Sunday, 27 December 2015

Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony Part I

This is an updated and expanded article first published on MusicWeb International in 2008.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony is one of six works I always listen to at Christmastide. The others include R.V.W.’s Hodie, Finzi’s In Terra Pax, J.S.B.’s Christmas Oratorio and Benjamin Britten’s A Boy was Born. Fortunately, recordings of Hely-Hutchinson’s work have been rarely unattainable over the years since its first recording in 1951. It is a work that is infrequently given in the concert hall or on the wireless.
Hely-Hutchinson is a relatively little-known composer, professor and administrator. He merits only a handful of lines in Grove’s and has not yet been provided with a biography. So, a few notes on his lifetime’s achievement will be helpful. 

Christian Victor Noel Hope Hely-Hutchinson was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 26 December 1901, the youngest son of the last Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Cape Colony, the Right Honourable Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson. He was educated at Eton and also studied at the Royal College of Music with Donald Tovey. He went up to Balliol in 1920. The following year he left Oxford before completing his degree: he had been offered a lectureship at the South African College of Music.  After three years in this post Hely-Hutchinson returned to London and joined the staff of the BBC. Later, he moved to the corporation’s Midland region before taking up a professorship of music at Birmingham University, where he succeeded Granville Bantock. In 1944 Hely-Hutchinson became Director of Music of the BBC where he remained unit his death in 1947. 
His works, apart from A Carol Symphony, include a Piano Quintet, a Violin Sonata, the orchestral Variations, Intermezzo, Scherzo and Finale (1927) and a number of settings of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs. Grove’s Dictionary suggests that he was an effective administrator rather than an important composer. It notes that few of his works are heard today.  Fortunately Dutton recordings recently released his Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra "The Young Idea" which I commented on in my ‘blog’ in April 2008.

A Carol Symphony is really more a sequence of ‘preludes’ rather than movements in a classical or traditional sense. Some critics have worried about the works internal cohesion, but typically most have been impressed by the unity of the work considering the small number of carols that the composer used.
Each movement is based on a single carol, with allusions to others, although the scherzo and the finale do have additional material. The entire work is designed to be played without a break – although there are short pauses between the movements in the recordings.
The first movement ‘allegro energico’ makes an impressive presentation of Adeste Fideles, largely in the style of a Bach Chorale Prelude. It is a strong opening and never lacks interest. The scherzo explores God Rest ye merry gentlemen in a manner not dissimilar to the Russian School of Rimsky Korsakov and Balakirev. One reviewer noted that ‘Mr Hely-Hutchinson goes far towards beating the ‘Invincible Band’ in their own bandstand, so to speak’.  The ‘andante quasi lento e cantabile’ is truly lovely, although it has been suggested that the composer ‘spreads mere picturesque-ness a little too thinly’. Yet, the use of the orchestra here is masterly. It is not ‘effect for effects sake’, but a good use of colour and balance. The outer sections are based on the Coventry Carol with the ‘trio’ section making use of The First Nowell. The introduction to the First Nowell section is the most memorable part of the entire Symphony, with its enigmatic harp theme leading to the presentation of the tune. To this listener at any rate, it is musically suggestive of a ‘cold and frosty night.’ The last movement is another ‘allegro energico’ which makes clever use of Here we come a-wassailing before reprising Adeste Fideles.  The composer makes fine use of various contrapuntal devices to explore these two melodies. It has been compared to some final movements of Stanford’s Symphonies with some justification. Like the elder composer’s works, there is nothing pedantic about this finale, in spite of its textbook use of a variety of musical devices. 

The Manchester Guardian (28 September 1929) reviewer was impressed at the first performance of A Carol Symphony at a Promenade Concert on 27 September 1929. He notes that the work ‘pleased the audience immensely…and surely not only because he uses wonderfully persuasive traditional tunes in it.’ He continues by suggesting the ‘work is extremely well turned out’ although ‘the treatment is scarcely more original than the thematic material, but the composer give the impression of knowing exactly what he wants and getting it without any effort…’ There is a slight sting in the tail. He laments the fact that ‘one sighed now and again for a little sympathy with modern thought but was consoled by the reflection that in two hundred years or so it will not matter that this work sounds about twenty years old today’.

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