Sunday 30 May 2010

The Bliss of Solitude: A Recital of English Song

The first time I heard RVW’s On Wenlock Edge was on 12 October 1972. It was a radio broadcast as part of the composer’s centenary celebrations and the R.F.H. concert consisted of Job, the Eighth Symphony and the orchestral incarnation of this great song-cycle. The London Philharmonic was conducted by the venerable Sir Adrian Boult. (The tenor was Richard Lewis and a recording of the Housman work was issued on a now-deleted Intaglio CD INCD7411 Ed.) I was bowled over by all three works - but was, as they say in Yorkshire, ‘gob-smacked’ by On Wenlock Edge. A wee bit later, I heard a performance of the version for piano and string quartet. I rushed out and bought a copy of Housman’s poems as well as the LP. Both have been treasures ever since.
However, it has taken nearly forty years to (consciously) hear this work in its setting for tenor and piano only. I note that the score does suggest that the string quartet is ‘optional’: it is a case of being seriously impressed once again. Richard Dowling - a name I had not heard of before - and Joanna Smith bring a delight to this work that is sometimes lacking in better known exponents. From the opening bars of the eponymous song to the last notes of ‘Clun’ this is a beautifully stated performance. If I were to sum it up in a word it would be magical rather than histrionic. I cannot emphasise how impressed I am with this performance.

Joanna Smith plays two lovely works by Vaughan Williams. The reflective The Lake in the Mountains, which was a spin-off from the film music to the wartime drama, set in Canada, The 49th Parallel. The well known Prelude on Rhosymedre is heard in the piano arrangement by Bryan Kelly. It is a restrained and ultimately near-perfect work.

I have not come across the music of Andrew Wright before. The Arkiv catalogue does not give any listings for him: I cannot find a website or page devoted to his works. However, The Bliss of Solitude is a little masterpiece and well-deserves to be known to British - I assume he is British? - music enthusiasts. Apparently, Wright has composed for the Church with a number of liturgical works to his credit including his Requiem of 2005. The present song-cycle is, for him, a step along a new path.
The genesis of the work came about when the composer was given a copy of Wordsworth’s poetical works. He selected six of the poems to set to music. The poems chosen are some of the most popular numbers - although the first song, 'A Sense Sublime' and the fifth, ‘Nature’ are perhaps less well-known than they should be. I hold my hand up and admit that I was sceptical when I received this disc - for a composer to risk setting ‘To a Butterfly’, ‘Daffodils’, ‘She Dwelt among th’ hidden ways’ and ‘To a Skylark’ is a huge gamble. Yet it has worked well. Even the almost hackneyed popularity of ‘Daffodils’ does not detract from the innocence of this setting: the same can be said of the other three pot-boilers. This is a very well-balanced song-cycle. If I were to try to give a ‘soundscape’ of these pieces I would suggest that they are well and truly in the tradition of English Lieder as established over the past century. I guess that Finzi is an influence, but other composers such as Vaughan Williams and even Roger Quilter are never far away. However the music rarely, if ever, has the darker tones of Peter Warlock or Ivor Gurney. The words and the music are well wrought, with the lyrical melodies largely deriving from the ‘declamation’ of the text. The piano accompaniment is interesting and supportive without becoming overbearing.
One of the pleasures I had in recent years was the discovery that Roger Quilter wrote piano pieces. Most often associated with his excellent corpus of songs, there are very few recordings of his other music available. The Three Pieces for Piano Op. 16 were composed between 1909 and 1916. Certainly the most accomplished of them would seen to be Summer Evening. This is an impressionistic work that manages to conjure up the mood of the title. John Ireland enthusiasts will know the piano piece of the same title by that composer. Both works are treasures and both deserve to be better known. The Dance in the Twilight and At a Country Fair are perhaps a little more predictable in their salon music roots, although all three works are worthy of their composer.

The remainder of the CD is devoted to some eight songs by Quilter. The two groups, Three Shakespeare Songs Op.6 and Three Songs Op. 3 contain some of the composer’s best loved works. They are not cycles, but collections of songs. I was particularly impressed with Richard Dowling’s interpretation of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ which is a well-poised song that balances positive and negative thoughts in the poet’s mind. It ends with a reference to ‘This life is most jolly’. The other two songs in this set are ‘Come away, death’ and ‘Oh mistress mine’. One of the most perfect Quilter settings has to be the Shelley poem ‘Music, when soft voices die’: it is ever popular and has been recorded many times. However Dowling makes it sound new and fresh. ‘June’ is a setting of a poem by Nora Hooper and is a new discovery to me - although it is on the Hyperion disc (CDA66878) by John Mark Ainsley and Malcolm Martineau. It is good to have it here. The CD closes with the Three Songs Op.3 - Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’, Tennyson’s ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal and finally Henley’s ‘Fill a glass with golden wine’. This last song makes a fitting close to an excellent and varied recital.

I do have three criticisms of this CD production: it has nothing to do with the performance. Why, O why will CD companies not walk that extra mile and provide full details of all the works presented. I had to search my reference books, catalogues and biographies to enter the dates for composers and works. It was easy (but time-consuming) for me - but not all listeners have internet access or a large music library! Secondly, I know nothing of Andrew Wright - there are no biographical notes here - so I still am none the wiser. Lastly, there are no programme note references to the RVW piano pieces: neither are the authors of the Quilter song texts given - apart from the Shakespeare.

This CD showcases the considerable talents of Richard Dowling. His North Country credentials are clear for all to see! He studied at Manchester University, sang at Chetham’s School of Music and for a time was a Lay Clark at Manchester Cathedral. He is a long-standing member of the Manchester University Chamber Choir. Joanna Smith is a talented and sympathetic accompanist: it is good to hear her interpretation of the excellent piano solos on this CD.

This disc will be enjoyed by all enthusiasts of English Music. It is a fine programme that balances older and more recent composers with some well-known pieces and a few new or rediscovered works. All in all, it is a most satisfying release.

Track Listing:
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) On Wenlock Edge (1909) The Lake in the Mountains (1947) Prelude on Rhosymedre (arr. Bryan Kelly) (1920?)
Andrew WRIGHT (b. 1955) The Bliss of Solitude
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953) Three Pieces for Piano Op.16 (pub. 1915) Three Shakespeare Songs Op.6 First Set (1905); ‘Music, when soft voices die’ Op.25 (1927); ‘June’ (1905) Three Songs, Op.3 (publ. 1904, 1905)
Richard Dowling (tenor); Joanna Smith (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

Friday 28 May 2010

John Ireland: A Review of the Piano Music by Marion M Scott

Marion M Scott regularly wrote reviews of music by John Ireland. However on 3 January 1920 a major article was published in the Christian Science Monitor which was essentially an overview of the composer’s achievement up to that time. It is too long to post in its entirety so I have selected the section that discusses the piano music. Scott’s thoughts about the songs, the composer’s early life and the Fantasy Trio in A minor will follow in due course.

John Ireland’s compositions for piano solo are extraordinarily diverse in character, though all are bound together by the common denominators of sincerity or intent and fine workmanship. In the three pieces grouped together under the title ‘Decorations’ (Augner), even literary; while the London sketches called ‘Chelsea Reach’ and ‘Ragamuffin’, which are full of sympathy and humour, give one the impression of having been painted at first-hand from realities seen on the historic highways that run near the composer’s home – the River Thames and the main road to south-western England. Then there is the big, uncompromising Rhapsody (Winthrop Rogers) which ultra-moderns consider one of Ireland’s best works –too large to be described here, but containing some terrific ‘false relations’ which would have delighted Purcell and shocked Victorian professors into a chorus of shrieks. The four Preludes (The Undertone, Obsession, The Holy Boy and Fire of Spring) published by Winthrop Rogers, are singularly vivid tone pictures –‘The Undertone’ in particular being so cleverly treated that one does not know whether to admire most its poetic effect or its intellectual basis. At the other pole from the Rhapsody lie the three pieces called ‘Leaves from a Child’s Sketch Book’ tiny studies in two-part writing, easy enough for a child to play, but charming and delicately balanced, nevertheless. Believe it who will, it is almost harder to write such little things perfectly than to do a multitudinous sounding work like the Rhapsody.
Literary critics have often said that the note of Elizabethan poetry has reappeared in the poems of contemporary Englishmen, and one has wondered whether the same affinity would manifest itself between composers of two epochs. So far it has not been very perceptible, but to those who now the music for virginals by William Byrd and John Bull, it is cleat the ideals of these men blossom again in ‘Leaves from a Child's Sketch Book.’

Listen to some piano music by John Ireland on Youtube including Equinox, The Towing Path and Summer Evening.
Marion M. Scott January 3 1920 Christian Science Monitor (minor edits)
With thanks to Pamela Blevins

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Gordon Langford: Greenways

The morning after the Lynton and Barnstable Light Railway closed on 29 September 1935, a wreath was laid by the buffer stops at Barnstaple Station. The attached card had the words ‘To the Barnstaple & Lynton Railway With Regret & Sorrow From A Constant User & Admirer. Perchance It "Is Not Dead But Sleepeth"’. It was to be the fate of many lines in the United Kingdom, particularly in the aftermath of the Beeching Report in the 1960’s.

According to the programme notes for the Chandos CD, many disused railway tracks became ‘Greenways’ although other folk may well associate these with drover’s roads and other ancient ways across the Downs. However, a number of old railway lines did become pathways or cycle tracks. The often went through well-wooded and secretive parts of the countryside, although others were of a more urban or suburban nature.
Gordon Langford, as a railway enthusiast, would have known of many lines that closed. He would have lamented this catastrophic change to the British landscape. Delighted, as he no doubt was that a few of these lines were put to a new and socially important use, he would have been saddened that trains no longer ran. It is this sense of sadness that is reflected in his miniature Greenways for orchestra.

The work is quite short, lasting for only three and half minutes: it was composed in 1970. Greenways is effectively scored for a medium sized orchestra with harp.. The sleeve notes suggest that this piece is a ‘lament’ however, although it is a melancholic little piece, there is a degree of optimism. It is not difficult to hear the influence of Delius in this music: it is almost inevitable for a piece of this genre. Greenways is in ternary form -the first quiet section being an ‘andante grazioso’ which explores a leafy track in some summery afternoon. This is followed by a ‘pui allegretto’, which suggests a ‘ghost train’ on some forgotten branch line. However the opening music returns and the work closes with a touch of sadness and sentimentality.
This short piece is hardly the tone poem that musically mirrors Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop. However it is an attractive work that portrays a summer’s day a long time ago.

A few years ago the first train ran on a revived Lynton and Barnstaple railway line. At present there is only a mile or two of track, but the intention is to reopen as much of the track as possible. So, the words Perchance It "Is Not Dead But Sleepeth have turned to prophecy. Gordon Langford will no doubt be delighted that this railway and many other ‘heritage lines’ preserve the sights and sounds of an earlier age.
Greenways can be heard on Gordon Langford’s Orchestral Classics CHANDOS 10115

Monday 24 May 2010

Cigarette Cards and British Composers

A short post today, however, it is amazing what you find at car boot sales! I am not a smoker so If I had been alive in the days before the Great War I would not have discovered these. I guess that these are no longer politically correct, but the passive smoke generated by the smokers of these Wills Cigarettes will have long dissipated. I cannot imagine them featuring in a similar 'card' giveaway nowadays. And what is more they did not cost me very much at all. Nice to have in the library.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Sidney Torch: On a Spring Note

I recently heard a recording of an unidentified cinema organist playing Sydney Torch’s On a Spring Note. This is one of these pieces that seem to have fared better at Blackpool Tower Ballroom than it does on the radio or in the concert hall. With the demise of ‘pier end’ and ‘spa’ orchestras there is little opportunity for works such as this to be given an airing. There are a fair number of recordings of this piece on CD; however it never seems to be played on Classic FM. Perhaps it is given an occasional outing on Radio 2’s long running Friday Night is Music Night?

On a Spring Note opens on a sustained note, before a short pizzicato figure leads into the main rondo theme played by the woodwind. This is a typically jaunty theme that suggests a play on words of the title. Not only is this a musical picture of the landscape in the first flush of sprig, but also suggests that the composer has a definite ‘spring’ in his step. After a short bridge passage the first episode is given to the brass before the main tune is repeated. Shortly before the halfway point Torch gives a big romantic tune that implies that the composer may not be alone on his ramble through the fields or woods. After an extended bridge passage the main tune is repeated before the brass episode is given one again in diminished form. The work ends quietly after a final reiteration of the jaunty tune.
This is surely one of Sidney Torch’s best known pieces: it always makes me think of a walk through Epping Forest on a warm may morning.

Interestingly this music was used in a Pathé pictorial film Dave & Dusty (1949). This can be seen of the Pathe website complete with the soundtrack!

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art

I have been waiting for this book for nearly forty years. And when it arrived it is even more impressive than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Back in 1972 I first came across William Alywn’s music. It was the Symphonic Prelude: Magic Island and was featured on Radio 3’s Record Review. I remember rushing out that same day and locating a copy at Cuthbertson’s Record Shop in Glasgow. The tone poem, which I immediately took to, was coupled with the Third Symphony. I confess it took me a wee bit longer to get into this piece, but it soon became a favourite. In fact, it was probably the first major British Symphony (apart from RVW and Elgar) that I got to grips with. As a part of my background reading about Alywn – very limited in those pre-Internet days - I found a reference to a document called ‘Ariel to Miranda’. This appeared to be a diary outlining the day-to-day composition of the Third Symphony. A little further research revealed that it had been published in a journal called ADAM back in 1967. Search as I could, I never located this magazine - that is until about a month ago, when I came across a copy in a second-hand bookshop in York. I was overjoyed. Back in my music room I quickly read through it, looked up a reference in the recent Alwyn biography and was immediately deflated. The ADAM (Arts, Drama, Architecture, Music) edition was a recension, a heavily edited version, of the original that muddied the waters of that period in the composer’s life. For example there were allusions, implicit and explicit, to the composer’s then lover (later his wife) Doreen Carwithen. Most of the references to his then wife, Olive Pull, were omitted, Moreover, there was another hand-written version of the diary which had been prepared some time before 1967, and the reader/listener will be aware that this is a complex document and one that could lay bear traps for the unwary.

Nearly a third of the present book is given over to this ‘journal’. Andrew Palmer writes that ‘The Text of Ariel to Miranda published here contains virtually all of Alwyn’s handwritten original dating from 1955 and 1956, together with additional material from a second version he made some time before publication of the journal (considerably shortened) in ADAM. For that publication he wrote an introduction and further, retrospective entries, effectively creating a third version of the journal.’ This ‘complete version’ of the diary includes the originally published foreword to the ADAM version by Sir Arthur Bliss. It makes for an extremely satisfying read. The reader can have the confidence that they are truly engaging with the life situation of Alwyn as he composed what is an undoubted masterpiece. Palmer provides some footnotes but does not destroy the flow of the narrative. After half a lifetime I have finally engaged with this important document twice within the space of six weeks! Would that other composers had been discerning enough to have left similar diary/journal projects?

The first part of the book is the short autobiographical work Winged Chariot. I found a copy of this ‘slim volume’ in a second-and bookshop a number of years ago. Although it has been helpful to my musing on and writing about the composer, I always felt that it was somewhat superficial. Many important compositions are given only a sentence of prose. Some of his great works are omitted altogether: his corpus of early music, which he repudiated, is barely mentioned at all.

The spur to Alwyn to write this privately published autobiography was probably a sense of ensuring that the ‘facts’ were not lost and to enable a new generation of listeners to understand some of the biographical detail needed to put his music into context. Moreover, younger listeners may only have known Alwyn’s music through films (if at all) and would have largely been ignorant of his achievement in the 1950s. It was written in two parts – the first in 1978 and the second in 1982. The two were fused together for Winged Chariot.

Another interesting piece of autobiographical writing is the short pen portrait of his childhood – Early Closing. Palmer suggests that it is not uncommon for an adult ‘felled by the consequences of decisions made in adult life, to reflect on the innocence and naiveté of their childhood ...’ This short piece was completed in 1963, but was never published. I suspect that the past is seen through tinted glasses - certainly not rose-tinted ones - but the general effect is a charming picture of life in The Shakspere Stores (his father’s shop) and his early musical aspirations.

The last third of the book is given over to a number of smaller pieces – some autobiographical and some more formal pieces of musical journalism.

I was particularly impressed with the transcript (and adaptation) of a talk given at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1970 called Meet the Composer. The editor notes how Alwyn was disappointed that at that time there were no recordings of his music. There was no way he could have anticipated the age of the CD and the MP3. Just a few years later, there was the first of the Lyrita releases of his music. Alwyn considers his method of writing music, the impact of critics and his musical aesthetic.

In the early nineteen-seventies the composer published a series of four articles in the Royal Academy of Music Magazine called The Opinions of Doctor Crotch. They were originally to have been the subject of a book, but the proposal was turned down. Fundamentally, they were a vehicle for the expression of his musical credo – for example the inability of music to express philosophical ideas and the arbitrariness of apparently pictorial musical titles. They are written in an engaging, if slightly ponderous style.

The final tranche of the book is given over to a series of essays. Perhaps the most important being the composer’s thoughts about Film Music –Sound or Silence. There are excursions into the music of Arnold Bax, Edward Elgar as a Conductor, A New Assessment of Puccini. Two other autobiographical essays discuss the Background to Miss Julie and his Debt to Czech Music.

This book presents the majority of William Alwyn’s most important writings. It has often been suggested that he was something of a polymath- learning a variety of languages, an interest in and facility for painting, his writing of poetry and his literature translations. However the works published here hover between autobiography and music criticism, with the emphasis on self-expression. No attempt has been made to republish the literary works.

It is always difficult to estimate who the targeted reader of this kind of book is likely to be. Out of the ‘set’ of classical music lovers there are relatively few who specialise in 20th century British music. There is an even smaller minority who would claim to major in the works of William Alwyn. However, through the efforts of Lyrita, Naxos and Chandos there has been a considerable increase of interest in his music over the past thirty years. Although there was no recognition of the composer at the Promenade Concerts in his centenary in 2005, there have been two major scholarly books published in recent years. These are the The Innumerable Dance by Adrian Wright and William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music by Ian Jonson. The present volume provides the third corner of the supporting scholarship for the composer. The final element will be when John Dressler publishes his Bio-bibliography. I rather hope that Mr Dressler’s book will appear in the near future.

Meanwhile the book will appeal to anyone who has been impressed or moved by William Alwyn’s music. It is a book that does not need a vast apparatus of musical understanding to enjoy or appreciate, although knowledge of his music is obviously a distinct advantage.

There is no doubt that this is a major addition to musical scholarship. For one main reason: these are primary documents with a very light touch of introduction and commentary. Additionally, it provides a compendium of information that will help listeners and musicologists ground William Alwyn’s compositions with a degree of intellectual thought, background information and historical fact. What is not given here, and this accords with Alwyn’s wishes is any complex study or analysis of his music. For the composer, this was largely anathema: he wrote that ‘My works do not need the analytical dissection and microscopic searching for formal reasons as to why I did this or that.’ He further suggested that ‘My motive in committing these thousands of notes to paper is stimulated entirely by the desire to communicate my feelings to others, in the hope that they will move the listener as I, the composer, have been moved in writing them.’ To this end the book is a perfect companion. 

Like most academic books it is not inexpensive, although at £35 it is considerably cheaper than a number of other volumes on musicological subjects. The reader will be impressed by the presentation of this volume. As I have suggested above, the editor has not imposed himself on the text, but has allowed Alwyn’s voice to come through both loud and clear. What apparatus there is is essential to render this volume useful to both listeners and scholars. There are some 27 photographs, many of which have not been published before. They add to the general intimacy of the book. The quality of the paper, the legibility of the print and the general feel of this volume are striking. I guess that it will never be released as a paperback, so I suggest that all those people- scholars, students, listeners and institutions get their copies ASAP. It is a book that is essential and will long be in demand as research in William Alwyn and exploration of his music continues over the coming years.

Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art (Musicians on Music: Volume 9)Edited by Andrew Palmer

Toccata Press, hardback, 366 pages
IBSN 978-0-907689-71-3
£35.00 Special Offer £28
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Sunday 16 May 2010

Charles Williams: Trolley Bus

I first remember seeing a trolley bus in Ashton-under-Lyne in about 1960. It was outside a Methodist Church where my uncle was choirmaster and organist. I watched in amazement as the trolley head slipped off the wire as the tram was reversing. The conductor then reached for a pole from under the bus and with considerable difficulty replaced the head back onto the wire. Although they are long gone, I have always had a great affection for these vehicles which seemed to promise so much- a Green Revolution really.
Charles Williams has always had a reputation for writing music that is ‘busy’ – perhaps the best example of this is Melody on the Move. The present piece is another fine example of the genre.
The piece opens with a short drum roll which is immediately followed by a chipper tune for the strings. This is quite definitely a bus travelling at speed and not struck in traffic. The ‘trio’ is a fantastic march tune that suggests a trip along Knightsbridge on a summer’s evening. The main theme returns before a short brass fanfare leads to a reprise of the march. The work is well orchestrated and is certainly equal to better known London marches by Haydn Wood and Eric Coates.
Of course transport buffs will criticise my lack of historical knowledge: neither trams nor trolleybuses ever went along Knightsbridge. So I will have to think of some other romantic location for my allusion. Perhaps the north side of Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester fits the bill? Or a speedy run past Crystal Palace? But perhaps the most appropriate location for this particular piece of music is the old 607 service which ran past Hampton Court. A trip to that great historical park on a lovely hot summer’s day is an ideal way to spend an afternoon.
Trolley Bus can be heard on Dutton Vocalion CDEA 6021

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Arthur Sullivan: An Interview from 1894

I recently found this 'clipping' from the Otago Witness. Although it does not add any major facts to Sullivan's life and works, it does goes us a few anecdotes and an insight into his working methods. One important issue is the celebrity status of the composer, especially in the United States. Everyone wanted to interview him - and if an interview was not forthcoming, the journalists made up one anyway. Plus ca change!
It was while crossing the Channel to England that the, writer was introduced to the Knight of the "Lost chord." He is, as everybody knows, of small stature, with iron-grey whiskers, and a very knowing twinkle about his sharp eyes. He was, he informed us, about to indulge in a short spell of bard work in the heart of the country.
His usual plan is to take a small house in some out-of-the-way spot where he knows no one, and there to work away at; his operas like any galley slave for about 10 hours a day.
Lunch, Sir Arthur informed us, was a powerful interruption to hard work, so he accordingly dispenses with it on these occasions altogether. Starting at about 10 in the morning, he works till 4 without a break. Then he takes a couple of hour’s hard exercise, of which he usually devotes one hour to rowing and the other to walking.
After dining substantially, he starts work about 8 o'clock and keeps on right into the small hours of the morning. On being asked whether any of his most celebrated music had been the result of sudden inspiration, Sir Arthur remarked that he had produced most of it by sheer hard work or ‘plug.’
“It is just the same," he observed, "in composing music as in making boots; nothing is effected without assiduous toil. For instance”, he went on to say, 'The Lost Chord' gave me no end of trouble. I made several unsuccessful attempts to set it to music, and even gave up the task altogether, but being pressed to go on with it I managed it at last.” With regard to this celebrated piece, Sir Arthur remarked that it was one of the few things he had composed which was entirely independent of the words to which the music was set. He had seen a German audience go into wild enthusiasm over ‘The Lost Chord’ when sung to them in English, of which hardly any of them understood a word.
The conversation turning on Jenny Lind, Sir Arthur informed us that he had the highest possible opinion of her character, which he said was as free from mercenary motive as any he had ever known. “As to her singing," he went on, “she was the only woman I ever heard whose voice brought tears to my eyes." The subject of this sketch had, he told us, often been interviewed, but never so often or so persistently as in America.
"I could not stir out of my hotel," he remarked, "in any American town, but before I had turned the first corner I was buttonholed by some seedy-looking individual, who informed me that I should be laying the readers of the Philippopolis Advertiser under an eternal obligation if I would allow him a few moments conversation.
"The worst of it was," he went on to say, "unless I gave the fellow a few minutes' conversation, an account of an interview with me appeared just the same in the Philippopolis Advertiser, with a lot of disgraceful remarks put into my mouth which no gentleman would ever think of uttering, so I mostly gave in with as good a grace as I could.
"The most pertinacious reporter I ever remember," Sir Arthur continued, "was one I met in San Francisco. He came to my hotel one evening and requested the pleasure of an interview. I flatly refused, and went to bed. The next morning the fellow was waiting in the passage, where he must have spent the night. I slipped by him, on pretence of getting some breakfast, and stayed away all day. On going to bed that night I found him waiting patiently like a watch-dog for me, that I brushed by him and locked myself in my room. The next morning he was there just the same, and by this time, being touched by his persistency, I agreed to give him an interview on condition that he promised to prevent the issue of accounts of bogus interviews in the San Francisco papers. This he readily undertook to do, and I discovered that there must be honour 'even among journalists,' for he was as good as his word."
By this time the steamer had reached its destination, so we parted with Sir Arthur Sullivan, after a very agreeable voyage.

From the Otago Witness 27 September 1894 p.42 (National Library of New Zealand)
[With minor edits]

Monday 10 May 2010

Clifton Parker: Virgin Island – A Caribbean Rhapsody

I first came to know Clifton Parker’s music through the British Transport Films that included The Elizabethan, Blue Pullman, Ocean Terminal and The Long Night Haul. A year or so I posted a link to a scene from one of the feature films that he provided the score for – the 1944 film Western Approaches. However one of his most attractive pieces of ‘light’ music is called Virgin Island: A Caribbean Rhapsody.
The original score was produced for a light comedy film, Virgin Island (1958) starring John Cassavetes, Virginia Maskell and Sidney Poitier. It was a lighthearted romp involving a young American student who finds himself married to an attractive British tourist. They set up their home on a small atoll in the West Indies. Naturally there are all sorts of minor adventures and difficulties to resolve, including a troublesome mother-in-law and a commissioner who asks a few too many questions. In fact it is questionable as to whether the couple actually own the island. And then what about the lantern on the hill at night? Are they wreckers? Sidney Poitier plays a friendly islander who acts as a father figure, especially when ‘junior’ arrives on the scene.

Clifton Parker originally scored the music for a calypso group – on the film soundtrack it was played by Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band. Later, the composer rescored the work for guitar, orchestra and a battery of ‘exotic percussion’ including maracas, bongos and timbales. The recorded version was edited by Philip Lane.

The Rhapsody opens quietly with a guitar melody. At this stage the music is more pastoral than Caribbean. Perhaps this is suggestive of the homeland of the heroine? Yet the Latin beat is gently simmering beneath the musical activity. Another key element of this piece is the trademark Clifton Parker sea-music. Once again this element of the work is never far away. After what could be described as a ‘jocund dance’ the Latin beat takes over.
The composer, in this orchestral score does not try to parody or mimic the calypso combo instrumentation. It uses

At the halfway point a beautiful little duet is contrived between guitar and ‘cello. It is a combination that deserves further exploration. This is night music. After this interlude the Latin beat takes over with the percussion, although this is laid back rather than frenetic. A romantic string tune emerges, before the music ‘gets into the groove’ although retaining a touch of melancholy. Amongst this activity the ‘love theme’ makes attempts at establishing itself, however it is pushed aside by the last minute romp to the final bars. Here the Latin trumpets shout in glory, the percussion provides a myriad of exotic effects and the strings provide a romantic subtext. Effective countermelodies provide interest. The work concludes with a handful of quite night-music in a quiet reminiscence before the Rhapsody comes to a close.

The piece can be heard on ‘The Film Music of Clifton Parker’ Chandos 10279

Saturday 8 May 2010

Constant Lambert; Horoscope Suite

One of my Desert Island Discs is Contant Lambert's ballet score Horoscope. I recently found this review on the New York Times and it is worth quoting as it gives a good account of a piece of music that was orginally written for the stage but is equslly succesful int he concert hall.

Constant Lambert’s ‘Horoscope’ suite for orchestra is an arrangement of some ballet music bearing the same title. It bears the stamp of serious and resourceful musicianship on every page. Among British composers Lambert enjoys an enviable and well-deserved reputation based on talents which have been put to the test in many fields. He began to make his name as a composer; he has since conducted important concerts with distinction; his essays in criticism (Music Ho!) have revealed a keen, logical temper and individual outlook. He has thus shown all the qualifications of the modern composer who is expected not only to write music but ot write about music and, if the occasion should demand it, superintend its performance.

This prevailing fashion has historical precedent; but while in the past the majority of composers confined themselves to composition, at present the majority prefers a wider field of action. If it is too early as yet to discover whether the additional tasks of the creative artist have been generally beneficial or otherwise, in the case of Lambert no doubt is possible.
Familiarity with every aspect of concert performances was necessary to make his suite the well-balanced, slick thing it is , as well to resist the temptation to exceed a profitable length and to choose between that which is effective only when heard in conjunction with stage action and music needs no other aid that that of responsible presentation. This is a merit ‘Horoscope' shares with few other suites from ballets.

It is not by any means its only commendation. The musical interest is independent of the story it illustrates; indeed, the story may be ignored altogether, since every movement responds admirably to the aesthetic if not to the academic requirements of a sympathetic compositions.
It is, of course, impossible to foretell how Lambert’s music will stand the test of time and whether it in its composition a just proportion of the only elixir which can prolong life indefinitely – character. But it is most adroitly pieced together and cleverly scored; it runs smoothly from beginning to end; it keeps its interest alive without having to recourse to acrobatics or extravagance.

F. Bonavia New York Times October 16 1938

Thursday 6 May 2010

Walter Carroll: Four Country Dances for Pianoforte

I have always had a soft spot for Walter Carroll. For one thing I learnt to play some of his pieces as a youngster and still enjoy giving them an airing more that forty years later. For another, my late father told me that Carroll was a friend (or was it an acquaintance) of my grandfather. And lastly most of Carroll’s music was published by Forsyth’s music shop in Manchester: that emporium is still a favourite haunt of mine.
Four Country Dances was published by Carroll some 16 years after his previous work, Four Gypsies.
There are four short pieces that combine playability with a sense of style that transcends being simply ‘teaching music.’ This was a quality of virtually all Carroll’s educational pieces.
Each piece is prefaced by a quotation from the poets. These are not meant to be the basis of a programme - they are simply there to act as a stimulus to the player. It has the additional advantage of introducing the child (or adult) to some interesting lines from English literature. And finally I do love the cover cartoon. It is so full of life and fun. Just look at the faces of the little Elves at the bottom of the page.

"He piped, I sang; and when he sung I piped,
By change of turns each making other merry." Edmund Spenser

The Fairy Ring
"By the moon we sport and play,
With the night begins our day." – John Lyly

"His limbs are all antic- he skips like a flea;
His body is brown as the bark of a tree." – R.H. Horne

"Tender as a harper’s string
Is the low wind’s lute-playing." – Philip Dayre

At the end of the sheet music Walter Carroll has penned a short ‘afterword’ to any children (or others) who may choose to play his music. It was to be his last published work before his death in 1955 (although there was a posthumous work of piano duets issued in 1973)
Carroll wrote:-
‘Many years ago the writer decided to make a tour in Southern Scotland and so to test the condition of Music in that region which had been the inspiration of so many of his compositions. The result was pleasing and valuable, especially in regard to children and young people, many of them occupants of caravans, and of the dry and accessible cliffs provided by nature. Music, dancing and poetry were the most perfect features, presented with confidence and by memory. Asked to name poet or composer brought no response. A few bits of paper, hardly readable, were offered, but seldom accepted by the visitor, who tried to catch the words as they came. The composer of the music had to make new tunes to fit the poetry and rhythm presented. Thus ends the little note to the pupil from...Walter Carroll’

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Harriet Cohen and her Visit to Dartmouth Naval College

I recently found a volume of autobiography by the composer Vivian Ellis (1903-1996) in a second-hand bookshop near Leicester Square. He is, as Wikipedia inform us best known for his song ‘Spread a Little Happiness and his descriptive miniature tone poem Coronation Scot, which was used as the theme tune for the radio programme Paul Temple. However there is much more to the man than these two works. He was a composer, a pianist, a lyricist and stage show producer. Alongside this activity he seemed to know everyone in the music business- both ‘classical’ and ‘popular.’ His autobiography is called I’m on a See-Saw which is the name of one of his ‘greatest stage hits.’ Every page seems to have a good story, a witty anecdote or a surprising minor revelation. I have chosen a charming little paragraph about a wartime visit of the great pianist Harriet Cohen to Dartmouth College as a little taste...

"I even went in for a little Adult Education on my own account, by bringing Harriet Cohen, through E.N.S.A., down to Dartmouth College to give a piano recital to the cadets. She arrived at Kingswear station with rather a lot of luggage for one night, which had to be ferried across the Dart. It included a folding dumb piano, a huge suitcase obviously made of lead, a sandwich basket of equal proportions-although she apparently ate nothing-as well as a small but promising lending library. On her arrival at the College, she gaily announced she had left her spectacles in the train - which could be seen departing from the station-and not one note could she see (and the ominous word 'perform' hung unspoken in the air) without them. The station master, who had fortunately retrieved the missing spectacles, handed them to me at the end of my mad dash in a picket boat and all went according to plan. Miss Cohen, shivering in evening dress, held the audience with her personality and sheer quality of her playing, which, I noticed, was of her own high standard. She never made the mistake of playing down to her audience. Instead, she took them into her confidence and explained what she was about to play before each item. During her recital, a few of us heard about the loss of Singapore. There were a great many losses to bear in those days, and England bore many of them alone."
Ellis, Vivian I’m on a See-Saw: An Autobiography (London: Michael Joseph, 1953)

Sunday 2 May 2010

Sir Arthur Sullivan Arrives in New York

I recently found this clipping from the New York Times: it makes an interesting little vignette.
As the little steamer Pomona was made fast at the Barge Office yesterday, preparatory to landing the passengers of the Cunard steamer Etruria, a dark little gentleman, whose chubby cheek supported an eyeglass, stepped hastily across the gangplank, deposited a small satchel under the letter S., muttered as few words to a lanky youth in grey, who was evidently a valet, and was lost in the crowd to be seen no more. This was the passenger whose name on the passenger list was set down as Mr. A. Seymour. It was in reality Sir Arthur Sullivan, the popular composer of Pinafore and Patience. Sir Arthur preferred adopting the name of Seymour instead of his natal surname, Sullivan as he wished to escape any manifestoes or welcomes.
“Guess he thought we was all a-going to join and sing him a piece from Pinafore, said one of the Custom House officers to the lanky youth in grey who was left in charge of Sir Arthur’s baggage, which bore the composer’s name in large letters.
Sir Arthur went immediately to a private address in this city where he will stay for two days, after which he will leave for California, returning here after a short stay on the Pacific coast. Just before the departure of the Etruria for America, the London Daily Telegraph published a statement to the effect that Sir Arthur Sullivan was crossing the Atlantic to superintend the rehearsals of the Mikado here. Sir Arthur wrote very promptly to the paper, denying that such was the case, and even stating that it was not his intention to sail until September, immediately after which he sailed.

The New York Times 30 June 1885 (with minor edits)