Thursday, 13 December 2018

Edwin Evans: The Younger English Composers. Xl—Ernest John Moeran. Edwin Evans. Part I

In February 1929, the respected music magazine Monthly Musical Record began a series of profiles entitled ‘The Younger English Composers.’ These were written by prominent musicologists and historians. Composers featured included Edmund Rubbra, Peter Warlock, Constant Lambert, Arthur Bliss, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, Gordon Jacob, Freda Swain, Alan Bush and William Walton. In January 1930, the eminent English music critic Edwin Evans produced a 2000-word study on Ernest John (E.J.) Moeran.  I present this text in two blog-posts and include a few footnotes and have made a few minor syntactical changes. I have included Evans’s evaluation of the use of folk music with which he opens his pen portrait. Dates of compositions are included where appropriate.

ONE of the strongest influences contributing to that side of a composer's ego which reveals his nationality is admittedly that of folksong, which has played so conspicuous a part in the general upheaval of musical nations during the past few decades.
With some composers, especially during the early phases of the various wars of independence, it was deliberately cultivated as a means of extrication from other influences. Having fulfilled its mission, it has become in more recent years a mere affectation of students, who love to write pentatonic tunes - the easiest of all to write - plaster them with a few triads on the less frequented degrees of the scale and call the result composition. These two extremes have one attribute in common. They are artificial and adopted of a set purpose, which is in one case emancipation, in the other the finding of a short cut to the satisfaction of one's budding musical vanity.
But not all preoccupation with folksong is deliberate. There are some to whom the employment of the folksong idiom comes naturally, as being in tune with their own characters. They have the gregarious instinct, and it leads them, metaphorically or in person, to the company in which folk lift up their voices in song. They have Elizabethan leanings, but they cultivate them less in the study than in their mental attitude towards music, which they conceive to be an art of human habit, an expression of life, but also an amenity of human intercourse, and none the worse for being perhaps an occasional aid to conviviality. It is an attitude of mind that recurs sometimes in our poets, and then they produce verse that can be delivered lustily, with gusto, in contrast to the mournful tone so often adopted for it. They are the true lyri[ci]sts. If the Elizabethans teach us naught else, they teach us that the man who makes a good song when it is wanted is a man responsive to moods, and capable of interpreting many others besides, including those of nature.

If Moeran's music reveals the influence of folksong it is not because he sought it out and cultivated it, but almost for the opposite reason, that it sought him out and cultivated him. It invited him to an ambit in which he could have his musical being, take his musical ease, stretch his limbs, and let his mind roam over scenes that had attracted it, so that it gave forth not merely the adaptation or even transfusion of folk music, but also the lyrical expression of moods more intimate than is compatible with the theory and practice of folk music.
It was the air he breathed during the formative years, and it is the reason why, without deliberate intention on his part, his music has a racial lilt which we recognize at once as being native to these islands. Not that it is of one racial type. It alternates between Irish and English, the former being atavistic, the latter the product of environment; and since his use of it is spontaneous, the two tend occasionally to coalesce in a manner which no composer would consciously seek to contrive. It might seem incongruous to find sometimes a Celtic bloom upon a melody rooted in East Anglian soil, were the blend not the result of complete assimilation into the musical system and the true expression of the man.
[Ernest John Smeed] Moeran was born on the last day of 1894 at Osterley, near London. [1] The name is Irish, and shows the family origin, but from his eighth year to the outbreak of war his home was in Norfolk. From early boyhood he had musical leanings, and when he went to Uppingham in 1908 [2] he was fortunate in finding conditions more encouraging than was at that time the rule in public schools. He learned to play the piano well and the violin tolerably, took part in chamber music, listened and read a great deal, and presently began to try his hand at composition. [3]
His guide, philosopher and friend was Robert Sterndale Bennett, [4] to whom he confessedly owes much. He left Uppingham in [July] 1912, and the following year entered the Royal College of Music.

Eighteen months later war broke out. He joined up, fought on the Western front, was wounded, and afterwards served in Ireland until demobilized in 1919. During the latter part of his war-time service his pen had not remained idle, but most of the work that resulted - chiefly chamber music - was afterwards discarded as immature. He was, in fact, little satisfied at that time with his technical equipment. Having conceived a warm admiration for the works of John Ireland, he addressed himself to that composer for further guidance.

From him he absorbed much that was craftsmanship and also something that was John Ireland, as is clearly shown in the Violin Sonata and elsewhere. His own enthusiasm would have made that practically inevitable, however much John Ireland as teacher might contend against it. However, these spells of hero-worship rarely harm a young composer if he has the material in him. About this time Moeran made a clean sweep of the works of his nonage [immaturity], relegating to the ‘might have been’ string quartets, trios, and sonatas galore, with some orchestral music, and settled down to produce in real earnest. Meanwhile he had frequently revisited Norfolk and laid the foundation of his collection of folksongs of the region.

There are some young composers who produce just as much as agrees with their musical constitution - but they are rare. The majority write far too much. There remain a few who write less than their musicality warrants. Moeran is of these. Among the generation of composers to which he belongs he stands out by the genuinely musical quality of his temperament. He feels musically. Music is a form of natural speech with him, and it should be his habitual mode of expression, instead of which surprisingly little has come from him during the ten years or so that he has been on the active list.

[1] Actually, Moeran was born in the village of Heston, in the former county of Middlesex. At this time his father was vicar of St. Mary’s, Spring Grove in Middlesex. After a series of short incumbencies, Moeran’s father took up the living at Salhouse with Wroxham in the county of Norfolk.
[2] Moeran went to Suffield Park Preparatory School aged ten, and then to Uppingham School at the age of thirteen.
[3] Ian Maxwell (The Importance of Being Ernest John: Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran, Durham theses, Durham University, 2014) suggests that ‘it is more probable that Moeran’s first exposure to music and playing – the piano in particular – took place when he was no more than about five or six.’ This contradicts Evans’ assertion that it was at Uppingham.
[4] Robert Sterndale Bennett, grandson of the composer William Sterndale Bennett was in fact the director of music at Uppingham School. Evans seems to imply that he was a contemporary of Moeran. 
To be continued...

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