Tuesday, 10 July 2018

William Wordsworth (1908-1998) Variations on a Scottish Theme, op.72 (1962)

I was delighted to discover the fascinating Variations on a Scottish Theme, op.72 (1962) by Scottish by adoption composer, William Wordsworth (1908-1998). It is included in an exciting CD (Volume 1) from Toccata dedicated to the composer’s orchestral music. The album includes the Divertimento in D, op.58 and the Symphonies No. 4 in Eb, op.54 and No.8 ‘Pax Hominibus’.  
For enthusiasts of British Symphonic music this means that six of Wordsworth’s eight Symphonies are now available on CD or download. (1,2,3,5 are issued on Lyrita).
The Variations on a Scottish Theme is a short work lasting for about 10 minutes. Paul Conway (who wrote the extremely helpful liner notes) sets the work in context. It was one of the first pieces to be composed after the family had moved from the Home Counties to the village of Kincraig in Speyside.  It was commissioned for the inauguration of a new music room at Bryanston School, which was not in Scotland, but in Dorset! The Variations were premiered during the summer of 1962. Seemingly, it was originally scored to accommodate the school ‘band’ – oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, string quartet and double bass. The revised version for full orchestra was given at the City Hall, Perth on 20 March 1966. John McLeod conducted the Perth Symphony Orchestra.
The theme is the based on the popular Scottish song, ‘Wi’ a hundred pipers an’ a’’. This is not a particularly ancient tune, having been ‘composed’ by Carolina Nairne, Lady Nairne (1766-1845). It refers to events in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s captured the Border town of Carlisle on 14-15 November 1745. This was at the start of the campaign, three months before his advance on London fizzled out at Swarkstone Bridge, Derby.
The song was published posthumously in Lays from Strathern (1846). The tune may be a confection, provided by Lady Nairne as no contemporary tune has been located.

Wi' a hundred pipers, an' a', an' a',
Wi' a hundred pipers, an' a', an' a',
We'll up an' gie them a blaw, a blaw
Wi' a hundred pipers, an' a', an' a'.
O it's owre the border awa', awa'
It's owre the border awa', awa'
We'll on an' we'll march to Carlisle ha'
Wi' its yetts, its castle an' a', an a'.

The first two variations are simply a more elaborate and decorated version of the theme. The third and fourth deconstruct the tune into ‘melodic and rhythmic fragments.’ The heart of work follows, played ‘adagio espressivo.’ It is scored for solo oboe, clarinet and cello, against a moody string accompaniment. This has all the brooding melancholy of the Western Highlands. The sadness continues in the 6th  with the tune heard in the minor key. The 7th variation is more complex, with the melody played on the bassoon and horn supported by vigorous scales and chords from the rest of the orchestra. The composer introduces the glockenspiel into the 8th variation which lightens the mood. The treatment of the theme here, is the farthest removed from the original. The finale begins with a fugato passage seemingly derived from a counter-subject to the main theme. The music builds up before the main tune returns, first accompanied by the glockenspiel and then just for strings. 

William Wordsworth has provided a somewhat relaxed take on this music. It must be recalled that the composer was a ‘militant’ pacifist and conscientious objector during the Second World War. It is hardly likely that he would have relished Charles Stuart’s actions, nor the Duke of Cumberland’s subsequent response culminating at Culloden. 
With thanks to Paul Conway for the excellent liner notes to this CD. 

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