Monday, 7 January 2013

Michael Allis: British Music and Literary Context: Artistic Connections in the Long Nineteenth Century


by Michael Allis, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge
ISBN: 9781843837305
£60.00 Hardcover

The basic ‘thesis’ of this book is a refutation of the impression that British composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century lacked literary credentials.  I must admit that it is not something that I had ever considered a problem. For example, even the briefest of studies of the dozen or so volumes of Hubert Parry’s English Lyrics reveal a wide-ranging literary taste that is invariably expressed in an appropriate musical setting. To be fair, Delius joked about Parry’s propensity for setting biblical text, however Blake, Milton, Shelley and Tennyson are all grist to his mill. Exactly the same observation can be made about Charles Villiers Stanford. So, I approached this book with a little scepticism. Was Michael Allis about to tell me something that I already knew – that these composers were well-read, had wide connections with the great and good in the literary world and had a considerable appreciation of English literature – old and new? Fortunately, there is much more to the argument than that.

In recent years, there has been a small but important increase in the number of books, theses and reviews of nineteenth-century British Music.  A review is not a bibliography: however, I cannot resist mentioning a few highlights. Pride of place must go to Professor Jeremy Dibble’s important studies of the life and music of Stanford, Parry and John Stainer. Other Parry volumes include Bernard Benoliel’s Parry Before Jerusalem and Anthony Boden’s The Parry’s of Golden Vale. At about the same time as Dibble’s book on Stanford appeared, Paul Rodmell issued an important study of that composer. Elgar has never been short of enthusiastic supporters and books ranging from comprehensive biographies such as that by Jerrold Northrop Moore to monographs like J. P. E. Harper-Scott’s Edward Elgar: Modernist. Additionally, several important volumes of collected essays have been produced by Ashgate Publishing.
The only exception to this explosion of interest appears to be Granville Bantock. To my knowledge, there is only Myrrha Bantock’s ‘Personal Portrait’ and the 1915 study by H. Orsmond Anderton. There is also a thesis by Matthew Louis Kickalsola entitled Granville Bantock and the Choral Imagination.  However, I have heard rumours that a major study of Bantock’s music is currently in preparation.

I do wonder exactly who this monograph British Music and Literary Context is aimed at. On the one hand, it is hardly likely to be read by the ‘average’ music lover –and that is not being superior: it is a fact.  This is a book written by an academic for academics. On the other hand, that is not to suggest that this book is impenetrable or beyond the grasp of the musically savvy reader.  However, I do think that as this is a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject, an understanding of music and literary theory is required. I certainly found that some of the ‘lit-crit’ parts of the book were ‘beyond my ken’ and needed re-reading and having Google close at hand.

The most important thing to remember about approaching this text is to ‘read the introduction’. It defines the approach that the reader should take as well as giving an ‘abstract’ of each of the chapters. Michael Allis suggests that this book can be read in any order.  However, he insists that the principle argument is twofold. Firstly it explores ‘a new assurance with which a generation of British composers refigured poetry and literature in their works.’ This can be explored by examining ‘straight forward musical settings’ or ‘representations’.  The former being where the composer sets a text for singers and the latter where he uses a text as inspiration  for an instrumental composition.  The second ‘aim’ of this book is ‘to offer suggestions (strategies) as to how modern audiences might interpret or appreciate the music-literature connection presented in these chapters’.
The author suggests that a useful approach is to ‘take a literary perspective as a ‘way in’ to appreciating selected late nineteenth-century British composers and their music’. Allis has decided to look at different facets of this relationship.

Firstly, he has considered the collaboration between poet and composer - in this case the poet laureate Robert Bridges and Hubert Parry. Bridges (1844-1930) is a poet who is largely forgotten today, however according to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Literature he ‘represents an independent and profound engagement with both the literary tradition and the ideas and innovations of his age.’ He is now best-remembered as being a friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  In 1895 Bridges and Parry collaborated in writing the cantata Invocation to Music and some three years later in A Song of Darkness and Light.  Michael Allis explores this relationship between author and composer in considerable detail and emphasises the poet’s frustration with Parry’s approach to the setting of the texts.

The following chapter examines the ‘sustained musical promotion’ of a literary figure by Charles Villiers Stanford, in this case Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I was certainly astonished at the number of works that were based on this poet’s works and imagery, which occurred throughout the composer’s lifetime. These include incidental music, motets, solo songs, part-songs and a symphony (No.2 ‘The Elegiac’).  Four facets of these works are explored: the ‘heroic, the covert Irish connections, the deeper thought of In Memoriam and finally some of Tennyson’s late poetry.

Perhaps more challengingly, Allis has studied Granville Bantock’s attempt at ‘refiguring in music’ a collection of poetic texts by Robert Browning. This is especially the case with the great symphonic work Fifine at the Fair which the author carefully maps between text and music.  He concludes this chapter by suggesting that Fifine can be ‘interpreted as a closer reading of the poem...particularly in the context of his [Bantock’s] interest in the musical potential of the dramatic monologue.’ This is a long, complex chapter of musical and literary analysis that I will need to study again in conjunction with the CD recording by either Beecham or Handley.

Finally, Edward Elgar has two perspectives devoted to him. Firstly there is ‘a hidden’ narrative where musical plot and imagery parallel a literary source and secondly the great Overture: In the South is examined from a ‘travelogue’ perspective.
I have always imagined Elgar’s Piano Quintet as a piece of music largely influenced by the peaceful surroundings of Brinkwells in Sussex in the summer of 1918. Other works composed at this time included the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet. They were the only three major chamber works written by the composer.  However, Lady Elgar’s hints that there was a programmatic element to the Quintet – it apparently ‘represented’ a group of trees near Brinkwells. According to a local legend these trees were the ‘remains’ of Spanish monks accused of ‘sacrilegious ceremonies’ struck by lightening. However, Allis notes that another diary entry suggests that ‘[Edward Bulwer] Lytton’s ‘Strange Story’ seems to sound through it too.’ The author presents a ‘close reading’ of the novel and the music and highlights the parallels such as the musical device of a recurring chant-like motive and the ‘juxtapositon of the musical ‘other’ and the salon [to mirror] the two strange worlds of A Strange Story.’ It is a process which is fascinating, even if it does not quite make me hear Elgar’s Quintet in an entirely new light.

I want to look at this last chapter in a little more detail and briefly explore how the author has approached this great work by Elgar.  The first section examines the ‘composition’ history –at least as far as the historical facts go. In November 1903, Elgar journeyed to Italy with his wife and was later joined by his daughter Carice and friend Rosa Burley. Elgar’s intention was to use this ‘warmer climate’ to work on his symphonic project for the forthcoming Elgar Festival at Covent Garden, which was to be held in March 1904. Allis notes that this project ‘foundered’.  The Overture: In the South was largely sketched out in Alassio and was duly completed in England.  The author then considers the Overture’s reception. Two main arguments seem to dominate the musical criticism of this piece. Firstly, there is a debate as to whether the work was an overture or a tone poem. This was argued from a structural point of view. Secondly, there was the relationship between this Overture and the music of Richard Strauss – especially Don Juan or Don Quixote.
Michael Allis then considers the work’s structure – using both a ‘Tovey-ian’ analysis as well as Elgar’s own numbering of the themes. Extensive quotation is made of the composer’s literary commentary on the work. Musical examples illustrating this commentary are liberally printed.
A fascinating study of ‘Imaginative Topography’ ensues where the author gives a concise review of Victorian and Edwardian travel literature – particularly pertaining to Italy. Important to this study are the strategies ‘used to communicate the nature of foreign landscape to the reader.’  This is identified as ‘imaginative topography’ by Chloe Chard. These literary parallels are then used to analyse the ‘musical context’ of Elgar’s Overture and ‘help us appreciate the composer’s striking approach to narrative from a number of perspectives.’
These strategies include ‘Motivation’ and ‘Title’. This looked at what the author was trying to ‘capture’ in his text. Was it, for example, ‘youthful enthusiasm of the Classical world?’ Titles of travelogues were also important – Allis lists a number of  titles such as ‘Sketches, Notes, Dairies, Gleanings, Impressions, Pictures, Narratives, Leaves from a Journal, Tours, Visits, Wanderings, Residences, Rambles and Travels. I was amazed at just how many of these descriptive’ words used in travel literature title have also found their way into the works of composers –especially piano music from the first half of the 20th centiry.
Further refinements of the travelogue are considered including the need for authors to assert their individuality, especially when following in the footsteps of another writer, a desire to push away from the beaten track, the balance between presenting an ‘otherness’ or attempting to show that the places described are ‘different’ to the readers usual points of reference. On the other hand, a writer may use his own country as a point of reference in describing his experience of travel. Travel writers will balance a sense of the past and present – possibly presented as a dream sequence.  Finally, there are references to scenic structure. The travelogue can be presented a series of scenes.
Michael Allis concludes this study of ‘strategies’ by suggesting that a literary perspective helps to identify a number of elements which mirror strategies in travel literature and which a purely musical approach might overlook.  He suggests that ‘In the South represents Elgar’s most focused and extended account of the travel experience. Never again did he [Elgar] incorporate the foreign landscape quite so vividly within a musical setting.’

I was disappointed that no brief note about the author was included: I had to access the Leeds University webpage to find out about him. Dr. Michael Allis is a Senior Lecturer in Historical Musicology. He has contributed to the field of music and literature including a significant monograph about ‘Parry’s Creative Process’.  In 2004, he wrote an essay for Music & Letters entitled 'Elgar, Lytton, and the Piano Quintet, op.84' –this argument has been incorporated into the present book.   

Throughout this volume, there are many musical illustrations, tables and figures. For example, there are some eighteen quotations from Elgar’s Piano Quintet and many more from compositions by Stanford and Bantock.  Some of the tables provided are most helpful –for example the list of works by Stanford with ‘Tennysonian associations’: I was amazed to find twenty works listed- from the great ‘Elegiac’ Symphony down to a setting of ‘Jack Tar’ for voice and piano.  The same can be said of Granville Bantock – there are literally dozens of pieces of varying genres that were inspired by Browning.  A number of structural overviews will assist the reader in approaching Fifine at the Fair, Elgar’s Quintet and his Overture: In the South.
The book is printed on quality paper, although on my copy a little bit of ‘warping’ seemed to have taken place. My age and my eyes protest a little at the size of the print - just a wee bit too small for me. Furthermore, many quotations in the text are in an even smaller font. The same applies to the footnotes and their references.
Whilst on the subject of footnotes, it is fair to say that the book is a little overburdened with them. For example in the 50 pages devoted to Parry and Bridges, there are 128 examples!
This is not the place to enter into the argument for endnotes, footnotes (or both), however in the present volume, the sheer ‘weight’ of footnotes tends to make the pages look cluttered.  I believe that the expansions of the text along with the citations should have been placed as endnotes with only clarifications in the footnotes. However, contrariwise, bearing in mind the huge number of notes, I am glad that I do not have to flick constantly to the back of the book (or chapter) to keep abreast of the argument, which requires 100% attention to read and digest. Therefore, it is an open question...
There is a massive ‘select’ bibliography: nearly seventeen close written pages of books the author has consulted. Additionally many references to ‘primary sources, unsigned articles and additional literary and musical criticism in the periodical literature’ are referred to in the text/footnotes.  The indices are extensive with special emphasis on the many musical works discussed or alluded to.

This is an expensive book. £60.00 is a lot of money even by today’s standards.  However, as the cliché goes ‘research is not cheap.’  This is a book for the specialist: furthermore, the areas of specialisms are wide. Any reader will have to be familiar with both musicology and literary criticism. As noted above, this is not to say the text is opaque, or a closed book for those of us who are not academic. However, there is a density of meaning in these pages that does not allow for skimming. It is a book that needs to be ‘closely read’ and (re-read). An understanding of the arguments and an appreciation of the conclusions are hard won but ultimately both challenging and rewarding.  

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