The Musical Times reviewer (November 1929) wrote that:
‘The novelty on September 26 was Victor Hely- Hutchinson's 'Carol Symphony,' a composition on a large scale, and with some thematic organization, yet giving the impression of a suite rather than a symphony. It is music spun agreeably round excellent material whose associations, however, only too readily hold out temptations to fall into mere picturesqueness. Mr. Hutchinson avoids this in the first movement by rather desperately building on the rocky foundation of Bach's embellished chorales, but later he succumbs to influences which do not help him much to withstand the besetting danger. This composer is resourceful, lucid, effective, very respectably conservative and complaisant to a not too sophisticated audience. An English Humperdinck, shall we say? As a personal utterance his work suffered perhaps unduly from its vicinity to Vaughan Williams's infinitely more distinctive 'Concerto Accademico,' the crack work of the evening, in which Miss Jelly d'Aranyi played the solo violin part with something just a shade below her usual form; in other words, very well.’
The reviewer of The Times (19 December 1930) noted that the Amateur Orchestra of London had furthered their ‘commendable policy’ of presenting works that are outside the usual repertoire. On
Monday 15 December 1930 A Carol Symphony was presented at the Kingsway Hall in London. The reviewer
stated that ‘any competently written work employing carol tunes must make a
strong appeal, especially at this time of year, and whether such a work is
called a fantasia or a symphony or a suite ought not to affect one’s enjoyment
of the music.’ He feels that this distinction is more problematic than a first
glance would suggest. He suggests ‘it has often been demonstrated that
folk-tunes do not readily lend themselves to symphonic development’ and he
believes that Hely-Hutchinson has stretched ‘their capacities to the utmost by
making his symphony in cyclic form.’ Furthermore, the reviewer then suggests
how the composer ought to have written the work. He should have allowed one
carol or wassail song to ‘suggest another, and let that suggest a counterpoint
and so on.’ The problem seems to be that
Hely-Hutchinson has given the impression of ‘stopping at the end of each bit of
tune to think what he could do next with it.’
The fundamental issue seems to be that the texture and the scoring of
the work are perfectly appropriate – it is the thematic treatment that lets the
Jürgen Schaarwächter in his magisterial Two Centuries of British Symphonism (2015) suggested that the Carol Symphony is a ‘lightweight…and somewhat obscure piece’. He further describes it as ‘clearly a third-rate piece of light music (similar to Anthony Collins’s First String Symphony). This latter piece is one that I enjoy! He quotes Benjamin Britten’s view that the work was ‘utter bilge’ (Britten’s diary 22 December 1922) Schaarwachter provides a lengthy quote from D. Millar Craig (‘The Younger English Composer – XV Victor Hely Hutchinson’, in the Monthly Musical Record 1930):-
‘The Symphony is in four movements, played continuously: all are based on Christmas tunes, and the work sets forth different aspects of the festival – its solemn grandeur, the mystery and romance of the manger, and its rollicking joy as Dickens shows it to us…[The] work reveals the spirit of nearly all Hely-Hutchinson’s music: gloom does not appeal to him. But youth’s good spirits are held in check, and a fastidious restraint as well as an instinctive sense of shapeliness sees to it that exuberance and gusto do not break bounds.’
Some years later, The Times (27 November 1951) in a review of a recently released record (Paxton GTR 123/4/5, mono, Metropole Symphony Orchestra/Dolf Van der Linden) of the Symphony suggests that this is ‘not only a work brimming over with gaiety but refutes the accepted and not unjustifiable generalization that folk tunes are rcalcitrant to symphonic development’. The reviewer is suitably impressed with the way that the composer has taken ‘the half dozen best known and most hardly worked carols and symphonizes them by dissolving them in ostinato figures, of which the chief is a cross between Bach’s Wachet Auf …and an English country dance tune’.
In 1930 an extract (3rd movement, ‘Noel Fantasy’) from the Carol Symphony was released by HMV (C1968). The Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden was conducted by the composer.
This entire work is currently available on three CDs. The first is a reissue of a recording made by Barry Rose and the Pro Arte Orchestra made in Guilford Cathedral in September 1966 (EMI Classics CDM 7 64131) A more recent version appeared on Naxos 8.557099 in 2002 with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. This is also available as an MP3 download. The above noted performance by the Metropole Symphony Orchestra is currently available on the Guild Light Music Series GLCD 5233.
All the recordings are interesting, although the Sutherland one has the edge on sound quality. On the other side of the coin, as Neil Horner at MusicWeb International has pointed out, the EMI recording does have fine couplings with R.V.W.’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Roger Quilter’s Children’s Overture and Ernest Tomlinson’s Suite of English Folk Dances.