Monday, 12 September 2016

The 1945 Victory Symphony Contest in the Daily Express: Introduction

In 1945 the Daily Express ran a special competition which encouraged composers to write a ‘Victory’ Symphony. One cannot imagine a similar event in 2016.
An announcement was made in the newspaper on Tuesday 5 June 1945: ‘Who will write Victory Symphony?’
The article continued: ‘Britain has many promising young composers who are worthy of recognition, and the Daily Express is giving them the opportunity they seek.’  Two prizes were offered – the first of £250 and the second of £150. That would be about £10,000 and £6,000 at today’s (2016) prices.  Composers would not only be seeking financial reward, but would also have a ‘rare opportunity in the world of music.’
The rules were straightforward.  The symphony would consist of one or more movements, would be fully orchestrated and would last between 15 and 20 minutes.  It was open to all British composers (male and female) under the age of 35 on 1 January 1946.  The closing date was 31 October 1945. Submissions were to be made to the Daily Express office in Fleet Street, London, accompanied by a suitable ‘nom de plume.’
The scores would be examined by Arthur Bliss, Dr Malcolm Sargent and Constant Lambert.   Stephen Lloyd in his magisterial study of Lambert has suggested that it is likely that Sargent and Bliss did most of the adjudication.
Finally, a public performance of the two winning works would be given in the Royal Albert Hall as arrange by the newspaper. The top six scores would also be circulated to leading conductors for perusal and possible performance.

Some weeks later, on 29 August 1945 the Daily Express reported that ‘one evening during winter (it was actually to be in high summer of 1946) a well-known conductor on the platform of the Royal Albert Hall will conduct an orchestra through the first public performance of the Victory Symphony composed by the winner of…the contest.  It was announced that the winning work would also be presented in Scotland by the conductor of the Scottish Orchestra, Warwick Braithwaite.

On 29 March 1946 the results of the contest were front page news.  ‘Private 7674010 Bernard Stevens [(1916-83)] 30-year-old Londoner in the Army Pay Corps travelled on special leave from his Bournemouth unit yesterday to be told that he had won the £250 first prize…’  The winning work was his ‘A Symphony of Liberation’ which had been begun during ‘the blitz nights when he had been billeted in Bloomsbury.’ The first two movements, ‘Enslavement’ and ‘Resistance’ were written there against the background of ‘London’s ack-ack noise.’  He completed the work with the ‘sunny, spirited’ third movement when the war ended in Europe.’

Clearly the work had been ‘on the stocks’ before the competition was announced as it was begun in 1940 and completed in the autumn of 1945.  The work was dedicated to Clive Branson, a poet and artist who had been killed in Burma during 1944.  The score carries an epigraph from William Blake’s America, ‘Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field. Let him look up into the heaven and laugh in the bright air.’
The winner of the £150 second prize was the Scottish composer Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-83), who at that time was living in North Street, St Andrews. He was then Master of Music at St Andrews University.  The paper reiterated that both works would be performed publicly in London, Manchester and Glasgow.
Two composers known to have competed included Richard Arnell (Symphony No.3) (suggested in Jürgen Schaarwächter’s study of Two Centuries of British Symphonism) and Ruth Gipps (Symphony No.2). It would be fascinating to know what other composers entered this competition and what became of their symphonies.  Interestingly, although Gipps did not win the competition, her symphony was played on a number of occasions and was recorded in 1999 on the Classico CD label (CLASSCD 274).
The first performance of both works were given at the Royal Albert Hall on 7 June 1946. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  I will present the review in a subsequent post.

As an aside, if I had been judging, I would almost certainly have made Ruth Gipps’ Symphony No.2 the winner, based on the four works I understand to have been entered. 

Bernard Stevens A Symphony of Liberation is available on CD (Meridian CDE 84124)  It is coupled with his fine Cello Concerto. 

1 comment:

Graham said...

I have always been interested in newspaper run musical competitions, especially in this case. Looking forward to future articles in the series.

Hopefully this will spur someone to research the contest and determine just who all the entrants were and what was entered.