Thursday, 6 August 2015

Walter Leigh: Jolly Roger

My introduction to Walter Leigh was the overture to the present ‘burlesque.’ It was included on a wonderful LP of ‘More Lyrita Lollipops’ (SRCS. 99) released in 1979. This album also included music by Hamilton Harty, William Alwyn, Michael Balfe, Arnold Bax and Elgar. I still have my vinyl copy of the release.  In 1985 an album dedicated to Leigh’s music was issued by Lyrita (SRCS.126) – this included the Concertino for harpsichord and string orchestra, Music for string orchestra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Suite and the Overture and Dance from the incidental music to Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Fortunately, all the above named works have been re-released on CD. There was another disc produced in 1995 of Leigh’s piano music and songs. I guess that if you blinked, you would have missed it: it is now deleted. In 2005 Dutton Epoch issued a fine conspectus of the composer’s ‘complete’ chamber music, now available as a download.
Before any of this industry occurred the BBC had produced a broadcast of Walter Leigh’s Jolly Roger or ‘The Admiral’s Daughter’. It went on the air on 21 December 1972.  Glancing at the BBC Radio Times shows that the burlesque had actually been broadcast in various incarnations over the years, including ‘selected scenes’ on the nascent television network (using the Baird Process) as early as 1933.
It is not the place to analyse Walter Leigh’s music. However it is important to note that there were two sides to his musical character – his ‘art’ or ‘serious’ music and his attraction towards writing for the stage, film, radio.  At the time of his death in 1942 The Times could report that the general public will best recall him for his ‘intimate revues’ and his two operas –The Pride of the Regiment and the present Jolly Roger. Another major achievement was his score for The Song of Ceylon, which received an award for ‘best film’ at the 1935 International Film Festival in Brussels.
Leigh suffers from the lack of a detailed biography: any understanding of the composer’s life, works and standing have to be pieced together from a variety of sources. It is to be hoped that a biography will be forthcoming.
The first thing to remind the listener of is that burlesque’s title Jolly Roger relates to a person, not a flag, as some enthusiasts of Treasure Island and other piratical endeavours would intuit.  The action is set in Jamaica in the year of our Lord 1690. Nevertheless, the tale does include all the traditional apparatus of pirate stories, including the skull and crossbones, buccaneers and rum.

The three acts are set on the private landing stage of Government House, aboard the pirate ship and the terrace of Government House, respectively.  The plot involves the evil Sir Roderick Venom who was Governor of Jamaica, and was party to piratical activities in his jurisdiction. He causes an innocent planter, Jolly Roger, to be arrested, accused of piracy and sentenced to a flogging. Fortunately, his plans are disrupted by the arrival of Admiral Sir William Rowlocks and his beautiful daughter Amelia. Along with their companions they resolve to rid the Jamaica of the wicked pirates. Predictably, the love interest if amply satisfied by the ultimate marriage of Roger and Amelia.
The libretto was by Scobie Mackenzie and V.C. Clinton-Baddeley (1900-70). The first performance was on 13 February 1933 at the Opera House in Manchester and it subsequently played at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.
Musically, Jolly Roger could be described as Sir Arthur Sullivan meets Paul Hindemith. This is not a perverse as it may at first seem. What Walter Leigh has achieved is the combination of Sullivan’s sparkle, wit and charm with his own ‘creative gift’ derived from study with the German composer. Certainly, the score is well-contrived, distinctive and has ‘a deftness and allure’ denied many then contemporary works in the same genre.  Paul Conway notes the similarity between Leigh and Richard Rodney Bennett as composers who could approach film and light music with ‘the same seriousness…they brought to their concert works.’

The liner notes are highly detailed. After the usual track, cast and character listings, there is a good synopsis of the three acts. Paul Conway has provided an excellent essay on the composer, his works and the genesis and reception of Jolly Roger.

I enjoyed this performance immensely- it is such fun. Two questions suggest themselves to me. Is Jolly Roger worth reviving as a stage production in 2015? I am not convinced: it is very much a work of its time, in spite of the undisputable quality of its music. Even the present recording is somewhat ephemeral: listen for the realistic seagull sounds!
On the other hand, I would recommend this CD to all enthusiasts of light opera.  As the contemporary Play Pictorial put it, ‘Mr Leigh’s music [is] tuneful and scholarly… [and] has caught something of Sullivan’s spirit and mingled it with his own creative gift…’ It is this that makes Jolly Roger such a success and deserves our attention more than 80 years after its premiere.

Walter LEIGH (1905-1942) Jolly Roger (or the Admiral’s Daughter: A New Musical Burlesque (1933)
Sir Roderick Venom (tenor) Neilson Taylor; Sir William Rowlocks (tenor) Alan Dudley; Jolly Roger (tenor) Vernon Midgely; Bold Ben Blister (Bass) Leslie Fyson; The Bloody Pirate (baritone) Gordon Faith; Amelia (soprano) Marietta Midgley; Miss Flora Pott (mezzo soprano) Helen Landis; Prudence Wary (contralto) Patricia Whitmore
The Ambrosian Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra/Ashley Lawrence
LYRITA REAM 2116 (MONO)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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