Tuesday, 29 June 2010

York Bowen : Piano Music Volume 4 on Chandos

York BOWEN (1884-1961) Piano Works - Volume 4 Partita, Op. 156 (1960) Suite Mignonne, Op. 39 (1915) Third Suite, Op. 38 (1915) Three Sketches, Op. 43 (1916) Sonatina, Op. 144 (1954) Three Novelettes, Op. 124 (1949) Polonaise in F sharp major, Op. 26 No. 2 (1906/07) A Whim, Op. 19 No. 2 (c.1910)
Joop Celis (piano) CHANDOS CHAN10593

When Chandos first began this series of York Bowen’s piano music back in 2005 I was both delighted and a little concerned. Until the last ten years there has been scant interest shown in Bowen’s music. The reasons for this are many, but probably devolve down to the critical anti-romantic mood of the nineteen fifties and sixties. Coupled to this, is the perceived wisdom that Bowen’s musical style did not develop - regarded as a fault - and that he was simply an English pastiche Rachmaninov led to this once ubiquitous composer being ignored. For many years he was recalled simply as a teacher and more pertinently as a piano examiner with the Associated Board – who was believed to have composed a few piano pieces.
.
The reality is far more complex. For one thing the catalogue of piano pieces alone runs to many pages of text. In some ways it is probably too large, and has led to a situation where no-one really knows the entire run of works. Secondly although there is a definite strand of naked romanticism in Bowen’s music, this is not the whole story – for example listen to the Partita – a late work which nods to an earlier school of keyboard writing - on this present disc.
.
But back to my concern. I was really worried that this series of piano works by Bowen would become stalled – I guess that we all have seen examples of where a cycle has been promised and where after a couple of issues it seems to be abandoned. However, this is volume four of the present series and although it has come out at roughly one CD a year, it has done so consistently. I know that there is plenty more music by Bowen to ‘have a go at’ - I just hope that this series continues, for I doubt that any other pianist or CD company would attempt a rival ‘complete’ version! This present disc divides conveniently into two parts – those early works from the first three decades of the twentieth-century and those written after the Second World War. They are not in chronologically sequence on this disc: I imagine they are presented in the order given to make a satisfactory programme. However, I would counsel against through-listening.
.
The best place to start is the delightful Suite Mignonne Op. 39. This is usually regarded as the ‘fourth’ suite. It was written in 1915 and is really a piece of ‘light’ music. The Suite opens with a ‘Prelude’ that is actually very moving and beautiful. The middle movement ‘Valse’ is just about in the gift of an amateur and nods fairly and squarely to the world of Haydn Wood with its elegant and graceful mood. The final ‘Toccata’ is a miniature masterpiece – it is a ‘moto perpetuo’ and as such barely pauses for breath. It would be easy to scorn a work such as this for being superficial or light-weight, yet what Bowen has created here is a suite that is listenable, well laid out for the piano and quite simply gorgeous. I would then suggest hearing the Three Sketches Op.43 which was composed the year after the Suite Mignonne. These are not given poetic titles: there is no obvious attempt to word-paint in music. Yet, as the liner-notes point out, this is a set of three idyllic pieces that fully exploit the pastoral mood that was popular at that time, although there is no use of folk-song. Reflective in mood, they nod more to Fauré than to Rachmaninov, John Ireland or Arnold Bax.
.
I have not heard A Whim before listening to this disk – although I have perused the music: it is certainly way beyond my Grade 6½! This was the second piece in Bowen’s Op.19 the other first being a ‘Nocturne’ and the last a ‘Humoresque’. It is a light, will o’ the wisp piece that surely enchants every listener who believes in fairies! It was composed in 1910.
.
The earliest piece on this CD is the long Polonaise which dates from about 1906, when the composer was about 22 years old. It is fairly safe to assume that any piece that carries this title must be written with some sense of debt to Chopin, or at least to the Polish nation. This is a concert Polonaise and does not presume to use any traditional dance tunes. But as the liner-notes point out, it is a fine achievement: a large piece derived from a single stylised dance form. To be fair, there is little here that could not have written by a dozen competent composers: there is nothing that says ‘English’ music. That being said, it is an excellent piece – if it had been by Chopin it would have been heard a dozen times a week on the radio and in recital rooms.
.
The last of the early pieces is the Third Suite Op.38 which was written about 1914 and was dedicated to Sir Frederick Corder. From the first few bars it is clear that this is an important and striking piece. On a first hearing the listener may wonder why this powerful work is called a ‘suite’ and not a ‘sonata’. The distinction is made by Robert Matthew-Walker in the sleeve-notes, and it is worth quoting. He writes that for Bowen ‘the difference was clearly delineated. This is exemplified most in the emotional tenor of those works: his sonatas (Bowen wrote six) are invariably more serious, at times overall more fugacious, compositions, whereas his whimsical and natural lightness of expression comes to the fore in his suites.’ Certainly in the present suite this thesis only seems to apply to a degree. The opening movement, although I guess not in strict sonata form, is big, gutsy and well structured. However the succeeding ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Scherzo’ are certainly in a ‘lighter’ less profound mould. There are a fair number of passages here that could be described as ‘cocktail bar’ music. And that is certainly not meant as a criticism - it is a part of the delight of Bowen’s music. This is even more apparent in the fourth movement, the ‘Valse-reverie’. This is quite definitely music to fall in love with – in both senses. The final ‘Toccata’ is a war-horse; not something for anything but nimble fingers. It brings the Suite to an impressive conclusion. The second tranche of pieces to explore belongs to the 15 years after the Second World War.
.
The Three Novelettes are a pleasure to listen to. They were composed circa 1949 and dedicated to Marion Keyte-Perry who would appear to have been a dog-breeder! A Novelette is technically a short story or piece of fiction. Alas, there is no suggestion as to what the ‘literary’ text or plot is behind these pieces. The first and third are largely reflective in tone and explore a fundamentally romantic realm that is perhaps ‘retro’ for the date composed. The liner-notes point out that the second piece is ‘the sturdiest music here’. It is a ‘serious utterance’ - powerful and dramatic - that seems to inhabit the northern world of Sibelius. It could be regarded as being a little out of place with the two mood-pictures.
.
The Sonatina is another of those works that belie the title. Aspiring pianists are brought up on the Sonatinas of Clementi, Kuhlau and Diabelli. However this owes more to the more technically demanding examples of that title by Maurice Ravel and John Ireland – without having their emotional depth or ‘profundity of expression’. This work was written in 1954. Matthew-Walker has noted that it requires a ‘finished and comprehensive technique’ to play. I love this work: I think it is the untroubled out of doors mood of the entire piece that appeals to me. It is not pastoral in any way, yet it surely suggests holidays by the sea or walks in the countryside. The middle movement is a little more reflective, but even here there is nothing to trouble the spirit. It is truly lovely music. The last movement is exciting, difficult and thoroughly enjoyable. It has a fine big tune that emerges from the predominant pianistic figurations and makes a great finish to this ‘short sonata’.
.
The late Partita (1960) is possibly the most important work on this CD. The title suggests experimentation with baroque forms and styles of keyboard figuration. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Although Bowen has used the formal names typical of a ‘suite’ – prelude, gavotte, sarabande, minuet and gigue transmuted into a late-romantic style – this is most certainly not pastiche or retro. However there are occasional nods to the earlier age all done in a subtle manner. A perfect balance is struck. I have written elsewhere that from the first note to the last, this is a happy and fortuitous composition. Since first hearing this work many years ago, I have always noted the suggestion of the ‘salon’ about the ‘minuet’ and the ‘gigue’. Yet any suggestion that this is simply ephemera is rejected by the sheer artistry of the music and the competence required in playing it.
.
There is almost no need for me to write that this is a fantastic CD. I have long been enthusiastic about virtually everything that I have heard from the pen of York Bowen. This CD will be a must for all enthusiasts of British piano music that has a late-romantic flavour to it. The playing by Joop Celis is, as with the other three volumes in this series, superb. York Bowen and his champion certainly deserve each other!
.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Dr Thomas Arne An even distribution of honours

Sometimes we take our classical music a wee bit seriously. Here is a fine anecdote about the composer of Rule Britannia that ought to make us smile! Naturally it is now impossible to discover who these two ladies were, and in what circumstances the occasion arose, but it certainly must have been worth witnessing!

Dr. Arne (1710-1778) was once placed in a somewhat similar situation to that of Solomon when the two women each claimed the child. His disposition of the case was as fair as that of the king, only the distribution was more even, as even as Solomon threatened to make the division of the child in question.
Dr. Arne was a very prominent English composer who lived in the first half of the eighteenth century. He had been called upon to decide on the merits of two singers. Their merits, by the way, were based largely on their own appreciation of their powers, rather than on that of other people. After hearing them, Dr. Arne cried out to one of them, “You are the worst singer I ever heard in my life!" "Then," exclaimed the other, "I win." "No," answered the just judge, "you can't sing at all.”

Friday, 25 June 2010

Gilbert & Sullivan: Operas with and without Dialogue.

Although I was a member of the chorus in three school performances of G&S – The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and The Mikado – it is only very recently (after over a third of a century!) that I have bought recordings of these operas. I guess that I have always retained much of the music and the action in my head: I have regularly seen performances over the years and have often played, or is it hacked, my way through the scores.
Yet when I logged on to Amazon to buy my MP3 downloads of the three operas, I discovered that what is missing from many of the CDs is the dialogue – this applies to recordings from the oldest to the most recent. Another lapse appears to be numerous ‘cuts’ that are made to the opera in order to fit them on to one CD.
As an enthusiastic Savoyard, I believe that all the music should be presented: furthermore I have long considered that the dialogue is as important as the music.
Out of the three operas that I downloaded, Iolanthe and the Pirates have the full dialogue – The Mikado has none. I should mention that I insisted on the D’Oyly Carte versions of these operas, so perhaps have missed a fair number of recordings that are complete.

I understand that there are two main reasons usually given for the omission of the dialogue:-
1. When older recordings were made it was usually prohibitive to produce umpteen 78rpm shellac discs or even to stretch to a third LP. Even in the age of the CD there would have been a need to drop onto a second disc for all the operas – with the exception of Trial by Jury or Cox and Box. In the age of MP3 this consideration is surely no longer a ‘case in point.’ Although I guess the dialogue cannot be added if it was not recorded in the first place. I refer here to a number of the D’Oyly Carte/ Sargent recordings.
2. Apparently many listeners only want to hear the music – to the cognoscenti this is virtually sacrilege, but I suppose the record company will always endeavour to provide what the customer wants. Added to this, the tracking tended to include dialogue as well as the song- so it was not possible to ‘skip’ to the next piece of music. This was seen as undesirable –so the dialogue was cut.

So really, the burden of this post is to ensure that if you want the ‘complete’ G&S opera that you check out all the versions and ensure that they have the entire score and the complete dialogue. To this end I suggest that the Savoyard consult the excellent discography on Marc Shepherd’s excellent web site.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Berners & Bax: An article by Arthur Bliss

I found this short vignette in the November 1924 edition of The League of Composers Review - it is worth posting.

Berners & Bax
Though contemporaries, [Lord] Berners and [Arnold] Bax represent two extremes in English music. Berners, it might be fancifully said, is most at home in the salon, whose rather languid brilliance he lights up with epigram and sally he passes from one guest to another, picking the guard of each and lightly mocking the exposed weakness a sometimes awkward but always salubrious visitor. Among the victims that have felt his satire are the sentimental German lied, the blustering English folk-song, and the Spanish dance.
His broadest laugh is heard in the Three Funeral Marches where the heir to the rich aunt bemoans her sudden decease with such rich unction; and his subtlest gesture is in
the Waltzes, whose sentimental associations he dismisses with good-humoured chaff.
In a world of unconscious musical humorists, is it not a prize to find one who wears the cap and bells by royal patent?

Bax is the romantic weaver of dreams no gilded smartness of a salon for him, nor bustling city either. He might have stepped out of a fancy of Barrie's brain, and his music has just the same quality of "fey."
A visit to Russia and his love for the legendary Celtic lore have been the two predominating influences in his musical inspiration. More prolific than any of his age in England, Bax has gradually reached a more incisive and direct utterance, of which stage the piano quartet is nicely typical. Robust and even provocative in theme, it is the concentrated expression of what in an earlier Bax would have reached three separate movements. There is a great deal to be said for the age of the telegraphic code.

Arthur Bliss The League of Composers Review November 1924

Monday, 21 June 2010

Marion Anderson: Yellow Sands for Pianoforte

I have always had a soft spot for piano pieces that evoke the sea and the seaside. I guess that apart from the well known Holiday Diary Op.5 by Benjamin Britten, most works that evoke the pleasures of a holiday by the sea tend to be ‘teaching’ works rather than those written for the virtuosos. Yet that is not the point. For those of us who are not blessed with great technical skill (about Grade 6 and a bit at a stretch) it is always nice to discover something that we can play easily and possibly even at sight. And one last qualifications has to be that the music is worth playing. Marion Anderson’s attractive Yellow Sands fits the bill admirably.

I had never heard of the composer before coming across this piece in a second-hand bookshop in Southampton: a search on Google does not reveal much about her, although there are plenty of references to the American contralto of the same name. Although this lady also played the piano and wrote music, I fear that they are not the one and the same. A search of the music library catalogues reveals well over a hundred publications by ‘our’ Marion and these are all largely teaching and technical pieces. So I am assuming that they are two different people.
Yellow Sands was published by Leonard, Gould and Butler of 139 New Bond Street, London in 1939. It has a striking ‘shadowgraph’ cover which is what first drew my attention to the sheet music in the browser. A number of children and a dog are playing games that typify a British holiday by the sea.
.
Anderson prefaces the score with a quotation from Shakespeare – “Come unto these yellow sands,” which we adults will know is a quote from The Tempest!
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have and kissed,
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.
Hark, hark!
.
However Marion Anderson is not trying to write a series of Shakespearian sketches – it is the fun and high spirits of a day at Morecambe or St Ives that has captured her imagination. There are ten short pieces mostly being no longer that a single page of music.
The first pieces is entitled ‘Jolly Sandboys’ and as such seems to have little to do with the beach! I understand that a ‘sandboy’ was literally someone who fetched sand to be put onto the floors of pub – its usage would seem to be Victorian. The happy bit derives from the fact that they were paid in kind with ale! I guess that Anderson is not alluding to this – but to the idea of running down to the beach – certainly the grace notes and compound time suggest a high degree of jollity. We are on safer ground with the lilting ‘Sailing Boats’ which gracefully depicts either the real thing or a model yacht in the paddling pool. I am a bit baffled by the third piece – ‘Rubber Horse’ – I guess (and hope) it means some kind of floating toy in the lido! Anderson insists that it is played with ‘fun and vigour. ‘Seagulls’ is perhaps the gem of the piece – from the technical as well as the 'sound' aspect. It is a lovely and simple depiction of the birds flying and gliding over the sea. The fifth piece is a little waltz that suggests fun whilst netting shrimps or crabs – ‘Fishers at the pool’. This ‘crisp’ number encourages the pianist to use thirds in both hands. I love ‘Donkey Riders’ with its lively 6/8 time signature. Once again Anderson uses thirds which makes this piece quite challenging for young fingers. ‘Punch & Judy’ is by far the most imaginative piece from the harmonic point of view. Nothing outrageous of course, but an interesting little progression of E minor, D major, C# Major and C major! Along with the sharp offbeat left hand part this makes for a somewhat knockabout sketch that well reflects the protagonists! ‘Sleepy Sunbathers’ is a drowsy number once again written in 6/8 time. Parallel thirds and melodic patterns containing added sixths make for a well deserved rest after the rigours of Mr. Punch. ‘Leap Frog’ is a neat little number that encourages the pianist to rapidly change had positions and even a little crossing of hands to represent the ‘actions’. Finally ‘Castle Builders’ is the longest piece in the series, and although it is written in waltz time it is really more of a ‘march’ if that is possible. It brings Yellow Sands to a triple forte conclusion.
Finally, Yellow Sands is dedicated to ‘Sonia’ whoever she may be.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Gilbert & Sullivan: Memories of a School Performance

Thirty nine years ago this month I was ‘starring’ in the Coatbridge High School production of The Pirates of Penzance: as one of the chorus of pirates! It was at this time that I was beginning to get to know about music – both the practical and the historical. For example one could not admit to friends that you did not have a clue what a fugue was –so one had to learn. Also, everyone else in the opera cast appeared to be able to sight-read and follow the score – so I had to get up to speed double quick.
Strangely, after all this time I can recall the names of the two sixth formers who played Frederic and the Major General: I can see in my mind’s eye their performances on the superb school stage. I can remember my pleasure and thrill in singing the great choruses 'Pour, oh Pour the Pirate sherry' and 'Come Friends who plough the sea.’ I remember Mr Radcliffe, the music master conducting the small orchestra – I always enjoyed the overture to this opera and was shouted at for peeping through the curtain whilst it was being played.
Two songs that were minor revelations to me have remained as part of my musical ‘heritage’ ever since are the great tenor ballad, ‘O is there not one maiden here’ and the patter song 'I am the very model of a modern major-general.’ I guess the first appealed to my developing sense of romance – I was about fifteen at the time! And the second, was my first introduction to a ‘patter song’. It was a form that I have always enjoyed and find immensely funny.

A few years later, the school gave up on G&S: I guess that it was felt that it was too elitist for a ‘grammar’ school that had recently become a comprehensive. Now the old school buildings have been demolished and a new school built on a different site. However, the ghosts remain...

I found two good examples of my favourite songs from this opera on YouTube. The first, is beautifully sung by a fine tenor and the second is a little creative, but great fun.
Oh is there not one maiden breast

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Harry Farjeon: Hans Christian Anderson Suite

I often come across clippings of reviews of pieces that are tantalizing: I would love to hear these works and wonder if they will ever be revived. With the case of Harry Farjeon, it is not only this Suite that needs reappraisal, but the entire repertoire of the composer himself. However, one can but hope the score of the Hans Christian Anderson Suite turns up one day and some enterprising conductor chooses to give it an airing.

The Westminster Orchestral Society (London) performed on March 21 a new orchestra suite Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales [i]by Harry Farjeon, a son of the novelist. Mr Farjeon, who is quite a young fellow, has carried everything before him in the schools, where he has learned pretty well all they can teach him. His ‘Hans Andersen suite reveals gifts of melody and of humour which cannot be taught. The latter is, perhaps, the rarest of all qualities in a musician.
The promise given in the operette, 'Floretta[ii] played last year at St George’s Hall was redeemed by the performance of the young composer’s orchestral suite in which the spirit of four of Andersen’s tales – ‘The Little Tin Soldier,’ ‘The Nightingale,’ ‘The Mermaid,’ and ‘Big Klaus and Little Klaus’ –is felicitously illustrated in music.
The quaint touch with which ‘The Little Tin Soldier’ positively made me laugh, and it is not many musicians who can do that. Mr. Farjeon knows how to be funny in music, and his suite shows that he also has a pretty fancy. His ‘Hans Andersen’ ought to be popular, and ambitious, will find it neither too unpretentious nor too magisterial a work for them to grapple with.

New York Times 29 April 1900


[i] I believe that the score was never published. The manuscript may be gathering dust in an archive somewhere!
[ii] Floretta : Opera in Two Acts / Libretto by Eleanor Farjeon ; First performance at St. George's Hall, on Monday July 17th 1899 produced by Mr G. H. Betjemann

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Benjamin Frankel: Film Music

Benjamin FRANKEL (1906-1973) Curse of the Werewolf (1959) So Long at the Fair (1950) The Net - Love Theme (1953) The Prisoner (1955)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis
Naxos Film Music Classics 8.557850

I must make a confession. I do not like Werewolves or films which involve psychological drama. Torture and violence - either physical or mental are not part of my definition of entertainment. But I do like comedies and light romantic tales and adventures. So perhaps I am not best able to comment on the majority of this CD with any great authority. Yet I do love the music on this CD: it has all the hallmarks of a great composer writing effective music which has the desired effect of pointing up the action on the screen. However my problem is this. I do not want to subconsciously provide the relevant cinematographic images in my mind’s eye for some of this enchanting music. I want to enjoy the music as music. Therein lies the rub.

Look at the plot of Curse of the Werewolf – a young man, Leon, is struck down with lycanthropy (causes humans to change into wolves at each full moon) His mother had been made pregnant by a crazed and evil beggar. After a reasonably normal childhood Leon falls victim to vice. Even the love of Christiana does not help him reform - and eventually he comes to a sticky end with a silver bullet fashioned from a crucifix. All very scary stuff – at least to people of my generation – although I wonder what today’s young filmgoers would make of it. Perhaps the ‘scariness’ is a bit camp by today’s standards.

The Prisoner has a harrowing plot – a Roman Catholic priest is arrested on ‘trumped up’ treason charges and is subject to torture and brainwashing, before rolling up at a ‘show’ trial. Not much fun there, I fear, although I understand the film received great accolades when it was released in 1955. And with Alec Guinness (priest) and Jack Hawkins (interrogator) in the leading roles, success was bound to follow.

Neither film is on my list of ‘ones to watch before I die.’ But the music is great! The present CD gives a complete account of all the music that Benjamin Frankel wrote for the ‘Curse’ and for The Prisoner. The latter score is in fact a first recording of this music since the film’s release. Interestingly, the composer makes use of ‘serial’ technique in the ‘Curse’ - this being the first British film to use this particular compositional technique. Strangely, Frankel never used this tool again in his work for the cinema.

Now for my secret listening strategy. I listened to the ‘Curse’ and then switched the ‘hi-fi’ off. I had a rest, a cup of tea and a walk round the ‘policies’ and then listened to ‘The Prisoner’. I deliberately put all thoughts of evil and torture and werewolves and dark windy castles out of my mind: Gothic horror and ‘Stalinist’ excesses were forgotten for this exercise. I told myself I was listening to Benjamin Franklin’s “Symphonic Variations” followed by his “Variations on a Theme” for Orchestra. And this did the trick. It actually worked well – there is an internal consistency in each of these two scores that do allow the works to be listened to without reference to the plot or programme. They are actually extremely effective ‘concert pieces’ if heard in this manner. But (I agree) it is a scam! And call me unsophisticated if you will…

Of course the other two film scores represented are easier on the mind. The short extract from the mysterious So Long at the Fair is pure romance. Most listeners will know the evocative ‘Carriage & Pair’ which has featured in a score of British Light Music record and CD releases. Frankel’s music makes much use of this memorable tune and the result is a lovely miniature suite. The Love Theme to The Net - a spy thriller- is another one of the composer’s attractive tunes. Of course there was much more music from this score – but Carl Davis and the redoubtable Liverpool Phil. gives us what I presume to be the highlight.

So in sum this is a great CD. Enjoy the ‘given’ movie images in your mind if this is you ‘bag’ – or listen to it as ‘absolute music’ if you do not want to associate this wonderful music with hairy hands and sharp incisors and thumbscrews.

Benjamin Frankel is one of Britain’s many underrated and undervalued composers. And he was born a hundred years ago this year. Scan the BBC Promenade Concert Programmes and you will not find any mention of him or his music. It would not have taken too much boldness on the concert programmers’ part to dump a piece by Mozart, Shostakovich or Colin Matthews and slip in Frankel’s Violin Concerto or First Symphony. But of course Frankel is not the only composer to suffer from Auntie’s indifference to 19th and 20th century British Music. Heigh ho…

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this was first published

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Melody Maker of the Savoy: A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Part 2

The second part of an interesting interview from 110 years ago from The Star Newspaper. It is an interesting and important piece of writing for Sulivan scholars.
THE COMPOSER AND HIS WORK.
“Are you a very rapid worker?" "Well, that depends. Sometimes I do three or four numbers in a day, and sometimes I take a fortnight over a single song. I commenced my new opera at Weybridge in July and worked steadily at it most of the autumn. Of course, I had a good break for the Leeds Festival. I did all the orchestration, by the way, in about thirteen days.”
“Which of your many Savoy songs gave you most trouble?" "I should say that ‘The Merryman and his Maid'[1] was one of the most difficult to deal with. I know it took me a fortnight, for I set and reset it over and over again. It was the ‘House that Jack built' -character about it which was so awkward. An additional phrase was added in each verse, as no doubt you recollect. There is a precedent for the style of that particular composition, for Gilbert got the idea of it from a song which he heard on board his yacht - a nautical ballad beginning – ‘I have a song to sing O, Sing me your song O!’
This went on increasing in length as each verse was sung, just as our 'Merryman' did. I have got it written out somewhere, and, if I can only find it, you shall see it." But a search through many bundles of MSS. fails to bring to light the model of Jack Point's quaint “singing farce."

THE TENTH OF THE SERIES.
"And what about the music of the new opera, Sir Arthur?" - "Well, I have made it as light and catching as possible. There is a good deal more work in it than there was in the Yeomen, for nearly all the numbers are rapid. You will hear very little slow music in it. Of course the result is that there are more pages in the score. Two minutes allegro means perhaps twenty pages, but with an andante movement you would only use about six. There is a quantity of concerted music in the piece — duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and so on. Still I have not altogether neglected the interests of the soloists. The tenor has quite a big song in the second act; Miss Ulmar [2]will have some short couplets; Barrington[3] has got a topical song; and Jessie Bond will, I think, be well suited. Denny[4] has two solos but they are both of them very slight in character. "You will like the Cachuca in the second act. It is composed exactly on the lines of the well-known dance which was so popular some years back - in fact, both rhythm and notes go very near the original." And the composer demonstrates this to me by humming the refrain. "In the first act I have tried to put a good deal of Italian colour into my music. You will notice this especially at the beginning of the opera, and in the duet for the two gondoliers. The second act will savour of Spain to a certain extent, though of course I have not made it up entirely of boleros and other Spanish measures." "And the finale of the first act?" - "Well, that portion of the opera is not quite so extended as usual, but I am very pleased with the way it comes out. I think Iolanthe contained the longest finale I ever wrote. Goodness knows how many pages of the score it covered."

COMIC OPERA V. CANTATA.
“How does the amount of labour which you devote to one of your operas compare with the trouble which a concert work gives you?" "Well, really there is no comparison between the two cases. People generally think that I can rattle off one of these Savoy pieces without the least difficulty in a very short space of time. But that is far from being the truth. I can assure you that my comic operas - light and airy as they may seem - give me far more trouble and anxiety than a cantata like The Golden Legend. In this latter case, you see, I am quite irresponsible. I have no one to consider but my band and my singers. There is no stage business to worry about, and I can make sure of my effects, because I know just how all the component parts of my body of executants will be placed. It is all straightforward and simple. But when I do an opera for the Savoy it is very different. A quantity of the music has invariably to be rewritten - very often more than once. Either singers are not quite suited, or else I find that the situation, when it takes shape upon the stage, requires something different from what I had anticipated. For these reasons, too, I am only able to begin the orchestration when the rehearsals of the piece are well advanced. It is then that I find out for the first time what sort of accompaniment is wanted for each number. For instance, I might write a quintet with the lightest possible orchestral support. Perhaps Gilbert arranges his business so that the singers are well down the stage. In that case all goes well. But if he considers it necessary to post the five ladies and gentlemen at some distance from the conductor and band, I have to make my accompaniment far more prominent. Otherwise the singers would not hear the orchestra, and we should all be at sixes and sevens. In this opera, now, I have had to reset eight numbers. No, my Martyr of Antioch and Golden Legend, strange as it may seem, gave me far less mental anxiety than my Pinafore and Pirates. Naturally enough, I am getting thoroughly into the right groove for this work by force of long experience. Consequently, I know by now pretty well what the requirements of the theatre and the company are. But then we have reached double figures in our productions - the new opera will be our tenth - and so have had plenty of opportunities of learning our way about. But, if you will excuse me, I must go on with my work, and get this overture off my mind.”
"Good-bye, Sir Arthur; and please let us have the oboe solo!"[5]

‘The Melody Maker of the Savoy – ‘A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan’ The Star 25 January 1890 (with minor edits)

[1] The Yeoman of the Guard. Jack Point was the Merryman.
[2] Geraldine Ulmar (23 June 1862 – 13 August 1932) was an American singer and actress, now best remembered best known for her soprano roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy Operas.
[3] Rutland Barrington (15 January 1853 – 31 May 1922) was an English singer, actor, comedian, and Edwardian musical comedy star. He is now best remembered for his performance of baritone roles in the Gilbert & Sullivan Savoy Operas.
[4] W.H. Denny (22 October 1853 – 31 August 1915) was an English singer and actor who is now probably best remembered for his baritone roles in the Gilbert & Sullivan Savoy Operas.
[5] A solo for the oboe was duly provided for the Overture of The Gondoliers

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Melody Maker of the Savoy: A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Part 1

An interesting interview from 110 years ago from The Star Newspaper. This is the first part of a long article, but is well worth reproducing.

(From Our London Correspondent.) London, Dec. 6. The following interesting interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan, on his methods of work, will serve as a prologue to the article on the new opera at the Savoy, which I shall be sending you next week. The piece as yet remains unchristened, but will probably be called the The Gondoliers. A sketch of the play similar to the one I sent you recently appears in the current issue of the Pall Mall Budget in Gilbert’s own handwriting. During the last few weeks there has been no busier man in all London than Sir Arthur Sullivan. When he has not been at work upon the score of his new opera, he has had to transfer his energies to the stage of the Savoy Theatre, and divide his time between the piano and the baton. Little wonder, then, that his Cerberus[i] in Victoria Street has been more than ordinarily cautious in the selection of those favoured callers whom he graciously allows to pass into the presence of England's most popular composer.

By a fortunate combination of circumstances (writes a representative of the Pall Mall Gazette) I found myself the other evening on the threshold of No. 2 Queen's Mansions, and, being duly armed with the password, was requested to ‘step this way.’ The mighty melody-maker is sitting in the cosy little room which has witnessed the evolution of so many operas. Books and pictures surround him on all -sides. In one corner stands the piano – whose resounding wires have given birth to countless tunes. Sir Arthur, who looks quite appropriately Venetian in his flannel shirt and loose open jacket, is pondering over a voluminous bundle of ‘score’, and occasionally indicating orchestral effects in pencil upon the a blank sheet.

IN THE THROES OF COMPOSITION.
"I am terribly busy, and have only a few minutes to spare” are his first words, as he greets me with a cordial handshake, "A few minutes," however, is an elastic phrase, and so I install myself in an available armchair. "I am just thinking out the overture,” Sir Arthur goes on, “for, of course, we must have something to play before the curtain goes up. This is the second act” - and he points to the pile of music in front of him - “from which I am taking a theme or two. We have had our first band rehearsal to-day at Princes’ Hall, and correcting the parts is no light task, I can assure you.”

OVERTURES — PAST AND PRESENT.
"And do you always leave your overtures to the last moment?" “Oh, yes! always. Hamilton Clarke[ii], who is now in Australia, used to help me with them very often when. I was pressed for time. Do you remember the Mikado overture? He did that for me. I just arranged the order of the piece — the ‘Mikado’s March,’ then ‘The-sun whose rays,’ first, for the oboe and then for violins and ‘cellos, two octaves apart, and finally the allegro. He wrote the whole thing in a very few hours: in fact, he made it almost too elaborate, for I had to cut it down a little. The Iolanthe overture was a quick bit of work, too. I did that myself, completing it in less than two days. And there was a lot of fresh writing in it too. I dare say you will recollect the ‘Captain Shaw’ motive combined with those florid passages for the woodwind."
“And is the new overture to be in strict ‘form?’” "No. As you know, I took the trouble to do that in the case of The Yeomen of the Guard, but it went for nothing after the first night." I venture to dissent from this last statement, but Sir Arthur is inflexible on the subject. "Naturally," he says, "I should prefer to please serious musicians in such a matter, but one must consider the general public."

SIR ARTHUR AND THE OBOE.
"Of course you will have an oboe solo in your introduction?” - "Ah, that settles it," laughs the composer. "I was just considering that point when you came in, but as you have put it in that way, I shall not do so this time." I shudder at the possible mischief I have done, and beg Sir Arthur not to throw over the instrument he always treats so beautifully. “Well,” he says, "what is one to use for a solo if not the oboe? The clarinet is not really effective, the flute- is out of the question, so is the bassoon; the cornet I hate as a solo instrument and strings would hardly do. So you see it is a case of reductio ad ‘oboe’.
‘The Melody Maker of the Savoy – ‘A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan’ The Star 25 January 1890 (with minor edits)

[i] Cerberus – According to Greek & Roman Mythology, A three-headed hound that guarded the Gates of Hell.
[ii] James Hamilton Siree Clarke (25 January 1840 – 9 July 1912), who better known as Hamilton Clarke, was an English conductor, composer and organist. Although Clarke was a composer in his own right he is now associated with Arthur Sullivan, for whom he arranged music and compiled overtures for some of the Savoy Operas, including Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Distaff Side - Music I would love to hear!

Just a list today - of works by women composers that I would give up quite a lot of better known pieces to have the opportunity of hearing! Perhaps one day....

ARKWRIGHT Marian [1863-1922]
Japanese Suite
Suite Winds of the World (1905)
Variations on an Air of Handel for Orchestra

BOYLE Ina [1889-1967]
The Magic Harp: Rhapsody for Orchestra

BRIGHT Dora [1863-1951]
Suite de Ballet: The shoes that were danced to pieces
Suite of Old Time Dances
Vienna

CLAYTON Ivy M
Elegie
Overture: Summer in the Woods

HEADLAM-MORLEY Lady Else
Overture to the opera Leonarda
Suite in Three Movements

HOWELL Dorothy [1898-1982]
Humoresque
Ballet; Koong Shee
Tone Poem: Lamia
Nocturne for Strings
Overture: The Rock
Piano Concerto in D mi

LUCAS Mary [1882-1952]
Fugue for String Orchestra
Rhapsody for Chamber Orchestra

SALSBURY Janet [1881- ]
Overture: Mirth

SCARBOROUGH Ethel
Overture: Aspiration
Piano Concerto
Orchestral Fantasy: Promise
Scherzo
Suite: Moods

SMITH E M Monica
On the Hilltop

SPAIN-DUNK Susan [1880-1962]
Concert Overture in B flat The Kentish Downs
Concert March Kentonia
Fantasy Overture: Andred's Weald
Symphonic Poem in D mi for Orchestra Stonehenge
Tone Poem in C minor: Elaine
The Water-Lily Pool for flute and orchestra

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Let Beauty Awake: Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Literature

Let Beauty Awake: Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Literature
Edited by Julian Rushton
Elgar Editions, hardback 2010, pp. ix + 150
ISBN 978-0-9548553-4-5
Prices are £15 non-members, and £10 Elgar and R.V.W. Society members.

Contents
1. Parry, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams: influences and aspirations - Michael Pope
2. Elgar's literary choice - Stephen Johnson
3. There is music in the midst of desolation - Andrew Neill
4. Character as form: Elgar's Falstaff - David Owen Norris
5. Vaughan Williams and literature: an overview - Roger Savage
6. 'The full juiced apple': literary furniture in Vaughan Williams’ letters - Hugh Cobbe
7. 'O Farther Sail': Vaughan Williams and Whitman - Alain Frogley
8. 'Music in the Air': Vaughan Williams, Shakespeare, and the construction of an Elizabethan Tradition - Byron Adams
9. 'They tolled the one bell only': the remarkable influence of A.E. Housman - Philip Lancaster
10. 'Triadic magic': the numinous in early works of Vaughan Williams - Julian Rushton
11. Epilogue: 'The light we sought is shining still' - Michael Kennedy
12. CD: Stephen Connock talks to Richard Hickox

Let Beauty Awake is the fourth collaboration between the Elgar and the Vaughan Williams Societies. Previous ventures included the seminars ‘Elgar and Vaughan Williams in the New Century’, ‘A Special Flame’ and ‘The best of me...’ The present volume is based on the symposium that was held at the British Library on 22-23 November 2008. This was an exploration of the place and importance of poetry in the lives, and naturally the music, of both composers. The guest of honour for the sessions was the late Richard Hickox, who has been such a great friend to all who love British music. The event had been timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ death in 1958. In 2004 a collection of essays based on the seminar A Special Flame had been published: it was to be the precedent for the present volume.

Although there are a goodly number of books about Vaughan Williams and Elgar, there are relatively few that deal with the composers’ approach to literature. One honourable exception is Edward Elgar: Music and Literature, edited by Raymond Monk. For Vaughan Williams the field is more limited, apart from a few of the essays in Vaughan Williams Studies edited by Alain Frogley (who is incidentally one of the contributors to the present volume). So this book fills a gap in the studies of both composers: it presents information in a scholarly way, but not in a manner that demands a doctorate in musicology to get to grips with.

After the necessary introduction there are two main elements in this book – Part 1: ‘Vaughan Williams and others’ and Part2: ‘Vaughan Williams and the Poets’. Out of the ten essays printed here nine are re-presented transcripts of the papers delivered at the symposium. The tenth is based on a lecture given by Julian Rushton at a one-day seminar in New York. At the end of the book is an ‘Epilogue’ by the great British music scholar Michael Kennedy. And finally, after the usual offices of index and notes on the contributors there is an enclosed CD of the entire interview between Stephen Connock and Richard Hickox. This is a major coup for the publishers of this book and is enjoyable, informative and often humorous.

The first essay slightly expands the remit: it proposes to examine the ‘formative part played by Hubert Parry.’ Parry’s influence was two-fold – through his music and equally vitally, his writings on the history and aesthetics of music.
Stephen Johnson then poses the question ‘Could it be that Elgar’s literary taste was simply defective?’ This suggestion is based on a presumption by some critics that the composer’s choice of texts was generally pretty poor. This observation includes such masterpieces as The Dream of Gerontius, The Music Makers and Sea Pictures. And how could the libretto of The Starlight Express inspire any great music? Was it a creative challenge that Elgar set himself: setting poetry that was not of the first rank? Perhaps there was a reason that Elgar chose not to set ‘great poetry?’ Michael Tippett once said that ‘the music of a song destroys the verbal music of a poem utterly.’ Maybe Edward Elgar wished to keep the ‘original music’ of these great poems intact?
Andrew Neill explores how Elgar and R.V.W. responded to the momentous events engendered by the Great War and considers the musical response. He concludes by noting the sense of solace found in the closing bars of ‘For the Fallen’ and the slow movement of the Piano Quintet. He suggests that Vaughan Williams gave ‘us music of consolation and aspiration, somehow achieving, as Binyon put it, ‘a glory that shone upon all our tears’’ in the great Fifth Symphony.
I enjoyed David Owen Norris’ essay on Falstaff. It is a work that I have often had difficulty with. I love the music and I like the Shakespearean protagonist, but somehow I have always felt a little unconvinced when Elgar put the two together into his ‘study’. I am not sure that my response to this work has been resolved by this essay, but it has certainly given me some new insights into the music and its genesis.

The first essay I actually read was Philip Lancaster and his analysis of the ‘remarkable influence of A.E. Housman.’ All R.V.W. enthusiasts will know and love On Wenlock Edge and Along the Field, which are two of the greatest song-cycles in British music. This is a useful study of these two works. Two other essays on individual poets examine the influence on Vaughan Williams of the great American poet Walt Whitman (Sea Symphony and Dona Nobis Pacem) by Alain Frogley and the importance of Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry (Serenade to Music and Sir John in Love)
I enjoyed Hugh Cobbe’s, musings on the ‘relationship with literature as it emerges from his correspondence.’ The composer quotes in his letters authors as varied and diverse as the Bible and Mervyn Peake. Cobbe is the editor of The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1895-1958)
But perhaps the most important essay in this book is ‘While the Moon Shines Gold’ by Roger Savage. In effect it is an overview of all the literature that was in R.V.W.’s literary landscape. Savage posits three ‘circles’ of writers – the first are those who died before 1890 and include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Skelton, Spenser and Bunyan. The second circle includes those authors who were working when Vaughan Williams was in his formative years – these include Walt Whitman, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson and Housman. Finally there is the third circle –writers who were personal friends, relations and collaborators: Fredegond Shove (Four Poems) Evelyn Sharp (The Poisoned Kiss) and his wife Ursula Wood.

There were two things that I felt could have helped the reader. Firstly, it would have been great to have had a CD of the musical examples cited in the text and played at the seminar. However, I do accept that there would have been copyright issues a-plenty if this had been done. Furthermore, I imagine that most readers of this book will have all these extracts on CD or on their iPods. So perhaps, after all, it is no big deal. And secondly, I would have liked a transcript of the excellent interview with Maestro Hickox. It would have been a valuable reference work.
The format of the book is good: I was delighted with the appearance and the feel of the volume. However, I did wonder if a paperback or limp cover would have sufficed? Yet at the price: £10 for members of either society or £15 for the rest of the world, it is excellent value. The book is printed on good quality paper and is well-bound. Included in the text are a number of fine photographs which seem to be quite rare and add immensely to the intrinsic value of the book – for example, I had never seen a picture of the poet Fredegond Shove before. There are a few musical examples scattered throughout the first nine essays, but if the reader cannot hear them in their heads it does not devalue the argument. However, the most technical essay is the last on ‘Triadic Magic’ which has a fair number of examples along with tables of ‘triadic connections.’

Book reviews often finish with a recommendation as to whether the volume should be bought or not. There is no doubt that this book is essential to all students and scholars of Elgar and Vaughan Williams’ music. But the book will reach a wider target: anyone who has lived with and loved the music of these two composers over the years will be fascinated to read about the poetical element of the music and this will surely add value to their listening pleasure. It is a fine contribution to the scholarship of Sir Edward Elgar and Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams: it is erudition that can be understood and appreciated by lovers of music who are not professional musicologists: yet this ‘professional’ themselves group will also be satisfied by the depth if learning and understanding in these pages. In this sense it is an essential purchase.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Arthur Sullivan and Clara Rogers

I recently came across this interesting story published in Clara Rogers autobiography Memories of a Musical Career. It is one of those tales that certainly does not deserve to be lost for those enthusiast of the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Clara Kathleen Rogers was born in Cheltenham on January 14, 1844 and died at Boston, Massachusetts on March 8, 1931. She was an American composer, singer, writer and music educator.

A week or two after our return to Leipzig, and after parting with Papa, Mamma announced to us one day that we were to have an extra evening at home with some of our friends. This was a great surprise, as never before had Mamma let us have a party in the middle of the week. She said, by way of explanation, that Sullivan had begged and begged for it, and she had given in. Of course we were nothing loath, but there was something queer about it, I thought, though Rosamond and Domenico seemed not to take my view of it. When the time came, Sullivan appeared, followed by Carl Rosa, Paul David and two other fellow students who were not frequenters of our Sunday evenings. They all four brought their instruments and desks with them, an unusual proceeding, for the viola and the 'cello were not accustomed features at our musicals.
The strangers were duly welcomed to our supper table and initiated into the joys of jam tarts. After supper some excuse was made by Mamma to detain me in the dining room for a few minutes, after which I hastened into the music room to see what was going on. What was my bewilderment when I saw the four players seated gravely at their desks, Sullivan near them in a convenient position to turn the leaves and what I heard, as in a dream, was the introduction
to the first movement of my Quartet! It was too much! My sensations cannot be described; I
only know that I burst into tears, and that I sat listening to my composition, my face hidden from view to hide an emotion which I could not control! It was so wonderful to hear played what had existed only in my imagination!
Meanwhile Mamma was beaming at the success of her little conspiracy with Sullivan, and so were the others at having kept the secret so that not even a suspicion of the truth had entered my mind. As soon as my thoughts got out of their tangle, I began to do some wondering. I had not taken the trouble to write out the parts of my Quartet, why should I as there was no chance of ever having it played? Now where did those parts come from? Nothing had existed
but my score, which I had left among our music on the piano when we closed our apartment before leaving for Schandau. I now approached Sullivan very humbly, for I had been very nasty to him ever since we parted at Schandau, begging him to tell me how it all came about.
His story, which he told with a sweet reproachfulness, was that when he came to bid us goodbye the night before we left Leipzig, he fumbled among our music until he found my manuscript; this he managed to secrete when I was not looking, having already conceived the idea that it would be nice to give me the surprise of hearing my Quartet played, and reflecting that during the holidays he could take the time to write out the four parts from my score. Having completed that task before he joined us at Schandau, the next step was to get together four of the best players as soon as the Conservatorium opened its doors for the new session. He had, of course, to get permission to use one of the classrooms for rehearsal, which led to some curiosity on the part of both teachers and students, as they heard unwonted strains issuing from the classroom. "What were they about? Whose Quartet was it? " and so forth. When the answer came that it was a Streichquartett by the youngest Fraulein Barnett, some surprise and interest were shown, and Sullivan added, "I shouldn't be surprised if you were told to send it up for inspection, at the next examination."

Memories of a Musical Career Clara Rogers (The Plumpton Press 1932)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Clifton Parker: The Glass Slipper - Overture

The Glass Slipper is the only piece of music by Clifton Parker currently in the CD catalogues that is not film music. Although he is best known for his scores to the feature films Treasure Island, Western Approaches and Sink the Bismark! Parker was also a composer of concert hall and recital room pieces. His catalogue includes a symphony, a piano concerto and a number of chamber works. It is a repertoire that surely calls out for exploration.

In 1942 Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon were commissioned by Robert Donat to write a libretto for a children’s pantomime. It was to be based on the Cinderella fairy tale – with a few twists and changes to the traditional story. The Times reviewer suggested that it is effectively the story of Cinderella, “delicately disengaged from its familiar theatrical conventions”. The wonder is introduced by grandfather clocks, the tongs, the taps and the brooms that all have their own voices ‘establishing genial avuncular relations with Cinderella.” It is fair to say that The Glass Slipper was hardly a pantomime, yet neither did it seem to be an operetta. It opened in St James Theatre in December 1944. It was revived for the 1945/46 Christmas season.
.
The Overture is a short work lasting just over three minutes. However, it is a well-constructed piece that employs felicitous touches of instrumentation giving a subtlety well beyond what is required for a ‘pantomime.’ It opens with three repeated chords that are a feature of the music throughout the piece. The main constructive principle of the overture appears to be a couple of tunes presented in various guises. There is much contrast with a dance-like tune as it is tossed between woodwind and strings. One of the problems, which was identified by the Guardian reviewer, was the lack of a fairy godmother. This is reflected in the music by the complete absence of anything that might be construed as ‘magical’ effect. It is very much a ‘secular’ workmanlike score rather than one that takes the listener into the realm of ‘fairyland.’ This is a criticism of The Times reviewer who notes that ‘No fairy godmother stepped out of the kitchen fire to breathe stage magic into [the play].
.
All were agreed that the Ballet Rambert and the music of Clifton Parker made a significant contribution to the evening’s pleasure. In fact the Guardian reviewer notes that the composer’s ‘airs are full of graces.’
Robert Donat himself assisted as a stagehand due to labour shortages. In fact this seemed to be a criticism of the operetta: there were too few scene shifters. He was paid the equivalent of about 3/6d!

The Glass Slipper Overture can be heard on The Film Music of Clifton Parker on Chandos 10279