Sunday, 26 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 4 – first Provincial performance (Gloucester)

by Estella Canziani
I have transcribed the long, unsigned review from the Gloucester Saturday Journal, of the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society Annual Concert held on 6 March 1919. This included the first ‘provincial’ performance of Howells’ Puck’s Minuet.

The Gloucestershire Orchestral Society gave its annual concert at the Shire Hall, Gloucester, on Thursday afternoon, [1] when, having regard to the Society’s well-established reputation and the attractiveness of the programme, it was not surprising to find that a large audience had assembled.  To hear a Beethoven Symphony, and that the No.5 in C minor, were almost ‘Paradise enow.’ But there was other matter -Saint-Saëns Symphonic Poem, ‘Danse Macabre,’ Herbert Howells’  new composition, ‘Puck’s Minuet’ songs by Miss Megan Forster, [2] and a violin solo by Mr. W.H. Reed. [3]
For Gloucestershire stay-at-homes the opportunities of hearing a symphony are few and far between. Even at the last Three Choirs’ Festival in those pre-historic days before the war, the programme contained no more than two, if memory serves; which is small number enough when one thinks of the possibilities which the presence of a festival band offers – but the claims of ‘church music’ have to be considered. Here, then, the Orchestral Society steps in for our education and entertainment. It is not necessary at this time of day to dilate upon the beauty of the Beethoven Symphony, with which Thursday’s concert opened – especially of the first two movements. The richness with which the master elaborated the comparatively few and simple themes is remarkable, yet all is so clear and expressive; and if we did not derive quite such solid satisfaction from the third movement it may be that the performance was not of equal merit throughout owing to its greater technical difficulties.  But, as a whole, the rendering was a thoroughly praiseworthy one, and the vigilant direction of Dr. A. Herbert Brewer [4] here, and indeed elsewhere during the afternoon, secured the best effects from the forces under his command.
Mr. Herbert Howells is a local composer, who already has considerable achievement to his credit, and of whom a good deal more will be heard in the near future, probably. His ‘Puck’s Minuet’ for small orchestra, which has now received its first local performance, was ‘tried out’ by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall on Tuesday; and it not only pleased the Metropolitan audience so greatly that it had to be repeated, but it also won high approval from the ‘fit and few’ who sat in the seats, we will not sat of the scornful, but of the London Press representatives.
[A number of London reviews are assessed, which have been given in an earlier post]

In these days there is a feeling that British composers should be given a greater chance than they have had in the past; but Mr. Howells must be esteemed fortunate in having captured the London ear twice within a few days, as he has, first with his violin sonata [5] and now with the composition under notice. For ourselves, we can only say that we think the verdict which we have quoted is a correct and deserved one, and that the London critics have not over-rated the merits of the piece.
It was written, we learn from the programme, in October, 1917, and was designed expressly for this Society. It is a faëry fantasy which conjures up the mischievous, merry wanderer of the night and his gossamer-winged attendants, and in dimensions so trifling that it is gone like a midsummer night’s dream; it is all over in much less time than it took Puck to put a girdle round the earth – to be exact within four minutes by the clock. The listener is invited to form his own picture of the imaginary scene which the music represents, and it brought to mind that popular picture ‘A Piper of Dreams’ [6] in which a boy sits amid sylvan surroundings absorbed in the music he is making with his pipe and apparently unconscious of the elves which flit around him, and the ‘wee timorous beasties’ [7] which have been charmed from their accustomed haunts by the Orpheus-like strains. The applause which greeted the original and graceful trifle was genuine. The composer, who occupied a seat amongst the audience, was called to the platform to bow his acknowledgements and shook hands with the conductor and leader of the orchestra. Dr. Brewer said he was sure the audience would like to have the piece repeated. So we heard it again, and liked it eve better the second time.
Before and after the new orchestral piece came songs from Miss Megan Foster; pretty songs, prettily sung – and acted may we say?  The young vocalist – a daughter as one could see of that favourite baritone vocalist, Mr. Ivor Foster – has a delightfully fresh and pure soprano voice and beautifully clear enunciation.
The songs were ‘Se tu m’ami’ (Pergolesi), ‘Le Violette’ (Scarlatti), ‘Sing Away’ (A. Herbert Brewer), ‘A Fairy went a-marketing’ (A.M. Goodhart), and two Irish folk songs ‘I will walk in my love’  and ‘I know where I’m goin’’ (arranged by Herbert Hughes); and as an encore, the extremely clever rendering of Teresa del Riego’s [8] ‘Shadow March’, and ‘Chanton les amours de Jean’ from a book by Weckerlin of XVIIIth century Bergerettes. [9]
As his violin solo Mr. W.H. Reed selected ‘Habanera’ (Saraste) probably written by the Spanish virtuoso to display his own mastery of his instrument. The popular leader and instructor of the Society made light work of any difficulties which the composition possesses and, in response to the enthusiastic demand for more, and Dr. Brewer’s request, added his own ‘Slumber Song’, which was heard with no less acceptance.
The Society put on an excellent finale to an afternoon’s fine work with Saint-Saëns’ Symphonic Poem, ‘Danse Macabre,’ an ingenious and interesting composition, eloquent of the gruesome subject which inspired it – ‘Death plays at midnight a dance for his pleasure.’ Death ends all things; and so ended a wholly delightful concert-an hour and a half’s unalloyed pleasure.
The Gloucester Saturday Journal 8 March, 1919

[1] The annual concert of the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society was held on Thursday 6 March 1919. 
[2] Megan Foster was born in 1898, the daughter of the baritone and teacher, Ivor Foster (1870-1959). She was a highly regarded soprano. She died in 1987.
[3] William Henry Reed (1876-1942) was an English conductor, violinist and composer.  Best known for his book on Sir Edward Elgar: Elgar as I Knew Him (1936). Reed composed much music, including a Symphony for strings, a Violin Concerto, five string quartets and much else.
[4] Sir Herbert Brewer was born in Gloucester in 1865. He was an organist, conductor and composer.  After beginning life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral he held posts in the organ loft of churches in Gloucester, Oxford, Coventry and then Bristol Cathedral.  In 1896 he became organist at Gloucester Cathedral. Later, he conducted the Three Choirs Festival when in that city. He was also director of music at the Gloucester Orchestral Society. Brewer’s musical output included cantatas, oratorios, anthems, organ music, a few piano solos and lighter music for choral societies and orchestras. He was knighted in 1926 and died two years later in the city of his birth.
[5] The work referred to is the Violin Sonata No.2 in E flat major op.26 which was composed around 1907. It is in three movements: 1. Allegro moderato, 2. Quasi lento and 3. Lento-Allegro moderato. It was first performed at the Wigmore Hall, London on 17 February 1919 with Sybil Eaton (violin) and Harold Samuel. The work was subsequently discarded Howells. However it was recorded on Hyperion in 1993.  
[6] ‘A Piper of Dreams’ was a well-regarded painting by Estella (Louisa Michaela) Canziani (1887-1964), a British portrait and landscape painter, an interior decorator and a travel writer and folklorist.
[7] ‘Wee timorous beasties’ was presumably a mis-quotation from Robert Burns well-known poem To a Mouse ‘Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie!’
 [8] Teresa Clotilde del Riego, later Teresa Leadbitter (1876-1968) was an English violinist, pianist, singer and composer of Spanish ancestry. The song ‘Shadow March’ was a setting of a text by Robert Louis Stevenson from his A Child’s Garden of Verses.
[9] The  ‘Bergerettes’, which were ‘rustic’ songs of a shepherdess dating from the 18th century  were ‘arranged’ by J.B. Weckerlin (1821-1910) and were published in 1913.


Mathias Richter said...

Thank you, John, for these Howells blogs. He has been a long favourite of mine. I wonder why Chandos omitted the two Op. 20 pieces in the 1990s.
May I ask for your source of Megan Foster's year of birth? Several websites state she was born in 1898. Otherwise she would have been a child at the time of the Gloucester concert.

John France said...

Mathias...It was a 'drop off' I must have mis-typed as I have her obit from The Times in my files. She was born in 1898! At Tonypandy, Wales. Thanks for that...J