Saturday, 12 February 2011

Peter Hope: Momentum Suite for Strings

It is always fascinating to discover the earliest extant work of a composer. However, in this present case it should be recalled that Peter Hope had already, by the late fifties, had considerable success in making arrangements for the BBC Concert Orchestra including some traditional tunes like ‘Marching Through Georgia', ‘Camptown Races’ and ‘Mexican Hat Dance’. Yet the Momentum Suite would appear to be the first ‘original’ composition that was both published and has survived. This was to a turning point in Hope’s career – where he was able to push forward as a composer as well as an arranger. Soon many more ‘original’ pieces were to follow, including the well-loved Ring of Kerry Suite and the Bramall Hall Dances and the Concertino for Bassoon, Strings, Percussion and Harp.

The Momentum Suite was composed in 1959 with the encouragement of Joe Cohen, who at that time was working at Weinbergers, but was later to move to Mozart Edition.
The composer told me that he ‘had originally thought I would write a suite in which each movement would be faster than the previous, hence the title ‘Momentum.’’ However it did not quite turn out that way: it became a much more traditional suite with the ‘slow movement’ predictably in the middle. The final movement, which gives the work its title, did fit the design. Peter Hope has recalled that the last movement of the work was actually composed first, followed by the Intermezzo and the opening movement actually being composed last.

The exact date of the first performance would seem lost in the mists of time, however Peter Hope has suggested that ‘the first complete performance was by the Concert orchestra, though individual movements may have previously been played by the London Studio Players.’ This latter orchestra were a very talented group of free-lancers who were usually led by Reg Leopold. The composer recalls that the publisher, Joe Cohen, ‘would never allow a chance of a broadcast get past him alive, tended to grab any movement by the time I got to the last bar, and get a performance.’ Certainly the London Studio Players performed the Momentum Suite many times in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

The liner notes suggest that the opening movement is a ‘rustic dance’. Now this does not imply that it is based on a folk-tune or presents the listener with mental images of Morris Dancers or cows and gates. Yet there is definitely an open-air feel to this well-paced music. Melodically there is a little twist here and there that adds spice to the prevailing dance tune.
However, it is with the delicious slow movement that the heart and soul of this piece resides. It is described as an ‘intermezzo’ however any notion that this is simply a makeweight between two more important movements is not tenable. 'Intermezzos' come in all shapes and sizes: the present seems to me to be a love-song by any other name. Well-crafted, with restrained passion would be a good description. Yet there is nothing overtly sentimental or transient about this music. It is both moving and heart-easing. For me it one of the loveliest moments in Peter Hope’s music that I have (so far) heard.
The final movement, 'Momentum' which gives the suite its title. This is an impressive piece of musical writing that manages to cram a vast amount of material into its short duration. The pace of the music increases as the work is propelled towards the conclusion. There one or two short respites where the composer relaxes a little, but the main over-arching drive of the piece is maintained right up to the end. The last few bars seem to nod back to the opening of the ‘Rustic’ Dance at the start of the work.

There has been little critical discussion of this Suite in the musical press, however the Naxos recording did elicit a fair few positive reviews. The Gramophone Magazine notes that this work was ‘lively and tuneful’ and Classical Net notes that ‘all three movements conjure up, if not English folk tunes, then at least their flavour.’

The entire suite does have the feel of film music about it – at least as a score for a light-hearted romantic comedy from the nineteen-fifties. This is no criticism. As a fine piece of light music it has surely stood the test of time. It is just a pity that for some 40 or 50 years this genre has had a bad press. It is only in the last decade that listeners have rediscovered this interesting and often extremely well-wrought corpus of music.

The score is available from Weinberger’s publishers for hire.
An excellent recording of the Momentum Suite appeared on the Naxos Label (8.555070) in 2002 with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by David Lloyd Jones. Other work on this CD included music by Frank Bridge, Adam Carse, Gustav Holst and Paul Lewis. Interestingly the composer told me that the Momentum Suite was recorded on November 2nd 2000, the day he was 60! The music has been uploaded YouTube.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased to have this wonderful music in the outstanding recording and performance on Naxos by The English Sinfonia. David Lloyd Jones.