Saturday, 21 October 2017

Harold Darke: Fantasy No.2 in E Major, op 39 (1931)

It was encouraging to hear Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for string orchestra played on Classic FM just after the 7 am news the other day. Further investigation reveals that it has become one of radio presenter Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘Great British Discoveries’.

The British Music Society Newsletter, No.117, March 2008, includes a short article ‘Darke comes to light’ by composer Clive Jenkins where he outlines the history of this work.
Harold Darke wrote three works for string orchestra: two Fantasies (one in E major the other in E minor) and the ‘Meditation on Brother James Air’. In 1931 Darke transcribed the Fantasy in E major for organ: this arrangement was dedicated to the serialist composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who had studied with Harold Darke between 1926-30. She also had several private organ lessons with him. This Fantasy was played at her wedding to singer Ian Glennie.

Clive Jenkins explains that he had discovered an orchestral set of the ‘Meditation’ in the stacks of Plymouth Central Library, however further searching failed to find the Fantasies.  Seemingly, OUP did have the manuscript for both works, but somehow, they got lost, possibly during the Second World War. So, Jenkins reconstructed them both from the original manuscripts of the organ transcriptions and the published sheet music.

The Fantasy No.2 in E major, op.39 was first heard in its orchestral guise at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 17 July 2008. Other featured composers that day were Britten, Purcell, Warlock, Elgar, Handel and Clive Jenkins. The Chamber Ensemble of London was directed by Peter Fisher I understand that the (modern day) premiere of the Fantasy No.1 in E minor was given during the 2012 English Music Festival by same ensemble and director. This concert included works by Charles Avison, Rutland Boughton, Benjamin Britten, John Ireland and Clive Jenkins.
On the other hand, Clive Jenkins does suggest both orchestral works may have been performed during the 1930s.

Peter Hardwick (British Organ Music, 2003) reviewing the organ version of the Fantasy No.2 in E major, notes the work’s English pastoral style, as epitomised by Ralph Vaughan Williams and other composers during the post Great War years. He remarks on the ‘folk-song like pentatonic (black notes only) opening theme, with its gently undulating, parallel first inversion triads and triplet.’ Hardwick wonders if there are echoes of Vaughan William’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1920/1, published 1930). However, Darke’s piece seems less troubled by dissonance than RVW’s which can be ‘gritty’ in places.
The Fantasy No.2 in E major was published for organ by Oxford University Press in 1931.

In 2013 EM Records issued an excellent collection of music Over Hill, Over Dale (EMR CD017) which features music by Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, Peter Fisher, John Ireland and Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major.
Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (13 August 2013) considered that ‘for many’ the present Fantasy is the ‘most interesting work here.’ Like all other commentators he laments the fact the Harold Darke is known solely for his beautiful setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ ‘which nowadays bids fair to outshine Holst’s treatment of the same words in the popularity stakes.’ Godfrey’s considers that the ‘work [is] distinctly of the English pastoral school, with overtones of Vaughan Williams and - even more strongly - of Finzi and Moeran.’

This beautiful, reflective piece of music is rapidly becoming one of my favourite pieces. I have already heard the orchestral version of Mediation on Brother James Air’: I hope that the other ‘Fantasy’ (E minor) will be issued soon, along with some of Harold Darke’s other orchestral music, including the three overtures, the symphony, a work for piano and orchestra and several more.  

Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for strings has been uploaded to YouTube

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