Saturday, 31 July 2010

Richard Stoker: Regency Suite Op.15

Richard Stoker's Regency Suite Op.15. was composed over a number of years during the 1950s. It is actually a composite work - with a number of pieces being mined to produce what is in many ways an attractive work.
The opening 'Scherzo' - almost a little toccata, in fact, is supposedly based on Picasso line drawings and circus paintings. It was the last piece to be completed for this suite. It is full of little figurations and has a definite and deliberate chaos of tonality. The following 'Minuet' on the other hand was written when the composer was yet a boy. It is quite a concentrated little piece complete with cunning key changes at the cadences. I wondered if it was worked over by Stoker for this suite, as it seems to fit perfectly into the prevailing style. Again the tonality is very free- one almost feels that there is a little tone row somewhere amongst the rather sweet tune.
The 'Pastoral Andante' was written in 1958. It is perhaps quite a desolate landscape the composer is reflecting on. Perhaps it is nearer the moors above Huddersfield or the strange country around Spurn Point rather than the smiling fields near York.
The 'Gigue' is a rather fun piece. Lots of contrast and a few sequences, ties this nicely into the old-fashioned feel to the work. The oldest piece of music is the 'Gavotte', composed when Stoker was a mere 14 years old. Yet it is a piece that deserves to be preserved. Absolutely perfect here. The last piece is a 'Toccata' and it is apparently very dear to the composer. A fine finish. There is an interesting little bit of musical history here- apparently the Gavotte and the Minuet were given their first Broadcast Performance on the BBC Home Service in 1953 - by none other than Violet Carson - later to become famous as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street. I never knew she was a pianist.
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The Regency Suite can be found on Priory PRCD 659 played by Eric Parkin

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Sir Arthur Sullivan: An Anecdote from the United States

I found this wonderful story about the great Victorian composer. It is worth retelling and needs no commentary save to note that Sullivan was in California in 1886 visiting family. Pinafore was a great success in the States and was the subject of copyright ‘piracy.’

When Sir Arthur Sullivan, as President, took the chair at the annual dinner of the Birmingham Clef Club in 1886, he gave, in a very humorous speech, an anecdote of his travels in America. He was travelling on a stagecoach in a wild part of California, and had to alight for refreshments at a mining camp.
"They are expecting you here, Mr. Sullivan," said the driver. Sullivan was flattered that his fame had travelled into so remote a region. A knot of prominent citizens met him at the hotel bar.
“Are you Mister Sullivan?" asked the foremost citizen, addressing a big burly fellow, who was standing by Sullivan's side.
“No, this is the gentleman," he replied, pointing to the author of Patience.
“Why, is that so? How much do you weigh, Mister?''
Sullivan thought the question curious, but he replied: "I weigh about 162 pounds."
"And at that weight do you mean to say that you pounded John S. Blackmore into fits?"
“No, sir," said Sullivan, “I did not pound him at all."
“Ain’t you John L. Sullivan, the slogger?”
“No, I am Arthur Sullivan”, the composer rejoined.
“Arthur Sullivan!” said the prominent citizen thoughtfully. “Maybe you're the man that put Pinafore together?”
"I am that man," Sullivan replied.
"Well," said the citizen, "we are sorry, ain't we, boys?”
"We are sorry," they responded in chorus.
Then "that you ain't John L. Sullivan," continued the foremost citizen; ”but, still, we're glad to see you, eh boys?"
“We are mighty glad, and we invite you to take a drink with us, and we'll make it a basket of wine."
"Let her go at that," chimed in the others, and there were drinks all round, and the coach resumed its journey merrily for the passengers, as well as those who remained behind to talk over the two Sullivans.

From A Souvenir of Arthur Sullivan George Newnes Ltd. London 1901 – with minor edits

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Lennox Berkeley: Chamber Works on Naxos

Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Trio for violin, horn and piano, Op.44 (1944) Sonatina for flute and piano, Op.13 (1939)
Viola Sonata Op.22 (1945) Quintet, Op.90 for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano (1975)
Raphael Terroni (piano) Susanne Stanzeleit (violin) Patrick Williams (flute) Morgan Goff (viola) Members of the New London Chamber Ensemble
NAXOS 8.572288

I have never really got to know Lennox Berkeley’s chamber music. The first of his works that I discovered were the old vinyl releases of orchestral music on Lyrita from the late ‘sixties/ early ‘seventies. This included the delicious and deservedly popular Serenade for Strings and the decidedly ‘Gallic’ Piano Concerto in Bb. Over the years I have got to know the Symphonies, certainly most of the solo piano pieces, some of the songs and a fair few examples from the corpus of choral music. But somehow the chamber works have remained elusive.
Even the briefest of glances at Berkeley’s catalogue shows a considerable portion of his achievement was in this particular genre. The main element of continuity would appear to be the three string quartets (+ In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky) which were written over a 36 year period. However, the combination of wind instruments and strings was a particular favourite of the composer. A large portion of this CD is given over to the Horn Trio and the Quintet, both of which are major works in the woodwind genre.

However, a great place to begin exploration of this disc is the Sonatina for flute and piano Op.13. I am delighted that it has been given in this version. I understand that it was originally written for an ‘early music’ combination of recorder and harpsichord: it was dedicated to Carl Dolmetsch. However, it was authorised by the composer for playing in the present incarnation. The liner notes suggest that it is an ‘artless amalgam of neo-Baroque and neo classical traits.’ If this is seen as a mild rebuke, Richard Whitehouse assures us it is this artless-ness that has maintained the work’s relative popularity since it was first heard in 1939. I believe that this ‘popularity’ is because the flute and piano take themselves less seriously, less snobbishly, than their ‘period instrument’ alter ego. This is a cool work that belies the troubled times during which it was conceived. After a discursive opening movement which contrast two rhythmically discrete themes, a ‘limpid’ coda leads into a reflective ‘adagio’: this is really a flute solo, gently and economically supported by the piano. The finale has spontaneity and a playful nature that nods towards the chamber works of Malcolm Arnold. Look out for the rather nautical air, too.

The Viola Sonata, Op. 22 is a much more powerful work than the Sonatina, as one might expect. It was composed in 1945 at the end of the Second World War and certainly reflects the mood and stresses and strains of the period. However, it is not a work that is any way negative: neither is it unremitting aggression or blatant ‘war-music.’
The first movement, which is written in sonata form, is the most angst ridden part of the piece: it is intense, emotional and ‘big’ sounding. However a quiet coda leads to the much more lyrical ‘adagio.’ This is the heart of the work and has a ‘keen and unaffected pathos.’ Yet, this is not easy music to listen too: it is often too involved with itself – too introverted. There is a huge climax in the middle of movement before the composer closes down the emotion and finishes on a retrospective backward glance.
The mood lightens a little (not a lot) in the final ‘allegro’ with hugely energetic music that pursues its course to the dramatic finale. It concludes a great work that ought to be in the repertoire of all violists.
The works was given its first performance by its dedicatee Watson Forbes, the violist and the pianist Denise Lassimoine.

The Horn Trio was commissioned by the pianist Colin Horsley and was duly composed in autumn 1952. It was first heard in a concert at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with Horsley and the legendary Denis Brain as two of the soloists. The Trio is written in three movements, with the final ‘tema and variations’ being as long as the first two movements put together.
I personally found that this was the most difficult work to get to grips with on this CD. I am not sure why, but feel it may be to do with the dominance and depth of the horn tone throughout the piece.
The first movement is more or less in sonata form with a contrast between the strident opening theme based on rising fourths and the second subject which is altogether gentler and more lyrical. The middle movement, which is signed to be played ‘lento’, is the heart of the work. This movement is in ternary form and begins with a long withdrawn tune on the violin which is reiterated by the horn. The middle section opens out slightly to an impressive but sustained climax. The opening theme returns, but towards the end of the movement there are some overt allusions to the ‘trio’. It is extremely beautiful music.
The piano opens the proceeding of the final ‘Theme and Variations’. This is, as the sleeve notes suggests, based on a ‘Mozartian’ theme presented at the start of the movement. The mood of the music has changed from the ‘lento’ and is largely more positive. However, there are some quieter moments such as the reflective soliloquy for horn against a ‘walking’ piano accompaniment. The sixth variation is attractive, but sometimes biting, waltz-like music that acts as a foil to the deeper moments still to come. The seventh variation is the critical to this work – heart-rending, poignant and profound. The penultimate variation is an energetic ‘gigue’ which leads to the subdued close –except for the concluding chords!

The final work on this CD is the important Quintet, Op. 90 for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano. This was written towards the end of Berkeley’s composing career in 1975; although he lived to 1989, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of his life.
The composer has stated that this four movement work is in ‘a modified traditional form.’ Richard Whitehouse has also noted the influence of a ‘subtle deployment of serial elements [to] enrich his musical vocabulary.’ Certainly the language of this work is a long way removed from the other works on this disc. However, the inherently lyrical, thematic development and rhythmic interest are always present. The sound world is complex, with excellent use of instrumental colouring. I had not heard this work before, and I guess that I was concerned that the combination of instruments may prove a little ponderous. I need not have worried. If the listener needs any convincing about the viability of this grouping they should listen to the second movement ‘scherzo.’ This is vibrant, subtle and constantly varying music that exploits the timbres of the instruments to the maximum degree. The ‘trio’ is particularly attractive. The ‘traditional’ slow movement is replaced by a somewhat lugubrious ‘intermezzo’ with interplay and interconnection between all the instruments including references to the first movement. The piano has an attractive role here. A quiet reflective moment leads into the final ‘allegretto which has the form of a ‘theme and variations’. This is energetic and sometimes troubled music that is a little eclectic in styles and mood. Occasionally the music seems to run away with itself before being brought to book. The final bars are quite exhausting.
The Quintet was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center and was composed during the winter of 1975.

I mentioned above that Lennox Berkeley’s chamber music was a largely unknown quantity to me. However, after listening to this disc twice, I have three things to note. Firstly, I was impressed with the playing on this disc: the balance between enthusiasm and concentration, exuberance and reflection is entirely appropriate. Secondly, that all four pieces on this disc present a rounded picture of the composer, from the ‘early’ Sonatina (1939) to the late Quintet (1975). Each work reveals a facet of the composer – whether it is his love of Mozart, the influence of ‘Les Six’, the use of serialism or the exploitation of a jolly good tune, it presents interesting and ultimately moving music. Thirdly, like so much British music, these pieces seem to languish on the fringes of the repertoire. This is wrong – these are great works - if not masterpieces – that reveal the creativity and invention of one of Britain’s most competent composers.
Lennox Berkeley: Chamber Works on Naxos can be bought at Amazon

First published on MusicWeb International in June 2010

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Vivian Ellis: Alpine Pastures

The nearest I have been to Alpine pastures is whilst flying over the that great mountain range towards Venice or Milan. And, something tells me that Vivian Ellis did not get much closer either. Naturally, the landscape is lodged in everybody’s mind. Whether it is through memories of reading Heidi (I only read that book last year) or watching The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews cresting the hill- every one of us knows what an alpine pasture looks like.

Yet the compositional history of this music is hardly convincing. Vivian Ellis was well-known as a writer of musical comedies: perhaps his most famous song is Spread a Little Happiness. However, to classical music listeners it is probably his Coronation Scot description of a steam locomotive that springs to mind. I am not sure when Alpine Pastures was composed, but it was originally used in an Ovaltine advert and then was taken up by the BBC radio programme 'My Voice'. To my knowledge it has never been used as an accompaniment to an advert or documentary for or about Switzerland or Austria!

The music itself is even less convincing as a picture of rural Switzerland. However it is a great tune that has one foot tapping – certainly in the main part of the work.
It does open convincingly with pseudo-Delius atmospheric mood music suggesting a misty morning high in the hills- just before day breaks. Yet soon the tune literally - changes. There is no attempt to word paint – it is a jogging-along little tune that makes full use of the ‘kitchen’ with parts for xylophone and glockenspiel. Good orchestral writing makes use of an effective muted brass section. Sometimes the music seems to remind me of Albert Ketelbey and his Dresden Clocks. Occasionally there is a hint of a cuckoo and maybe even a few cowbells. There is one section that sounds remarkably like Strauss – Johann that is, and his Perpetuum Mobile. Listen out for the 'oompah' German band making an appearance before the work concludes.
If Richard Strauss and his patchwork Alpine Symphony is your preferred composition then this is not the work for you – but if you want a bit of jolly, light music then this is a great piece.
I think I will raise a glass of Strega (distilled from Alpine herbs) although as a child of the ‘fifties a cup of Ovalitine may be the appropriate beverage, and listen just one more time to this lovely, joyful, full of fun piece.

Vivian Ellis’ Alpine Pastures can be heard on British Light Music Classics Volume 3 Hyperion

Friday, 23 July 2010

A Taste of Shropshire: English Music from Ludlow

Oliphant CHUCKERBUTTY (1884-1960) Paean – a Song of Triumph; Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) arr. Sinclair Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 in G Op. 39 (1907); Sir Edward GERMAN (1862-1936) arr. Lemare Three dances from Henry VIII: Morris Dance, Shepherds’ Dance & Torch Dance; Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) arr. Rawsthorne The Lost Chord; Paul SPICER (b. 1952) The Land of Lost Content (2006?); Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) arr. Setchell Two dances from Capriol Suite: Basse-danse & Pieds-en-l’air (1926); Sir Edward GERMAN (1862-1936) arr. Brown/Setchell Coronation March and Hymn (1911); Sir Charles BURNEY (1726-1814) Introduction and Voluntary for the Cornet stop(1751); Robert PRIZEMAN (b. 1952) Songs of Praise Toccata; John GARDNER (b.1917) Jig (No. 3 of Five Dances) (1988); Sir Henry WALFORD DAVIES (1869-1941) arr. Setchell RAF March Past; Richard FRANCIS (b. 1946) Introduction and Grand Concert Variations on a Hymn Tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan (the ‘Not-so-young person’s guide to the organ’) (2003)
Martin Setchell at the organ of St Laurence’s Parish Church, Ludlow
QUANTUM QM7041

If I had not found a number of references to Mr Soorjo Alexander William Oliphant Chuckerbutty in the Musical Times, I would not have believed that he existed. I would have been convinced that, apart from being a resident of Ken Dodd’s Knotty Ash, he was a pseudonym or perhaps even a ‘committee’ of musicians. Yet seemingly he existed and spent his life both as a church and cinema organist. He supposedly wrote the ‘better sort’ of light music. However the Paean: A Song of Triumph is certainly a good opener for any recital. Perhaps not the one I would have chosen – but not bad at all!
Elgar, as we all know wrote Six Pomp & Circumstance Marches -the last, a realisation, has recently been released on CD. However the Fourth is nearly as well known as Land of H & G and, if I recall correctly, it was played at Prince Charles & Lady Spencer’s wedding. Originally written for orchestra it was transcribed by the dedicatee, George Sinclair, one-time organist at Hereford Cathedral and friend of the composer.
Edward German is one if the forgotten names of British music. Most often remembered for the light opera Merrie England, he has a quantity of fine orchestral pieces to his name, including a number of Symphonies. However the first of the present offerings from this composer derives from the incidental music for Henry VIII. Not great music perhaps, but competent and evocative of an earlier age seen through the eyes of an Edwardian master.
The second German number is the Coronation March and Hymn written for the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary. It remained in the repertoire for a number of years and was used at the 1937 Coronation for the arrival of the dowager Queen. Great stuff!

Preserve me, O Lord, from The Lost Chord! Do not get me wrong- I love the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. But not this – it is the most sugary piece of Victorian tat in the repertoire. I would rather Mr Setchell had played Buttercup’s Song from HMS Pinafore or “Skipping Hither, Skipping Thither” from Iolanthe. Anything but this wretched tune! But it will be, I suppose, somebody’s cup of tea- my late father used to love it!
Paul Spicer’s The Land of Lost Content is a masterpiece. It was written especially for this recording and I presume dedicated to the Mr Setchell. The composer told me that he completed it in December 2006. It is really a short tone poem that explores both the landscape of the ‘Shropshire Lad’ and “the regret, longing, the unease and the whole issue of loss in war” about which A.E. Housman wrote. It is musically in the tradition of West of England organ music and deserves to be played often – both in Shropshire and the rest of the country.
I am not too sure why Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite is excerpted on this disc. Good as it is, I am not convinced that it needs to be ‘dished up’ for organ. It is seriously good for string orchestra and there is plenty of original music for organ! However, they are well transcribed by Setchell.
Sir Charles Burney was a Shrewsbury man. His fine Introduction and Voluntary for Cornet Stop should be in the repertoire of all organists – assuming that they have a suitable ‘cornet’ stop on the pipe rack!
The well known Toccata by Robert Prizeman that introduces the infuriating [recording the Christmas programme in July type of thing] television programme ‘Songs of Praise’ is a good choice for this semi-popular CD of organ music. The only problem with this work is that it tends to lose interest in itself beyond the opening credits!

John Gardner’s ‘irreverent’ Jig (No.3 of Five Dances) is fun and has a slight touch of ‘blue note’ jazz. No doubt somebody would be traumatised if it was played at Evensong: my Uncle Eric was seriously chastised by the church officer for playing Tiger Rag in Methodist church in Ashton-under-Lyne just before the war! I think it was the glissando ‘roar’ on the pedals rather than the tune that caused the problem- so perhaps Gardner’s piece may only raised the odd eyebrow!

Henry Walford Davies is usually remembered for the Solemn Melody used at the Remembrance Day Parade in Whitehall. However the fine Coates-like RAF March Past is in a totally different, secular vein. But did you know that he wrote a Symphony in 1894?

The last work in this pot-pourri is a pot pourri in its own write (right). Magnificently entitled Introduction & Grand Concert Variations on a Hymn Tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan (the not-so-young-person’s guide to the organ) it lasts a good sixteen minutes. It is a sweeping up of a gross of different styles and a dozen quotes from famous organ and orchestral works. Too many to itemise – but look out for Widor – you cannot really miss him. Just the sort of piece to bring the house – or perhaps the Cathedral or Parish Church - down after a serious [mind numbing?] evening of Reger or Bach or Hindemith!

This is a good CD featuring as number of composers who were born in, live/lived in or had associations with Salop. As a compilation it is very much like the curate’s egg. However the good parts will, I guess, be seen differently by various listeners.
Nice production, good booklet complete with organ specification and historical notes. The playing is superb and the sound quality very good if a little quirky.

Finally, it did interest me to read the Oliphant Chuckerbutty can be anagram-ised to “Pick truly hot Bach tune” – I wonder…
This CD can be bought at Amazon
Review originally published on MusicWeb International 2007

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Claude Vane: Dig Dipper – a light music masterpiece

Who was Claude Vane? Well he seemed to be one of those composers who had more than one pseudonym. His real name was Rufus Isaacs – but he was also known as Kenneth Essex, Derek Dwyer and Howitt Hale!
I have long thought that Vane’s Big Dipper is one of the best pieces of so called light music in the repertoire and have always been surprised that it does not seem to be recorded all that often. Many of Vane’s (Isaacs) pieces have a holiday or sea-side feel to them and this one is no exception. I cannot hear this music without thinking of Morecambe, Blackpool and Manchester. Whether it is the old ‘Grand National’ at the Pleasure Beach or’ Bob’s Coaster' at Belle-Vue this music is the ideal companion. There is a romantic note in this score too – almost certainly alludes to the ‘brave’ young man accompanying his girlfriend and trying not to show his fear!

Looking down the long slope from the top the ‘rider’ can see all the ‘fun of the fair’ below as they whip round the sharp right and left hand bends. Down below simpler souls are having fun on the miniature railway or the pedal boats whilst casting an envious glance at the braver folk on the ‘big ride.’
The music itself is highly charged: there is hardly a moment of rest in this piece as the car speeds up and down. In fact the only thing the composer has not given, is a musical picture of the long haul to the top of the structure- he has only described the descent, pell-mell to the bottom.
Like so many pieces of light music one is amazed at the quality of the orchestration as well as the imaginative turns of melody and syncopated rhythms.
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Dig Dipper can be heard on Guild GLCD 5115 where a short extract can be heard (Track 21)

Monday, 19 July 2010

Joseph Haydn: An intolerable pupil in London

Haydn was delighted with London in most of its aspects, but we have an idea that there was one kind of pupil that he was perfectly willing to leave behind when he returned to his beloved Vienna. But probably he found them there as well as in London. They were not limited to England.
One day a nobleman called on him and, expressing his fondness for music, said he would like Haydn to give him a few lessons in composition at one guinea per lesson. Haydn promised to gratify him and asked when they should begin.
‘At once, if you have no objection,’ said he, drawing from his pocket one of Haydn's quartets.
‘For the first lesson let us examine this quartet and you tell me the reasons for some modulations and certain progressions that are contrary to all rules of composition.’

Haydn could offer no objection to this. They then set to work to examine the music. Several places were found which, when asked why he did this and that, Haydn could only say he wrote it so to obtain a good effect.
But ‘My lord’ was not satisfied with such a reason and declared unless the composer gave him a better reason than that for his innovations, he should declare them good for nothing. Then Haydn suggested that the pupil rewrite the music after his own fashion: but this he declined to do, though he persisted in his question, ‘How can your way, which is contrary to all rule, be the best?’
At last Haydn lost all patience with this noble critic, and said, ‘I see, my lord, that it is you who are so good as to give lessons to me. I do not want your lessons, for I feel that I do not merit the honour of having such a master as yourself. I bid you good morning, my lord "- and showed the upstart the door.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

British Novelties at the 1910 Promenade Concerts – the reviews.

I was in the Royal College of Music library the other day and took the opportunity to look up the references to the ‘novelties’ in 1910 Promenade Concerts as reported in The Musical Times -with minor edits. They make interesting reading.
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The reviewer writing in the November edition begins by acknowledging a ‘...welcome feature of the present series has been Mr. [Henry] Wood's readiness to revise his programmes in order to grant a second hearing to novelties that were well received at their first hearing’.
This of course is always a problem. Too often the listener when hearing, ‘...this is the first broadcast performance of Buggins’ Concerto for Tuba’ adds ‘and the last’! It would be a good precedent for concert programmers to reintroduce.
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He continued, ‘It is gratifying to find this honour accorded to a British composition, namely, Dr. Walford Davies's fine Festal Overture for orchestra. The work was played for the first time in London, as recorded in our last issue, on September 20, and on October 1 it was repeated. It has now been included in the programme of the Queen's Hall Symphony Concert on November 5.' So three performance of this work were surely well deserved – would that we could hear it today.
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The reviewer then notes ‘...the performance of Mr. Norman O'Neill's four Blue Bird dances on September 29, threw a more searching light upon these clever and delicate compositions than they have experienced before. It says a great deal for their merit that they gained in estimation under a test which would prove the undoing of most music written for the theatre.’
In my previous post I suggested that the one piece I really wanted to hear from this series was the ‘Sunshine’ Sketch for orchestra by Dr. Joseph W. G. Hathaway.
It was duly performed on October 4. The reviewer gives a little bit of a mixed review, I fear. He says ‘...perhaps the music embodies recollections of a bright but windy day in March or April, for the suggestion of chilliness and a disturbing element was often present. Viewed apart from its programme the work was a welcome example of the inventive and technical powers of one of our promising young composers.’
I wonder, as Noel Coward once said, ‘whatever happened to him?’
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And then, ‘...a set of variations for string orchestra on The Vicar of Bray, by Ernest Austin were played for the first time on October 6, and gave universal pleasure by their clever devices and fanciful scoring. The developments of the theme are governed by no programmatic meanings except in the jocular last variation, in which a novel idea in musical humour was found to be exceedingly felicitous in its effect. The work fully deserves a re-hearing.’
Finally, after reviewing a few continental works the reviewer notes the ‘charming, daintily-scored Serenade for small orchestra by Mr. Percy Pitt” which received its first performance on October 18 and was repeated on October 20’.
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In the previous months edition of The Musical Times (September 1910) the writer noted that ‘...on August 18, Mr. Easthope Martin's two Eastern Dances for orchestra, named Egyptian Bell Dance and [the] Snake Dance, were performed for the first time and were favourably received. The means by which the composer's quasi-Eastern effects were secured were not of striking originality, but they were effective, and the same may be said of the scoring in general’.
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Perhaps it is time to turn to the pages of the London Times and the Manchester Guardian?

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Promenade Concert British Novelties for 1960

In 1960 there were some eleven novelties at the Promenade Concerts: the same number as at the 1910 season. However, I have counted the great Spanish composer Roberto Gerhard as an honorary Briton, due to his refugee status during the Spanish Civil War. From a recording point of view we are luckier than the centenary series for only three of these novelties are not available on CD (Goossens, Searle and Musgrave). In fact, Britten’s Nocturne has not only survived on recordings but is a regular feature of the concert hall and recital room, and the Tippett is still occasionally heard as a part of the fully staged opera. However, most of the other works have only a tentative hold on the musical public’s attention and are probably largely unknown to folk who are not British music enthusiasts. It surprises me that Hamilton’s Scottish Dances does not have a regular place in the concert hall – it is certainly as accomplished and enjoyable as Malcolm Arnold’s set of dances with similar title. In fact, I would have though Hamilton’s work would have made an ideal ‘last night’ offering north and south of the border.
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William Alwyn: Derby Day – overture (BBC commission) (Chandos, Lyrita and Naxos recordings available)
Lennox Berkeley: Four Poems of Theresa of Avila (Chandos recordings available)
Arthur Bliss: Pastoral – Lie Strew the White Flocks (Chandos and Hyperion recordings available)
Benjamin Britten: Nocturne (many versions available)
Roberto Gerhard: Violin Concerto (Lyrita recording available)
Eugene Goossens: Phantasy Concerto for violin & orchestra
Iain Hamilton: Scottish Dances (ASV recording available)
Alun Hoddinott: Concerto for piano and wind (Lyrita Recording available)
Thea Musgrave: Triptych – for soloists and orchestra
Humphrey Searle: Poem for twenty-two strings
Michael Tippett: Sosostris’ Aria from The Midsummer Marriage (Nimbus recording available of the aria)

If I could have one of these works played at the 2010 Promenade Concerts, my prejudice would have to satisfied with the Goossens Fantasy, although I also feel that the Gerhard is probably the most important work here. However, there must be a place for Searle’s music and also feel that the Hoddinott would be enjoyed by listeners who are not normally attuned to his music.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Promenade Concert British Novelties for 1910

Each year I look back at the British music novelties that were played at the Promenade Concerts for both a century and a half-century ago. It always makes for fascinating reading for two reasons. Firstly there are the famous works that have survived the changes and chances of succeeding generations and secondly there are those works that seem to have fallen by the wayside. I guess that it this latter group that appeals to me most – the ‘what might have beens’ if you like. The problem is that with so many ‘novelties’ they received their first and possibly only performance at the Proms. It may be that the composers subsequently withdrew the scores or that time has taken its toll and all trace of the music has vanished except for the occasional review in contemporary newspapers and musical journals.
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Ernest Austin: Variations for string orchestra ‘The Vicar of Bray’
Arnold Bax: In the Faery Hills – tone poem (Chandos and Naxos recordings available)
Ernest Bryson: Voices –a study for orchestra
Henry Walford Davies: Festal Overture in Bb
J.W. Hathaway: ‘Sunshine’ -a sketch for orchestra
William Hurlstone: The Magic Mirror –suite for orchestra (Lyrita recording available)
Easthope Martin: Two Eastern Dances for orchestra
Norman O’Neill: Four Dances from The Blue Bird (Dutton recording available) & see my earlier post
Percy Pitt: Serenade for small orchestra
H.V. Jarvis Read: Two Night Pieces for orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on English Folksong- studies for an English Ballad Opera
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Out of the above 11 works only three have managed to survive to our generation. We are lucky to have a few recordings of the Bax work. And Lyrita have certainly championed William Hurlstone’s orchestral music. Norman O’Neill’s incidental music to The Blue Bird has survived tentatively through an historical recording by Dutton. All the other works remain unrecorded. The Vaughan Williams is unpublished and according to Michael Kennedy’s catalogue the score has been lost.

If I were able to revive just one work for this year’s Proms (apart from the RVW) it would have to be J.W. Hathaway’s ‘Sunshine’ –a sketch for orchestra, although I would love to hear all these works.
Next step is to have a look at the reviews...and then have a look at 1960!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Horace Barton: Composer and Pianist

Not a lot is known about Horace Barton. In fact, I had never come across him until I discovered an advert in a musical album published by Augener. The internet does not really help very much save to suggest that he was a South African composer and musician who lived in Johannesburg and was both an organist and choral conductor there.

There is a web page that suggests that Barton was a World War I flying ace, yet it is not possible to prove they are one and the same. The article notes that he was born in 1891. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the musical Horace Barton is the same person as runs a menswear shop in Cheltenham! One history of piano music suggests that HB was born in Port Elizabeth, Cape Colony, although another book implies he was a London-born composer.
Yet his published works list is a testimony to his achievement, even if it is not extensive. Perhaps there is more of his music lying hidden somewhere in manuscript?
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Barcarolle pour piano. London: Augener 1901
‘An Hour with Thee’ Song -words by Sir W. Scott. London: Augener, 1901
Melody in A flat for the Pianoforte. London: Augener, 1901
Pavane Op. 16 for the pianoforte. London: Reynolds & Co, 1903
Polonaise pour Piano. London: Augener, 1901
Redowak Op. 15 for the pianoforte. London: Reynolds & Co, 1903
Romance pour piano. London: Augener, 1901
Romance for violin & pianoforte. London: Augener, 1904
Rondo Scherzando pour piano. London: Augener, 1901
‘The singer’ Song - poem by Rosa Nepgen London: Paterson's Publications, 1935
Sonata in G, for the pianoforte. London: Augener, 1901
Three Cameos for the pianoforte. Op. 20 London: Augener, 1905
‘Too blossoms’ poem by Herrick London: Paterson's Publications 1935
Valse Arabesque for the pianoforte. London: Augener, 1903
Valse Brillante pour piano. London: Augener, 1901
Valse Caprice pour piano. London: Augener, 1901
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Perhaps the item here that most deserves investigation is the Piano Sonata in G dating from 1901?

Friday, 9 July 2010

Alex Rowley: Three rediscovered pieces

I always keep my eyes open for any music by Alec Rowley when I am in second hand bookshops. Over the years I have made a small collection of these often charming pieces, although with such a huge catalogue of music I guess that I will never manage to collect everything he published.
A few days ago I discovered a pile of music that had just come into my local second-hand bookshop. Amongst them were three pieces of sheet music published by Edwin Ashdown. I have never seen the edition before and even the titles were unknown to me. In fact after a little exploration on the internet I discovered that these were reprints of movements from earlier publications from the Ashdown catalogue. All four pieces are in a uniform edition and are all two pages long.
There is nothing in this music that is great or challenging, however they are four charming pieces that are easy to play whilst providing a technical challenge or two for less experienced pianists. I would estimate them to be about Grade 3 performance and Grade 6 sight reading test level.
The Highland March was originally composed in 1920 and appears to have originally been published as a part of Our First Duets Book 1. It has been rewritten for piano solo. I can find no other reference to this in any of the catalogues. It is an interesting little piece that is written in 4/8 time and balances an energetic melody with a bagpipe drone. The key centre is A minor with a straightforward modulation to the relative dominant minor. The close of the work is modal. The predominant dance pattern is four descending semiquavers followed by to quaver making a melodic leap of a perfect fifth.
April is perhaps the most attractive piece. It is preface by words written by Aidan Clarke:-
The Lilac’s out, the lilac’s out!
Fairy folk with tiny shout,
April’s merry minstrelsy,
Springtime’s careless cheery rout
Are dancing to the lilac tree.

This piece is written as a waltz in 3/8 time. The C major melody is supported by left hand chords played on the second and third beats of the bar. Harmonically this is the most adventurous of the pieces I discovered, with a fair few added notes, major sevenths and a final modulation to F minor in the closing bars. April was originally a part of The Shepherd’s Calendar Suite which was published c1921, although this piece carries the date of 1914. The other pieces in the suite were Early Spring, The Weary Shepherd, From the hill country, Midsummer Day and finally Colinclouts come home again. The final two numbers of this suite were also available in the Ashdown reprint.
The final piece I found was Flanagan keeps a’ dancin'. Like the Highland March this was part of the collection Our First Duets Book 1. This has been rewritten and has had a number of subsequent publications. My copy gives a date of 1920 and the Duet collection appears to have been issued circa 1933. However, the library catalogues note that it was the first movement of a little suite called Three Irish Sketches for piano with the other pieces being By the flowing Shannon and an Irish Pipe March. This was published circa 1923.
This is a typical little Irish jig written in 6/8 compound time. The entire piece is written in A aeolian and there are no accidentals. The left hand provides a simple bare fifth chordal accompaniment to the lively tune, however in the middle section there is a slightly more involved figuration for the left hand. The piece concludes loudly with an accented chord in the tonic. The composer instructs that there is no slowing up at the end of the piece.
These pieces were originally priced by Edwin Ashdown at 9d (about 4p), however they had been over-stamped with a stamp pricing them at 1/- (5p) and then had a sixpence added by hand making it a grand total of 7½p! I guess that as I paid 50p each for them inflation certainly appears to have been at work. It is not clear when the reissue was published but I am guessing circa 1965.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Novelties at Bournemouth 1918-1919: A list of Tantalising Music

I was reading Stephen Lloyd’s seminal book about Sir Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra the other day when I came across a list of English music performed during the 24th season (1918-1919) These include a majority of works that have totally disappeared from the repertoire alongside a few that have tenaciously hung on in the repertoire and a couple that have been recently revived. It is worth listing them just to see how interesting and tempting any list of concert programmes from the B.S.O. can be.
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Orsmond Anderton: Tone Poem - Virgil
Eric Fogg: Idyll for Orchestra
H.M. Higgs: Suite- Harlequinade
Joseph Holbrooke: Reels and Strathspeys for wind and strings
Charles O’Brien: Overture to Spring
Seymour Powell: The Soul of Sound
Cyril Rootham: Overture –The Two sisters
Percy Fletcher: Suite-Rustic Revels
Haydn Wood: Overture - May Day (Marco Polo CD)
Edward German: Theme and Six Diversions (Marco Polo CD)
W.H. Reed: Violin Concerto
Charles Villiers Stanford: Piano Concerto No.2 (Chandos & Lyrita CD)
Harry Farjeon: Piano Concerto
Arthur Sullivan: Ballet- Victoria and Merrie England (Marco Polo CD)
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Even allowing for Godfrey’s sometimes uncritical enthusiasm for new British music there must be some gems amongst this list of works. I guess the Reed and Farjeon Concertos and the Holbrooke would be my top priority, but there are many tantalising titles here that just cry out to be revived – at least once. However that is assuming the scores can be located, which is a tall order indeed.

Monday, 5 July 2010

English Music: Treasures of our Native Art

This overview in The Times newspaper of British music performances in London is exceptionally interesting as it brings together a consideration of a few concerts which took place in the summer of 1915. Mention is made of a number of British works – some which have survived the following 95 years and others that appear to have fallen by the wayside or are awaiting rediscovery. It is interesting to note the anti-German rhetoric insofar as Germanic music had been banned from concert halls: however this is hardly surprising during the First World War. What is interesting is that this sentiment is actually quite measured compared to some of the more virulent propaganda that was prevalent at the time. The author foresaw a time when the German classics would once again be given due weight. Nowadays the British music enthusiast would complain that perhaps too much ‘weight’ was given to the German (and other) classics and not enough attention paid to the home-grown music of the United Kingdom.

Several concerts lately given in London have deserved more attention than it has been possible to devote to them as they occurred day by day, but a retrospect may do a little more than record, since events gain significance by association.
One concert, rather apart from the others, was that which the Oriana Madrigal Society gave at the Aeolian Hall on Tuesday night. It was a programme which sent one away with the feeling that there are a great many good things in the world and that many of them come from England. To place madrigals by Morley[1] , Ward[2] , and Mundy[3] beside songs by Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter is to realise that there is a continuous breath of life in English music, at any rate when it is coupled with English poetry. The words of the first song cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’[4], finely sung and played by Mr. Gervase Elwes, the Philharmonic String Quartet, and Mr. Kennedy Scott, suggested a motto for such concerts as this one; and the sense of continuity in English vocal music was strengthened by its contrast with foreign types, the Two Psalms[5] by Grieg and the delicate songs of Debussy. We only want more programmes of this type, performed with the fine ability which the Oriana singers possess, to realise conclusively what our national place in music has been and will be.
Singers have an admirable opportunity for doing the same thing in their recitals. Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms no longer dominate the field, not from foolish determination to boycott the great masters, but because the German language is unpleasing to listen to just now. Mr. Harry Alexander lately gave an excellent scheme of English and French songs, old and new, in which he showed by his skillful singing what a wealth of variety the two languages offer: and Miss Phyllis Lett performed a very interesting programme which ranged from Bantock and Elgar to Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, and placed some Romanian folk songs beside some Irish ones. Certainly if the great Germans are put aside for the moment in order that we may enlarge our perceptions, and particularly appreciate the treasures of our own song, it is all to the good, and has nothing to do with the type of propaganda which advocates the worst art if only is home made.
In instrumental music the London String Quartet is continuing its important project of ‘Saturday and Monday Popular Concerts’ and last Monday’s audience showed that there is a real demand for them. Ethel Smyth’s string quartet in E minor was played between Dvorak’s quartet in E flat Op.51 and Franck’s quintet for piano and strings. Today a quartet[6] by J.B McEwen is to be heard with Debussy’s quartet and Schubert’s quintet in C for strings. Ethel Smyth’s quartet is one of the best pieces of chamber music in a large form written by a composer of this country, though perhaps it might have been even better if its form had not been quite so large. Each one of its four movements tails off a little in the course of its full development, and along with many distinctive beauties it affords an example of what is a prevalent weakness in the pure instrumental works of our own composers – a lack of sustaining power.
That is why the ‘Fantasy’ idea fostered by Mr. Cobbett’s prize has been so successful. Relieving the composer of the obligation to ‘talk big’ it gives his fancy free play in a single movement, and there is nothing to prevent his fancy from taking a longer flight when its wings are strong enough. Prizes for quartets in full sonata form have just been awarded to Frank Bridge[7] and W.H. Reed, and the former’s work is to be played shortly at a ‘Popular’ concert. These concerts which place modern English works beside modern foreign ones as well as the classics, and perform all with equal sympathy and care, provide the right environment for the development of chamber music. We sincerely hope that they will become a permanent institution.
The Promenade Concerts at the Albert Hall are the only orchestral music which London is getting just now, and the programmes have been as diversified as is possible when the classics of Germany are excluded. Elgar’s Symphony in E flat was played on Thursday night; Lalo’s in G major last night. The latter took the place of Borodin’s symphony, which was postponed until next Friday; and it should be noticed that next Wednesday a programme of Tchaikovsky’s music is to take the place of the miscellaneous one originally planned.
Since our retrospect at this point has already drifted into a prospect, we would call attention to two other important concerts, both of which take place next Friday at the Aeolian Hall. The Philharmonic String Quartet will devote the afternoon to British chamber music, and will follow a new quartet[8] by Arthur Bliss with Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls. Albert Sammon’s Fantasy, and the quartet by Ethel Smyth which we have been considering. In the evening a concert under the auspices of the Société des Concerts Français’ will include Florent Schmitt’s 'Psalm XLVI’ for organ, two pianos, soprano solo, and choir. This concert is given for the benefit of the Comité Général pour les Victimes de la Guerre en Pologne.’

The Times (London) Saturday 19th June 1915 (with minor edits)

1. Thomas Morley (?1557-1602)
2. John Ward, of Canterbury (1571-1638)
3. John Mundy (?- 1630)
4. On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams 1909
5. From the Four Psalms Op. 74, Nos. 2 & 4
6 The ‘Biscay’ Quartet
7. The String Quartet No.2 in G minor. It was finally premiered at the Aeolian Hall on November 4 1915
8. Probably the String Quartet in A major

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Harry Farjeon: A Swan Song for piano

I recently posted a review of Harry Farjeon’s (1878-1949) Hans Anderson Suite on these pages. A day or so later someone pointed out to me that he was much better known for his piano pieces rather than those for orchestra. This is correct: Farjeon was certainly more successful in writing small-scale works rather than exploring the larger forms – however a piano concerto does survive along with an Idyll for oboe and orchestra and the St. Dominic Mass. In addition there are two operettas and an opera, four string quartets and a number of songs.
Much of his music explored the imaginative and sometime ‘faux’ innocent genre that was popular during the Edwardian era – possibly due to the influence of his sister Eleanor and their childhood adventures. Alas there are no recordings of his music currently available on CD – at least not in the catalogues. It appears that he has been entirely erased from the collective musical memory –like Leo Livens, Greville Cooke and Montague Ewing.
On YouTube there is an absolutely beautiful performance of the composer’s A Swan Song by Daniel Kasparian. As of yet I do not have the music for this piece – but even on a first hearing this is a heart-achingly beautiful piece of music that has instantly acceded to my list of Desert Island Discs. In its melancholic mood, the composer has moved a long way from some of his more picturesque titles such as ‘About the fairy who dances’ and the ‘Bumpkin Dance.’ This is a truly lovely piece of music that ought to challenge enthusiasts of British Music to explore Farjeon’s opus in more detail.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Charles Villiers Stanford: A Short Appreciation by Sydney H. Nicholson

Certainly, Sir Sydney Hugo Nicholson (1875-1947) is not as well known as his illustrious teacher; however his name regularly crops up in many histories of British music. His greatest achievement was the founding of the Royal School of Church Music. Yet he was involved with so many aspects of music. He was a choir master, a composer and an organist. His posts in the organ loft included Eton College, Carlisle Cathedral, Manchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Perhaps his best known composition is the fine hymn tune Crucifer, which is usually sung to the word Lift High the Cross. He was held in high regard by the musical establishment and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

My first acquaintance with Sir Charles Stanford was made in the organ loft of St. George's Chapel, Windsor on a Sunday afternoon about 1890. I had come as a schoolboy, with an introduction to Sir Walter Parratt; the anthem was Stanford's ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’; the composer accompanied it and Sir Walter stood at his side. I directed the singing of this same beautiful work at the funeral of the composer [Stanford] in the [Westminster] Abbey.
Some years later the two musicians and Sir Frederick Bridge became my masters at the Royal College. Though I was only a ‘second-study’ composition student, I can never be sufficiently grateful for the privilege of Stanford's lessons. The strongest impression that remains in my mind is of his remarkable power of grasping one's ideas from an apparently hasty glance through an unfinished score; he seemed to have an unerring instinct for picking out the weak spots (very often just what one thought the best bits). “Cut that out, my boy, it's all bosh!" or "Work out this bit, develop it properly!" Then the test: “Sit down and play it slowly on the piano without any pedal, and see how it sounds!" Lessons truly were not always pleasant, but one felt at the worst that here was a man who was absolutely master of his job; and when he saw fit to praise, no one could be more encouraging, or more ready to discover any merit there might be. Stanford contributed to every form of church music: his splendid series of Services, surpassed by none and only equalled in merit by a very few - his anthems of all kinds, ranging from simple and exquisitely beautiful miniatures like the choruses designed to follow the Bible Songs, to notable compositions such as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ ‘O living will,’ or ‘Ye holy angels bright’ - his fine hymn-tunes, such as ‘For all the saints’ -and his organ music.

Sydney H. Nicholson Music & Letters July 1924 (with minor edits)