It is always a dangerous thing to talk or write about music that one has not had the opportunity of hearing. As far as I can tell, there is no recording of Iain Hamilton’s Cantos for Orchestra in the past or present catalogues. I have not discovered a ‘live’ performance of this work, although I assume there will be one in the BBC Sound Archives or the British Library. It is possible somebody has made a private recording from the ‘wireless’: I have yet to come across it. It never ceases to amaze me how little of Hamilton’s music has appeared on CD or LP. Currently, only nine works are available with a few more items that have been deleted over the years. And Hamilton is one of the most important composers of the post-War generation.
Over the years I have heard a fair amount of Hamilton’s music, mainly through radio broadcasts. His music impresses me with its subtle balance of lyricism and musical structure. He explored a wide variety of genre – from light music such as the Scottish Dances through to more ‘avant-garde’ pieces such as Sinfonia for Two Orchestras (1958). His cycle of five symphonies demands the attention of all enthusiasts of this genre. The opera The Cataline Conspiracy (1974) deserves revival.
I have chosen to major on Cantos for orchestra simply because the work celebrates its 50th anniversary. What I have found whilst researching this work suggest that it would be viable piece for rediscovery. However, not all critics were equally keen on the music.
Cantos for Orchestra was the second of the works especially commissioned by the BBC for the 1965 Promenade Concert Season. It was completed in New York on 31 March of the previous year. The work was performed on 4 August 1965 in the Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was conducted by Norman del Mar. The soloists in this work were Douglas Moore (horn), John Fletcher (tuba), and Sidonie Goossens (harp). Other works at this concert included Beethoven’s Symphony No.8 and Piano Concerto No.3 with the soloist Geza Anda.
Cantos for Orchestra is written in five sections, each with a separate title: - 1. Parade, 2. Nocturne 1, 3. Sonata, 4. Nocturne 2, and 5, Declaration.
Ian Hamilton wrote the programme note for the first performance. The orchestra is set out as woodwind, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and strings. There are solo parts for French horn, tuba and harp. The programme notes state that Cantos ‘present not only many permutations of these instrumental groupings and soloists, but also, allied to these various rotations and re-workings of certain basic material.
Edward Greenfield gave a major review of the premiere in the Manchester Guardian (5 August 1965). He began by pointing out that Hamilton’s ‘main interest seems to be in exploiting contrasting timbres kaleidoscopically…’ and that in Cantos ‘his special achievement…is to keep the texture and with it the argument exceptionally clear.’ Greenfield was also impressed that there was not ‘the usual impression of disjointedness that follows from a pointilliste technique…[Hamilton] cleverly avoids it by the judicious use of sustained notes, so that the two Nocturnes in particular…have a beauty and emotional expressiveness that is immediately appealing.’
One criticism levelled against Cantos was the risk of allowing the ‘music to stagnate rhythmically.’ It is a problem that besets much serial music. This was especially problematic in the ‘static’ final movement, Declaration, that ‘in spite of the rhythmic ingenuities… [the audience] hardly knew when to clap.’
It is notable that Norman del Mar was called on to conduct the ‘new music’: the other works in the programme were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.
The Glasgow Herald carried a review of this work, acknowledging Hamilton’s Scottish birth. The paper’s ‘London Music Critic’ (a great job for a Scottish exile in the Capital) believed that this ‘individual work’ is ‘also a difficult one for listeners and performers.’ He brings the thought that the clue to the work’s nature is in its title: ‘aptly summing up the lyricism of the music’ which is offset against a ‘dissonant harmonic idiom.’ The reviewer felt that ‘rather surprisingly this overall high degree of harmonic attention, far from detracting from the expressiveness of the melodic lines, tends to emphasise it.’
The review concluded with considerable praise for Norman del Mar’s ‘penetrating interpretation and the superb playing of… [the] orchestra.’ The strings section called for special mention with their ‘wealth of tone and sensitive phrasing [which] showed a strong feeling for the composer’s very contemporary idiom.’
The Listener (12 August 1965) was less than complimentary to Cantos. Alan Blyth noted that the work had ‘some nicely judged effects, but any intellectual content seemed woefully lacking: playing about with harp, woodwind, and tuba in a desultory but seemingly purposeless way hardly helps to hold one’s attention.’
Harold Rutland (Music Review November 1965) felt that Hamilton’s Cantos for Orchestra were a disappointment. Hamilton ‘uses the orchestra cleverly, but it provide[d] no train of thought I was able to follow, and its lack of any coherent linear or rhythmical content made left me ready to think of Tom Thumb instead of anything that was going on at that time.’ (Strange thing to think about! Of course this is rhyming slang for a glass of rum!)