Wednesday 30 April 2008

Nadia Boulanger & Richard Stoker

Richard Stoker recently sent me a copy of an article he had written for the "Books & Bookman" December 1976 edition. This magazine is no longer extant and has not been digitalised.
Richard asked me to transcribe it and put it onto his MusicWeb International web pages.
There is no doubt that Nadia Boulanger was one of the most important figures of 20th century musical composition – it is not so much what she composed as who she taught. A list of her pupils reads like a catalogue of the ‘greats’ – including Elliott Carter, Lennox Berkeley, Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson, Astor Piazzolla, Thea Musgrave, Nicolas Maw,,, Interestingly it was not just ‘classical’ composers who benefited from her teaching, but included George Gerswhin and Burt Bacharach! 

"The first thing one notices about Nadia Boulanger is her delicate refined perfume, the next is her dress – neither of the Twenties, nor of the Sixties but timeless and above all, her own. When she speaks a slightly Americanised-English is noticeable but it is at all times musical, concise and pointed, with much warmth and precision. She gives you her full attention, listening carefully to all you have to say with a remarkable concentration and patience.

You immediately gain confidence from this attention and you begin to feel a worthwhile person in your own right. I am sure that this one of her great secrets as a teacher; no one is too unimportant for this attention and a few moments speaking to her is enough to treasure for a long time to come. Any merit you may have, in your work or in your personality, is immediately noticed, drawn out, and encouraged. I believe as a teacher Nadia Boulanger discovers the latent talents of her pupils, however small these may be and concentrates on them as a gardener would on a delicate hot-house plant, the result being a new self confidence and growth of creative character. Next she endeavours to assist you to find the true direction that your work should take. To do this, she makes you aware of the contemporary climate in art and encourages any personal traits and original ideas you may have to come to the fore. She is first and foremost an ideas person, just as Schoenberg was an ideas man; indeed it is my opinion that Boulanger and Schoenberg have been the two great composition teachers of this century so far ...continued here

Tuesday 29 April 2008

John Ireland in Music Survey: New Series 1949-1952

I noted these three reviews – the only mention of John Ireland, in the pages of Music Survey New Series 1949-1952. Only the one by Robert Layton is mentioned in Stewart Cragg's A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography. I quote them verbatim, for the record.

John Ireland: Overture, “Satyricon”
“This bright, taughtly-constructed overture, which was first performed at a Promenade Concert in 1946, is here presented as the first of a series of miniature scores issued by Joseph Williams, Ltd. The music, on 6x9 inch format, is very legible indeed for a photographic reduction of a full score. A title on the spine would help in matters of identification.”
Denis W Stevens
Music Survey: Volume II No. 4 Spring 1950 

“This spirited little work is prefaced by a quotation from the Satyricon of Petronius, telling us “to be merry, and to put life in our Discourse with pleasanter Tales.” This laudable resolution is duly observed by John Ireland in this well-written and crisply scored piece. The brisk and highly rhythmic opening, which forms the basis of most later development, leads through an animated sequence of some interest to the second group, both elements of which are equally undistinguished and share a certain facile lyricism which fails to convince. The work is, however, refreshing, has moments of considerable sparkle, and is devoid of pretence. It was completed in 1946 and first performed at a Promenade Concert the same year.
Robert Layton
Music Survey: Volume II No.2 Autumns 1949 

John Ireland: The Forgotten Rite.
A review of the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli HMV C3894 priced 4s.0d 
There is no programme for this brief, finely wrought tone poem: it evokes, rather than depicts, the darkness and light of pre-history. This atmosphere the Hallé Orchestra seems to understand, through the medium of their guide and conductor, and the playing, especially of the solo flute, is sensitive and imaginative.
Denis W Stevens
Music Survey: Volume II No. 2 Autumn 1949

Monday 28 April 2008

Vivian Ellis: Coronation Scot

Many years ago – before the age of the CD – I remember hearing a piece of music on the radio. It was what is called ‘light’ music. Now I did not know what it was, but my girlfriend at the time told me it was the theme music to ‘Paul Temple’. Alas and alack the radio presenter did not mention the title at the end of the piece and went straight onto the next number.

In those prehistoric times before the internet, it was harder to get to the bottom of a mystery like this. Nowadays just type in ‘paul temple theme’ and you get an instant answer. Click on Amazon a few times and the CD is winging its way to your house. Job done!
But ‘then’ was different. Hat and coat were donned and a walk into York town centre to the famous Banks' Music. In those days the record shop was on the opposite side of Stonegate to the ‘sheet music’ business. At least in the record shop one did not have to run the gauntlet of the formidable and redoubtable ‘Ma Banks’ – the shop owner.
A brief conversation with the record buyer elicited the information I needed – it was a piece of music called Coronation Scot by Vivian Ellis. Unfortunately there was only one recording of this piece and that was on an obscure and out of stock cassette –which I promptly ordered. After about six weeks it arrived and I was introduced to a piece of music that has remained a favourite of mine ever since.

The story of the music is straightforward. Vivian Ellis (1903-1996) composed the work on board a train – on a journey from London Paddington to Taunton. It was 1938. The obvious title would have been ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ – however, as Ernest Tomlinson has pointed out, this does not exactly ‘trip off the tongue’! So Ellis chose ‘Coronation Scot’ – which was a prestigious train running at that time from London Euston to Glasgow Central. This service had been inaugurated during the previous year, 1937.
The work was recorded by Sidney Torch and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra and according to Ellis “did nothing” until it was used as the theme tune to the BBC Radio series 'Paul Temple'.

I am not old enough to remember seeing the radio series – however I find that this is one of the most evocative pieces of music in the catalogue. To my ear it sums up an age of speed and luxury. It is not hard for my minds eye to picture a steam-hauled train winding its way over Shap or though the Lune Valley.
It represents a time when trains were comfortable and the toilets did not smell; when you were able to make connections at junctions and there was no 'vibrant 'yoof' culture' graffiti on every available line side wall and piece of equipment.

There are some six versions of Coronation Scot currently available on CD – both new and historical recordings.

Saturday 26 April 2008

William Blezard: Caramba (1966)

Caramba was written when William Blezard was on the other side of the world. Apparently he began writing it during a tour of New Zealand.

Yet the musical basis of this work is about as far away from Kiwi culture as you can get. Apparently the word 'Caramba' is Spanish for ‘goodness me’ or perhaps more colloquially ‘golly!’ Of course it nearly rhymes with ‘Rumba’ which is what this work is more or less based upon. The ‘more or less’ includes the tango and the havanaise which, as Rob Barnett has pointed out has ‘a sultriness that has about it enough of the sea air to keep things falling into Siesta.’ The entire work has an exotic feel to it that is so suggestive of things Spanish or Latin American. This is helped by the extensive use of percussion and of course the brass is pure Latin American dance style. The demanding piano part features as an almost ‘concertante.’
Perhaps the obvious comparison would be to Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande. However on my first hearing of this work, I thought of the first movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth Symphony. For the life of me I cannot understand why this work is not a great ‘Proms’ favourite or regularly played as an encore. It has all the hallmarks of a great piece of concert music that pleases as well as excites.

Friday 25 April 2008

William Alwyn: Green Hills

William Alwyn composed Green Hills in 1935 just before he began his major involvement with the film industry: it was conceived whilst on an examining board tour abroad and is dedicated to Paul Anson who was a pianist and a composer. It can almost certainly be regarded as Alwyn's 'Home thoughts.' It is, perhaps, homesickness or maybe just a response to memories of England's 'Green and Pleasant Land' seen through the lens of sunnier climes. 
This piano piece is actually one the relatively few works to have survived his clearing out if so called ‘juvenilia.’ Although a number of the early works have begun to appear on CD – so the cull maybe was not as extensive as has been imagined.
Green Hills is a minor masterpiece. It is a miniature tone poem lasting less than three minutes; there is not a note too few or too many. Yet it manages to successfully create an idealised landscape in considerable detail. The work was published in 1936 by Oxford University Press with an attractive woodcut of hills and harebells. It has been re-published by Braydeston Press in 2005.

For such a short piece there is much mood and tempo change - Andante molto e tranquillo: Poco pui mosso: Poco agitato: Tranquillo e dolce. In fact the general impression of this piece is a seeming inability to establish a tempo and a tonality. It is as if it were a painting with all the colours running into each other. The heart of the piece is the 'Poco agitato' that then becomes 'Con passione.' This mood is emphasised by octaves with added thirds against left-hand arpeggios. This climax is followed by a reprise of the opening material. There is a gorgeous heart easing spread chord near the end. The piece dies down to a 'niente.'
This music cannot really be deemed to be English Pastoral in any accepted sense of the term - except perhaps for a tentative allusion to George Butterworth's Shropshire Lad Rhapsody in the last bars. The harmonies are bittersweet; often having a sense of polytonality. The tonal structure of the piece seems to be constantly shifting; there are a number of parallel chords with gently biting discords

Andrew Plant has alluded to the mystical 'horns of elf-land' that were to be a major feature of the composer’s Third Symphony written some twenty years later. There is certainly nature mysticism in Green Hills - whether it derives from Arthur Machen's dreams of Pan in the English landscape, Arnold Bax's Celtic twilight or Houseman's Land of Lost Content. It may be that this imagery has been filtered through the piano works of John Ireland, especially the enigmatic Spring will not Wait which was written some eight years previously.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Garth Glyn: Work in Progress

Further doings of the busy Anglesey composer Gareth Glyn:-
Gareth tells me that he is “continuing his connection with the LSO, not only by providing arrangements for their educational wing ‘LSO Discovery’, but also with a commission following on from the success of “EGAD!" for multiple string orchestras and soloists - the exact details of this are yet to be confirmed.”
On the international front “there's also a commission by the North Carolina Symphony to write an extended work to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Bern, the historic state capital - the piece will be performed in the grounds of Tryon Palace (the Governor's mansion) in 2010.”
Earlier in the year, BBC Radio 3 broadcast Gareth’s Overture for organ and orchestra 'Gwylmabsant', in which the soloist was Huw Williams from St. Paul's Cathedral. It received positive reviews. At about the same time, BBC Radio also broadcast his cantata for 3 male choirs, harp and orchestra Y Delyn ("The Harp").
His plans for the future include preparing the next candidate for CD recording - an Overture 'A Night at the Opera' – there is no connection with the Marx Brothers film! -which is more or less in the style of pieces such as 'Legend of the Lake';

Arrangements are also in hand to record his chamber suite Mabinogi which was originally commissioned way back in 1983 by the Llandaff Festival, though it did have a subsequent performance and broadcast for the Radio 3 series 'Music in Our Time' in 1984.
And finally Gareth Glyn recalled that “recently I was told that some guitar pieces, which I'd completely forgotten I'd written, were chosen for the ABRSM syllabus!"

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Parry on Herbert Howells

“The Youth of a Nation are the Trustees of Posterity” – Benjamin Disraeli

“First among those whom this College is proud to honour at this parting is Herbert Howells. Most of us have become fully aware of his wonderful and delightful gifts, for we have often enjoyed their fruits at our concerts.
Of all those whom we have rejoiced to mention with honour in many past years, it would be hard to find anyone to surpass him. In fancy and invention, in mastery of resource and subtle sense of colour he ranks among the very foremost of our composers; and the prospect is all the more hopeful because of the sanity and the soundness of his views.
The musical instinct is so genuine in him that we feel confident of him being spared the freaks and fantastic absurdities with which less-gifted exploiters endeavour to astonish the unmusical vulgar.
And I rejoice to add that his disposition seems to me to have matched his musical outfit.
His whole hearted ardour has caused him many times to overtax a constitution none too robust; and withal he has shown a generous nature which welcomes gist and achievement in others, and is happily free from the exclusive and excessive appreciation of self which is too often a drawback among people who are artistically constituted.
I believe he will not only delight us, and more and more of the people who have not the good luck to be associated with the College, by his compositions, but exercises a wholesome influence on the course of music in the coming days in this country; for besides his musical qualifications, he has considerable literary gifts, as was illustrated by the fact that whenever he competed for the terminal History Essay Prize no one else had a chance.”

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
Directors Address to the Royal College of Music
September 24 1917

Sunday 20 April 2008

Malcolm Arnold: Comedy Suite (from The Belles of St. Trinian’s)

I watched the 1950s classic comedy film The Belles of St Trinian’s last night. I have always been a fan of the four ‘original’ films listed below.

The Belles of St Trinian's (1954, the first film)
Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957, the second film)
The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (1960, the third film)
The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966, the final film of the quartet)

In the first of the series, Alistair Sim plays the dual roles of Miss Fritton, the headmistress who runs her anarchic girl’s school and her criminal brother Clarence. Of course the other stars of this film lend a huge contribution - including George Cole as Flash Harry and Joyce Grenfell as Policewoman Ruby Gates. It is pure fun from start to finish.
The music for all these films were composed by Malcolm Arnold, although I wonder if that is a well known fact. The St Trinian’s School Song for unison voices and two pianos influences virtually the entire score.
Now apart from the collection of DVDs showcasing all four classic St Trinian’s films there are presently two versions of a Comedy Suite (Exploits for Orchestra) with music drawn from the score of The Belles.
The five movements of this work are:-
2.Train to Trinian’s
3.Flash and Miss Fritton
4.Races and Games
5. Finale

The ‘suite’ was arranged by Christopher Palmer and selects some short musical sections that work rather well as an entertainment. Lewis Foreman notes that there are some 35 orchestral ‘cues’ in this film.
The score calls for a small orchestra with percussion and piano duet. The archetypal ‘theme’ is never far away at any point in this suite.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Gareth Glyn: New CD on the Stocks!

I recently wrote a post about Anglesey composer Gareth Glyn's superb orchestral work, Anglesey Sketches which was recorded on White Line 2136
I am pleased to report that another CD of his music is on the way – he recently wrote to me:-
“At the moment I'm quite busy with getting tracks recorded on CD for future release, all with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Already in the can are: Cariad - an unbroken sequence of Welsh folksongs on the theme of love (though only a few of them are love-songs as such - in Wales we seem to have cornered the market in songs about unrequited love, or making fun of the love-life of others!), and two unrelated works for solo double-bass and orchestra - the Microncerto (not 'Microconcerto' as some have assumed it to be)”
Gareth further wrote that when the Microncerto was played “in the recording sessions, [the] orchestral musicians and studio technicians alike were astounded that such virtuosity was possible on the instrument.”
The solo bassist on this new release is the section principal of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Dominic Seldis"

I have heard a live recording of the Microncerto and it is an impressive piece. There are few works composed for Double Bass solo and orchestra – so this is a welocme addition to repretoire. It is a great work that nods to Charlie Mingus without claiming to be a ‘jazz concerto’
Another orchestral work to be included on the new CD is a Welsh Incident, which additionally calls for a narrator. This contribution will be dubbed onto the already-recorded music…

I am looking forward to adding this CD to my collection!

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Julius Harrison: Bredon Hill

I am delighted that Bredon Hill- a rhapsody for violin & orchestra is available on two CDs. These have been issued in the space of about 18 months and fill an minor but interesting gap in English music recordings.

This is quite definitely (and deliberately) a ‘retro’ work – harking back to an earlier English Pastoral tradition exemplified by Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and George Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad Rhapsody. However, the reason why Julius Harrison chose to evoke a musical landscape from the past is complex. It had much to do with the wartime mood of nostalgia – seeking to preserve an icon of an England that probably never existed – except in the mind of poets, musicians and filmmakers – but was important to the concept of a country that was worth fighting for. It was widely broadcast to service people across the world with considerable success.
It is a work that demands our attention and certainly will appeal to all listeners who enjoy ‘landscape in music.’ It is a beautiful meditation that explores considerable depths of feeling: it is introspective but at the same time inspiring. Bredon Hill must count as one of the finest musical portrayals of the English countryside. It is unbelievable that it remained unheard for so many years.
Perhaps the last word on this work ought to go to Gordon Bottomley. Commenting on this piece, he wrote that “the dew was so fresh and undimmed by footsteps. Some of the harmonies came from further off than Bredon: perhaps there had been footsteps on them that did not show on the dew.”
This work is a rare treasure and deserves due respect.
Thanks to MusicWeb International

The two recordings mentioned above can be found on Lyrita SRCD.317 & Dutton CDLX 7174

Sunday 13 April 2008

Robin Milford: Festival Suite Op.97

Further to my musings on the recent DVD of the film 'Festival of Britain 1951' and music contributed by William Alwyn to that score, I discovered this short Suite by the Oxford-born composer Robin Milford.

The work was written during 1950 for Reginald Jacques and his String Orchestra to specifically mark the Festival.
The Suite is written in four easy going movements that could be defined as neo-classical. However, there is definitely a feel of ‘pastoral’ here – although it is not ‘cow and gate’ music. Certainly this Suite does not relate to the more popular examples by Eric Coates or Haydn Wood. In fact, it is hard to pin this work down as being ‘English' : it is often quite ‘international’ in its soundscape.

The Festival Suite opens with an “easy-going” overture which is followed by a particularly lovely and quite pastoral (in a Theocritian sense) siciliano. The heart of the work is the minuet which becomes more introverted as the movement progresses. The finale is in the form of a scherzo and is perhaps the finest part of this short work. After a few bars of intense writing, this becomes quite an extrovert little essay. It soon develops into a confident movement that reveals Milford as a master of invention and having an admirable grasp of the technical necessities of writing for strings.

It is easy to play ‘spot the influence’ and it would not be too disingenuous to mention the Serenade for Strings by Anton Dvorak or the Holberg Suite by Edvard Grieg. However, Milford may well have had in mind the Serenade by Jack Moeran – this work had been first heard in 1948.

Perhaps Ian Lace on MusicWeb International sums up this work by pointing out that the music “celebrates a cosy past that was hardly conducive to the required thrusting spirit of modern post-war optimism…[Milford’s] music was simply out of joint with the times.”
Fortunately we live in wiser (musically) times when fashions matter less than quality. We are free to enjoy this attractive and well wrought miniature.

Friday 11 April 2008

John Rutter: Suite for Strings

Ask virtually any music lover and I guess that everyone will know one or other of John Rutter’s popular Christmas carols such as the Shepherds Pipe Carol or the Nativity Carol. Or perhaps it will be his magisterial Requiem that has impressed. Yet unbeknown to many people, the composer has written a few orchestral works which well deserve a hearing.
Perhaps one of his finest is the beautiful Suite for Strings which was written in 1973. It is based on a number of well known English folksongs that make up each of the four movements:-
1. A- roving
2. I have a bonnet trimmed with blue
3. O, Waly Waly
4. Dashing away with the smoothing iron

The opening movement has a kind of nautical saltiness to it that uses the jaunty tune ‘A rovin’ yet this is balanced with the more reflective counter melody ‘I sowed the seed of love.’ Of course the ‘racy’ tune wins the day.
The second movement is my favourite. This is a perfect evocation of an elegant young lady who is keen to display her new bonnet to the local swains! Yet perhaps she is a little shy and is apprehensive about possible comments. This is well scored and balanced and perfectly satisfying. From the last section I believe she found her hearts desire…
The ‘slow’ movement is based on the folksong 'O Waly Waly.' To people of a certain generation this will be associated with the late Kathleen Ferrier. However the strings play this tune with a definite sense of regret and sometimes intensity that matches the words:-
O love is handsome and love is fine,
And love is charming when it is true;
As it grows older it groweth colder
And fades away like the morning dew.

Yet the blues are dispelled with an almost Handelian rendition of ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron.’ Of course the tune does not have its way – for the ‘Bailiffs Daughter’ make an appearance and all’s well that ends well:-
O stay, O stay, thou goodly youth!
She's alive, she is not dead;
Here she standeth by thy side,
And is ready to be thy bride…
…and no doubt bound for a lifetime of ironing!

Other orchestral works by John Rutter that are worth exploring include the Partita, the Antique Suite for flute & harpsichord, the Beatles Concerto and Five Mediations for Orchestra. Perhaps more about these later?

Thursday 10 April 2008

Victor Hely-Hutchinson: The Young Idea: Rhapsody for piano and orchestra

It is hardly possible to be an enthusiast of the music of Christian Victor Noel Hope Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947) -for the simple reason that only five of his works are currently logged in the CD catalogues. And three of these are songs, one is a well scored and attractive Overture to a Pantomime and the last is the ubiquitous Carol Symphony. At least there are two versions of that score available. However, Dutton CDs have recently added a sixth – The Young Idea: Rhapsody for piano and orchestra. 
Now whether this work will raise Hely-Hutchinson’s awareness with the musical public is a matter of opinion. It is certainly not a piece that demands a great deal of attention or study: however, it is a lovely work that exploits the jazz influenced moods of William Walton, Constant Lambert, Arthur Bliss-and most significantly Billy Mayerl. 
The Rhapsody was first performed on 27th September 1930 at the Queens Hall. Fortunately the composer himself provided a programme note. He writes, "There are three themes: the first introduced by the strings, is not quite so serious as the ominous tone of the introduction might lead one to expect; the second…is still less so; but the third…would like to be thought dignified.”

Lewis Foreman, quotes a ‘po-faced critic’ who apparently wondered whether this work's true home ought to be the Savoy Hotel rather than the Queens Hall. In fact, Hely-Hutchinson himself had appended the score with ‘Cum grano salis’ – with a grain of salt. Yet I love the piece – it is far removed from some of the more ponderous pieces of music that carry intellectual approval. It has one overriding quality – it is downright fun – a quality lacking in music in all generations.
Hely-Hutchinson divided his time between academia and composing – he worked in South Africa as well as in the United Kingdom. Latterly he worked at the BBC in London until his early death.
Apart from the three songs alluded to – of which two are for children Hely-Hutchinson composed a string quartet, a piano quintet, a piano sonata, a viola sonata, and perhaps most urgently in need of reappraisal, the orchestral Variations, Intermezzo, Scherzo and Finale, This work was sufficiently regarded in its day to have been published by the Carnegie Collection of British Music in 1927.
This work is available on CDLX 7206

Tuesday 8 April 2008

E.J. Moeran: Prelude for Cello & Piano

The Prelude (1941) was Moeran’s first piece which he dedicated to the cellist Peers Coetmore. It was gifted to her as a ‘keepsake’ whilst she was on tour with ENSA during the Second World War. Strangely, the first performance of the piece was in Alexandria in Egypt. They were later to become married - but that is another story. Three other compositions were to be dedicated to her: the magisterial and moving Cello Concerto, the Irish Lament and the Cello Sonata.

This is a simple yet profound piece. A broad and lyrical melody in major and 4/4 time is played over an extremely simple accompaniment. Common chords and sevenths are the staple harmonic feature. The tempo is ‘Adagio ma non troppo’ throughout. Although the piece remains in the opening key, there is a brief modulation towards the middle bars of the piece. The last page is wholly diatonic.
The musicologist, Geoffrey Self does not rate the piece highly. In his magisterial study he writes “it is a work of little distinction; the cello melody is shapely enough, but the piano part is frankly dull. It is....doomed to a humble place in grade examination lists.”
Yet perhaps the ‘dullness’ of the piano part give the piece much of its charm. The sheer lyrical quality of the melody is allowed to predominate without completion from the piano. The overriding characteristic of this piece is warmth. The Prelude for cello and piano was published by Novello in 1944.

Listen to this work on Lyrita SRCD.299 The cover of this wonderful CD shows Jack Moeran and Peers on Hergist Ridge.

Monday 7 April 2008

Billy Mayerl: Sennen Cove

One of my musical desiderata over the years was Billy Mayerl’s tone poem Sennen Cove. Now most listeners will probably associate this composer with his ‘characteristic syncopated piano music’ and their orchestral arrangements. Typical of these works are the pieces such as Bats in the Belfry and the ever popular Marigold. However there was a more serious side to his compositional skills. This revealed itself in a number of Eric Coates-like pieces. Perhaps the best known is the Four Aces Suite which was orchestrated by Ray Noble. However Sennen Cove is one a group of three tone poems which include The Forgotten Forest and a Balearic Episode.

Sennen Cove is regarded as an impressionistic piece that is a musical portrait of a popular holiday resort on the Cornish Riviera. It was originally conceived as a piano work.
The piece opens with some impressive sea-music followed by a sweeping tune on the strings. These opening bars exhibit some interesting harmonic shifts that add to the impressionistic feel of this music. It could be argued that this ‘Onedin Line- type theme’ is over the top, yet it is great stuff- the composer is enjoying himself. It is the most accomplished part of the score.
Soon a change of mood allows some biting woodwind phrases to interrupt the proceedings before the summer haze descends on the scene once again. Now nature is given a rest: it is time for the children to play on the beach- whether it is paddling, rounders or shrimping it is surely fun. But soon the beach begins to empty: people head back to their boarding houses as the stormy weather begins to make its presence felt. Yet it subsides and the summer music returns to bathe the coast in its hazy sunshine. Mayerl introduces an ‘end of pier’ type of tune that builds up into quite a romantic climax before resolving itself into dance rhythms. Summer nights at the Palais! Yet the sea music closes the work – not quite mid-night but dusk is certainly descending on the cove.
Sennen Cove is no Tintagel or La Mer. It is quite short at just over eight minutes. And it could be argued that the musical material is unbalanced and inconsistent. Mayerl perhaps tries to introduce too many images into his music. Yet as a work by someone who is a decided miniaturist it is certainly enjoyable and evocative of a day at the seaside long ago.
Billy Mayerl’s original piano piece was probably orchestrated by Fred Aldington.
Sennen Cove is available on Dutton CDBP9766

Sunday 6 April 2008

Three Choirs Festival: Gloucester 1925

I was recently browsing in the files of the Musical Times. In the September 1925 edition I happened across a short article outlining the highlights for that year's Three Choirs Festival which was to be held in Gloucester. It makes interesting reading – especially with regard to how the ‘novelty’ British works have survived.
However, the biggest blow to the Festival was the fact that Jean Sibelius was due to have had his Seventh and final Symphony given its British première – however he had been unable to complete it on time. The author of this article lamented the fact that this meant the Festival ‘lost’ its only connection with the modern music of the continent!

Other highlights of the programme included performances of Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Verdi’s Requiem. Of the British classics, audiences were to hear Elgar’s The Apostles, Parry’s Job and Stanford’s Stabat Mater. Two major British Symphonies were also to be given – Elgar’s First in Ab and Granville Bantock’s fine Hebridean. And a lesser known and now largely forgotten work was Thomas Dunhill’s Three pieces for Organ & Strings.

The list of British new works include:-
Two Preludes for Orchestra by James Lyon
Motet ‘Love Incarnate’ by Basil Harwood
‘Men and Angels’ – A Choral Suite by Henry Walford Davies
‘The Evening Watch’ by Gustav Holst
Paradise Rondel by Herbert Howells
‘Glory and Honour’ – a motet by Charles Wood
Prelude for Orchestra by John Blackwood McEwen
‘A Sprig of Shamrock’ – song cycle by A.H. Brewer.

Sadly, five out of these eight ‘novelties' have disappeared ‘without trace’ – at least there are no recordings of them available on CD.
Fortunately the works by Howells, Charles Wood and Holst have survived with one, two and nine recordings respectively.
For the aficionado of British music I guess the top priority in the above list must be the Prelude by John McEwen and the Two Preludes by James Lyon. Yet I do feel a twinge of curiosity about “The Sprig of Shamrock” song cycle!

Friday 4 April 2008

William Alwyn: Festival March

I recently posted about the new DVD that showcases the film Festival in London 1951 and noted the musical score was by Willam Alwyn.
Alwyn’s Festival March was composed as part of Festival of Britain celebrations. The Festival itself was held some six years after the end of the Second World War when the country was still in a period of considerable austerity. Furthermore the date was exactly one hundred years after the Great Exhibition of 1851. The concept of the Festival of Britain was to showcase the nation’s achievements both at home and abroad, scientific, artistic and manufacturing. 
It was at this time that the modernistic Royal Festival Hall as inaugurated by King George the Sixth and other members of the Royal Family and VIPs.
William Alywn was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain to compose a celebratory march in the same genre as those of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and William Walton’s Crown Imperial Marches. Mary Alwyn, the composer’s wife, suggests that at first the composer struggled with this commisison and notes that the original sketches for the march were scored in 4:4 times. However, after much effort the music began to take shape after he restructured the piece in 12:8 time. The work remains a minor masterpiece of its kind. 
The Festival March opens with the usual fanfares and strong chords before it quietens down to allow the march to begin. Interestingly this material is presented more as a procession with a number of tableaux rather than a straight forward march. The music soon reaches an impressive climax before settling down to the 'trio.' This theme is introduced by unison violins and cellos before being repeated ‘grandioso’ by the full orchestra. After a brief bridge passage the powerful march theme is reprised. Naturally, in like manner to his exemplars, Alwyn brings back the 'trio' theme in all its glory. The work ends impressively.

No one listening to this march could be unimpressed. It surprises me that it is so little known amongst British music enthusiast who will readily admit to an appreciation of Walton's and Elgar’s marches. Critics were impressed at the time of its first performance but suggest that Alwyn had a lighter touch in his scoring and generally produced a march that was “more sprightly, and less grand and martial” than his predecessors. Another reviewer noted that Alwyn had managed to avoid the “conventional and wilful.” Yet a march designed for a 'Festival of Britain' or such event is surely largely redundant if it is not “broad and swaggering,” and complete with a "damn good tune.”

This work is available on Naxos, Lyrita and Chandos

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Richard Stoker writing on Elizabeth Maconchy

The composer Richard Stoker wrote this brief pen-sketch about Elizabeth Maconchy – whom he had known for a number of years. Maconchy was one of the most important composers of her generation, writing a considerable corpus of music. Her major achievement is perhaps her 13 String Quartets. Richard writes:-

Elizabeth Maconchy was an elegant, kind, cheerful, helpful and extremely modest woman with a formidable personality. In many ways as a composer and person she reminded me of her near contemporary, Alan Rawsthorne – some two years her senior.

Each time I spoke with her I noticed that an understanding and helpful expression would cross her kind and characterful face –as Leonard Woolf has said of his meetings with the two Stephen sisters (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) that there was something “going on” at the back of the eyes as is noticeable with many highly intelligent people. Added to this there was often a worried, worn, tired look of regret or even perhaps hope in her eyes.

Could she be longing to return to her desk at the earliest possible opportunity to move on with her latest composition?
Elizabeth worked tirelessly for the Composer’s Guild and became a Vice President. She had been involved with the Macnaghten Concerts and the Society for the Promotion of New Music over many years and had a number of her own works performed - especially the String Quartets and other chamber pieces.
That look of hope and regret could explain the impression I got from her music and memories of her strong personality of the endless Ulysses theme.
She was definitely one of the few woman composers of real talent working throughout the most turbulent years of the last century. I can quite see why she is often said to have been RVW’s favourite pupil.
Elizabeth Maconchy would have been a dutiful student – unlike many of her contemporaries. And I should think a joy to teach. She was a well rounded extrinsically influential person quite unlike her near contemporaries – one who was totally reliable as a committee member.

At the Composer’s Guild she tried to support the AGM and the glorious luncheon afterwards! Elizabeth took part often -she was revered and loved by all her contemporaries.
Richard Stoker 26th March 2008