Thursday 31 January 2008

Eric Coates – Master of Light Music

I was asked by a more ‘intellectual’ musical friend the other day why I liked the music of Eric Coates. 
I freely admit that this so-called ‘light music’ composer often moves me more than some of the more serious candidates including Beethoven himself. There is something deeply comforting about pieces such as the Merrymakers Overture and the Three Bears Fantasy. My mother would probably have said that it was the musical equivalent of nursery food – Ginger Sponge, Bread and Butter Pudding and Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Nothing to do with the consistency of the mixture, I hasten to add – more to do with the 'feel good' factor!
As people get older they often look to the age of their infancy and see there a kind of Golden Age – a fairer and more pleasant land where everything was ‘decent and in order,’ when life was quite simply, simpler.
Eric Coates music takes me into a world of Routemaster buses, steam trains, seaside holidays at Morecambe and Hillman Minx cars. It is very easy to allow ones mind to drift down country lanes and linger at the edge of leaf fringed lakes. If I was honest I see this music in the same tones as 1950’s British Railway posters – a kind of idealised England. Yet it is the kind of England that I would really like to live in.

Someone once said that realism can realistically be a gas works in the East End of London or it can be the view from Box Hill in Surrey with your lover on your arm. Yet it is only a certain kind of mentality that insists that there is a greater artistic merit to the industrial as opposed to the pastoral.

Coates present the listener with a musical image that makes us feel better, reconnects us to our dreams and awakens the magic of England: and this can only be to the good.

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Gordon Langford's Spirit of London Overture.

This Overture is another work in a long series of London-inspired works. Perhaps the most famous is Elgar's Cockaigne Overture or maybe Ralph Vaughan William's London Symphony. In a more popular vein who does not know and love Eric Coates 'London' Suites? And the cognoscenti will love John Ireland's London Overture with its musical reference to ‘Piccadilly’ and of course, Elizabeth Maconchy's Proud Thames.

Langford’s is a lesser known work that I first heard in 2003 on a CD release from Chandos. Elizabeth Challenger notes on MusicWeb bulletin board that a search on Google revealed nothing helpful about this work- except one review on that website and a lot of companies advertising the CD for sale. This is a pity since it is a valuable addition to music about London in particular and light music in general.

The Spirit of London Overture is "a tribute to a once great city (Capital of a once great nation) which the composer used to consider the most wonderful place on earth." In particular Langford refers to the 'defiant response' of the Londoners during the Blitz.
The work is a helter-skelter of ideas, images and icons: there are musical references to Bow Bells, to the Westminster Chimes and street cries (I guess that Langford was too young to remember these!) His imagery includes "muffin men, fresh fish vendors, milkmen, carbolic men… Presumably we buy all this from ASDA now - or if we are posh, from Waitrose.
Yet what concerns me with this piece is that he does not accept that cities change. To my mind London is still a great city- and most likely always will be. Of course, it has its good points and its bad. For example, the buildings are much cleaner than they were in 1973 when I first visited. Obviously crime has gone up - but many others things have improved. Politically it is as dynamic as it ever has been – irrespective of whether you support Ken, Boris or any one else.
Perhaps if we consider that the work was composed in 1965 we may have a clue. To many people the 'Swinging Sixties' must have been problematic. I guess that perhaps Langford was somehow protesting against Carnaby Street and the Beatles…!!!

I love London: I always have. I can think of nothing nicer than sitting in Kensington Gardens on a lovely spring day or of walking on Primrose Hill with all of London spread below me or an evening in the French House in Dean Street...the list is endless.
And what is most important is the sense of continuity - if a friend and I are sat in The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia, it is not too hard to hear the voice of Dylan Thomas declaiming his thoughts to Caitlin! Or exploring some of the City streets it seems that Dickens is never too far away. Or taking tea at the Ritz - perhaps one would not be too surprised if Noel Coward were to sit at the next table.
The bottom line is that I guess Langford's London never really existed. No more so than Eric Coates Knightsbridge or Julius Harrison’s Bredon Hill. Yet do not be put off - the magic of his score is that it excites the imagination and invokes nostalgia for a world that inhabits our dreams.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

William Mathias Fenestra for Organ

I listened to William Mathias’ fine organ work Fenestra for the first time the other day. I was lucky enough to find a copy of the sheet music in a second-hand bookshop and I had the CD in my collection. Unfortunately there is only one recording of this fine work available at present – John Scott playing the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Fenestra is a sizable piece lasting some twelve minutes. It was composed in 1989 as a Keele Concert Society commission and was first performed by Jennifer Bate on 22nd January 1990.

Luckily the composer provided a programme note: - The English for Fenestra is Windows. The darkness of the work's opening is gradually illuminated by sound windows of varying tempi, brightness and colour. The player is invited to adapt this metaphor on each occasion to the given individuality of the instrument, allied to the acoustic in which it is placed. This work was composed very much with Jennifer Bate in mind as first performer and dedicatee. Its basic idea was, indeed, generated through knowledge of the infinite care Jennifer Bate devotes to the important matter of registration - something which has to be thought out anew for virtually every occasion and location. Important as colour is, it nevertheless remains a metaphor for the work's musical argument, which proceeds and develops in a one-movement span from darkness to light.
Quoted from the Organists Review May 1993

Fenestra is a fantastic piece that certainly challenges the organist’s ability to provide good registrations. It is definitely not possible to play this work on the one manual - six stop organ at St Swithun’s! As with much of Mathias’s music there is a lot of parallel fourth and fifths- but this never becomes excessive in this piece. The work by its very nature abounds in time signature and tempo changes.

I perceive the formal structure of this work rather like looking at a stained glass window with some patterns repeated a number of times – but slightly varied – and offset with totally contrasting design. Lots of triads with added sixths give a certain relaxed feel to the quieter passages of this work – but the big finish with trumpets blaring and a huge chord with seven out of twelve tones finish the work impressively.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Alec Rowley: Outward Bound

This is one of my favourite sheet music covers. Of course, Alec Rowley wrote much piano music for educational purposes or for ‘younger’ pianists along with plenty that can be regarded as concert works. The Suite Outward Bound, is I would guess about Grade 4. However the musical imagery, the titles of the individual movements and of course the picture makes this work well worth digging out and giving it an occasional airing. And it is in the gift of amateur pianists! The first movement is a bold little ‘Chanty’ in 6/8 time. Then follows a bright hornpipe. Perhaps the heart of the work is the ‘Bosun’s Story.’ For a miniature this is actually quite a moving little piece: Rowley uses a variety of tempi and figurations to create the narrative. A ‘Sailor’s Song’ follows – much of it in unison. The Suite ends with a breezy ‘Jack Ashore’ which manifestly nods to ‘pranks’ when the ship is in dock. The piece and the suite end with a reflective two bar phrase.
Outward Bound was composed in 1922 and published by Winthrop Rogers Ltd. It is not possible to identify the name of the artist.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Bill Worland’s Broadstairs Suite

I really recommend Bill Worland's Broadstairs Descriptive Suite produced on the British Composers Series [Cameo 2017] It is not a new CD -but is one that I have been listening to this week.
I realise that it is ‘light music’ and to some people this may offend their highbrow notions. But this is ‘light music’ of a very high quality, invention and construction. Interestingly the work was written or assembled over a period of some 40 years! The 'Broadstairs' consists of five movements, which although claiming to be 'descriptive' are also quite simply enjoyable.
The first movement depicts the main bay in the town - Viking Bay and Pierremont Park. It opens quietly and is perhaps an early morning reflection on the scene. Nearby is the holiday house of Princess Victoria before she became Queen. Look out for Worland’s musical portrayal of the merry-go-round.
Stuff and Nonsense nods towards the local Dickens Festival. Lots of locals dressing up in pseudo period costume and ‘promenading.’
I love the Pavilion Waltz -so typical of its era. Most of the seaside orchestras have now gone (except Bournemouth!) - and this piece has a certain sadness about it that perhaps laments these lazy hazy crazy days gone by.
There is a street in Broadstairs that is called Serene Place. The fourth movement echoes this calmness. Certainly this street could be used as a film set - and I guess it has been.
The last movement tips its hat to Dickens once again. This time it is Bleak House and Joss Bay - where the great man wrote a number of his famous novels. Joss Bay has associations with smugglers.
Altogether this is a gentle work. It is consummate and deserves our attention.
I love the seaside - and this Suite makes me feel nostalgic for the days gone past - on the beach, in the swimming pool and looking for hermit crabs in the rock pools playing cricket on the beach with my father…
... I will be musing on Worland over the next few months too!

MuscWeb Review (he is obviously not quite as enthusiastic as I am!)

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Dramatic Choral Symphony by Josef Holbrooke

Further to my post about Centenary Compositions, here is a brief description of the missing work – Holbrooke’s Dramatic Choral Symphony

“The next important composition of Holbrooke's was his Dramatic Choral Symphony. This creation was inspired by four poems of the composer's favourite poet, Edgar Allan Poe, to whom so much of his work owes its impulse. The poems on which the new symphony was founded were The Haunted Palace, Hymn to the Virgin, The City in the Sea, and The Valley Nis. It was not completed until the year 1908, though six years went to the making of it.
Two of its movements were performed at the Bristol Festival in 1907, but the complete rendering of the work was first given by the Leeds Choral Union in 1908, and was conducted by the composer. Holbrooke has said that this is the last musical poem that he is likely to write on subjects taken from Poe's works, as he considers that he has now utilised all the best of them”
George Lowe

Monday 21 January 2008

Some Centenary Pieces for 2008

Arnold BAX: Lyrical Interlude for string quintet
Frank BRIDGE: Dance Rhapsody, for orchestra Suite for strings
Fred. DELIUS: Dance Rhapsody No 1 for orchestra; In a Summer Garden for orchestra
Percy GRAINGER: Country Gardens, for piano
Henry Walford DAVIES: Solemn Melody, for organ and strings
Josef HOLBROOKE: Dramatic Choral Symphony
Gustav HOLST: Savitri, opera; Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda Group I
Roger QUILTER: Songs of Sorrow
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: String Quartet in G minor

Interestingly I believe that the only piece here that is not available on CD is the Holbrooke!

Saturday 12 January 2008

Classic FM & Ralph Vaughan Williams

I am not a big listener to Classic FM. However it is often on when I am in the car or early in the morning when I am making the coffee.

I listen enough to know that typically RVW is represented by three pieces:- The Lark Ascending, The Fantasia on Greensleeves and Seventeen Come Sunday from the English Folk Song Suite. These works are played over and over again - it is almost as if the great man wrote nothing else. Now I guess that there will be other compositions given on an occasional basis - but these three are obviously the tops.
So it was nice to be wakened to something different this morning- Elihu's Dance of Youth & Beauty from Job. This is where the young Elihu rebukes Job for daring to curse God - 'Ye are old and I am very young.'

This is one of most moving parts of the work and perhaps even in RVWs total output.
Thanks Classic FM! Only one snag - poor old Nicola pronounced Job as in 'Bob' rather than Job as in 'Robe'!

Thursday 10 January 2008

The Clarinet Trio of John Ireland

Stephen Fox has written a fascinating study of a work that I never knew existed. Now, John Ireland is one of my favourite composers and I especially love his piano music and songs but I have never picked up on this particular 'lost' work. The Clarinet Trio was composed before the Great War and after a couple of performances was quietly forgotten. The holograph has become mutilated and Fox needed to do considerable reconstructive work. All congratulations to him for a good job well done!

The piece is scored for clarinet, cello and piano – a rare chamber combination indeed. In fact, the author states that “as the only piece for this standard instrumental combination to be found in the rich and distinctive genre of British late Romantic music, it should become a significant addition to the repertoire.” The work has been given a number of performances and I look forward to hearing the Riverdale Ensemble's recording.

Ireland later wrote a fine Clarinet Sonata which is regarded as being one of his masterworks. I wonder how critics will regard the Trio?

Sunday 6 January 2008

Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture – another picturesque analysis. This time by J.F. Porte written in 1921.

Cockaigne is the most popular of Elgar's three large overtures. Composed about the same time as the first two Pomp and Circumstance marches, it reflects in many places, the broad, British, and almost vulgar spirit of the victorious military events of the period. 
The overture opens with a swinging scherzando theme, the little figure of three reiterated semiquavers giving the impression of gaiety. This theme is succeeded by a still more sprightly tune, and the two are developed with great exuberance until a passage of some dignity announces the theme of the nobler Londoner. This is indicated Nobilmente, and is at once lofty and sustained. With a return of the cheerful atmosphere, the brass has some brilliant work, but soon a mood of peacefulness comes over the whole, and after a few cheeky ejaculations, the episode representing the lovers occurs. This is followed by a new theme, which is the sole property of the couple, and the music is now strikingly tranquil and expressive, becoming still more so in the elaboration of the love scenes. 
The romantic atmosphere, however, is suddenly squashed by the pert tune of the London street-boy. His theme is happily and significantly derived from that of the nobler Londoner, although the element of fun is naturally irresistible. The music becomes increasingly jerky until presently the opening theme appears fortissimo, presently associated with the lovers' theme. The Nobilmente now enters softly, followed by the concluding strains of the lovers over arpeggio figures, the whole of this portion forming one of the most beautiful in the work. As this serene atmosphere becomes enjoyable, the jaunty, swinging tune of a military band is heard in the distance. The lovers make several attempts to resume their peaceful conversation, but the growing activity of the urchins and approach of the band makes this impossible at the moment. 
The music continues to increase in intensity until at last, with a blaring splendour, the band passes by. The passage is strikingly imaginative, the din of drums, bells and triangle, the shrilling of piccolos, and the brazen tune in the brass, combine to make up a most exhilarating and realistic effect. After the street-boys' glee has been testified, the opening theme appears under a sparkling little accompaniment. This is followed by a thump, thump, thump, that unmistakably tells of another body of musicians. This band is a stationary one, however, as the sounds come no nearer and it turns out to be a Salvation Army meeting. The tune is discordant with the accompaniment, but as soon as one makes an attempt at perfect harmony, the other obligingly shifts into a different key. Peace comes to the lovers again through the medium of a neighbouring church, the music now being engaged with contrapuntal working. The street-boy turns up again, and his theme is mingled with that of the lovers as they leave the church. The opening theme appears vigorously in the trombones, the whole being colourfully treated. 
The military band approaches again, and passes by with all its former swagger and magnificence. A big ritardando passage now occurs and leads to the final statement of the nobler Londoner theme. The utmost splendour is now used, and the broad tune comes out in the full strength of the orchestra, now joined by the organ. The overture concludes with a last, vigorous reference to the opening theme. Altogether the Cockaigne Overture is a clever work. In places it is inclined to be rather vulgar, but that is because of Elgar's endeavours to obtain local colour of the Bank-Holiday London, The work is not to be counted among the finest of the composer's symphonic achievements, although it is often played and well known. The expressiveness of passages appertaining to the lovers, and the noble dignity of the Nobilmente.
J.F. Porte 1921

Saturday 5 January 2008

Elgar's Cockaigne Overture

I found this somewhat fanciful description of Sir Edward Elgar's Overture, Cockaigne (In London Town) in an old American book. However it is worth recording here.
NB Joseph Bennett was a music critic, librettist and journalist living and working in London in the early twentieth century.
At the time of the first performance of this overture (at a London Philharmonic concert, June 20, 1901), the following outline of the dramatic significance of successive episodes in the music was put forth by Mr. Joseph Bennet, presumably with the authority of the composer:

When the overture was first performed by the Boston Symphony orchestra (in November, 1901), Mr. Philip Hale included in his programme-notes this more detailed exposition: "The overture is a succession of scenes: it may be called panoramic. The scenes are connected by a slender thread. The composer imagines two lovers strolling through the streets of the town. The first picture suggested is that of the animation, of the intense vitality of the street life. Then comes a section which, according to the composer's sketch, expresses the 'sincere and ardent spirit underlying the Cockaigner's frivolity and luxury. The lovers seek quiet in a park and give way to their own emotions. They grow passionate, but they are interrupted and disconcerted by the rough pranks of young Cockaigners. The lovers leave the park and seek what Charles Lamb described as the sweet security of the streets. A military band approaches, passes with hideous rage and fury, and at last is at a safe and reasonable distance. The lovers go into a church. The organ is playing, and even here they cannot escape wholly the noise of the street. To the street they return, and the former experiences are renewed."LAWRENCE GILMAN 1907

The Land of Lost Content

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A.E. Housman