Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Bruce Montgomery: Overture to a Fairy Tale.

As children we have fairy tales read to us (at least we used to do). Get a bit older, and we may start to read them for ourselves. My copies of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang were never far from me as youngster. Then we put them aside as ‘childish things’. If we are blessed, a day comes, sooner or later, when we pick these books up again, and approach them as an adult. If we are exceptionally lucky we can still capture the wonder and the magic that first revealed itself so many years ago. 
Musically, we need only think of Tchaikovsky’ Nutcracker ballet, Prokofiev’ Cinderella, Ravel’s Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose Suite), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Nielsen’s Aladdin to realise that this magic moves on into adulthood. In England, Elgar was enthralled the magic of the nursery stories, with his captivating Wand of Youth Suites and the aptly named Nursery Suite dedicated to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Turning now to Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale. David Whittle (2007) notes that the ‘circumstances of its composition are unclear’ but he feels that it was unlikely to have been a commission, due to the work having been completed some two years before its premiere.
Whittle further suggests that the Overture is an important work, as it is one of only three completed scores for full orchestra, that were not ‘linked to his film work.’ The others were the Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby.

The orchestral score of Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale was completed on 23 February 1946, although the piano ‘reduction’ had been written a year or so earlier. Currently, the composer was living in the nearby fishing village of Brixham.  Although Whittle’s book states that the score was published by Oxford University Press in 1944 (?) I was unable to find any reference to it in the catalogues at the British Library, COPAC or WorldCat.

I do not know if there is any particular ‘fairy’ story underlying Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale.  I doubt that there is. In fact, I think it is a little bit like creating a set of variations without a theme. Here we find a succession of magical melodies, delightful instrumentation and a typically imaginative overall structure. Whatever the story, we are invited to dream and recapture our youth.
The listener will be impressed by the tone of this score. It has been criticised as owing much to Elgar (Wand of Youth?), especially in the opening bars. Yet the profusion of tunes - there are four major themes in the eight-minute duration - does seem to owe much to the idiom of light music in vogue in the immediate post war years. It is not quite the soundscape of Montgomery’s scores for the Carry On or the Doctor films, but the idiom is beginning to emerge.

The premiere of the Overture was given on 28 February 1948 at the Torquay Pavilion by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Goss. The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo (1 March 1948) reported that Kyla Greenbaum, ‘one of the younger generation of distinguished pianists, delighted the audience…yesterday afternoon, when she was the guest celebrity at the fortnightly celebrity concert.’ She chose to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor. The critic thought that this ‘was a happy [choice] and her perfect technique, coupled with a fine reading by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, left little to be desired.’ Greenbaum also played some solos including Chopin’s Ballade in F minor, and the Schubert-Liszt arrangement of Soiree de Vienne no.6 in A, which was a ‘notable contrast to the preceding work.’
There were several orchestral works featured, including the now largely forgotten arrangement by Reginald Jacques of Handel’s Gavotte from the opera Amadigi di Gaula and the Minuet from Berenice. A relatively rare Russian work was the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, op.31 by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Alas, the critic said little about Montgomery’s Overture which opened the afternoon’s concert, save that the composer was ‘receiving increasing recognition.’
The Western Times (5 March 1948) was slightly more fulsome in its praise: it suggested that Overture to a Fairy Tale was ‘a well-constructed work in the style of Elgar…’

In 2003 ASV Record Company issued a performance of Montgomery’s Overture on the third volume of a series of British Light Overtures (CD WHL 2140). This disc also included music by Matthew Curtis, Carey Blyton, Montague Phillips, John Fox, Adam Saunders, Roger Quilter, Philip Lane, James Langley and Matthew Taylor.   It is available on Amazon as a ‘second hand’ CD. There is currently no YouTube file for the Overture to a Fairy Tale.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Ashgate 2007)

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