Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Some British Symphonies Celebrating their Half Centenary (1969)

I guess the most successful of the meagre count of seven symphonies written in 1969 is Lennox Berkeley’s Third. At least it has two recordings to its credit. This work is a subtle balance between extended tonality tempered with serial elements. There are hints of Stravinsky, William Walton and not a little touch of French Impressionism in this music. It is a short work, with the entire symphonic structure concentrated into a mere 15 minutes.  The premiere was given at the 1969 Cheltenham Festival by the Orchestre National de l’ORTF conducted by Jean Martinon.

I hesitated to include Roberto Gerhard’s remarkable chamber symphony Leo which was his last completed score. As a score featuring a dozen players it should probably be classified as a chamber work. It was first performed at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire on 23 August 1969. The British premiere was given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 November 1969. The Observer (30 November 1969) commented that ‘Gerhard may be a master of sonority, but he is also a superb manipulator of themes, a lucid and purposeful harmonic thinker, and a man with a cool sense of formal sequence...Leo positively basks in these qualities…’

I am impressed with Alun Hoddinott’s great Symphony No, 4 (which is currently available on YouTube, see below). This is a great work that that exudes craftsmanship and imagination and deserves to be included in the CD listings.  It has been likened to Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6 in its moments of seeming desolation. However, there are many touches of Waltonian vibrancy and also nods from Olivier Messiaen. The Symphony was premiered at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 4 December 1969 by the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Maurice Handforth.

I am not a great fan of George Lloyd’s symphonies. I find that their style is a wee bit too eclectic for my taste. Some listeners pin this down to his essential optimism and cheerfulness. In this present case I feel that the ongoing musical allusion to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ is just a touch too wearing. On the other hand, there is some marvellous orchestration and sheer vibrancy of sound and rhythm in these pages. It does seem churlish that this admittedly enjoyable work had to wait some 13 years before it first performance.

Clearly, as I have not heard the symphonies by Raymond Warren, Oliver Knussen and Malcolm Williamson, I cannot comment on their respective merits. I would hazard a guess that works by these three composers would be worthy of a single recording at the very least. Certainly, looking at a few contemporary reviews, it suggests that a revival of these works may be long overdue.

Three other British symphonies were first heard publicly in 1969. David Barlow’s Symphony No.2 in two movements composed during 1956-59 and was premiered at Liverpool, Benjamin Frankel’s Symphony No.5 , op 46 was given its British premiere during March and Wilfred Joseph’s Symphony No.3, op.59 ‘Philadelphia’ was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 15 April 1969. Only Frankel’s work has been recorded. (CPO 999661, boxed set of complete symphonies).  

Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley/ (includes Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames Overture, Geoffrey Bush’s Music (1967) for orchestra and William Alwyn’s Four Elizabethan Dances) Lyrita SRCS.57 (LP) (1972). Symphony reissued on CD Lyrtia SRCD.226 (1992)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox (includes Sinfonia Concertante and Michael Berkeley: Oboe Concerto and Secret Garden) Chandos CHAN 10022 (2001)

Roberto Gerhard: Chamber Symphony “Leo”
Collegium Novum Zurich / Peter Hirsch (includes Gemini, Libra, Concerto For 8) Neos 11110 (2014) 

Alun Hoddinott: Symphony No 4
No recording, although broadcast performance available on YouTube

Oliver Knussen: Symphony in One Movement (revised 2002)
No recording

George Lloyd: Symphony No 9 (premiere Manchester, Dec 1982)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/George Lloyd (includes Symphony No. 2) Albany Troy 055-2 (1993) (original CD release: Conifer CDCF 139) (1986)

Raymond Warren: Symphony No 2
No recording

Malcolm Williamson: Symphony No 2 (Bristol, 1969)
No recording

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble-some more information

As a pendant to my post on Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell, I found a letter in the January 1980 edition of The Gramophone. Mr. Derek Forss of Dorking Surrey wrote to the editor:
‘At last somebody has written a piece of music inspired by the English Lake District, which is all the more surprising since this delectable area of England has attracted poets and writers over the years, but not composers. I am referring, of course, to the Argo record (ZRG906, reviewed last November), which contains the piece of music by Raymond Premru Music from Harter Fell. I have enjoyed this piece enormously which seems to evoke something of the mystery of the area, but then I am biased towards anything written about the Lake District.
However, one thing puzzles me. The Lake District abounds in name duplications and, you've guessed it, there are two Harter Fells. The most popular Harter Fell is in Eskdale and overlooks the Hardknott Roman Fort, but there is another Harter Fell near Haweswater which is higher in altitude and I feel that Raymond Premru's composition evokes the character of this area more than the Eskdale Harter Fell. Perhaps Mr Premru would care to comment further on his inspiration for composition since the sleeve-note is not forthcoming on this point.’

The editor of The Gramophone was able to reply: ‘A nice prompt response from Decca…says that Mr Premru has been contacted and advises that it is the Eskdale Harter Fell which he knows and which inspired the composition.’  I agree with the author of the letter that the Haweswater Harter Fell seems nearer the mark to the mood of the music,

Perhaps the editor should have brought some of the following pieces to Mr Forss’s attention. Arthur Butterworth composed a set of piano pieces entitled Lakeland Summer Nights, op.10 in 1949. There is a fugitive chamber work by Cyril Rootham entitled In the Lake Country for violin (viola or cello) and piano (1924).  My personal favourite evocation of the Lake District is Maurice Johnstone’s impressionistic tone poem, Cumbrian Rhapsody: Tarn Hows (1951) Fortunately, a recording of this work was released in 1999 by ASV Whiteline label on CDWHL 2116. One of the great ‘Lakes-inspired pieces is John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band: this is a masterpiece of Lake District landscape ‘tone-painting.’ Finally, there was Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Symphony No. 3 in B-Flat Major, Op. 104, ‘Westmorland’, composed in 1944.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble

In my recent post about the ‘Cheltenham Symphonies 1970-1994’ I noted the superb recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony for brass performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. It was originally released in Argos LP (ZRG 906) on 1979. One of the other pieces on this LP that caught my eye (and ear) was Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell.

First, a few words about the composer. Raymond Premru was born in Elmira, New York, USA on 6 June 1934. After graduation from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he moved to the United Kingdom during 1956. For some 30 years he was bass trombonist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Premru developed a close association as a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble which endured for 26 years. He was interested in a wide range of music, especially jazz, big band and rock. This led to recording contracts with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra.  Much of Premru’s career was taken up with teaching: he taught at his alma-mater as well as the Guildhall School in London. Between 1988 and 1998 he was Professor of trombone at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
As a composer, Raymond Premru wrote a diverse catalogue of music, including two symphonies, several brass concertos and much music for brass and jazz ensembles. His ‘classical’ musical style is nominally tonal (with ‘acceptable dissonances’), and clear influences from Charles Ives, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky.
Raymond Premru died in Cleveland, Ohio on 8 May 1998.

Music for Harter Fell was composed specifically for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and was premiered at the 1973 Cheltenham International Music Festival. The work is scored for three trumpets and three trombones. The record sleeve-notes suggest that the work was inspired by a holiday in the Lake District. 
It is difficult to know if Premru chose to compose a descriptive piece of programme music or whether it was the landscape that gave him the initial impetus for this work.

The composer has written that the fundamental musical material is derived from the intervals of a minor third and a minor second. The formal structure of the work is a single movement divided into three contrasting, but related, sections. The opening of the work is chorale-like, but soon developing into a more contrapuntal structure. The second section is ‘an invention’ or ‘improvisatory pointillism’ written in four parts. Finally, Premru has provided as rather thoughtful ‘Pastorale’ to conclude the work.

The only recording of Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell was included on the above-mentioned Philip Jones Brass Ensemble’s 1979 disc ‘Modern Brass’ Argo ZRG 906. The music was recorded at the Church of St George the Martyr during January 1979. Other works on thus LP included the vibrant Capriccio for brass quintet by Leonard Salzedo and Malcolm Arnold’s ‘brilliant, brash and wistful’ Symphony for brass instruments.

The October 1979 edition of The Gramophone advertised ‘Modern Brass’ with the splash ‘Sunshine into Autumn’. The sleeve was a modern subversive design with graffiti-like artwork. There were five new LPs from Argo, including Mozart Flute Concerti, Music from King’s College, Parry’s English Lyrics and Handel Ballet Music.
The following month Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, November 1979) wrote that: ‘There is unification in the sound of [Harter Fell]; though using only three trumpets and three trombones, it is yet the variety of sound, within these limitations, which is nevertheless the more remarkable. Variety of style seems rather less readily at call; but the overall effect of one continuous movement in tune with Premru's stated intentions… If perhaps long-winded, the result remains a very attractive one.’
I certainly do not agree with MacDonald’s sentiment that this is ‘long-winded.’ For my taste the composer has got the balance just about perfect.

Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 3 December 2018)

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Frank Bridge: Summer -a tone poem for orchestra (1914)

Frank Bridge’s tone poem, ‘Summer’, H.116, ranks as one of my all-time favourite piece of music. And even on this February day it would feature as one of my desert island discs. I understand that it was composed whilst the composer was living in Bedford Gardens in Kensington rather than the depths of the English countryside. He had recently (1914) moved from Chiswick, hardly a rural retreat even then. This was at a time when the composer was extremely disturbed by the effect that the Great War was having on the lives of his friends. Bridge was too old to be involved in the fighting himself; besides he was an unrepentant pacifist. He was deeply disturbed by the apparent jingoism that was in the air at that time. Rather than write a ‘troubled’ work depicting in musical terms the clash of the Titans, or a patriotic march, he resorted to escapism. It is in this context that we are to listen to ‘Summer’.

It would be easy to see ‘Summer’ as a kind of parody of Delius with its hints of impressionism and seeming tendency to meander.  The reality is that it is a cleverly constructed work beibg conceived in ternary form. The skill that the composer brings with his orchestration and harmonic structures tends to blur this underlying formal structure.
‘Summer’ is one of those pieces of music that needs to be heard with a kind of relaxed concentration. By this I mean that it is not to be listened to in the background whilst discussing the Benidorm holiday snaps over a glass of Chianti. Neither, though, should it be an intellectual exercise. Switch off the light, open the window, enjoy the cool evening breeze and just melt into the delicious harmonies and counterpoints. Let the music wash over you. Lose yourself in the summer’s day haze. Think of Matthew Arnold’s evocative lines ‘All the live murmur of a summer’s day!’ It is nine minutes and forty seconds of heaven. There will be plenty of time to evaluate and analyse next day.

Frank Bridge must have the final word. He is quoted as saying in a letter to his wife, ‘…only if there is such a thing as rest in the soul of the listener and in the sweetness of a summer day faraway in the heart of the country will my piece ‘Summer’ make any impression.’ It does, and always has, blown me over.

My favourite version of Bridge’s ‘Summer’ is the recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves on HMV ASD 3190, (1976) (LP): EMI Studio CDM 7 69870-2 (1989) (CD).  This version has been uploaded to YouTube.  Other good accounts have been made on Chandos (Hickox) and Naxos (Judd).

Thursday, 10 January 2019

It’s not British, but Cello Sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninov

Like many people of my age who were discovering classical music in the early 1970s, I first came across Franz Schubert’s delightful Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824) on a Decca recording (SXL 6426) made by the magnificent combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. It had the added value of being coupled with Frank Bridge’s powerful Cello Sonata completed in 1917 and providing an enigmatic balance between ‘pastoralism’ and an exploration of a more recent European expressionism. Readers will forgive me if I admit that this recital has followed me since I bought the LP second-hand around 1971 and replaced it with the CD when it was released in 1995. I have not had recourse to any other version over the past 47 years. Neither have I heard this work played on the original ‘arpeggione.’
The Sonata was composed in 1824 at the behest of Vincenz Schuster, who was a virtuoso of the guitar-like instrument. Most subsequent performances have been played on the cello, as enthusiasm for the arpeggione had waned by the time Schubert’s work was published posthumously in 1871. The Sonata is full of splendid melodies, which seem to unfold one after the other. The opening theme is wistful, the adagio, hymn-like and the final allegretto is full of contrast and interest.
So, it is good to come across a version of this work which I thoroughly enjoyed. I shall still regard the Rostropovich/Britten as my ideal, but I cannot fault the playing and the interpretation given by Jonathan Swensen and Filip Strauch. They present this music thoughtfully and with little attempt at providing anything other preserving the charming and well-managed naivete of this music.

A different story applies to my discovery of the Rachmaninov Sonata for cello and piano: I picked up on a performance by Paul Tortelier on Radio 3. The wonders of the internet suggest that this was probably part of the ‘Composer of the Week’ broadcast over the Christmas period of 1972. Although I cannot recall the details, it was most likely played from the HMV LP ASD 2587 with Aldo Ciccolini on the piano. I was bowled over by the entire work and felt that it was a chamber ‘pendant’ to my then recent discovery of the Rach.2 Piano Concerto. Pocket money (lack of) prevented me from buying this album. It struck a chord, and I did hear it on the wireless a few more times. I never subsequently bought a recording of this work but did have the opportunity to review Philip Handy’s reading (VIF RECORDS VRCD082) in 2013.  
Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata was composed at the turn of the 20th century, receiving its premiere on 2 December 1901. I have long thought that two things predominate in this work. Firstly, the piano part could tend to dominate, having a huge part in the proceedings. So much so, that it often seems as if the cello is providing a kind of ‘continuo’ for the piano. Much of the pianism seems to echo Rach. 2.  The other ‘strange’ feature of this sonata is that it almost seems to be a concerto. I have written before that if you half shut your eyes and imagine, your mind will supply the orchestral background. It is also a feature of much of Rachmaninov’s solo piano music.
The Sonata is presented in four contrasting movement. The dynamic ‘scherzo’ is placed second whilst the ‘andante’ features music that is both introspective and highly-charged with romance and passion. Both players have managed to avoid the pitfalls of making this sonata into one for piano with a cello ‘obligato’.

Not sure about the CD artwork. On the rear cover, both gentlemen appear to be raising their eyes heavenward for inspiration, whereas on the front, only the cellist is seeking divine aid. Strauch looks as if he is having a sulk. As seems to be the case with so many liner notes these days, the font is miniscule. Fortunately, I had a .pdf file provided, so I was able to discover that there is precious little discussion about the music, but considerably more about the soloists and their working relationship. I guess programme notes for these two works are easy to find on the ‘net, however I do think there ought to be something about the works given here.

This present CD is the debut recording of both musicians. They met the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 2014 and subsequently had a successful recital career around the world and in the television studios. It is a well-played disc that is surely an auspicious start to their recording career.

Track Listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, op.19 (1901)
Jonathan Swensen (cello) Filip Strauch (piano)
Rec. Studio Hall of The Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, 2016/2018

Monday, 7 January 2019

Joseph Holbrooke: The Birds of Rhiannon Op. 87 (1923)

Joseph Holbrooke is an enigmatic composer. It is fair to say that at the beginning of the 20th century he would have been a serious candidate for fame. Most critics would have seen him as being in the ‘Top Ten’ of British composers – at least potentially. Yet, it is easy to accuse him of being over-productive and lacking self-criticism and restraint. It may well be that Holbrooke created the reaction against himself with his outspoken views on music, his massive operatic projects that required a huge commitment from producers and performers and maybe even his apparent wish to ‘Germanize’ himself: he changed the spelling of his Christian name to ‘Josef’!
It is only in our time that a reappraisal has begun. I guess that the operatic cycle based on Welsh legends will hardly ever be revived. Yet we are lucky to have several of his fine chamber works, his overblown but quite gorgeous Piano Concerto ‘The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd’ and a selection of tone poems. One of the amusing things about Holbrooke is his idealistic socialist contention that music ought to be approachable to the ‘proletariat’ or the Common Man/Woman. However, apart from his Variations on Three Blind Mice he wrote little that would have been of interest to the average Working Man down at the Dog and Duck! The commitment required from listeners to his music is immense and would sometimes baffle even the most battle-hardened of Wagnerians!

Rob Barnett included Holbrooke’s original programme note for The Birds of Rhiannon in his detailed review of SRCD 269 published on MusicWeb International on 7 June 2007.

"[The Birds of Rhiannon] is a fantasia written for small orchestra with glockenspiel and harp ad. lib. It is copious in material and has plenty of variety of theme, mood and rhythm. The work opens with a horn solo, the theme being taken up by the strings in the major key and treated with easy fluency and beauty of sound. Another theme on the first violins soon makes an appearance, leading into an andante movement in triple time; then the rhythm changes and the music continues in this mood for some little time while until we reach a tranquillo version of the first theme for oboe solo with tremolando accompaniment. After this there are many changes of style and rhythm and much flowing melody which could only be satisfactorily indicated by extensive quotation. The story of the Birds is found in the wonderful Mabinogion stories of early Welsh history. An episode says: After the death of Pwyll, [his wife] Rhiannon was by her son Pryderi, bestowed in marriage upon Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, and her subsequent history is detailed in the Mabinogi that bears his name. Her marvellous birds whose notes were so sweet that warriors remained spell-bound for eighty years together listening to them, are a frequent theme with the poets. Three things that are not often heard: the song of the Birds of Rhiannon, a song of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon, and an invitation to a feast from the mouth of a miser. The music of this piece is taken from various episodes in the composer’s dramas - Dylan, Children of Don and Bronwen- which are all scored for a very large orchestra. Although these dramas have now been written nearly fifteen years - and performed abroad - they are still practically unknown to our music lovers."

The score’s prefatory poem was written by T.E. Ellis (Lord Howard de Walden) the librettist of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy of operas:
‘On dark stars cold and ended,
Beyond the Gods we nest,
Our young wing white and splendid
From depths of death possessed.
We draw to where the spirit
Stands naked, clean and bold,
The Birds of High Rhiannon
Who save the vales untold.’

Yet, Holbrooke’s tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon is approachable and quite beautiful. As noted above, it is related to Holbrooke cycle of Celtic operas; however, it stands on its own. Arthur Hutchings, in the programme notes for the Lyrita recording, wisely points out that there is no need to dwell on the original ‘programme’ of this music in order to be able to enjoy its ‘beauty and integrity’.

Suffice to say that this is a well-constructed piece of music that displays Joseph Holbrooke's ‘exuberant versatility’ and his considerable skill at creating atmospheric musical pictures with the resources of a large orchestra.

The Birds of Rhiannon, Op. 87. Poem for small orchestra was premiered on 28 November 1923 at Hastings Pier. The Municipal Orchestra was conducted by Basil Cameron.  

The Lyrita recording by London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 14/11/2018)

Friday, 4 January 2019

E.J. Moeran: Rhapsody No.2 – a performance footnote.

E.J. Moeran's Rhapsody No.2 was commissioned for the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Centenary Festival and given its premiere there in 31 October. The composer conducted the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In 1941 Moeran tinkered with the orchestration, presenting it for a smaller orchestra. 
The work opens with a typical, folk-like tune for bass clarinet which is apparently based on a Norfolk melody called ‘Polly on the Shore.’ (Not Molly!) Despite this, the general mood of this work is once again that of an ‘Irish’ Rhapsody. It has been suggested that nearly all tunes want to turn themselves into jigs. There is a lovely deeply-thoughtful middle section with a broad tune which just makes the goose-bumps rise.  I am not convinced by the suggestion that this piece is less worthy than Moeran’s other Rhapsodies. If I am honest it is my favourite of the lot. 

In his thesis Ian Maxwell (2014) provides as detailed list of Moeran performances between 1920 and 1929. This information was ‘extracted’ from newspapers and musical journals. Maxwell notes a performance of Moeran’s Rhapsody No.2 on the BBC (2LO). He states that it was broadcast on 5 May 1925 and was conducted by Dan Godfrey Junr. The orchestra is declared ‘unknown.’
I found the concert listing in the Radio Times (1 May 1925). First things first. The orchestra was The Wireless Symphony Orchestra (which under Adrian Boult would become the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930. This concert was a live relay the studio. It was not broadcast from the Daventry transmitter.
The concert began at 8 pm with a performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, No.2. The soloists were S. Kneale Kelley (violin), Frank Almgill (flute), John Field (oboe) and Ernest Hall (trumpet). This was followed by the first London performance of Moeran’s Rhapsody No.2.  In the interval, a short reading was given from ‘Philemon’s’ book of essays From my Window.
The second half of the concert featured the cellist Beatrice Harrison (cellist) in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Concerto for violoncello and orchestra. This section of the concert concluded with Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor.  
At 10pm there was the nightly ‘Time Signal from Greenwich, the weather forecast and the 2nd General News Bulletin. After this, Scottish naturalist Professor John Arthur Thomson presented a short talk: ‘Scenes from the Drama of Animal Life.’
Music fans were fortunate in having a further delight. With the return of Dan Godfrey and The Wireless Symphony Orchestra the evening’s classical selection concluded with Alexander Tcherepnin’s delightful Suite from the Ballet ‘Le Pavilion d’Armide.’  Finally, night owls could ‘swing’ to The Savoy Orpheans and the Savoy Havana Bands relayed direct from the Savoy Hotel in London.

Maxwell, Ian, The Importance of Being Ernest John : Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran (Durham University, 2014)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra and Violin Concerto, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult, Lyrita SRCD 248 (original LP release Lyrita SRCS.43 with Cello Concerto and Overture to a Masque)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 3, Overture for a Masque and In the Mountain Country, Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, Naxos 8.573106 (2014)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with In the Mountain Country, Rhapsody No. 1, Serenade and Nocturne, Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, Chandos Classics Chan 10235 (2004) (original CD release: Chandos Chan 8639) (1989)

The Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley version of Rhapsody No.2 has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 11/11/2018). It is the second part of the file beginning at the 12-minute point.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

New Year's Greetings

A Happy and Prosperous New Year
To All Readers of
The Land of Lost Content

Some Significant (and less so) British Composer Anniversaries for 2019:

Albert, Prince Consort
Henry Farmer
W.L Longhurst
Edwin George Monk
Elizabeth Mounsey
Elizabeth Stirling
Laura Taylor

150 Years:
Ivor Atkins
Arthur Barclay
Henry Walford Davies
J.D. Davis
Arthur Hinton
David Stephen
S.P. Waddington

Bernard Barrell
Ivor Keys
Denis Matthews
Norman del Mar

Friday, 28 December 2018

Henry Charles Litolff: A Famous London Composer

Back in January of this year I flagged up that 2018 was the bi-centenary of Henry Charles Litolff. I guess that I had not realised that he was a British composer, despite having heard his delightful Scherzo many times. In fact, the Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 is the only work that is regularly heard. There are currently some 12 or 13 recordings of this movement in the CD catalogues. This compares to only a single entry for the entire concerto! The other four piano concertos are represented by a single recording of nos. 2 and 4, two discrete versions of no.3 and none of no.1 (as this score is lost). As for any other music by Henry Litolff there appears to virtually nothing, although I did find reference to a now deleted LP of a Piano Trio. (Genesis ‎– GS1058/59)

What of Henry Charles Litolff himself? He was born in Marylebone, London on 7 August 1818. His mother, Sophia Hayes was Scottish, and his father, Martin Louis Litolff was Alsatian (Alsace Lorraine). Interestingly, Martin, serving in Napoleon’s army, had been captured during the Peninsular Wars. He was a violinist in a ‘dance band.’ Litolff studied music with his father until he was twelve years old. In his early years, he worked at the Bond Street premises of Collard and Collard where he demonstrated pianos. Collard was so impressed by the young man’s playing that, c.1831, he introduced him to the great pianist, teacher and composer Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) (in my opinion, an ‘honorary Englishman’ himself) and Litolff soon became one of his pupils.  One of his earliest solo appearances was at Covent Garden Theatre on 24 July 1832, as ‘a pupil of Moscheles, 12 years old…’ He was actually 14 years old.

Litolff studied with Moscheles for five years until he was 17, after which he eloped (1835) to Gretna Green with a certain Miss Elizabeth Etherington. After their marriage, they fled to Melun in the Île de France and then to Paris.  Unfortunately, the couple lived in near-penury. Shortly, Litolff separated from his wife. With encouragement from François Fétis, Henri Pape and Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, he began to build his career as a pianist.  Tom Blair (Grove’s) suggests that Litolff moved to Warsaw for several years during which time he was conductor if the National Theatre. There is no record of this appointment.

Litolff went on to develop a stunning career as a virtuoso pianist. In fact, he was known as ‘The English Liszt’. As part of his solo career, Litolff travelled extensively throughout the world. He performed many concerts and recitals in Paris, Brussels, Leipzig, Prague, Dresden, Berlin and Amsterdam. Litolff suffered from a nervous disorder and was helped through this illness by the Bülow family. As a thank-you, he taught the great German conductor, composer and pianist Hans von Bülow for a short time.
Despite being a brilliant technician, his contemporaries often criticised his style as being ‘more showy than correct’

In 1845 he returned to England to attempt to get a divorce from Elizabeth, but his in-laws prosecuted him for abduction. He was fined heavily and given a prison sentence. He managed to escape with the assistance of the jailer’s daughter and set up base in The Netherlands.
The following year he became friendly with Gottfried and Julie Meyer. Meyer was the founder of Meyer music publishing. A few years later, Gottfried died and, after becoming a citizen of Brunswick, Litolff married Julie on 30 March 1851. The name of the firm was changed to Edition Litolff Verlag, later becoming noted for their yellow bindings. This popular edition made many of the ‘classics’ available to the ‘man in the street.’ The upshot of this was that for many years Litolff’s name was only recalled as a publisher.

Litolff was active in Brunswick music scene and was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1855. He was not happy in his new marriage and repeatedly ran away from his wife. She eventually divorced him in 1858 (or was it the other way around?).  Litolff’s third marriage in 1860 was to Comtesse Blanche, who was the daughter of Count Wilfred de la Rochefoucald. In the same year, he transferred his business interest in Edition Litolff to his adopted son (from Julie Meyer) Theodor Litolff (1839-1912) and made his retirement to Paris. 
In 1873, three years after the death of Blanche, Litolff married for a fourth time, to the seventeen-year-old Lucie who had nursed him through his illness. Little is known about the years from 1873 until his death in 1891.
Henry Charles Litolff died at Bois-Colombes, near Paris on 5 August 1891, aged 73 years.

Litolff’s compositions include the above mentioned five piano concertos a dozen stage works, an oratorio as well as several chamber music works and more than a hundred solo piano pieces. There are four overtures including Maximilian Robespierre, op. 55 which is occasionally revived. In his day, his greatest success was his comic opera Heloise and Abelard – a somewhat strange subject for a comedy.

The important thing to recall about the ‘piano concertos’ are that Litolff effectively created a new form: these were ‘symphonies’ with a complex and virtuoso obligato. An ‘obligato’ is an essential accompanying solo passage for an instrument. In other words, it performs an important formal or structural function. What this means is that the orchestra generally introduces and develops the thematic material and the piano was used to provide textural interest. It was not a battle between orchestra and soloist. Musicologists see Henry Charles Litolff in a trajectory from the ‘classically-derived concertos of Hummel, Moscheles and Chopin’ towards the more romantic works of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Edvard Grieg.

Finally, listen to Henry Charles Litolff most popular work, Concerto Symphonique No.4, Op.102 - 2. Scherzo on YouTube.  This is my favourite version with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent with Moura Lympany as soloist.
All four remaining Concerto Symphoniques have been recorded on the Hyperion CD label with Peter Donohoe (piano) and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (CDA66889 and CDA67210).

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Many years ago, in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, I discovered a Nativity scene by the Scottish artist William Bell Scott (1811-90). This had been painted around 1872.  The artist had used the landscape of south Ayrshire as his inspiration. This Nativity was set in a dilapidated barn near Penkill Castle. In the background can be seen the rural lowland Scottish landscape: one of the approaching shepherds is playing the bagpipes. It was this painting that made me realise that the Nativity is universal. European Renaissance painters had set it in their local landscapes, both rural and urban. So why not Ayrshire, or anywhere? 

Light in the Darkness
Norval Clyne (1817-1888)
The blasts of chill December sound
    The farewell of the year,
And night's swift shadows gath'ring round
    O'er cloud the soul with fear;
But rest you well, good Christian men,
    Nor be of heart forlorn;
December's darkness begins again
    The Light of Christmas morn.

The welcome snow at Christmas-tyde
    Falls shining from the skies:
On village paths and uplands wide
    All holy-white it lies;
It crowns with pearl the oaks and pines,
    And glitters on the thorn,
And purer is the Light that shines
    On gladsome Christmas morn.

'Twas when the world was waxing old,
    And night on Bethlehem lay,
The shepherds saw the heavens unfold
    A light beyond the day;
Such glory ne'er had visited
    A world with sin outworn;
But yet more glorious Light is shed
    On happy Christmas morn.

Those shepherds poor, how blest were they
    The angels' song to hear!
In manger cradle as He lay,
    To greet their Lord so dear!
The Lord of Heaven's eternal height
    For us a Child was born:
And He, the very Light of Light,
    Shone forth that Christmas morn!

Before His Infant smile afar
    Were driven the hosts of hell;
And still in souls that childlike are
    His guardian Love shall dwell:
O then rejoice, good Christian men,
    Nor be of hear forlorn;
December's darkness bring again
    The Light of Christmas morn.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

J.S. Bach: Some [Very Unoriginal] Thoughts on the Chorale Prelude ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ (The Day is Full of Joy) BWV 605

Every Christmas I listen to certain works that have become old favourites. For me, they are a part of my Yuletide‘tradition.’ I will listen to Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hodie, and over a few days, J.S. Bach’s monumental Christmas Oratorio. This list does not include the many carols I will hear in church, on the radio and in the shops. And then there are the popular songs that are trotted out each year. These traverse the repertoire from Bing Crosby to Slade and from Leroy Anderson to Wizard. All memorable stuff.

This year I have decided to listen (with attention) to the Christmas choral preludes from Bach’s remarkable Orgelbüchlein. For this blog post I have picked out my favourite seasonal number: ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ (The Day is Full of Joy) BWV 605.

Now, there has been much commentary on the Orgelbüchlein in general and also the individual chorale preludes. This ranges from the technical to the single sentence on a record sleeve. The definitive example of the former category is Peter Williams’ The Organ Music of J.S. Bach (Cambridge University Press, 1980, 2003). No lover of Bach should be without this and its companion volume. An example of the former writing for this present prelude is ‘Notice…the overwhelming joy of BWV 605…as conveyed by the exuberance of the rhythmical interplay…’

First, some words about the Orgelbüchlein itself. The Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) is a collection of relatively short organ works by J.S. Bach. Albert Schweitzer calls it ‘the lexicon of Bach’s musical speech’. It was originally conceived by the composer to include 164 preludes based on 161 hymn tunes used by the Lutheran Church on ‘high-days and holy-days’ during the Church’s Year. It is to be eternally regretted by organ enthusiasts that he only completed 46 of these pieces (BWV 599-644). Bach abandoned the project when he was appointed to the Court at Köthen. The Orgelbüchlein served (and serves) a dual function – for liturgical use and as a ‘primer’ for organ students. The British organist James Lancelot remarked that Bach’s Orgelbüchlein ‘has become the organists bible’. He further suggests that ‘no organist should be ignorant of the collection and every organist should master some, at least, of these chorales which have adorned the liturgy of churches throughout and far beyond Lutheran communities’. The Orgelbüchlein features largely chorales from the first half of the Christian year – Advent to Whitsun. As noted, they are short. The chorale is typically presented in the right hand ‘treble’ part and does not have ‘interludes’ between the sections of the tune. The ‘added value’ of these chorale preludes is found in the registration, the harmonization and the embellishment with musical ornaments. 

Turning to ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605. The melody for Bach’s chorale was based on the plainsong ‘Dies est laetitiae in ortu regale’ (Royal Day that chasest gloom!) which dated back to the 14th century. Both melody and text were first published in 1529: 

Bach also used this melody in BWV 719, a chorale prelude which is part of the Neumeister Collection. This was ‘rediscovered; by Christopher Wolff et. al. the in Yale Library. It contained 82 chorales by several composers including Pachelbel, Walther and J.C. Bach. There are some 38 chorale preludes by Bach, although a few of these are also attributed to Pachelbel and Walther.  
‘Dies est laetitiae’ was harmonised in four parts by Bach in BWV 294:

  ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ (The Day is Full of Joy)
 O hail this brightest day of days,
All good Christian people!
For Christ hath come upon our ways,
Ring it from the steeple!
Of maiden pure is He the Son;
For ever shall thy praise be sung,
Christ's fair mother Mary!
Ever was there news so great?
God's own Son from heaven's high state
Is born the Son of Mary!

This day the wondrous Child is born,
Lent to earth from heaven.
He comes to cheer a world forlorn,
Its heavy sin to leaven.
So, sing ye all the glorious birth
Which doth redeem our fallen earth,
And works our salvation.
Laud to Thee, Child Jesu Christ!
With mankind Thou'st kept the tryst
Thou Star of every nation.

The chorale prelude is ostensibly written in G major. There are a few chromatic notes. However, there is a tendency for the tune the harmonisation to explore the G mixolydian mode expressed through several F naturals in the entire prelude, including one in the melody itself. This gives a flavour of the ancient ecclesiastical mode.
The melody, for the right hand, is written in the ‘treble’ part, and is played on a ‘solo’ manual. I think that this should ideally be a reed stop, however it would also be effective on choir or great flutes. The left hand plays interesting motives, which are cleverly split into two parts or voices. These are played as ornaments. This figuration is upheld until the conclusion of the prelude. Registration for the left-hand music includes foundation stops 8ft, 4ft and 2ft. It would be possible to include a ‘quiet but scintillating mixture.’ The pedal presents a ‘firm quaver’ part.

The great German scholar Julius August Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) in his Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685–1750 (1873/1880) stated that ‘The Christmas melody ‘Der Tag der ist so freudenreich’ is beautified by a joyful soaring rhythm…’. Harvey Grace (The Chorale Preludes of J.S. Bach, 1922) has written that ‘The [accompaniment] figure is used…to express the joy of confidence in the Divine goodness, and its rhythm is the main feature in [this] gay prelude…the gaiety, by the way, comes out only when the piece is played very quickly and cleanly.’  
I wonder if this prelude ought to be taken a wee bit slower than Grace suggests. By doing so, it is possible to create a numinous atmosphere that reflects Keller’s (The Organ Music of J.S. Bach, 1948) contention that the left-hand part imagines the ‘rocking cradle’ at the nativity.

For me, Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605 epitomises the Christmas season and its message. On the one hand, there is the intimate mystery of Jesus’s birth in the mean stable in Bethlehem and on the other, the joyful announcement of the Incarnation of God made Man.  All this profound symbolism, truth and wonder is contained in less than two minutes worth of music.

A good example (if a little fast for me) of ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605 can be heard on YouTube. Olli Porthan plays on the Verschueren organ (1994) at Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Benjamin Britten: The Holly and the Ivy for choir.

In late 1956, Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was asked by June Gordon (1913-2009), Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair to arrange ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ for the Haddo House Choral Society’s annual Carol Concert. The Britten Catalogue (1999) explains that the reason for this request was because the choir ‘were heartily sick of all arrangements…tried so far.’
June Gordon was a near-contemporary of Britten and had graduated from the Royal College of Music at the same time. In 1945 she founded the Haddo House Choral Society.

‘The Holly and the Ivy’ for unaccompanied chorus (SATB) was completed by Britten during January 1957. The text is derived from an original carol collected by Cecil Sharp’s published in his English Folk Carols (1911). Sharp states that he heard the tune sung by Mrs. Mary A. Clayton, aged 64, at Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire on 13 January 1909. He had noted five versions of the carol. These were denoted as A, B, C and D – text and tune and E - text only. Britten used version ‘A’ for this setting.  
The sheet music carries the dedication ‘For June Gordon and the Haddo House Choral Society, 1957.’

The holly and the ivy are trees that's both well known;
Of all the trees that grows in woods, the holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun, the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry harp, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom as white as any flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Saviour.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a colour as green as any tree,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to set poor sinners free.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ at Christmas day in the morn.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
The rising of the sun…
English Traditional carol

Britten has created a kind of ‘palindromic’ setting of this carol. The arrangement of each verse is given a different combination of voices as follows: Verse 1, solo treble accompanied by altos, Verse 2, tenor solo accompanied by basses, Verse 3, alto (or mezzo soprano) solo accompanied by tenors, Verse 4, baritone solo accompanied by sopranos and altos. The process is then reversed. The soloists may be replaced by a semi-chorus. In each case the accompaniment is simple, often depending in a ‘pedal’ note.
In the first six verses the refrain ‘The rising of the sun…’ is heard in the same harmonisation. There is considerable use of parallel thirds here. The final chord is at the unison. Britten subtly varies this refrain for the final verse providing a descant and concluding with a six-part (basses and altos divisi) chord contrasting dramatically with the spare conclusion of the previous six refrains. It includes effective crossing of parts.
The harmony of this carol is straightforward: there is not a single accidental in the entire piece. The harmonic interest is devised by gentle clashes in the part writing creating and dissolving gentle dissonances. Much use is made of major and minor 7th and 9th chords.

The carol was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1957 and was reissued in 1963 by Novello in their compilation volume Sing Nowell: 51 carols new and arranged and edited by Louis Halsey and Basil Ramsey. The present arrangement also appears in The Cambridge Hymnal ed. David Holbrook and Elizabeth Poston. (OUP 1967)

The Britten Catalogue (1999) notes that the first performance of this carol was during a BBC Home Service Broadcast on 22 December 1957. It had been recorded on 14 December at Haddo House in Aberdeen by the Haddo House Choral Society, conducted by June Gordon.  I was unable to find an exact entry in the contemporary Radio Times.

It is good to know that the Haddo House Choral and Operatic Society is still going strong. They have presented a series of Carol concerts over in the run up to Christmas 2018.

There is a splendid version of this carol on YouTube sung by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks and originally issued in 1966 on the LP Christmas Music from King's.

Finally, my (very tatty) copy of the sheet music for Britten’s ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ was bought in a now-defunct second hand bookshop in North Wales for 5 pence. The copy, presumably surplus to requirements, is stamped up as belonging to the Frodsham and District Choral Society. It is satisfying to discover that this Cheshire organisation is still performing happily in 2018.

Brief Biography:
Banks, Paul etc., Benjamin Britten: A Catalogue of Published Works (The Britten-Pears Library, 1999)