Monday, 31 January 2011

Gordon Crosse: Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia, Op.47a for string orchestra.

I recently (re)discovered the music of Gordon Crosse when I listened to his Three Kipling Songs. I reported on this on my blog a few weeks ago. I mentioned that as a teenager in the early nineteen-seventies I had a problem with coming to terms with his important cantata Changes. However, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and hopefully I have a greater appreciation of a wider diversity of musical composition. I listened to Changes for the first time in 40 years and I was hugely impressed and moved. But more about that work in the future, perhaps. Meanwhile, I discovered Crosse’s Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia, Op.47a for String Orchestra. It is also a work with which I can do business.

Unfortunately there is little by way of commentary or review of this work on the ‘net or in the musical press. However, the composer has given a good account of this work in the liner notes of the Dutton Epoch Antiphon: A Tribute to John Manduell.

Gordon Crosse notes that ‘this is a version of the two central sections of his String Quartet Op.47 which was composed for the Gabrieli String Quartet in 1979'. However he has revised the formal construction in order to avoid the ‘peculiar’ way the Quartet has been designed. Apparently, the slow movement began before the first movement had finished! The Scherzo worked with a similar kind of overlapping. The original intention for the String Quartet had been ‘to give a feeling of a large single movement work, but with some of the benefits of breaks between movements.’ The composer told me that the idea of the overlapping movements came from Elliot Carter’s First String Quartet. However, Crosse was not totally happy with the effect and considers that it was better done in his later Cello Concerto (1979). However all this complexity was abandoned in the Elegy & Scherzo which was expressly written for a preparatory school orchestra. Which particular school is now a bit of a bit of a mystery, although it was commissioned by Arthur Harrison. The first performance of the work was at the Snape Maltings.
The composer told me that the Elegy and Scherzo was a halfway house towards a full revision of the String Quartet. This was completed in 2010.
To my ear the ‘added value’ of this fine piece is the subtle balance of harsh and soft dissonance. There are a number of ‘icy’ harmonic constructions in the main theme of the Elegy, but these are put into equilibrium with warmer moments that are scattered throughout the work. Interestingly Crosse makes a deliberate quote from Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac: he notes that he often puts his ‘little tributes into pieces’ as a kind of signature. The Scherzo is interesting: the composer writes that it is not so much a ‘joke’ as a ‘game’. It does remind me of a game of chases with several short motifs chasing each other in almost endless pursuit. Crosse suggests that he ‘had the sound of folk-fiddles and the methods of Charles Ives in mind’ when he wrote this movement.
The only review of this work I was able to find was by Rob Barnett writing on MusicWeb International: he gives a somewhat ambivalent account of this work: ‘...the music rumbles dissonance and the occasional angularity. There is also the odd flash of writing typical of Britten. The piercing Elegy is succeeded by the gawky pizzicato ‘alla marcia.’

However, I find that this is a work that is eminently approachable in spite of the first impression of dissonant musical language. It is the balance between the degree of dissonance and the occasional ‘near consonances’ that makes this work both attractive and moving. This is actually a profound work and I feel that the composer seems to be saying much in a composition that was primarily a rework of an existing piece for an amateur orchestra. I hope to hear the original String Quartet in its original and revised forms. It will be interesting to compare versions.
The Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia was published by Oxford University Press and was published in August 1981. A fine recording of this work is available on Dutton Epoch

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