Monday, 27 June 2022

Julius Harrison’s Viola Sonata – an Unknown Treasure Part II

Antecedents. It is difficult to know whether Julius Harrison conscientiously used any previously existing Viola Sonatas as models or inspiration for his work. Geoffrey Self (Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse London 1993, p.52) suggests that he was “at least as familiar with the chamber music of Brahms as he was with the symphonies.”  In addition, it can be assumed that he would have been aware of, if not necessarily intimate with, the Viola Sonatas by Arthur Bliss, Arnold Bax and Rebecca Clarke. It is not the purpose of this essay to formally analyse Harrison’s Sonata or to positively identify interrelationships with other works. However a few comments on each of the above named examples may be of interest.

Brahms Sonatas for pianoforte and clarinet (or viola) op.120 were the final chamber music that he produced. They were written in the summer of 1894 and received their first performance the following year. I have never been convinced that the viola and clarinet are interchangeable in this Sonata and would probably prefer to hear them in the wind instrument version. Neither of these Sonatas seems to be an obvious model for Harrison’s essay – certainly from a formal point of view.

Nevertheless, there are some similarities. Brahms’s characteristic of developing strong lyrical melodies from short motives is clearly part of Harrison’s design strategy. Furthermore the present work is not devised for violist and accompanist, but is a sonata written and conceived for two equals: two competent and virtuosic soloists. This surely exemplifies the tradition that exercised the chamber music corpus of Brahms. It is at this level that Harrison appears to have been influenced by the senior composer.

The Viola Sonata by Arnold Bax was completed during 1921/22. It has long been regarded as one of his most important achievements. Stylistically it owes something to the Celtic Twilight movement that influenced much of Bax’s music. In the aftermath of the First World War and, more pertinently, the Irish Civil War, it can be seen a turning away from an earlier idealism. The Sonata has three movements - the quite unsettling scherzo is flanked by two less-stressful outer movements. The mood of this work would not appear to be largely influential on Harrison.

Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata (1919) by has been re-discovered in recent years. It is easy to compare passages in this work to Brahms – especially the lyrical nature of the themes and the complexity of the interrelationship between accompanist and soloist. In addition the formal structure of the opening movement owes much to the German. Interestingly, Clarke herself declared that Ralph Vaughan Williams was an influence: certainly she appears to indulge in what Liane Curtis, the President of the Clarke Society, referred to as a “modally tinged harmonic language…that is sometimes called English Impressionism.” (Naxos 8.557934 liner notes). It possible to see the influence of Maurice Ravel, John Ireland and Arnold Bax although in no way can it be said that this work is a parody of any of these composers. It is in three movements – with the middle one being a scherzo. Her essay is certainly one of the key British essays in this medium. There is much in this Sonata that would have captivated Harrison – especially the nods to Impressionism.

Arthur Bliss wrote his massive Viola Sonata in 1933. Interestingly, this does have some affinities with Harrison. For one thing, the relationship of the movements is well defined. The equilibrium between virtuosic and lyrical part writing for the soloist is satisfying. The work has a reflective middle movement and the rhythmically exciting ‘furiant.’ Some critics have suggested that this composition is atypical of Bliss’s music and lacking in consistency.

The Julius Harrison Viola Sonata reveals at least three stylistic trends. In the first place there is an obvious pastoral feel to the middle movement. Critics have been quick to point up the similarities to Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending and to the Harrison’s own Bredon Hill: Rhapsody for Solo Violin & Orchestra. Yet it would be disingenuous to suggest that the entire work was a rustic meditation on the beauties of the Worcestershire countryside. There is much that is profound here: parts of the first movement are haunted by dark thoughts and some moments are possibly even macabre. The general mood is strangely optimistic.

Geoffrey Self, (Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse London 1993, p.68) of the composer, is surely wrong in declaring that the Viola Sonata is outside the English Tradition. He qualifies this by correctly declaring that it has little affinity with the direction that music had taken with Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and E.J. Moeran. Self insists it is well and truly in the “Austro-Germanic mainstream.” He likens this stylistic analogy to that of Elgar – with the significant difference that Harrison favours the example of Brahms whereas the Elgar is rooted in both Wagner and Brahms.

Certainly, there is little in the way of folk-song in the Viola Sonata: there is no suggestion of ‘cows leaning over gates’ at any point in this work. Yet there is something that ties this sonata to the landscape of Worcestershire. It is a Britishness that is infinitely less obvious than Seventeen Come Sunday’ from RVWs Folksong Suite, or even his In the Fen Country, but in the same way that Edward Elgar’s Introduction & Allegro breathes the air of the Malvern Hills, so Harrison’s Viola Sonata touches that haunting country.

Analysis. Julius Harrison’s Viola Sonata was completed at Malvern during June 1945. It was dedicated to the violist Jean Stewart. Harrison was a friend of the Stewart family and would often explore the Worcestershire countryside with them. He obviously impressed Jean Stewart with his personality; she wrote that “[he] was a warm hearted man - you can hear that in his music.” (Self, op. cit., p.85) What better compliment can one get?

Jean Stewart was one of the most accomplished violists of her generation. Her talent was multi-faceted and enabled her to both teach and play. She was as equally at home playing chamber music as she was a soloist with orchestra. Several important works were composed for her including Robin Milford’s Elegiac Meditation and Elisabeth Lutyens’ Sonata for Unaccompanied Viola. The best known piece dedicated to her is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Second String Quartet in A minor – the score is inscribed with ‘To Jean on her Birthday.’

Harrison’s Viola Sonata would appear to be the only surviving piece that exploits traditional ‘sonata form.’ It is certainly the only known work to include ‘Sonata’ in its title. There are several missing compositions which may have used the form, for example the String Quartet in D minor from c. 1910 which was destroyed by the Harrison after performances at Manchester and London.

The Sonata is in three movements – ‘allegro energico,’ ‘andante e cantabile sempre’ and ‘scherzo-finale’ (Allegro vivace) and lasts for just over twenty minutes.

The ‘allegro energetico’ opens positively without any ‘introductory fumblings.’ Two short figures are introduced by the soloist providing coherence to the movement. Harrison launches contrasting material that appears to be a processional tune or march which at first hearing would seem to be an attempt at lightening the dark colours of this music. Both subjects are developed with skill and never lacks interest. In the middle of the movement there is a strange section complete with tremolandos and strategic pauses. This is certainly introspective music that is not quite self-pitying but certainly lacks confidence. Yet as the unsigned reviewer in Music & Letters (January 1947, p.96) notes “…it looks a most dangerous proceeding, but it succeeds.”  Geoffrey Self has written that “despite [the] sunny open-air idea” at the start, “a sombre mood pervades the first movement” that gives a “feeling of unease.”

The second movement, an ‘Andante e cantabile sempre’ will bring instant thoughts of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. I do not believe that Harrison was parodying the older composer, but comparisons are bound to develop in listeners minds. Much of this meditative music is very beautiful and creates a sense of repose. If the first movement was typically sombre, the andante is ‘autumnal’ or even ‘valedictory.’ It has been noted that there is a danger of incoherence – “…unless the violist can be both agile and tender high up the A string.” (Music and Letters, January 1947, p.96). Perhaps Harrison did not consult with Jean Stewart sufficiently to make this middle movement grateful to the soloist? Yet, the net effect is totally satisfying. At no time does Harrison allow the seemingly pastoral antecedents push aside the more romantic underpinnings of his musical language. This is music that evokes either a landscape or the listener’s response to that landscape – it is never descends to a rustic type of rambling or ‘hints at folksong’ so despised by Constant Lambert and Elisabeth Lutyens.

The last movement is really a fine ‘Scherzo-Finale.’  This is full of energy and excitement. The rhythmic structure is extremely varied with constant changes between triple and quadruple time. It is in the closing pages that the works defining characteristic comes to the fore. There is an interruption of the musical argument with a ‘recitative’ passage like that in the first movement. A reprise of the ‘processional tune’ echoes the opening movement, however it has been transformed from a dark, almost anguished, mood to one that is full of confidence and hope for the future.

To be concluded…

Friday, 24 June 2022

Julius Harrison’s Viola Sonata (1946) – an Unknown Treasure Part I

Introduction. There are three fundamental reasons why Julius Harrison’s Sonata for Viola and Piano in C minor is not an established part of the repertoire. Firstly, the composer is British, secondly, he wrote his only surviving Sonata for the viola and not the violin or piano and thirdly, there is only one recording available – and that is published by a society rather than a major CD company. Now, before readers accuse me of sour grapes or special pleading let me expand on the above points. 

In the United Kingdom, indigenous classical music still labours under the axiom that we are a ‘Land without Music.’ A brief glance at the programmes of any major UK orchestra reveals a woeful lack of British repertoire. Even the world renowned BBC Promenade Concerts have a relatively small proportion of home-grown works. Of course, there will always be a place for the major composers and their most popular creations. Elgar’s Cello Concerto will be given a hundred performances to every one of that by E.J. Moeran. And chamber music fares little better. Week by week, recital-goers are given a regular diet of Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. Relatively rarely are the great music of a York Bowen or a Rebecca Clarke heard in these halls. Now clearly, there is a financial element here. The Kreutzer Sonata will always ‘pull in’ more people than Humphrey Procter-Gregg’s Sonata No.3 in F for Violin & Piano. So we have a classic(al) chicken and egg situation. Concert promoters will not risk an unknown or new piece, when a ‘pot boiler’ will fill the auditorium: people are not given the opportunity to get to know new or revived works – so they can never become popular!

And then there is my second point. Harrison wrote this Sonata for the ‘Viola.’ Now, fans of this instrument will be able to reel off dozens of fine chamber works written for this instrument: but ask the ordinary concertgoer and a different picture emerges. I did. I consulted three very musical friends – and by and large drew a blank. One of them knew the ubiquitous Brahms op.120: no-one had heard of those by Bliss, Bax, Bridge, Clarke et al.

And lastly the CD situation: as noted, there is only one commercial recording of Harrison’s Sonata available.

Brief Biography. Julius Harrison was born at Stourport in Worcestershire on 26 March 1885. After showings signs of considerable musical ability he studied with Granville Bantock at the Birmingham & Midland Institute of Music. His interests at that time were directed towards conducting and he was soon to make an appearance on the European Opera scene. He was sent to Paris by the Covent Garden Syndicate to rehearse Wagner operas with Nikisch and Weingartner. Harrison was to develop as an opera conductor, eventually taking up residence with the British National Opera Company and the Beecham Opera Company.

It was his appointment to the Hastings Municipal Orchestra that finally allowed him to establish his own style of conducting and to raise the standards of that orchestra to the same levels as the neighbouring and much more prestigious one at Bournemouth. With the onset of the Second World War, Hastings Town Council disbanded the orchestra for the ‘duration.’ This loss of his position, coupled with the onset of deafness allowed Julius Harrison to concentrate on composition. It also coincided with a return, in 1940, to his home county: he assumed residence in Great Malvern in a lovely house with views across the plain to the evocative Bredon Hill.

Harrison did not write a deal of music. His most impressive works are the Mass in C on which he worked intermittently for over eleven years and the Requiem (1948-1957) Geoffrey Self (Grove’s Dictionary of Music, online version) calls attention to these “conservative and contrapuntally complex pieces,” and notes the influence of Verdi and Wagner. They remain unheard in our generation.

The remainder of his catalogue contain several interesting works for orchestra, some of which have been revived in the past twenty years. His most approachable composition is Bredon Hill: Rhapsody for solo violin and orchestra (1942). It balances the romantic and classical music of previous generations with an attractive but not overstated English Pastoralism. Few chamber works were written or have survived: there are Two Pieces for violin & piano (1915), Prelude: Music for String Quintet (1922) and a Humoresque: Widdicombe Fair for String Quartet (1916). The remainder of Harrison’s catalogue is made up of numerous ‘characteristic’ piano pieces and a large amount of choral music and solo songs. It is a territory that is largely uncharted and unheard in our day.

In addition to the above-mentioned chamber works there was a Phantasy Trio (1907), presumably written for the William Cobbett competition, the String quartet in D minor (1910-1911) and a Dance Orientale for three bassoons and tambourine! (1908) These works have been lost or were destroyed by the composer.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Full of the Highland Humours 18th century music inspired by Scotland

Full of the Highland Humours is a splendid exploration of works written by Scottish composers such as James Oswald and Thomas Erskine. In addition, several pieces are featured by English and Continental instrumentalists, who were inspired by traditional Scottish music. These include Henry Playford, Giuseppe Sammartini and Francesco Geminiani. This is the debut album by the gifted and exciting London-based Ensemble Hesperi. In this CD they highlight “the infectious charm and dazzling virtuosity of eighteenth century Scottish music.”

I guess that present day listeners will be largely unaware of the popularity and success of Scottish music in the 18th century London scene. It would require some considerable study to begin to understand the perceptions that a metropolitan audience had of Scotland at that time. That period saw the two failed Jacobite rebellions, with the country being “pacified” after 1745. Culture was a two way traffic. English mores headed North, and things Scottish were discovered in London, and elsewhere, including abroad.

Firstly, I listened to the “continental” composers. Francesco Geminiani hailed from Lucca in Italy, Nicola Matteis, violinist and guitarist was (probably) born in Naples, and Giuseppe Sammartini was from Milan. All three came to London and spent much of their careers there. They were all influenced by Scottish music and absorbed stylistic elements of the Caledonian muse into their own works. That said, just how Scottish (as opposed to displaying Italian virtuosity) is Sammartini’s Trio Sonata No.6? I wonder… It opens with a pensive adagio and concludes with a dazzling display of recorder pyrotechnics. The middle movements feature a robust allegro and a harmonically rich Largo. This sonata is scored for recorder, violin and continuo. Despite his Italian background Geminiani’s The Last Time I came o’er the Moor does exude a deliberately Scottish mood.

But things worked in the other direction too. Scottish composers headed down to London, conscious of opportunities that this new Caledonian popularity presented. These included James Oswald, a dancing master from Dunfermline who flitted to London to become a composer, publisher, teacher and impresario. The successful Edinburgh music publisher, Robert Bremner, moved to the Capital in 1762, to open a shop in the Strand. Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kellie was an instrumentalist and composer who visited London, had considerable success there, but returned to his hometown of Edinburgh. His lifestyle was “dissolute” and would make an entertaining subject for a mischievous novel.

Finally, Englishman Henry Playford published what was probably the first collection of Scottish music in London - A Collection of Original Scotch Tunes: Full of the Highland Humours. This volume gives the title to the present CD.

Highlights for me include Robert Bremner’s vibrant harpsichord solo Maggie Lauder, so well played here by Thomas Allery. Henry Playford’s two short melodies for solo recorder are particularly poignant: Peggy’s the Prettiest and My Lady Hope’s Scotch Measure. I guess the composer that appealed to me the most here is James Oswald. Several examples are given from his Airs for the seasons. The recital opens with the plaintive The Poppy evoking summer. Equally introspective is the beautiful Autumn Air, The Sweet Sultan with its three sections concluding with a vigorous hornpipe. Springtime brings forth The Ranunculus (buttercup) which begins to bloom as the days get warmer. The Cyclamen reflects winter with its four contrasting sections presenting a chilled mood.

Thomas Erskine’s Sonata IV from his Six Sonatas for two violins and bass, is the longest individual work on this album. Alan Cooper in a review for the British Music Society has suggested that once again this seems to owe more to the Italian tradition than to the Scottish. The reason could be that Arcangelo Corelli was popular at that time in Edinburgh. It is played here with the recorder substituted for one of the violins.

Finally, note the outrageously politically incorrect title of the final track. Bremner has based this short number on a “raucous tune” which delivers some “spirited and humorous variations in a timeless Scots fiddle style.”

As expected from EM Records, the sound quality is ideal. Every note and phrase is clearly delineated. The listener genuinely feels that they are present in the recital room. Equally impressive are the liner notes. Brief biographies of each composer are given in alphabetical order. This is followed by an essay length dissertation on the music. These notes were compiled by Mary-Jannet Leith, the ensemble’s recorderist. One thought: I do wish that the track listing gave the instrumentation of each piece. The cover picture is by Em Marshall and may be “somewhere” in Scotland.

This is repertoire with which I am unfamiliar. I have not heard any other recordings of this music: I do not know to what extent they exist. My overall impression is of the sheer delight and pleasure being communicated to the listener by this exceptionally talented ensemble. I enjoyed every note.

Track Listing:
James Oswald (1710–1769)

The Airs for Summer (1755-56): The Poppy
Giuseppe Sammartini (1695–1750)
Twelve Trio Sonatas for Two German Flutes or Violins (1727): Sonata VI
Nicola Matteis (?–c. 1713)
Other Ayres and Pieces for the violin, bass viol and harpsichord, The Fourth Part (c.1685): Ground After the Scotch Humour
James Oswald
The Airs for Autumn (1755-56): The Sweet Sultan: Siciliana
A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes (1740): Alloway House
Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kellie (1732–1781)
Six Sonatas for two violins and bass: Sonata IV (1769)
James Oswald
The Airs for Spring (1755-56): The Ranunculus
A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes: A Sonata on Scots Tunes (1740): O Mother, what shall I do? Ettrick Banks; She Rose and let me in; Cromlit’s Lilt; Polwart on the Green
Henry Playford (1657–1709)
A Collection of Original Scotch Tunes: Full of the Highland Humours (1700): Peggy’s the Prettiest - My Lady Hope’s Scotch Measure
James Oswald
The Airs for Winter (1755-56): The Cyclamen
Robert Bremner (c.1713–1789)
A Harpsichord or Spinnet Miscellany (1760): Maggie Lauder
Francesco Geminiani (1687–1762)
A Treatise of Good Taste in The Art of Musick Sonata III: The Last Time I came o’er the Moor (1749)
Robert Bremner
A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes with Variations (1759): Hit Her on The Bum
Ensemble Hesperi: Mary-Jannet Leith (recorders), Magdalena Loth-Hill (baroque violin) Florence Petit (baroque cello), Thomas Allery (harpsichord).
rec. 25-27 May 2021 at St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 18 June 2022

William Alwyn: Movements for Piano (1961)

To understand William Alwyn’s Movements for Piano the listener needs to consider some biographical circumstances of the composer. His relationship with is first wife, Olive Pull, had become considerably strained. According to his autobiography, Winged Chariot, he owed his sanity and health to the care and devotion of his future second wife, Doreen Carwithen. He was finding life stressful in London as well, no doubt it was compounded by his marital difficulties. His doctor suggested that it was time for a change; he was advised to leave home and the capital. 

Alwyn had several works in the frame that he felt duty bound to try and finish. In 1959 he had completed his fourth symphony: this was certainly no restful piece of music. He had abandoned a Piano Concerto that he was writing due to the illness of the dedicatee, Cor de Groot. This was to have been played at the 1960 Promenade Concerts. Despite his nervous exhaustion and considerable mental strain he produced music that is “gay and bustling” - the Derby Day Overture. This was first performed at the Proms on 8th September 1960. Currently he was working on his final film score - The Running Man.

Finally, in May 1961, William Alwyn decided to set up home with Doreen Carwithen, who had been his pupil and was herself a composer. They decided to settle in the Suffolk village of Blythburgh with its attractive location near to the coast and the estuary of the River Blyth. 

Sadly, the move was not soon enough to prevent Alwyn from having his nervous breakdown. He also developed a fear of the piano. It was only through the persistence of Carwithen that he was coaxed back into playing. She encouraged him to play piano duet versions of Mozart and Haydn. Soon he was eased back into writing music. 

His reawakened passion emerged with Movements for Piano. It was completed at Blythburgh on 1 September 1961. It is long-ish, lasting some fifteen minutes and consisting of three contrasting yet strangely unified movements. It marks an enlargement of his style. This music is often disturbed and unsettled. It is quite introspective, as if Alwyn were offloading much that had been going on in his life over the past three or so years. It appears to lack light; in fact it largely consists of dark tones and shadowy hues. However it is the balance that he generates between the abstract quality of this music and the extremely romantic feel that much of it generates. There is also a balance between the serial and seemingly tonal elements of this music that give it its complex feel. 

The holograph of Movements carries the subtitle of Sonata No.2. The composer wrote on the score the following note which was latterly crossed out: “This piece is designed as a three movement work to be played as a whole, but each movement is complete in itself and can be used separately as a self-contained concert piece.” The manuscript cares the dedication “To Doreen Carwithen.”  The three movements are: Allegro appassionato, Evocation and The Devils Reel.

The Allegro appassionato is tempestuous. There is an atonal feel to the opening pages of this movement - the tune is given out simply at the beginning and is then developed. There are some percussive Bartokian chords here before the music begins to take on a fervent tone. This is certainly not neo-classical music, but full-blown romantic writing. It is only on the second or third hearing that one realises that there are some warm passages in this stormy opening movement. The central section has some quiet and quite heart easing chords. Yet the underlying tone is turbulent, there is no doubt about that. Much of this Appassionata music is almost Lisztian in sound.

Evocation is ominous and is largely composed of dappled hues and has very much a blurred feel to it. Is Alwyn trying to portray the dawn over the Blyth estuary? Or is he musically expressing the rebirth of his composing career after his nervous breakdown? Once again, the atonal feel of this movement is obvious - especially in the opening and closing sections. Alwyn has made use of a tone row here that is loosely related to that used in his great Third Symphony. Yet, he makes a subtle use of this musical tool: he never allows it to control his thought - he is master of the row. Suddenly, out of almost nowhere there is an attractive melody supported on harmony reminiscent of a Chopin Nocturne. There is often an impressionistic feel in much of this music - especially in the figurations. The music builds to a considerable climax and then subsides; there is a restatement of the original tone row - this time I think portraying moonlight on water. The movement closes quietly with a sense of peace and tranquillity tentatively established. 

The final movement, the Devils Galop, is frenetic. It is rather like a “Night ride” - but not of the Sibelian type - more of Ravel's Scarbo or Berlioz's “gibbet” music. It has rightly been compared to Robert Burns's Tam O' Shanter. Yet it is not quite so demonic as some critics have tried to make out. There are moments when optimism is on the brink of breaking out, often being repressed at the last moment. Although it is seemingly high spirited in places it is angry, aggressive and insistent. Alwyn is economical with his material in much of this movement -there is much circular figuration giving an impression of speed and swirl. There is the same darkness here that pervades the entire composition; much of this writing appears to be ambiguous. There is what appears to be the start of a peroration at the end, signifying the composer' coming through' but this dies down as the last page is reached. The work concludes with four or five aggressive chords. 

Movements for piano was premiered on 23 February 1963 on the BBC Home Service. The piano soloist was Terence Beckles.

There is no doubt that Movements is one of Alwyn’s best piano pieces, he quite clearly re-presents himself as once again being full of life and creativity. He has begun to come through the problems of the past three or so years.

Alwyn, William, Winged Chariot, (Southwold Press, 1983)
Sleeve Notes to Chandos and Naxos Recordings (see below for details)
Dressler, John C. William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge Press, 2011)
ed. Palmer, Andrew, Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art (Toccata Press, 2009)
Craggs, Stewart and Poulton, Alan, William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music (Bravura Publications, 1985)
Wright, Adrian, The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn (The Boydell Press, 2008)

Alwyn, William, Piano Music, Julian Milford, Chandos CHAN 9825, 2000
Alwyn, Willima, Piano Music Volume 2, Ashley Wass, NAXOS, 8.570464, 2008

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Edward Cowie: 24 Preludes for piano

This extraordinary CD of Edward Cowie’s 24 Preludes for piano is a reissue of a rare recording released by the University of Hertfordshire Recordings back in 2008. I am beholden to the excellent booklet notes and personal communication with the composer in preparing this review. The 24 Preludes were composed between late 2005, and mid-2007. They are dedicated to the present soloist, Philip Mead, who gives such a stunning performance on this CD. 

The original CD liner notes give a good basis for appreciating these Preludes. Cowie explains that he has travelled extensively, and that his “memories of landscapes and places in some of those far-flung habitats are as strong as ever, no matter how long ago they were first visited.”  Furthermore, he states that he has “nearly always written music that derives from a direct “on site” interaction with wild places; the voices of the natural world.” The present sequence of Preludes recall twenty four “distinctive yet sometimes related and interconnected locations.” 

No listener will need to be reminded of historical precedents for this procedure. Most obvious is J.S. Bach Das Wohltemperirte Klavier. Equally relevant to this exploration are the cycles of Preludes by Frederic Chopin and there are the early Preludes by Olivier Messiaen which are often forgotten about in any consideration of his music. Most pertinently of all is Claude Debussy who applied titles to his Preludes after he had written them. With Cowie the imagery came first.

There is another aspect to this massive composition. Surprisingly, for a contemporary composer, Cowie wanted to use the 24 major and minor keys of the well-tempered system as a structural basis for the music. I have no access to the score and do not possess perfect pitch, so I wondered if each prelude was written using the precise key signature or if each note had the relevant accidental added. Cowie assures me that “all the key signatures were written as Bach did.”  The progress of the key sequence is C major/minor then the dominant G major/minor and so on. Bach began in C major/minor and then moved up a semitone to C# major/minor etc. So Cowie’s structure is a fusion of key relationships.

What the listener must be aware of is that these are not character sketches, where the composer wrote the music and then dreamed up a catchy and commercial title. Here, each place/event is the fundamental inspiration for the genesis and development of the individual prelude. To understand his methodology, it is essential to recall that Cowie does his preparatory work with four notebooks. The first one records “shape” or “form” of what is round about him, the second puts down colours: those that blend and clash. Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing, and may include landscapes, flora and fauna. The final jotter is where Cowie records the musical notation of what he hears. Using his collection of notebooks, Cowie then creates what is effectively a work of art, combining the various elements of his research. Several of these are included in the CD booklet. It is from these that he completes his score.

Philip Mead has categorised Cowie’s Preludes as being neo-baroque but belonging wholly to the 21st century and balancing a “stark tonality” with a “non-tonal flavour.”  He considers that Bach is the main inspiration for technique – “There is an accent on polyphony, lithe, contrapuntal textures, sometimes even imitation, in strict 2-part writing.”

Several times the word “improvisatory” is used in connection with this music. I asked Edward Cowie about this. He explained that they were all “strictly notated” but allowed a “regular scattering of rubato.” This is a method of playing that allows for “subtle rhythmic manipulation and nuance.” In other words, the performer may “stretch certain beats, measures, or phrases and compact others.”

I did wonder if the composer imagined that the entire cycle would be played at a single sitting. He assured me that he “always imagined they’d be played in whatever grouping the performer likes. Performed in Scarlatti...or perhaps a group of four with one each from the elements...”  On the other hand, like Bach and Debussy these Preludes are “like a series of linked parts to a greater whole.” So hearing the cycle complete is a valid option.

As an aid to listening, the Preludes are assembled into four books: Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. This elemental structure gives the music a kind of alchemical validity. The geographical reach of this music is impressive. From the opening evocation of O Brook (Devon) to the Blast Furnaces at Port Kembla Steel Works (Australia) and from St Maxime Beach, Provence to the New Year Fireworks, Kassel, Germany, the imagery is striking.

I listened to these pieces a book at a time. And then had a short break. In future I will cheat and pick out some of the places that I know and love such as Glencoe, Loch Carron, Boscastle and Rosedale in Yorkshire. But then, it is possible to extend one’s geographical reach to the Tennessee River, Lake Eacham in Queensland and to 35,000 feet inspired by a view from the flight deck of a jet airliner high above the Straits of Java. I did notice one lovely touch: the cycle opens and closes with an evocation of Glorious Devon. What could be more appropriate?

I have come to expect superlative liner notes to be provided with Edward Cowie’s recordings. And this latest CD is no exception. There is a considerable essay by the composer. This is followed by some important “Personal Thoughts on the Cowie Preludes” by the soloist, Philip Mead. Of interest is the biographical notes on the composer and the pianist. But the added value of this booklet is the artwork. There are four examples of Cowie’s “pre-compositional sketches” for these Preludes. It is safe to say that these are works of art. They feature representational images of the locations, various abstracted designs, and patterns, fugitive text as well as interpolated notational extracts. There is also a photo of a selection of his notebooks. The CD cover features a remarkable painting by Heather Cowie, Cancleave – Sea Mist in oil and cold wax medium on paper. All this material contributes to a satisfying and rewarding experience. For details of the composer’s biography and achievement, please see his excellent website.

Philip Mead provides an ideal, succinct summary of this cycle of Preludes: “One can look for similarities with its predecessors, but this seems to me a fruitless task as these works inhabit a wholly original world which only Cowie could create. Original, yet omnipresent, tonal, yet non tonal, full of movement yet also sometimes of stasis.” They are a splendid addition to the cycles of Preludes of Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Messiaen.

Track Listing
Book 1 – Water

I. O Brook (Devon, England) in C major [3:16]
II. Kiama Blowhole (NSW, Australia) in C minor [2:50]
III. Cancleave (Cornwall, England, sea mists) in G major [3:19]
IV. River Dronne (Dordogne, France) in G minor [1:47]
V. St Maxime Beach (Provence, France) in D major [3:30]
VI. Tennessee River (Tennessee, USA) in D minor [4:38]
Book 2 – Air
I. Boscastle (Cornwall, England, gale) in A major [2:06]
II. Hay Plains Twisters (NSW, Australia) in A minor [2:48]
III. 35,000 feet (Straits of Java) in E major [6:41]
IV. Tapada (Portugal, thermal raptors) in E minor [2:18]
V. Lake Eacham (Queensland, Australia, night breezes) in B major [3:23]
VI. Dartington Gardens (Devon, England, autumn leaf-fall) in B minor [4:14]
Book 3 – Earth
I. Uluru (Australia) in F sharp major [3:29]
II. Crackington Haven (Cornwall, England) in F sharp minor [1:21]
III. Rosedale (Yorkshire, England) in C sharp major [3:07]
IV. Glencoe (Scotland) in C sharp minor [3:25]
V. Brecon Beacons (Wales) in A flat major [1:17]
VI. Shenandoah Valley (Virginia, USA) in A flat minor [4:19]
Book 4 – Fire
I. Sunrise (Loch Carron, Scotland) in E flat major [2:19]
II. Bush Fires (Bluewater, N. Queensland, Australia) in E flat minor [1:00]
III. Home Fire (Garlinge Green, Kent, England) in B flat major [1:56]
IV. Blast Furnaces at Port Kembla Steel Works (Australia) in B flat minor [3:14]
V. New Year Fireworks (Kassel, Germany) in F major [1:34]
VI. Sunset (Dartmoor, Devon, England) in F minor [2:57]

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Richard Stoker: Regency Suite Op.15 (1952-1959)

Richard Stoker's attractive Regency Suite op.15 was composed over several years during the 1950s. It is a composite work - with a few early pieces being mined to produce what is a surprisingly well integrated result. 

The opening Scherzo - is a little toccata, in fact, is supposedly based on Picasso line drawings and circus paintings. It was the last piece to be completed for this suite. It is full of little figurations and has a definite and deliberate chaos of tonality. The following Minuet on the other hand was written when the composer was yet a boy. It is quite a concentrated little piece complete with cunning key changes at the cadences. I wondered if it was worked over by Stoker for this suite, as it seems to fit perfectly into the prevailing style. Again the tonality is very free- one almost feels that there is a little tone row somewhere amongst the rather sweet tune.

The Pastoral Andante was written in 1958. It is quite a desolate landscape that this Yorkshire born composer is reflecting on. It is nearer the moors above Huddersfield or the strange country around Spurn Point rather than the smiling fields near York. The 'Gigue' is a fun piece. Lots of contrast and a few sequences, ties this nicely into the old-fashioned feel to the work. The oldest piece of music is the Gavotte, composed when Stoker was a mere 14 years old. Yet it is a piece that deserves to be preserved. Absolutely perfect here. The last piece is a Toccata, and it is apparently very dear to the composer. A fine finish.

There is an interesting little bit of musical history here - the Gavotte and the Minuet were given their first Broadcast Performance on the BBC Home Service in 1953 - by none other than Violet Carson - later to become famous as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street. I never knew she was a pianist.

A critic once wrote that “this is not silk shirted music!" The title Regency Suite "aptly reflects the slightly neoclassical nature of each piece.”

Richard Stoker’s Regency Suite can be heard on SoundCloud. It is played by Erik Parkin.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Arnold, Schonberger, Gipps Horn Concertos

Malcolm Arnold’s Horn Concerto No.2, op.58 was composed in 1956 and dedicated to the legendary soloist, Dennis Brain. It was premiered by him at the Cheltenham Festival on 17 July 1957. Sadly, it was one of Brain’s final performances before his tragic death in September of that year. 

The first thing to understand about this concerto is that there is no contest with the woodwind or brass in the score:  it only uses a string orchestra. And, secondly, it was “designed to exhibit the extraordinary virtuosity of the soloist…” Arnold wanted to test Dennis Brain’s “limits and endurance.” So much so that it is rumoured that Brain had to edit some of the more impossible and challenging passages.

One thing that struck me about this work is that there are few of Arnold’s lighter fingerprints: a great deal of the music is serious in effect and intent. Much of the concerto’s progress relies on “song-like tunes” specifically designed to “display Brain’s artistry in shaping cantabile phrases, the warmth and purity of his tone and his clarinet-like fluency.” There is little use made of the horn’s lower register, nor of “hunting” cliches. Hugo Cole has noted that Arnold “has paid tribute to the musician as much as the virtuoso.” 

There is some competition for this Concerto, with rival recordings made by Alan Civil (2), David Pyatt and Richard Watkins. The present version is the first for a generation. Sadly, the BBC did not broadcast or record the premiere performance from Cheltenham. There is no known recording of Brain playing this piece or any other by Arnold.

I enjoyed Ben Goldscheider’s account of this Concerto. Especially interesting was the depth of the slow movement with its nod towards Ravel’s Pavane and the exuberance of the finale. It would be good if he gets around to recording Arnold’s first concerto and the Fantasy for solo horn.

I confess that I have not heard of Christoph Schönberger. There are no “hits” for him on MusicWeb International, nor the Presto CD site (this album excepted). The liner notes state that his Horn Concerto in F is written “in a tonal and traditional style.”  Is this his “normal” musical aesthetic? The composer himself states that the “layout of the work is similar to that of a classical concerto with its first movement resembling a sonata form, the second, slow movement in ternary form (A-B-A) and the third movement…being a rondo.” On the other hand, there are romantic formal techniques used here. Without the score, it is more difficult to spot themes that recur in each movement. But their existence suggests a degree of cyclicity in this work. The liner notes analyse the concerto as a series of “stories,” really being an analysis of how the various subjects interact. There is no suggestion of a programme with this music, though there may be one inside Schönberger’s head or heart.

As I did not know this composition, I listened to it twice straight through. I cannot decide whether I like it or not. Certainly, it is tuneful, well-written, generous and grateful to the soloist. There is some gorgeous orchestration, especially in the slow movement.

Overall this is a well-wrought concerto, which seems look to back in time, rather than forward. There is nothing wrong in that. I do wonder if it will “take off” in the concert halls? No information is given about its debut performance: I was unable to locate any reviews of this work. The present recording, unsurprisingly then, is a “world premiere.”

Ruth Gipps’s Horn Concerto, op.58 is an undoubted masterpiece. It was completed in 1968 and dedicated to her son, Lance Baker. The concerto was premiered by him at the Duke’s Hall, the Guildhall, London on 15 November 1969. Gipps conducted the London Repertoire Orchestra. It was one of precious few works for orchestra that she wrote during the 1960s (the other is the Symphony No.3, op.57).

The liner notes sum up the concerto’s aesthetic well: “the figure of the horn as the hero is not introduced until the very end of the work.” Meanwhile, much of the progress is contemplative, introspective and giving the impression of “instability and wandering.”  I do not think that this is in anyway a negative assessment. The entire piece seems to straddle various eras including the classical and romantic. Despite its date, there are no nods to the avant-garde of the day. That said, the horn solo is often characterised by an extensive range, low notes, wide leaps, and triple tonguing, giving the concerto at least a veneer of modernism. Perhaps the most significant asset of this concerto is the compelling orchestration. Regarded as demanding for the soloist, it requires a strong technique and the ability to deal with many interpretive issues. It is relatively short, lasting just under 18 minutes. Yet a lot is packed into this limited space. This is my favourite work on this CD. It is given a superb performance by Ben Goldscheider.

The liner notes are comprehensive. Detailed analysis and information about the Arnold and the Gipps concertos was devised by the soloist, and for the Schönberger by himself. Strangely, there are no overviews of each of the composers. Composer dates are omitted. I concede that 1921 is mentioned in the text as the birth year of Arnold and Gipps, but not the years of their death. No such information is given about Schönberger, who I understand is very much alive. However, I could find no website for him. There is a Twitter account, but I do not have access to that. Brief biographies are given for the soloist, the orchestra and conductor. For further details of Ben Goldscheider, please see his excellent website.

The playing on this disc is superb. Goldscheider gives splendid and authoritative accounts of each concerto. His tone, especially when called for to play cantabile and legato is bewitching. He copes with the technical challenges with great skill and command.

Track Listing:
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)

Horn Concerto No.2, op.58 (1956
Christoph SCHÖNBERGER (b.1961)
Horn Concerto in F (2019)
Ruth GIPPS (1921-99)
Horn Concerto, op.58 (1968)
Ben Goldscheider (horn)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lee Reynolds
rec.1 March 2021 (Arnold), 16 March 2021 (Schonberger), 15 May 2021 (Gipps), Henry Wood Hall, London

Monday, 6 June 2022

A New Yorkshire Musical Genius: A Eaglefield Hull Part II

RECENTLY, THREE NEW ALBUMS OF HIS PIECES have been published: Four Poems and Coloured Leaves (both by Augener) and Silverpoints, with Elkin’s who are also publishing a new set of four pieces containing an “Angelus” (the loveliest of all). [1]

Baines’s imagination takes fire from the glory of colour, the rhythm of sunsets, the glow of flowers and the stories of Poe. Paradise Gardens was written in the summer of 1919, as a result of a few moments’ inspiration derived from a reverie in the gardens near the city walls in York. [2] A glorious sunset drew forth like a magnet all the colour and essence from the flowers, the distant domes [and spires] in the city glittered like oriental palaces.

The Four Poems are a poem-fragment, a delicate little dance movement, in miniature rondo form, with a sylph-like refrain, usually played much too fast; ‘Elves,’ a playful sketch on the upper part of the keyboard; a ‘Nocturne’ which is very characteristic of Baines in harmonic reveries; and a leonine ‘Appassionata.’ The Coloured Leaves book consists of a ‘Prelude,’ capable of many interpretations, all good; an intriguing little ‘Waltz,’ avowedly written for children; ‘Still Day,’ a lento full of rich colouring; and a moorland sketch ‘Purple Heights.’

The Silverpoints album has Labyrinth, a water study in a deep-sea cave, Water Pearls, an exquisite piece of tone-painting over a standing tonic throughout; The Burning Joss-Stick in the Chinese devotional manner, and the purely decorative Floralia – all highly representative pieces.

The composer’s exquisite tastes is shown in the titles of his pieces quite as much as in the contents. He would have likes to call his new set Vistas had he not been forestalled by Cyril Scott.

I can think of no better way of ending this little sketch than by quoting the close of my British Music Bulletin pamphlet:

“Well, sirs, you need not take your hats off yet; but I would fain have you in the mood for doing so.”

P.S.  Just after I had finished this article, the following appreciation which I had asked Mr Frederick Dawson to write for The Bookman, came:

It is a great joy to an artist to find work so individual in idea and expression as the music of William Baines. Like all the best writers for the pianoforte, Baines owes much to Chopin (who himself derived from John Field) and indubitably he has been considerably influenced by the revolution in modern harmonic thought, but he is in no sense a copyist, he has created for himself a wholly personal and original medium (his pianoforte technique is often that of a daring virtuoso). His outlook is entirely modern; still very young his youth and enthusiasm are apparent in all his work., but nowhere is there any trace of immaturity. On the contrary, his subtle appreciation of tone values and his skill on securing an exact atmosphere everywhere proclaim the master of his means; strikingly remarkable are his wonderful endings, which at first hearing may sound unexpected, perhaps even startling, but prove in closer acquaintance to be the only satisfying, the inevitable, conclusions.

“He possesses an inexhaustible fancy and the enviable gift of translating into terms of sound his love of Nature and his joy in the beautiful.”

[1] Angelus was included in an album of Three Pieces. The other titles were Ave! Imperator and Milestones: A Walking Tune. It was published by Elkin & Co. in 1922.
[2] The gardens referred to, were the policies of the Station Hotel. Once idyllic, they have been largely sacrificed to the god automobile. Fortunately, there is sufficient remaining to give a clue to the impact on William Baines.

Friday, 3 June 2022

A New Yorkshire Musical Genius: A Eaglefield Hull Part I

Arthur Eaglefield Hull (1876-1928) was a British music critic, author, organist and composer. He wrote for many periodicals, including The Monthly Musical Record. His books include an early biography of Cyril Scott (1919) and Modern harmony, its explanation and application (1915). He edited the organ works of Alexander Guilmant. His life ended in tragedy when he fell in front of a train at Huddersfield Railway station. The coroner reported “Suicide whilst of unsound mind.”

I have provided a few footnotes and have made a few orthographical changes to the text.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, THE WORK OF WILLIAM BAINES would have been impossible in England. Fortunately for him, as for many others, the whole artistic outlook has now changed, not only in Britain, but all over Europe. In 1914 the great Russian composer, Scriabin, replied to an article by Briantchaninoff in the Novoe Vremia [1] on the educational significance of the war, saying “You have voiced and old idea of mine, that at times the human mass needs to be shaken up in order to purify itself and to fit it for the reception of more delicate impressions (vibrations) than those to which it has hitherto responded.” The upheaval of the war was not however the only cause of the improved outlook; but it was the chief contributory one.

In the realm of British music tocsins [bells] were rung by Parry with his Prometheus Unbound in 1880, Stanford with his Irish Symphony in 1887, and by Mackenzie with his Britania Overture in 1894; but the nation at large was unable to respond – perhaps because the ringers themselves could not be quite wholehearted on their summoning, for they were all three trained on German lines. And the land rested for another term of years until Elgar came with his Gerontius in 1900, speaking at last in the pure English musical tongue, and Bantock followed with his Omar Khayyam, flinging the door wide open to the East, and Holbrooke with his Ulalume, rating an indolent public for its bovine deafness. Then the war shut off our musical intercourse with Germany for seven lean years, during which times we discovered the new musical schools of Belgium, France, Spain, Italy and Finland, the significance of India and Japan in art, and incidentally our own national musical soul, with its shallow musical hypocrisies, its immense inheritances, and its glorious possibilities. We discovered Bax, Ireland, Bridge, Butterworth, Goossens, Holst, Vaughan Williams and many others. And during their naissance, a small boy reared in circumstances so humble that they allowed no musical training, only sparse opportunities of hearing good music, hardly any books ever, was weaving music of an unusual beauty and a rare originality, out of nothing.

One day in January 1920, I arrived home late at night tired out by a long journey. Turning listlessly over a stack of new music on the piano, the title Paradise Gardens caught my fancy, and the first few bars arrested my attention. Here was an unknown composer writing in all the splendour of Scriabin’s piano style, but with an individuality swung in an altogether different direction. I played through Paradise Gardens with keen interest and repeated it with wonder and admiration. A rare melodic gift, an originality of expression, a dainty but logical harmonic invention, an attractive personality, and a Japanese exquisiteness of perfection, all floated out from the tones of my Blüthner grand. The piece was a well-sustained reverie, full of delicious motives and fragrant tone-colours. I turned to the only other copy of Baines in the stack of new music, a set of Preludes, wondering who the new composer could be. These proved to be seven delightful miniatures in varying moods. The first had some Scriabinic turns of harmony yet possessed individuality. The second written in a convent garden, [2] contrasts the delicate sounds of a blackbird’s notes with the turmoil of the composer’s ow feelings, concluding with a waft of organ sound. The third is an eight-bar harmonic miniature, a gem of the rare order of the Chopin C minor prelude. In the fourth I found a whirl of gyrating patterns of harmonic play, like a sun dust dance; the fifth a sketch of poppies gleaming in the moonlight; the sixth, an exquisite piece like nothing else in the world; the final piece, I thought, spoilt a lovely set. The first six pieces all moved with a delightful life. The style was thoroughly steeped in the essential colour of the piano but was free of the Chopin morbidezza. [3] Only Debussy and Scriabin has written for the piano. I placed the pieces aside to show to my friend William Murdoch who was visiting me on the following night.

He read them off at sight in a wonderful way, was impressed, and promised to put them into his programmes. Meanwhile I wrote to the publishers and found that the composer was a youth of nineteen, living in a small Yorkshire town, Horbury and was on the point of moving to York where his father was fulfilling an engagement as a cinema-pianist. Baines came and stayed with me, bringing shoals of unpublished manuscripts, quartets, songs, a symphony - more piano pieces. I was confirmed in my hope and was pleased meanwhile to read an unusually appreciative notice of two Baines pieces, by Mr Dunton Green in the Arts Gazette. I could not conceive how the other critics had overlooked such striking music; so, I determined to sound a loud fanfare, and opened an article on the new pieces in the British Music Bulletin (March 1920), [4] which I then edited, with the ecstatic cry of Schumann over Chopin’s early pieces, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” Since then, the composer has become widely known in the North, giving recitals of his own music to a large and ever-growing following at such places as his health permits him to visit – Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, Huddersfield, etc. Mr Frederick Dawson, [5] the famous pianist, has recently become an enthusiastic propogandist of Baines’s music and a warm friend to the composer, whose future seems now to be assured, provided sound health can be won.

[1] A.N. Brianchaninov (1874-1918?) was a Russian music critic and editor of the magazine New Link. He was a friend of Alexnader Scriabin and was an enthusiastic proponent of his music.
[2] This is most likely Bar Convent in York.
[3] Morbiezza: an extreme delicacy and softness
[4] The British Music Bulletin was the house journal of the British Music Society founded by A. Eaglefield Hull in 1918 “with the intention of advancing the cause of music in Britain on every conceivable front.” It is no relation of the present British Music Society which was founded in 1979.
[5] Frederick Dawson (1868-1940) was a Leeds born pianist and teacher. He taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music and at the Royal College of Music in London. Dawson had a wide-ranging repertoire from the early English music to the French Impressionists.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

An interview with composer David Jennings: May 2022

David Jennings celebrates his 50th birthday on 30 May 2022. Highly regarded as both a composer and academic, he has made a considerable contribution to British music making throughout his career. His mind ranges beyond his chosen discipline and encompasses art, literature and a particular fondness for the English Landscape. I began my interview with him by asking about his early life in Yorkshire.

I know you were born in Sheffield. Please tell me a little about your childhood in Yorkshire and how and when you came to be a composer.

I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where music was very important, both at school and at home. My mother, Margaret Jennings, was a fine pianist - much better than me! My brother, Stephen, was Head Chorister in Sheffield Cathedral and my father, although not a musician, was playing records of the standard Classical Music repertoire all the time at home. I played violin in the Sheffield Youth Orchestra and took part in IAPS orchestral events. Being surrounded by music, it seemed natural to start composing my own pieces; I began to do this in earnest from about 1984. My first works were for solo piano or violin and piano, as I play both these instruments.

Which composers have most influenced you?

Initially I was very taken by the German romantic tradition; this was perhaps due to my father’s listening preferences. Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms were strong favourites, but it wasn’t long before I started to investigate music from my own country. I fell completely in love with Twentieth Century British music, especially Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Lennox Berkeley, Finzi, Rubbra and Alwyn. Non-English composers such as Sibelius, Barber, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel have also influenced me at various times. Medieval composers such as Perotin and that wonderful Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver made a considerable impact on me when I first discovered their music. I have a fascination for the Regency period and love the music of composers like Field and Hummel. Amongst contemporary composers, James MacMillan, John Tavener and Robin Holloway began to interest me in the 1990s. I found Holloway’s Serenade in C fascinating in the way it brought distinctive styles together, yet somehow felt all of a piece. It proved that contemporary music did not need to be repulsive!

Are there any composers or musical styles that repel you?

I can’t stand minimalism; it really is bread and water music. Music can - and should - express so much more than this. I struggle to see the point of Reich or Glass (though I rather like the latter’s Fifth String Quartet as it seems to have more substance than the usual minimalist piece). I used to hate Mozart. It always struck me as music that was as bland as a boiled egg; however, I have come to appreciate his Piano Concerto No. 23, especially the slow movement. I still feel that Mozart’s solo piano music is desperately thin, formulaic and not very interesting; if it were by anyone else it would probably have been forgotten years ago. (I sometimes wonder if Clementi’s Piano Sonata in F Sharp Minor might be better than all of Mozart’s piano music put together!). Bach’s choral music is so boring I can’t even sleep through it (but I do like Handel’s choral work, which is wonderfully vibrant). I tend to reach for the off button if Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter or Birtwistle are on the radio. The so-called “Manchester School” of composers have arguably received far more attention than their music warranted.

Have any musicians outside Classical Music influenced you? Does the pop music of your generation play a part in your life?

Yes, quite a few. The best music of Kate Bush and David Bowie shows a considerable knowledge of Classical Music and I feel it has benefited as a result. I’m very keen on the group And Also the Trees; they are sometimes described as a “Post-Punk Gothic Rock band,” but this is perhaps too much of a broad generalisation. Their music is intelligent and has a certain English melancholy about it that I find irresistible; their track “Blind Opera” is a miniature masterpiece. This fine band has been inexplicably ignored in the UK. The best music of Blur (such as “This is a Low”) and Amy Winehouse (particularly “Love Is a Losing Game”) has justly received acclaim.

I understand that the influence of the English landscape has been important to you: which localities are you thinking of and how have these landscapes inspired you?

Although I have lived in many parts of England, I love the North best. My favourite places are in Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire. There is a spaciousness in these landscapes and a lack of clutter; music should be like this. I hate music that has far too much going on in it, like the appalling “New Complexity” nonsense that used to attract so much attention. It’s extraordinarily simple-minded to assume that music must have more and more notes crammed into it just to evolve!

Your Harvest Moon Suite was inspired by six English watercolours. Please tell me about your interest in Art and how this effects your music.

I love the art produced by the so called “Old Watercolour Society” in the first half of the nineteenth century; artists like Peter de Wint and John Glover. Northumbrian artists are favourites; I adore the Richardsons of Newcastle and George Fennel Robson. These artists had a perfect balance of technique and expression which is truly inspiring; my aim is to recreate this equilibrium in my own creative endeavours.

I wonder if you have practised any of the visual arts?

I enjoy drawing occasionally, though not on a professional basis. I like to create portraits and seem to have a knack for doing this; I have a small pencil sketch of my mother I did back in the 1990s that is (by accident or design) a good likeness.

You are particularly interested in literature: which writers impress you and how have they influenced your music?

I love the Eighteenth Century Graveyard school (and can’t imagine why I am unable to pass this interest onto my wife, despite my best endeavours!). Poets such as Coleridge, Southey and Kirke White are constant favourites. I also admire Scottish writers such as David Mallet and Walter Scott and American poets such as W. C. Bryant and Longfellow. Amongst contemporary writers, I am attracted to the poems of Linda France, Katrina Porteous and the late great Andrew Waterhouse. His death at the early age of 42 was a tragedy.

Have you set texts by any of these authors for choir or solo song?

I have set four poems by Coleridge; these collectively form my song cycle Glide, rich streams away. The work is scored for mezzo-soprano, oboe and piano; the four poems I set are “The Knight’s Tomb,” “A Plaintive Movement,” “Limbo” and “Work without Hope.” This is one of my best works of recent years but, as it was not written to commission, this song cycle is currently unperformed. Sometimes a poem may trigger off a purely instrumental piece; the words may suggest an overall mood rather than a specific series of notes.

Have you written music using a Tone Row or Series? Is this methodology appealing to you?

My Prelude and Fugue for solo piano, op.5 is strictly serial, but this piece is very much the exception rather than the rule in my output. Serialism does not have the same appeal to me now as it did when I was at university in the early 1990s. I view it as one of many tools I can use, particularly if I am aiming for a darker tone. I rarely use this technique throughout an entire piece, but may employ it in short sections of music, such as in the first movement of my Piano Sonata or in my song “Limbo.” I think Serialism has probably run its course anyway; the future clearly lies with tonal music. Serialism has now had a hundred years to establish itself as a viable alternative to the tonal system and has evidently failed. I do enjoy certain serial works by Schoenberg and Searle, however.

In this era of hi-tech do you still use manuscript paper?

I always use manuscript paper for my initial thoughts. This helps me to feel closer to the actual material because I am using my hands to create it at a real instrument and not a computer. If it is a piano piece, I may write the entire initial draft on paper at the piano. I use Sibelius software to develop and edit my chamber and orchestral works. The editing stage can be terribly laborious, and the software can certainly help to make this process easier.

Do you consider yourself to be a Yorkshire composer? Which composers from this region inspire you?

I do see myself as a Yorkshire composer. Many people don’t realise how rich this county is musically. One of my favourite composers is William Baines; his musical endings are always intriguing! George Dyson’s Symphony is unfairly neglected; the Naxos version of this is an essential listen. Kenneth Leighton’s music is, at its best, inspirational; few English composers have matched the range and power of his piano works. Both my teachers have Yorkshire connections; John Casken was born in Barnsley and Arthur Butterworth spent the second half of his life near Skipton and was inspired by the surrounding countryside. I remember meeting the late Francis Jackson, who I admired greatly both as composer and performer. This was just after he had given an organ recital at the age of 93! I was left with the impression that this was a man of immense goodness, without a shred of ego.

Your CD of piano music attracted much attention; do you consider yourself primarily a composer for piano?

No, but I am aware that some people do. Today, record companies are more likely to produce recordings of piano music than large orchestral works. This is the reason my first recording was of my piano output. I feel that listeners will have a better overall grasp of what I am about as a composer when my chamber works, and orchestral music are commercially released. My Overture The Lincoln Imp is probably one of my best orchestral works.

How important has been your role as a teacher?

I enjoy teaching; my favourite area is (not unexpectedly) composition. Some pupils are astonished by how much work is involved. I remember one A level student being amazed that a symphony requires upwards of 200 pages to write down in full; they assumed it was half a dozen pages! It is wonderful when a student hits on good compositional ideas. I sometimes remember my own teachers’ advice when I am advising my students how to solve a particular musical problem.

Please tell me about a particular career highlight.

One highlight was when members of the Northern Sinfonia performed my Gargoyles for ensemble at Durham. The players were magnificent, and the work was very well received as a result. This was the first time I had heard a non-piano piece by myself, and I was a little concerned before the concert that it might not “work;” I was so pleased that the sounds in my head matched what happened in actual performance. More recently, a concert in Weardale (in 2019) that was entirely devoted to my music was a wonderful experience for me. Since then, we have had Covid and other troubling world events – it now seems like a lifetime ago.

Your teacher at Durham University and later Manchester University was John Casken; please tell me a little about the music life at Durham and what Casken was like as a teacher.

Durham University in the 1990s was a marvellous place to study music; we were very fortunate to have John Casken teaching composition. We could write something quickly and hear it played back in concert a day or so later; this is so important if you want to evolve as a composer. It was inspiring to be surrounded by other students, all of whom lived and breathed music. Occasionally we would all discuss the latest pieces for hours on end, blissfully cocooned from the outside world. Notable composers would come to see their music played as well; I remember Hans Werner Henze visited. He was very charismatic and had a wonderful old-school charm about him. (I must confess I found his music rather uneven, however). James MacMillan visited to hear a concert of his recent work; he was a former student of the University and of John Casken. I recall hearing Rumon Gamba, another Durham student, conduct the university orchestra; it was impossible not to be bowled over. By some mysterious alchemy, he made them sound like the London Symphony Orchestra! Other students who studied at Durham at this time included Jeremy Cull, who has made a strong impact as composer and organist; I was saddened to hear of his death in 2017 at a young age. As a teacher, John Casken tended to focus on how successful you were at realising your ideas on a technical level; he didn’t often discuss your actual style. In 2020, several of John’s students, including James MacMillan and myself were invited to compose piano pieces to commemorate his seventieth birthday. These were premiered at Manchester University, all together in one recital. What was really striking was how different each piece was stylistically; it was hard to believe they were by students who all had the same teacher. This indicates how we were all encouraged to find our own compositional path rather than producing carbon copies of our teacher.

You also received instruction from Arthur Butterworth; how was he helpful?

Arthur gave me valuable advice concerning orchestration; I sometimes think about a point he has made when I am working with my own students. My Neoclassical Symphony is dedicated to Arthur; he suggested thickening the orchestral texture in the first movement and I duly did this, which much improved the piece. I was thrilled when he praised the fugue in the last movement of my symphony as he could admittedly be quite blunt at times. I could take this, but other composers (and occasionally performers) sometimes found him a little acerbic. I remember finding an answerphone message from Arthur saying how much he had enjoyed hearing my Three Lyrical Pieces for piano. Praise from him meant a great deal to me; if Arthur did like your work, you knew there must be something right about it!

In the 1990s you lived in London for several years; how did you find the musical scene there?

To be honest, I found the London New Music Scene in the 1990s very narrow and cliquey. I attended some of the contemporary music concerts that occasionally take place at The Warehouse on Theed Street and found the atmosphere rather divisive and alienating. Contemporary Music shouldn’t be partitioned off like this anyway; it is surely better to programme it with more traditional fare and have an intriguing blend of old and new. Unfortunately, it still exists in a sort of ghetto culture.

You have been known to revise works over several years; why is this?

I’m a perfectionist! A composer should have the capacity to take infinite pains to get something right. Ideas for a piece don’t always conveniently come at once; I like to let a work mature over a long period (this can be years) and revisit it when something better occurs to me.

Do you have a favourite amongst your own works?

I am very fond of my Piano Sonata; although it was originally finished in the late 1980s, I did return to it several times afterwards. In total, it took twenty-one years to finish to my satisfaction! My A Weardale Rhapsody is another favourite amongst my own pieces; there is a DVD with the premiere performance included, but the work needs a new recording in slightly clearer sound.

How do audiences/critics react to your music?

I have been fortunate that I have not had any bad reviews or negative notices – yet! I really care what audiences think and always like to discuss their reactions to my music. It is fantastic when you have a piece played and you can see that the audience is really concentrating on the music. I know that, sooner or later, the time will come when there will be criticism of my work and I am prepared for that 

Compositionally, are there any long term plans? An opera perhaps?

I think it is highly unlikely that I will ever compose an opera, as the form is so outdated, and I am not primarily a vocal composer anyway. A new symphony would be an interesting prospect if a commission for one came along. I am more concerned now with bringing all my existing pieces to a state of completion and having them available in print (and, if possible, in recordings).

You are a member of the Lakeland Composers; could you tell me more about this group and their activities?

The Lakeland Composers are a group of composers who meet up in Kendal, Cumbria (though recent meetings have been via Zoom because of the Coronavirus restrictions). We put on regular concerts, often in Lancaster or in the Lake District. We have different styles, though it would be fair to say that most of us are sympathetic to the English Romantic tradition. The music of Robin Field and Chris Gibbs deserves to be far better known than it is; their songs are especially memorable. MusicWeb International regulars will doubtless be familiar with Gary Higginson as a reviewer but should not forget that he is also a fine composer, who studied with Edmund Rubbra.

What other interests do you have outside Music, Art and Literature?

I have always been interested in antiques, architecture, numismatics and history. When I’m not composing music, I might be found visiting a ruined abbey or old church - I adore lonely places. I am increasingly drawn to creative writing; it will be curious to see if I find the time to develop this further. The history of my own family is a more recent interest; this is probably because I will be fifty this year. I was curious to find that I have a connection to the Eighteenth Century Yorkshire composer, John Hebden. (No, I hadn’t heard of him either!) I think his music has much charm and personality. Research also indicates that I am a first cousin of Richard III (albeit nineteen times removed) and it is wonderful that he had such an affinity with Yorkshire.

Please tell me about the recordings of your music currently available.

There are currently three recordings available. There is the 2012 Divine Art CD of my piano works as played by James Willshire, a DVD of a concert of my chamber music (performed in Weardale) and a track on Duncan Honeybourne’s “Contemporary Piano Soundbites” CD. The Willshire disc has been well received and has had airings on Radio 3. I have had many emails from around the world from listeners saying how much they enjoyed this disc. The performances are exemplary, but it would be nice to hear alternative approaches as well. The DVD of my music includes the premiere of my A Weardale Rhapsody, and it is pleasing to think that this performance was recorded in the very area that inspired it. The “Contemporary Soundbites” CD was remarkable in many respects, not least the speed with which we were commissioned, then featured on YouTube and finally recorded commercially for the Prima Facie label. Duncan Honeybourne somehow got to grips with the widely distinctive styles of the featured composers and performed all the pieces equally convincingly

What projects are you working on at present?

I am currently working on a Ballade for solo piano, prompted by a poem by David Mallet entitled “Edwin and Emma.” I am also spending much time editing several chamber and orchestral works with a view to publicatio

How do you see Classical Music developing over the next few years?

I think that the commissioners and promoters of Classical Music at home and abroad have made significant errors of judgement over the last sixty or so years. By sidelining some of the most communicative composers (for example William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen) on the grounds of being too traditional, they have driven a wedge between more recent tonally inclined composers and their potential audiences. These are the very composers that will reconnect today’s listeners to contemporary music. Mistakes are still being made today; universities sometimes pressurise young composers to avoid a more melodic style. Some contemporary works are promoted for reasons other than musical merit, and this does not help the situation either. The only reason you should play a piece is that it is good; otherwise what is the point? 

What is your overall philosophy about what contemporary Classical composers should be aiming to achieve now?

Music should take you on a journey and reveal something significant about your own thoughts and emotions. It should harness melody and tonality in positive ways, not shrink away apologetically from these essential elements of music. So much late Twentieth Century music is what I would call “gestural;” it conspicuously avoids melody altogether and replaces it with an almost fanatical obsession with timbre and texture. The problem is that this approach is ultimately unsatisfying and rarely memorable. Composers need to communicate very directly and aim for individuality, which is far more important than originality.

David Jennings/John France April 2022
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.