Saturday, 4 August 2012

Thomas Dunhill: In the Chimney Corner for pianoforte

In my last post (at least for a wee while) about Thomas Dunhill I want to study one of his admirable piano pieces for educational purposes.
Many years ago I found a copy of Thomas Dunhill’s In the Chimney Corner in a second-hand bookshop. It is a work that will hardly find mention in any learned tome discussing pianoforte repertoire. In fact, it is not even mentioned in the list of works recently published in Paul Vincent’ admirable new website dedicated to the composer’s life and music. Nevertheless, this collection of ‘four short pieces for pianoforte’ is an excellent example of Dunhill’s workmanship and imagination.
In the Chimney Corner was published in 1929 by Keith Prowse and Co. Limited, London, priced 2/- (10p). However, the pieces would appear to have been composed a few years earlier. The lovely third movement is dated ‘Christmas Day, 1927’ in the score.  Until more of the composer’s diaries are published online it is probably not possible to understand if this work was conceived as a suite or whether it was assembled out a number of previously written pieces. Whatever the compositional history, the resultant work is well-balanced and stylistically unified. There are four movements, each with a poetic title.

The sheet music cover indicates exactly the kind of ‘chimney corner’ that the composer had in mind. I guess that even in the 1920s their kind was few and far between. However, it is conventionally the portrait of a place where stories were told, usually on a wild, cold winter’s night. Interestingly, the title page shows a small pencil sketch of the outside of a cottage with the smoke rising vertically – so at least it was a still winter’s night.

 The first piece is entitled ‘A Fireside Story’. This is a crisp little number that is virtually through-written without any repeats and limited restatement of themes. This is exactly as a story should be. Throughout the thirty-three bars there is some allusion to previous material with only a handful of bars identically restated. The key is F major, although there are a couple of modulations to the dominant and to the subdominant. Playing requires a gentle legato with some neat staccato chords. However, the knack to performing this piece is to try to maintain a sense of variety and changes in mood.
The second piece is ‘A Dance Memory’. Interestingly, this is a folk dance in 6/8 time rather than a more obvious ‘remembered waltz’. The form of this little dance is unusual. After an opening eight bars in G major the second section is largely in d minor. This is repeated and is then followed by a coda with only the barest of references to the opening theme. The piece is played ‘allegro molto’ and calls for clear phrasing and precise placing of the accompaniment chords.
Perhaps the heart of the suite is the simple but poignant ‘In the Day’s Dusk End. This is signed to be played ‘andante espressivo’ and is actually quite involved technically. Certainly the pianist will have to examine the phrasing which is almost contrapuntal in places without there ever being any suggestion of canon of fugetta. The piece is written in D minor and modulates to G minor.
The final tale told in the ‘Chimney Corner’ is ‘The Shepherd of Dreams’. What these ‘dreams’ are I am not sure, however there is a lilting 6/8 maintained throughout the piece. It is ostensibly composed in A major, with a transition to the tonic minor in the middle section. However the harmonic structure is surprisingly varied –with the median chord being used to good effect. A number of major seventh chords add to the pastoral mood. This is both the longest and the technically most difficult piece in the suite.  

In a Chimney Corner is hardly likely to be heard these days. It is simply one of a vast array of music that was written for didactic purposes. However, the added that value that Dunhill brings to this music is the imagination and the interest. The Musical Times suggested that this work is ‘an admirably designed suite of four movements [sutable for the] Lower Grade. I guess that this is about Grade 3 in the Associated Board standard. 

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