Alun Hoddinott’s Two Welsh Nursery Tunes were composed in 1959 and are dedicated to the composer’s son Huw Ceri who was born on 27 March 1957. Hoddinott stated that this work was written whilst on holiday in New Quay, Cardiganshire. The tunes used were those that his wife was habitually singing to their little son.
Hoddinott has written a wide variety of music over his career including operas, symphonies and many concertos. Most of his music is approachable, although often requiring some application by the listener. However, amongst the ‘serious’ works are a number of excellent and well-crafted ‘light’ pieces. These include the four sets of Welsh Dances, the Investiture Dances and a Quodlibet on Welsh Nursery Tunes.
The late nineteen-fifties were a busy period for the composer: a wide variety of pieces had appeared including the Concerto for harp and orchestra, the Piano Sonata No.1 and the first set of Welsh Dances.
The two movements of the Two Welsh Nursery Tunes form ‘a simple but effective diptych of traditional tunes.’ The first is ‘Suo Gän’, which means ‘lull-song’: it is a traditional Welsh lullaby which was first printed around 1800. The composer is unknown. The words of the song were collected by the Welsh folklorist Robert Bryan (1858-1920). The second tune is ‘Pedoli’ which is translated as a ‘shoeing song.’ Although the programme notes do not state the fact, this was a song sung by the blacksmith as he shoe-ed horses.
Hoddinott uses a ‘Sibelius-size’ orchestra with two each winds, horns, trumpets, trombones, optional harp and celesta and strings. The piece does not make use of timpani.
The ‘Lullaby’ is naturally the slow movement, whilst the ‘Pedoli’ is considerably faster. The first piece opens gently with an oboe stating the tune accompanied by the harp. Strings enter and repeat the tune. Soon the music builds up to a considerable climax before collapsing to near silence.
The ‘Pedoli’ has an attractive lilt to it from the very first bar. Lots of woodwind figurations accompany the simple tune on strings. Once again the formal process is basically repetition of the tune with considerably varying orchestral devices. The movement ends with a little flourish. Both ‘tunes’ together last just over five minutes.
The first performance of the Two Welsh Nursery Tunes was at the BBC Studios in Cardiff on 22 January 1961. The BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer. The work was duly published in the following year by Oxford University Press.
Peter J. Pirie, writing in The Musical Times (November 1962) noted that that the tunes [are] simply stated, [with] the usual Hoddinott orchestral fingerprints. His habit of rather sectional orchestral writing, winds usually playing an arpeggiated theme in unison, is becoming a mannerism. But these two functional movements are quite pleasant and written with easy skill.’
The reviewer, E.R. writing in Music and Letters, October 1962 suggests that ‘Alun Hoddinott's piece…keeps rigidly to the modal implications of the nursery tunes used’.
He considers that both tunes ‘use the orchestra with a high regard for effectiveness and imaginatively enhance the beauty of the tunes. Neither is difficult to perform.’
An important review of the score appeared in Music & Musicians (March 1963). Llifon Hughes-Jones writes: 'Though both of these engaging pieces are in 6/8, their different moods make a pleasant contrast.’ The ‘Suo Gän was ‘expressively lilting’ and had ‘soothing muted strings lulling in company with discreetly scored woodwind and brass.’ Hugh-Jones noted that the Shoe-ing Song had the effect of a hammer tapping nails suggested by the glockenspiel and harp. Finally, he pointed out that Hoddinott had ‘abandoned his usual idiom here for what we might term a more conventional one. The result is delightful.’
The Two Welsh Nursery Tunes is a delightful work. It would make an excellent entry piece to any listener who has not any of Alun Hoddinott’s music. It is not particularly typical of his musical style, however it is a piece that is worthy of the composer in every way.
The Two Welsh Nursery Tunes are available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7283
Note: this is an updated post, original published here 2013