Saturday, 22 October 2011

Sir Granville Bantock: Overture to a Greek Tragedy: Oedipus at Colonus

Sir Granville Bantock perhaps suffers from a surfeit of composition. His ‘works list’ in an earlier edition of Groves extends to some 10 pages of close written text. As one critic says about the composer- “he suffers from post-Wagnerian elephantitis and lack of self criticism.” Whether this is a fair analysis is for others to decide. I personally feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and intellectual reach of Bantock’s music: I know I will never find the time nor the inclination to do justice to more than a fraction. Yet there are plenty of works that just demand the listeners attention.

The composer had a taste for the exotic –or perhaps it is fairer to say the pseudo-exotic. His devotion to the ‘Orient’ for example is derived through the works of Fitzgerald and Southey. His ‘Scottish’ phase resulted in a now unheard opera The Seal Woman with libretto written by Margery Kennedy Fraser. Of course, all British music enthusiasts know the fine Hebridean Symphony. Then there was a flirtation with Dante, Browning, Shelley and a host of others. Last but not least there was his deep interest in the Greek tragedians, including Sophocles.

The present ‘overture’ was written in 1911 and was published in 1912. It is hardly a mere overture – but is in fact a major tone poem. Now a brief look at Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus reveals a somewhat formless play that lacks a major plot. However the passing of the king is of great and sublime beauty. The Overture is really a meditation on this passing and the blessing of the site of his death. Much as I like Sophocles, I cannot help feeling that I would rather listen to this great music ‘absolutely’ than have images of Anthony Quayle and Juliet Stevenson from the 1986 TV performance of the play floating round my mind…

The reviewer in the Musical Times gives a fair account of the work's premiere at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1911.

"A new 'Overture to a Greek Tragedy,' by Granville Bantock, was a very important novelty. The tragedy shadowed in the overture is stated to be that of Oedipus at Colonos (Sophocles), but no detailed clue to the music was afforded by the composer. The work as music is generally ominous, austere and, as befits its theme,suggestive of fearful and solemn thoughts. The climaxes are so full of strenuous sound, that it is difficult, at least for ordinary listeners, to resolve them into music; but one feels that they represent a mood.Probably their keenness was over-accentuated at Worcester by the acoustic properties of the small hall. Orchestration of this powerful kind demands a more appropriate arena. The themes are undoubtedly striking, and they are employed with skill. The Coda is a fine one, and the whole work exhibits a consistency of style and treatment that binds it into a unity.Doubtless it will be heard at many of our coming orchestral concerts." The Musical Times 1 October 1911.

Surely the last sentence was over-optimistic for our times. At least this work is available on two CDs Lyrita SRCD269 and Hyperion CDA67395 and the boxed set of Bantock's music Hyperion CDS4481-6

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