Sunday, 12 June 2011

Montague Phillips: Phantasy for Violin & Orchestra

Montague Phillips' Phantasy for Violin & Orchestra was written in 1912. In some ways it is quite hard to imagine that this work was actually played at a Promenade Concert – not because of the quality of the music, which is superb – but simply because of our association of this composer with ‘light music.’ However this work is no lightweight or trivial piece.
Sometime in 1906 William Walter Cobbett announced his first Chamber Music Prize in the Musical Times. This called for relatively short pieces of music that reflected the string writing and form of the ‘fantasies’ of Jacobean and Elizabethan music. Of course we know that over the years this competition produced a large number of works by famous and not so famous composers. It is easy to think of fine examples by the Five B’s – Bax, Bowen, Bridge, Britten and Bush for starters.
I think that the programme notes are slightly disingenuous in its description of the Phantasy. Lewis Foreman states that this music reflects a pre-war innocence- which it most certainly does – but he further notes that it lacks ‘any reflection of the angst and crisis of the times.’ In those strange years before the Great War society seemed to be oblivious to the coming conflagration. It was as if people were deliberately ignoring the terror that was about to be unleashed. But in another sense there was an ‘end of term’ feel about the times. The old order was about to crash down and people were perhaps subliminally aware of this. It was the innocence that stopped them going mad. However note that the innocence of Montague Phillips’s Phantasy is always balanced by a feeling of impending change – nostalgia for an era that was passing.
The piece opens rather darkly – in fact it is quite unlike most of the composer’s output. Suddenly the solo violin arrives with a heart-easing cadenza – quite a contrast to the first few bars. The orchestra asserts itself before giving way to another short cadenza. This leads to a slow romantic theme that is certainly the heart of the work. Without doubt there is a definite nod in the direction of Elgar. Yet through this intensity there are moments of repose and even a few bars of relaxation. The composer gives the soloist some stunningly beautiful figurations to play whilst the orchestra concentrates on the main event.
The music changes pace and becomes a little faster although the romantic theme keeps trying to reassert itself. Soon there is an intense fast section that hits a big climax complete with timpani and full brass chorus. Out of this comes a lovely song for the violinist. It has to be said that the instrumental writing is impressive and reveals an understanding of the violin and its capabilities. It is certainly not an easy solo part.
Soon there are some unusual modulations- at least for Montague Phillips - as the soloist muses on past themes. The tension eases off and the gorgeous scalar figurations mentioned above make their final appearance. Soon we are into the last reflections. The violin reprises the romantic theme – this time as a ‘high’ melody. One last outburst from the orchestra leads to lovely harmonies supporting the soloist’s last thoughts on the heart-easing tune. The work closes with due peace and repose.
This Phantasy gives us a major insight into the serious side of the composer. It lets us see what may have been the direction of his career if he had concentrated on concert music and had rejected the path of songs for the salon.
Montague Phillips' Phantasy for Violin & Orchestra can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7158

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this note first appeared.


Mathias Richter said...

John, it took me some time before I understood that you are actually writing about a piece by Montague Phillips, not Haydn Wood. Nevertheless, Mr Phillips would certainly have every reason to be proud of such sensitive criticism. I appreciate especially your insight into the psyche of an artist at the eve of the Great War.

John France said...

Thanks Mathias,
It is called doing one thing, thinking about another and being interupted by work!

All sooorted now...