Tuesday 30 September 2008

E.J. Moeran: An Early Appreciation

I recently posted an article from the December 1924 edition of the Chesterian journal about the composer C.W. Orr. In the January number there was a similar introduction to the much better known (now) composer E.J. Moeran. It is worth re-publishing this, as it appears to be one of the earliest notices of the composer’s life and achievements. 

'On the programmes of recent chamber music concerts in London [1], a comparatively unfamiliar name has appeared frequently enough to awaken a good deal of curiosity among music lovers. It was the name E.J Moeran. Those who actually heard the performances of the works in question – a String Quartet and a Violin Sonata- soon felt their curiosity ripen into interest, and they proved anxious to know more of, and about, a composer who had, unknown to them, obviously long passed the stage of mere promise. 

E.J. Moeran was born at Spring Grove, in Middlesex, on December 31st 1894. His father was an Irishman, and his mother a member of a Norfolk family. He was educated at Uppingham from 1908 until 1912, when he left school in order to study at the Royal College of Music [1913]. In 1914, he joined the army, serving throughout the War, with the exception of a period in 1917, when he was wounded at Bullecourt. 

E.J. Moeran has lived a great part of his life at Bacton, in Norfolk, and he spent much time in collecting folk-songs there, a selection of which appeared in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society for 1923.

It is a curious fact that a composer, who now displays such a remarkable maturity at an age when many others are still groping after means of expression, should have heard no serious music in his childhood. Until the age of fourteen he did not know the sound of a full orchestra, and it was about the same time that he first made acquaintance with chamber music and choral works, drawn almost entirely from the classics. This was at Uppingham, then one of the few public schools where music was taken seriously, and where a complete Symphony was studied and performed every term.

At this time, E.J. Moeran began to study the piano, having previously received some elementary training on the violin. He made his first attempt at composition at the age of seventeen, and this was, significantly enough, a String Quartet. Since then he has written a considerable number of chamber works, practically all of which he considers worthless and prefers to withhold from the public. The String Quartet now in the press is his fourth work in that form, and he wrote two Violin Sonatas before he set to work on the one now published.

Apart from chamber music, E.J. Moeran had written some works for piano (published by Messrs. Schott & Co.), the most important of which is a set of Variations, and two orchestral works [2], one of which, a Rhapsody, was performed by Sir Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth at the Easter Festival of 1923, and will again be heard at Manchester on January 24th, under the direction of Mr. Hamilton Harty.'
The Chesterian January 1924 p.124.

[1] Possibly refers to the concert at the Wigmore Hall on Jan 15th 1923. 
[2] Probably In the Mountain Country, 1921 and Rhapsody No.1, 1922; or possibly the Rhapsody No.2, 1924

Friday 26 September 2008

Sir Edward Elgar: Salut d’Amour

I was listening to Sir Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour the other day. It is a work that is ubiquitous – especially on Classic FM. It is also a feature of many ‘samplers’ of the master’s music. Of course, this piece has appeared in so many incarnations that it is hard to know what was the ‘original’ version. I guess that it was a salon piece for fiddle and piano that somehow took on a life of its own. I have a piano arrangement at home, which I can just about bash my way through: I have heard it on the organ and also played by a brass band on the sea front at Lytham St Anne’s. However my favourite version is for a ‘light-ish’ string orchestra.
I have always found it rather amusing that the Elgar ‘heavyweight enthusiasts’ feel embarrassed about the fact that this work comes from the same mind and the same pen as Gerontius, the Second Symphony and the Cello Concerto. However, this is great and lovely music even if it is popular and better reflects the drawing room rather than the concert hall!
But the point of this post is to tell a reasonably well known anecdote concerning this piece which bears repetition. One night Elgar was arriving at a concert with a certain Fred Gaisberg “As we entered the Artists' Entrance," Gaisberg recalled, "we passed an itinerant fiddler giving a fairly good rendition of Salut d'Amour. The delighted composer paused and from his pocket produced half a crown. Handing it to the bewildered musician, Elgar said, 'Do you know what you are playing?' 'Yes,' he replied. 'It's Salut d'Amour, by Elgar.' 'Take this. It's more than Elgar made out of it,' responded the donor."

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Benjamin Britten: ‘Winter Words’ lost songs.

The two songs that form the ‘appendix’ to Benjamin Britten’s great song cycle Winter Words are not usually heard when that work is performed. The songs were published in the latest score of this cycle, with the strict instructions that they are not to be given as an integral part of the work. In spite of their general lack of performance, they are worthy of our attention. Of course they can be played as separate entities, just so long as they are not sung back to back with the song cycle.

It is only quite recently that I heard these works, at least consciously, and my first reaction is to be quite glad that they are not included in the ‘official’ batting order of the song cycle. This would have surely upset the balance of the work which appears to be near perfect. Furthermore, it would be difficult to know where they would be slotted in, because in some ways Winter Words appears a complete journey for both the singer and the listener. So Britten’s admonition ought to be heeded. Yet, this is not to deny these two songs importance, interest and sheer attractiveness. Both are settings of ‘typical’ Thomas Hardy texts and are fine songs in their own right: they well deserve their place in the canon of English song. Both songs in their own way highlight the prevailing emotion of Winter Words – that of the inexorable passing of time. Both songs use typical Britten fingerprints, that are present in the song cycle: partial text repetitions, significant word painting and melismas.

The Children and Sir Nameless
Sir Nameless, once of Athelhall, declared:
"These wretched children romping in my park
Trample the herbage till the soil is bared,
And yap and yell from early morn till dark!
Go keep them harnessed to their set routines:
Thank God I've none to hasten my decay;
For green remembrance there are better means
Than offspring, who but wish their sires away."

Sir Nameless of that mansion said anon:
"To be perpetuate for my mightiness
Sculpture must image me when I am gone."
- He forthwith summoned carvers there express
To shape a figure stretching seven-odd feet
(For he was tall) in alabaster stone,
With shield, and crest, and casque, and word complete:
When done a statelier work was never known.

Three hundred years hied;
Church-restorers came,
And, no one of his lineage being traced,
They thought an effigy so large in frame
Best fitted for the floor.
There it was placed,
Under the seats for schoolchildren. And they
Kicked out his name, and hobnailed off his nose;
And, as they yawn through sermon-time, they say,
"Who was this old stone man beneath our toes?"

The Children and Sir Nameless’ has a kind of humorous irony that would have certainly have appealed to Britten. I am not sure how often this poem appears in Hardy anthologies, yet it is one of my favourites. How strange that ‘Sir Nameless’ ignores the children at his mansion only to be trod under foot by the Sunday school scholars! And of course we must never forget that the poet started out life as an architect –so he knew all about mid-Victorian restorations projects.
Britten mirrors the text in his setting superbly. After a short chordal introduction, Sir Nameless is introduced to the listener: little sympathy is generated for him. Britten indulges in some fine word painting - the loud and high ‘yap’ does suggest that perhaps the youth of the day were rather noisy and outspoken, disturbing the knight’s leisure and study. The key sentiment is that he knows a better way of preserving his fame than by begetting children. The second verse is much quieter and the accompaniment is more Spartan: arpeggios support an almost recitative-like vocal line. In this verse, the key emphasis is on the word ‘statelier’ –it was an effigy worthy of the man. Of course the irony is only fully revealed in the last verse. Musical allusions to the first stanza are combined with a tone suitable to the humour and perhaps, sadness of the final line - "Who was this old stone man beneath our toes?" The world and perhaps more poignantly, the local community had already forgotten this worthy.

If it's ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it's ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.

If it's ever summer-time,
With the hay crop at the prime,
And the cuckoos-two-in rhyme,
As they used to be, or seemed to,
We shall do as long we've dreamed to,
If it's ever summer-time,
With the hay, and bees a chime.

The second poem is a love poem, and no doubt looks back to Hardy’s life with Emma. I feel that the key passage here is surely in the second stanza “As they used to be, or seemed to/We shall do as long we've dreamed to, (my italics). Summers are never quite as warm and enjoyable as we try to remember them; usually personal problems intrude on the sunshine.

The accompaniment is much simpler that for ‘Sir Nameless’ yet is entirely appropriate for supporting the reflective vocal line and adds to the sense of loss that is inherent in the poets thoughts. Both verses use similar material. Of course the piano part becomes more involved when the poet is describing his peregrinations in the countryside with his lover. Britten repeats the first two lines of each verse. Interestingly, there is a short epilogue for piano that allows the song to end in a mood of quiet reflection.

There are at least three fine versions of these two songs currently available – I list them in my order of preference.
Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford on Naxos 8557201
Neil Mackie and Roger Vignoles on EMI 74346
Christopher Gould and Daniel Norman on BIS 1510

Monday 22 September 2008

Geoffrey Self: Sonatina No.1

For me, Geoffrey Self is primarily the author of a study of E.J. Moeran – a book which has been an inspiration to me for nearly quarter of a century. I have been grateful for his fine biography of the neglected composer Julius Harrison. Over the years I have perused his ‘Hiawatha Man’ to try to understand Samuel Coleridge Taylor and his music and his In ‘Town Tonight’ which examines the life and work of Eric Coates is essential. There is also an instructive exploration of British Light Music...

Geoffrey Self was born in 1930 and has combined musicology with teaching, performance and composition. For a number of years he was County Music Advisor for Somerset. In 1964 he moved to Cornwall to become Head of Music at the Cambourne Technical College. During his time in Cornwall he was the principal conductor of the Cornish Symphony Orchestra.

Over the years he has composed works for the organ, the orchestra, choral and chamber ensembles and the piano, very little of which seems to be in the general public domain.

A couple of years ago I reviewed a CD of music by the Severnside Composers. I remarked there that apart from the fine collection of Preludes by Ivor Gurney, Self was the only composer I had come across before!

The Sonatina is an almost neo-classical work that is presented in three roughly equal movements. Yet there is an interesting anomaly here. Self writes about this work, “In the 70’s I amused myself by building a clavichord and wrote this piece to play on it.” I must admit, it hardly seems suited to that instrument, a view that Self admitted. He said that “subsequently it seemed to be more suited to the piano. A further comment by the composer is interesting. He suggests that what “I write what used to be called ‘light’ music.” Now perhaps he and I have different concepts of what light music is. This is certainly not Eric Coates or Robert Farnon – it is much more like Walter Leigh’s Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings – a point noted by Colin Scott-Sutherland in his review on his review of this work on MusicWeb International. 

This is an extremely attractive work that deserves its place in the repertoire. I guess that is probably a Grade 7 piece so is possibly in the gift of a competent amateur.
The Toccata is an impressive tour-de-force but I especially liked the slow Elegy – which to me is not 'light’ but actually ‘reflective’ and quite profound. The Rondo is fun, but once again a million miles away from Haydn Wood or Trevor Duncan. It is self-evident that there is a certain amount of internal thematic referencing –although this sonatina is not cyclic.

Severnside Composer’s Alliance Inaugural Piano Recital February 23rd 2005. Played by Peter Jacob. Dunelm DRD0238

Sunday 21 September 2008

Sir Arthur Sullivan: Motet - The Long Day Closes

Arthur Sullivan’s reputation as a composer has always been complicated by the fact that he is invariably seen as one half of G&S! However, recent years have enabled the listener to hear a number of works that have lain hidden for nearly a century. I can recommend the Irish Symphony and the Cello Concerto to anyone who has not heard music beyond the D’Oly Carte Operas. Yet Sullivan also wrote choral music suitable for perfomance in both churches and glee clubs.

Perhaps the most famous of all Victorian madrigals is the sad yet inspiring ‘The Long Day Closes'.
No star is o'er the lake,
Its pale watch keeping,
The moon is half awake,
Through gray mists creeping,
The last red leaves fall round
The porch of roses,
The clock hath ceased to sound,
The long day closes.

Sit by the silent hearth
In calm endeavour,
To count the sounds of mirth,
Now dumb for ever.
Heed not how hope believes
And fate disposes:
Shadow is round the eaves,
The long day closes.

The lighted windows dim
Are fading slowly.
The fire that was so trim
Now quivers lowly,
Quivers lowly.

Go to the dreamless bed
Where grief reposes;
Thy book of toil is read,
The long day closes;

The text was by a poet, librettist and art critic called Henry Chorley – he was a friend of the composer. As a meditation on death it is superb. Forget supposed Victorian sentimentality – this is profound stuff. And Sullivan’s setting matches itself to the words perfectly. The composer's reprise of the opening melody for “Go to the dreamless bed/ Where grief reposes/ Thy book of toil is read/ The long day closes,” is sheer perfection.

And remember that this was written some three years before W.S. Gilbert wrote the libretto for Cox and Box – the first fruits of that partnership.

Listen to this work on YouTube

Friday 19 September 2008

Gerald Finzi: In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

One of the finest of First World War poems must be Thomas Hardy’s In Time of “The Breaking of Nations” and of the handful of settings that have been attempted surely Finzi’s is the best known. The poem has been a favourite of mine since I discovered it in an old poetry book belonging to my late father.
It is a poem which deals with the futility of war, although the poet’s methodology is to use 'suggestion' rather than ‘shocking’ description. It is up to the reader to supply the ‘horror.’
The present song was originally used as the third movement of the early Requiem de Camera which was composed for baritone, chorus and orchestra. This work was penned in 1924. Apparently Finzi was not happy with the suitability of this piece. He later sketched out a ‘superior’ version for piano and soloist, but this seems to be cued for orchestra. A later partial orchestration of this song was found in the composer’s hand writing.
However it was the version on Hyperion’s 'War’s Embers' that recently caught my eye. It is sung here by Stephen Varcoe with Clifford Benson as the accompanist.

The Requiem and the present song were dedicated to Finzi’s erstwhile teacher of composition, Ernest Farrar, who was one-time organist at Harrogate. Farrar had been killed on active service in France in September 1918.

ONLY a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk,
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch grass:
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by;
War's annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.
Thomas Hardy

This is certainly a bleak and ‘gaunt’ song. It lacks warmth although the last stanza has a little more light than what has preceded. In some ways the conclusion of the poem is actually quite optimistic – war’s come and go, yet the ordinary things of mankind must remain. The vocal part reflects the intropsctive mood of the text. Interestingly the piano interludes between stanzas are considerably longer than would be deemed as ‘proper.’ Yet surely this adds to the reflective nature of these fine words.
The scholar, Stephen Banfield seems to suggest that Finzi’s setting is weak and ineffective – that he had attempted to respond to a poem before he was technically able to produce an adequate setting of it. However, I must disagree with such a learned authority. And for two reasons – firstly, this setting moves me, and secondly I can hear intimations of the composer’s later style in a number of places, especially in the last stanza.
Listen to this song performed by Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson on Hyperion or as part of the Chandos issue of the Requiem de Camera

Monday 15 September 2008

Geoffrey Bush: Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano

Sadly and certainly unfairly the composer Geoffrey Bush is not well represented in the CD catalogues: at present he has only some seven or eight works on disc. Of course his two symphonies are recorded on Lyrita and these are certainly impressive major works and deserve to be in the libraries of all English Music enthusiasts. Bush Symphonies

Bush’s reputation is generally (alas) confined to his vocal music- both choral works and solo songs- so any opportunity to hear a chamber or orchestral work is to be welcomed.
The Trio was written in 1953 when the composer was in his early thirties. The work opens with a declamatory flourish and soon gets into an impressive ‘adagio maestoso.’ This is powerful music. However after a short pause, the mood changes to one of a quicksilver scherzo-like ‘vivace.’ Here we find the typical Bush fingerprints of wit, precision, shifting tonalities and syncopated rhythms. Then follows a gorgeous tune. Jeremy Polmear of Oboe Classics, suggests that it nods to Walton and this is appropriate. It is first heard on the oboe before being repeated on the bassoon and developed contrapuntally. But soon the ‘scherzo’ music returns and this leads into ‘big music’ before the movement comes to a mercurial end.
The second movement is noted as ‘poco lento-tempo di vivace.’ This is deep music compared to that which has gone before. Actually I feel it is full of sadness. I was reminded or Finzi in the way that the melody unfolds with an almost Bachian poise and balance. Yet this mood cannot last for ever. Soon the music becomes much more exploratory before repeating the Finzian tune, albeit in a more Spartan guise. A reprise of ‘quicksilver’ music brings the work towards its conclusion. The work ends with a clever little figure from both oboe and bassoon.

Geoffrey Bush’s Trio is available on Oboe Classics ‘Melodic Lines’

Saturday 13 September 2008

John Ireland: Piano Works Volume 3 on Naxos

I recently reviewed the third volume of the Naxos Edition of the collected piano music of John Ireland. After noting my disappointment that there were a few omissions from the cycle – the Three Dances, an Indian Summer and the Sea Idyll- I conceded that perhaps I was nitpicking – as this CD is an excellent addition to the growing conspectus of John Ireland’s Piano Music which includes Parkin (two editions) Rowlands and lately Mark Bebbington.

The most important composition on this CD is the Piano Sonata. This demanding work was written between 1918 and 1920 and is one of the great Sonatas in the 20th century piano repertoire. I enjoyed Lenehan’s playing of this complex work. He manages to explore and even perhaps get behind some of the deepest mysteries in this work. The light and shade in this Sonata is well defined by the pianist and the interest never flags for a moment. I think the CD is worth purchasing for this performance alone.

My touchstone for any recording of Ireland’s piano music is Spring Will Not Wait which is actually an epilogue to the Housman song-cycle We’ll to the Woods No More. The piece is meant to summarise and comment upon the foregoing songs. I felt that the Lenehan version did not work for me. It seems a little fast in places and some of the detail manages to get lost: somehow my interest in the music seems to disappear mid-piece – and is not really recovered.

However, I concluded my review by suggesting that “I can certainly recommend this CD. I accept that John Lenehan would not be my first choice. The bottom line is that any recording of the piano music by a professional and accomplished pianist is interesting and deserves out attention. John Lenehan provides an important addition to the repertoire which is largely dominated by Eric Parkin.

Please see the full review on MusicWeb International

Tuesday 9 September 2008

John Foulds: Three Mantras

Much discussion of John Foulds’ Mantras seems to revolve on its dependence on, or at least its relationship with, Holst’s Planets. I note that some reviewers of this music have compared the second Mantra with its trademark wordless chorus of women’s voices to ‘Neptune’ and the last movement is reminiscent of ‘Mars.’ References have been made to Holst’s Choral Symphony and Vaughan Williams Flos Campi. Stravinsky, Scriabin, Ravel and Bernstein are suggested as further musical references to this piece. It is further noted that beside Holst, Foulds was one of the first composers to take an interest in Indian music.

With any new or rediscovered piece it is always easy to try to look for exemplars – and perhaps this is no bad thing as it allows listeners to decide for themselves if they are liable to like, or perhaps even loathe, the work in question. Yet the down side is that, for the very same reasons, it can prejudice the listener for, but more likely against, a piece. And more seriously it can suggest that the work about to be listened to is somehow a patchwork of six or seven composers’ styles.

Throughout the 1920s Foulds worked on a massive operatic project called Avatara. Yet this Sanskrit-based mystical opera was never to be completed. All that survives of the vast amount of music written are the ‘preludes’ to each of the three projected acts. John Foulds felt that there was sufficient material here to make a considerable symphonic work – it is nearly 26 minutes long. The score of Mantras was completed in April 1930 but lay unperformed until 1988.

The first Mantra manages to balance the chaos of eternity with the pandemonium of down-town New York. Rob Barnett, of MusicWeb International is right to hear ‘jazzy’ overtones and the ‘big city’ feel of Lenny Bernstein. Frenetic is perhaps the best description of this piece. A friend of mine described it as exhausting. Perhaps the movement’s sobriquet of ‘Activity’ explains this energy.
The second Mantra is devoted to ‘Bliss and Celestial Awareness.’ This movement is as long as the other two put together but enables the listener to be virtually lost in the shifting time-world of this pieces. Listening to it I was reminded of the ‘time bending’ properties of some of Messiaen’s music.
The last Mantra –Of Will – has ‘some of the most barbaric and elemental music that Foulds ever wrote.’ Technically this seemingly complex and chaotic music is based on the minimum of material. The score is marked ‘inesorable’ and this dynamic is certainly a good description of this frankly frightening music. Quoting the music critic Malcolm MacDonald, “The culmination [of this movement] is a shattering explosion of sheer orchestral power.” Perhaps it is fair to say that this music is even more violent and compelling and frightening than Holst’s ‘Mars’?

It never ceases to amaze me that we have here a vitally important masterpiece, yet it has been hidden away for so many years. And I guess that for every play of the Mantras (or any the other Foulds’ works) we will hear a hundred, if not a thousand renditions of ‘Mars & Venus!’

The Mantras are currently available in two recordings – Lyrita and Warner Classics – both are fine recordings of this work.

Monday 8 September 2008

Christopher Howell: Stanford & the Piano

Christopher Howell has written an absolutely first class essay about Charles Villiers Stanford’s piano music.
He opens his paper with:- “This year, Promenade audiences heard for the first time, 92 years after a planned performance that fell through, the Second Piano Concerto by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Additionally, a CD is being issued entitled Land of Sunset Glories and played by the present writer, offering a sequence of the composer’s solo piano music, most of it not previously recorded. This seems a good occasion to examine Stanford’s relationship to the piano more fully than programme or booklet notes allow.”

It is essential reading for anyone who is interested in this composer, in English music in particular or in piano music in general. It is well researched, informative and documented. It is the sort of article I wish that I had written! And I cannot wait to get my hands on this new CD…

Read it here at MusicWeb International

Sunday 7 September 2008

Elisabeth Lutyens: An easy introduction to her music - Number One

I own up to not being the greatest fan of Elisabeth Lutyens. However, over the past couple of years or so I have begun to reconsider my opinions of her works – and feel that perhaps I have been a little harsh in my estimation of her compositions.  My suspicion of her music goes back a number of years (37 actually) to a piece called O Saisons, O chateau. I can still remember feeling that this was some of the most appalling music I had heard up to that date. I realise that the work had been applauded and encored at its 1947 performance; historically it received mixed reviews However, I loathed it. Many years were to pass before I heard my next piece of Lutyens.
One of her dislikes was what she called ‘cow-pat’ music. By this I guess she meant the folksong-inspired works of RVW, Butterworth and the like. So perhaps it does seem surprising that with this strong view in mind, she composed music for a British Transport Film production called The Heart of England. Both screenplay and music contrive to present a countryscape that is evocative and reminiscent of much that she supposedly disliked.
The British Transport Film unit describes this film as portraying “…that area of England which is most English - gentle hills, shut-in valleys, picturesque villages, historic towns - these make up the Cotswold countryside, the heart of England. The delicate changes the seasons bring to this are seen first in early spring, with the harrowing of the rich fields, the first buds on the trees, the blossoming orchards. Later come the Three Counties Show at Hereford, cricket at Cheltenham or on the village green, and finally the harvest and the traditional fairs. Here are the little towns with the great stone churches, rich in English history, and Tewkesbury, and Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon.”
All full of potential for ‘cowpats’. But somehow she manages to provide an attractive score without falling into the overtly ‘pastoral’ trap. This music is entirely appropriate for this kind of promotional, tourist film. However it is closer to her hated genre than it is to her beloved serialism!
Yet the fact is that Lutyens regarded this type of work as being simply to pay the bills. She did not regard it as being an important part of her artistic achievement.
This is a great work to begin ones acquaintance with Elisabeth Lutyens. I guess that when I first saw The Heart of England I imagined that somehow it was a one off. Yet even the briefest of glances at her catalogue shew a surprising number of film scores. So it is a fruitful area of exploration. Alas, not all of them are available on DVD

The The Heart of England has been released on DVD by British Transport Films.

Friday 5 September 2008

Richard Stoker, Janet Craxton & ‘Polemics’

Richard Stoker is no stranger to the art of writing chamber music- either in general or for the oboe in particular. A brief perusal of his catalogue reveals Three String Quartets, Two String Trios, a Wind Quintet, and Clarinet Quartet. There are a number of works for various instruments, with or without piano.
When we consider the oboe repertoire the first thing to note is that he produced a didactic volume entitled An 'Oboe Method' -so we feel confident that he must have a facility for writing for this instrument. He has written a number of pieces for the instrument including a Chant & Danse for the Associated Board examinations, an Aubade and Three Pieces for solo performer. But perhaps must enticing of all is the Pastoral for Oboe and Strings – this must surely be a candidate for some future recording project.

Richard Stoker had met Janet Craxton when they were both on the staff at the Royal Academy. He was at that time professor of composition there. She had come to a performance of his Third String Quartet (Adlerian) on the South Bank and had been suitably impressed by what she heard. Soon she made a request to him for a work for her instrument. Now it appears that she wanted an Oboe Quartet. But Stoker was not inspired by this combination. What he had in mind was to set up a debate or a discussion between a single woodwind and a string trio. Hence the two main protagonists were to become oboe and the trio. The dedicatee did not know about this particular change to the planned quartet until the work was finished – but Stoker relates that she was ‘OK’ about it.

The relationship between performer and composer was based on vigorous debate. They discussed everything – from music through the state of the world and just about life in general. Craxton was some nine years older than Stoker and no doubt brought her considerable wisdom and wit into the conversations. He regarded these dialogues as a kind of ‘platonic’ debate – hence the title ‘Polemics.’ A brief look at the dictionary defines ‘polemics’ as follows:- A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.

A person engaged in or inclined to controversy, argument, or refutation.
Now listening to music it is difficult to see the more hard edged words used in the above definitions. For example there is little in the way of ‘attack’ and refuting.’ This suggests a ‘polemic’ infused by respect and admiration rather than by mere point scoring.
The composer writes that he considered the oboe as Janet Craxton and the violin, and other strings as himself.
Polemics is written in three slightly unbalanced movements. Although it could be argued that the work falls into five sections with the heart of the matter central to the argument.
The first movement is entitled Sonata – although it seems to be perhaps in a ‘Scarlattian’ sense as opposed to that of Beethoven. It runs for a mere two and half minutes. The oboe starts off the proceedings with a short solo gesture before the stings join in –the lady definitely has the first word! The oboe retains its prominence throughout this movement –but is set against bold and wide-ranging statements from the other strings. The debate seems to be somewhat abrupt and there are certainly a number of throwaway lines here!
The second movement is definitely the heart of the work. It is a strangle construction really, being a deep ‘sostenuto’ sandwiched between two skittish ‘scherzando passages. In some ways it is a sonata within a sonata! Yet it is this movement that give this whole work its touch of genius.
Stoker has written that in the ‘scherzando’ sections he has written music in a style that he knew Craxton enjoyed playing. He used the Mozart Oboe Quartet as a starting point rather than a model. This was a classical work that was a critical part of Janet Craxton’s repertoire.
But it is in the central section – the sostenuto – where Stoker excels himself. There is a profundity to this music that stays in the mind long after the final notes of the piece have been heard. And there is a strangely ‘English’ quality to this music – especially the string parts. This is not perhaps too surprising until one recalls Stoker’s predilection towards the ‘Francophile’ works of Lennox Berkeley.
The last movement is in fact a fugue. Here all the four instruments come into the argument. It is harder to spot anyone in the ascendancy –although the soloist is certainly never put in their place.
It is difficult to know if this work is based on a tone-row of any kind. Much of the writing has an atonal feel to it that suggests there may be some constructional principal underlying the melodic and harmonic development of this piece. But typically Stoker has used tone rows as a means to an end rather than the end itself. It does not really matter whether we are listening to inversions or retrogrades of the original note sequence – it is whether the music moves the soul. In this case it most certainly does.
The only recording we have of this work is unfortunately in ‘mono’ sound. It was made two days before Christmas Day in 1971 at the BBC Broadcasting House. Yet it is a classic in its own right. This is available on Oboe Classics CC2011 and is coupled with works by Routh, Maconchy, LeFanu, Berkeley and Lutyens. The playing of both the soloist and the London Oboe Quartet seems to my ear faultless – the cut and thrust of the ‘polemic’ or ‘dialogue’ is vital and the string tone leaves nothing to be desired.
Because of the close association of the composer and the player it is doubtful that any subsequent recordings can quite catch the magic and the personality of both the ‘key players.’ But that must never be a reason not to record a great work time and again. I sincerely hope that some oboist will take up this work and produce a modern, stereo recording. And perhaps they could include some of the other works that Stoker wrote for this great instrument.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this was originally posted in 2006

Monday 1 September 2008

William Alwyn: Night Thoughts

William Alwyn volunteered to be an Air Raid Warden on the outbreak of the Second World War. He was sent on the required training course before taking up his duties in the Capital. He decided to evacuate his family away from the Blitz. At the start of the war the Royal Academy of Music was closed, (although it later reopened and composition classes were resumed) and much of the musical life in London temporarily ceased. Alwyn was at this time heavily involved with the Ministry of Information and the Army Film Unit in the making of propaganda films. These productions were shewn at home and abroad. The composer mentions the fact that these films were so successful and so aroused the ire of the Nazis that his name was on the list of people who were to be arrested were Hitler to invade Britain. It was something that he was quite proud of.
Soon Alwyn was spending many nights at the A.R.P post in London. He was involved with fire watching and with patrols presumably to ensure that people had 'put that light out.' This active service was usually hectic but sometimes involved hanging around waiting the bombing to start. It was out of these activities that the piano piece Night Thoughts was born.
This is quite a short piece lasting just under five minutes. It is divided into four clear-cut sections. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Walt Whitman, 'By the bivouac's fitful flame, A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow…' from the poets great cycle 'Drum Taps.' It is worth quoting the whole poem here for it is apposite:-

By the bivouac's fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow
- but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields' and woods' dim outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily
watching me,)
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous thoughts,
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those that
are far away;
A solemn and slow procession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac's fitful flame. (1865)

There is no way that this short piano piece is an attempt to mirror the sentiments of this great poem. It is simply that the poem has provided an intellectual support for the moods of the music. Yet in many ways the key line seems to me to be 'O tender and wondrous thoughts, Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those that are far away.' This is what this piece seems to say to me. It was dedicated to Peter Latham.

The opening of the work is instructed to be played 'Andante, thoughtful and expressive.' This is quite uncomplicated music - although there are hints of little trumpets with 'horn passages' (elf-land again?) these are hardly militaristic. There is absolutely nothing avant-garde here - this is simply Alwyn writing music from the heart. It is really quite impossible to categorise this work. It is certainly not 'light' music yet neither is it neo-classical. In some ways the opening theme is so simple - it reminds me at times of a hymn tune arranged for piano. As the music develops, however, there is a degree of complexity introduced. Suddenly there is an almost orchestral feel to this - it is possible to differential two strands of musical material working - more than just counterpoint. There are a number of interesting key changes in the middle section; it would not be too hard to spot a few Delian progressions.
The Agitato section is at first quite romantic - yet still we hear the trumpets. There is no doubt that John Ireland lies behind these faster passages. There is a touch of aggression in the last bars of this fast section before the music returns to the 'hymn tune.' The piece ends quietly and almost ambiguously.
The listener cannot fail to be pleased with this music. The composer has satisfied their expectations; this is a nocturne, it does help us to understand thoughts provoked through the watches of the night. It is surely one of the best of Alwyn's miniatures and deserves to be played much more. It is a truly attractive piece that is straightforward, unpretentious and downright beautiful. It is Alwyn simply being himself.
Originally part of of a larger article on MusicWeb International, with thanks.

Hear Night Thoughts on either Chandos or Naxos