Friday 30 May 2008

Benjamin Britten: Anatomy of a Masterpiece: Six Metamorphoses after Ovid Op.49 – Study CD

Recently Oboe Classics sent me this unusual but highly interesting CD in a DVD box! This is no ordinary production – in fact is a major scholarly edition that explores one of the most impressive 20th century works for oboe solo. My review for MusicWeb looked at what was in the package – and briefly this was a major 20,000 word essay on the piece and its performance, three full performance of this work – including one by the work’s dedicatee. And finally, the working ‘sketches’ for this composition are presented for the first time.
I concluded my review by wondering whether this particular format was a blueprint for the future – my views on this were better expressed by a friend who said “…that she hoped that Oboe Classics would play a long game: she explained that this CD must be available for many years and not be deleted after the first ‘pressing’ else the scholarly value will be dissipated in a few short months. She felt that it was a major reference document that needs to be regarded as an important contribution to Britten studies. I concur absolutely with her thoughts.”
Metamorphoses – George Caird; Diary Sketch by George Caird. Performances from the Compositions Sketch and Fair Copy by George Caird. Metamorphoses: Joy Boughton; Metamorphoses: Nicholas Daniel

Please read my full review at:- 

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Percy Whitlock: Wessex Suite

The Wessex Suite is a work that evokes summer holidays by the seaside. Early in 1934 Percy Whitlock suggested to Richard Austin that he write a suite for orchestra. Austin was Dan Godfrey’s successor as conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. At this time Whitlock was still organist and choirmaster at St Stephen's Church. However it was not until September 1937 that the suite materialised. It was written under the nom-de-plume of Kenneth Lark.

The Suite is in three movements - Revels in Hogsnorton; The Blue Poole and March: Rustic Cavalry. Revels in Hogsnorton derives from a mythical village created by the popular comedian Gillie Potter. It is a 'thirties ‘Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh’. This is an attractive waltz with a distinctly ‘modern’ trio.
The second movement is truly lovely. The title, The Blue Poole is a concatenation of two beauty spots. The Blue Pool on the Isle of Purbeck and of course Poole harbour itself. The movement opens with a brief upward phrase for saxophone. Then there is a cadenza for solo violin. There is a rocking motion in the accompaniment; a gorgeous tune is given to saxophones. The vibraphone is heard in the background. Muted brass lead to a variation of the tune; a harp glissando leads into a middle section. Then suddenly it is up-tempo. The xylophone is busy with figurations. Then the mood music returns, first for strings, then into the languorous theme- even the two solo violins seem slightly out of tune- just as it may have been in some far off performance. The movement ends quietly, with a vibraphone added note chord. It is a perfect picture of lazy days by the seaside.

The last movement is entitled Rustic Cavalry – seemingly related to Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. This march has been well described as ‘rousing and swashbuckling’ – and it certainly is. Elgar, however, is the musical inspiration rather than the Italian operatic composer. Malcolm Riley, the Whitlock scholar, has noted allusions to Froissart and mentions the fact the Radio Times billed this work as the Rustic Chivalry March. Elgar had prefixed his score of Froissart with ‘When chivalry lifted high her lance on high.’ Listeners have also detected references to the First World War Song – 'It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'. I do not quite understand what it is doing in a Wessex Suite; it does not really help with tone painting of a holiday by the sea. However, perhaps the clue lies in its description as swashbuckling. Is it meant to refer to things piratical and nautical? Who knows? But it rounds off what is an attractive and thoroughly enjoyable work.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

John Ireland: The Merry Month of May

The text of this song derives from Thomas Dekker’s play ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’ which was written in 1600. John Ireland seemingly made this setting early in 1921 although, as the holograph is presently missing, it is not possible to establish the precise date. In the previous year he had composed two of his most important works – the symphonic rhapsody Mai-Dun and the song cycle The Land of Lost Content. There were to be few major works in 1921 – with the exception of the Two Pieces for piano – For Remembrance and Amberley Wild Brooks.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my summer's Queen.

Now the nightingale, the pretty nightingale,
The sweetest singer in all the forest quire,
Entreats thee, sweet Peggy, to hear thy true love's tale:
Lo, yonder she sitteth, her breast against a briar.

But O, I spy the cuckoo, the cuckoo, the cuckoo;
See where she sitteth: come away, my joy:
Come away, I prithee, I do not like the cuckoo;
Should sing when my Peggy and I kiss and toy.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;
And then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my summer's Queen.

The sentiment of the song is a little more complex that at first appears. The poet has decided that his ‘Sweet Peg’ would be his summer queen. He rejoices in the fact that winter is over and the whole of nature is ‘so green, so green, so green’! He hears the song of the nightingale who is surely the ‘sweetest singer in the forest quire’. Yet this bird has her breast pressed against the briar rose and is in danger, perhaps, of hurting herself. The poet also hears the cry of the cuckoo and is somewhat distressed by this. He does not want to be near this bird as he and Peg ‘kiss and toy.’ Yet the dark side of this poem is a fear that the poet has of being cuckolded. Finally he returns to the opening verse to put out of his mind these negative thoughts.
Fiona Richards notes that the theme of an ‘Elizabethan Spring’ was one that was often present in the composer’s output. She mentions his setting of Shakespeare’s ‘When daffodil’s begin to appear, Thomas Nashe’s ‘Spring, the sweet spring’ and the present song.

Ireland sets these words with great precision. He basically uses the same melody for each stanza- but varies the detail to fit the sense of the words. Sylvia Townsend Warner writing in her diary about the Ireland programme at the BBC thinks that the Dekker song is “very good, and [an] excited talking vocal curve, almost like hens)”.
The song is ostensibly written in E major –although the right hand part does not seem to realise this for much of the work. The composer asks for this song to be taken at ‘allegro con anima’ which has a tendency to sound like ‘quick lively patter’. The accompaniment is successful yet it is actually very difficult. The left hand plays a number of figures which are effectively in the ‘home’ key. Yet they are subject to range of variation which maintains the interest. The harmonies appear darker when supporting the singer’s thoughts the cuckoo.

‘C.W’ writing in the December 1928 edition of the Musical Times points out that although no-one denies the suggestive power of varied harmonies applied to a vocal melody there is appoint where it is dangerous to go beyond. However he continues by saying that the composer can do this effectively and cites the present song as a good example. He notes that at the “end of each verse the accompaniment makes a wild plunge away from the tonality of the voice part, followed by a wild plunge back again for the cadence.” He thinks that the “excursion is so brief, and is so clearly the climax of the verse that the effect is exhilarating.” He concludes his review by noting that “the numerous rough dissonances are quite in keeping with the bucolic text, and that the song is a strikingly energetic piece of work.”
William Mann writes that this song is “single minded in invention” and encourages the listener to consider the “bass ostinato, the vocal articulation of the poetic text beautifully varied and natural (as if spoken, but better than that, pitched in revealing music).
The first broadcast performance of this work was given on the BBC London radio station on 19 April 1928 at 7:45 pm. George Parker was the baritone and the composer played the piano. The concert on the wireless included music played by Albert Sammons and Beatrice Harrison. The other works performed at this all Ireland recital included his Cello Sonata, the Piano Sonatina, the Second Piano Trio and settings of poems by Thomas Hardy and A.E. Houseman. The first performance dates are not known.

Interestingly there only appears to be one version of this song currently in the CD catalogues – it appears on volume two of the Lyrita re-issue of the Songs. It is sung by the baritone Benjamin Luxon with Alan Rowlands playing the piano. 

Saturday 17 May 2008

John Ireland – The First Major Review

I quote this article from the Monthly Musical Record without commentary. I have done minor editing and updating or spelling.

Mr John Ireland was born on August 13, 1879, at Inglewood, Bowden, Cheshire. His father, Alexander Ireland, came of a Fifeshire family. He was the editor of the Manchester Examiner and Times, being also an author of considerable note, sharing the friendship of such men as Carlyle, Emerson, Leigh Hunt, and others. His mother, Anne Nicholson (from a Cumberland family), also possessed high literary and critical gifts. The son was educated at Leeds Grammar School, and also received private tuition. Later on he became a student and scholar at the R.C.M, being a pupil of Sir Charles Stanford in composition. Mr Ireland left the R.C.M. in 1901, and graduated for Mus.Bac. at Durham University in 1905.

Candidness is a characteristic which one would expect form an old North-Country family. This being so, it is significant that Mr. Ireland, in complying with our request for a complete list of his compositions, does so only for the purpose of revealing the process through which he arrived at his period of mature work. He openly discards all of his works before the year 1908 (when he was twenty-nine), except for a few trifling pieces which happen to be published. This discarded work he calls merely “learning the business” of a composer- technique, powers of expression, style etc: here is the list:

Discarded works (1895-1906)

Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, in A minor
Variations on an Irish tune
for Piano

Sonata in C minor for Piano
String Quartet in D minor (Scholarship Piece, R.C.M.)

The following works are R.C.M. Studentship Works:

Variations in F sharp minor for Piano
Variations in E flat for Piano
Sonata in C minor for Violin and Piano
Mass in Dorian Mode for Four Voices (strict style of Palestrina)
Vexilla Regis” Choral Work
Sextet for Strings and Wind in D
Sea Idyll for Piano
Quartet for Strings in C minor
Midsummer” Prelude for Orchestra
Tritons” Symphonic Prelude for Orchestra
Orchestral Poem in A minor
(R.C.M. Studentship ends.)

“The Princess Maleine” Orchestral Poem
Psalm xlii for Chorus and Orchestra (
Rhapsody in C sharp minor for Piano
Sonata in G minor for Violin and Piano
(Apprenticeship period ends)

1908 Phantasy Trio in A minor (published)
1909 Sonata in D minor for Piano and Violin (Lately reissued by Messrs. Augener
1910 Songs of a Wayfarer (published)
1912-15 “Decorations” for Piano (Augener)
Marigold” Impressions for Voice and Piano
The Forgotten Rite,” Prelude for Orchestra
Trio in E minor for Piano, Violin, and ‘Cello (in the press; Augener)
Rhapsody” for Piano (in press; Augener)
Also many Songs and Pieces for Piano, for Organ, for Violin, Church Music, Part-Songs etc.

Unquestionably, one of Mr. Ireland’s finest works is the Sonata in D minor for Violin and Pianoforte, a review of which appears in another column. Of this fine work, The Times says: “It ought to be heard several times before it can be fully understood. Mr. Ireland is a writer who eschews the superficial and obvious, and has clearly much to say that is worth saying.” The Morning Post speaking of the Sonata, says: “It appeals to highly cultivated musical opinions. It is strong in character, resourceful, and consistent in style.” “This Sonata,” the Pall Mall considers, “is quite one of the most important works of its kind heard in recent years, and it is to be hoped the composer will continue to add to the somewhat slender store of serious chamber music of the British School.” The late Mr. Karlyle wrote in The Star: “Delicacy, lucidity, and tonal charm, are qualities inherent in the music. Coherence of ideas is apparent in the three movements, which are cleverly and definitely contrasted in mood. There is a strong vein of temperament in every one.”

Mr. Ireland’s latest pianoforte composition (Three Decorations) has just been issued by Messrs. Augener.
His new trio was to receive its first performance at the hands of the English Trio (Beatrice Langley, John Ireland and C. Warwick-Evans) on June 29. We hope to give a review of the work in our next issue. 
The Monthly Musical Record July 1, 1915

Thursday 15 May 2008

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and the Motor Car

We do not often think of composers as being sailors or motor car drivers. Yet Parry was enthusiastic about both these pursuits. He had a yacht called 'The Wanderer’ that was finally confiscated from by the admiralty during the Great War. And he must be one of the earliest examples of a composer being booked for speeding! Perhaps we seem him as a kind of Mr Toad behind the wheel? 
Charles L. Graves in his somewhat hagiographical biography writes:-

“Motoring provided him with an ever-increasing variety of exciting experiences. In June 1906, writing to his son-in-law Plunket Greene about a proposed concert at Scarborough at which the alternatives were Job or "The Love that casteth out Fear ", he an­nounces that the Panhard had broken down, and on October 22, after discussing chauffeurs and the Audit dinner at Highnam, he goes on:
“We were nearly finished off coming up to town in the Gladiator yesterday. The roads were just awful and we had no non-skids. She ran clean out of control four times; at Cheltenham clean off the road on to the side-walk between a couple of trees, and at Uxbridge she turned clean round on her axis and went backwards on to the side-walk. It's not pleasant, that sort of fun."
The most lurid account of Parry’s rashness as a motorist is given by a member of his family. He drove down the steep and winding road which leads from Savernake Forest into Marlborough at such a pace that when they reached the, bottom the chauffeur got out and was sick! There is also the story of his stopping on the road into Gloucester to take up an old woman, burdened with baskets, on the way to the market. "When they arrived she was so overcome by the speed of her transit that she had to be given restoratives. The allegation that, after acquiescing in the imposition of fines on motorists for exceeding the speed limit by his fellow-magistrates on the Gloucester bench, he was in the habit of paying the fines himself cannot be verified but is intrinsically probable.”
Hubert Parry by Charles L. Graves Volume 2 pp39f

N.B.. the car is a Panhard - the driver is not CHHP!!

Saturday 10 May 2008

Edward White: The Runaway Rocking Horse

I was in a rather nice antique shop ‘somewhere in England’ and spotted a lovely example of a Victorian rocking horse. He was well kept, had been tastefully restored and clearly been the object of considerable love and devotion. I never had a rocking horse and was sorely tempted to shell out for this one. Only the thought of ‘where to put it’ and the fact that my size militated against riding it, made me walk out of the shop with my credit card unused.
Also, I was at a Victorian Fair over the Bank Holiday weekend and amongst the treasures there was a genuine steam-powered carousel – complete with a showman’s organ playing hits from Lennon & McCartney! A little bit inappropriate perhaps – but thoroughly enjoyable.

Both of these things made me think about Edward White’s The Runaway Rocking Horse -which is actually one of my favourite pieces in the ‘light’ music genre. If any work proves that the light music composer was often a superb musical craftsman, it is this piece.
My sentiments about the roundabout and the toy are reinforced by this short work. And I guess that most adults will have fond memories of a Rocking Horse even if they did not possess one. The course of the music makes it very easy imagine the wooden horse jumping off his rockers (or the cranks) and going for a canter into some romantic English landscape. The music describes the little horse playing by himself. He gallops and trots and jumps. But soon he begins to tire. There is one last frolic and then, as if by magic, he is back on his wooden frame. The piece ends with a little sigh.

Edward White was widely involved in music making, although with little in the way of a formal musical education. He was a violinist in a variety of palm court ensembles and dance bands and eventually played on clarinet and the saxophone. He served in the RAF during the Second World War and after his demob he ran a ballroom orchestra at the Grand Spa Hotel in Bristol. Not content with just paying music, he set up a publishing company, Musicus Ltd, and finally began to compose music.
Perhaps his most famous work is Puffin’ Billy which was used as the signature tune of the BBC’s Children’s Favourites with Derek MacCulloch.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Greville Cooke: Reef’s End for Piano

Philip Sear has done a sterling service by putting a number of great, but unfortunately, obscure British Piano works on You Tube. Earlier in the year I posted a link to his moving performance of High Marley Rest by Greville Cooke. Now Philip has excelled himself with a convincing outing of the same composer’s Reef’s End.

Reef’s End is one of those pieces that is descriptive of a seascape that is always just round the next headland. When we are exploring the coastline we never quite find it or are able to pin it down. I guess the fact is that it exists only in our mind's eye. The cover of the sheet music (which I do not have a copy of to scan) pictures a rocky outcrop which is viewed against the sun setting in the west.

The work was published in 1934 and was dedicated to a certain Vivian Langrish (1894-1980) who was a contemporary of Cooke’s and a fellow pupil of Tobias Matthay.
Philip Sear points out that the score is “ marked 'andante dolente', the piece can take a slower tempo- however the score specifies a time of performance of about 3 1/2 minutes, which is what I have tried to achieve”.
As a stylistic referential marker it is appropriate to consider John Ireland’s Sarnia or perhaps The Island Spell.
Two other piano pieces by Greville Cooke that demand to be played and become part of the standard repertoire of English music are Haldon Hills and Cormorant Crag. Let us hope that either Philip or some other talented pianist takes these works up. This is music that must not be allowed to be remian dormant.

Philip Sear playing Cooke’s Reef’s End