Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Introductions XVIII: E.J. Moeran by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock): Part III

Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) c.1924
Of his original compositions the most important that have yet appeared in print are the Violin Sonata [1] and the String Quartet [2] which were first introduced to the public at the concert of his works given at [the] Wigmore Hall early in 1923 with the co-operation of Miss Harriet Cohen, M. Désiré Dufauw, [3] and the Allied String Quartet [4]. Both works have three or four predecessors in the form lying in manuscript, which accounts for the entire absence of any of the signs of technical limitation and uncertainty which are often conspicuous in a composer’s earliest publications. Both display a notable wealth of ideas very completely expressed, but the quartet is undoubtedly the more original work of the two.
In the Sonata the texture and disposition of notes in the piano part, as well as certain harmonic progressions, betray too obviously the composer's intimate acquaintance with the work of John Ireland, and several pages are conceived in a turgid style which contrasts very markedly with the delightful clarity and simplicity of the Quartet. Moeran has a fine harmonic sense, wide in its range and subtle in its workings, intuitive and quite untheoretical, but in his piano writing it occasionally runs away with him at a moment of stress and defeats its own object by producing a blurred and clotted effect. But these lapses are not of frequent occurrence, and in the ‘Toccata’ (Chester) [5] we have as brilliant – and, in its middle section, as sensitive - a piece of piano writing as any British composer has given us.

Moeran's classical predilections have fortunately secured him from the too common error of supposing that a piece of music can consist exclusively of a series of curious chords. His work is always distinguished by clear melodic outlines and firm rhythmic structure, and if in his chamber music he adheres very largely to traditional forms, the admirable continuity of line and sense of climax displayed in his smaller pieces afford ample proof that this adherence is far from being servile or mechanical. In spite of his tendency to work outwards, so to speak, from a purely harmonic basis, he contrives very ingeniously to impart a quasi-contrapuntal vitality to the texture of his piano-writing by means of little wayward inflections of rhythm; even in his most massive progressions of heavy chords the sense of direction and line always predominates over the more harmonic interest of the moment.

If there is an emotional shortcoming in his work, it is that where we might look for passion we find only restless energy and a rather physical sort of exuberance; but in his quieter moments he has contrived, like Butterworth, to capture and reflect in his music in a very delightful and individual way something of the indefinable spirit of the English landscape and the life of the English countryside. There is a refreshing open-airiness about his music which is as untainted by the futility of academic prejudices as it is unaffected by the stupendous musical revolutions which take place on the continent with monotonous regularity two or three times every week.

Moeran is at present in his thirtieth year. Dr. Ernest Walker, in his History of Music in England, [6] suggests forty as the earliest age at which a composer can challenge opinion of his work as a whole; and in recent generations British musical talent seems to have come very slowly to maturity. The reputations of Delius, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams, for example, would be slender indeed, did they depend entirely on works composed before the age of thirty. But there is no British composer from whom we may more confidently expect work of sound and enduring quality in the next ten years than from Jack Moeran; there is certainly no one of his years who has as yet achieved so much.
Philip Heseltine The Music Bulletin June 1924

[1] E.J. Moeran’s Violin Sonata was composed in 1923. The Sonata was dedicated to Désiré Dufauw (see note 3 below) and was first heard at a concert in the Wigmore Hall on 15 January 1923 with the dedicatee and the pianist Harriet Cohen.
[2] The String Quartet in A minor was composed during 1921. It was first performed as the Wigmore Hall on 15 January 1923. It was dedicated to Désiré Dufauw. Moeran had written an earlier String Quartet in E flat which is undated but was probably composed between 1918 and 1920.
[3] M. Désiré Dufauw (1885-1960) was a Belgian violinist and conductor. During the First World War he toured England with the Allied String Quartet.
[4] Allied String Quartet (for the String Quartet) consisted of Désiré Dufauw (violin) Charles Woodhouse (violin) James Lockyer (viola) and Ambrose Gauntlet (cello). The personnel changed over time.
[5] The ‘Toccata’ for piano was composed around 1921. It was first performed in London on 15 or 16 October 1924 in London by the pianist Archy Rosenthal, who was also the work’s dedicatee.  It was published by J. W. Chester & Ltd in 1924. 
[6] Dr. Ernest Walker’s History of Music in England was first published in 1907 by the Clarendon Press, Oxford and subsequently reissued a number of times, latterly with additional information by J.A.Westrup (3rd edition, 1952). 

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