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.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Chopin: An attack by the Musical World Journal

I recently found this excellent quotation on the Frederyk Chopin Institute website. Now I do not normally write about ‘continental’ composers, but anyone that was and is so popular in Great Britain cannot be ignored. Chopin’s music is a vital part of musical life here and furthermore his tour of Britain between 20 April and 23 November was a huge success. He was lionized in London and played before Queen Victoria. So it is fascinating to read a somewhat negative review in the contemporary press. The Musical World was published in London during the nineteenth century.

The attack on Chopin was incidental to a review of some Mazurkas (Op. 41?): ‘Mr Chopin is far from composing anything banal, but – as many may consider considerably worse – is a producer of the most preposterous and hyperbolic oddities. […] Well might such a hot-headed enthusiast as Mr Liszt utter a poetical “rien” in “La France Musicale” with regard to the philosophical tendencies of Mr Chopin’s music; yet, from our point of view we can see no connection whatsoever between philosophy and affectation, between poetry and swagger, and we would allow ourselves to call to witness the ears and the judgement of all impartial people that all the works of Mr Chopin present a gaudy palette of rhetorical overstatement and excruciating cacophony […] At present, there is some justification for the offences of the poor Chopin: he is caught up in the compelling bonds of that arch-witch George Sand, notorious for both the number and the eminence of her romances and lovers; nevertheless, we are surprised at how she […] could allow herself to waste her dreamy existence on such an artistic non-entity as Chopin’.

In a reaction to this no-holds-barred assault on the part of its rival publishing house, the firm of Wessel & Stapleton addressed a letter to the editorship attempting to defend Chopin and his works, referring to ‘their immeasurable popularity abroad and finally the unanimous praise bestowed upon them by a host of the greatest authorities. Suffice it to mention here such names as Hector Berlioz, Ferdinand Hiller, Henri Herz, Robert Schumann, Sigismond Thalberg, Ignace Moscheles, Ferencz Liszt, Edward Schnitz, Henri Bertini, Jules Janin, Jules Maurel, George Sand, Frédéric Soulie, H. Balzac, Jules Benedict, Madame de Belleville-Oury, Theodor Doehler, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, John Cramer, Jacques Rosenheim, Charles Czerny, Aloys Schmitt, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Clara Wieck, Alexander Dreyschock, Adolphe Henselt, Catarina Bott, Robena Laidlaw and countless others’.

Monday 2 November 2009

Charles Villiers Stanford: Piano Sonata in D minor

I recently reviewed a CD of piano music by Stanford and was impressed by virtually every piece. At that time I recall wondering if he had written a Piano Sonata. I suppose only laziness stopped me checking it out. I was perusing Lisa Hardy’s The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 the other day and to my delight discovered that Stanford had indeed composed a Sonata for that intrument. However my excitement soon went – it is a work that is lost. Hardy notes that Grove mentions a Piano Sonata in D flat Op. 20 which was unpublished. She explained how she had corresponded with the author of the dictionary entry, Dr. Frederick Hudson, however he had been unable to trace the manuscript after thirty years of searching.

The Sonata was performed by Fuller Maitland at a Cambridge University Music Society Pop concert on 25 February 1885. This seems to have been its last appearance. However it had been previously performed at a concert in the St James’s Hall in London on 4 February 1884 and again at a second recital some five days later. It was given a positive review in the March 1884 edition of The Musical Times. Hardy further notes that the pianist Miss Agnes Zimmerman was “a noted interpreter of British piano sonatas".
Jeremy Dibble explained that Stanford was included in a list of ‘ten original piano sonatas’ which had been advertised by Henry Carte. However the project was never completed. Dibble suggests that Sonata was probably completed in late 1883.
Paul Rodmell adds little to this, but quotes a review in the Cambridge Review 12 March 1884 that suggest the Sonata “would certainly add to his [Stanford’s] reputation.” Yet when it was performed the following year, Rodmell suggests that the reception was ‘lukewarm and the Sonata was referred to a not possessing ‘enough continuity, repose or distinctive style.’

It was perhaps this last review that caused the composer not to allow publication? However, I hope that one day the manuscript will reappear and that an enterprising pianist such as Christopher Howell or Mark Bebbinton will see fit to record it. Meanwhile I have printed the contemporary review from The Musical Times:-
"Amateurs should have mustered in strong force on Monday 4 March for the programme contained a new pianoforte Sonata by Mr. Villiers Stanford, but as a matter of fact they severally stayed away. This indifference on the part of the public to the claims of native art is not only irritating, but it is fast becoming ridiculous. We have three or four young composers whose collective ability is at least equal tot hat of the same number of leading German living musicians, whose utterances always awake interest and expectation. Mr. Villiers Stanford is gaining honour abroad, but he is not without it at home for in his orchestral Serenade in G and his Elegiac Symphony – to a name but two of his works – qualities have been recognized far more valuable that mere musicianship, even of the highest class.
These qualities are also present in his new Sonata, which is in the unusual key of D flat. Some listeners have professed to perceive in the work a deliberate intention to violate the established laws of form, but we confess that to us no such design is apparent. In matters of detail, Mr. Stanford shows himself an independent thinker, but in all essentials his newest work is as classical in outline as could possibly be desired. The opening adagio is exceedingly impressive, and the succeeding allegro moderato is worked out with splendid mastery of the subject matter, the general effect being that of a lofty design carried into execution by a thoroughly experienced hand. The succeeding allegro grazioso, a modified kind of scherzo, is vigorous, and the final allegro commodo with its excellent first subject, seems scarcely less important than the first movement, though for some mysterious reason no analysis was vouchsafed of this portion of the work...
…we have no hesitation in characterising it as one of the most important compositions for piano solo produced within the present generation. It was very finely played by Miss Zimmermann, and composer and executant were called to the platform and loudly cheered…

The Sonata was repeated by Miss Zimmermann on the following Saturday, and again favourably received, its merits more conspicuous on second hearing.
The Musical Times 1 March 1884 [with minor edits]

Dibble, Jeremy, Charles Villiers Stanford: The Man and his Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002)
Hardy, Lisa, The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press 2001)
Rodmell, Paul, Charles Villiers Stanford (Aldershot: Ashgate 2002)