Monday, 6 July 2015

Bruce Montgomery: Scottish Aubade

A number of years ago I bought a DVD of three British Transport Films showcasing the Scottish Highlands (Yesterday’s Britain, Delta 82963). The earliest film was The Heart is Highland (1951) which featured a tour of communities between Inverness and Kinloch Rannoch. The film introduces the viewer to a local gamekeeper, the district nurse and a newspaper editor. Visits are made to a clan gathering, a ski resort and some Highland castles. The music to this film was provided by the Scottish composer Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-1983).
The second film on the DVD, Wild Highlands (1959) explored the beautiful Ardnamurchan peninsula on the Argyll coast. This concentrated on the wildlife of the area and included the feral cat, the red fox, soaring eagles and young ospreys. The score was by Edward Williams (1921-2013).
The final film was Highland Journey which follows a coach tour from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye, and features a journey on a steam train between Fort William and Mallaig.  The bus tour enters the Highlands at the small town of Killin and then crosses Rannoch Moor, passes through Glencoe, noting the Massacre there in 1692. Bonnie Prince Charlie is called to mind at Glen Shiel under the shadow of the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct: fishing boats are shown sailing through the Caledonian Canal. Sections of the film show mountaineers in Glencoe, the Cuillins in the Island of Skye and the lesser islands of Eigg, Canna and Muck. 
The film was originally released as Scottish Highlands but was revised and renamed Highland Journey in 1957. I have not seen the original film, however I understand that the screenplay is virtually the same.

In 1952 Bruce Montgomery (1921-78) composed the score for Scottish Highlands.  It was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under Muir Mathieson on 8 October of that year. The film is just over 23 minutes long, and there is music for most of the action. Montgomery has the opportunity of ‘react[ing] to different scenes, from the grandeur of Ben Nevis to the locomotive speed of the West Highland line.’ (Whittle, p.147).

Two years later, whilst the composer was staying in Brixham, Devon he reworked the film score into a short tone poem, Scottish Aubade. It was dedicated to Muir Mathieson.  The first performance was given on 12 August 1954 on a BBC Overseas Service broadcast by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Mathieson. It was also played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves. The Scottish Aubade was never published.

I differ from David Whittle in his analysis of the mood of Montgomery’s score for Highland Journey/Scottish Aubade.  He suggests (Whittle, p.148) that the composer ‘infused’ the work with ‘Scottish folk idioms.’ I feel that much of this music has steered away from any form of blatant ‘tartanry’. The composer has created a largely impressionistic mood ideally suited to misty glens and sparkling sea-lochs. I accept that Montgomery has made use of a Scottish idiom in parts of the score for the film and in the derivative Aubade: I would classify it as ‘deconstructed Scottish melodies.’ It never becomes a parody or pastiche, and as far as I can tell it never accurately quotes any particular traditional melody.

The Aubade opens quietly with a violin melody followed by oboe then flute. The string harmonies shift in a manner akin to Delius. There is a crescendo before the flute introduces a ‘pastoral’ mood reminiscent of George Butterworth. This section does make use of a ‘Scottish inspired’ tune which is presented a number of times on the woodwind and then strings. At this point Montgomery creates a romantic sounding theme, much more universal in its effect. The middle section of the Aubade is impressionistic including its use of a flute melody supported by shimmering strings. Delius again is the model. An oboe tune is followed by a lugubrious horn phrase before the music heads toward the concluding climax. This is more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘Holyrood’ in its effect, complete with side-slipping harmonies and a big splashy tune. A fanfare leads to the final statement of the main theme before the work concludes on a positive note.

Bruce Montgomery’s Scottish Aubade was released on the British Film Composers in Concert CD in 2003. Also included was Montgomery’ Scottish Lullaby created from his score to the Nova Scotia-based drama The Kidnappers. Gavin Sutherland conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and included works by Clifton Parker, Anthony Collins, Leighton Lucas and Eric Rogers. It is the only recording of this piece.
The CD was reviewed in The Gramophone (December 2003) by Adrian Edwards who noted that Montgomery found inspiration on a ‘…modest level in the Scottish Highlands’. Ian Lace for MusicWeb International (June 2003) considers that the ‘Aubade is nicely evocative and lyrical with material of shimmering beauty and suggestive of dramatic vistas’. Roger Hecht writing in the American Record Guide (November 2003) suggests that ‘the dramatic and tuneful Scotch [q.v.] Aubade is less impressionist and more nostalgic than the typical "English pastoralist" work, but it's as good as many of them.’ Referring to both the Aubade and the companion piece on the CD Scottish Lullaby, Paul A. Snook writes that these ‘two lovely pieces are exceptional examples of how to blend folkloristic sources with symphonic procedures without compromising either element.’(Fanfare January 2004). It is this final comment that sums up Bruce Montgomery’s achievement in this hugely attractive and satisfying evocation of the Scottish Highland landscape.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007

Montgomery, Bruce, Scottish Aubade, British Film Composers in Concert with works by Clifton Parker, Leighton Lucas, Anthony Collins and Eric Rogers Royal Ballet Sinfonia/ Gavin Sutherland WHITE LINE CD WHL2145 (2003)

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