Sunday, 11 March 2012

Captions (Five Glimpses of an Anonymous Theme): A long-forgotten multi-composer work

I recently came across a programme-note for a little orchestral work that has fascinated me: in fact, I had never heard of the piece. Captions (Being Five Glimpses of an Anonymous Theme) was composed by five British composers:-
  1. ‘Twone, the House of Felicity’ (Moderato) Arthur Bliss
  2. ‘The Lonely Dancer of Gedar’ (Andante grazioso  Herbert Bedford
  3. ‘The Strange Case of Mr. X’ (Molto ritmico) Eugene Goossens
  4. ‘Lament for a Long-Cherished Illusion' (Adagio) Felix White
  5. ‘Valsette Ignoble’ (Allegro) Gerrard Williams

Now, I have not had an opportunity to investigate the ‘reception history’ of this piece in the newspapers and musical journals. Nor have I looked at the Bliss catalogue and source-book. Information about the other four gentlemen is sparse. However, there is a footnote in Goossens excellent autobiography Overture and Beginners (London, 1951/R). We do know that the piece was first performed at the Bournemouth Winter Series on Thursday, 23rd April 1925 at 3p.m. Either Adrian Boult or Dan Godfrey conducted. The work had its first performance at one of the chamber concerts given by Goossens in London in 1923.
The programme-note (which I quote in full) by Hamilton Law suggests that the work ‘partakes somewhat of the character of a musical jeu d’esprit. The theme is in three parts, and each of the composers concerned in the making of the Suite was given a free hand to invert the order of either of the parts, if desired, and also to vary the keys. Furthermore, the five composers were at liberty to handle the theme in any way they chose, adapting it to meet the ends they severally had in view. 

The fact that the theme led them into entirely different ways of thought and of elucidation is clearly apparent by the titles of the movements; these have no relationship to each other, notwithstanding the permeation of each movement by the theme that is common to them all. It was, too, only after completion of the entire Suite that the order of the movements was settled, this question being decided by the need of arranging the various sections into a shapely whole.
It is probable, therefore, that the composition affords us a kind of manifestation of the psychology and characteristics of the composers who are grouped together in this collective work.  Whether we accept this view or not, it is at least certain that the opening movement emphatically reveals the brisk buoyancy which always distinguishes Arthur Bliss. In the following movement Herbert Bedford moulds the thematic material into an oriental dance, a sense of mystery mingling with the inherent charm of the music. In the third movement Eugene Goossens presents us with a musical paradox, drollery and quizzical humour prevailing. Felix White, in the succeeding movement, has conceived the subject from an entirely different angle, his version of it being couched in the deepest melancholy. Finally a merrier mood is regained with the gay and frivolous ‘Valsette Ignoble’ by Gerrard Williams’.  Hamilton Law 1925

I will look forward to investigating the genesis and reception of this piece in a little more detail. However, I guess that the score is highly likely to have vanished without trace –although there is a copy of the holograph of Bliss’s ‘caption’ in the British Library. Meanwhile, one can reflect on what this interesting, if somewhat ephemeral work may sound like. Something tells me that it may be just a little bit unbalanced between the parts.  Finally although two of the composers are largely ‘household names’ – at least amongst British Music enthusiasts- the other three are largely forgotten. So, a few words on Messrs. White, Bedford and Williams may be of interest.  

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