I am surprised that the recent Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7295) recording of Theodore Holland’s Ellingham Marshes for viola and orchestra does not appear to have received any major reviews: even MusicWeb International has not [yet] published anything about this piece. The only notice I can find is from on the Music Review International webpage. It notes ‘the first recording of Holland’s c.1940 work, a 16-minute exercise in English pastoral impressionism, inspired by the misty, dreamy atmosphere of the Suffolk marshes, punctuated by a central sunny period’
What is known about this music? Any information about this piece derives from Graham Parlett’s excellent programme note in the Dutton Epoch recording of this work. Ellingham Marshes was composed during the first year of the Second World War and was given its first performance at the Henry Wood Promenade Concert at the Queen’s Hall on 15 August 1940. The solo part was given by the violinist/violist Winifred Copperwheat (1905-1977) with Sir Henry Wood conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. A radio broadcast of the piece was made on 7 April 1941 with the same soloist but with the BBC Orchestra (Section A) under Clarence Raybould. Interestingly, in spite of the austerity of wartime, a facsimile of the score was published by Hinrichsen Edition in 1941.
The first performance of Ellingham Marshes was part of a rather mixed bag of music. The concert began with Edward Elgar’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537 and then progressed through a variety of seemingly unrelated pieces, including three numbers from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, an arrangement by Henry Wood of Handel’s aria ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ from Act 3 of Sampson. The first half concluded with Benno Moiseiwitsch’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Concerto for Piano No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Holland’s work opened the second half of this programme and was followed by an aria from La Boheme, Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan, Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. The final orchestral piece was the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. However before this there were a number of songs by Ivor Atkins, Hubert Parry, Dvorak and Maude Valerie White. It must have been quite a long evening.
Edwin Evans wrote a brief programme note for the first performance, in conjunction with the composer: - ‘The work is the outcome of a sketching holiday in East Anglia. The composer describes it as an attempt to paint a picture of the dreamy and wistful atmosphere of the Suffolk marshes in their changing moods. It opens with the early morning mists which envelop the river and the marshy landscape. These disperse to reveal a lovely sunny day. But gradually the scene fades back in the misty atmosphere as evening falls. There are three cadenzas for solo viola. Two of them are short, but the third which is muted, is more extended, and leads to the coda, in which the mood of the opening is resumed.’
The Times (August 16 1940) reviewer noted that Mr. Theodore Holland is best known for his role as the chairman of the executive committee of the Royal Philharmonic Society and as a distinguished professor of the Royal Academy of Music. Mention is made of Holland’s work as an amateur water-colour artist which has ‘a wistful charm.’ He suggests that the present work might have been called ‘a musical water-colour of Ellingham Marshes in Suffolk.’ He notes that the piece ‘begins and ends in mist with more than a gleam of sunshine by the way. He concludes by describing the work as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘impressionistic’ which was sympathetically played by Miss Copperwheat...’
Few other newspaper reviews exist for Ellingham Marshes; however, the Western Morning News notes the work’s ‘meditative character’ but seemed disappointed that it had no ‘great depths.’
The most extensive discussion was by William McNaught (1883–1953) in the September 1940 edition of the Musical Times it is worth quoting in full:
'Concerts calling for special notice were rare during the first three weeks, most of the novelties of the season being crowded into September. The only first performance of the period was Theodore Holland’s Ellingham Marshes on August 15. Mr. Holland is well known to the Philharmonic audience as one of the councillors of the Society; here he reasserts himself as a composer, for it is not his first appearance in that capacity. His voice is gentle and persuasive. This poem for viola and orchestra is a daydream from loneliest Suffolk. Restful thoughts drift through the score, setting up an atmosphere that might have been unduly disturbed by the presence of overt, sharp-edged themes; some will think, however, that the composer has been remiss rather than fastidious in avoiding them. Mr. Holland is more concerned with suggestion than with statement, with the result that the meaning of his music penetrates slowly, and it is only after it has passed that you discover how much it has had to convey. Not all of the work is serene. There are passages of tension and urgency, but they are not foreign to the air of reverie, and it is to a musical intensity that they rise. Mr. Holland speaks in refined and sometimes close-wrought musical terms by which we know him for a sensitive, if not very operative, artist. A fiddler himself, he has written a shapely and finely-articulated viola part. It was exquisitely played by Miss Winifred Copperwheat.’
I look forward to hearing a greater discussion of this piece in the coming weeks and months. Theodore Holland is currently represented by only two works in the CD catalogues – the present ‘Marshes’ and the fine Suite in D for viola and piano. This latter work is available on Naxos 8572761 and 8572579.