Sunday 30 November 2008

Advent Sunday: The Church's New Year

Today is Advent Sunday and surely many people who will attend church will hear Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 645 by JS. Bach played on the organ – possibly at the start of the service. Listen here to a YouTube recording of the great Tom Koopman playing this ubiquitous work.

It is not the purpose of The Land of Lost Content blog to promote any particular religion or division of Christianity. However, as so much British music has been written for the church (Tallis, Byrd, Handel, Howells, Sumsion, Darke, RVW etc) it would be churlish to ignore the start of the Christian Year. Over the next month I will post about Christmas music – both concert works and carols- but not exclusively so!

I am a member of the Prayer Book Society and prefer my Scriptures in the King James version of the bible. I really do struggle with the dumbed down language that seems to prevail in so many Anglican Churches these days: I dread the words ‘music group’ or 'informal worship' in any service advertisement. Give me the traditional Mattins and Evensong or Mass any day- complete with robed choir.

I am going to quote the Collect for the Day from the Book of Common Prayer. It does not really matter if readers do not agree with the sentiment of the words, just enjoy the sheer poetry and give thanks to your god for the beauty of the English Language of Thomas Cranmer and Miles Coverdale and the musical works that have been inspired by it.

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen

Many churches will be singing the Advent Hymn today -and I thought I would link to a very attractive rendition of this work from the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, USA.

Friday 28 November 2008

William Alwyn: By the Farmyard Gate (1934)

This is an excellent example of William Alwyn's ability to write good and interesting music for children and amateurs. It is not necessarily easy to compose convincing tunes that are not patronising to players of an elementary grade. Yet in this suite Alwyn manages to combine technical interest with good tunes and genuine musical feeling. 
The Duck-pond is a little gigue - nothing too complicated yet constantly moving along. There are a few interesting harmonic touches here which contributes to the interest.The second piece, A Ride on Dobbin has quite a bit of unison melody. There is a short contrapuntal section and the work finishes with echoes of the opening theme, this time harmonised. Sheep in the Paddocks is a chromatic little number. It is quite slow and rather wistful. It needs a good pianissimo technique.However it is the fourth number that is the gem of this suite - in fact it is one of Alwyn's best miniatures - Swinging on the Gate. It has a good rollicking 6/8 tune with echoes of Easthope Martins choral piece - Come to the Fair. But the whole piece is very jolly and happy. It concludes with a bit of a variation on the opening theme. 
It is a suite that most Grade 5 players could make a good try at sight-reading. Yet this would be to do it an injustice. It is actually worth taking a bit of trouble over. It is amazing to think that this is the same man that composed Miss Julie and the Magic Island prelude. Yet all the Alwyn craftsmanship is present even in this small suite.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

First things first. This is a stunning and totally impressive recording – in fact it is probably the best version of Billy Budd that I have heard, or seen– including the ‘original’ Pears/ Britten edition that has recently been re-released on DVD.

I guess that when I first heard that there was an opera called Billy Budd, which had its libretto based on Herman Melville’s book, I though that it was going to be a sort of cross between H.M.S. Pinafore and Gregory Peck in Moby Dick. I did not realise that this opera is not precisely a ‘Boys Own’ adventure story but is actually a profound mediation on war, duty and homosexuality. Of course a lot has been written about the typology and allegory of this opera. Much has been made of possible social comment inherent in the text of Billy Budd. But the bottom line is that this is a great story, full of fine characterisation and having much action. Over and above this, there is much reflection, a balance of good and evil and even love. It is a tragedy only in the sense that Budd is executed. Love and goodness are seen in many parts of this opera and of course finally triumphs in the final scene. 

I came to Billy Budd remarkably early in my musical career. In fact it was about the third ‘grand opera’ that I had heard. The first two were Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover and The Poisoned Kiss. These were part of the 1972 centenary celebrations. A few months later I heard a Radio 3 broadcast of Welsh Opera’s Billy Budd. Of course I was confused by it. After all I was only eighteen! What, with no obvious arias, no diva giving it all she had and an all male cast. It seemed a bit strange.  But even then, aged 18, there was something indefinable that appealed to me: something about the music that has stayed in my memory for many years. In spite of the fact that Errol Flynn was million miles away, I have come to regard this as one of my favourites operas. Full stop.

The present recording is the edited version of 1960: originally it was written in four acts. The opera was revised by the composer for a BBC broadcast, the key change being a reduction to two acts, and perhaps, more critically the appearance of Captain Vere is cut at the end of Act 1. I have two minds about this ‘trimming’ –it seems a pity to miss some ‘Vere’ material, but the consensus of public opinion would appear to be that that the revision is more effective, dramatically.

Ian Bostridge gives a magisterial performance of the confused, but inherently decent Captain ‘Starry’ Vere. Surely if ever a man was the victim of circumstances, it is he. Of course, the final epilogue of Act 2 is perhaps the finest part of the opera. Certainly it is the most significant – the Captain now an elderly man, reflects on the fact that ‘I could have saved him.’ But did not. Of course he concludes that Billy Budd has actually ‘saved me and blessed me.’

Naturally, Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd is a critical part of this opera, yet I have always felt that the action revolves round him and that perhaps he is not as significant a role as would be imagined. Probably sacrilegious to say this! However, I felt that I enjoyed Gunn’s performance least of all in this recording.

Gidin Saks for me steals the show. He gives a strong and deliberately aggressive performance of the Master-at Arms. Yet just occasionally there is almost a questioning, reflective nature to his singing that belies the fact that he is a bully. Without being a bleeding-heart liberal, which I am not- it is possible to feel that even he has reasons for his bad attitudes and desire to ‘do for’ Billy.

There are many other great moments in this opera – for example the Novice who has been flogged in Act 1 played by Andrew Kennedy and Andrew Tortise as Squeak. Of course the male chorus from the London Symphony Chorus lend their nautical charms to this recording – both in the raucous moments and in their more reflective ones.
There are too many highlights of this recording to point out individual triumphs – but for my money the scene in the Captain’s Cabin, when Vere quote classical literature and the aftermath of the flogging are superb. They are truly beautiful and quite simply moving.

I conclude with three observations. Firstly, I am normally a great believer in a strict hierarchy of operatic appreciation. Top of the list, is a live performance. Then, a DVD or televised performance and lastly an audio recording. Yet I am prepared to ignore my ‘invariable’ rule for this present CD. It is so well conceived and performed that with a minimum of imagination it is possible to mentally create the entire operatic scene. I listened to this recording twice – one in my front room and the other on the train. I was quite definitely aboard the ‘HMS Indomitable’ on my travels rather than one of Mr Branson’s Pendolino trains. The sheer brilliance of the performance by the cast and the London Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Daniel Harding is enough to make this an essential recording.

Secondly each hearing of this great work is a minor revelation. The relationship of thematic interrelationships that may be clearly apparent to the scholar with the full score, slowly begin to reveal themselves to lesser mortals. Additionally the orchestration on this recording is transparent. There is a chamber music feel to much of this performance that complements the intimacy of the singing. There is surely a danger that the some of the intimate moments of this opera could be destroyed by an unsympathetic and overbearing accompaniment.

Lastly, I have read a number of critics who suggest that Billy Budd will not be a favourite opera of many listeners. There argument surely goes that Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw are the masterpieces. Yet I beg to differ. For Billy Budd has more poetic music, a greater and more powerful story, a more relevant grappling with the issues of the day – especially bearing in mind that homosexuality was illegal when this opera was composed-  and finally the score has some of the finest and best music that Britten wrote.  In fact some of the sea-inspired music seems to me to be even more impressive that that in Grimes and its spin off the Four Sea Interludes.

Track Listing:
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd (1951)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)-Captain Vere; Nathan Gunn (tenor)–Billy Budd; Gidon Saks (bass)–John Claggart; Neal Davies (bass)- Mr. Redburn; Jonathan Lemalu (bass)- Mr Flint, sailing master; Matthew Rose (baritone) - Mr Ratcliffe; Matthew Best (bass) – Dansker; Andrew Kennedy (tenor) – Novice; Gentlemen of the LSO Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding
Recorded at the Barbican, London, December 2007. DDD

Monday 24 November 2008

Gareth Glyn: A Composer in Wales - Update

At the end of October I asked the composer to give me an update of what he was doing, musically. Bearing in mind that he lives on the Anglesey, which is a wonderful place, but which has suffered a worse than average summer, he remains remarkably upbeat! In fact on the day that he replied to me, he told me that there had been ‘apocalyptic rainfall…’

Nevertheless, this is as it should be. A lot is happening in his musical life that is positive and encouraging. There is a forthcoming CD that will feature a piece of music in which the main protagonists are Dominic Seldis (star of Maestro recently on BBC) and Jonathan Pryce (Bond villain and star of such films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Rise of Cobra and Evita) with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, in Glyn’s Welsh Incident. This is pending future release on the Dutton label.
More immediately important is the fact that the Gwynn publishing company of Penygroes in North Wales have embarked on a major programme of publishing Glyn's choral works. This will put into the public domain a number of interesting and singable pieces. They have recently published Fy Ngwlad (My Country), Cymru (Wales), Y Gymraeg (The Welsh Language) and Gwinllan a Roddwyd (A Vineyard was Given), all for SATB and piano and separately published under the umbrella title of Four Patriotic Songs. In the coming months Machynlleth Fair, Feet, Fluff and Sixth Birthday (the set Four Playful Songs), and 'Never was Dawn so Bright' (all for SATB) and Psalm 150 and The Harp (both for male voices and piano or orchestra) are due for publication.

Recently, there have been a number of important performances of Gareth Glyn’s works. His chamber suite Mabinogi received several performances in Ensemble Cymru’s tour of North Wales in October. In the same month, in London, Eleanor Turner played his suite for harp Child’s Play at the Wigmore Hall.
Seldis has also recorded as soloist, Glyn’s superb Microncerto for double bass and orchestra, which is a great treat for all music enthusiasts. It certainly beats Dragonetti's and Dittersdorf's! Much of this work is an inspired use of jazz, yet somehow it is not a jazz concerto as such. However, the double bass so often associated with jazz (Charlie Mingus et al) that it must be hard to avoid such a label. What does impress me is the singing tone of the more reflective moments. It has a personality far removed from the inevitable pizzicato. My only complaint and it is a big one, is that at just under 5 minutes- it is way too short…!

Finally, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, recorded his Cariad for orchestra .The title of this work means 'love’. This is an orchestral work which is composed in a 'Friday Night is Music Night' style. It presents several Welsh folksongs on the theme of love in one span of about eight minutes. Gareth pointed out to me that “they aren't all, strictly speaking, love-songs as the Welsh folk tradition is full of songs about unrequited and spurned affection, but there aren't that many expressing true and reciprocated love.”

Glyn is presently working on a Trumpet Concerto, which has been commissioned for Philippe Schartz and the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales It will be given its first performance on their tour in Luxembourg and Germany. Finally, he is working on an as yet unnamed piece which has been commissioned by the city of New Bern in North Carolina to mark the 300th anniversary of its foundation.

A few months ago I heard a recording of Gareth Glyn’s Symphony. It is one of the finest new works in that genre I have heard in many years. It was largely recorded at a live event. However the ‘scherzo’ was played by ‘Sibelius’ from the digital musical score. It is certainly a piece that deserves to be recorded. There is not doubt that Glyn comes from the same ‘symphonic’ stock as Daniel Jones, Alun Hoddinott, Grace Williams and William Mathias and surely deserves to be recognised as such.

John France November 2008

Saturday 22 November 2008

Clifton Parker: Western Approaches

Clifton Parker, like many film composers, is someone whose music will have been heard by many people, but few will know him by name or reputation. For example. the Robert Newton version of Treasure Island, Kenneth More in Sink the Bismarck! and the Walt Disney feature The Sword and the Rose all have scores by Parker. But perhaps one of his finest achievements was the music for part feature, part documentary Western Approaches.
This is a gripping story about twenty-four seamen who have had their ship torpedoed and are adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. After many days at sea they see smoke from a lone merchantmen. Naturally, they send up the distress rockets to attract its attention. But just then they see the periscope of a German U-boat and realises that they are being used to decoy the British ship to destruction. The men in the lifeboat desperately try to warn the merchantman, but she receives two torpedoes in her hull. The ship is evacuated, save for the captain and a few men. The U-boat surfaces to complete the job, but it is itself sunk by the captain and his party left on board. Naturally the men in the lifeboat are finally rescued.
See a short extract from this film at YouTube

John Huntley in his seminal British Film Music, believes that this was one of the Crown Film Unit’s best films. The film was shot in Technicolor and used real sailors instead of actors. It is described as being “realistic, exciting and dramatic.”
The composer and critic Hubert Clifford writes in the Tempo magazine for June 1945:- "Western Approaches is among the two or three outstanding British films of the war period. It is a triumph of intelligent direction over the difficulties of using 'naturals' instead of professional actors. ‘Western Approaches ' comes unscathed through the gorgeous Technicolor, in spite of many sequences being stiff with visual falsehoods, in the picture-postcard conventions of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons.
The film is full of magnificent sequences, true and convincing, and provides the composer, Clifton Parker, with many opportunities of contributing to it even within the scope of the naturalistic drama. This is, I believe, Clifton Parker's most important film score to date. It is highly effective and is always apt, and it reveals quite a new side of a composer who had previously been known-and far less known than the quality of his music merited-only as a composer of light music. To his task in ' Western Approaches' Parker brought a fine sense of orchestral colour, plus skill and taste in handling his medium. Although it seemed that his music broke little new ground it nevertheless was always vital and significant.”

Clifton Parker later adapted some of the music from Western Approaches into a short tone poem. He called it Seascape. This work in three short sections, beginning rather tranquilly as the merchant ship leaves its berth in an American port. Naturally as the boat reaches the mid-Atlantic it begins to get stormy, and this is reflected in the expansive music. The last joyful section alludes to the rescue of the seamen and their safe arrival in ‘blighty’.
James Marshall has noted that due to the wartime economies the musical budget for the film was only £521. Out of this some £100 was paid to the composer. The remainder was shared out between Muir Mathieson and the forty-eight players of the London Symphony Orchestra after their recording session at Denham Studios in 11 April 1944.

The tone poem 'Seascape' is available from Chandos .The film itself is available from Amazon

Sunday 16 November 2008

John Ireland: In Summer Woods – an unknown part-song.

How jubilant the summer sky,
When turtle doves and cuckoos cry,
And when in wild and leafy wood
The song of nightingale is heard.

We wander in the shady grove,
And where red berries are we rove;
The ousel pipes his music low
And finches drum upon the bough.

Beside the blackcap vine we stay
On tender moss where shadows play
And fitting by, the cuckoo's brood
Go babbling through the leaf
Leafy wood.

I was rummaging in the boxes of music outside a well-known second-hand music bookshop in London the other night. I discovered a part song by John Ireland – In Summer Woods. Now I pride myself on being up to speed with this composer, but somehow this work had escaped my attention.
It seems strange that none of John Ireland’s part-songs have caught the performers’ imaginations. Stewart Craggs catalogue notes in excess of forty examples, yet I can find no recordings dedicated to this genre -although I am sure the odd part song will have been recorded.

The facts about this work are quite simple –it was composed in 1910-11, however the manuscript is missing. It is contemporary with the well-known Greater Love hath No Man which was the only major work from this year. However, there were a couple of songs which have become well known – Hope the Hornblower, When Lights go Rolling round the Sky. In additions a couple of pieces for the organ were composed at this time including the Alla Marcia, the Capriccio and the Sursum Corda.
In Summer Woods was published in 1911 by J. Curwen & Son Ltd as part of their 'Choruses for Equal Voices Series' (No.71334). It was also published as How Jubilant the Summer Sky. Interestingly it was arranged by T. Widicombe for chorus and orchestra in 157. No details of the score or performance are available.The text is a translation by James Vila Blake from a German original.

Musically the work is straight forward, although the vocal line is not quite as easy as a first glance might suggest. The piece is signed to be sung 'Allegro comodo' –which allows the singer to progress at a comfortable rate. The piano accompaniment is straight forward, with the key motif parodying the opening bar of the vocal line. The melody is strophic, with a little extension at the end of the final verse. The last line of each verse is repeated.

In Summer Woods is probably worth reviving as one of a series of part-songs at a recital or on a CD. However, there does appear to be a bit of a 'downer' on two-part music these days. So I guess that this piece will remain obscure.

There is little mention of this work in the literature – however in the March 1913 edition of the Musical Times a notice is given of a children’s singing competition at the Peoples Palace Mile End Road on 20th and 22nd February 1913. The winners of this event were the St John’s Road School, Hoxton with the 1st prize and St Giles School Spitalfields coming 2nd. The two test pieces were the folk-song 'Oh No John' and Ireland's 'In Summer Woods'. The judge is reported to have said that ‘Rarely have such pure tone, perfect intonation clear enunciation and fine rhythmic treatment been heard in a junior competition.’

It is not clear if the two schools are still functioning – or is they have been closed or amalgamated – however one does wonder if their successors compete in similar musical competitions. Finall,y I notice that my piece of music used to belong to Graeme High School – and obviously ended up in the box outside the music shop as a result of a clear out. Now this school is going strong in Falkirk, Scotland. What songs the music department sing today? And is John Ireland seen as being outdated?

Friday 14 November 2008

Arnold Bax: Piano Music on Lyrita played by Iris Loveridge

I scratched my head a little as to how to review this CD. Firstly, the sheer number of pieces on this release prohibits a detailed analysis of, or even a paragraph comment on, each work. I guess that if I discussed the thirty odd pieces it would become a dissertation: I imagine that few people would read through to the end. Secondly the complexity of a full comparison of the Lyrita edition of piano music of Arnold Bax with those issued by Naxos and Chandos would also seem to be over-ambitious.
I will admit a bias towards Iris Loveridge. It is not that I do not have the Eric Parkin, Michael Endres and Ashley Wass editions in my collection at home – of course I do! It is simply that like most English music enthusiasts of my generation, dear old Iris was all I had to make my evaluation of Bax’s piano works. I know that a few ‘orphan’ recordings by Harriet Cohen and others may have been doing the rounds in the ’sixties and ’seventies, but from my perspective, Lyrita was the only way to get to grips with what is a vital contribution to an understanding of an important part of Bax’s output.
I remember buying my copies of the Lyrita vinyl from a shop called ‘Symphony One’ in Glasgow and also from Banks Music in York. I borrowed a copy of the music of the Piano Sonatas from a friend who was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and sat down to make acquaintance with these works. Later another friend lent me the sheet music for a number of the smaller works. It was an educative experience and gave me an enthusiasm for Bax’s piano music that survives to this day...
...I would heartily recommend this set. I accept that there are three very good alternatives available for the majority of pieces recorded here. Yet the bottom line is that Baxians will want all obtainable versions for their collections. It is good to be able to contrast and compare the Sonatas and lesser pieces. I guess that every listener would have a different opinion on playing style, timings, sound quality and interpretation. However, paraphrasing my late father, no-one deliberately issues a bad recording of Bax’s piano music. Often it is a mater of taste. However, this present Lyrita recording is a superb opportunity to purchase virtually all the solo piano pieces by Sir Arnold Bax. Moreover, they are played with technical brilliance, interpretive skill and have the ability to move the spirit and inspire the mind.

Please read my full review of these great CDs at MusicWeb International

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Lilian Elkington: Out of the Mists – a tone poem for Armistice Day.

HMS Verdun: bearer of the Unknown Warrior from France to Great Britian
Lilian Elkington is a name that most music listeners will be unaware of. Perhaps the fact that only a handful of works have survived from her pen makes it much more difficult to make an evaluation of her. Strangely, she does not feature in Groves Dictionary, so there is also little opportunity for biographical study.
However a few facts are known. Elkington was a pupil of Granville Bantock when he was professor at the Birmingham Midland Institute. She studied both piano and composition with him. Her first compositions were heard in 1921 at Harrogate and at Bournemouth.
Lewis Foreman sadly relates that after her marriage she gave up compositions and her recital appearances. Sadder still was that when her daughter was interviewed on BBC’s Woman’s Hour she did not realise that her mother had once been a composer.

But there is a happy side to this story. One day David Brown, the musicologist, was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Worthing. He discovered a parcel that contained virtually all the music that Elkington had written. This included the score and the parts of the only orchestral work to have survived - Out of the Mist. Naturally he jumped at the opportunity to purchase this. A few years later it was given its first modern performance by the Windsor Sinfonia under their director Robert Tucker.

It is scored for a standard orchestra of two flutes + piccolo, oboe + cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons + contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, strings.

This is an immensely satisfying work. It definitely leads the listener to music of the lost talent and the missed opportunities that befell the musical world when Lilian Elkington decided to run a family rather than compose music. It is surely a warning to us all. Yet Out of the Mists remains as a fine tribute to her. In it is possible to feel some of the sadness, the regret and possibly even the hope that those who saw, but survived the Great War felt.

I append the text from the original programme notes written by the H Osrmond Anderton:- 
This short tone-poem is the outcome of a poignant memory connected with the war. The equal suffering and sacrifice of all classes in the cause of common humanity, which led to the honouring of the Unknown Warrior, have been felt by all, and have been well expressed by Laurence Binyon in the lines:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea:
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free, etc.

When the 'Unknown Warrior' was brought home to his last resting-place ‘there was a thick mist over the Channel, out of which the warship slowly emerged’ as she drew near to Dover. This explanation of the title will give the clue to the understanding of the music. The opening is quiet, with muted lower strings, as the ship feels her way through the murk. Slight rifts in the mist are hinted at by the use here and there of the upper strings; and the melancholy phrases enlarge as the ship creeps onward with her fateful burden. After a pause, mutes are removed, the air grows brighter, and the deep gloom upon men’s spirits is somewhat relieved, though the tension is still strong. Gradually the style enlarges and becomes more elevated as larger views of the meaning of sacrifice calm the spirit. The agitation of the soul reasserts itself, broadens, and leads to the final section, Largamente appassionata, ff, as with a burst of sad exaltation the representative of the nameless thousands who have died in the common cause is brought out of the darkness to his own.”
This programme note reprinted with permission from the musicologists David Brown and Pamela Blevins,

Out of the Mists is available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7122

Sunday 9 November 2008

Cecil Coles: Cortège – a piece for Remembrance Day?

There were many promising composers killed during the First World War. Perhaps we think immediately of George Butterworth –and his ravishing orchestral Rhapsody – A Shropshire Lad. Then there was Ernest Farrar, who although not as well known as Butterworth, had already made a name for himself in musical circles. He is now perhaps remembered as a teacher of Gerald Finzi. But one of the most gifted composers to have been killed is perhaps also one of the least known – Cecil Coles.

Cecil Coles was Scottish: he was born near the lovely Galloway market town of Kirkcubright in 1888. In 1906 he went to the London College of Music. Although he had won a scholarship, he was always rather short of cash. There is an apocryphal story told that he used to stand outside a nearby pickle factory and enjoy the smell for his lunch! Fortunately he made an impression with an older lady called Miss Nancy Brooke. She was a lecturer at Morley College and soon took young Cecil under her wing.

At Morley College, he met Gustav Holst who had been appointed director there in 1907. Soon Coles was a member of the orchestra and was helping to get it into a state where they could give respectable performances. The relationship between the two men blossomed and Coles was soon helping Holst out with his teaching duties.

In 1911 the two composer-friends set off for a holiday in the Swiss Alps and although it was a short break the two men became quite close. And of course the rumour of war were spreading at this time. But the really strange thing was this. Two men – one who had been trained in Germany and whose middle names were Frederick Gottlieb and the other who had to drop the ‘von’ from his name to avoid prejudice, and who was suspected of being a spy when visiting Thaxted, were discussing the world situation. It was seen as a tragedy by these two men that cultural links between the two great nations were about to be shattered. Coles had been assistant conductor of the Stuttgart Royal Opera House and had a promising career ahead of him. Yet all this – along with much else - was to be destroyed in war.

Cecil Coles went on to serve a distinguished career in the Queen Victoria Rifles. He corresponded regularly with his older friend and sent Gustav drafts of his music for comment and correction.

His final composition was composed when he was on active service. The suite Behind the Lines was a four movement orchestral piece composed in 1917. Two of the movements – The Wayside Shrine and Rumours were never found after Coles's death, however we are fortunate in having the first movement Estimanet du Carrefour (coffee house or tavern at the crossroads)and a piano score of the third Cortège which was recently realized by Martyn Brabbins.

Cecil Coles was killed whilst bravely helping to bring some wounded back behind the lines. Shortly after the end of the war Holst dedicated his beautiful Ode to Death to ‘Cecil Coles and the others.’ Yet Coles is the only person mentioned by name: this shows the affection and regard that the eldest man had for his friend.

But the story has a happy ending. Cecil Coles had left behind a wife and a baby daughter, Catharine. Of course the child never knew her father – but as a little girl she was enrolled at St Paul’s School for Girls in Hammersmith. And her music teacher was Gustav Holst…

It is fair to say that Cortège could take its place at any national service of Remembrance. And in some ways it would be a more impressive number that Walford Davies Solemn Melody. In fact this is a deeply moving piece that nearly always brings a tear to the eye.

Cecil Coles Cortège can be heard on Hyperion CDA67293

Saturday 8 November 2008

Richard Stoker: Seventy Years Young!


Keep on composing, writing, acting, painting, teaching and quite simply entertaining for the next Seventy Years!!!!

Please see my Birthday tribute at MusicWeb International...hopefully it is up and on line!!!

Friday 7 November 2008

Peter Yorke: Highdays & Holidays

As the first snow falls in London and the chill winter winds whip around Docklands, the mind turns to thoughts of holidays – both past and present. Now like most people I enjoy going abroad in search of the sun and a bit of Italian or Spanish culture (and food and wine!) However, if I am honest, my heart is not quite in the highlands, as an old Scot once sang, but in the typical British holiday resort.
Whether it was driving down to Lytham St Anne’s in the Hillman Minx or taking the Western Region to ‘Glorious Devon’ it comes to the same thing. The promise of a traditional holiday by the sea – rain and all. I suppose my ideal would involve piers, promenades, pavilion orchestras – now almost entirely disappeared- ice-creams, brass bands, Wurlitzer’s and possibly trams (if the trip was to Blackpool) And of course there was always the possibility of a holiday romance!

Peter Yorke’s Highdays and Holidays exemplifies all these images and icons for me. From the first note to the last the excitement of travelling and finally arriving at the seaside are felt in every bar and every note. It is easy to hear the ‘rhythm of the rails’ as well as the romance of the dance floor or the peregrination along the prom! There is much bustle but also a few quieter moments.
Peter Yorke (1902-1966) is one of the lesser known grandees of the light music world. Yet after a period of apprenticeship, working with many of the great British bands of the era, including Percival Mackey, Jack Hylton and Henry Hall. In the mid thirties he collaborated with the impresario Louis Levy, who was one of the pioneers of the British film industry. At this time Levy employed a number of composers including Clive Richardson, Charles Williams and Jack Beaver. However , in those days it was rare for the composer to be given a screen credit.
For a period stretching over 20 years Yorke conducted a concert orchestra for which he wrote many arrangements and new numbers, including the present Highdays and Holidays.
Hear Louis Voss and his Orchestra play this work on Guild GLCD 5115.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Benjamin Britten: another take on the Oboe Quartet.

I recently posted what is probably one of the earliest reviews of a work by Britten that had been performed at the 1934 International Society for Contemporary Music at Florence. Here is another review of the same performance – this time by Walter Legge. Naturally the Goossens mentioned is Leon.

“The only British work in the programme – Benjamin Britten’s Oboe Quartet- was like Larssen’s work (a Sinfonietta) hampered by conditions. It was placed at the beginning of a programme that began half and hour late, and when Goossens and the Griller quartet were about to begin there was a further delay- to silence an orchestra that was rehearsing in an adjoining room. Britten could do well to shorten this work by three or four minutes. As it stands it is too slender for its length, and for all the cleverness of its structure, the thematic material is not important enough in character to hold the listener’s attention throughout”.
Walter Legge The Musical Times June 1934
An excellent performance of this early work can be hear on Hyperion with Sarah Francis as the soloist

Monday 3 November 2008

Sir Alexander Mackenzie in Sussex: November 1908

I found an interesting note about Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s peregrination around Sussex in November 1908 – exactly one hundred years ago. It is hard to imagine how popular Mackenzie was at that time. I guess that his name is little known to the vast majority of music lovers and is known by only a handful of pieces to the enthusiast of British music. I conclude the review with a short biography of the composer.
It is interesting to note that most of the works are currently available on Hyperion CDs.

The tour started on October 29 when the composer visited Tunbridge Wells to conduct his compositions at a concert promoted by Mr. Francis J. Foote. A number of Mackenzie’s works were heard including the Astarte Prelude from Manfred, the Pibroch Suite for violin and orchestra and the ‘breezy’ Britannia Overture. The soloist was a certain Mr Hans Wessely. The nights programme also include a tone poem for orchestra entitled Elaine, which was composed by Foote himself. Schubert’s B minor Symphony was also performed. Mackenzie conducted the entire programme as Foote was indisposed, due to illness.

At Devonshire Park, Eastbourne on November 12 the composer once again conducted his Britannia Overture and the Prelude and Ballet Music from his opera Columbia. In addition two movements from the new Suite for violin and orchestra were given – Celtic Legend (No.1) and Alla Zingara (No.4.) The soloist at this event was Sidney Freedman who was at that time the leader of the Duke of Devonshire’s private orchestra in Eastbourne! The remainder of the concert included Debussy’s Prelude L’Apres midi d’un Faune and a Haydn Symphony.
The reviewer notes that both concerts were “a great success, and the distinguished visitor was very warmly received.”

On 25 November Mackenzie was in action again. This time the venue was at the Dome in Brighton with the Municipal Orchestra. The programme contained the Astarte Prelude, the Second Scottish Rhapsody ‘Burns’ the Britannia Overture, a ‘larghetto’ and ‘allegretto’ for ‘cello and orchestra and the Pibroch Suite for violin and orchestra. Finally three of the composer’s songs were included: Lift up my spirit to thee, What does little birdie say and finally We’ll all make holiday. Surely this last number was appropriate for the South Coast’s premier seaside resort?

A brief biographical note on Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935)
Mackenzie was a Scottish composer, who was educated at the Royal Academy of Music, (of which he was later to become the Principal) He had further studies in Germany, where he made the acquaintance of Franz Liszt. (Unlike most of his English contemporaries he was brought up to music as a fiddler and an orchestral player rather than as an organist.)
He was an indefatigable organiser both in London and in Scotland and an adventurous conductor. As a composer he endeavoured to blend Scottish nationalism, with advanced German romantic expression. Examples of this fusion are The Cotter's Saturday Night, to a text by Robert Burns, set for chorus and orchestra, his Scottish Rhapsodies and his Pibroch suite for violin). He wrote oratorios which were perhaps less successful , musically and technically than his orchestral pieces, good deal of effective theatre music. He also composed two operas (The Cricket on the Hearth, 1902, and The Eve of St. John, 1924) and much chamber music. Among this is a well worth playing Pianoforte Quintet in E flat Op. 11.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Percy Whitlock: Holiday Suite

Percy Whitlock’s Holiday Suite is one of my favourite pieces. The titles of its three movements express much of the emotion that surrounds the thoughts of a holiday by the sea in England. It is an epitome of much that has passed into history as people head to Benidorm and Gran Canaria. However, holidays at Bournemouth and Llandudno will always be with us. And as long as people enjoy the simple pleasures of life this music will serve as a reminder of much that is precious in the British psyche. This may be strong words for a slight piece –but this is what ‘light’ music is about – approachability. 
A friend of mine who does not claim to understand or appreciate the complexities of Bartok String Quartets or the transcendental piano music of Franz Liszt finds this Holiday Suite full of evocative images. And these are images of her holidays too. Memories of girlhood at Scarborough and Bridlington are evoked in these three movements. And who is to say that Max Jaffa is not as important to musical enjoyment as Yehudi Menhuin? Certainly neither of these two gentlemen! 
Three movements and one enigma. The suite opens with a fine Waltz: ‘In the Ballroom.’ This is in the spirit of so many similar pieces by Eric Coates – a fine English Dance. We feel that at times it is a somewhat restrained movement. Perhaps it is a tea dance? But then the orchestra breaks out into a fine sweep, which along with the saxophones leads back into a typical lilting swing. Then a short codetta and off into the next eight! I can so easily see a pre-war audience moving gracefully around the ballroom. The Ballroom in the title is of course the one behind the Bournemouth Pavilion Concert Hall.

The second is a delightful polka that manages to incorporate the good old English tune ‘Cherry Ripe.’ This had been done already by Frank Bridge in one of his string orchestra pieces and of course by Eric Coates in his London Suite. Whitlock would have known both these works. It is the composer’s delightful sense of humour that gave this piece the back to front title – ‘Spade and Bucket’ Polka. It is a well-written miniature, which certainly evokes thoughts of major excavations on the beach!
The last movement is entitled quite simply, ‘Civic March.’ Yet there is an enigma here. The Performing Rights Society has this listed as the ‘Picnic March’. However the score and the parts all have the current title of ‘Civic March’. I asked Malcolm Riley about this discrepancy and he is of the opinion that the official title links it in nicely to the ‘municipal’ – the ballroom and the Pavilion belonging to the town council. However I have listened to this march a number of times and I am unable to imagine processions of aldermen and the newly made Mayors and civil dignitaries and their partners. For me the music is too bright and breezy. There is an open-air quality to this tune. Perhaps it is easier to imagine the Famous Five off on a picnic with their ginger beer and jam sandwiches: it fits in with the idea of ‘being at the seaside.’ The last thing I would want to do as a child is watch a lot of old fogeys dressed up in outdated clothes shamble along the High Street! However, I will defer, for scholarships sake and concede that this last movement is a rather bright and gay ‘civic’ march. Hmmph.
Listen to Whitlock’s Holiday Suite on Marco Polo