Saturday, 17 March 2018

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960): Cantata: The Skeleton in Armour Part 2

Modern Opinion
In Michael Hurd’s 1962 study of Rutland Boughton, he was less than complimentary to The Skeleton in Armour. He insists that it was ‘an accomplished exercise in high-flown twaddle.’ He continues by pointing out that ‘it is worth labouring the weakness of the text (presumably he does not like Longfellow) if only to point the enormous distance in taste Boughton eventually travelled.’ The music, Hurd feels, is ‘a mixture of Mendelssohn and Gounod [that] underlines the bathos of the words with a precision that might be mistaken for mockery were it not for the composer’s youth and inexperience.’
In Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festival (1993) Hurd expands his views on The Skeleton in Armour. He suggests that Boughton’s choral music for voice and orchestra must be considered in the context of the large number of choral festivals and competitions that ‘played so vital part in English musical life before the First World War.’  Hurd reflects that these ‘occasions… [were] not primarily the breeding grounds of great art’. He concedes now that this is an ‘interesting work’ and that it ‘has moments of real power and charm.’ He feels that ‘Boughton is at his best when tackling the poem’s grimmer aspects...’ On the other hand Hurd believes that ‘the love element reduces him to teashop sentimentality.’  Finally, he concludes that it ‘is a bold, ambitious work, orchestrated with real aplomb, and an impressive achievement for a 20 year old.’
In his thesis A Survey of New Trends in English Musical Life 1910-1914, (1981) Richard Charles Hall writes that The Skeleton in Armour and The Invincible Armada…were competently-written, run-of-the-mill festival cantatas, simplistic narrative tests provided with vivid settings, in no way out of the ordinary and certainly not representative of the composer's mature style.’

The Skeleton in Armour is an early piece by Rutland Boughton which predates his Glastonbury operas and major orchestral works. This is quite definitely a Wagnerian work in its use of chromaticism and ‘leitmotivs’, although Hurd (1962) as noted above does raise Gounod and Mendelssohn as exemplars for the musical style.
It is doubtful that present day (2015) concert-goers or listeners will ever hear this work. As a composition it is likely to be near the back of the queue for any contemporary recording project or full-blown concert performance.  However, I think that it would be an ideal candidate for a ‘chamber’ recital with a small ‘scratch’ choir and pianist. Certainly the short notice of this work in The Self-Advertisement of Rutland Boughton (1911) declares that although it is scored with orchestral accompaniment, ‘the work will be effective with an accompaniment of strings and piano only, or even of piano solo.  (My italics). It further notes that ‘a fairly good pianist will be necessary, as the vocal score contains a real pianistic transcription of the orchestral part’.  My study of the score suggests that this work is worthy of being regarded as being more effective than merely an ephemeral ‘Morecambe Festival’ work.

Appendix 1
Other settings of Henry W. Longfellow’s ‘The Skeleton on Armour’ include:
Arthur Foote: The Skeleton in Armour: ballad for chorus and orchestra, op.28 c.1892
Joseph Holbrooke: The Viking: tone poem for orchestra, op.32 (1899). This work was originally called The Skeleton in Armour and was occasionally known as The Corsair.
George Elbridge Whiting: The Tale of the Viking: a Dramatic cantata for 3 solo voices, chorus and orchestra, 1881

Brief Bibliography:
Hurd, Michael, Immortal Hour, The Life and Period of Rutland Boughton, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1962)
Hurd, Michael, Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993)
Files of various contemporary newspapers and journals

With thank to the Rutland Boughton Trust where this essay was first published during December 2017

No comments: