Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Granville Bantock: The Witch of Atlas

The Witch of Atlas (Tone Poem No.5) has been one of my favourite Granville Bantock tone poems – since first hearing it on Hyperion. I recently found this review of the work’s full-score in the Musical Times and feel that it is well worth quoting. It is hard to imagine how such a wonderfully beautiful work can be virtually ignored by the world of classical music.
The Witch of Atlas was first performed at Worcester during the Three Choirs Festival in 10 September 1902.
The work can be heard on YouTube.

“Mr. Bantock is one of the most industrious of composers. His facility seems remarkable even in these days of technique run riot. The work under notice is programme music of the most pronounced type, the full score which lies before us containing long quotations from Shelley's poem. The music must consequently be judged as programme music pure and simple, and no other standard should be applied.
It is essentially one of those modern works in which beautiful orchestration ‘per se’ must be regarded as a valuable asset. It is here carried to such a pitch of perfection, the orchestral colour is so beautiful in itself and so successful in its suggestion of poetical ideas, that it can be enjoyed on its own account and defended as an end in itself, instead of merely a means to an end.
Shelley’s poem presents a composer with a 'programme' after Mr. Bantock's own heart. Such lines as-
'Tis said she first was changed into a vapour,
And then into a cloud, such clouds as flit,
Like splendour-winged moths about a taper,
Round the red West when the sun dies in it...
...call for, and at the hands of our composer receive, very delicate and fanciful treatment. Sustained pp chords for trumpets, trombones, and tuba (all muted), soft harp arpeggios, persistent, fluttering little string figures pp above gently-sustained melodic phrases for oboe, horn, solo violin, and solo viola, produce a piece of exquisite colour and poetic suggestiveness. In great contrast to this delicate conception stands the Marziale con anima illustrating
the words:-
And then she called out of the hollow turrets
Of those high clouds, white, golden and vermilion,
The armies of her ministering spirits--
In mighty legions, million after million.
Here the composer produces sonorous effects, such as Liszt and Tschaikovsky loved. We have the same reiteration and sequential treatment of one-bar phrases, the same rushing chromatic scale passages in tutti strings, or tutti wood-wind, the same rhythmical energy which may mean a great deal or nothing at all, according to the listener's views on programme music. Fortunately Mr. Bantock is not without a keenly-developed sense of beauty, and though in this symphonic poem his colour-sense is more markedly in evidence than that of thematic beauty, we do not mean to imply that the work is all colour, et praeterea nihil [and nothing more]. A long-drawn melody of considerable beauty is developed at some length in the section describing how Old Silenus is 'teased' by Driope and Faunus to 'sing them something new,' and how they
...found the lady lone,
Sitting upon a seat of emerald stone.
Then again, at the words (we must use the terms generally applicable to a choral work) ‘For she was beautiful: her beauty made the bright world dim,' etc., we meet with much that charms and interests, both melodically and harmonically, apart from all considerations of orchestral colour. Taken as a whole the work is a notable effort in a direction towards which modern music seems to trend, and conductors who appreciate a poetic and convincing musical interpretation of a beautiful poem, and a masterpiece of orchestral scoring, may be recommended to give Mr. Bantock's work a hearing.'

The Musical Times 1 February 1904 (with minor edits)

1 comment:

Ralph Spurrier said...

Hello John,

Perhaps, one of these fine days, you will have the time to highlight Bantock's "Sappho" which has a stunning recording with Vernon Handley conducting. I came across it quite by chance about 5 years ago and was astonished by the superb quality of the music - Bantock really hadn't been on my radar - and I just wish it had more airiings on Radio 3 (even just oen or two of the songs).
Many thanks for your continued ploughing in the fields of British music. Much appreciated.