Friday 30 April 2010

Alan Rawsthorne: Concerto for String Orchestra

The Concerto for String Orchestra was first given in the United Kingdom at a promenade Concert on 11th August 1949. However the first performance had been broadcast on Radio Hilversum in June 1949. This is a restless piece which in many ways epitomises the changes taking place in British Music at the time. Latter day critics have compared it to Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. However this seems to ignore the fact of the former work's introspection and darker hues. I think there is a greater degree of unity in the Rawsthorne piece over and against the diversity of Britten's ten characteristic pieces.

Paul Hamburger writing in the Autumn 1949 edition of the Music Survey was obviously impressed by the architecture and the textures of this piece.
He writes:- 'The laconic style, as opposed to mere "bitty-ness," is much rarer in music than in literature, since only few composers, and still fewer listeners, are keen-eared enough to perceive, and leave unsaid, the associative links between several lapidary statements. Rawsthorne is one of these few, making us feel, rather as T.S. Eliot does, by his meaningful conciseness, that our musical, or general, education has been far from thorough. Nor can one say of his latest full-scale work, as one could of the Sonatina, that its material is not worked out in all its possibilities: here it is just a case of very individual material asking for so much working out, and no more. This is most apparent in the first movement, in strictest sonata form, with three well-defined subjects, the first contrapuntal, the second a lyrical passage for solo viola (the few solo passages occur in the 1st and 3rd movements, the slow movement being, as it were, a solo for the whole orchestra); a short development in double-counterpoint being followed by an emotional climax of the movement, a quiet solo-violin passage over a string tremolo; followed in turn by a shortened recapitulation. The 2nd movement, a kind of chaconne, has the same 4-note motto as 'La Folia,' used by Corelli and others, has some of the grave charm of those early Italian Chaconnes. Whether the quotation is conscious or not, one thing is certain: Rawsthorne's musical roots strike very deep. Lastly comes a serious Rondo, thematically related to the first movement, with a quiet, almost stagnant first episode, and a fugue as second episode. The main section is progressively shortened until at last the few firm chords of the 2nd subject that are left put their foot down and call a halt. The work should be speedily published in miniature score.'

Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra can be heard on NAXOS 8.553567

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Henry Wood Promenade Concerts: The Sins of Omission

I pointed out in my post the other day that there are a fair few British works being performed in the 2010 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. But as usual I was disappointed by the relative lack of British composers and their music over the 76 concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and the 13 chamber music recitals at the Cadogan Hall. More to the point I was once again surprised by some important ‘anniversary’ omissions – both of composers and works.
On a positive note I am pleased that both Mark-Anthony Turnage and George Benjamin are having works performed in the year of their half-centenaries. However, there is nothing by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (200 years), William Wallace (150 years), Ronald Binge and Robert Still, both of whom celebrate their centenaries. I can understand why perhaps lesser names have been ignored such as John Hiles (200 years) and W.L. Reed (100 years).
From the point of view of continental composers it seems to be Robert Schumann’s year with a complete run of his symphonies and a grand total of thirteen works! At least Samuel Barber (Centenary) has two works played including his great Violin Concerto. Alas, William Schuman, another worthy American composer has had his centenary entirely ignored.
Turning to the music, I believe that there were some golden opportunities for some fine ‘centennial’ and ‘half centennial’ performances that have been missed or ignored. Perhaps the most obvious candidate for a ‘centenary’ performance was R.V.W. Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. This is the work that was given at the 1910 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, and so impressed Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney that they walked the streets after the concert trying to understand the implications of what they had just heard.
Bax’s In the Faery Hills (first performance anniversary) would have been a good call rather than the lesser-known London Pageant although anything by this composer is always welcome. However, it would have been a faint hope to have heard Hamilton Harty’s With the Wild Geese, Roger Quilter’s Three English Dances or Frank Bridge’s Suite for Strings.
Yet it is the omission of the half-century compositions that has me totally baffled. Where is Sir Malcolm Arnold’s great democratic Fourth Symphony? Havergal Brian completed at least three symphonies in 1960. Not a squeak! And where is the Welsh contingent? It would have been a good time to hear Alun Hoddinott’s fine First Piano Concerto. And how about Priaulx Rainier’s Trio for flute, oboe and piano at one of the chamber concerts?
But the biggest omission must surely be no performance of William Walton’s great Second Symphony, Roberto Gerhard’s Third, and an opportunity to introduce Humphrey Searle’s and Peter Racine Fricker’s Third Symphonies both of which were complete in 1960.

Monday 26 April 2010

BBC Promenade Concert Season 2010: British Music in Repertoire

I always feel that the year is beginning to fly past when the BBC Proms Concert brochure appears on the shelves at Waterstones’s or in Forsyth’s Music shop. I usually buy it, but before parting with my cash I have a quick glance to see what British music is programmed. If I am honest, I mean British Music composed between about 1850 to 1960! And I must admit that I am usually disappointed.
To a certain extent this year is no different. Some of the pieces chosen from this repertoire are quite predictable – such as the usual diet of the Last Night. However this year there are actually two ‘Last Night’s’ the ‘first’ one on September 5 being a recreation of Sir Henry Wood’s own ‘last night’ from a century ago. This includes a ‘new’ novelty –David Matthews’s realisation of Vaughan Williams Dark Pastoral which is based on the surviving fragment of the slow movement of Vaughan Williams's Cello Concerto (1942). Other British music at that concert includes Sir Henry’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s The Peep-Show. There is a rare outing at the Proms for 'Who were the Yeomen of England?’ From 'Sir Edward German’s Merrie England, Dorothy Forster's ‘Mifanwy’ and Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 in G major
At this particular Prom the National Anthem is in the arrangement by Elgar and there is a ‘period’ performance of Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs.

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry is well represented with his Elegy for Brahms, his great Symphonic Fantasia in B minor (Fifth Symphony) and his Symphonic Variations. In addition to the usual ‘Jerusalem’ there is a performance of Blest Pair of Sirens.
I was delighted to see that there are two works by the Mancunian composer John Foulds. His Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra is a work that is guaranteed to bring the house down and his lovely tone poem April- England is going to be a popular choice with the ‘prommers’.

Enthusiasts of Ralph Vaughan Williams can look forward to hearing the Serenade to Music and the ubiquitous Lark Ascending. But also one of the composer’s rarer works is the Suite for viola and small orchestra.
Elgar is represented by only one major work - his magnificent First Symphony. Naturally the tradition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is still adhered to and political correctness has not [yet] caused it to be abandoned.
Apart from the yearly outing of ‘Rule Britannia’, there is a performance of his Sir Thomas Arne’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor. Benjamin Britten is only represented by his Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, his Lachrymae and his Sinfonia da Requiem.
There are a fair few single works by British Composers. Concert goers will have a rare opportunity to hear Dorothy Howell’s orchestral poem Lamia and also Sir Arnold Bax’s London Pageant. There are performances of George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, Sir William Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue and his suite of Bach transcriptions from the ballet The Wise Virgins, Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances and Sir Arthur Bliss’s Birthday Fanfare for Sir Henry Wood. And, lastly Percy Grainger’s fine Blithe Bells is to be heard.
Finally I am not sure why only a bit of Gustav Holst’s Planets is being given – apparently Mars is being performed twice! I am a musical snob – I do not believe in excerpting from this great masterpiece!

Naturally there are a number of contemporary works being performed, some of which are first UK premieres. This is in the long tradition of the Proms encouraging ‘novelties; and new music. However, I feel that this is outside the scope of this post. Perhaps I shall list them nearer the start of the Prom Season?

And lastly what has been missed out of this year’s Proms Programme? See my post over the next few days...

Saturday 24 April 2010

Norman O’Neill: Suite- Dances from ‘The Bluebird’

It is not often that Norman O’Neill’s name is heard these days in the world of classical music. However, in his day he was a composer to be reckoned with and made a major contribution to concert and recital room music. However he is perhaps best remembered for composing incidental music to many plays written for the West End Theatres between 1900 and 1933. In fact, O’Neill was Musical Director of London’s Haymarket Theatre for many years. Alas most of this music has been lost in the mists of time: however one Suite has survived, albeit rather precariously – the Four Dances from Maeterlinck’s play The Bluebird. The play opened at the Haymarket on 8 December 1909 and is very much a work of its day. It has been compared to Algernon Blackwood’s Prisoner in Fairyland (Elgar’s Starlight Express) and Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, it is unlikely to be revived today: the subject matter and the imagery would be unlikely to be of interest to either children or their parents.
The Suite opens with the Dance of the Mist Maids. The music was culled from a moment in the play when the two children, Tyltyl and Mytyl manage to find their way through the fog to the Land of Memory. At the conclusion of the dance the mist lifts to reveal the children’s grandparents sleeping peacefully outside their idyllic cottage.
The second movement is The Dance of Fire and Water. This commences with a ‘pas seul’ for Water, however it is soon followed by her fighting dance with Fire. At the end of this, Fire is driven back where he belongs – into the hearth. Water sinks exhausted to the ground.
There follows The Dance of the Stars, which takes place in a Palace of Night. Maeterlinck’s stage directions note that ‘The stars in the shape of beautiful girls, veiled in many-coloured radiancy, escape from their prison, disperse over the hall, and form graceful groups on the steps and round the columns. The Perfumes of the Night (who are almost invisible), the fireflies, and the Dews join them, while the song of the Nightingales streams from the cavern and floods the Palace...’ In the stage version this dance opened with ethereal voices, but in the suite this music is given to the fiddles. Finally at a call from Night, all the dancers fly back to their cavern.
The final dance is A Dance of the Hours. The playwright has said that [the boy] Tyltyl has no sooner turned the diamond that a sudden change comes over everything...The flint of which the old cottage walls are made light up, turn blue as sapphire, becomes transparent, and gleam and sparkle like precious stones...The face of the clock winks its eyes and smile genially, while the door that contains the pendulum opens and releases the Hours, which, holding one another by the hand, begin to dance to the sound of music...The souls of the Quartern Loaves, in the form of little men in crust-coloured tights, flurried and all powdered with flour scramble out of the bread-pan and frisk round the room.
It should be noted that the suite has the dances in a different order to that in which they appear in the play. There it is Hours, Water, Mist and Stars. However the composer has wisely changed this and the order presented in the suite makes for a satisfying work that does not need the libretto of the play as an aid to enjoyment.

The Guardian reviewing the Suite’s performance at a Promenade Concert on 31 September 1910 wrote the Mr. Norman O’Neill’s four dances...were accorded their first concert performance. Most probably to those who are ignorant of the story the music would scarcely suggest precisely the scenes and action of the play. But in all four numbers it has the merits of clearness and grace of design, engaging tune, and appropriate colour. The Star dance is especially fanciful, and the close of the dance of the Hours is humorously effective.’ Finally the reviewer notes that Mr O’Neill was most heartily called, and the audience were evidently thoroughly pleased with the music and the performance.’
The reviewer in the Musical Times, 1 March 1910, wrote that:-
‘An all too-familiar class of sacred compositions has been aptly dubbed 'Kapellmeister' music. Nowadays there is need for some similar term for the incidental music which average conductors of theatre bands think they have special ability and a prescriptive right to supply from their own brains. Such a term would sum up the very qualities whose absence forms the chief virtue of Mr. Norman O'Neill's music to Maeterlinck's play 'The Blue Bird.' A composer with an individual style and artistic judgment, he has written music which enters into the fanciful and mystic spirit of the drama and helps to create an illusion and an 'atmosphere' in the theatre. Some of the best passages are contained in the set of four dances which are now issued arranged for pianoforte solo. The most effective in this guise is the dance of Fire and Water; the dances of the Mist-maids, the Stars and the Hours have many attractive points of melody and harmony that bear the stamp of originality.’

The music is available on British Composers Conducts & other rarities Dutton CDBP9766

Thursday 22 April 2010

Sidney Torch: Radio Romantic

I guess that they said that once television came on the scene that it would be the end of radio. However, this has proved not to be the case. But what has happened is that very few radio stations play ‘light’ music any more. What was once the preserve of the great tracts of the ‘Light Programme’ has been reduced to virtually a single programme – Friday Night is Music Night. Even Classic FM barely touches this genre of music – instead it tends to concentrate on film music when it deviates from the ‘purer’ classics.

Radio Romantic is an excellent example of what has been lost from the airwaves: it typifies so much music that was written in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
The short piece opens with a fanfare which builds up to a climax before a harp glissando leads to the principal romantic theme. This is quite definitely parodying film music: the mood is one of despair and suppressed longing. The music quietness down a little but is still heart-achingly romantic. There is a short bridge passage which is followed by figures for cello and woodwind. The intensity builds up again and after another fanfare the string reprise the love theme. Yet this time there is an air of optimism about it: it is no longer despairing. The mind’s eye can see two lovers meeting on the station after a long separation. As they walk down the platform the credits roll and you know they are going to live happily ever after!

It is strange that no-one seems to write about these short, but extremely attractive pieces of music. It is as if they are deemed not to be worthy of serious attention. Of course, they are not Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet or Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, but in their class they are often attractive and immediately approachable.
Radio Romantic is a case in point. It is a lovely romantic piece that never fails to conjure up black and white, tear-jerking films and the time when music like this was heard every day.

Radio Romantic can be heard on Dutton Vocalion CDEA 6021

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Arthur Sullivan: Little Buttercup's Song and H.M.S. Pinafore.

A few days ago I was talking to a friend about Little Buttercup’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, H.M.S. Pinafore. He was wondering what one or two of the provisions were that Little Buttercup was trying to sell to the sailors. But let’s recap on the story, with the help of Alice B. Woodward.
'As the sailors sat and talked they were joined by a rather stout but very interesting elderly woman of striking personal appearance. She was what is called a ‘bum-boat woman’, that is to say, a person who supplied the officers and crew with little luxuries not included in the ship's bill of fare. Her real name was Poll Pineapple, but the crew nick-named her ‘Little Buttercup’, partly because it is a pretty name, but principally because she was not at all like a buttercup, or indeed anything else than a stout, quick-tempered, and rather mysterious lady, with a red face and black eyebrows like leeches, and who seemed to know something unpleasant about everybody on board. She had a habit of making quite nice people uncomfortable by hinting things in a vague way, and at the same time with so much meaning (by skilful use of her heavy black eyebrows), that they began to wonder whether they hadn't done something dreadful, at some time or other, and forgotten all about it. So Little Buttercup was not really popular with the crew, but they were much too kind-hearted to let her know it...
Little Buttercup had a song of her own which she always sang when she came on board.
Here it is:
For I'm called Little Buttercup - dear Little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why,
But still I'm called Buttercup - poor little Buttercup,
Sweet Little Buttercup I!
I've snuff and tobaccy, and excellent jacky,
I've scissors, and watches, and knives;
I've ribbons and laces to set off the faces
Of pretty young sweethearts and wives.
I've treacle and toffee, I've tea and I've coffee,
Soft tommy and succulent chops;
I've chickens and conies, and pretty polonies,
And excellent peppermint drops.
Then buy of your Buttercup - dear Little Buttercup;
Sailors should never be shy;
So, buy of your Buttercup - poor Little Buttercup;
Come, of your Buttercup buy!
"Thank goodness, that's over!" whispered the sailors to each other with an air of relief...'

It was clear to me what ‘snuff and baccy’ is, but what about ‘jacky’? And surely ‘soft tommy’ is a delicacy that is not known these days? Finally I had to remind myself what conies were – although I do like polony!
Apparently ‘jacky’ may be bread rolls but is most likely to be a nickname for English gin! 'Conies' are usually rabbit skins of just the rabbits themselves. I wonder if the sailors liked to eat them? 'Polony' is a lovely sausage, which is still occasionally seen in England. Its name may be a corruption of the Italian town of Bologna which has a large sausage as a local delicacy. And finally ‘soft tommy’ is a kind of soft bread, which would have been very much in demand to seamen who only had the pleasure of eating hard tack whilst at sea!

Listen to Little Buttercup’s Song on YouTube

Friday 16 April 2010

Gavin Gordon: Composer - A Few First Musings

I wrote recently about ‘lost’ English ballet scores and noted a certain Gavin Gordon. I understand from Philip Scowcroft’s excellent ‘Garlands’ series on MusicWeb International that Gordon is a fellow Scot. I was delighted to see that he came from Ayr (a place of many happy days by the sea for me) where he was born in November 24 1901. However, he did not hang around the Auld Country for too long, and subsequently was educated at Rugby and then at the Royal College of Music. Apparently he studied there with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Scowcroft notes that Gordon was a ‘multi-talented’ man who was not only a composer but was an actor, a singer and a cartoonist.

In my CD collection is a copy of ‘A Tribute to Madam’ – the great Ninette de Valois. On this disc is a recording of Gordon’s masterpiece The Rake’s Progress. Not only did the composer write the music but he thought out the scenario and persuaded Ashton and de Valois to choreograph it. It has long been a piece that I have wanted to hear. However there are a number of other works – both for the stage and in other genres. Ballet scores that await rediscovery include A Toothsome Morsel, set in a dentist’s waiting room where the patients plot to murder the dentist (Uugh), Regatta (a particular desideratum of mine), The Scorpions of Ysit and The Death of Hector. Regatta was the first piece that Frederick Ashton choreographed for the Vic-Well Ballet
I have looked at WORLDCAT and the COPAC library search sites and virtually nothing turns up. Philip Scowcroft has noted that there exists (somewhere) Four Caricatures and a neo-classical piece called Work in E major – both of which are for orchestra. Apparently these pieces of ‘light’ music parody ‘old-style’ dances.
The British Library does have copy of a musical called Dick Whittington, or, Love is the key that opens every door. Yet I am not yet sure whether this is an operetta or a children’s cantata. However, I do understand that he wrote a deal of music for pantomimes, including possibly Cinderella. There may be some incidental music for shows by Leslie Henson and Frith Shepherd and he wrote the score for the play Simon Bolivar by Robert Donat.
According to a letter in the Gramophone magazine (October 1981) John Warrack writes that Gordon was an able pianist who could play stretches of Italian opera from memory (he had a cat called Puccini, one of a line named after composers beginning with P: the most onomatopoeic was Pfitzner). Furthermore he played in the stage version of My Fair Lady.
Warrack notes that Gavin Gordon was a clever, nicely malicious cartoonist, whose subjects included Walton Bliss and Lambert.
Gavin Gordon died on Wednesday 18 November 1970.
It would be great if some scores or other information about Gavin Gordon were to turn up. Perhaps there are a few piano pieces of songs? Meanwhile I plan to have a look at references in the literature to Regatta and The Rake’s Progress.

Monday 12 April 2010

Richard Popplewell: Organ Concertos

I have only consciously heard one work by Richard Popplewell – the Suite for Organ written in 1974. I am not sure where I heard it, but think that it was possibly at an organ recital in Glasgow Episcopal Cathedral in the mid-nineteen seventies. I cannot recall my reaction to it; although listening to the work again it does seem to typify the organ sound of the time – spiky melodies, rhythmically sharp dissonances and a considerable nod to (neo) classical form. The work started out life as a ‘Sonata’, but after due consideration the publisher suggested that a Suite was more appropriate to the length of the work and the potential sales of the score. The work has three movements. The first is a ‘March’ which makes good use of the tuba stop. The second is a meditative ‘Intermezzo’ which has a haunting feel to it. The work ends with a fugue that is anything but cerebral.
The other recital piece is the Elegy (1980). This work was written in memory of Harold Darke, the one-time musical director of St Michael’s Cornhill. The first performance was given there by George Thalben-Ball. It is a deeply felt work that is a fitting and moving tribute to a great musician.
Both of these pieces are important contributions to the repertoire of 20th century organ music.

However, it is the two Organ Concertos that form the bulk of this disc. Two works that would seem to fly in the face of Popplewell’s perceived ‘serious’ style. Yet, as with Sir Malcolm Arnold, it is perhaps rather difficult to define what his style actually is, especially as there is very little of his music in the catalogue.
The composer suggests that the origin of the works was a concern that there were relatively few concertos for organ - more especially ones that have brass and woodwind in the orchestra. Popplewell mentions the concertos by Handel and John Stanley which only utilise a small group of players in the band. He recognises that the romantic works of Rheinberger and Guilmant are scored for full orchestra, but notes that Poulenc uses only timpani and strings. Strangely, there is no mention in the text of the superb examples by Percy Whitlock and Basil Harwood. Nor does he recall Malcolm Arnold’s fine essay in this medium. However, the point is well-made and gives a good raison d’être for these two works.

I do prefer the first concerto. The composer has written that he views this work as largely inspired by Walton or, as Edward Downes has described it, “supercharged Elgar.” Certainly, the opening allegro with its nods to the former composer’s Te Deum and Gloria, this promise has been fulfilled. This movement opens with a definite swing, before the well-scored fugue in the middle section leads to a positive conclusion. Elgar and Walton are a little less obvious in the andante – where Bach and Bartok would appear to be the influences. Yet, this is attractive, reflective music that is largely ‘warm and romantic.’ The final movement is a double fugue that exploits the organist’s technique to the utmost. The opening is somewhat subdued, but soon builds up to a cracking climax. However, there are some more relaxed moments – with a solo violin playing above a quiet accompaniment. However all this is blown away by the coda which includes a demanding excursion on the pedals.

The Second Concerto impresses me less. The opening of the first movement is based (supposedly) on the introduction to Rachmaninov’s great Second Piano Concerto. However, I guess that it just does not do for me. I find it all a bit stylistically confused. There are some attractive moments, but somehow this opening movement just does not work.
I do like the ‘scherzo’ which is billed as a ‘moto perpetuo': this is excellent stuff – especially the middle section with the strident brass parts.
The slow movement is also the quietest. It is scored for organ and strings and explores a more reflective and occasionally moving mood that lulls the listener before the crashing finale. The composer describes the finale as a happy set of variations based on the folk song ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron.’ A variety of moods are explored including West Indian rhythms and nods to jazz. An interesting fugue leads to the ‘triumphant’ finale. However, I do wish he had invented a tune rather than use the one he did.

The problem I have with these two concertos are to do with consistency and genre. I have no problem with light music: neither do I struggle with ‘modern’ music. Yet somehow Popplewell’s concertos try to straddle both genres with the lighter element winning out. This is not a pastiche of Walton or Elgar, but neither is it of Eric Coates or Haydn Wood. Langlais, Dupré and Jongen are barely on the cards. The concertos do not seem to reflect the promise of the Elegy and the Suite.
Although the music is enjoyable, it does lack substance. Each concerto seems to me to be music in search of a style. I do concede that both these works would be popular at a Prom Concert and would get good applause: they will appeal to many organ enthusiasts. These concertos are well-written and are brilliantly played by Jane Watts. It is just the stylistic integrity that I struggle with.

The CD is well presented, although a little bit more detail in the analysis of the works may have been helpful. I was very surprised that the dates of composition and first performance of the two concertos was not given in the text. The booklet details the two fine organs used in this recording - the sound is terrific. For the record the concertos are played on the Mulholland Organ of 1861 in the Ulster Hall in Belfast; it was restored by N.P. Mander Ltd in 1976-78. Mander was also responsible for the organ in Rochester Cathedral: the large four manual instrument was commissioned in 1989. Full specifications are given in the liner notes.

The playing of all the works is absolutely first rate. Jane Watts, for whom the two concertos were composed, is a seriously impressive performer who is always in control of the music and the instrument.
Altogether a good CD to invest in: the Concertos are enjoyable in spite of my caveats above: the Suite and Elegy are essential listening.

Track Listing:
Richard POPPLEWELL (1935- )
Organ Concerto No. 1 in D major (?)Organ Concerto No. 2 in F major (?) Elegy (1980)
Suite for Organ (1974) Jane Watts (organ) Ulster Orchestra/ Sir David Willcocks
Priory PRCD874
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 10 April 2010

British Composers at the Vic-Wells Ballet (1931-1935)

A little list today: of English Ballet music scores. Often ballet is performed to a wide variety of music edited, re-scored and often reworked to suit the ‘book’ and the dancers. However between 1931 and 1935 the Vic-Wells Ballet company commissioned or utilised scores by a variety of British composers – some well-known, others less so. Some of these scores have survived as concert pieces in their own right.

Suite de Danses: J.S. Bach arranged by Eugene Goosesens
The Jackdaw and the Pigeons: Hugh Bradford
Regatta: Gavin Gordon
Job: Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Jew in the Bush: Gordon Jacob
Narcissus and Echo: Arthur Bliss
Rout: Arthur Bliss
The Nursery Suite: Edward Elgar
The Origins of Design: Handel arranged by Thomas Beecham
Douanes: Geoffrey Toye
The Scorpions of Ysit: Gavin Gordon
Pomona: Constant Lambert
The Birthday of Oberon: Purcell arranged by Constant Lambert
The Haunted Ballroom: Geoffrey Toye
Uncle Remus: Gordon Jacob
The Rake’s Progress: Gavin Gordon

Unfortunately, less than half of these ballet scores are available on CD or MP3. And what is known about Hugh Bradford, Gavin Gordon and Geoffrey Toye? Precious little I would imagine.
I plan to explore some of these works, composers and other British ballet music in the future.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Bluebell Klean: A Concert of Her Music in 1906

The first of Bluebell Klean’s concerts that it has been possible to trace was held on Tuesday, November 13, 1906 at the Bechstein Hall in London. The concert began promptly at 8.15 p.m. The programme announced in large writing that Miss Bluebell Klean will give an Evening Concert kindly assisted by Miss Esther Palliser, The Hans Wessely Quartet and Miss Johanna Heymann at the piano. The accompanist for the songs was Mr. Richard Epstein.

The composer was introduced in the programme as follows:-
‘Miss Bluebell Klean, who gives her first concert this evening, and appears in the dual capacity of composer and pianist, was born in London, and for the past three years has studied composition with Mr. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, at Trinity College, previous to which she had private lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Dr. Greenish, and for pianoforte from Mr. Gustave Ernest and Mr. Eduard Zeldenrust.’
It is noted that in addition to the works performed at this concert, the composer has written a Piano Concerto, a Piano Trio, and a number of piano and violin pieces, and many songs. Some of these songs were performed at the concert.

The first half of the evening opened with Schubert’s fine Impromptu in Bb played by Miss Heymann. This was followed by three of Klean’s songs – ‘The Voice of Sleep’ (Hamilton Aïdé), ‘A Fancy from Fontenelle’ (Austin Dobson) and ‘Open the Door’ (Anon).
‘The Voice of Sleep’ ‘reposes in the minor mode until the last verse, when it appropriately adopts the stronger major mode, ‘to toil and fight.’ In the ‘Fancy’ Miss Klean ‘has sought to suggest the gentle pathos of the lines of [the song] chiefly by a series of subtle harmonic changes. And finally ‘the harmonic scheme of ‘Open the Door’ is bolder than the preceding songs. It might indeed well open the door to discussion, for the signature is F major, the first chord is in G minor, and the last in A major. The transition to the last named tonality takes place on the concluding word of the final line – ‘You shall not kiss me,’ the result being that the music suggests that the lady might change her mind; for the leading note of the key of this sing is converted into the fifth of the new key, and there is always an atmosphere of possibility surrounding the fifth note of the scale.’ Would that we could hear this song, however, I believe that it was played from manuscript. Only the second song is listed as a published work.
The major part of the first movement was given over to the Quintet in C minor, for piano, two violins, viola and violoncello: the composer played the piano part. The work was a large-scale essay in four movements – allegro, andante, scherzo and a concluding allegro. I have published the programme note for this work in my blog previously.
Miss Esther Palliser sang three songs before the interval – Richard Strauss’s ‘Ich trage meine Minne’, Gabriel Fauré’s Après un Rêve and Chopin – Pauline Viardot’s Mazourke.

After the interval the composer played three short piano pieces. The programme suggests that ‘a posy of country flowers requires no description to appreciate its beauties, and analysis of these little pianoforte pieces is equally unnecessary.’ However the Cavatina was originally published under the title of Bagatelle: it would appear that this is a more appropriate name. The Scherzo is short and sweet, proving the old adage that ‘brevity is the soul of wit.’ Finally, she played a Gavotte in C minor. The score was inscribed with the words ‘A stately measure of olden day/In which December would dance with May.’

Miss Esther Palliser then sang three more of Bluebell Klean’s songs. The first was a setting by Longfellow, ‘A Day of Sunshine’ in which the composer ‘broke the rule that a song ought to begin and end in the same key’. The notes state that the ‘tonality chosen for [this song] is the popular key of Eb and the signature may be helpful to the accompanist, but in the setting of the last line a modulation is made into C minor, in which mode the song ends.’
This was followed by Mrs. Heman’s ‘Come to me, gentle sleep. The set was completed by Lady Alix Egerton’s ‘The Water Sprite.’ Klean appears to have used different keys for the last verse – the song began in Eb, modulated to G major for the final verse and further changed key to C major for the final words – ‘...and I am wise.’ The writer of the programme notes, most likely Bluebell Klean, suggests that the critics will decide if the composer was wise!
The concert concluded with a Caprice in Eb for solo piano. The note suggests that this is one of the composer’s latest productions. The serious matter of the piece was contained in the ‘central portion.’.

The concert was reviewed in the Musical Times December 1 1906:-
“Klean, a native of London, who gave her first chamber concert on November 13, at Bechstein Hall, claims special attention, as the programme consisted almost entirely of her own compositions. The most important of these was a Quintet in C minor for pianoforte and strings, which proved a pleasing and genial work based on melodious themes, which are tersely and clearly developed with admirable perception of effectiveness and contrast. Six songs from the same pen, and some short and bright piano-forte pieces, show considerable originality in their harmonic scheme and avoidance of conventionality, while the songs, severally named 'Open the door,' ' Come to me' and 'The water-sprite,' should find publishers. They were charmingly sung by Miss Esther Palliser, and the pianoforte pieces were expressively played by Miss Johanna Heymann. The Quintet was excellently rendered by the Hans Wessely Quartet, with the composer at the pianoforte”.

Most of the works played were from the manuscript. Some eight years later some of these works were given at another Klean concert. This suggests that she composed very few works indeed. There seems to be no works produced after the Piano Concerto in 1917: I have yet to discover where and when the Piano Trio was performed.

Finally, I was surprised just how expensive the tickets were in those days (1906) the cheapest was 2/6 (17 ½p) and the dearest was a whopping £1 1s (£1.05.) This would have been the equivalent of many a working persons weekly wages! Even the programme was 6d (2 ½p)

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Montague Phillips: Sinfonietta in C Op.70

Montague Phillips’s Sinfonietta was composed in 1943 in the middle of the Second World War. Lewis Foreman points out that this work is ‘innocent and lacking angst’. With this statement I partly agree. True there are no tensions comparable to say, Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. However, what I feel the composer is doing is reflecting back to quieter times (whenever they occurred) and is perhaps looking forward to peace in the future. Maybe this is reading too much into what is basically a warm-hearted and lyrical work. However there is a certain wistfulness and longing here which is perhaps not evident in some of the other works essayed in the CD.
It is in this work that Montague Phillips comes closest to the mainstream British music of the period. Of course he is no Britten or Berkeley, but this work is far removed from the Shakespearean Scherzo written nearly a decade previously. There is less here of the music of Eric Coates and Haydn Wood and perhaps more of the Forties film score type of tune. Some of this music exhibits a depth rarely associated with ‘light’ music.

The first movement gets off to a good ‘fanfaring’ start. The tempo is Allegro risoluto. However there are many tender and reflective moments here. There is a lovely lyrical moment pointed up with a solo oboe. There are even some passages in the ‘development’ section that look forward to the music of Malcolm Arnold.
The slow movement is quite exquisite. The opening passage is scored for oboe solo accompanied by the harp. This music develops very slowly with an almost Elgarian longing. The oboe returns again to comment on the more romantic string tone. The only problem is that this movement is too short. It seems like no time at until the violin is reprising the theme quietly to itself. Soon the movement dies away into a dreamy silence.
The last movement is a romp. It is entitled a Scherzo – and this is entirely appropriate. We hear the orchestra playing some interesting rhythms of a kind not heard in this disc so far. The contrast between sections of this piece is effective. The sleeve-notes describe the second theme as ‘perky’ and this is correct. After a brief climax the music takes a march-like character. There is nothing of the Crown Imperials here though; it is a quietly sustained effort that leads us back to the opening music. Once again we aware of some very interesting orchestral effects – for muted brass and percussion. The work ends with a nice brassy peroration.
The Sinfonietta can be heard on Dutton CDLX 7140

Sunday 4 April 2010

Marian Arkwright, Bluebell Kean, Margaret Meredith and Ethel Barns: Chamber Works

I found this article in The Music Student. Four ladies whose music I would love to be able to unearth.
Marian Arkwright, a musician of extensive orchestral experience both as composer and executant, and one of the few women who have had the patience to sit for the degree of Mus.Doc., has written for various rather uncommon com­binations of instruments. She has composed a quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon; a trio for piano, oboe and horn; and, another for pianoforte, oboe and viola; a Scherzo and Variations for piano, clarinet and bassoon, and some short pieces, called Rêveries, for piano, oboe and viola. These, perhaps it is needless to say, are all in MSS., but it is pleasing to round off the list with some published works, viz., three volumes of violin and piano duets (Cary, Newbury), and two Concert Pieces for viola and piano (Breitkopf).

Another woman who has written for a combi­nation including wind, is Margaret Meredith; her quintet is for piano, violin,' cello, flute and clarinet.
A quintet for the usual allotment of strings and piano, and of more than usual merit, is that by Bluebell Klean. This work has already been heard several times in London, and is both vigorous and agreeable. The first movement opens in virile manner, and its themes are handled with great freedom of style. The second movement, Air Varié, is slightly ‘ordi­nary’ in its conception, but the extremely vivacious Scherzo is a brilliant movement, very well laid out for all the instruments. The Finale, though of very good ‘finalé’ character at its start, suffers a little from diffuseness, .and from disconnectedness in its very relationships; but the whole quintet is spontaneous, thoroughly musical, .and, again to use that unsatisfactory word, most "effective."
Ethel Barns' Sonatas for violin and piano­forte, and her Phantasy Trio for two violins and pianoforte, have a great facility of expression, and are written with remarkable command of both instruments. These being in print can more readily be inspected than most of the works mentioned.

Originally published in The Music Student Chamber music supplement July 1914 pp.97-8 [with minor edits]

Friday 2 April 2010

Havergal Brian: A new book and two new CDs

I have inspected the new edition of Malcolm MacDonald’s massive anthology of Havergal Brian’s writings -Havergal Brian on Music Volume 2 -European and American Music in his Time’ in Foyle’s bookshop. It is a worthy companion to the first volume containing virtually all the articles and reviews that the composer wrote about British Music and composers.

The promotional blurb describes this book as being '457 pages of Brian’s journalism, which shows unusual understanding for the time. In these 160+ items, dating from 1907–46, he writes perceptively on a wide range of his contemporaries, chief among them Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, but also Bartók, Berg, Busoni, Debussy, Dohnányi, Dukas, Glazunov, Grieg, Hindemith, Kilpinen, Lehár, Messager, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Respighi, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Sousa, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Tailleferre and Varese, as well as less well known figures such as Bungert, Geloso and Kienzl.
Malcolm MacDonald’s introductions and annotations provide the background to each piece and cast light on Brian’s more obscure references. The book is available direct from the publisher, Toccata Press where a special offer also bundles it with Vol. 1, ‘British Music’.
It is a book I hope to be adding to my collection in the near future, in spite of the fact that it is not about British music!

Another exciting event in the Havergal Brian world is the release of a CD of his orchestral music. This is the first volume of a proposed series –at least a second volume has been announced. Toccata Classics write that ‘this spring [they] will release the first of two new recordings of Havergal Brian’s orchestral music made by Garry Walker and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow this past summer. The works range from Brian’s first surviving orchestral score, the Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme of 1903, to the second-last work he composed, the ‘Legend’ Ave atque vale, written in 1968, when Brian was 92 – and a work bursting with defiant energy. The CD, catalogue number TOCC 0110, will be announced on the Toccata Classics website in a few weeks. The second volume (TOCC 0113), scheduled for autumn 2010, contains orchestral excerpts from Brian’s operas, chief among them the nine-movement suite from Turandot.’

I am hoping that they may (at some stage) rework some of the ground from the problematic Campion recording of the Early Works.