Monday, 28 February 2011

Arthur Butterworth: Solent Forts –A Tone Poem.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about Felton Rapley’s Overture: Down the Solent. I suggested that this was not a particularly profound piece, but I felt that it ought to be in the repertoire.
However, during my ‘research’ for this Overture, I did a ‘web search’ and came across a work called Solent Forts by Arthur Butterworth. It was a title that immediately appealed to me. Ever since a childhood holiday in the Isle of Wight I have looked at these structures with great interest and have an considerable envy of people who have manage to visit them. This is not the forum to give a history of these four massive stone built edifices. Save to say that they were part of the defensive arrangements for Portsmouth Harbour and date back to the time of Lord Palmerston. They have evocative names including ‘No Mans’ Land’ and ‘Horse Island’ Forts. They are no longer a part of the military infrastructure and are now owned by a number of private individuals and companies.

In 1990 Arthur Butterworth attended and open air concert at Kenwood House. He was introduced to the organiser of musical events for English Heritage, Michael Webber. He asked if Butterworth would write a concert overture for the following summer, to mark the end of the first ten years of English Heritage's involvement with the Kenwood Concerts, and - more especially - the retirement of the chairman, Lord Montague of Beaulieu.
Since it was essentially a farewell present for Lord Montague he was given the choice of a theme for the music that would in some way be connected with him personally. His obvious connection with Hampshire and the Solent brought suggested a number of possible ‘local’ themes. Arthur Butterworth told me that he went along to the famous motor museum and was entertained one summer afternoon in his Lordship’s house, where he was shown a number of family heirlooms and items of interest.
They discussed the history and the significance of the Solent in various wars: from the Armada in 1588, to the threat of Napoleon in the 1800s and the preparations for the D-Day landings in 1944. Lord Montague explained the significance of the various fortifications, so it came about that this concert overture was entitled 'Solent Forts'

The première was on 31st August 1991, and was the last concert of that summer season. The composer told me that it was an ‘absolutely gorgeous, hot, sunny evening’. He recalled that he sat with Lord Montague and his close friend, the Duke of Gloucester for the performance, which was given by the Wren Orchestra, conducted by the Scottish maestro, Sir Alexander Gibson.

Solent Forts was well received by the audience. As a result of this success Michael Webber immediately suggested Butterworth re-score it for brass band, since he wanted to do it again the following year. This duly came about, and it was played on 30th August 1992 at the same venue, but this time by the Britannia Building Society Band conducted by Howard Snell. The reports from this concert are that it was a ‘stunning’ performance.

I consider that Arthur Butterworth’s Solent Forts is a fine piece of writing- in both arrangements. It could be argued that there is a ‘film-music’ feel this piece, but I guess that this is hardly surprising considering the ‘historical’ background to the commission. From the first note to the last this can only be described as a ‘war horse.’ It is an impressive work that would be effective in a concert hall environment. I personally prefer the orchestral version; however it is fair to say that I have not heard a pristine recording of either incarnation (from the sound-quality point of view). It is interesting that Butterworth told me that he preferred the ‘brass’ version: he considered that it was ‘tighter and more lively.’ Perhaps the reason for this was the fact that the brass band adaptation was better rehearsed than the orchestral one. Additionally this was recorded indoors whereas the orchestral one was performed out of doors.

I am disappointed that this work has not been commercially recorded. However, I was lucky enough to be able to hear a privately-made tape of both adaptations of this work.
Of one thing I am certain is that Solent Forts demands to be in the repertoire –in both versions. It would certainly make a fine companion piece to the composer’s Italian Journey, the Dales Suite and Milltown – all composed for orchestra. Certainly the brass arrangement of this work could find an ideal place in any brass band concert and take its place alongside a whole host of great music written by British composers for that genre.

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