Monday, 11 December 2017

Some thoughts on Humphrey Searle’s Night Music for Anton Webern (1943)

Since first hearing Humphrey Searle’s Night Music, op.2 (1943) on the 1999 CPO CD release, I have considered that it is an interesting introduction to his music. Stylistically, the work is a balance between the astringency of Webern and the expressionism of Alban Berg. There are some moments that could be defined as ‘romantic’ in their sound: this is hardly surprising when one considers that Liszt was one of Searle’ influences.

During the late 1930s Searle had studied with Webern in Vienna. Conventionally, the Austrian master’s influence on the composer first became apparent in Night Music which was composed for Webern’s sixtieth birthday: he was born in 1883.  It is not ‘technically’ a twelve-tone work, but pushes atonalism to the boundaries and uses several procedures that were common to exponents of that style such as contrapuntal devices and pointillistic orchestration. Searle’s first completely 12-tone work was the Intermezzo for eleven instruments, op.8 written in 1946.  Unfortunately, this work has not been recorded.

During the 1939-45 war years Searle had not felt able to compose strict twelve-tone music so his style nodded to Bartok. His formal Opus 1, the Suite for string orchestra (1941-2) dated from this period.  The composer himself, (ed, Layton, Robert & Searle, Humphrey, Twentieth Century Composers 3, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972) explained that he and Elisabeth Lutyens were amongst the first to adopt the twelve-tone technique beginning around 1939. They were joined in this endeavour by the ‘exiled’ composers Egon Wellesz, Roberto Gerhard and Mátyás Seiber.  Searle insisted that as a ‘group’ they were not writing serial music all the time, and ‘each wrote a good many tonal works as well as their twelve-note compositions’.  It is a fact that much of their music was not particularly well-received by concert goers. However, Jenny Doctor (The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922–36: Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge University Press, 1999) has suggested that the resistance to serial music may not have been quite as strong as later writers have implied.

Searle (op.cit.) briefly discusses his Night Music. He quotes a review of the score from Musical Opinion (March,1948): ‘This work is dedicated to Anton Webern on his sixtieth birthday (1943) and as one might expect from such a dedication, is atonal, gaunt in style and melodically spiky. There is nothing in this work to suggest that the composer is British – or doesn’t that matter to British composers anymore.’  The background to this ‘conservative’ criticism was ‘the domination of Vaughan Williams and the English folk-song school, to which all British composers were expected (by some people) to adhere.’ The Musical Opinion reviewer also suggests that Searle’s Night Music ‘is strikingly dull’ which probably implies a similar view of Webern’s oeuvre.

Night Music was inspired by the contrapuntal forms explored in Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering (1935) It is unfortunate that Webern never heard the work, as he was accidentally shot by an American soldier on 15 September 1945.
Night Music is scored for a chamber orchestra with single woodwind, horn, trumpet, trombone, single percussionist and strings. This allows the musical argument to develop with clarity and transparency. David Sutton-Anderson (Liner Notes, CPO 999 541-2) suggest that the entire work ‘show[s] a control of resources and command of structure remarkable for an opus 2.’

The premiere, under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of New Music, was given on 4 February 1944 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constant Lambert at an ‘experimental rehearsal’ at the Royal College of Music. Other music included Norman del Mar’s Flute Concerto and Francis Chagrin’s Piano Concerto. After the concert, the music was discussed by the audience. One of those in attendance was the society’s President, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who certainly made his presence felt. More about that in a subsequent post.

The Times critic (unsigned, 9 February 1944) suggested that of the music heard at this concert, the most profound and challenging was Searle’s Night Music. He considered that ‘this work, whose dark colour was well suggested by the title, showed undoubted originality.’ The structure of the piece presented itself as ‘music of patterns’ with the ‘orchestration serving to clarify the polyphonic structure, with an economy of material that at times left the music bare and exposed.’

In ‘An Interim Report on Humphrey Searle’s Music’ (Music Survey, I, 1949) Richard Gorer has mixed views on Night Music. On the one hand, he recognises that ‘the advance on the previous work [Suite No.1 for strings, op.1, 1943] is so extraordinary, it appears almost incredible.’ In fact, it was the piece that first drew the attention of the musical cognoscenti to the composer. On the other, Gore thought that the work ‘always appeared a little incoherent from the formal point of view.’   
Many years later, in his conspectus of Searle’s music, Edward Lockspeiser (Musical Times, September 1955) wrote that ‘…here [Night Music] Searle was obviously inspired by those fragile wisps of phrases of his master [Webern] pieced together, as in some of the works of Debussy, by the aid of eloquent silences.’

‘E.L.’ reviewing the score of Searle’s Night Music in Music & Letters (July 1948) wrote: ‘Mr. Searle has obviously been tempted in this youthful work to emulate some of the Schoenbergian processes of orchestration. The violin solo answered by the trombone followed by a horn solo and leading to two isolated pizzicato notes on the viola is an example of this wilful disintegration of the orchestra. Much of the writing is contrapuntal, with canons and inversions galore.  All of which is an indication of the musical school to which the composer has elected to belong and where he is attempting to hammer out a style of his own.’

Finally, Robin Hull (Penguin Music Magazine, 8, February 1949) simply noted that Night Music ‘will be remembered for the keen interest that it aroused in Searle’s individuality as a composer, and deserves in every respect to become more widely known.’
After nearly seventy years, the quality of this work is unimpaired, but its popularity with all but the most enthusiastic listener is virtually non-existent. It is hard to believe that there is only a single recording of this work. 
A subsequent post will examine the reception of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recording of this work on CPO 999 541 2.  It can also be heard on YouTube.

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