Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Anthony Hedges: An Ayrshire Serenade, op.42 (1969)

I think I heard first Anthony Hedges's: An Ayrshire Serenade, op.42 on a Radio Three broadcast during my school holidays in 1972. The title appealed to me. As a Glaswegian, I was regularly taken to that fine county on day trips to the seaside. When I re-discovered the work on CD, I wondered how Anthony Hedges, born in Bicester, Oxfordshire (b.1931) and now a highly regarded ‘Hull composer’ ended up writing a delightful piece of music with all the freshness of a holiday on the Clyde Coast. I knew that he had written several ‘topographical pieces’ such as the evocative Humber Suite, the Kingston Sketches and the Breton Sketches. But why Ayrshire?  
The answer is Craigie College of Education, Ayr. This was a teacher training establishment which has subsequently merged to become one of the campuses of the University of the West of Scotland.  Hedges’s Serenade was commissioned by the college in 1969 and was first performed by the Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra in May 1971.  This amateur band was formed in 1920 and gave its first concert the following year. The orchestra is still going strong: their Spring Concert was held on 26 March (2017).

For anyone looking for ‘Scottish music’ in this Serenade, I think that they will be disappointed: there is barely a Scots snap to be heard. One reviewer has suggested that the work is based on three ‘local’ tunes: I am not convinced. The Serenade is evocative of this lovely county in an abstract way.
I have been fortunate to have explored Ayrshire from top to bottom and side to side. It is the Birthplace of Scotland’s great poet Robert Burns, as well as being a popular holiday destination. The scenery is varied: from the bleak Galloway Hills to the golf links near the sea, from the rich dairy farmland to the harbours of Troon and Ardrossan.  There are great houses, such as Culzean and Blairquhan Castles which demand to be explored.  Industry-wise, clearly farming is still important. Coal mining has disappeared; however, Prestwick Airport has attracted several aerospace companies. Golf is vital here too, with five of the United Kingdom’s top 100 courses within the county.

The opening, ‘allegro moderato’, of An Ayrshire Serenade is full of energy with a wayward tune and ‘unexpected harmonic twists and turns.’  It immediately sets the tone of the work. The second movement, ‘andantino’ is a sad and pensive little piece: the main burden of the music is given to a solo oboe, playing a wistful tune. Although written in the minor key the music ends on a positive, major chord. It is a lovely piece. Again, there is nothing particularly Scottish about this music.
The finale (Molto vivace) is full of all the verve of a traditional holiday by the sea. Ayrshire’s beaches at Troon, Largs (pebbles), Ayr, and Girvan are inviting for swimming (cold!), paddling, shrimping, beach games and sunshine – well, at least for some of summertime. Hedges has presented an tangible picture of all this excitement, even if the Ayrshire Coast was not in his mind.

Paul Conway (MusicWeb International) has written that ‘it is hard to find any evidence of programme music here but the composer's personality is stamped on every bar...’ Hence it does not major in misty dales, wide seascapes and local festivities. It is a piece of absolute music. 
The Gramophone (Ivan March, September 2000) suggests that the Serenade is ‘a most winningly lyrical triptych. It has an oboe solo for its centrepiece and a catchy, almost Walton-esque syncopated close.’
Ian Lace (MusicWeb International, June 2000) has written that Anthony Hedges' ‘An Ayrshire Serenade is a…vibrant and colourfully kaleidoscopic invention that takes the music on a longish journey, through many styles from its Scottish roots.’ Rob Barnett on the same website (May 2007) proposed that: ‘Hedges' Ayrshire Serenade…is not especially Scottish - more closely echoing the light and the dark of Ayr's scenery - some of it in Sibelian desolation - at least in the central movement. There is a touch of all-purpose English celebration in the finale but it's skilled and personable writing.’

The only recording of this work was released on British Light Music Discoveries, (ASV White Line, CD WHL 2126 in 1999.  The first movement can be heard on Anthony Hedges’s SoundCloud page. 

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