Thursday, 12 August 2010

Arthur Butterworth: Coruscations for orchestra

Anyone who has read my articles, posts or reviews will know that I have a huge soft spot for Morecambe. It goes back a long way to when I was a five year old and had been taken on holiday there, from Glasgow. My memories of my first trip ‘south of the border’ are actually quite extensive. Not only do I recall the beach, the lido, the piers and the boarding house where we stayed, but I can also bring to mind the view across to the Lake District and Furness (I thought it was America: discovered it was actually Barrow) and the theatre where the Black and White Minstrels were performing, cricket on the beach and a lady in the ‘digs’ who could not only play the piano, but could cross over her hands whilst she did so. And then there were the lights –both the famous illuminations at Blackpool and those on the promenade at Morecambe.
Many years later I sat on the top of Scafell Pike and looked out across Morecambe Bay –a memory that I shall take to my grave. It is a huge expanse of sand and water: in the distance I saw Blackpool Tower and Snowdonia and the Great Orme at Llandudno. To the west was the Isle of Man. Nearer at hand the lesser summits of Harter Fell and Bank House Moor. At a distance of some 35 odd miles is the Trough of Bowland – and that brings to me this piece of music – Coruscations for orchestra.

Dutton Epoch has been valiant in issuing CDs of Arthur Butterworth’s music. I will make that a subject of another post. However, this month a fine new recording of the composer’s Symphony No.5, Op.115 has appeared in the shops. Coupled with this excellent work are a number of smaller orchestral works – including one entitled Coruscations, Op.127 (2007). If I am honest I had to look up the online Oxford English Dictionary to check the meaning of the word. The top definition is ‘A vibratory or quivering flash of light, or a display of such flashes; in early use always of atmospheric phenomena.’ I wrote to the composer to ask about this work and he explained to me how it had written.

For a number of years he had regularly gone over to Lancashire for the Haffner Orchestra Concerts at Lancaster: Arthur Butterworth has had his music performed there and also he has been a guest conductor. So,when the Haffner Orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007, they commissioned Butterworth to write a piece of music. Coruscations was the result.
He told me that: - ‘The road I take from Skipton is through the Trough of Bowland - it is a shorter route than going the long way round via Bentham and Kirkby Lonsdale. The Trough of Bowland is one of the most exquisite scenic routes in this part of the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. On a summer's evening reaching the very summit of the moors - about four or five miles from Lancaster, the view over Morecambe Bay, looking southwards towards all the twinkling lights of Blackpool, the Lune, the long coast-line and then the darker regions of the distant Lake District hills further north-westwards, is enchanting. Coming home from the concert, about 10.00pm or a little later, the scene changes, it is obviously darker, stars come out and there can even be a faint hint of the Aurora Borealis in the far north-west. So it is a magical 'coruscating' scene.’

Without the score it is difficult to fully describe the music. However, to my ear this is a largely impressionistic piece. Debussy’s La Mer does not seem to be too far away in some passages. The composer makes much use of swirling sounds and chromatic scales to evoke the natural scene. There is little that is dark or worrying in this glittering score, although I do feel that some moments may have a touch of melancholy. Certainly Butterworth does not attempt to evoke the human activity in the scene: this is all about the expansiveness of Morecambe Bay and the lights of the holiday towns, the stars and the moonlight on the distant hills. The structure and orchestration of this short work is impressive: every bar contributing to the mood picture.
In many ways this is a piece that I have been waiting for. John Ireland has musically described Amberley Wild Brooks and the Channel Islands, Julius Harrison has painted Bredon Hill and William Alwyn has composed Blackdown – a Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills. However, Arthur Butterworth has created a wonderful musical picture of Morecambe Bay which is surely one of the most attractive and interesting places in the entire United Kingdom.

Coruscations can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7253

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