James Langley's The Coloured Counties takes its name from a quotation from a line in ‘Bredon Hill’ from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad:
Here on a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie
And see the coloured counties
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.
This work is in the English pastoral tradition meeting the criteria laid down by the musicologist Ted Perkins. This includes the use of folksong or modally inspired melody, impressionistic techniques that would be at home with Debussy or Ravel and finally a certain neo-classical colouring. All three elements are well and truly present in this work.
‘Bredon Hill’ is one of the most popular of Housman’s poems from the Shropshire Lad: it is certainly one of the most frequently set. The best known are Butterworth’s and Vaughan Williams setting in his great song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Orchestrally is has inspired composers too. Julius Harrison wrote a fine orchestral Rhapsody for violin called Bredon Hill. Like the present work it is a reflection on the view from Bredon Hill and some of the emotions that it engendered rather than the sentiment of the poem.
The work opens dreamily, before a lovely folk-song like tune given on woodwind. Yet this tune does not dominate the texture – it is kind of floated over the ‘impressionistic’ texture of the accompaniment. The first third or so of the work is dominated by the woodwind, however at about the halfway point a romantic tune emerges that is really the heart of the work. Although this work does not have the angst of the ‘Shropshire Lad’s’ emotion as he considers the death of his lover: there is a little disturbing of the calm. This soon passes and a short interchange of material by flute and oboe supported by the French horns leads to the last statement of the ‘folk-song’. There is a mini cadenza for flute before the summer haze returns. The work concludes quietly with strings and flute.
Ian Lace (MusicWeb International February 1999) considers that ‘the music is nicely, hazily, evocative and lightly romantic with some rather odd Celtic inflections.’ I accept that there may be a wee bit of the Celtic twilight here, however, for me the mood is quite definitely that of a summer’s day in Bredon Hill.
It is unfortunate that we have so very little information about the life and work of James Langley. True, there is the Langley Memorial Trust which is dedicated to preserving his memory by giving financial assistance “the most talented and deserving members of the Midland Youth Orchestra. This was founded after his death in 1994.
The briefest of biographies are given on that Trust’s web page: it notes “James Langley’s professional commitments were as a senior BBC music producer, brass band competition adjudicator, and Trinity College music examiner, but it is the remarkable unbroken period of 38 years that he freely devoted to the Midland Youth Orchestra (MYO) that the trust is set up to celebrate. From the orchestra’s formation in 1956 right up to the moment of his brief illness, James Langley was continuously at the service of the MYO, first as a horn player, then Associate Conductor, Conductor and, ultimately, its outstanding Music Director for so many years.’
Listen to James Langley’s The Coloured Counties on British Light Music Discoveries Volume 1 Resonance 205