Monday, 11 October 2010

Alan Gray: The Legend of the Rock-Buoy Bell

Recently I posted a list of some twenty cantatas and oratorios from the Novello catalogue which have totally disappeared from repertoire. I suggested that it was unlikely that any of them would be heard this side of paradise. One of them was Dr. Alan Gray's 'The Legend of the Rock-Buoy Bell' I had learned that this piece was first performed on the 18th October 1893 at the fifth Hovingham Festival, so it was not difficult to track down the review. Whether this will inspire anyone to perform the work is a matter of debate – but it certainly shows that Gray was no slouch and that the work was well received and contained much fine music.
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Hovingham is a small village in the North Riding of Yorkshire with less than a thousand inhabitants. In 1893 it was considerable less possibly reaching three figures. Certainly it was seen as being the smallest concert venue in the country. Nevertheless the reviewer noted that this village is ‘fortunate in having three gentlemen who, among them, possess both the will and the ability necessary to carry the Festival to a successful issue. Canon Hudson, Rector of the neighbouring parish of Gilling, who, since his Cambridge days, has been well known in the musical world as an amateur of conspicuous ability, is the Conductor and artistic head of affairs; Sir William Worsley provides the concert-room in a spacious riding-school attached to his residence; and in Mr. E. S. Horton the Festival is provided with an honorary secretary whose energy and good nature make him well fitted for the endless duties that fall to his lot.’
A number of works were performed over the two days including Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Golden Legend, Robert Schumann’s Piano concerto, Mendelssohn’s 'Hymn of Praise' and J.S. Bach’s Concerto for two violins. However, it was the first performance of Alan Gray’s work that engaged most of the review. I quote the relevant section in full.
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“To those, on the other hand, who hold that a Festival which produces no fresh work, or revives no neglected work, has, in a measure, failed of its purpose, the presence in the programme of a new choral composition by Dr. Alan Gray, the Organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, would be a matter for satisfaction. Dr. Gray, who, as a native of York, had a locus standi [1] not to be gainsaid, had chosen for his subject a poem by Mrs. S. K. Phillips, ‘The Legend of the Rock-Buoy Bell.’ Of this he has fashioned a choral ballad, very much on the lines of Professor Stanford's ‘Revenge.’ The tradition embodied in the poem is to the effect that a soul whose chief sin has been the leading astray of others is condemned to expiate its fault by adding its voice to that of the rock-buoy bell at the entrance to Whitby harbour. As the mission of the bell is to direct mariners in the right direction, the significance of the punishment is obvious. Dr. Gray's Leeds Cantata ‘Arethusa’ had led us to expect a more than ordinary measure of constructive skill, refinement, and thoughtfulness in his music. All these are to be found in his latest work, which also shows a power and an ease not so traceable in its predecessor.
The suitability of the subject for musical treatment lies chiefly in the opportunities it presents for the musical suggestion of natural phenomena. Thus we have the ‘Sweep of the great North Sea,’ the ‘Rising gale,’ the ‘Fog veiling all beneath,’ the ‘Ripples laughing and leaping,’ and the ‘Fierce Nor'-Easter,’ all of which in turn are very happily depicted, or rather suggested, for Dr. Gray has, with the possible exception of a few bars of storm music in which vigour may be thought to predominate over abstract beauty, been most careful to observe Beethoven's maxim: ‘Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei.’ [2] But, as this musical landscape-painting is hardly the highest effort of which the art is capable, we should be inclined to lay greater stress on the beauty of the more emotional passages in the work, such as that in which the erring spirit seeks for grace on the plea of a Saviour's atoning death. Here the halting utterances of the voices and the general impressiveness of the music call for warm commendation, as does the poetic ending of the ballad, in which the voices and orchestra alternate with admirable effect. The performance, under the composer's direction, was, on the whole, the best in the whole Festival, the chorus-singing being in particular remarkable for its vigour and accuracy.”
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The Musical Times November 1 1893 (with minor edits)

[1] locus standi – right to be heard
[2] Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei – More expression of feeling than painting

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This doesn't surprise me - Gray was a cut above the rest. His church music (that which is still performed) is highly regarded and there was nothing routine about his writing at all.