Salonika". His voice took a dreamy tone. "It was in the dark ... we were waiting for the lorries... nothing to do while we waited ... so I started talking a History of Music. I couldn't see anybody, you know - only the ends of lighted cigarettes. I just went on talking to the cigarette ends. I don't know whether anybody listened ... " He started, and looked at his ·watch. "I say, if you're quite done? I think we ought to be getting under way".

Interviewing under Difficulties.
The first piece of line from Hammersmith runs in the open, and is comparatively quiet, so we were able to continue our conversation without much difficulty to begin with, and I learnt that Morley College has a Choir of about sixty, a Sight-singing Class of about forty, and an Orchestra of about fifty.
"In the orchestra," said Mr. Holst, "we have everything but Bassoons and Trombones. The Bassoons, however, I'm glad to say, are coming along. Oh yes, they're learning. And the Trombones we don't want. So we get along very nicely, though we want more 'Cellos and Basses. Then we have twenty-five students in the Elementary Harmony Class under Mr. P. J. Collis, and seven in the Advanced Harmony Class. There are elementary, intermediate and advanced Violin Classes working with Miss Bodkin, which take about forty students, besides individual lessons. For Singing, we have about thirty students taking private lessons with Miss Twiselton, and then there are about six taking private lessons in Piano".
"Only six for Piano? That seems very few," I said. "Ah, but you see we can't get any more in. "We turn from twenty to twenty-five students away every year. And the old ones don't want to leave off".
By this time, we were getting into the Piccadilly regions, and the noise of the train was becoming frantic. Still, as long as words were distinguishable, it was incumbent on me not to waste time, so I pulled myself together and shrieked, "'What are you going to rehearse this evening?" He appreciated the effort I had made, and leaning forward earnestly towards me, he shouted back, "I think I ought to tell you THE WORST about Morley, before we get any further." The roar and rattle rose to a climax, and above it he yelled in a whisper, "WE WANT A NEW BUILDING, AND THREE NEW PIANOS".

The Concert Programme.
The train rushed into Piccadilly Circus Station, and in the comparative quiet of thrusting our way to another platform, he went on, "You know, it's perfectly dreadful, we have to put some of the audience in an adjoining room at concerts, and we have to give our lessons in rooms just before they are wanted for c1asses and as to the pianos, well, you'll hear them this evening."
Before we reached the Waterloo Road, I had gleaned what was being prepared for the next concert.
“With the Choir, we're doing Beethoven's Choral Fantasia. And we're using a new translation and new chorus parts, both done by Morley-ites. Then we're doing three Choruses from the Bach B minor Mass (and we shall be doing more from that later on), Brahms's Song of Destiny, two Madrigals and an arrangement of ‘Green grow the rushes’, by one Gandy of the Advanced Harmony Class. We always do something by a Student at the public concerts. The orchestra are doing two movements of the Seventh Symphony (Beethoven), and there will be four songs-two Elizabethan, and two of Brahms, by two of our students.
Oh! and this is rather interesting. After next concert, we're going to do the Incidental Music to Purcell's Dioclesian. Not the Masque, The Inci­dental Music, which has never been done. So we're having a tremendous task of copying; all being done by students. And here we are”. We brought up at a wide doorway under a sculptured arch, which Mr. Holst assured me "we don't look at " -reverence for the founder no doubt preferring other memorials of him than the symbolic group dimly visible as we waited. The door opened and in we went. Mounting the steep stone stairway, we reached a classroom, set out with desks and a venerable grand piano.

To be continued

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

William Mathias: Sir Christèmas – a fine carol for choirs

Recently, I was in a shop in Manchester, and in the background the ‘seasonal’ music was being played. However, in amongst the Jingle Bells, and the God Rest you Merry Gentlemen, I suddenly became aware of something a little more unusual. It was William Mathias’s exuberant carol Sir Christèmas.

Sir Christèmas is part of William Mathias’s large sacred work, Ave Rex. This piece was first performed in December 6 1969 by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir in Llandaff Cathedral under Roy Bohana. Ave Rex was commissioned by the choir. This work is a sequence of three contrasting anonymous medieval carols framed by a dramatic setting of the invocation Ave Rex itself. The three carols are a high-spirited Alleluya; an introspective setting of There is no Rose and finally the cheering and joyful St Christèmas. The work concludes with a reprise of the sequences opening material. However, Sir Christèmas has become separated from the sequence and has become a popular carol in its own right.

The office of Sir Christèmas is surrounded in mystery, but he appears to be some kind of messenger combined with a master of ceremonies. The text is fairly explicit on this point. He is welcomed by the assembled worshipers or carollers and bade to draw near. He announces that ‘a maid hath borne a child full young’ and this is the real reason they are singing ‘Nowell’, which of course is a corruption of the French ‘Noel’ for Christmas. But then the old knight bids the assembly to “Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie” (Drink up, drink up, with all the company) He elaborates on the Christmas story before reminding everybody to sing with us now joyfully- “Nowell, nowell”.
The text is anonymous and exists in a number of versions. It is believed to have been written prior to 1500. There is a setting by Richard Smart (or Smert) who was a vicar choral at Exeter cathedral from 1428 until ca.1474, and subsequently vicar of Plymtree, near Exeter, in 1435-77. He collaborated with a certain John Trouluffe in producing a collection of carols.

Nowell, nowell.
Who is there that singeth so, Nowell, nowell?
I am here, Sir Christèmas.
Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less!
Come near, come near, Nowell, nowell.
Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs, tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing: Nowell, nowell.
Christ is now born of a pure maid;
In an ox-stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at abrayde: Nowell, nowell.
Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell.
Nowell.


The carol is written in 12/8 metre throughout and the basic structure is strophic with the variety provide by the refrain. The stanzas are presented in different ecclesiastical modes by either the basses or the sopranos. It commences with rhythmic organ chords before the sopranos and tenors enter with the first shout of Nowell- at this stage in octaves. The altos ask “Who is there that singeth so?” and are responded to by the refrain, still in octaves. After the basses announcing that “I am here, Sir Christèmas” the full chorus bids ‘welcome’ in largely five-part harmony with the organ part replicating the singing. The basses are entrusted with the first words of Sir Christèmas’s message with the sopranos explaining the circumstances of Jesus birth. The following exclamations of the refrain are written in parallel ‘fifths’. Finally the full chorus encourages the assembly to Drink Up! And the carol concludes with ten ‘Nowells’ - the final being delivered as a shout!

There is little in the way of criticism of this carol, but Elizabeth Poston has written encouragingly about the whole work which “provides 14 minutes of very worthwhile music for preferably a sizeable choir…and ends with […] Sir Christèmas with its seasonable admonition buvez bien.” Furthermore she felt that “the organ writing is effective and un-stereotyped.” MT October 1970 p.1032Geraint Lewis on his programme notes to the Nimbus recording of Ave Rex has pointed out that this carol “provides a reminder that the carol form has its origins in dance.”
Malcolm Boyd has written that the “same choir and conductor introduced another new work, William Mathias's Ave Rex op 45, in their concert of Christmas music with Richard Elfyn Jones (organ) on December 6. In this sequence of four medieval carols Dr Mathias not only manages to bring a fresh approach to texts as well-worn as There is no rose of such virtue and Sir Christèmas, but even succeeds in persuading us as we listen that they were written for no other music than his own”. MT February 1970 p.188.
He further suggests that this is a secular carol and notes the mix of French and English text. He insists that Mathias’s “folk-like and jig-like” music is entirely appropriate to the spirit of the words.

There is an excellent performance of this carol by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral on Youtube. In this recording the organist is supported by a brass chorale.

The carol is published by Oxford University Press in four versions:-
1. SATB with organ accompaniment
2. SATB with brass (3 tpt, 3 tbn or 2 hn, 2 tpt, 3 tbn, tuba) with timpani, percussion, optional organ
3. SATB with strings and organ or
4. SATB with full orchestra.
It is also available in the second volume of Carols for Choirs p.114.