Saturday, 5 November 2016

Humphrey Searle: Highland Reel (1946)

I was delighted to find that James Stuart has uploaded a recording of Humphrey Searle’s ‘Highland Reel’ to YouTube. Unfortunately, there is no indication of when this radio broadcast was made, or who the performers were. Yet that matters little. It is good to have it on ‘record.’

Humphrey Searle is usually regarded as being a ‘fearsome’ modernist who made use of the ‘dreaded’ twelve-tone system. He is only outdone in this ‘evil’ by Elisabeth Lutyens in their ability to compose unmusical music. The truth is less dramatic. Searle did use tone rows, but nearly always applied his own musical aesthetic to the resultant music. He never allowed the ‘system’ to dominate. Another profound influence on his style was Franz Liszt, so there is often a ‘romantic’ feel in much of his music. There is another side to Searle’s musical achievement: film music. For more than 20 years he contributed excellent scores for dozens of documentaries and feature films. Much of this music seems to belie his commitment to serialism. It is in this vein of tonal, ‘light music’ that the ‘Highland Reel’ is situated.

During the early part of Second World War, Searle, enlisted with the Gloucestershire Regiment, was stationed in Fort William in Scotland as part of the ‘protection force’ for military installations.  
Searle wrote in his autobiography that:
‘We didn't have much to amuse us in our leisure time, but occasionally dances were held in the village hall in Arisaig, near Lochailort. These dances usually started at dusk and ended at dawn, as the girls had to walk long distances over the mountains to get to them. They played the traditional Highland dances, which gave me the idea of writing a suite on Highland tunes, and also modern jazz.’ The Suite was never composed. (Searle, Humphrey, Quadrille with a Raven Chapter 8 unpublished)

In the latter years of the war Searle was posted to Germany where, after the conclusion of hostilities, he assisted Hugh Trevor-Roper in his research for The Last Days of Hitler (1947)
Searle writes of this time:
‘…I conducted some orchestral concerts; we had some Forces musicians whom I was able to supplement with players from a former German school of military music at nearby Buckeburg. We performed popular works, Beethoven's 5th, Schubert's Unfinished and a choral version of Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods, and also Bach's 5th Brandenburg Concerto, with an excellent officer colleague as piano soloist, and the three well-known pieces from Berlioz' "Damnation of Faust". I also wrote a ‘Highland Reel’, based on tunes I had heard in Scotland during the war, and it had its first performance here. The concerts were invariably fully attended and the audiences enthusiastic, but I was severely reprimanded by the Control Commission for "fraternising with the enemy". Apparently it was an offence to form a joint Anglo-German orchestra!  (Searle, Humphrey, Quadrille with a Raven Chapter 9 unpublished)

The ‘Highland Reel’ was first performed on 18 February 1946 at the Rhine Army Headquarters, located at Bad Oeynhausen. It is not surprising that there appears to be no critical account of this concert in the musical press.  Since that time, it seems to have been largely forgotten. Perhaps it would be good to have a definitive recording of this short piece.
The full score and performance material was published in c.1955 by Joseph Williams. Alan Poulton’s catalogue of the composer’s music states that there is also an incomplete arrangement for two pianos. The ‘Highland Reel’ lasts for a mere three minutes.

The work opens quietly with a typically Scottish dance tune. This is quite stylised. My knowledge of Scottish music does not allow me to identify which reel is being played. It may be that this is a confection rather than a transcription of any particular tune. It does sound a wee bit like film music for a Whisky Galore type of production. There is a quiet moment, where the lovers emerge from the ceilidh to enjoy the night air, before the music closes with three loud chords. An impressive feature of this work is the orchestration which seems is both idiomatic and subtle. 

Twelve years later, Humphrey Searle was to revisit Scotland with his delightful score for the British Transport Film, The Coasts of the Clyde (1958). This makes use of Scottish themes without descending into a selection of pedantic or trite arrangements. Especially attractive is his scoring of the ‘aquarium scene.’ 

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