Saturday, 2 September 2017

William Wordsworth: Cheesecombe Suite for piano solo (1945) Part 1

I first discovered William Wordsworth’s (1908-88) music back in 1975. I had been exploring the record browsers in the music department of Harrods’ Knightsbridge store. Amongst the usual fare, I found two Lyrita albums of piano music: Franz Reizenstein (RCS19) and William Wordsworth (RCS.13). I immediately bought them, despite having no clue as to their sound world: the record label was reason enough. After returning home to Glasgow I listened to both with eager anticipation. I confess that I was a little disappointed. Both albums presented music very different to the diet of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius that I was exploring at that time.
Interestingly, Mosco Carner, writing a short review of an early performance of the Suite in The Daily Telegraph (24 October 1950) pointed out that on the previous evening, Frank Merrick had included the Cheesecombe Suite in his recital at the Conway Hall. He felt that this ‘proved to be pastoral [my italics] music as its title suggests, not particularly pianistic in character but unpretentiously pleasing.’ Other works at Merrick’s recital included Prokofiev’s Third Sonata.  At least Carner felt they were inspired by the landscape.
The ‘pastoral' character of the music in not a view I would concur with. In fact, it is one of the reasons that I did not warm to this Suite in 1975: it did not evoke (for me) a mood of topography or countryside meditations. 

I guess that I had imagined that the Cheesecombe Suite would have been a ‘bucolic’ ramble, clearly inspired by some real or imaginary place in the depths of the English countryside. In fact, it was probably the title that persuaded me to buy this record of music by a composer I knew nothing about.

William Wordsworth’s Cheesecombe Suite was composed in the spring of 1945. The work carries the following dedication: ‘To my friends B.A., C.A, D, C, and G.E whose initials provide the theme for these pieces.’ At this point I would only be guessing in trying to tie a name down to the initials.

There is some discussion as to where Cheesecombe is, and the composer’s relation to it. Roger Fiske, (The Gramophone June 1963) presumes that it is the name of the Wordsworth’s house at Hindhead. I think that he is wrong. At the time of composition, Wordsworth was living at Little Hatch, Churt Road, Hindhead. This village, which is the highest in Surrey lies some 10 miles south west of Guildford. It is close to the Devil’s Punch Bowl, which is a local beauty spot.
Paul Conway (MusicWeb International) has suggested that ‘Cheesecombe’ was in fact located near Lyme Regis in the village of Harcombe. It was here that Wordsworth, who was a conscientious objector, may have carried out agricultural war-work in lieu of military service.

Harry Croft-Jackson provided the original liner notes for the Lyrita LP.  I quote the description of each movement:
Prelude: Pensive Andante tranquillo in A minor, full of charm and innocence.
Scherzo: A deft Allegro scherzando in G. Although written in simple triple time [3/4] the beats often divide into triplets as the music chuckles its way through a series of impish key changes.
Nocturne: An example of the composer’s ability to express with economy and restraint a sustained, nostalgic mood.
Fughetta: Like the Prelude, this 9/8 Allegretto is in A minor, with a soft aeolian flavour. Subject and answer are announced ‘delicato,’ and are followed by three pianissimo middle entries. There after the Fughetta gradually mounts in excitement to a vigorous conclusion.

Paul Conway rewrote the liner notes for the CD reissue of this album. The only additional comments he makes is noting the ‘capricious key changes and constantly varying rhythms’ making ‘the gambolling Scherzo a light-hearted romp, revealing the composer’s humorous side.’  He believes that the Nocturne ‘is the most profound movement’. This initially wistful pieces ‘intensifies to generate a powerful climax, before falling back on its initial reveries’.

To be continued…

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