Saturday, 15 October 2016

Alan Rawsthorne: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra, Part I

This is a work that I have come to appreciate since I heard the ‘world premiere recording’ issued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7203) in 2008. The work was commissioned by the Essex Education Committee to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Essex Youth Orchestra.  The first performance was given at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford on 4 September 1967, by the orchestra with Graham Treacher conducting.  Other works in this concert included Hector Berlioz’s (1803-69) ‘Roman Carnival’ Overture and J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for violin and oboe, BWV1060. The soloists in this work were Christopher Rowland (violin) and Mary Cotton (oboe).  Alas, Rowland died in 2007.
A few days later the orchestra went on tour and played the work on two occasions in Berlin. There have been a number of subsequent broadcasts of the piece featuring the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

John Belcher contributed the liner notes to the Dutton Epoch CD. He begins by explaining that the ‘Theme’ of the work enters after a few introductory bars. This not so much ‘a melodic statement’ as a ‘collection of germinal cells, ideas with developmental opportunities…’
The variations in order are: 1. Allegro energico; 2. Allegretto; 3. Allegro; 4. Adagio mesto; 5. Allegro risoluto and 6. Declamando-Allegretto. One unusual feature of the piece is the way each variation collapses to virtual silence before the next one commences.
The Finale, Allegro commodo, features a considerable mood change. The harmonies are more diatonic and there is dance-like music. In fact, this is really like film music. Belcher suggests the opening titles of the film Uncle Silas (1947) as a possible model. The work closes with a solid C major chord.

Mosco Carner reviewed the Essex Youth Orchestra concert for The Times (5 September 1967). He considered that the ‘special distinction of the evening was the first performance of a new work, Theme, Variations and Finale…’  Carner declared that ‘it is a reflection on the quality of these young players that Rawsthorne, far from making any concessions, produced music wholly characteristic of his sophisticated style and technically no whit less demanding.’  The composer’s ease with variation form is noted: ‘…the medium in which his individual mode of musical thinking appears to find its natural expression.’
The work opens ‘with a sinuous, shapely theme in siciliano rhythm, and this is followed by six variations concisely worked, spare in their harmonic language and pointedly scored.’  Carner insisted that ‘As always with this composer, one had the impression that every note in the melodic line and every chord in the harmonic texture were in the right place. Which is another way of saying that with Rawsthorne idea and realisation are perfectly congruent.’ The review concludes by noting that ‘The variations represent a kaleidoscope of moods, with the second and central Mesto variations as perhaps the most imaginative ones. On first hearing, however, there seemed to be too frequent changes of mood, an impression which subsequent hearings may prove to have been mistaken.’

John C. Dressler in is invaluable bio-bibliography of the composer (Westport CT, Greenwood Press, 2004) cites a review in the Essex Weekly News (8 September 1967): ‘…’how magnificently the orchestra dealt with [this work] …both the opening and closing sections made a great impact and I look forward to hearing it again.’

Stephen Walsh writing in The Observer (10 September 1967) states that the title ‘suggests something rather more symphonic than the usual set of contrasted variations string together like so many beads.’  He concludes that the work does contain ‘a pattern of quite sharp tempo contrasts, but very carefully worked so as to form a continuous development, with the finale as its logical outcome.’  Walsh considers that the scoring is ‘bold and distinctive, especially in its deployment of antiphonal strings and wind, and there is a winning viola solo.’ He concludes his review by suggesting that it is ‘an acquisition on which Mr Treacher and his orchestra can congratulate themselves.’

The premiere was briefly noted by Bernard Barrell in the Composer journal (Winter 1968/69). He wrote: [The] Essex Youth Orchestra introduced Alan Rawsthorne’s Theme, Variations and Finale at Chelmsford and Elizabeth Maconchy’s ‘Essex’ Overture at Snape (also written for the EYO under Graham Treacher). Sadly, Maconchy’s work still awaits revival.

Part II of this post will review John McCabe’s analysis of the Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra.

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