Thursday 30 April 2009

Frank Bridge: Enter Spring -a review of the first performance

One of my favourite pieces in the British music repertoire is Frank Bridge's Enter Spring. The work is a relatively late piece, written in 1927. This follows the composer's change in musical outlook following the Great War. The background to this work lies in the beautiful Sussex Downs. Although Bridge’s life centred on London he was able to spend much time in his native county. In the nineteen-twenties Bridge and his wife built a house, Friston Field, near West Dean. It overlooked a large panorama of the Downs. I have always imagined that it was the English Channel that provided the inspiration for his other great work The Sea. The Downs were to provide the backdrop to Enter Spring. Originally it was to have been called On Friston Down but that name was abandoned.
This work is sunny, turbulent, colourful, exuberant and melancholic all in the space of twenty minutes. At the end of the work spring is truly ushered in. Would that I were on the Sussex Downs at Chanctonbury or Firle Beacon or West Dean to see it!
I have long believed that Enter Spring is Frank Bridge’s masterpiece . Furthermore, I consider it to be the finest tone poem in the repertoire of British music. Perhaps, Herbert Thompson was not quite as convinced by this piece on its first performance in 1927? Yet generally speaking he was quite generous towards what must have been quite a revolutionary piece for the time -at least in Norwich!
This work is currently available in three fine versions Chandos Naxos EMI Classics any one of which would make a fine introduction to this work.

The review given below is of the first performance at the Norwich Triennial Festival on 27 October 1927. The composer conducted the Queen's Hall Orchestra.

ONE of the functions of a festival is to foster the art of composition, and though the results of such commissions may not be very encouraging, the principle is a right one. For this Festival only one new work, an orchestral composition, was chosen. In passing, it may be suggested that while orchestral novelties have an even better chance of being heard at ordinary orchestral concerts, a festival affords an occasion when choral music has a unique opportunity of full rehearsal, for which reason it should surely have the preference. Otherwise the decision to give Frank Bridge's orchestral Rhapsody, 'Enter, Spring,' was a sound one, for Mr. Bridge has shown himself to be a composer who unites a very complete musicianship to originality of thought. His work was one which laid itself open to the objection that can so easily be brought against all 'programme music,' in that the composer's conception of his subject may not coincide with that of the listener. It does not affect the value of 'Enter, Spring' that the composer should have departed from the conventional representation of that season, and imagined a blustering, riotous equinox. It is safer to judge his work simply as music, and from this point of view it commands respect, to which a warmer feeling may come in the closer acquaintance which its complexity and elaboration demand. It left me rather exhausted by a certain breathlessness involved in the constant dependence on fragmentary themes and incessant changes which even the Andante of the middle section did not entirely dissipate. What we did realise was that it furnished problems which were worth solving, and with a performance which by greater familiarity had acquired more ease and delicacy, some of the rough places might be made plain.
The Musical Times December 1 1927 Herbert Thompson

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Paul Carr: Summer was in August for flute & piano

I recently reviewed a piece of music by Michael Head called By the River in Spring. It is one of those pieces where the title of the work led me to believe that I would thoroughly enjoy it: it appeared to be right up my street. I didn’t. Somehow it just did not work. When I first reviewed Paul Carr’s Summer was in August, I was similarly inspired by the piece’s name, but was again a little let down. I wrote in my review that it “was a bit of a disappointment to me: and I do not know really why – perhaps the promising title did not quite fulfil its promise”. However I recognised that “it is an attractively written work that exploits the skill of the soloist. The music is full of good tunes and well written accompaniment”. I remember feeling that my reaction to the piece was predicated on the fact that the piece seemed to evoke to me some wistful costume drama about life and loves in a country house. It was not quite ‘To the Manor Born,’ but getting pretty close.
Yet, recently I listened to the work again. And I have radically changed my mind about the work. It is much more subtly wrought that I first assumed and in my opinion deserves a place in the flute and piano repertoire. I now feel that the title of the piece fully matches the musical content.

The work was composed in 2002 for the flautist Rachel Smith. Summer in August had an interesting genesis. The first movement ‘Summer came Late’ was inspired by a change in the weather. The composer was staying at Brighton at the time. Early August had been unseasonably cold, but suddenly “the days and nights were warmer...and the skies clear”. Carr wrote that “just when we had thought summer had passed us by, it arrived and our spirits were at once lifted”. The tone of this music is bright and fresh without making any pretence at being impressionistic. However the central section of this more reflective and then becomes a little fragmentary, before reprising the main idea. Yet the mood is certainly one of a ‘summer’s day’ – if a little breezy!

The second movement ‘The Girl in Blue’ has a lovely story attached to it. Rachel Smith had just given the first performance of Carr’s Three Pieces Blue in Brighton in August 2002. The composer recalled that it was “a perfect summer’s day and Rachel looked beautiful in a blue satin dress, with her long blonde hair and shimmering silver flute. It was after this concert that Summer in August was composed”. This music is languorous and at times has a lugubrious feel to it. I was reminded of the ethos of Constant Lambert’s Elegiac Blues. There is an intangible sadness in some of this music that perhaps defies the original inspiration. Yet it is a profound meditation that did not deserve my original off-hand opinion.
The final movement, Frolicking Good Time is largely a romp. It is really a good old fashioned picnic by the sea. The sort of thing that the Famous Five would have indulged in: marmalade sandwiches, ginger beer and a dip in the English Channel. However perhaps for a brief moment or two the music nods towards evenings in the cocktail bar and late summer evenings in a beautiful garden.
Naturally Summer was in August was dedicated to flautist, Rachel Smith and the pianist Rachel Fryer. Both performers have supported Paul Carr in a number of his compositions. Rachel Smith in particular has provided valuable help to the composer when it comes to preparing the score. She assisted with proof reading and her advice was invaluable when it comes to breathing marks and a general understanding of what is possible and perhaps impossible for the instrument.
The composer revised the work in 2005, however, he has told me that the changes were largely superficial. It incorporated some alterations suggested by Rachel Smith and he “simplified the piano part here and there as it was too "heavy" originally.”

Paul Carr suggested that Summer was in August is really a ‘sonata’ rather than a ‘sonatina’ in scope. Of course the general tenor of the music is ‘light’ without any connotations of trivial. It is a substantial work, lasting for nearly twelve minutes and is taxing for both performers –especially in the first movement. However as noted above there is considerable depth in the slow movement that would move this music put out of the light music genre.

At present there is only one recording of this work, on Campion Cameo 20230. It is coupled with Three Pieces Blue also by Carr, and works by Sir Malcolm Arnold, Paul Lewis, Hamilton Harty, Thomas Dunhill and Gordon Jacob.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Parry, Sterndale Bennett & Best: Piano Music

I recently had the privilege of reviewing this impressive recital of English piano music by Simon Callaghan. I began by “Coming straight to the point, this CD is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of British piano music. Contrary to what some people might suggest, the two main works on this disc are minor masterpieces – they both move and entertain. Furthermore, the two ‘salon’ pieces by William Thomas Best also deserve our notice. One can ask nothing more from a CD. Add to this, the stunning playing by Simon Callaghan, the superb quality of the recording and the informed programme notes; there is little else I can say other than, “Buy it”!

After discussing the fine Sonata in F minor by Sterndale Bennett and the two pieces I turned my attention to the Parry’s Shulbrede Tunes which is “work that I have had a long relationship with. I remember finding a rather dusty ‘new’ copy of this work in a Glasgow music shop. I guess that it was the eye-catching picture of Shulbrede Priory on the cover that caught my eye. Additionally, for a young romantic, the fact that one of the pieces was called ‘Elizabeth’ was an attraction: at that time I was rather keen on a girl of the same name. In fact, I even made an orchestral transcription of this piece and dedicated it to her. Thank goodness it was never played by the school orchestra …
Over the years I have come to consider the Shulbrede Tunes as a valuable addition to the music of the 20th century. However, I have come across people who would deny Parry the honour of having composed anything worth playing in our time, far less something deserving an accolade. The ‘unbiased’ truth is that the Shulbrede Tunes is to Parry as the Wand of Youth Suites are to Elgar: youth and leisure and pleasure reflected on in the relative tranquillity and wisdom of middle age. I concluded my review by suggesting that “For anyone who loves the music of Parry this is a suite of pieces that is both charming and often quite moving. It is well written, enjoyable to play, subtly descriptive and well-balanced. Shulbrede Tunes is a picture of a personalised country landscape and a family situation to which many aspire but few attain.

Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Friday 24 April 2009

Charles Villiers Stanford & Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Definition of Poetry.

"Poetry is like shot silk with many glancing colours, and every reader must find his own interpretation according to his ability, and according to his sympathy with the poet"

I was recently browsing in Charles Villiers Stanford’s Pages from an Unwritten Diary and came across this fine, if perhaps a little patronising, definition of poetical appreciation that the composer had recalled had been written by Tennyson. It was quoted originally in Hallam Tennyson’s memoir of the poet. It is an excellent definition that is also applicable to music. It is worth quoting, and I have provided the context from the composer’s 'diary'.

“Another great artist, Wieniawski [1], paid his last visit to Leipzig when I was there. He had grown very unwieldy, and the disproportion between the sizes of the player and his violin must have recalled memories of Spohr to those who knew that master. But his skill and artistry were unabated. He played the Beethoven Concerto in a wholly individual way. The reading was quite as true to the composer in its style as Joachim's ; and exemplified how Tennyson's dictum, that "poetry is like shot silk with many glancing colours, and every reader must find his own interpretation according to his ability, and according to his sympathy with the poet," can apply with the same force to music. If Joachim's [2] effects were like flames, Wieniawski's were like sparks. The brilliancy of the Finale could not have been excelled. It was Beethoven in an unbuttoned mood but none the less Beethoven”.

[1] Joseph Wieniawski was a violinist and composer who was born in Lublin, Poland on 10 July 1835. . “His singular playing manner, with its unconventional bowing grip, was imbued with an intense vibrato and extraordinary technical prowess”. He died in 31 March 1880 in Moscow.
[2] Joseph Joachim was a Hungarian violinist. He was born in June 28, 1831, at Kittsee, near Pressburg, Austria-Hungary and died on August 15 1907 in Berlin He was best remembered for superb, confidant technique and his interpretations of works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

John Pitts: Seven Airs & Fantasias and other piano music

I was recently sent this CD by the composer due to the fact that “a couple of years ago I reviewed a CD of music by the Severnside Alliance of Composers”.
In that recording I had been “particularly impressed with some piano pieces by John Pitts. I noted that his “music reminded me of Herbert Howells’ Lambert’s Clavichord; not in idiom so much as his ‘picking up’ an older style of keyboard composition and re-presenting it for our times”. I concluded by suggesting that “this is lovely music to listen to and shows a deep absorption of earlier styles but with a large degree of originality added for good measure.”

“John Pitts studied with a galaxy of teachers including John Casken, Robert Saxton and John Pickard. In 2003 he won the prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize: his Piano Quartet was performed by the Fidelio Quartet in the final stages of the competition at the Royal Festival Hall. Pitts is interested in composing for Christian worship and for the stage. He has written incidental music for a number of stage plays and two short operatic works – Crossed Wires and the strangely entitled 3 Sliced Mice! Other interests include working with the Bristol Savoy Operatic Society as a conductor and arranger”.

The music on this CD consists of a major cycle of piano music – the 7 Airs & Fantasias, which I believe is well worth regarding as an entity, and two additional pieces for good measure. After giving a fairly detailed review of each piece I concluded by noting that “the playing on this CD is both stunning and seriously impressive of standing on its own without a supporting commentary…”

I certainly look forward to watching John Pitts’s career with interest and certainly will be privileged to review any subsequent CDs if they are up to the compositional and performance standards of this one.
Please read my full review of this great CD at MusicWeb International

Monday 20 April 2009

Marion M. Scott: Concert Going & its Pitfalls

I recently found these two anecdotes in a copy of the Monthly Musical Record. They are written by the great critic Marion M. Scott.

My worst experience, however, was when I went to Queen's Hall to hear an important new work of a peculiarly sad and philosophic character by a British composer. The whole programme ran to Requiems. Also, an influenza epidemic was raging, and I had been unable to secure anyone to use my second ticket. I was punctual. Entering late came a strange lady and without a 'by your leave' appropriated my spare seat. Time went on, and ten minutes before the choral work drew to its close she began to prepare for the interval. Out came her powder box, mirror and puff-duly applied-then a comb with which she worked away for a considerable time, followed by a lipstick, till at length, all other resources exhausted, she polished her spectacles with deliberation. During a performance of ‘Fledermaus' these evolutions would not have much affected me, but the new work I was to criticize aimed at 'dis­banding its ego.' My own efforts at concentration were utterly disbanded. Worse, my neighbour showed every sign of remaining by me in preference to find­ing her own seat. Then the worm turned. It said: "Madam, I am glad to offer you the hospitality of my seat, but if you wish to sit there, may I ask that you will not do anything to disturb me during the performance?" She gazed at me in blank wonder. "Do anything?" she echoed. "Why, what have I done? I haven't done anything!"

Other types of ordeal are those by darkness, flood and fire. First for the darkness. Many concert givers hold nowadays that music is better heard in darkness than in light. I will not debate that question, but will confine myself to the philistine commonplace, that if there is not to be enough light by which to read the programme, why print it? Where the works performed are well known, the critic probably knows them backwards and forwards and can identify them at a moment's notice. But with a pro­gramme of modern music-especially of 'first per­formances '-this refuge is denied. Either the whole programme must be memorized beforehand, or the critic must come provided with an electric torch. I am beginning to think that (much as a blue pencil belongs to an editor) a torch should always form part of a critic's outfit. Besides being useful at ultra-aesthetic concerts, it is also a present help in trouble when the main fuse of a concert-hall goes (as hap­pened not long ago during a violin recital) or when a whole district, hall and street-approaches alike, are plunged into darkness (as also happened recently).
Marion Scott, Monthly Musical Record September 1935 p153
With thanks to Pamela Blevins for permission to use the photograph of Marion Scott

Saturday 18 April 2009

Eric Chisholm: Collected Piano Works

Earlier in the year I enjoyed reviewing the first four volumes of Eric Chisholm’s complete piano music. I began my review by noting that: - “This is an all-or-nothing project. I can hardly imagine anyone wanting just a single CD of this collection of piano music. I know that I am pained at only having four of the projected six volumes of this fascinating but virtually unknown music to review!
If I were to put my cards on the table and give a ‘heads up’ overview of my thoughts on this cycle it would be as follows: this is possibly one of the most important single contributions to British piano music alongside that of Bax, Ireland, Sorabji, Hoddinott and Cyril Scott.
It is fair to say that the ‘unknown-ness’ of this music will mean that it is a very long time before it takes its rightful place in the recognised canons. My prime concern is simply this – I fear that these CDs will not be bought by the general musical public – they are hardly likely to be played on Classic FM, for example. So I guess the buying public will be those who know something of Chisholm’s music - a precious few, I imagine - or those lucky enough to have come under the influence of those ‘precious few’ and have been introduced to this music”.

“In spite of a number of ‘picturesque’ Scottish and Celtic titles to many of these works, Chisholm’s music is no crass ‘tartanry.’ This is not pastiche highlan’ music that is meant to evoke a sentimental view of the land north of the border. And as a Scot I have heard plenty of that kind. Chisholm’s art is obviously influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the result can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition of both Schoenberg and Bartók. A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – “He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.”
Listeners should not, but not be over influence by the nickname once given to Chisholm – MacBartok!

Finally it was important to highlight the major impact that the pianist has made on Eric Chisholm’s music: - “It is clear to see that Murray McLachlan had made an important contribution to the literature of British Music. He has decided to make, as Colin Scott-Sutherland notes, Chisholm’s music his own. And that is what was surely needed – a champion of this great catalogue of excellent but virtually unknown music. Moreover, McLachlan has been well served by the fine recording made at Chetham’s School that presents this music with the highest sound quality. Finally the learned programme notes are a joy to read. In fact, they are absolutely necessary, due to the lack of information about and criticism of Chisholm’s music. John Purser certainly gives the listener a fine preview of his up and coming biography. This will surely be a remarkable and important musical study”.

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International
I have not included the usual list of works as it would have made this posting overly long!

Thursday 16 April 2009

Malcolm Arnold: Fantasy for Oboe Op.90

Over the years Malcolm Arnold wrote a number of Fantasies for solo instruments: some 12 such examples being noted in Stewart Craggs Bio-bibliography of the composer. The first group were composed in 1965 and include one for Bassoon, Clarinet, Flute, Horn and Oboe. I recently found a copy of the sheet music for the Fantasy for Oboe Op.90 in Travis and Emery’s second-hand music shop in London. This particular work had caught my ear when I first heard it on the fine three volume Nash ensemble recording of Arnold’s chamber music on Hyperion.
The Fantasy for Oboe, along with the other ’65 group was commissioned by the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the International Wind Competition in May 1966. In fact, the first performance was in Birmingham Town Hall and the soloist was Maurice Bourgue.
What is important to realise about each of these Fantasies is that they are viable, genuine and even important miniatures in there own right. Although they were test pieces, they are also true works of art.

The Fantasy for Oboe is a case in point. Even a superficial hearing of this work will surely reveal the fingerprints of Malcolm Arnold. The very first phrase of this piece, an 'Allegretto' in 2/4 time sets the scene for the remainder of the work. The 'allegretto' is followed by a 'vivace' initially in semiquavers. This leads to a variation between the wide interval quavers and a scalar passage in semi-quavers. Soon the initial theme reappears. This opening material is used to create a slightly more thoughtful 'andante', which gradually leads to an accelerando passage before a difficult 'presto' at letter 'H' in the score. The composer creates a 'pseudo’ two-part theme here before and ascending passage in thirds leading to a trill which is probably the heart of the work. Soon the Presto gives way to a final reprise of the 'allegretto' material. The work ends on a high Bb.
Hugo Cole notes that this Fantasy, like the others “abounds in the sort of brilliant, florid even showy passages which find no place in the [Arnold’s] Sonatinas of the earlier years.” He further notes that, for the competition, each piece had to “test the player’s facility in rapid passage work in all registers, powers of endurance, and command of every sort of articulation..."
The general impression is that this piece is a microcosm of Arnold’s musical achievement. It is well constructed, shapely, tuneful and interesting. The technical demands on the player are considerable, but do not detract from the listener’s enjoyment of this work.

The Fantasy for Oboe appears to be only available on the Nash Ensemble version on Hyperion. It was published by Faber Music in 1966.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Hubert Parry: Piano Music on CD

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a new CD of English Piano Music played Simon Callaghan. He included the Sonata in F minor, Op.13 by William Sterndale Bennett, two short pieces by William Thomas Best and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Shulbrede Tunes. The review will appear in due course on MusicWeb International and I will post a link to this on my ‘blog’.However, I can safely quote one small paragraph from that review. I noted that “over the years I have come to consider that this collection of pieces [Shulbrede] is a valuable addition to the [piano] music of the 20th century…” I felt that in spite of people often holding Parry in low regard (usually without having heard very much of his music) “…the ‘unbiased’ truth is that the Shulbrede Tunes is to Parry as the Wand of Youth Suites are to Elgar: youth and leisure and pleasure reflected on in the relative tranquillity and wisdom of middle age”.

I looked at the Arkiv CD catalogue and was horrified to find that only one other recording of Parry’s piano music is currently available – Peter Jacobs on Priory. He plays Shulbrede Tunes, Hands across the Centuries and the important Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor. I turned to the list of Piano compositions in Jeremy Dibble’s essential biography of the composer –C. Hubert Parry: His Life and Music [1992] and noted that there were a large number of pieces that have not been recorded. To be fair, many of them appear to be works that are still in manuscript, so I guess that these may never be recorded. However there are a considerable number of published works and these include what is generally regarded as the important pieces:-
Sonnets & Songs without Words Sets 1 & 2 (1867-1875)
Seven Charakterbilder (1872)
Grosses Duo in E minor for Two pianos (1875-77)
Sonata No.1 in F (1873?)
Sonnets & Songs without Words Set 3Sonata No. 2 in A (1876-77)
Theme and Nineteen Variations (1878)
Shulbrede Tunes (1914)
Five Miniatures (1917?)
In addition, a number of Characteristic Popular Tunes in the British Isles were also published.
Presently only Shulbrede, Hands across the Centuries and the Theme and Variations is available on one or more recordings. However, in 1994 a CD was made by Anthony Goldstone on the Troy Label. He included the two Sonatas, the Nineteen Variations, the Charakterbilder and an Adagissimo from the Sonnets. Yet there is a problem here. Firstly, the disc is probably no longer available except from the second-hand dealer. But more importantly, Goldstone chose to record these works on Parry’s own grand piano at Shulbrede Priory.
Now, on the face of it that seemed a good idea, but the reality is that this 150-odd year old Hagspiel piano is not really the ideal instrument for a definitive recording of these important works. I find it quite a challenge to enjoy this music, in spite of the fact I know that they are brilliantly played.
So perhaps the time has come for a new recording of the main corpus of Parry’s piano music? This would have to include the Sonatas as these are important. Lisa Hardy in her seminal book on the British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 has stated that “…Parry’s Second Sonata is the most important example of a British piano sonata to have been written in the nineteenth century, it deserves to be better known.” [p.23]

Having seen a copy of the sheet music for the Sonnet’s and Songs without Words I believe that they would be an interesting addition to the repertoire –especially perhaps the “curiously original and even characteristic little pieces, ‘Owlet’ and ‘Gnome’”. The Grosses Duo owes much to J.S Bach. However, it must never be forgotten that Parry was a great enthusiast of JSB and wrote what was at one time the definitive English language biography of that composer. Fuller-Maitland has suggested that this Duo may even pass for an undiscovered composition by the great man!
Finally I have never heard the Five Miniatures, and neither have I seen the sheet music for them. However, one of the pieces is called ‘Cosy’. Apparently this was published in the Girl’s Own Paper in 1892 – so surely would be worth including as a ‘rarity’.

Let us hope that some pianist is prepared to play these pieces in public performance and perhaps include them in an ‘all Parry’ recital CD. I do understand the costs and difficulties of producing CD’s but it would seem that part of our British Musical Heritage is at stake here. Perhaps if only one work could be recorded it ought to be the Second Sonata? Parry’s piano music is, or has been, available on these CDs:-
The Piano Music Of Hubert Parry Peter Jacobs on Priory 451
Hubert Parry Piano Sonata no. 1 in F; Piano Sonata no.2 in A minor/major; Theme and Nineteen Variations, Charakterbilder (Seven Ages of Mind), Adagissimo. Albany TROY 132 (1994)
English Piano Works (Shulbrede Tunes) Simon Callaghan De Rode Pomp Gents Muzikaal Archief Volume 34 RP/GMA 069/073

Sunday 12 April 2009

William Mathias: Recessional for Organ

I was recently sent a link to a YouTube (now blind) posting where there is a superb performance of William Mathias’s fine organ work Recessional. It is played by Ian Ball on the organ of Bristol Cathedral – which just happens to be one of my favourite cathedrals.
I have always been a great fan of Mathias’s music ever since I first heard his Processional (1965) played in Glasgow Cathedral. I can recall just about getting my fingers round this work when I used to play the church organ, however I was hardly note perfect and the pedal part was largely ‘faked’.
Recessional, which is really a companion piece to the Processional, was composed some twenty years later in 1986 and was dedicated to Christopher Morris ‘musician, publisher, friend’ who was then head of Oxford University Press. At that time he was involved in publishing an important volume of Mathias’s organ pieces which included the two works mentioned.
After an impressive solo for heavy reeds, the piece develops contrasting moods of ‘dark brooding’ material with a much brighter tune that nods back to the Processional. The solo reed at the conclusion banishes all care
Hyperion Records have described this work as consisting of “pattering, quick-fire semiquavers accompanied by rhythmical chords, many of them sevenths. March-like passages with a tramping bass provide a contrast to these athletics, and from time to time there are nods in the direction of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, especially near the end, where a bitonal cascade introduces the crashing final bars…”
This present work is perhaps the most impressive of Mathias’s ‘warhorses’ and is certainly lively and colourful. This piece, as its title implies, would be best played at the end of a service as the congregation leaves the Cathedral. However, I would probably hang on until the organist finished!
Listen to William Mathias's Recessional on YouTube

Friday 10 April 2009

John Ireland as Teacher by E J Moeran

I was browsing in some copies of the Monthly Musical Record looking for an article about Patrick Hadley. On the next page was this fine essay by Ernest John Moeran about his onetime teacher, John Ireland. This is a fascinating and attractively written piece that is surely of interest to enthusiasts of both composers. I have made a few minor edits.

I LIVED and worked for a time in a Kentish village. One day I was feeling very pleased with myself; having composed a pianoforte piece that I liked. I was playing it over when my landlord, the village grocer, looked in on me.
"You made that all up yourself, did you?" he asked, and added rather sorrowfully, "Ah, I wish I could do that; but you see, I never had the education."
I should mention that my good friend's knowledge of music amounted to precisely NIL. He was one of those who even had to be told when the National Anthem was being played.
It is undoubtedly a fact that there are some people who imagine that musical composition can be taught, even in the same way that a knowledge of languages, chemistry, mathematics, hairdressing, horse-coping and countless other subjects can hammered into the receptive brain of any willing pupil by a skilled teacher. Also there are many who believe that given enthusiasm and a first-rate professor of composition, any intelligent musician may become a composer if he works sufficiently hard. Hence, unfortunately, the existence of so much of that type of music which is known as 'Capellmeister' music
In this sense, John Ireland, in spite of the title of this essay, is not a teacher of composition. This is once of his virtue. He is a very wise adviser and an astute critic, both of his own work and of that of others, and he succeeds in instilling into his pupils that blessed principal of self-criticism. Moreover, he possesses an uncanny knack of immediately and accurately probing the aesthetic content of what is put before him, thus arriving at the state of mind which gave it birth, and understanding its underlying mood and aims. It is here that his sympathy is aroused, for he has the faculty of feeling the music from the pupil's point of view, and his wide experience then steps in to suggest the solution of difficulties, and not only the technical ones.
These are not the qualities of an academic teacher of composition, who is accustomed to dole out weekly lessons of forty minutes' duration to all sorts and conditions of students. Ireland is not a mere machine whose brains may be purchased at so much an hour. I recollect one session - this is a better word that 'lesson' in his case - which lasted for about an hour, then continued for another half-hour after tea. At this point Ireland advised me to go home and work at the problem concerned with while our discussion was still fresh in my mind, and to bring it back to him later in the evening for a final talk.

Ireland does not believe that any standardized technique can be taught. "Every composer must make his own technique," is his dictum. At the same time he is a firm believer of the strict study of counterpoint, and, much to my surprise and sorrow, I found myself expected to spend many weary hours, struggling with cantus firmus, and its embellishments in all the species. I state emphatically that I am glad of this today, for I have come to realise that only by this means can a subconscious sense of harmony, melody, and rhythm be acquired.
Genuine harmony arises out of counterpoint, for it implies contrary motion among the parts; otherwise it is no longer harmony, but faux-bourdon. Moreover there can be no rhythm without melody; otherwise it descends to mere metre, which is not music. On the other hand melody, divorced from harmony and rhythm, descends into a meandering succession of fragmentary ideas, bearing little relationship one to another, and totally lacking organic unity. Thus it is that the greatest music, from Palestrina and Vittoria down through Beethoven and Wagner and the present day, has been polyphonic. For without polyphony nothing can be complete, and any attempt to break away from it has invariably ended in a blind alley.

I confessed just now that first of all I was surprised at Ireland's insistence on counterpoint, but I hope I have grown a little wiser than I was just over eleven years ago when I commenced work with him, and I feel unbounded gratitude for having been encouraged to do the drudgery. I deliberately use the word encouraged, for Ireland has no interest in work done which is not worth while, and it is by the lucidity of his argument that he expounds to his pupils the logic of doing something that hitherto may have seemed futile, and the task, distasteful as it may appear at the time, is undertaken with the sure sense that there is a real reason for doing it, and doing it to the best of one's ability. Personally, I have always been so lazy that it would have been nearly impossible to induce me to go to the trouble of working a single counterpoint exercise, had I not been encouraged to believe in some very definite value in so doing.
Ireland's remarkable individuality in his own work does not hinder him from observing and fostering unity of style in the work of his pupils, even though it may be very different from his own. He will not tolerate the slightest falling off or failing in continuity. He has no use for padding in any form, and he does not consider a piece of work done with until the minutest detail has been scrutinised again, down to the last semiquaver rest and the smallest mark of phrasing and dynamics. "What about that sforzando?" he will ask. "Have you thought carefully about it?"
His own mastery of form has been evolved in the wake of some hard thinking and deep experience, the results of which, apart from his creative work, bear fruit in the guidance which he is able to give to those who study with him. For him, form does not necessarily imply a dry-as-dust formula of first and second subjects, double-bars and so on. He enjoins his pupils to look ahead and plan.
I took him one day the exposition of a movement in sonata form. "This is most exciting," he said. "But the question is, will you be able to go one better before the end? Otherwise you will have an anticlimax."
Here again, Ireland is emphasizing one of the raisons d'être of the heritage which has come down to us from the old masters. All the music which has escaped consignment to the shelf has been inherently logical. Music, without logical continuity and shape, is lifeless from its inception.
As for instrumentation, Ireland holds that the true principles thereof are not necessarily to be found in text-books, but they eventually come about in relation to the music ("Every composer must make his own technique"). It is essential, however, to understand the true nature and character of each individual instrument, apart from its compass and its technical resources. This is knowledge that can only be gained by listening to concerted music, but it is when the beginner sets forth on his own first full score that the experienced adventurer is able to guide his faltering steps. It is here that Ireland's psychological sense, in getting to the rock-bottom of what the pupil is making for, enables to put his finger on the weaknesses and, by means of his considered suggestion, to point out the right road to take to overcome them.
I have tried here to show that John Ireland is an exceptional counsellor for those fortunate enough to work under his teaching. When all is said and done, it is the fact that he is the very antithesis of the so-called teacher of composition; that is the secret of his success. He gives unstintingly of his very best to those who come under him, and behind that keen intelligence that brings to bear on their work and its many aspects and problems his pupils soon discover a very human personality and a very warm friend.
E. J. Moeran Monthly Musical Record 2 March 1931 p.68

Wednesday 8 April 2009

William Alwyn: Five By Ten (1952)

In 1952 Lengnick published what is a remarkable set of graded teaching pieces. In fact it is actually wrong to suggest that they are purely educational. Virtually all these pieces make fine recital numbers for pupils ranging from about grade 1 to grade 6. The series was edited and graded by the redoubtable Alec Rowley. What is superb about these volumes is the eclectic group of composers commissioned by the publisher to write these miniatures. The list is worth giving in full:-Edmund Rubbra, Madeleine Dring, Bernard Stevens Malcolm Arnold, Julius Harrison, Charles Proctor, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, William Alwyn and Franz Reizenstein.

In many ways we have a conspectus of musical composition in Britain at the beginning of the 1950s. Some were already rather famous such as Alwyn and Rubbra. Others were on their way up, such as Malcolm Arnold and Elizabeth Maconchy. A number of these names are now perhaps forgotten to most listeners, even British music specialists. However the music of Reizenstein, Wordsworth and Stevens, although probably little known nowadays urgently needs to be rediscovered.

For the record my favourite piece in this series is by Malcolm Arnold and is called - The Buccaneer. It has all that composer's trademarks and is a fine piece that could be played at any recital.
William Alwyn contributed nine pieces to this series. All of them are fun to play and all prove that the composer could turn his hand to writing attractive and well written music that is relatively easy to play. The titles of the pieces are evocative and no doubt were given to appeal to the children of the day. Although this series is still in print one cannot help feeling that today's child would find the titles rather tame.
The first piece, 'The trees are heavy with snow' is very short - only 20 bars long. It is made up of varied four bar phrases that reiterates the main theme. This theme definitely has a 'dropping' feel to its progress.
What the mill wheel told me opens with the left hand imitating the water wheel slowly revolving -'not too fast and rather wistful. There is a motif given on the right hand and then repeated - is this the tale? Or is the real story in the left hand?
The first fast piece is The Village Bell Ringers that ought to be played lively. Basically it is a pedal fifth chord where the pianist is invited to keep the pedal down throughout the entire piece. There is a little four bar theme given and then with variations.
Hunting Scene comes complete with a little 'programme' written by the composer. Along with many 'hunt' pieces it is probably not politically correct nowadays. It is a fast piece in 3/4 time. The hunting horns call - echoed by the left hand (pp). The horn call and its echoes get shorter and shorter until there are only two notes are left. There is a distinct pause. Then we are off at a gallop - louder and faster. It builds to a climax with a dissonant chord, where presumably the fox is nearly caught. But the trail goes cold.
The fifth piece, The Sun is Setting is much longer than the preceding tunes. It is to be played slow and expressive. Major, minor and augmented triads in the left hand support a diatonic melody in the right hand. There is some interesting chromatic figuration in this piece. The harmony here is effective and quite involved.
The Sea is Angry is a fast and stormy little tune. It is unusually written in 12/8 time. Even this miniature displays Alwyn's expertise at writing music depicting seascapes and water. There is much unison wiring underpinned by a pedal note in the bass. The storm certainly rises and falls; the composer makes subtle use of chromatic figuration to emphasises the progress of the storm. Ends in solid d minor.
In my opinion 'Bicycle Ride' is the best of these pieces - at least it is the most fun. It is highly descriptive of pedalling up and down hills in the countryside! It is nearest to the light music genre of the 1940s and 50s. Given a fair old pace at Allegro leggiero there is a little 'cycling' theme in the right hand. This theme gets slower or faster depending whether the bike is going up hill or down. There is a good modulation given when coasting down hill. There is a slow climb and almost a dead stop. Then off we go with the cycling theme again. Ends neatly. 
Water Lilies is actually quite a complex piece for educational purposes. It has echoes of a seemingly endless list of precursors. In many ways it is quite a varied little piece with a number of ideas and themes. The composer indicates that both pedals ought to be depressed. This leads to a blurred, impressionistic effect with the left-hand third chords with added notes. The melody is constantly varied, with echoes back to the opening four bars.
Cinderella is a recital piece. This is the last work in the five volumes of Five by Ten and is almost certainly the most difficult to play and to interpret. It is also one of the longest. The form of the piece is interesting. On first play through the impression is given of constant change of melody and accompaniment with no obvious unifying material. It is composed as a waltz and is written in 6/8 time. It is only after study that one realises the piece is actually very cleverly constructed. It is as if the music is reminiscence by Cinderella after she has returned from the ball. There is constant change of tempos, figuration and even tune. Nothing ever seems to be tied done – it is a work of fleeting images. Yet there are snatches of theme that are presented and re-presented which lead to a sense of unity. A truly lovely miniature and well worth learning. 
Alas, these pieces are not presently availabel on CD. They are worth of recording and would make an attractive pendant to those pieces fromthe same volume by Sir Malcolm Arnold, which are availabel on Koch.
The sheet music, Five by Ten in six volumes can be picked up in second-hand music shops and are generally well worth investigating.

Monday 6 April 2009

An Introduction British Orchestral Music: Twenty Key Works

Recently, someone asked me for a list of ‘essential’ 20th century British orchestral music for someone who is new to the genre. It had to avoid large works such as symphonies, concertos and oratorios. It was a tall order, but after some considerable thought on the train yesterday I have come up with what I think is good list. It does not claim to totally representative of the last 150 years of British Music, it is not a list of my favourite pieces, although I do like them all. I have not included any vocal music or chamber music in this list as the individual expressly asked for relatively short and approachable orchestral works. The twenty pieces a given in alphabetical order.
The list is designed to give an overview of music that represents a variety of ‘schools’ within the genre of British Music- Anglo Germanic, impressionist, modernist, neo romantic etc.

Alwyn, The Magic IslandArnold, English Dances – Sets 1 & 2
Bax, TintagelBerkeley, Serenade for Strings
Bliss, Introduction and allegro
Bridge, SummerBritten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Butterworth, A Shropshire Lad
Delius, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Elgar – Introduction & AllegroFinzi, A Severn Rhapsody
Holst, St Paul’s Suite
Howells, Paradise Rondel
Ireland, Downland Suite
Orr, A Cotswold Tune
Parry, Lady Radnor’s Suite
Sullivan Overture di Ballo
Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Walton, Portsmouth Point
Warlock, Capriol Suite

If the listener was to hear all these pieces, and were to read the accomannying programme notes or CD liner texts they would have a good grounding of the subject of British Music.

If I were pressed to suggest only five pieces, these would be:-
Bridge’s SummerButterworth, A Shropshire Lad
Delius, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Ireland, Downland Suite
Parry, Lady Radnor’s Suite
And finally if I had to sugges a single piece from the above list, to give an impression of music in a single short space it would be:-
Frank Bridge’s Summer.

Saturday 4 April 2009

Eugene Goossens: Orchestral Works on Chandos

Recently I have enjoyed reviewing this CD of orchestral works by the largely forgotten composer Sir Eugene Goossens. I began by putting my cards on the table.
“I believe that Eugene Goossens is one of the best of the large group of largely ignored British composers: there is virtually nothing in his catalogue that I have heard and not liked. Recordings and performances of his works are relatively few and far between.

I recalled how I first came to Goossens music “ by way of the delightful collection of piano pieces called Kaleidoscope. It was played to me ‘live’ by a friend who had counted the composer as a friend. It was a number of years before I discovered the First Symphony recorded by Vernon Handley and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately, ABC Classics issued a Three-CD retrospective of Goossens’ orchestral music in 2005 with Handley conducting. It is this release that allowed me, and I guess a huge number of other listeners to get to know this fine music. Two major works were missing – the Phantasy Concertos: one each for violin and for piano. Fortunately Chandos have here remedied the deficiency in the case of the 1942 Phantasy Piano Concerto…"
After considering the Phantasy Concerto for piano and orchestra Op. 60, I noted that “interestingly, Goossens was in his mid-forties before he deigned to compose a Symphony. He wrote that “Perhaps it was that in my 25-year career as a conductor I had encountered a surfeit of immature pomposities labelled symphonies from the pens of youthful composers with a message.” Furthermore he felt little urge to “project my sparse ideas through the medium of a form which for successful manipulation calls for a cunning hand and artistic maturity.” Even a superficial hearing of this work must surely impress the listener. It is clear that the composer has not fallen into the trap he had feared. He has created a canvas that is both well-written and fundamentally moving. It is a great work.
However contemporary reviewers, although impressed, were a little disappointed that Goossens had not pushed at the boundaries of modernism. It was perceived as lacking a sense of adventure and an individual voice. Goossens wrote to his parents that “They [reviewers] would have liked me to have written something ultra-modern and full of modern clichés which would have enabled them to write that I was writing music which didn't come naturally to me.”

Unfortunately this CD was the last major recording to come from the baton of Richard Hickox – and is typically superb. One is left wondering if this recording was part of a planned Chandos cycle of Goossens’ music. It is a project that may now no longer come to fruition. However we must be thankful for the Vernon Handley recordings although I am not convinced that these are readily available.
Please read the full review at MusicWeb International