Thursday 24 December 2009

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Christmas Overture

I recently heard Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Christmas Overture, and was impressed. OK, I do not rate it at the same level as his glorious Violin Concerto, his excellent Symphony in A minor or even his best-known work the oratorio trilogy Hiawatha.
History does not seem to relate if the Overture was actually ‘conceived’ by Coleridge Taylor. However, it was definitely orchestrated by a ‘popular’ composer called Sydney Baynes, who is best remembered for his Destiny Waltz. As I understand it, Coleridge-Taylor’s music was originally conceived as incidental music for a ‘charming poetical fairy drama’ by Alfred Noyes -The Forest of Wild Thyme. Sir Beerbohm Tree had commissioned the music. Unfortunately the play was abandoned, apparently owing to a great similarity between it and Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird. Some of the enormous amount of music which Coleridge Taylor had written was reused in other works but the majority remained in manuscript. Realised works included the Three Dream Dances for piano, Scenes from an Imaginary Ballet Op.74 and finally an Intermezzo for orchestra.

It would be easy to write this Overture off as a ‘pot-pourri’ of Christmas tunes but even a cursory hearing shows a work that is well wrought and having a sense of purpose and consistency. In site of the occasional nod to Sir Arthur Sullivan and possibly Sir Edward German, this work has a deal of original material and is not all related to Christmas carols. However, look out for a good workout of Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels and God rest you, merry gentlemen.

Alas, the reviewer in The Musical Times Jan 1 1927 suggests that the overture, “...may please uncritical family circles at this season of the year, but it is a very weak piece of work…”
But perhaps slightly less damning is the critic in The Gramophone. He writes that Coleridge-Taylor's “Christmas is a right merry one, with Good King W., Hark the Herald, the bells, and country dancing. I see that he is said to have used in this and other pieces some of the music he wrote for Noyes' play, The Forest of Wild Thyme, intended for production in 1910, and not performed. There is not much in the overture save a gathering of tunes and a sparkle of Christmas-tree spangles, but it would go down well after dinner”. [Gramophone December 1932 p22 f]
However, I feel that this is largely negative posturing. The music is good well written music and the orchestration is full of seasonal colouring and certainly fulfils its festive expectations.

Listen to this work on The Night Before Christmas Naxos 8.570331

Tuesday 22 December 2009

John Ireland: Piano Trios on Naxos

John Ireland’s Piano Trios are a critical part of his repertoire. Certainly they form an ideal way to explore his chamber music. And for once, I would suggest that the listener approaches these three works in the order they written.
The Phantasie Trio in A minor was one of many works composed for the illustrious Cobbett Music Competitions announced in 1907. The twenty-eight year old composer submitted this present piece alongside some 37 other entrants. It is probably reasonably well-known that the winner of that competition was Frank Bridge. However, Ireland scored a joint second with the now largely forgotten James Friskin. The winning pieces were performed at the Aeolian Hall on January 1909.
The Musical Times reports that this work was characterised by “extreme brilliancy and strenuousness and is rich in musicianship”. It is a sentiment with which even a cursory hearing will reveal. The same review notes that Ireland was called to the platform twice –and considering that Brahms Trio in B was also performed the writer felt that it was a “triumph for British chamber music”. Structurally, the work mirrors sonata form, but is written in one continuous movement with the four parts reflecting the exposition, the development, the recapitulation and a coda.
The great critic Edwin Evans felt that the Phantasie Trio marked the end of Ireland’s early compositional period and the starting point of a new direction. He conceded that there was a lot of characteristic ‘Ireland’ writing here. He noted that the mood of the work is “classical throughout, and [that] unity is secured not so much by derivation of the thematic an affinity of themes which maintain their independence”. He concludes by suggesting that the “use of themes which are homogonous without being positively related often produces a better result, and the cohesion of this attractive trio is not the least of its many qualities.”
This Trio is a work that certainly deserved its prize and makes, in spite of Evans’s prose, an approachable introduction to John Ireland’s chamber music.
The Piano Trio No.2 is in complete contrast to the Phantasie. For one thing this work was composed in 1917, a time when the full horrors of the Great War were manifest. Both this work and the slightly earlier Second Violin Sonata are usually regarded as expressing the composer’s feelings about the tragedy and the loss of the Great War. Yet although the composer allegedly told the cellist Florence Hooton that the ‘allegro guisto’ section “evoked the boys going over the top’ this is not a ‘Battle of the Trafalgar’ type of musical confection. It is perhaps more to do with Ireland trying to cling to “the beauty that remained on the earth amidst the carnage and inhumanity of the battle.” In spite of alleged warlike allusions there is much in this Trio that has a ‘haunting beauty’ and interestingly the work concludes on an optimistic note bearing in mind the date of its composition.
The sleeve notes quote Fiona Richards in her book The Music of John Ireland (Ashgate 2000) “This is a work of mixed emotions, contrasting passages of stark textures and caustic harmonies with effusive moments and grim marches. The structure of the work is a succession of episodes exploring different mood, all of which are melodic metamorphoses of the first eighteen bars of the piece”. It is a wise and appropriate summary of what is not an easy work to come to terms with.
The final Trio is my personal favourite. I have long felt that this work describes a landscape – not in any pictorial manner, but quite simply manages to capture the mood of a day’s exploration on the Chanctonbury Ring and the South Downs. It is to do with the composer’s or the listener’s response to that landscape. But this is also more about mere picture painting. It is about Ireland’s response to the genre of chamber music, his personal stylistic development and manages to complement both the mature composer and the youthful enthusiasm of his earlier scores. It is perhaps no surprise that he dedicated the work to William Walton. I have noted elsewhere that although Walton is the dedicatee, there are quite a few nods to Vaughan Williams in these pages. This is perhaps most obvious in the scherzo where there even appear to be allusion to a kind of folksong. Perhaps the highlight of the work is the romantically overblown slow movement.
This Trio was composed in 1938 and does not really respond to the international situation that was already engulfing Europe. The score incorporates a deal of material salvaged from the withdrawn Clarinet Trio. That work has been recently recovered and realised by Stephen Fox. It was released on Naxos 8.570550. It is important to realise that this earlier score was completely reworked and expanded: it was not just an arrangement. The Trio in E is written in four movements, which on the one had are contrasting, but on the other are thematically related to the opening ‘allegro moderato.’

It would be very easy to ignore the four salon pieces which have been included as makeweights for this CD. Somehow Naxos were some 12 minutes shy of a full hour and decided to allow these charming woks to appear alongside the main event. Oh! that they had chosen to present the James Friskin Phantasie in A minor which came second equal in the 1907 Cobbett completion –assuming that the score and parts still exist.
But these miniatures are certainly worth reviving occasionally. As the sleeve notes suggest, the first two of these, the Cavatina (1902) and the Berceuse (1904), “show that Ireland had a gift for melody in the style of say Elgar’s Salut d’amour or Chanson de Matin”.
The Bagatelle is a piece that I have not heard before. It was composed in 1911 for Marjorie Haywood who was soloist in the composer’s substantial First Violin Sonata. All three of these works could be described as charming: none of them are essential.

We are on different territory with the final piece – The Holy Boy. This work, written in 1913, was originally the third movement of the Four Preludes for piano which were not published until 1917. This work has been ‘dished up’ in a number of different arrangements including for string orchestra, organ, four part choir and cello and piano. Lately it has appeared on a Naxos CD in a version for clarinet and piano. The sleeve notes suggest that the inspiration for this piece may have been the Georgian poet Harold Munro’s Children of Love, which begins with the lies “The holy boy/ went from his mother out in the cool of the day” and evokes a meeting between Jesus and Eros. Perhaps a more prosaic suggestion is that the inspiration for this work was a certain Bobby Glassby, a chorister at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. It is possible that it was both.
I enjoyed the playing by the Gould Piano Trio and felt that they had truly entered into the spirit of the music. They apply themselves with equal attention to the heavier Trios as well as the lighter salon pieces.
The programme notes are good and introduce these works well. There is so much that could be said about the Trios in particular, that it is quite a work of art to provide sufficient information in a manageable format.
Fundamentally, the competing versions are those on Lyrita, Chandos and ASV. What is the preferred version? Well, to paraphrase my late father – No one makes, and tries to sell, a bad version of the Ireland Trios.” Each of these releases is a great recording in their own right. I was ‘brought up’ on the Lyrita recording and have a certain bias towards that one. However, a comparative study notwithstanding, I suggest that this present release is a great investment. As I often say, all Ireland enthusiasts will insist on adding this CD to their collection.

Track Listing:
John Ireland (1879-1962)
Phantasie Trio in A minor (1908) Piano Trio No.2 in E (1917) Piano Trio No.3 in E (1938) Berceuse for violin and piano (1902) Cavatina for violin and piano (1904) Bagatelle for violin and piano (1911) The Holy Boy for violin and piano (1913/19)
The Gould Piano Trio Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); and Benjamin Frith (piano);
NAXOS 8.570507
With thanks to MusicWeb International

Sunday 20 December 2009

"Holst, Cotswold Man and Mystic" By Marion M. Scott

This has been transcribed from the original typescript of an article written for The Listener May 1944. I have made a few minor edits to the text.
Thanks to Pamela Blevins for permission to use this document.

“I’m a Cotswold man, [1]” Holst once said to me and there was no mistaking the ring of pride in his voice. That settled once and for all any wonderment as to how far he was English. He was not only English but filled with local patriotism, typical of England’s counties. He loved his own one of Gloucestershire. It had more than a small share in shaping him to what he was, for it was during his weekly rounds when he trudged from village to village in the Cotswold Hills training small choirs, that he gained his masterly understanding of human folk and their voices. He could make contacts with any sort of musician from the most elementary amateur to the accomplished professional and could persuade them all to make music. But there was another element in his character alongside the vigorous, out-spoken, open-hearted Cotswold man – it was an element of which he himself was scarcely conscious, but which could be sensed as setting him a little apart from the warm familiar life of earth. It could not be assigned to any known county or country; it had more than a hint of exile from a native-land far-off in time and space; and it produced the same shiver of awe and chill that Flecker’s lines lay upon one in his poem “The Dying Patriot”
“West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides
I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young
Star-captains glow!"

Holst and his music being indissoluble it was inevitable that both elements, though apparently incompatible, should appear in his music. They were held there in working partnership by his own mastery, sometimes with one element, sometimes the other gaining the ascendancy and both occasionally uniting – as in this great suite The Planets to produce a perfect synthesis.
The programme selected by the B.B.C. for the performance this year to mark the anniversary of Holst’s death (May 25th 1935) represents the whole range. On the one is the Holst who delighted in the warm life of country sights and sounds, in Folk songs, and the richly characteristic music of such Englishmen as Boyce [2] and Purcell. Conversely there is Holst the withdrawn visionary of Christian and Eastern mysticism, of occult lore, pre-history and thoughts as abstract and ageless as mathematics.

The Country Song for small orchestra, composed in 1906, dates from the time when he was first carrying into London work the impetus of his country experiences. He had been appointed Musical Director at the Passmore Edwards Settlement [3] in 1904, and in 1906 came the Musical Directorship of Morley College [4]. What he achieved at these places was something fresh (or else long-forgotten) in the relation between teacher and taught, and he raised Morley College music to an excellence that has set the standard for all similar colleges. Holst welcomed eagerly everyone who would come along and make music. No matter how inexpert they might be he swept them on by his enthusiasm into efficiency, and he gave concerts with so remarkable a collection of oddments for an orchestra that any other conductor would have collapsed at the gaps. Occasionally he felt some outside help was desirable and he must, I think have applied to the Royal College of Music (where he himself had been a pupil in the 1890’s) for volunteers. I was asked to go and Holst put me to lead the band. It was an experience full of excitement, for he was always tremendously keyed-up with enthusiasm and flung his whole soul into conducting us. So far as I can recollect his beat did not give the impression of either ease or grace, but it was very clear to follow and he got the results he wanted from his players by something which probably was a kind of telepathy.
It did not function so strongly at rehearsals, but on the night of a concert it was sure to be there, for Holst’s mind became incandescent with music. There were the years when he held the belief (which I later heard him formulate) that “the fundamental necessity in all art is emotion; everything must spring from that. The fostering of this latent emotion is nine-tenths of the problem of education”.
Further, he believed that the music we love is that which educates us. So at the Passmore Edwards Settlement and Morley College his students had the best music practicable in the programmes, - Bach, Mozart and plenty of folk-songs. These latter were usually in arrangements made by Holst himself. Through them he got down to something fundamental in the musical make-up of the London workers who formed his choir. I remember in particular the fascination of his arrangement of “On the banks of the Nile” [5] with its strange lilt in the singing of the dotted notes that was not at all a ‘classical’ rendering but slid along with its clipped rhythm in a sort of musical counterpart of our clipping English speech of every day.
Egdon Heath for full orchestra, which Holst composed in 1927 lies more than a world away from his early works. Nothing of his has provoked such violent reactions in listeners as this strange almost frigid piece. For by the time it came to be written Holst’s love of abstract thought had led him to jettison his ideas of the functions of emotion in favour of Stravinsky’s theory that music should be dissociated from emotion. Fritz Hart [6], Professor of Music in the University of Honolulu and a fast friend of Holst’s from their student days relates in his fine study of Holst – “Gustav, perhaps, did not go quite as far as Stravinsky, but he once told me, most earnestly that composers should sternly eschew what he described as the ‘domestic emotions.’”
Though later, as Fritz Hart points out, Holst began to see the brilliant Stravinsky’s weaknesses, the cold poison poured in Holst’s ear produced some chilling works. In one sense Egdon Heath is the supreme expression of this phase. But though orchestras as far apart as those in Paris, Boston and Melbourne have hated it, that does not necessarily mean the work is wrong. It was of all others the one that Holst was surest about himself, and his tone-picture of Egdon Heath considered with an open mind, comes extraordinarily close to Hardy’s description of “a place ...singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” But even more than to Hardy, I think Holst cast back to the Egdon Heath of pre-history. I once had the fortune to see Egdon (Wareham Heath) under its primaeval aspect. An eclipse of the sun fell that year on a spring morning. Sitting at the edge of the Heath with a friend I watched the birds and insects flitting over the winter-brown bracken and green bog-moss in bright sunlight. Silently the cheerful day dimmed; it grew so still we hardly dared speak; the great expanses of the Heath turned livid, and in the uncanny light of that darkness the world of pre-history welled up from the earth and possessed the landscape, cruel because unaware of feeling, inhuman because without sense of right and wrong. That to me is Holst’s Egdon.

In The Planets Holst found a subject ideally suited to his genius. Composed in 1914-16 he carried it through on a grandly spacious scheme of seven large movements and an exceptionally large orchestra, while his musical and intellectual concepts ranged freely through the solar system, depicting each planet under its astrological signification. In Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity Holst produced a magnificent consummation of Cotswold song and folk-song: and Mercury the Winged Messenger gives a measure of his own swiftness of spirit. These two movements have always found ready acceptance. But the remainder are even more worthy of attention and repay it a hundredfold: the effort is to penetrate their music and meaning.
Down to the least detail they are clairvoyant. Take the first bars of all- the opening of Mars. Though Holst sketched them before the War of 1914-18 the merciless rhythm hammered out by the bass is an almost exact replica of the rhythm made by the guns in France as they were heard daily in Kent during the summer of 1917. Or turn to Uranus the Magician. According to ancient beliefs in the lore of numbers 16 was called the ‘The Falling Tower’ or the ‘Uranus number’. Its unpleasant property was that just when everything is going splendidly and seeming on the point of fulfilment all would be dashed away and the victim left with nothing but his misery. Listen now to the last bars of Uranus where the old magician works up his enchantment into a terrific chord that blazes up FFF through the whole orchestra and then suddenly collapses PP into a moan and nothingness. Surely that is the Uranus number!
It is often said of good music that it is sincere. For Holst the word is too weak. Nothing short of intense truth satisfied him, whether it were metaphysical or material. It was a disturbing quality, making some of his work hard of acceptance, but it will keep it alive.
Marion M Scott May 1944

[1] Holst was born at 4 Clarence Road in Cheltenham Gloucestershire, England on 21st September 1874
[2] William Boyce (1711-1779)
[3] The Passmore Edwards Settlement was an adult education college located in Tavistock Square in London. It was financed by John Passmore Edwards. It is now the Mary Ward Centre.
[4] Morley College is an adult education college founded in South Bank area London in the 1880s.
[5] “On the banks of the Nile” – from Seven Folk Songs H85 No.1 1904 -14?
[6] Fritz Bennicke Hart (11 February 1874 – 9 July 1949) was an English composer, conductor, teacher and unpublished novelist, who spent considerable periods in Australia and Hawaii (Wilkipedia)

Friday 18 December 2009

How they Make Music at Morley College

A Chat with Mr. Holst and a Sight of his Work there
Part 3

The Lighter Side.
But the lighter side of the Art is not excluded. English Opera as She is Wrote, is the title of a work produced in 1917, and rehearsed during an air-raid. The composer of this remarkable work- (rumour has it that there were several composers) "boldly wrote his first five acts in the five great styles of his predecessors in operatic tradition, reserving the over­whelming revelation of his own New Tradition for his sixth and last act". The success of the com­bined Traditions was so immense that the opera was repeated some ten or eleven times, and will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to be present.
Then on another occasion there was the first per­formance of a Futurist Symphonic Tone Poem in H, when Mr. James Brown introduced the work to the audience, and Mr. Holst conducted with two batons.

A Talk about the Music.
Having made these gleanings, I betook myself to the Hall again, and found Mr. Holst in the centre of an eager audience of performers, vocal and instru­mental, talking to them about the music for the concert. Brahms' Song of Destiny was his theme when
I slipped into a back seat, and he was having an accompaniment passage played through in skeleton ­on the piano to show the chord progressions (" the sort of thing," as he explained, "that you wouldn't expect to find before the XIXth century"), and another passage to show the curious effect of duple rhythm in 3-time.
Then came the Choral Fantasia, and a grand opportunity for that "inventive" faculty which the loss of the notebook required. I came to the conclusion, as I listened, that the audience in the lorry probably did not go to sleep during the invention of the History of Music. I give the improvisation more or less as it dropped conversationally from its author.
"This Fantasia seems to have been a study for the Choral Symphony", he began. "Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and the Choral was the ninth. I'll just tell you a few things about them that will help you to remember better than dates. Actual dates aren't so very important for you. Beethoven has been called the Father of Modern Music (so have a good many people). You will understand what is meant if you look upon Bach and Handel as the culmination of contrapuntal music applied for orchestra and chorus. Before 1600, there was no orchestra. During the seventeenth century, the orchestra was beginning, and German music was coming into being. The Germans have always been eminent in orchestral music. For about a hundred-and-fifty years you have music for orchestra and chorus being written. After 1750, purely orchestral music developed.
Between 1750 and 1820, you have the work of three great composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose musical centre was Vienna. These composers thought a great deal of outline and clearness, and a great deal of dignity of form. As a boy, I looked down on all that. I daresay some of you don't feel that it's very important. But you must under­stand what point of view these great people had in writing. Now Beethoven, who was the youngest of them, came to maturity at a time when the validity of forms and authority of all kinds was being questioned. It was the period of the French Revo­lution, and if you look on Beethoven and the French Revolution as doing the same sort of thing in their different ways, you will see what Beethoven stands for in the history of music. He freed the Sonata Form. Haydn and Mozart thought of their work in harmonic sections, and when it's not their best work the result's a bit prim. Now Beethoven's First and Second Symphonies are just Haydn. But the Third takes us into a new field. Up till then, a Slow Movement had been a placid, graceful, rather happy affair: the Slow Movement of the Eroica is a Funeral March. The whole Symphony, moreover, is twice the length of a Haydn - everything on a much larger scale. And so he went on thinking greater and greater things, till he wrote the Seventh Symphony, which is the greatest of all.
In the Ninth, two of the movements are in the form of an Air with Variations, and you can easily trace the resemblance between the air of the Finale of the Symphony (this is how it goes…) and the tune of the Choral Fantasia, which is also in Variation form.
The Fantasia itself is in two movements. The first is given to the Piano, and is in improvisation style, ending on a dominant seventh. At this point, the join of the two movements, there is a curious mark in the score, and this note: 'At this place the director of the music is to give a sign to the orchestra'. It does not say what sort of sign he is to give, and you must remember that at that period the conductor was not an estab­lished person, and the 'Director of the Music' was probably the first violin, or some competent musician who sat at a harpsichord with the score, ready to come to the rescue at critical moments.
Well, now it's time to get on to rehearsing, but just one thing about the end of the Fantasia. Those of you who took part in the Italian Opera Scene of famous memory will remember the convention of the endless ending. Well, listen to this ­(Mr. Holst ran over the formula on the piano -Tonic, Sub­mediant, Subdominant, Dominant; Tonic, Submediant, Sub­dominant, Dominant). It's just what Beethoven does for his Coda here. Of course, it's deplorable, but people unconsciously conform to the convention of their day, and Beethoven's audience never thought any the worse of him for giving them what they expected. And - there are probably things which we are doing today about which in a hundred years, people will wonder how we could go on repeating such worn-out stuff. Now the Register, please, and then we'll start on the Bach."

"I always do learn from my Pupils."
The Register was taken, and the Bach chorus was pronounced “on the whole, good. Basses, I want a little more of you. Move in a little-it will be a help to you if you get nearer the 'cellos".
He descended from the desk and came over to his Interviewer. "What would you like us to do now, as you've got to leave at 9 o'clock?" The Inter­viewer thought it would be interesting to hear the Brahms. “Certainly". He turned to the per­formers "We'll take the Song of Destiny next ...” There was a fluttering of music as the Brahms was sought. The conductor wheeled round again to the visitor, “Did you see that? Their faces fell! Some of them don't like Brahms -they'd like to go on singing Bach all night! …And to tell you the truth..." [Here he told me the truth] "Ha, ha! But I always do learn from my pupils."
He mounted the desk again, and all too soon the clock pointed to the fatal hour of nine. I crept towards an inconspicuous exit just as the wind were being exhorted not to hurry. But this advice was not enough to save them from disaster. A stop was necessary, and they were condoled with for the lack of the trombone which would have made their passage clearer.
"We'll go back to... You have no letters? Oh… Yes, what did you say? Yes, "free from care". Free from care. That's it. Start at "free from care". And with those happy words ringing in my head I made my way to Waterloo Station.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Leslie Cochran: Composer

Who was Leslie Cochran? A search of Google gives no real clues. Certainly the chap I am looking for is not a famous American cross-dresser and US street-person or vagrant. Nor is he the author of learned books of educational science. There is no entry in Grove or other musical reference works. More tellingly Philip Scowcroft makes no mention of him in his comprehensive study of light (and not so light) music on MusicWeb International. There is nothing on ‘Cecilia’ the Concert Programme search or the RCM catalogues.

What do we know? Virtually nothing save what he published:-
A Child's Song, Unison Song words by H. J. Timothy London: Stainer & Bell, 1935
Christmas Song; words by N. Ingall London: Augener, 1930
Facility "So easy'tis to make a rhyme"; words by Robert W. Service. London: Ricordi, c1957
In Autumn Song; words by A. Symons London: Stainer & Bell, 1928
The Oxen; words by Thomas Hardy London: Augener, 1927
Roll along Spring, Unison Song; words and music by L. Cochran. London: Stainer & Bell, 1936
Sussex Sketches, for Piano; London: Augener 1925
On the face of it he appears to be a minor composer. Yet I have a copy of his Sussex Sketches for Piano –and they are impressive. This collection of pieces was published in 1925 and at first glance represents a somewhat typical ‘twenties effort – most especially with the titles of each piece. Yet, bearing in mind that these five ‘sketches; are probably about Grade 6, they have sound world that is far removed from the typical character sketch or pedantic work of the period.
The five movements are:-
Blue Butterflies and Wild Thyme
Dew Pans
There is a little village I know
Three Lone Pines
A Right Merry Evening at “Ye Sussex Pad”

The first and second sketches nod to Bartok whist the last has all the panache of either Warlock or Moeran. Alas the Sussex Pad public house, which I believe was near Lancing in West Sussex, was destroyed during the Second World War. I would love to find out a little more about this enigmatic composer.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Gustav Holst: In the Bleak Mid-Winter.

Michael Short is surely correct in pointing out that many folk who have never heard The Planets or any other music by Gustav Holst will “nevertheless have derived great pleasure from hearing or singing … In the Bleak Mid-winter.” He suggests that although the composer never sought popularity or success for its own sake, he would have been pleased to know that this carol had been a success.
Interestingly, Imogen Holst writes that “the critical mind may reject In the Bleak Mid-Winter as sentimental, but the carol singer finds it entirely satisfactory”.

The carol was written at the express wish of Ralph Vaughan Williams who was the musical editor of the English Hymnal. Holst’s involvement with that project is another story.
In the Bleak Mid-Winter is the first of a group of Three Hymns for the English Hymnal [H73]. The other two were From Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, come down. The exact date of composition is not known, as the original manuscript has been lost, but is believed to have been 1904 or 1905. They were first published in the English Hymnal in 1906. Interestingly, these three hymns are not included in the composer’s personal list of works.

The tune that Holst wrote for these words was called Cranham. This was named after a village in Gloucestershire which lies between the towns of Cheltenham and Stroud. Holst lived in this village for a while and it was there, according to a strong tradition, that he wrote this music. The house is now called ‘Midwinter Cottage’.

Cranham’ has been criticised as capable of winning a contest for “the dreariest melody in a well-liked carol...” I disagree with this evaluation, although I do accept that the mood is more appropriate for the first ‘chilly’ verse than to the more theological verses that follow. However, bearing in mind that this is a hymn-tune and not an anthem or choral setting, it is a reasonably well-balanced and largely appropriate piece. There are slight problems with the irregular metre of the poem which necessitates the use of additional chords for some of the poem’s syllables, and I have heard this lead to some slight confusion in carol services...
The tune is written largely in F major with simple modulations to the subdominant and the relative minor. Harmonically, there is little to test the skills of even the most inexperienced choirs, however there are a few major third for the tenors and basses in the lower register that could lead to problems. The formal construction of Cranham is A (A) B A.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother,
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,-
Yet what I can I give Him
Give my heart.

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems edited by Betty S. Flower London: Penguin (1979, 1986, 1990)
Christina Rossetti wrote this poem in 1872 for Scribner’s Monthly, an American Magazine. However it was not published until after the poet’s death in 1904, so it was a ‘new’ hymn when Holst made his setting. It has always been a popular carol in spite of its somewhat introspective feel. Certainly the immediately attractive thing about this carol is that Rossetti appears to have transferred the location of Jesus’ Nativity from Bethlehem to a colder Northern landscape. It is not too hard to imagine the locality as being something similar to Robert Bridge’s 'A Christmas Poem' which was set by Gerald Finzi in his In Terra Pax.
It may be very easy to pick holes in the underlying thought of this carol, for example is it theologically correct to suggest that:
“Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain.”
No doubt the current Bishop of Croydon would find the text risible and would be unable to understand how ‘ox and ass and camel’ could possibly adore! Yet most people who will sing this carol over the Christmas Season will not be too perplexed by the philosophical and theological underpinnings of what is one of the most evocative expressions of the Nativity in the English language. The poet takes the reader or listener on a journey which on the face of it is simple, yet in actual fact represents to the Christian a journey of cosmic significance. To non-believers it is an epitome of what makes Christmas-time so special.

The first verse meditates on the nativity, translating the action from Bethlehem to England. The poet introduces chilly imagery, such as ‘Frosty wind made moan’, ‘Earth stood hard as Iron’ and ‘Snow on Snow’. The second verse juxtaposes the two Advents of Christ - his birth and his coming in glory at the end of the ages. Yet, the third verse is more homely: it suggests that the humble circumstances of his birth were not only sufficient but also appropriate to the necessity of the Incarnation: the whole of creation bows before Him. The fourth is particularly poignant, with the contrast between the human Mother and her new-born baby and the fact the Holy Angels were also in attendance at the birth of the Son of God. It is as if heaven and earth, man, beast and angels were joined in Universal praise. Finally Christina Rossetti asks herself and the singer or listener what it means for humanity. She concludes that ‘all’ we can do is bring our hearts.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter is found in many editions appearing in a wide variety of publications including Songs of Praise, The Oxford Book of Carols, Hymns Ancient and Modern (revised edition 1950) the Church Hymnal and the BBC Hymn Book of 1951. Furthermore, Leslie Woodgate has arranged this work for male voices and Holst’s daughter, Imogen has provided a version for female voices.
There have been countless recordings of this Carol made over the years, but perhaps is best known is that of King's College Cambridge (YouTube).
Other composers who have set these words include Harold Darke and the underrated composer Bruce Montgomery– of ‘Carry On’ film fame. Benjamin Britten incorporated the text in his masterly A Boy was Born. There is a less well-known version by Thomas B. Strong. Finally, in 1927 Eric Thiman set this poem for soloist and piano.

With thanks to MusicWeb International

Thursday 10 December 2009

Peter Warlock: Beard made him a Genius -Composer with a Dual Personality

I found this 'review' of of Cecil Gray book on the composer in the Daily Express. It is a somewhat outdated view of the composer and his personality, but it is still worth posting as it shows how Warlock was regarded by a previous generation. Unfortunatey this view is still prevelant in musical circles today

DISCLOSURES regarding an English musical genius with an amazing dual personality that was strangely influenced by the growing of a beard, are made today.

They are contained in "Peter Warlock: A Memoir of Philip Heseltine," by Cecil Gray, with contributions by Sir Richard Terry, Robert Nichols and Augustus John (.Jonathan Cape, 10s. 6d.). Peter Warlock (whose real name was Philip Heseltine), creative artist, scholar, critic and, many think, our greatest songwriter since Tudor times, was found dead four years ago in a, gas-filled flat in Chelsea. He was only thirty-six.
"My memories of this extraordinary being," writes Augustus John, " will always be charged with the bitter and futile reflection that, had we but set out in time on a tour into Wales we had projected, that fatal hour might have been perhaps averted."
The coroner's jury' could not decide whether it was accidental death or suicide. And so died two personalities—Warlock and Heseltine. "Philip Heseltine, from a worldly point of view, was a failure," says Cecil Gray. " Everything he touched went wrong.

"Up till the growing of the beard, and the appearance of ‘Peter Warlock’ he had not been conspicuously successful. But the Mild and Melancholy Philip, transformed into Peter Warlock, the Complete Man, was masterful and compelling".
"Peter Warlock" was a mask and protection against a hostile world by a sensitive nature. When Peter Warlock began to gain the mastery over Philip he gradually dropped his old friends and even his music changed from a tone of often dark despair to one of robustness and even irresistible hilarity. Cats fascinated him—and he had one which shared his passion for the music of Delius but arched its back angrily at any other music!
It was to Delius, the blind composer to whom he owed his deepest debt of gratitude. Delius- advised Warlock to take up music and "trust more in hard work than in inspiration".
Daily Express Monday October 29 1934 p15 col. 2

Tuesday 8 December 2009

How they Make Music at Morley College

A Chat with Mr. Holst and a Sight of his Work there
Part 2
This fascinating, if humorous, description of an interview with Gustav Holst is well worth republishing. It was written by Katharine Eggar in the Music Student, Volume 13 (1921), 359–61. This is the second instalment. It is presented as in the magazine with a few minor edits.

Morley College at Work.
A couple of girl students were waiting - and yet we were twenty minutes before the time that College was due to open. I was given a seat, and a little confabulation took place between professor and students.
"And so you've come to let me hear how you've got on. Right! Well, let's get to work. Oh! Miss Eggar, please, you're not supposed to be here just now. You kindly won't listen, will you? This is unofficial". I did my best to imitate the Cheshire cat, and presently was allowed to come into existence again when the female soloist for the concert went through her two Brahms' songs with great sweetness of voice and simplicity of style. After that, I was summoned to the piano lid to look over the Dioclesian score, while Mr. Holst went through it with a student copyist, explaining where the cuts were to come; and by that time a student-composer had arrived with the manuscript of a song.
"Brought a song? All right. Brought, your wife to sing it? She couldn't come. How are we to manage? Well, here's a singer" (the copyist was hailed) -" You come and have a try. But you're not very great at reading, are you? Oh! Miss Eggar- you'll come and help, won't you? "
"But I'm not a singer".
"But then you can read. Come along- I do so want to see what this song's like. Now then, quite slowly. Ah - we'd better read the words through first”.
So we found that it was Bridges' Love on my heart from heave'n fell, and having all got our bearings, we slowly piped through the first verse of the beautifully clear, but by no means ordinary manuscript. Ques­tions and comments from Mr. Holst, accompanying, suggestions as to tempo from the composer, and several repetitions, made the song begin to take shape, and when a tenor joined the ranks of the singers we got a quite substantial performance, before the Class which wanted our room began to dribble in.
There was still some time before the Choir was due to come, so I was piloted upstairs to hear Miss Lasker giving a piano lesson in the Concert Hall. Mr. Holst disappeared, and in course of time returned with the Choral Class in his train, and having got these people to dispose themselves on the platform (which was rather disconcertingly arranged for theatricals), he proceeded to take them, with Miss Lasker's pupil tackling the piano part, through the Choral Fantasia.
By this time, people bearing instruments of all kinds had been stealing in, and Mr. Holst, telling the company to collect round the piano for a talk about the music, spied his Male Soloist (met out in Salonika), and called him up to go through his songs. After which he remarked, “Well, now, you won't want to hear what I've got to say to these people- I think you had better come downstairs and see the Vice-Principal, Miss Brennand, and get her to tell you something about the College, and then you can come back when we've started rehearsing".

The "Old Vic's” Offspring.
Accordingly, we descended into the depths, and found Miss Brennand in the big social room, where I was very kindly provided with an easy chair and a pile of reports. These explained (which was not news to me) that the Morley Memorial College developed out of work begun at the Royal Victoria Hall (affectionately, the "Old Vic"), in 1882. It was the" Old Vic” weekly popular scientific Lectures which kindled a desire for more systematic teaching and led to the institution of classes. These were largely made possible through the assistance of the late Mr. Samuel Morley, and the present building was opened as the Morley College for Working Men and Women, in September, 1889, "and from that date women students have been admitted on a footing precisely similar to that of the men" (Cambridge University please note!)

"Advanced Study".
The first object 'of the College is stated to be­ "To promote the advanced study by working men and women of subjects of knowledge, not directly connected with or applied to any handicraft, trade, or business". Clearly, then, music is a most appropriate subject, and it must have been those brave words, "advanced study," which stiffened the back of Mr. Holst when he took the burden of Morley's music upon his shoulders thirteen years ago and firmly declined to pander to the then existing taste. At any rate, the constitution of the College was on his side from the very first, and now that he has won the proper place for music, there is ungrudging recognition of its value to the student community.
Turning over some recent reports I lighted upon records of music studied and performed. They included Handel's Acis and Galatea, Beethoven's Second Symphony, Mendelssohn's Hebrides, Bach's Magnificat, parts of Purcell's Fairy Queen, and his Dido and Aeneas, the overture to The Magic Flute, Schubert's Rosamunde Music, a movement of a Schumann Symphony, one or two Haydn symphonies, a Mozart symphony, Dvorak's Mass in D, and many other works of foremost value. Then I read of the disorganisation of the War period, when first the teacher of the Elementary Harmony and Singing Classes, Mr. Cecil Coles, joined the Queen Victoria's Rifles, and subsequently Mr. Holst himself went off to Greece as musical organiser of the Y.M.C.A in our camps there, upon which Dr. R. R. Terry came to the rescue of his Morley students.

An interesting paragraph ran as follows:-" The music students had for some time past asked whether they might study some of Mr. Holst's compositions. At last their request was granted, and he gave them some of his most difficult work to study-the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. As in the course of things, the choir asked the meaning of 'Rig Veda,' Mr. Holst arranged that Dr. Mabel Bode should come and talk to the music students at their usual social gathering. A most inspiring lecture was given, followed by a performance of the very difficult songs, which were sung again with the greatest success at the June concert”. “Advanced study,” indeed, and intelligent study, moreover.

To be continued

Friday 4 December 2009

How they Make Music at Morley College

A Chat with Mr. Holst and a Sight of his Work there
Part 1 by Katharine E. Eggar

This fascinating, if humorous, description of an interview with Gustav Holst is well worth republishing. It was written by Katharine Eggar in the Music Student, Volume 13 (1921), 359–61. It is a long article so I will ‘blog’ it in three installments. It is presented as in the magazine with a few minor edits.

Of course you know where Morley College is? Next door to the ‘Old Vic’ in the Waterloo Road, Lambeth. And that being so, my journey to it from Campden Hill, by way of Ham­mersmith, is only to be understood by unmasking the dark designs of Mr. Holst when he consented to be 'interviewed' on the subject of his Morley College work. If you were to ask him to explain, he would say briskly, "Always bribe your interviewer. So of course I bribed her - with an egg for tea."
So our interview started (would that all interviews had such a pleasant background!) over a - well, to be brief, a scrumptious tea at Hammersmith, was continued under difficulties in Stations, Lifts and Tubes, and reached its final stages at the College itself.

How the Composer Invents.
At tea, I must confess, our attention wandered to other subjects of mutual interest, but when we recollected the serious business of the occasion, I learnt that Mr. Holst had been connected with Morley for about thirteen years. When I asked him whether any special circumstances had led to his being appointed to what has been such a remark­able piece of work, he said characteristically, "Oh! somebody died, and so I went there". Then I noticed a worried look coming over his face, and after diving about in half-a-dozen pockets, he remarked that he had lost his notebook. "All the things I was going to say to the people to-night. What can I have done with it?" More vain searchings, and I said soothingly that no doubt he could remember what he had put down. "Oh! but I never remember anything. I call my note­book my memory. No, it's not to be found. Well, I must invent something. I'm always having to invent things. The best bit of inventing I ever did was an impromptu ‘History of Music’ one night during the [Great] War, out in Salonika". His voice took a dreamy tone. "It was in the dark ... we were waiting for the lorries... nothing to do while we waited ... so I started talking a History of Music. I couldn't see anybody, you know - only the ends of lighted cigarettes. I just went on talking to the cigarette ends. I don't know whether anybody listened ... " He started, and looked at his ·watch. "I say, if you're quite done? I think we ought to be getting under way".

Interviewing under Difficulties.
The first piece of line from Hammersmith runs in the open, and is comparatively quiet, so we were able to continue our conversation without much difficulty to begin with, and I learnt that Morley College has a Choir of about sixty, a Sight-singing Class of about forty, and an Orchestra of about fifty.
"In the orchestra," said Mr. Holst, "we have everything but Bassoons and Trombones. The Bassoons, however, I'm glad to say, are coming along. Oh yes, they're learning. And the Trombones we don't want. So we get along very nicely, though we want more 'Cellos and Basses. Then we have twenty-five students in the Elementary Harmony Class under Mr. P. J. Collis, and seven in the Advanced Harmony Class. There are elementary, intermediate and advanced Violin Classes working with Miss Bodkin, which take about forty students, besides individual lessons. For Singing, we have about thirty students taking private lessons with Miss Twiselton, and then there are about six taking private lessons in Piano".
"Only six for Piano? That seems very few," I said. "Ah, but you see we can't get any more in. "We turn from twenty to twenty-five students away every year. And the old ones don't want to leave off".
By this time, we were getting into the Piccadilly regions, and the noise of the train was becoming frantic. Still, as long as words were distinguishable, it was incumbent on me not to waste time, so I pulled myself together and shrieked, "'What are you going to rehearse this evening?" He appreciated the effort I had made, and leaning forward earnestly towards me, he shouted back, "I think I ought to tell you THE WORST about Morley, before we get any further." The roar and rattle rose to a climax, and above it he yelled in a whisper, "WE WANT A NEW BUILDING, AND THREE NEW PIANOS".

The Concert Programme.
The train rushed into Piccadilly Circus Station, and in the comparative quiet of thrusting our way to another platform, he went on, "You know, it's perfectly dreadful, we have to put some of the audience in an adjoining room at concerts, and we have to give our lessons in rooms just before they are wanted for c1asses and as to the pianos, well, you'll hear them this evening."
Before we reached the Waterloo Road, I had gleaned what was being prepared for the next concert.
“With the Choir, we're doing Beethoven's Choral Fantasia. And we're using a new translation and new chorus parts, both done by Morley-ites. Then we're doing three Choruses from the Bach B minor Mass (and we shall be doing more from that later on), Brahms's Song of Destiny, two Madrigals and an arrangement of ‘Green grow the rushes’, by one Gandy of the Advanced Harmony Class. We always do something by a Student at the public concerts. The orchestra are doing two movements of the Seventh Symphony (Beethoven), and there will be four songs-two Elizabethan, and two of Brahms, by two of our students.
Oh! and this is rather interesting. After next concert, we're going to do the Incidental Music to Purcell's Dioclesian. Not the Masque, The Inci­dental Music, which has never been done. So we're having a tremendous task of copying; all being done by students. And here we are”. We brought up at a wide doorway under a sculptured arch, which Mr. Holst assured me "we don't look at " -reverence for the founder no doubt preferring other memorials of him than the symbolic group dimly visible as we waited. The door opened and in we went. Mounting the steep stone stairway, we reached a classroom, set out with desks and a venerable grand piano.

To be continued

Monday 30 November 2009

Leginska: Forgotten Genius of Music. By Marguerite and Terry Broadbent

If anyone was to suggest that a young lady born in the city of Hull called Ethel Liggins was to become one of the most talented musicians of her generation, one could be a little surprised. Call it prejudice if you like, but the fact remains it seems like a fairy tale. From a terrace house to conducting at the Hollywood Bowl within less that 40 years is a remarkable achievement by any standards. But there is more. She was not only a conductor but also a top class pianist once dubbed the ‘Paderewski of Woman Pianists’, a teacher who was in considerable demand and a composer of some merit as well. In fact, she was a complete musician. The strange thing is that very few people seem to have heard of her. For some reason she has been ignored by musical historians and recording artists. It is the purpose of this excellent book to try to remedy this default.
There are many people who should be interested in this book. The thing that led me towards Leginska was her compositions, not that I have heard any, but the tantalising information that she wrote a Fantasy for piano and orchestra, an opera based on Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and fair number of songs and piano pieces. On top of this, there is a major symphonic poem Beyond the Fields We Know. It is an evocative title. Let us hope that one day it can be revived. Apart from those interested in her compositions, this book must appeal to students of the piano and the art of the conductor. And lastly, there is the feminist critique here too. Fundamentally, the history of Ethel Leginska revolves round the irony of a once-famous artist totally disappearing into oblivion in a world largely dominated by men.
There is no other biography of Ethel Leginska. Various references crop up in journals and on the Internet and there is a contemporary article in Woman’s Work In Music by Arthur Elson and Everett E. Truette. Furthermore there are a host of references in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. This present volume is a distillation and synthesis of much of this primary material and serves not only as a biography of Leginska but as a document that charts the musicological development of her times. It is doubtful if another biography will be undertaken in our day, but that would seem to be of little concern when presented with what is quite definitely a model of biographical writing.
A few brief notes on Ethel Leginska may be of interest to readers. As noted above Ethel Leginska was born Ethel Liggins in 1886 in Kingston-upon-Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. It was immediately clear to her parents that she was immensely talented and was playing the piano publicly from the age of six. She made her debut at the Queen’s Hall in London in 1896, with works by Mendelssohn, Bach and Beethoven. In mid-1897 she entered the Hoch Conservatory of Music in Frankfurt, Germany, where she stayed for some years. It was around this time [1899] that Lady Maud Warender, suggested that she change her last name from Liggins to Leginska. It was thought that a ‘continental’ sounding name would be of benefit to her career. She was to use that name for the reminder of her life. Leginska had further studies with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna until she was seventeen or eighteen years old; The Broadbents point out that she was always a little hazy about dates. Ethel Leginska married the composer Roy Emerson Whithorne in 1907. In 1913 she made her debut recital at the New York Aeolian Hall where she played a concert of music by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin and Brahms. The book gives a number of contemporary reviews of this event. But her repertoire covered a wide range of composers including Max Reger, Edward MacDowell, Carl Maria von Weber, Maurice Ravel and Cyril Scott.
Not content with an impressive career as a recitalist she studied composition with Ernest Bloch. She was later to undertake lessons in conducting with Eugene Goossens, Robert Heger and Genaro Papi. Over the years, she was to conduct a variety of major orchestra including the London Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Paris Conservatory and the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 1924, a reviewer in the National Zeitung insisted that “Leginska dominated the orchestra completely by the storm of her tremendous temperament and aroused the audience to tumultuous applause.” Another in the Daily Telegraph suggested that she “conducts with freedom and élan, and her expressive gestures are eloquent of the effects at which she is aiming.” These were typical of reviews at this time. Her career as a conductor was to last until 1957. An article on the internet suggests that she was “probably the first woman in musical history to be guest conductor of most of the world’s major orchestras, and the first of her gender to be engaged as a grand opera conductor, in London, Salzburg, New York City, Boston and elsewhere”. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War Ethel Leginska settled in Los Angeles and concentrated on teaching. She was to die in that city in 1970. The authors have presented the story of Leginska in largely chronological order - although not quite. They note that they have sometimes written chapters that consider various aspects of her career that were running concurrently. So, various topics such as Leginska as recording artist, her conducting, her teaching and her work as a recitalist are examined in separate chapters. Perhaps my one disappointment with this book is the relatively little discussion of her musical compositions. For example I could find little about her Symphonic Poem Beyond the Fields we Know. There is, however a good discussion of the Cradle Song, complete with a reprint of the music.
The main feature that immediately strikes the reader is the depth of research that has gone into this book. It has truly been a labour of love. The text is crammed full of information derived from a large number of reviews, articles and letters. There are literally dozens of illustrations presented on virtually every other page in this book. Most of these are fascinating and contribute to our understanding of the text. The photographs naturally include studies of Ethel Leginska, but often depict concert programmes, publicity shots, advertising posters and pictures of venues associated with the artist. The documentation is impressive. For each chapter there are both footnotes and endnotes! The appendices are of great importance and interest. These include: details of Liggins family tree, a typical concert programme, a list of music played at here first season of concerts with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and a comprehensive list of her compositions and her recordings. Finally, there is a comprehensive index.
The book itself is a solid production by the Heaton Press Limited of Stockport: it feels nice, is robust and has an attractive cover. This volume fills a major gap in the history of both British and American music. It is a huge and important investigation into one of the forgotten great all-rounders of music. It will fill the needs of all interested musicologists for many years to come. The book can be read as a biography - from cover to cover, or the reader can dip in to explore various themes and topics, although I do recommend a through-read. As noted above, it is an attractively presented and well-documented production that is certainly good value for money. I do not imagine there will be a huge demand for this text, which is a pity, for it is really a model of its kind. However I believe that it will be required reading for all those interested in women in music and for those who are particularly interested in performance history both in the United States of America and in Great Britain.

Leginska: Forgotten Genius of Musiy: Marguerite and Terry Broadbent The North West Piano Player Association, Wilmslow, Cheshire Paperback. 354 pages. Published 2002 ISBN 0-9525101-4-6 £15:99 The book can be purchased from Terry Broadbent

With thanks to MusicWeb International

Thursday 26 November 2009

Stanislaus Elliot: The Bicycle Sonata for the Pianoforte.

I give this review without comment, save to suggest that it would make an interesting and novel revival for some enterprising pianist with a good sense of humour! It is from the March edition of the 1881 Monthly Musical Record.

The composer of this piece, fearing some apology may be needed both for the title and the design, would wish, in place of such apology, to call attention to the fact that the greatest Classical composers have now and then employed their powers in depicting grotesque and comical scenes and actions. And perhaps it were to be wished that composers would use other means than trashy dance tunes and comic songs for the expression of the ludicrous. In the sister art of painting, the greatest men have depicted subjects calculated to affect our sense of the ridiculous, and this, too, in true artistic form and without con­descending to the level of the common-place or trashy. Why, then, should not music artists do the same? This little work is written in the strict sonata (binary or duplex) form, necessarily curtailed in the development of the motives, and yet lays no claim to great excellence either of conception or of treatment, the composer only trusting that it will tend to amuse the hearer without degrading the art.
The common-sense view of the composer will commend itself to all thinking minds. There is no argument why music should not be made to minister to innocent fun, and if all who make the venture are as successful as Mr. Elliot, there is no reason whatever that his sonata should not be the herald of a new era in programme music. The majority of the sentimental devices are already worn out, and sentiment itself can only be made palatable when it possesses an element of humour; a little drollery will go a great way, therefore, in ekeing out and setting off a serious thought. Then let composers work this new vein, and be grateful to the proposer.
The Bicycle Sonata, as music, is by no means bad; it is well written, and quite fulfils all the conditions expected in a sonata. There are four movements. The first, allegro, depicts the Bicyclist's first attempt; the andante displays "his despair and return;" the scherzo, his second attempt; and the final rondo, "success at last." The composer has exhibited a fair command over the demands of form, and knows how to write effectively for the pianoforte, and these, united with his humorous plan, give a particular point and character to his sonata; so that if he be encouraged to make, like his bicyclist, a second attempt, it is not at all likely that he will fail to find a second welcome.

The work was published by London: Duncan, Davison, & Co. But does not appear to have been recorded!

Sunday 22 November 2009

Havergal Brian: English Suite No.1 another contemporary review.

A few days ago I posted a mildly enthusiastic review of this piece from the Musical Times. I found another, more positive consideration in the contemporary edition of The Musical Standard. It was quoted in Reginald Netel’s Ordeal by Music and is worth re-publishing.
It was not surprising that honours fell to Mr. Havergal Brian after the performance of his English Suite at Queen's Hall Promenade Concerts on Thursday, September 12th, for it is a work of considerable interest. From the point of view of orchestral tone colour it was a triumph. His use of the orchestra is especially good, and throughout the work the varying colours of the instrumental palette were adroitly chosen and harmonized. That is an achievement in technical skill which few writers can attain; we hear so much mist and mud in modern orchestration. Neither was the scoring of this work reminiscent, it had a freshness and breezy vigour which can be broadly described as English.
In modulation, Havergal Brian brings a new touch, and in the first two movements, March and Valse, there were many striking and individual transitions. The Suite has an honest face, there are no false heroics and, heaven be thanked, no puling melancholy in this music; and humour was much in evidence in the last movement. Typifying some scene of a Carnival, this last section had a brief interpretation of a Punch and Judy show; the scoring and ideas of this section were especially amusing. The motive was scored for piccolo and side drum, and this led to the theme of "God Save the King" scored for muted trumpet and trombones. The mere association of (carnival-like) loyalty with a Punch and Judy show is just a stroke of bombast of which English people are truly capable; it is a motive suited to the brain and pen of Bernard Shaw or Chesterton, and would set either of them off on a play or a paragraph. I am wondering whether Brian is a satirist at heart, or whether he only sets out to chronicle.
On the whole, this work of Brian's is a worthy contribution to our British school. The composer achieves what he sets out to do. It is not a subjective work, but more a musical transcription of an English country fair, and must be judged from that standpoint. The music, except in a few places as in the third movement, Love under the Beech Tree, has that objective non-introspective quality which is so much a feature of our times; although one cannot say that the thematic material strikes very newly upon the ear, there is yet a personality in the work.

Mr. Henry J. Wood took a tremendous interest in its interpretation. and it was very evident that his orchestra enjoyed their labours; for, after all, it is something to an orchestral player that his work counts, that the characteristics of his instrument are not overlooked, or "crowded out", and in this particular work the orchestral tints gleamed -that is the word-and the various groups of tone, strings, wood, brass, percussion, were each excellently written for.
Every discovery of musical creative talent is important to our countrymen because it is only by an overwhelming army of talented and diverse abilities that the many hindrances to our musical life can be overcome. The public, the publishers, the performers, the press will all respond to an inevitable fact, they always do, since they deal in inevitable facts. We have chosen, for constitutional purposes, the majority shall decide, they do both in civil and impolite matters, also in music; all we can do is to transform lassitude and indifference into enthusiasm and vitality. Creative minds alone can arrange the transformation, they always were the world's ransomers; yet between them and their ideals is ranged an unproductive and negative force. The creative gift is a natural force, the only one which the world denies existence to.
The Musical Standard October 2007[with minor edits]

Friday 20 November 2009

Ethel Bilsland: Review of her Sernade for string quartet and piano

[There is] a Serenade, for string quartet and piano, by Ethel Bilsland. Here we have the attenuated and ethereal style which would perhaps not have occurred to English writers as a medium without the influence of Debussy-the very opposite of the full-blooded robust or the cloyingly sentimental manners. Perhaps the consecutive fifths occur with an air of knowing that they are naughty, but it would not be fair to suggest that the music is artificial. There is great spontaneity about the very characteristic .air which is announced on the viola below the muted accompaniment of the two violins; and there is an engaging rhythmic freshness about the piu mosso section which brings in the other main material of the movement. It is all very decidedly alive. The strings are handled with considerable knowledge and good feeling for their character, and the piano is employed with skill to throw up and not to cloud the clarity of the other instruments. Altogether, an effective movement, and one which leads us to expect other works of more extended scope from Miss Bilsland.
The Music Student Chamber music supplement July 1914 pp.97-8 [with minor edits]

One can only hope that one day this score will turn up and well will be able to hear a performance of appears to be an impressive work.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Haydn Wood: The Dance of a Whimsical Elf

Ever since the days of Felix Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer’s Night Dream, composers have had a fascination with the ‘little folk’ One need only consider the large number of piano pieces with titles like Forest Fairies, Fairy Footsteps and The Sad Troll. And that is ignoring the subtler efforts of Tchaikovsky and the Sugar Plum Fairy. I guess that a thesis could, and may well have been written on this topic.
Yet one work I have always enjoyed is The Dance of a Whimsical Elf. It is part of a suite called A Day in Fairyland, Suite de Ballet are:
The suite has four movements that each relates to a time of day: -

1.Invocation (Dawn)
2. Dance of a Whimsical Elf (Noon)
3. A Dream Fairy (Sunset)
4. Fairy Revels (Night)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘whimsical’ as being “characterised by a whim or whims; actuated by a whim or caprice.” There is a subsidiary adjectival meaning determined by “mere caprice, fantastic, fanciful, freakish odd or comical”. Of course the word ‘elf’ carries with it a large number of meanings. However I believe that Haydn Wood is simply using it in its basic form as a synonym of ‘fairy’. For interest an elf was originally masculine and an elven feminine, however in modern usage an ‘elf’ is really a ‘male fairy.’
At time of the first performance, the second movement was called Dance of a Lone Elf. Listening to this attractive miniature today, it would be difficult to consider the character portrayed as a ‘lone’ or even ‘lonely’ unless it is in the sense of a fairy who is a bit of a loner, by choice. There is no real way of telling is Haydn Wood imagined this elf to be a good fairy or a mischievous one: it is more to do with mood and suggestion. The orchestration of this piece is superb. A variety of techniques are used to create an air of ‘whimsicality’ or caprice. Look out for the muted brass, the xylophone and the intricate woodwind. But perhaps the greatest surprise is the use of five beats in the bar – this really does make the little fellow seem quite capricious.

The piece is quite short being just over two and half minutes long, no doubt designed to fit onto one side of a 78-rpm record.
This is another one of these pieces that makes me wonder just where the divide is between ‘light’ and ‘art’ music. I guess that it must be more to do with subject matter, for this piece is a great example of craftsmanship and formal design. If it was by Elgar, and was part of say a Third Wand of Youth Suite it would be a regular on Classic FM and in the recording studios.
The work was first performed in November 1933 during a broadcast by the BBC Orchestra Section C, conducted by Joseph Lewis.

Unfortunately there is not a recording of the entire Suite, the only movement on CD being the Dance. However there are at least two versions of this on Marco Polo and Guild.

Monday 16 November 2009

Gustav Holst: a pen-portrait by Edwin Evans from 1928

I came across this excellent pen-portrait of Holst by the critic Edwin Evan, in a copy of the short lived Dominant music magazine. I was lucky to fine a bound copy of the complete run - Novembeer 1927 -November 1929.
IT is characteristic of the way in which Holst is regarded by his more intimate associates that those of them whom we approached with the request for a pen-­portrait denied their competence, im­plying that the subject required greater eloquence than theirs. To his collabo­rators and his pupils he is somewhat like those revered figures of the remote East in which he once found stimulation: guru and musician in one. And the strangest thing is that he is the last man in the world to have sought or encouraged such reverent hero-worship. It may even have caused him some moments of irritation. He has too much common sense to be an exalté and would be entitled to regard as a peculiarly per­nicious slander anything that implied pretensions beyond those of an honest and conscientious craftsman.
In the absence of the 'close-up' which an intimate associate could have given, the duty has devolved upon me. Holst and I were born within three weeks of each other, and have been acquainted very nearly half the time that has elapsed since then. A quarter of a century ago, to a month or two, I wrote my first article on the works of Vaughan Williams - works some of which he has since discarded. The preparation of this article naturally brought me into personal relations with the composer, who roused my curiosity by the enthusiasm with which he spoke of the work of a confrère who had been a fellow-student with him at the R.C.M. This was Holst, who was then about to relinquish trombone-­playing to take up teaching at Dulwich.
Though our respective occupations precluded close and constant meeting, we had many talks together, and my impressions of both the man and the musician date from then. Reviewing them for this occasion I find them strangely little altered. He has grown, his ideas have developed, his range has widened, but in all essentials his outlook is what it was then. For a young com­poser he was unusually free from all indefinite aspirations. He knew quite well what lay before him to do, and was concentrated upon the problem, tech­nical and musical, how best to do it.
This tenacity of purpose has remained with him, and is a more powerful factor in his make-up than the attribute which has impelled him to seek spiritual adventure-and-texts-in Vedic or Gnostic hymns. He has been credited with mysticism. To me he appears more of an idealist without ideals-far too practical to encumber his philosophy with imagined ideals, but at the same time so keyed as to be an idealist without them, serving a high purpose but always less conscious of its height than of the demands of its service. I find it difficult to imagine him carried away by any elation other than that of the artist content with his work. And here begins an apparent paradox, for, just as vagueness and diffidence are often associated with a morbid degree of self-criticism, one might imagine this calm self-possession to reflect a lack of it. But precisely because Holst knows his purpose so well he is a severe judge of the degree in which he has achieved it. Some time ago I had occasion to ask him if there were any prospect of his reverting to chamber-music. He replied that he was then engaged upon something that might be chamber-music or might be rubbish, [1] and in due course he would let me know which form it had ultimately taken. Concerning a recent work, of which little has been heard, he confided to me that he had been in some doubt whether it was music or not, and was gradually inclining to the latter view. But I have preserved a card which came with a newly printed score [2]: ' Hope you'll like it. I'm afraid I do'. There speaks, not the man who is sometimes querulously dissatisfied with his work because it does not fulfil an aspiration which is probably nebulous to himself, but the man who knows his task, is the best judge whether he has performed it well or ill, and at the same time sufficiently objective to be able to deliver either verdict without any disturbance of equilibrium. That this calm sense of values should be associated with an outward manner suggesting diffidence to the point of timidity is only the obverse aspect of the same apparent paradox, and equally explicable.
The Dominant April 1928 p.24-25 

[1] Probably the chamber opera At the Boar's Head
[2] Egdon Heat

Thursday 12 November 2009

Selfridge's: The New Organ in 1912

I read this short announcement in the September 28, 1912 edition of Musical News. I have never heard about this instrument. I checked in Lewis Foreman's book about Music in London and found no reference. I have a knowledgeable friend on the case, and he has suggested that the instrument was perhaps damaged or destroyed during the war. Apparently it was installed in the Palm Court. It sounds like an excuse to visit Selfridge's in Oxford Street on the grounds of historical research! Any information will be gratefully received.

An organ as an attraction at a drapery store is suffi­ciently unusual to be of interest. Mr. Selfridge is, we believe, a musical enthusiast, and he has had the happy idea of installing an instrument by Messrs. Norman and Beard in the Palm Court of his establishment in Oxford Street. The specification of this was given in Musical News for August 10th last. In order to give due im­portance to the occasion, Mr. E. H. Lemare was engaged to open the organ with recitals on September 18th and 19th, which were attended by a very large audience on each day, who testified their appreciation of the player's remarkable mastery of the instrument, as well as his choice of pieces. There is no need to review in detail the various items, except to protest against Mr. Lemare's excessive use (especially at the first recital) of the tremulant, a mechanical effect which was particularly out of place in the last movement' of Mendelssohn's sixth sonata. At each recital Mr. Lemare improvised on a theme sent up from the audience, his performance being remarkable .for its ingenuity, resourcefulness, and fancy. The art of extemporisation is not lost so long as Mr. Lemare lives. One of the themes was specially devised to show off the set of carillons with which the organ is fitted. These are, un­fortunately, placed in the swell-box, but although thus somewhat muffled, the tone is undoubtedly very sweet and pure. Similar carillons of a larger size are devised a, substitutes for church bells, a use for which it is evident they are extremely suitable. As regards this organ, no doubt it will prove a great attraction to Mr Selfridge's customers. B.
Musical News September 28, 1912

Sunday 8 November 2009

Lyrita: Celebrating Fifty Years devoted to British Music

I recently had this wonderful collection of 8 CDs from Lyrita to review. It is a stupendous collection and makes a fine introduction to British music. Please read my full review at MusicWeb International. However I give a short extract here – outlining who I feel will be interested in this impressive collection:-

Who is going to buy this double-boxed 8 CD set? I for one have virtually all these recording and pieces as part of my collection. I am sure that many readers of MusicWeb International will be the same. So I sat in the garden one warm October day and puzzled. Like the vicar once said, there are three points: three groups of people that this collection will appeal to. Firstly, there may well be those music enthusiasts who are comfortable with the ‘big’ pieces of British music - Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Fred Delius’s Walk to Paradise Gardens. But the rest of the corpus of British music is a closed book. They may not have the courage (or the wherewithal) to go into HMV and buy a CD of Symphonies by Robert Still or John Joubert’s Symphony No.1 on a whim. They have no way of really knowing whether they would like it or not. And even if they listen to short 30 second extracts on the ’Net, it is hardly a basis for forming an opinion. So for these people this collection could be an ideal gift or introductory sampler. It will allow them to explore further and confidently to purchase recordings of music and composers of which they have no or little knowledge.
The second group of people that it occurred to me that this set will appeal to are those who feel that just want to listen to some British music. They are perhaps a little tired of the half a dozen favourites played day in and day out on Classic FM and feel they want a bit more variety: and a new challenge. They want to be introduced to the wealth of British music but have neither the time nor the inclination to investigate under their own steam. They want a package of great music that is ready made for them. I can think of no better purchase than these eight CDs.
And thirdly, it will be a required purchase for all collectors of things Lyrita. I imagine there are a fair few folk out there who have virtually everything that the company has produced over the past fifty years. This collection will be a fine overview of their stack of vinyl and drawers full of CDs. A kind of keepsake, really. As a self-confessed musical snob, I have usually avoided extracts and samplers. It is the complete work for me. But there are occasions when there is just not the time to listen to a complete symphony of concerto. Sometimes a movement has to do. I for one will use this set as a source of inspiration when I have only a few minutes to spare. Like many people I will put it onto my iPOD and will enjoy picking out a track or two whilst sitting at the station waiting on the train to London Euston.

Friday 6 November 2009

Havergal Brian: English Suite No.1

I have written in these pages before about the urgent need for a professional recording of the extant English Suites by Havergal Brian. The only version currently available (with a bit of searching) is the 2-CD set from Cameo. Now the playing and the recording quality of this CD do leave a bit to be desired.
The critic in the Gramophone Magazine of April 1980 generously wrote that: “These are by no means easy pieces to play, and occasionally […] one feels that the Hull Youth Symphony […] has bitten off more than they can chew. Nor is their intonation invariably a joy elsewhere. But within the obvious limitations these are good performances and can safely be recommended not only to Brian aficionados but to the general public as well. The recorded sound is if anything slightly superior to the orchestra and previous releases”.
That this is an important work as is clear from this review in The Musical Times. In a future post I will present the contemporaneous review from the Musical Standard. I do worry that the Marco Polo/Naxos series of Brian appears to have ground to a halt. He is one of the most important composers writing in Britain during much of the Twentieth Century.
The English Suite No.1 can be heard on Cameo RR2CD 1331/1332 and is still much better than no recording at all.
THE MUSICAL TIMES: OCTOBER 1, 1907 p.672 [with minor edits] Previous to September 12 few Londoners had heard of Mr. Havergal Brian. He is a well nigh self-taught composer, born in North Staffordshire in 1877, and in the North, notably at Hanley, his compositions have won much esteem. They include three Psalm settings for orchestra and soli, Burlesque Variations for orchestra, a symphonic poem, inspired by Lord Leighton's picture Hero, an English suite, and an overture For valour. The Suite, originally produced at one of the Leeds Town Hall Municipal concerts in January last, was performed for the first time in London on September 12. The poetic basis of the suite is an old English country fair. Rustics assemble to a spirited march, whereunto a humorous element is imparted by the prominence given to that most rural of all instruments, “the loud bassoon”. The next number is a waltz, not of modern sentimentality but a rhythmic measure that stirs the pulse; its influence, however, upon the dancers appears to be much the same, since without break the music passes into an amorous episode entitled “Love under the beech tree”. Presumably the village has only one such trysting-place, a state of affairs which must have caused occasional inconvenience. That the beech tree is not far from the dancers is evident from the strains of the waltz that occasionally mingle with tête-à-tête sentences. The fourth movement, entitled “Interlude”, takes one away from the fair, for the composer says it is “an attempt to convey in sound the emotion which arose while gazing from the Hanchurch hills, in Staffordshire, in the direction of the Wrekin, in Shropshire, the whole country suffused in brilliant sunlight”. Still farther from the spirit of the fair is the next section, in which a hymn-like melody plays a prominent part; but with the concluding movement a return is made to rustic revelry, and a series of episodes introduce us to such sundry side-shows as Punch and Judy, a Sleeping Beauty, and The Breathless Lady, the latter represented by a version of the 'dancers' theme played with mock solemnity by trombones and tuba, shortly after which the work ends in a spirit of carnivalism. One is conscious that the composer is somewhat weak in the art of thematic development, but there is a freshness and significance in his music which indicates creative power.