Sunday, 16 December 2018

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

This article is being written without consultation with its subject, who has just emerged from a nursing home and gone to Hastings to recuperate. This makes it difficult to achieve completeness in enumerating his published works, and impossible to deal with those remaining in manuscript. It is, of course, a tribute to his quality that the former should leave one with appetite for more, but with publishers as amenable as they have nowadays become, there would certainly be more but for his own inclination to reticence.
It is perhaps because of this that he has not yet acquired that professional slickness which tells a composer what to do in any contingency. He may even be one of those composers - often men of vivid musical imagination - who never acquire it. There is a certain kind of clumsiness, of embarrassed articulation, that seems, if anything, to accentuate the personal quality of musical thought, just as the imperfections left by a not too cunning hand often add to the characteristic value of a piece of plastic craftsmanship.
Mannerisms, of course, are a different matter. Moeran's include, for instance, a fondness for the sharp tang of a false relation [1]; for certain tight clusters of notes which suggest that their origin is the keyboard rather than the mind; for the Dorian form of the minor mode [2]; for abrupt excursions into keys whose distance from the main tonality is out of proportion to the dimensions of the piece. All these are deliberate integral features of Moeran's musical physiognomy. If they ever involve transient clumsiness - which I do not suggest - it is in the handling of them, not in their mere presence.
I am scarcely in a position to write intimately of Moeran's orchestral works. I heard some time ago one of the Rhapsodies, [3] and read ‘In the Mountain Country’, [4] an attractive little work of no great pretensions; but one would need to have both heard and read the same work recently to convey something of its quality. With his published chamber music, however, I am well acquainted, and I rank the String Quartet [5] first among his compositions in the larger forms. It is a fine work, as full of character as it is of musical interest, and deserves to be more often performed. And if I place the Violin Sonata [6] second to it, it is mainly because of that extraneous influence to which I have referred above. The melodic invention in both works frequently betrays the subsoil of folksong, though the hand of the cultivator has much transformed its character. Moeran has made his own personal synthesis of folk tune elements, and though its lyrical character more frequently "indicates" song, it lends itself with ease to development. The remaining work, a Trio, [7] is less satisfactory, and though published after the others, would appear from internal evidence to have been written earlier.
The available piano music consists of a set of Variations and fifteen [other] pieces. [8] The interest of the former consists, as so often, of that inherent in the adventures of a young composer with a good tune on which to try his teeth. Among the latter are several worthy of attention, such as Two Legends [9], and particularly the second of them, ‘Rune’, with its fine melodic breadth; Stalham River [10], a poetic landscape; a Toccata [11] with a quiet lyrical episode to offset its brilliance; Autumn Woods, another landscape included in Three Pieces [12], Summer Valley, dedicated to Delius and harmonically a subtle tribute to that master [13]; Bank Holiday [14], inscribed to Gordon Bryan, but suggesting a touch of Percy Grainger; a couple of Irish tunes arranged for the series Folk Dances of the World. [15]
But, for the present, next to the Quartet and Violin Sonata, it is to Moeran's songs that one turns with the most pleasure. There is little question but that his gift is almost entirely lyrical, even when he is in his most robust and energetic mood. His thought expresses itself with most ease when linked with verse and flowing with the lilt of a song. Among the best are the two settings of poems by Robert Bridges, ‘Spring goeth all in white’ and ‘When June is come’ [16]; those from A Shropshire Lad, consisting of 'Tis time I think by Wenlock’ - a little gem – ‘Far in a Western Brookland’, and the four comprised in the very attractive cycle Ludlow Town, [17] and that of Yeats's ‘A Dream of Death’. [18]
Here and there possibly a mannerism may obtrude itself, without impairing the clear, sometimes even spare, outline of the lyrical thought. Unfortunately, excluding folk-songs, there are no more than fifteen of them published. The folksongs Moeran has collected in East Anglia exceed a hundred, although he has avoided the methods of those enthusiasts to whom anything they hear sung is a specimen. He has collected with discrimination, and then made a further selection for publication. The Six Folksongs from Norfolk [19] rank with the best work done in this fascinating field, each song owing its inclusion to some characteristic quality, such as the flowing quintuple metre of ‘Down by the Riverside’, which appears to be typical of many songs of that particular region, or the Dorian flavour of ‘The Shooting of His Dear’, the harmonization of which is effective, though not over-scrupulous. ‘Lonely Waters’ is another favourite. Those published separately are ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’, and two from Suffolk: ‘The Jolly Carter’ and ‘The Little Milkmaid’. [20]

Except a few contributions to the Oxford Choral Songs the above covers practically the whole of Moeran's published output. Quantitatively it is meagre enough, but its quality is such as to make one indifferent to superficial considerations such as those I have described as mannerisms. The main characteristics of his style fall into two alternating groups. He has a kind of robust infectious energy, peculiarly English in tone, and at other times he muses upon nature with a quasi-mystical tenderness which is also English, but is intensified by his Irish antecedents, so that the underlying sentiment has more fervour than belongs to the English landscape. If his works have not yet ranked him with the most prominent composers of his generation, they have certainly placed him among those of whom every successive utterance is awaited with warm and confident interest.

[1] A ‘false relation’ is a ‘chromatic contradiction’ between two notes in a chord or adjacent chords. For example, and F# and F natural appearing in successive chords in different voices.
[2] A medieval scale like that on the piano beginning and ending on ‘D’ using only the whites. Clearly, these intervallic relations can be transposed to any other key.
[3] This could have been the Rhapsody No.1 composed in 1922 or the Rhapsody No.2 in 1924. This latter was revised by the composer in 1940-1 for a smaller orchestra. The Rhapsody No.3 in F# for piano and orchestra did not appear until 1943.
[4] ‘In the Mountain Country’ is Moeran’s earliest surviving orchestral work, having been completed in 1921.
[5] The String Quartet No.1 in A minor was completed in 1921.
[6] The Sonata in E minor for violin and piano was written in 1923.
[7] The Trio in D major for violin, cello and piano is Moeran’s earliest surviving chamber work. It was written in 1920 and published by OUP in 1925. There was a later Trio for violin, viola and cello written in 1931.
[8] Virtually all Moeran’s piano music had been composed prior to Evans’ article. Only the Two Pieces: ‘Prelude’ and ‘Berceuse’ would follow in 1933. Evans does not mention ‘On a May Morning’ (1921) and the Three Fancies for piano (1922).
[9] Two Legends for piano (1923) include the above mentioned ‘Rune’ and ‘A Folk Story’.
[10] ‘Stalham River’ was composed in 1921.
[11] ‘Toccata’ was composed in 1921.
[12] Three Pieces for piano included ‘The Lake Island’, ‘Autumn Woods’ and ‘At the Horse Fair. They were completed in 1919 and are Moeran’s earliest extant work.
[13] ‘Summer Valley’ was composed in 1925.
[14] ‘Bank Holiday’ was composed in 1925.
[15] The two traditional Irish folksongs transcribed for piano are the ‘Irish Love Song’ (1926) and ‘The White Mountain' (1927).
[16] The two Robert Bridges settings were composed in 1920 but were not published until 1924.
[17] E.J. Moeran set several songs by A.E. Housman. The earliest was the song cycle Ludlow Town in 1920. This included ‘When Smoke Stood up from Ludlow’, ‘Farewell to Barn and Stack’, ‘Say Lad have you Things to do’ and ‘The Lads in their Hundreds. Standalone settings included ‘Tis time I Think by Wenlock Town’, ‘Far in a Western Brookland’, ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and ‘O Fair Enough on Sky and Plain’ which exists in three versions.
[18] Yeats’s ‘A Dream of Death’ was composed in 1925.
[19] The Six Folksongs from Norfolk are catalogued as folksong arrangements. They were composed in 1923. They include ‘Down by the Riverside’, ‘The Bold Richard’, ‘Lonely Waters’, The Pressgang’, ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ and ‘The Oxford Sporting Blade.’ This was published by Augener in 1924. The songs were collected in three villages in the County from performances by four local men. Two of the tunes collected, ‘Lonely Waters’ and ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ were to be used in orchestral compositions by Moeran.
[20] ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’ was collected in Norfolk (1924) and two from Suffolk: ‘The Little Milkmaid’ (1925) was from Suffolk and the ‘The Jolly Carter’ (1925) was collected in Suffolk.

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