Monday 30 June 2008

Frederick Delius: Grieg’s Norwegian Bridal Procession

It could be argued that a photograph of the view from Grieg’s summer residence at Troldhaugen has no place on a blog dedicated to British music. However, when I was there a few weeks ago, I recalled that Grieg was well acquainted with Frederick Delius. Now I did not know at that time if Delius had visited Edvard and Nina Grieg at their home. I asked one of the curators at the house but she could only point me to a photograph of Percy Grainger sitting on the terrace. I glanced at what literature I have concerning Delius, and although it is clear they were great friends and travel companions I could not find any reference to a house-call. Yet, irrespective of this fact, I felt it was rather appropriate to write a short post about two of my favourite composers from the context of one of the loveliest views in Europe. 

A few days ago I asked the Delius Society for help: and Dr. Lionel Carley, the noted Grieg scholar put me right. I had overlooked his book Grieg & Delius: A Chronicle of their Friendship. Dr. Carley told me that Delius had in fact visited Troldhaugen twice – in 1889 and 1891. And what is more, Delius has written about this in his diaries and letters.

On the 15th July 1889 Delius arrived at Troldhaugen accompanied by Christian Sinding. He wrote that “On arriving at Bergen we were met by Grieg, who conducted us to his home near Bergen at Hop Station. He lived in a comfortable little wooden house called Troldhaugen, situated rather high up on a little promontory jutting out into the fjord [actually a lake] Here we spent a very agreeable week fishing and walking, Grieg played some of his latest compositions to us, and making excursions to Bergen to buy the necessary knapsacks and provisions for our projected walking tour to Jotunheimen.”

Delius also mentioned the fact that he bathed in the lake at Troldhaugen. There still a little jetty there at the bottom of the promontory which is reached by a short walk down a steep, wooded path. Near the jetty both Edvard and Nina are buried in a cave by the waters edge. As an aside, I saw a robin feeding her nestling: I recalled how Grieg loved the birds in his garden.
Delius and Grieg left Trollhaugen on 23rd July and headed towards Vossevangen.

Some two years later, around the 21st July 1891, Delius again visited Grieg. The Norwegian met him and his friend Iver Holter at Bergen and took them back to his house. Grieg wrote to a friend that “I have just got one or your guests in my home – the Englishman Delius, a talented and modern musician with an exceptionally likeable nature.
Delius noted that he “spent a delightful week sea-bathing, fishing and taking walks.” After this visit, Delius, Grieg and Holter left for Hardanger and another tour of Norway.

The Norwegian Bridal Procession has a unique place in the life and history of Frederic Delius. It is his only orchestration or realisation of a work by another composer that appears in his catalogue. Lewis Foreman writes that the manuscript survives in an autograph pencil score which is dated 2 December 1889. Lionel Carley suggests that this work could have been intended as a Christmas gift to the older composer. However, there is no sign of a ‘fair copy’ given to Grieg in the archives,

The Delius Trust supported Boosey & Hawkes’s publication of the piece in 1993 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edvard Grieg’s birth. The work was given its first performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 15h June 1993 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Per Dreier.

From Grieg’s point of view the Pictures from Folk Life Op.19 were written in Bergen in the summer of 1871. Eleanor Baillie has written that this work represents one of Grieg’s few ventures into the ‘true concert piece’ – a ‘blending of folk elements with keyboard glitter’. There are three pictures presented – On the Mountains, Bridal Procession and From the Carnival. Interestingly, although the Bridal Procession works well as a stand alone piece, the composer actually intended the three pieces to be played as a set.

The Bridal Procession is a wonderfully happy and celebratory piece as befits its title. Grieg wrote in a letter written in 1872: “One Saturday evening some time ago I played “Bridal Procession” for the students in the Association (Norwegian Students Association) and wouldn’t you know I got tears in my eyes. First I explained to them what I had in mind and then I played- and then their understanding of my intention hit them like a bolt of lightening. They began shouting. “Play it again! Play it again!” How happy I was! For there was a mutual language of the hearer.” [Edward Grieg Letters to Colleagues and Friends ed. by Benestad & Halverson p28]

From Delius’s point of view, his walking holidays in Norway were serendipitous. He recorded in his diary for 1887 how he had witnessed a Bridal Procession whilst on his mountain tour of Norway. So the scene was set for this attractive and rather fetching transcription.

The procession arrives with a dancing march rhythm, suggesting brilliant costumes and presumably a warm sunny day. Baillie suggests that the music represents “the jangling of instruments, against a backcloth of fjord and mountain…”
Perhaps it is a case of Delius and Grieg having together a ‘mutual language’? Certainly the listener needs only to listen to the Norwegian's Op.66 'In Ola Valley' for piano and then turn to, say, Beecham’s recording of Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo to find an example of where he not “only borrows a folksong from Grieg, but also uses Grieg’s harmonization of that folksong as a springboard for his own invention.” (Trevor Hold)
Interestingly enough Norwegian Bridal Procession has been orchestrated in 1903 by another friend of Delius – Johan Halvorsen. It is this version that has been heard in the concert halls ever since.

Friday 27 June 2008

Trevor Duncan: Vision in Velvet.

Recently I have been listening to the music of Trevor Duncan: I have posted brief notes on two of his works – St Boniface Down and High Heels. These are two very different pieces- the first a kind of impressionistic tone poem and the second an epitome of the light music genre at its very best. 
Yet, recently, I discovered that his very first published piece is available on CD – allowing the listener the opportunity to hear the genesis of a great composer.
After war service, Trevor Duncan returned to the BBC as a ‘sound and balance’ engineer with special responsibilities for ‘light’ music orchestras. In addition to an opportunity to experiment with microphone placings for best broadcasting effect, it allowed him to hear a wide variety of contemporary music. The composer and conductor Ray Martin (1918-1988) was impressed with Duncan’s early efforts at composing. In fact he conducted the first performance of Vision in Velvet - the first work to issue from Duncan’s pen.

I love this work. For a first essay it is really rather good. It is one of those pieces that make me think of a beautiful ‘date’ turning up for a dinner party arrayed in all her finery. Perhaps Audrey Hepburn would make the ideal accompaniment to this music! My mind's eye sees her sweeping into the lobby of the Ritz rather than some provincial hotel in deepest rural Herefordshire! Yet, I guess the listener can allow his or her imagination the luxury of recalling anyone and anywhere that fits the bill.

The piece is written in a largely Mantovani or Henry Mancini style – with gorgeous string sound. But the interesting bits are surely the counter themes and melodic decoration that is continually happening in the background. A harp adds to the largely ‘over the top’ romanticism of the piece. Of course, it could be argued that there is very much a ‘film music’ feel to this pieces. And my answer to that would be so what? Surely the imagery and emotion of this piece is based on the ability of the music to create an audio image of a physical reality. Curiously, the work was subsequently renamed Morning Star –a far less appropriate title as far as I can see.

The orchestral writing is actually the subject of a story. Apparently Trevor Duncan credited his mentor Ray Martin with due encouragement in the skills of orchestration. Duncan had ‘plucked up courage’ to show Martin the piano score for Vision in Velvet. It had a favourable reaction on the elder man. Duncan then asked if he would consider orchestrating it for a future broadcast with his orchestra. The story goes that Martin immediately said “No, you do it. It’s all there already in your piano part.” To Duncan’s credit he worked at the score and a few weeks later it was ready for performance.
Duncan was now an established composer and he was encouraged to approach Tom Elliot who was at that time the manager of Light Music Exploitation at Boosey and Hawkes. Both Vision in Velvet and High Heels were recorded in 1949/50 on a 12 inch 78 rpm disc in 1949 having been recorded at Abbey Road Studios by the New Concert Orchestra conducted by Jack Leon. I understand that this is the version that listeners can hear on the Guild Light Music CD.

Listen to Vision in Velvet on the Golden Age of Light Music: An Introduction on Guild Light Music GLCD 5101

Thursday 26 June 2008

John Sanders: Two songs from The Beacon

To those who know the music of John Sanders (1933-2004) it may come as a surprise that he wrote a number of fine songs that follow in the footsteps of Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi. I guess that most listeners would associate him with the organ loft at Gloucester Cathedral and the Three Choirs Festival where he conducted for over a quarter century. As a composer, he is perhaps best known for his liturgical music – in particular the St Mark’s Passion and the fine Reproaches. For organ he has given a Toccata and a less imposing but no less impressive Soliloquy. However, he has turned his pen to more secular matters with some four song cycles. To my knowledge, none of them have been recorded in full.
The song cycle The Beacon was commissioned by James Hoyland for the Painswick Festival . It was written in 1993 to commemorate the sadly underrated composer C. W. Orr who was a Gloucestershire man, having been born in Cheltenham in 1893. Orr moved to London and studied at the Guildhall School of Music. It was during this period that he came under the spell of Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock. But after a period of ill health he was advised to leave the City. In 1929 he moved to Painswick in the Cotswolds where he lived until his death in 1976. I assume that both composers were on friendly terms!

The Beacon has four songs:
1. On Painswick Beacon: F.W Harvey
2. When I go down the Gloucester lanes: James Elroy Flecker
3. Cotswold Choice; Frank Mansell
4. Painswick Beacon; E. R. P. Berryman
Unfortunately only two of the four poems have been recorded by Roderick Williams and Ian Burnside. All four songs celebrate the Gloucestershire countryside.

F.W. Harvey wrote his poem after returning home from a long time in a P.O.W. camp during the Great War. The whole poem exudes the relief, the joy and the sadness of retuning to the place that he loved best. The setting emphasises the sense of wonder or perhaps even fear as to why he has escaped death when so many of his comrades died in battle. Yet it also presents the poet’s thanks that he is looking at his beloved Gloucestershire once more. It is an emotion that anyone who has been far from home can relate too – but the First World War connection obviously heightens the sentiment. The poet’s words assume that he is on top of Painswick Beacon surveying the landscape below. On a clear day it is said that five counties can be seen. Painswick Beacon itself is actually an Iron Age fort high on a hill which has impressive views over the surrounding countryside.

Here lie counties five in a wagon wheel.
There quick Severn like a silver eel
Wriggles through pastures green and pale stubble
There, sending up its quiet coloured bubble
Of earth, May Hill floats on a flaming sky
And, marvelling at all, forgetting trouble,
Here – home again – stand I

A small piano figure opens On Painswick Beacon. In just a few notes Sanders manages to create an impression of a summer’s day. When the soloist enters, it is with a strange half sung, half spoken melody: it heightens the sense of awe and wonder at the view. There is a little climax when the singer reiterates ‘May Hill – floats on a flaming day’. Perhaps ‘flaming day’ reminds the poet of the horrors of the battlefield. The remainder of the song is a reflective. He muses over the words ‘And marvelling at all’ repeating it twice. He quietly sings about ‘forgetting trouble’ about forgetting the things of the past. The song ends with a thrice repeated ‘Home again’ with a tenderness that belies the songs genesis. The final 'again' is held for an achingly long time.

Cotswold Choice is really quite a charming song that is certainly not quite as profound or thought provoking as On Painswick Beacon. Of course the main effect of the poem is Frank Mansell’s presentation of a litany of Gloucestershire village names that meant so much to the poet. Of course the names have been chosen to give movement and alliteration to the poem's construction – but the point is well made. Interestingly, Mansell makes reference to a certain hamlet called 'Paradise' – this is the same place that inspired Herbert Howells to compose the impressionistic Paradise Rondel. Of course there has to be one place that the poet loves best of all –

At times I’ve loved them all,
But if by chance I die,
Then set me down in Sheepscombe,
In Sheepscombe I would lie.

The piano opens the proceedings with a longish introduction. The soloist enters with the first of the five lists. Each one is terminated by a wistful phrase – when he points out all the villages “In quest of Love I’ve been” or perhaps where “Gay have I gone and sad” or maybe recalling “Tales too long to tell.” Yet the nub of the matter is the fact that he has “At times loved them all.” Obviously his favourite spot is Sheepscombe (pronounced as Shepscombe) and it is where “But if by chance I die” he would like to be laid to rest. The final ‘lie’ is a very long held note. The piano closes with a short modulation to the major key.

A performance of this song cycle was given on the 9th August at the 2004 Three Choirs Festival along with works by Gerald Finzi, Charles Ives, George Dyson, Ian Venables and Trevor Hold. The recital was given by the baritone Roderick Williams with Ian Burnside as pianist in St Mary De Lode Church, Gloucester.
John Sanders died in 2004. Seen & Heard on MusicWeb International noted that “touchingly, the Festival honoured him this year with a concert of his music. Williams and Burnside performed The Beacon with a lyricism that captured the charm of the settings and their wistful undertones.”

‘Severn & Somme:’ Songs by Gurney, Howells, Sanders, Wilson and Venables. Roderick Williams, baritone and Susie Allan, piano. SOMM CD 057

Monday 23 June 2008

William Alwyn: Bluebells for Piano

I was playing William Alwyn’s 'Bluebells' the other day. Now, this is one of four short pieces that the composer wrote between 1924 and 1926 and was published by the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music as a part of the April Morn Suite. This work consisted of four short pieces -The Lost Lamb (1924); April Showers (1924), Bluebells (1925) and Violets (1926) and was dedicated to ‘Peter'.
Alwyn was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music for some thirty years: he had studied here himself. In the nineteen twenties and thirties he wrote a number of effective works for the student and the amateur pianist.
'Bluebells' is an attractive little piece – Jonathan Woolf, describing the whole suite on MusicWeb International, suggests that we “should expect no great shakes here, but do expect some charming studies.” Andrew Knowles in the CD programme notes suggest that “…even in these…pieces Alwyn’s creative composing skill never deserts him and he amply conveys the various moods with consummate skill.”
Bluebells is extremely short - some thirteen bars and lasting for only some 39 seconds in Ashley Wass’s recording. The piece is written to be played 'Andante capriccioso' and the metronome mark suggests a slow-ish pace.
It is a ‘water colour’ piece really – but surprisingly full of movement. It has been described as a ‘painter’s garden.’ The word ‘capriccioso’ is worrying to some music teachers as this can be interpreted in a somewhat ‘hair-raising’ manner by enthusiastic students. Yet it is the ‘scotch snap’ played by the right hand that gives the main characteristic to this piece. The left hand contributes parallel fifths with chromatic passing notes. The piece ends with some interesting, almost Delius-like harmonies.
It is quite definitively some attractive Bluebells north of the border! Or perhaps it is a Scotsman’s thoughts whilst he is looking at a drift of them in Kew Gardens!

Hear this work played by Ashley Wass on Naxos 8.570359

Friday 20 June 2008

Herbert Howells: A Sailor Tune

Recently I was listening to what is perhaps Herbert Howells’s most massive work –the Missa Sabrinensis. This is a complex work that presents the players and singers with ‘prodigious difficulties.’ Yet earlier in the day I was playing ‘A Sailor Tune’ on the piano. It certainly offered little in the way of formidable technical challenges or demanded concentration from the listener. Yet in its own way it epitomised the invention and the craftsmanship of the composer.
Although, typically, Howells is not seen as being a composer for piano, there are many pieces to his credit. His major works are of course the Lamberts and Howells Clavichord – which is more often than not played on the piano. But there are many other pieces of excellent keyboard music – including the Rhapsody and Gadabout. However Howells did write a number of short pieces which are suitable for teaching purposes or for the use of amateurs. Perhaps the most significant of these are the Sarum Sketches, the attractive Country Pageant and the Little Book of Dances. All these offer interesting, well constructed pieces that do not wear their pedagogical nature.
A Sailor tune was written shortly after the Dances in 1930 at a time when Howells was spending more time as a teacher than composer. 
Like many pieces that would seem to be simple, it does have nuances that lie in wait for the unwary performer. This is especially true of the cross rhythms which occur from time to time. Furthermore it is important to ensure that the hands keep out of each others way as the ‘hornpipe’ progresses. The work is written in G major and is signed to be played ‘brisk and clear cut’. Although it is Grade 4, the overall impression of this bright piece is that more impressive than its grading may suggest.
Certainly the work seemed to be quite popular when it was reviewed. The Music & Letters reviewer suggested that it was “a well written short piece, a nice sense of humour.” Another suggested that it was “delightful, not easy, but very much worth working at and will wear well in the meantime.”

Interestingly enough this work was originally conceived as Sayler’s Tune. This would appear to be less of an archaic spelling as an eccentric one!
Unfortunately there appears to be no recording of this work available. The work was published by J.B. Cramer in 1930.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Jack Strachey: Theatreland – a Light music classic

Theatreland is one of those evocative pieces that makes us want to jump into that black taxi cab, clamber aboard the Routemaster bus or get on the Piccadilly Line and head off to where the footlights are blazing and the curtains going up on the very latest musical or West-End play.  
Jack Strachey Parsons (1894-1972), known as Jack Stratchey, was an English composer and songwriter. His greatest hit was probably the song These Foolish Things which was written for the London revue Spread It Abroad. However, he is also the composer of the well-known In Party Mood which featured as the theme music of Housewife’s Choice which ran until the demise of the Light Programme in 1967. It is a tune that one still hears people whistling! 

Theatreland was written by Strachey in 1940 and was probably intended as film library music that could be used by Movietone and other newsreel makers. However it took on a life of its own in the concert hall and radio programmes.

The work is in 'march' form although the trio does not contrast with the main march quite as much as convention expects. The work opens almost immediately with a bouncing swing that suggests excitement and anticipation. The whole point of the work seems to be to keep the momentum going without let or hinder. There is no room here for lovers sipping cocktails or having quiet assignations. It is the theatre that matters! Hyperion present the music in the original orchestration by Don Bowden (1906-1966) which is certainly effective in creating the right mood.
Jack Strachey also wrote some evocatively titled pieces which include Eros in Piccadilly, Shaftsbury Avenue and Mayfair Parade. Surely these must be ripe for revival?

British Light Music Classics Volume 3 Hyperion CDA 67148

Tuesday 17 June 2008

John Ireland Songs on Naxos

I recently reviewed this great Naxos CD of John Ireland Songs for MusicWeb. This disc includes a number of favourites such as Sea Fever and If there were Dreams to Sell. But there are more emotionally challenging songs here too…

"My war story about John Ireland songs goes back a long way, in fact about 36 years. I was at school in the sixth form. My best friend in those far-off days was rehearsing his ‘O’-level set-songs during lunchtime. He was in mid strophe when I entered the music classroom. After he had finished he asked me if I liked it. “Hmm”, I mumbled, “sounds OK to me … what is it?” He stood on his dignity. “If there were dreams to sell…” he replied. “Who is it by?” I asked tentatively. The look of disgust remains with me to this day. “John Ireland”, he said. “John who?” I rejoined. He walked out the door of the class without further comment. Well, a few weeks later I discovered an old Saga LP that contained a selection of Ireland’s music and I got stuck in. Another friend played The Island Spell to me on my piano and Grove helped. Soon, I guess, I knew more about him that my friend did. And then, a bit later, I discovered the Lyrita edition … but that is another story..." 

“This disc contains some of the best interpretations of John Ireland’s songs that I have ever heard… It is an absolute must for anyone who claims to be an enthusiast of English Song. But do not throw out your Lyrita or Hyperion editions – for Naxos are some 60 songs shy of the total in Ireland’s catalogue!
Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Monday 16 June 2008

Trevor Duncan: St. Boniface Down – a tone poem.

Trevor Duncan (1925-2005) is more often than not associated with the March from his Little Suite which was used to eternal memory in Dr. Findlay’s Casebook. It has been the subject of many recordings over the years. Of course, this was not the only work that Duncan wrote. Amongst his better known works are the 20th Century Express, High Heels, Children in the Park and The Girl from Corsica.
Many people have gone for a walk along the beautiful St. Boniface Down which is located in the Isle of Wight near the town of Ventnor. When I was last there it was a lovely sunny day with a slight breeze. At a height of just under 800ft the view over the English Channel and the ‘roads’ towards Portsmouth Sound was truly stunning. Interestingly there is supposed to be a wishing well on its southern slope – which requires the ‘wisher’ to walk from the south without looking back! Yet it was not the scenery or the view that initially inspired Trevor Duncan to compose this music. It was a girl. In fact it was C. Gurrieri who is rather more famous as The Girl from Corsica (1959) He had met this femme fatale who was half-French and half-Corsican on holiday. The relationship was supposedly ‘spiritual’ but it is quite obvious that she made a considerable impression on him!
The composer has stated that “the work celebrates a silent walk along the ridge of St. Boniface Down; it was followed by a beautiful correspondence for some weeks”.

St Boniface Down is a miniature tone poem that was written in 1956. Rarely for Duncan, it was not a commission but was composed because he wanted to write it: it was a cathartic work.
The piece opens enigmatically and creates a misty mood. Duncan’s use of percussion and woodwind here is surely reminiscent of Mercury and Venus from Holst’s Planets. The first main theme tries to establish itself- yet this very slow music does not emerge from its initial unfocussed mood. The strings try out what appears to be a new tune: they are supported by comments from the woodwind. The tempo is still slow but soon the ‘big’ tune and an apparent counter melody begin to assert themselves. Harp arpeggios lead to a seeming climax which does not fully materialise. The music eases off before a reflective tune for oboe and then horns is presented. The music becomes misty once more – as if a sea fret had blown up the English Channel. Suddenly a folksong-like tune is heard supported by tuned percussion. The strings and French horn reflect on this theme before a few Delius-like horn cadences lead to the final bars. The close is quiet and largely depends on percussion and woodwind. St Boniface Down is a relatively long piece of ‘light’ music lasting for just over seven minutes.
Two questions arise about this piece – firstly, what is the genre and, secondly, one of dating.
I am never happy with critics who consign music written by Farnon, Duncan, Coates et al to the one single category of ‘light music’. Now it is self-evident that this little tone poem is not in the same league as Bax’s Garden of Fand or even William Alwyn’s Magic Island. It could be argued that it is ‘mood’ music or maybe even a ‘characteristic piece.’ Yet I believe this would be disingenuous: in St. Boniface Down there are many echoes of Fred. Delius and Gustav Holst: perhaps even a nod to Vaughan Williams in a few bars. Yet this is no whimsical album-leaf using musical clichés but a well constructed and beautifully orchestrated essay. In fact this is a serious piece of music that is written from the heart, but uses a musical language that is readily accessible to most listeners. And finally, what is probably most important, is that it succeeds in creating its effect and manages to communicate its romantic message.
Dating is a problem. Traditionally The Girl from Corsica was dated as being composed in 1959: according to conventional wisdom, Trevor Duncan had met this enigmatic lady the previous year. Yet the dating of St. Boniface Down is 1956, at least on the CD sleeve notes – some two years before he was supposed to have had that brief relationship. I look forward to someone clearing this minor mystery up for me!
Interestingly, Duncan made use of the poetic rhythm of a line of poetry by Paul Verlaine: -“Il pleure dans mon coeur comme il pleut sur la ville.” One naturally wonders if the composer’s walk was done during a day of light rain? Certainly the music hints at a misty day.
St. Boniface Down is available on Marco Polo 8.223517.

Friday 13 June 2008

Sir Frederick Bridge’s 'Musical Cabby'

Sir Frederick Bridge was born in 1844 and was a well known and respected musical personality in London and the Provinces. He combined composing with writing, conducting and was the organist at Westminster Abbey. At the time of the following anecdote he would be about 61years old – at the height of his fame. It is important to note that Bridge is not in any way being patronising –he is simple a man of his time –and a great one at that.

'Sir Frederick Bridge has a ‘Cabman Critic’ who always drives him to the Albert Hall. Cabby does not like Wagner (Hear, Hear! Ed.) finding him too abstruse and mathematical, but apparently likes Perosi [1], a copy of whose “Transfiguration” he lent to the Abbey Organist. Sir Frederick says, “He is one of the most musical men in a humble walk of life that I have ever met, and I am sure that his verdicts on performances will bear favourable comparison with those of most of the professional musical critics of the present day. At any rate, he does not make more mistakes than some of them do, and he is ready to say outright if he likes a thing if it really pleases him.” He is not afraid to criticise his fare’s conducting either, and once objected that the ‘Hallelujah” Chorus was taken too fast. “Fast?” said Sir Frederick, “I didn’t take it too fast.” “Oh yes you did,” said the Cabby, shaking his head gravely, “It may gain in brilliancy by your method, but it loses in majesty.” It seems he does not drive his cab on Sundays, but spends most of the day practising on an organ he has at home. Sir Frederick says: “Since he lent me the score of Perosi’s Oratorio I have always called him Perosi, and this is the name by which he is called by the linkmen [2] at the Albert Hall – only some have contracted it to ‘Rosie.’
Decidedly, my cabman critic is a character. He is to me a constant source of amusement, not unmixed with admiration, for I think it is no small credit to him, that on the uncongenial altitude of the box-seat of a London cab he should be able to cultivate music so successfully.”
Musical News January 1905

[1] Lorenzo Perosi 1872-1956 Italian composer of sacred music.
[2] Linkman –a concierge who hails taxi cabs from a hotel or public buildings

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Gordon Jacob: The Overture Alexandra Palace

Gordon Jacob is perhaps best regarded for his contribution to the wind band repertoire. In some sense this is a little unfair as there is a good number of fine orchestral and chamber works in his catalogue. These include two Symphonies for full orchestral, a number of concertos and a Piano Sonata. Yet a consistent element of his work is compositions for wind instruments. In one sense he is the heir to Vaughan Williams and perhaps more pertinently Gustav Holst –both of who wrote considerable works for the medium.
The Overture: Alexandra Palace was written in 1975 as a response to a Greater London Council commission. The occasion was the celebration of the centenary of this iconic building which dominates North London. For a hundred years this mighty building had hosted major concerts and events connected with the life of the Capital. The Massed Bands and the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Marines gave the first performance of this work in the Great Hall on the 25th May 1975

There is no doubt that Jacob was an inspired choice for this celebratory music. It is clear that the work owes something to the English ceremonial style of music of William Walton and Edward Elgar. Yet the important thing to note is that it is in no way derivative. Of course Jacob was never a ‘modernist’: in fact he was probably the most conservative of Charles Villiers Stanford’s pupils, preferring baroque and classical models to the prevailing neo-romanticism and serialism. Yet the Alexandra Palace overture is no simplistic or naïve piece of music. From the first bar to the last Jacob shows his handling of the instruments and his ability to conceive a logical formal structure.

Amusingly enough, Gordon Jacob referred to this music as the ‘Ally Pally’ Overture. Geoffrey Brand had incorporated the ‘fanfare’ parts of the score into the main body of the piece making this work a valuable addition to the wind band repertoire, yet not quite disassociating it from the original event.

Monday 9 June 2008

Trevor Duncan: High Heels

One of my favourite pieces by Trevor Duncan is High Heels. Now there is no doubt that this piece owes much to David Rose’s ever popular Holiday for Strings – however Duncan has taken this idiom and created a work that is entirely his own. It is very much a case of a composer producing an early masterpiece and latterly feeling no need to disown it or even revise it.
To my mind this is one of those pieces that typifies the genre – there is absolutely no doubt from the first bar to the last that this is ‘light music’ of the very highest quality. Yet that is not to disparage it. What matters is whether it is good music: not if it is light or heavy, complicated or simple. And by every canon of criticism High Heels is good music – tune, scoring and formal balance.
High Heels was actually one of the earliest of Duncan’s contribution to the genre. In fact his first performed piece would appear to have been Vision in Velvet which had been inspected and approved by the conductor Ray Martin. In those days, the BBC had a restriction on its employees having music performed on the air, so Trevor Duncan chose to compose for newsreel and film companies who were not associated with the BBC. Interestingly, at this time, he chose his pseudonym – his given name was Leonard Charles Trebilcock! High Heels followed on from Vision of Velvet, once again receiving Martin’s approval. It became an immediate hit with a number of recordings and broadcasts.
The music is full of hustle and bustle and it is hard to imagine that it was written at a time of post war utility. It describes a vivacious lady in equally attractive surroundings. I guess that it has to be a grand entrance to The Dorchester Hotel rather than on the farm in East Anglia! Anyone with the least of imagination can provide the mental furniture for this piece of music.
Interestingly, it was composed at the time of his marriage to his first wife – who alas died some years later– so it may well be that she was the lady of style in Park Lane.
The ambience of this piece is something between Jazz and Mantovani – with an attractive syncopated rhythm and a melody that is underpinned with an evolving pizzicato bass. It was a soundscape that was to appear many times over the next two decades by a wide variety of composers. It was style that was definitely in the air.
Finally, Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International has summed this piece up well in his review of the Hyperion British Light Music compilation: “Trevor Duncan's High Heels is a flurry of 1950s style pizzicato - sophisticated: all fresh rain, shop windows and neon”…

Saturday 7 June 2008

Roger Quilter: Fantasy Quintet, Gypsy Life.

Roger Quilter is by far best known for his song-writing genius. However, a brief glance at the catalogue of his music reveals a relatively small number of works for orchestra, piano and chamber groups.
Yet he was not particularly prolific in composing for chamber ensemble. Granted, there were a number of arrangements of his songs for violin or cello and piano, for example To Daisies and Julia’s Hair. Furthermore, the popular incidental music to Where the Rainbow Ends seems to have spawned a wide variety of spin-offs. However, the present Gypsy Life would appear to be the only ‘original’ work written for the medium. The work is subtitled a ‘Fantasy Quintet’ and was scored for string quintet plus pianist. The work was published in 1935 by Goodwin & Tabb – it was one of the English String Series edited by Alec Rowley. Quilter dedicated the work to the composer and pianist Leslie Bridgewater.

Valerie Langfield, in her excellent biography of the composer, believes that there is little in this music that points to the pen of Quilter. She suggests that it is a ‘strange piece: light music with a mock Hungarian colour’.
However, I must disagree with her when she suggests that the lack of variety is tiring. The slow introduction does have a considerable charm that surely belies the occasional nature of this work. There are a few profound bars before the music begins its extrovert gypsy song. I think that Quilter gets the balance of the parts –both formally and texturally- just about right in spite of the fact that Valerie Langfield rightly notes that the piano dominates the texture.
I think that Gypsy Life is an excellent example of ‘genre’ music that admittedly is more at home in an Edwardian drawing room rather than the concert hall. Furthermore the music is a million miles away from a gypsy caravan on the outskirts of Budapest and is perhaps somewhat idealised of what that music would be deemed to sound like by an urbane Englishman. I suppose that I thought of Florian’s in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square when I first heard this piece. However one has to agree with Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International who suggests that this is a “genre piece with an Irish accent and a zingharese flavour. Dvorák's Slavonic Dances and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances convey some of the same enraptured and volatile dancing spirit." Fantasy Quintet: Gypsy Life on Meridian CDE 84519

Friday 6 June 2008

English String Series: an important and interesting resource

I found reference to these tantalising pieces for string orchestra whilst investigating Roger Quilter's Gypsy Life: Fantasy Quintet. Now unfortunately the Quilter is the only one that appears to have been recorded. As I understand it, this series was not aimed at amateur orchestras as such, but based on a hearing of Gypsy Life, accomplished players with considerable technique.
I say no more that this: wouldn't it be lovely if some obliging record company chose to issue all eleven works on a CD? Certainly if someone wanted to play one of these I would be willing to do a bit of digging!
And one other thing - I am so curious to know what Ernest Markham Lee's Rivers of Devon Suite and Julian Herbage's Humour of Bath Suite sounded like. And then there is the Dunhill...

Leslie Woodgate (1902 -1961)
English Dance Suite Op.12
English String Series No.1 (1929)

Frederick Adlington (1892-1931)
Three English Folk Tunes: Suite
English String Series No.2 (1930)

Alec Rowley (1892-1958)
Shepherd’s Delight for string orchestra
English String Series No.3 (1929)

Ernest Markham Lee (1874-1956)
Rivers of Devon: Suite English String Series No.4 (1929)

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946)
In Rural England: Suite for String Orchestra
English String Series No. 5 (1929)

Julian Herbage (1904-1976)
The Humour of Bath: Suite for String Orchestra
English String Series No. 6 (1930)

Frederick Adlington (1892-1931)
Bracebridge Hall Suite
English String Series No.7 (1931)

Eric Thiman (1900-1975)
Two Seventeenth Century Tunes for Piano and Strings (freely arranged)
1. Barbara Allen
2. Green Meadows
English String Series No.8 (1935)

Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Gypsy Life: Fantasy Quintet for piano 1st & 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass (optional part for 3rd violin)
English String Series No.9

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Ayres for the Theatre Suite (arranged by L. Bridgewater)
1. March (The Married Beau)
2. Slow Ayre (Distressed Innocence)
3. Dance (The Fairy Queen)
4. Jig (The Married Beau)
5. Country Dance (Dioclesian)
6. Trumpet Ayre (The Married Beau)
English String Series No.10 (1936)

Denys H.H. Grayson
In Linden Time – Romance for piano or harp, 1st & 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass
English String Series No. 11 (1937)

Thursday 5 June 2008

Philip Lane: London Salute

I rather like Philip Lane’s evocative London Salute. It is quite short and sweet, yet manages to portray London in its many moods. It was written by the composer to mark the sixtieth anniversary (1982) of the forming of the BBC. 
Any music describing London is often destined to fall into some incarnation of the British ‘ceremonial style’ typical of Walton, Bliss or even Elgar. Yet Lane avoids this particular trap. If anything this music owes more to Eric Coates’s Knightsbridge March – at least in mood if not substance. Of course there are nods to the pomp and circumstance and things of state but the main mood is one of ‘hustle and bustle’. Certainly the opening bars suggest to me the curtains going up at a West-End Theatre. Surely the following ‘march’ is more evocative of traffic in Oxford Street or Piccadilly rather than the Trooping of the Colour? Maybe it is descriptive of a shopping trip to Dickens and Jones rather than a Royal Wedding. The only drop-off from this music is that there is no repose: at least Elgar in his Cockaigne Overture alluded to lovers in Hyde Park walking hand in hand on a hot summer’s day. Yet the balance of this piece is good: great orchestration along with an infectious swing provide interest and movement.

The work is available on Marco Polo 8.225185

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Harriet Cohen: Russian Impressions

I tend to see Harriet Cohen in terms of her relationship with Arnold Bax. Of course she had a notable career as a pianist that was not subject to Bax’s influence: for one thing she was highly regarded as an interpreter of J.S. Bach. Harriet was very enthusiastic about contemporary British music and gave a number of world premieres. Most especially Ralph Vaughan Williams's underrated and under-performed Piano Concerto was written for her. She recorded Elgar’s fine Piano Quintet with the Stratton Quartet under the composer’s supervision. Other composers who dedicated music to her were John Ireland, Bela Bartok, E.J Moeran and Ernest Bloch. Of course, for a number of years she was Arnold Bax’s lover and muse and as result of this many works flowed from his pen. However it came as a surprise to me to discover that Harriet Cohen was also a composer. Now a brief look at the catalogue does not reveal a huge contribution to the literature: they are mostly arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach:-
Be contented, O my soul by J.S. Bach arranged for two pianos
Beloved Jesu, we are here by J.S. Bach arranged for two pianos
Bist du bei mir: aria by J.S. Bach arranged for cello & piano
Sanctify us by thy goodness: chorale from the Cantata No.22 by J.S. Bach arranged for piano
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme by J.S. Bach arranged for piano duet. 

However the most surprising contribution is a set of Russian Impressions. These were published by Augener in 1915 when Harriet was only 20 years old. They were well received by the critic of the Monthly Music Record in September 1915 – he writes “Miss Harriet Cohen is singularly fortunate in her subjects. These four pieces are melodious in their colouring, well finished in artistry, and easy to play – Grieg like in type; but Russian in spirit.”

There are four ‘Impressions': ‘Sunset on the Volga’ is a little melody that is cleverly worked out in E major. The second Impression is called ‘The Exile’ and has a simple yet poignant charm. 'The Old Church at Wilna' is probably the best of the pieces with its bell-like imitations at the start and conclusion of the work. And lastly the work concludes with a vivid tone painting of Tartar life.

Unfortunately these are not recorded but are surely one of the minor desiderata of English music piano repertoire. And in spite of the critic contention they are not that easy to play – they are certainly not in my gift!

Sunday 1 June 2008

Whisky Galore - Music from the Film

'Whisky Galore' has always been one of my favourite films. I remember seeing it at a Children’s matinee way back in the 1960s at a cinema in Riddrie, Glasgow. Of course as the years have passed I have bought the video and then the DVD. Who cannot be impressed by this tale of canny highlanders up against the might of the British establishment? 
The music for the film was composed by Edward Irving. From 1930 until the Second World War Irving turned out dozens of scores including those for 'The Ghost at St Michael's' starring Will Hay and George Formby’s 'It has Turned out Nice Again'. In his later career he spent more time as a conductor and arranger in the film studio – although he still contributed some original music. It is a little known fact that Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Sinfonia Antarctica to Ernest Irving. 
Fortunately we do not have to watch the entire film to enjoy the music. Silva Screen Records have produced an attractive CD which features a seven minute suite of musical extracts from the film. It is in two parts and presents the introductory music from the film and the scene where the islanders board the S.S Cabinet Minister to ‘curate’ as many crates of the precious liquid as possible. The extract ends with a reprise of the ‘lovers’ music. It is an attractive score that does not really pretend o be anything other than a confection of Scottish music. Yet it is highly successful – especially the forties style romantic music.
As one final point. I wonder if those who know this film see in Captain Waggett a model for Arthur Lowe’s characterisation of Captain Mainwaring? 

This CD could be hard to track down – but with the music by Benjamin Frankel, Georges Auric, Alan Rawsthorne and John Ireland it is well worth the effort.