Sunday 28 April 2013

British Composer Profiles: a biographical dictionary of last British composers 1800-2010

A major task of the past 30 years has been the rediscovery of many lost or forgotten British composers and their compositions. Readers of these pages do not need to be reminded of the sterling work by Lyrita, Chandos, Hyperion and Dutton Epoch in rehabilitating much music that fell by the wayside. MusicWeb International itself has been instrumental in presenting considerable amounts of information about this genre. A number of well-known soloists and orchestras have taken up a deal of British music. One of the vanguards of this task has been the British Music Society (BMS) which has published this present book. British Composer Profiles: a biographical dictionary of last British composers 1800-2010 is a solid and successful attempt at surveying a wide cross section of British composers. It examines the field in some considerable breadth and depth. It ranges from the brightest to the most obscure stars.

This dictionary will be of great interest to a whole array of people. There will be the British Music Enthusiast who will treasure this volume as a ‘book of dreams’. The entries about Elgar, R.V.W. and Arnold etc. will be of little interest to this group of listeners: they will have all the biographies, catalogues, music studies and letters that are available about their chosen favourites. What will inspire them are the biographies of obscure/forgotten/neglected composers. Performers will find this a useful source book – both in the preparation of their programme notes and in background reading before [hopefully] taking up a ‘new’ work. And CD reviewers will find it a handy reference tool when required to give a ‘thumbnail’ sketch of an ‘unknown’ composer. I’d like to see radio producers study these pages when devising their programmes. It is essential copy for all music colleges and universities.

There are a number of dictionaries of music available in the bookshops or on-line. I swear by my largely out-of-date Everyman’s Dictionary of Music by Eric Blom (1947, rev 1975).  Many will use Wikipedia. Luckier folk will have access to Grove – either in the library or on-line. Some people may still refer to the James Brown’s Musical Biography: A Dictionary of Musical Artists, Authors and Composers but this was compiled in 1897. All these are general works. They cover the entire musical field and reach into every corner of the world. There is currently no other volume available focused solely on composers of British Music during the period 1800-2010.
So there is a market for a new, up to date dictionary of British composers. The BMS originally published the first edition of this book in 1980. There was a second edition in 1989 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the society. Twenty-three years later it has been extensively re-edited and re-formatted for a new generation.

The book opens with a brief preface which outlines the history of the publication and the methodology of its presentation.  Only ‘dead British composers’ are included. Living ones (apparently) can fend for themselves – on the web or using other media. The editors explain 1800 may seem arbitrary, but reflects the fact that ‘those composers who brought about the English (British?) Musical Renaissance from the last decade [my italics] of the nineteenth century onwards owed much to the previous generation that taught them, a generation who would have been born in the early years of that century’.  This opens up the whole argument of the ‘Renaissance’ – did it begin with Parry’s Prometheus Unbound?  Or was it Elgar’s Enigma Variations? Are Stanford’s first three symphonies not a part of this ‘reawakening?’ And what about Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s opera Columba? And then, where does Sterndale Bennett fit into this scheme? But the point is taken.  There follows a warm-hearted ‘Introduction’ by the doyen of British Music, Lewis Foreman.

The actual entries need little comment; however three things need to be borne in mind.  Firstly the length of the entry does not necessarily reflect the composer’s perceived ‘worth’. The entry for Elgar is of similar length to Panufnik.  There are no ‘value judgements’ made about their music. Secondly it is good to see a number of ‘light music’ composers included – such as Stanley Black, Frank Chacksfield and Eric Coates. They made a considerable contribution to the musical heritage of British Music even if their input is often not regarded as ‘serious’ or ‘worthy’ by more exacting listeners.  Composers from the world of operetta such as Herman Finck and Lionel Monckton are each given a paragraph. However, most of the so-called ‘light’ music composers have been omitted; there are, for example, no entries for Sidney Torch, Trevor Duncan or Archibald Joyce. Perhaps it was felt that this would increase the size of the book to unwieldy proportions? Or maybe it is because Philip Scowcroft has already filled this particular niche with his recently republished book British Light Music and the ‘Garlands’ on MusicWeb International. And thirdly, it is good to see that the number of women composers has been considerably increased since the previous editions. Included for the first time, amongst others, are Ivy Klein, Bluebell Klean whose piano concerto is surely a major desideratum and Marion Scott whose songs and chamber works have considerable potential.  It is a pity that space could not have been found for Muriel Herbert, who is one of the most accomplished song-writers from the first half of the twentieth century.
On that note it would be easy to complain that this or that ‘protégé’ was not included.  Where is Clifton Parker, Cyril Cork, Gavin Gordon (strange omission), David Morgan, Frank Tapp or Ralph Greaves? Lines have to be drawn somewhere, else the book would become unwieldy. There will always be a need for particular enthusiasms to find their outlet on the web or in the pages of various journals. The bottom line is that the selection made by Gerald Leach and Ian Graham-Jones are both wide ranging and of considerable depth.  The actual number count is 720 composers! I do wonder if the two editors did all the historical research themselves (apart from one or two specific acknowledgements) or whether much of the information was gathered from other sources ‘online’ and ‘in-print’.  Whatever the case, the entries are succinct and highly readable.

The appendices offer important and helpful information. There is a ‘Chronology of Composers’ listed in the Profiles. Year by year this historical data stacks up – from John Blockley who was born in 1800 to Stephen Oliver who saw light of day in 1950. This is useful for ‘centenaries’. For example, everyone knows that Ben Britten has a centenary this year. But is everyone aware of those for Cedric Thorpe Davie, Stanley Black and George Lloyd? Bi-centenaries include George Aspull, James W. Davison, Samuel S. Greatheed, Edward J. Loder, George A. Macfarren, Phillipe Prosper Sainton and Henry Smart. I wonder how many of these gentlemen will be celebrated on Classic FM, Radio 3 or by record releases and concert performances this year? Finally, I am reminded by these listings that William Lloyd Webber’s 100th anniversary is next year.
Also helpful is the listing of ‘British Societies and London Venues’ which are mentioned in the text. Examples include the venerable Three Choirs Festival which commenced in 1719, the Bach Choir in 1876 and Worker’s Musical Association which began in 1936. A chronology of founding dates and founders of British and Foreign Conservatories of Music is useful.
The appendices include a list of ‘some’ foreign teachers mentioned in the text of the book and a brief overview of some British Universities and their Degrees. One of the most useful things in the book is the index of articles about many of these composers that have featured in editions of the BMS Journals and Newsletters. The former publications are typically still available for purchase or may be found in some libraries. Articles from the latter can be photocopied for the price of donation.

British Composer Profiles is well presented. With no slur intended on previous editions of this book, the present version looks and feels professional.  It is printed on quality paper and has sturdy card covers. How long the binding will last under constant reference is anyone’s guess, but it seems robust enough.  It is good to have a number of photographs of composers included in the text. This is a new feature in this third edition.  The above mentioned appendices are important and increase the reference utility of this publication.  
This book is excellent value at £15.00 and the fact that I am a member of the BMS has not influenced this opinion. Everyone who is interested in British Music will demand to have a copy in their personal libraries. And, in spite of the ‘dumbed-down’ nature of many public libraries (Ideas Stores?)  I would expect to see copies in most ‘reference sections’.  I do wonder if an eBook version of this volume would have been a useful complement to the ‘hard copy’: however it may be something for the future.
Finally, although this book will be of considerable use to a wide variety of readers, I reiterate that it is as a ‘Book of Dreams’ that many people will turn these pages. I have never heard of the composer Reginald Redman (1892-1972) – however according to the pages of the British Composer Profiles he wrote a piano concerto, a cello concerto, three operas, two ballets, other orchestral works, incidental music…chamber music songs, part-songs and piano pieces. I wonder what they sound like….  Perhaps one day someone will be inspired to find out?

British Composer Profiles: a biographical dictionary of past British composers 1800-2010 3rd Edition 2012
By Gerald Leach, revised and edited by Ian Graham-Jones 
The British Music Society
ISBN: 9781870536998
£15.00 Soft cover
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Thursday 25 April 2013

Eric Coates: Listings of Music recorded on the Guild Light Music Series.

Guild Light Music has been instrumental in issuing a vast range of quality light music. In fact, there are over 200 CD releases with in excess of 2000 tunes. This is a major achievement. In an occasional series I intend to list the works of certain light music composers that are currently available in this series.  I have listed each piece and have quoted the band and the CD number.
It is clear from this listing that most of the pieces are from the standard Coates repertoire such as By the Sleepy Lagoon and the London Suite. However scattered about these recordings are some genuine rarities that may be unfamiliar to even some of the composer’s greatest fans.  I think of Mirage, Salute the Soldier and the Song of Loyalty.
I have not included links to each CD, however further information can be found on the record company’s webpages.

By The Sleepy Lagoon - London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras  (GLCD5159)
Calling All Workers - Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra / Svend Christian Felumb (GLCD5128)
Calling All Workers (Excerpt) - Eric Coates & Symphony Orchestra (GLCD5137)
Dam Busters, The: Film Theme - Central Band of the Royal Air Force / Wing Commander A. E. Sims, (GLCD5147)
Dam Busters, The: March (From The Film) - Eric Coates & his Concert Orchestra (GLCD5202)
Footlights - Light Symphony Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5171)
Four Centuries Suite: Rhythm - New Symphony Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5120)
Four Ways Suite: Northwards - Regal Cinema Orchestra / Emanuel Starkey (GLCD5134)
Four Ways Suite: Westward - New Light Symphony Orchestra / Joseph Lewis (GLCD5106)
High Flight - Michael Freedman & His Orchestra (GLCD5169)
Impression of a Princess - Melodi Light Orchestra / ‘Ole Jensen’ Robert Farnon (GLCD5179)
Jester at the Wedding, The March - Symphony Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5200)
London Again Suite: Mayfair - Eric Johnson his Orchestra  (GLCD5192)
London Again Suite: Oxford Street - Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra / Svend Christian Felumb (GLCD5136)
London Again Suite: Oxford Street + Langham Place + Mayfair (Eric Coates) - Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5203)
London Bridge March - Band of HM Grenadier Guards / Lt. Col. George Miller (GLCD5117)
London Bridge March - New Light Symphony Orchestra / Joseph Lewis (GLCD5101)
London Calling - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD5107)
London Suite: Covent Garden + Westminster + Knighstbridge - Eric Johnson & his Orchestra (GLCD5195)
London Suite: Knightsbridge March ("In Town Tonight") - Band of H.M. Grenadier Guards / Capt. George Miller (GLCD5147)
London Suite: Knightsbridge March ("In Town Tonight") - BBC Dance Orchestra / Henry Hall (GLCD5116)
Merrymakers, The - Miniature Overture - London Symphony Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5163)
Mirage - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD5107)
Music Everywhere (Rediffusion March) - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5162)
Over to You - Royal Air Force Central Orchestra / Wing Commander R.P. O'donnell (GLCD5135)
Salute the Soldier - London Symphony Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5178)
Selfish Giant, The - Julian Fuhs' Symphony Orchestra (GLCD5134)
Song of Loyalty - Royal Air Force Central Orchestra / Wing Commander R.P. O'donnell (GLCD5135)
South Wales and West - Television March - Eric Coates & His Orchestra (GLCD5149)
Summer Afternoon - Idyll - Eric Coates & Symphony Orchestra (GLCD5138)
Summer Days Suite: At the Dance - Richard Crean & His Orchestra (GLCD5198)
Summer Days Suite: In A Country Lane - Richard Crean & His Orchestra (GLCD5198)
Television March - London Symphony Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5104)
Three Bears Suite: Waltz - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Eric Coates (GLCD5102)
Three Bears, The - A Fantasy - London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras (GLCD5157)
Three Bears, The - A Fantasy - Plaza Theatre Orchestra / Frank Tours (GLCD5122)
Three Men Suite: 1. The Man from the Country –The Orchestra of the Royal Marines (Portsmouth Division) Orchestra / Captain F Vivian Dunn (GLCD5174)
Three Men Suite: 2. The Man About Town - The Orchestra of the Royal Marines (Portsmouth Division) Orchestra / Captain F Vivian Dunn (GLCD5174)
 Three Men Suite: 3. The Man from the Sea - The Orchestra of the Royal Marines (Portsmouth Division) Orchestra / Captain F Vivian Dunn (GLCD5174)
 Under The Stars - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD5112)
 Wood Nymphs - RAF Concert Orchestra / Sidney Torch (GLCD5181)

Monday 22 April 2013

Eugene Goossens: Orchestral Music on Chandos Volume 2

Many years ago the organist at St Andrew’s Church, Stepps, near Glasgow was a gentleman by the name of Kenneth Dawkins. He hailed from Birmingham. He told me many tales, some of which may have been exaggerated. However, I do believe that it was true he had played a piano duet with Maurice Ravel. The relevant tale is this. One day, as a young man, he was in a shop in Birmingham and had bought a copy of Goossens’ Kaleidoscope which had just been published.  He ended up at a friend’s house and went across to the piano and sight-read through the dozen miniature tone poems. His friend was entertaining a guest and… you’ve guessed it – it was Eugene Goossens. Fortunately Mr. Dawkins was complimentary. I recall him playing these pieces to me from his copy of the sheet music that had been autographed by the composer. I think they are quite simply magical.
Kaleidoscope began life as a suite of a dozen pieces published in 1918.  In 1920 the composer orchestrated the ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ for the well-known ballerina Tamara Karsavina who was the Prima Ballerina of the Ballets Russes.  Some six years later the film director Ernest Irving had the entire suite arranged for chamber orchestra – this was featured in a ballet called The Tragedy of Fashion.  The liner notes suggest that this spurred Goossens on to make his own arrangement - he scored eight of them for full orchestra and subtitled it as a ‘Suite for Children’. It was first heard in this version during the 1933 Promenade Concerts.

The work may have been predicated on things that (once) appealed to children –such as ‘The March of the Wooden Soldier’ and ‘The Punch and Judy Show’ yet the musical style and sound world is hardly designed to appeal to young people of any era. There is a huge emotional difference between the edgy ‘Good Morning’ and the sad and reflective closing ‘Good-night’. The ‘Promenade’ is wistful and does not really suggest high spirits or a child’s romping around.  The ‘Hurdy Gurdy’ man is a sad little character as is the Wooden Soldier who seems to have fought his final battle. And how wretched is the ‘Lament for a Departed Doll’? It is heart-breaking, but stunningly beautiful music. I love the wit of the ‘Old Musical Box’ – it plays such a lively little tune. The ‘Punch and Judy Show’ reflects the dichotomy of this age-old entertainment – the humour and cruelty.
Kaleidoscope is subtle and often introverted music that fuses impressionism with neo-classicism. It is up to the listener to decide if this music is parody or pastiche. R.H. Hull, writing in 1932 suggested that ‘Goossens [Suite] is effective... even though the border-line between calculated amusement and unintentional triviality is not always clear.’ I must add that I love every note of this work – either in its piano or orchestral versions.  Out of interest the missing movements from the orchestration are ‘The Rocking Horse’, ‘A Ghost Story’, the ‘Clockwork Dancer’ and ‘A Merry Party’.

Most listeners will be familiar with Malcolm Arnold’s well-known Overture: ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. Fewer will know the other musical interpretations of this poem by George W. Chadwick (1918-19), Learmont Drysdale (1890) and the ‘Humoresque’ Tam by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Another entry on this list is the short ‘Scherzo’ for orchestra by Eugene Goossens.  Enthusiasts will know the piece from the Vernon Handley recording made in 1996.  This is a short number that does not try to make a detailed match of Robert Burn’s text to the music.  What Goossens has done is to pick a few elements from the tale and pack them into the three and half minute scherzo. The effect is impressive. It is easy to pick out the shambling horse in the opening bars, the build up to the chase, the dance and the escape –all in a compressed form. There are only occasional ‘scottisms’ in the music. It was first heard at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert at Queen’s Hall, London on 29 April 1919 conducted by Geoffrey Toye.

The ‘Three Greek Dances’ were composed in 1926 (revised 1927) for the choreographer and dance educator Margaret Morris. The liner notes point out that her style was ‘synonymous with a style of dancing that we associate with the 1920s; making shapes on stage with arms and flowing robes.’  Morris’ contribution was to create a dance and movement training methodology. This was called the ‘Margaret Morris Movement’ (MMM). To be fair to her, it was an attempt at creating something that was more natural for dancers than so-called ‘classical ballet’ choreography.  The three dances are quite simply delicious in mood. It is difficult to categorise – but it is fair to say that Goossens beats the impressionists at their own game. It is almost an English La Mer. I am not sure if the imagery is meant to imply ancient or modern Greece, but that does not seem to matter. I guess that as MMM implies flowing robes that will suggest ‘ancient’ but the musical picture could be of the Greek Islands at the present day. Eugene Goossens also wrote ‘Three Pagan Hymns’ for Margaret Morris.

A totally different sound world is entered with the Concert Piece, Op.65 for oboe/cor anglais, two harps and orchestra which dates from 1957. It was premiered in 1958 by Eugene Goossens’ brother Leon and his two sisters, the harpists Sidonie and Marie. It was written to showcase their skills. It has been said on more than one occasion that this work is valedictory. There are certainly notes of regret, sadness, longing and even despair. However, the work lightens up towards the end with a pastiche circus polka. I had to listen to this piece a couple of times, and even then I am not sure that I like the work. Yet something tells me it is a masterpiece. There is an impressionistic mood to some of this music although the harmonic language is at times more ‘advanced.’ The composer makes use of a number of instrumental effects on the harps including threading paper through the strings to give a percussive effect and ‘thrummed’ accompaniment. There is always a good balance between the reed tone of the oboe and the iridescent sounds of the harps. One unusual feature of these ‘variations’ is the quotations from ‘famous’ orchestral repertoire.

The Four Conceits, Op.20 are another example of a set of piano pieces that Goossens has chosen to orchestrate. They were originally composed during the Great War in 1917. In this case Goossens orchestrated the work immediately and it was heard in this version the following year.  According to the liner notes, Diaghilev used the work as ‘Symphonic Interlude’ during the 1919 season of Ballets russes at the Alhambra Theatre. These four pieces are tiny. The opening ‘Conceit’ is entitled ‘Gargoyle’ who is a bit spooky, but certainly not scary. The ‘Dance Memories’ is a little waltz with scraps of themes tossed about. There is little romance here, more bitter-sweet. The ‘Walking Tune’ has a theme that one seems to know but cannot quite place. Perhaps Percy Grainger is called to mind. The finale is related to Kaleidoscope: the ‘Marionette Show’ reveals some lively and malevolent characters. But who is evil – the puppets or the puppet master? It is the quality of the orchestration that makes these into a credible orchestral work, in spite of their short duration.

The short Variations on ‘Cadet Rousselle’ were composed in 1918 at the behest of the music critic Edwin Evans. Four composers produced a small set of variations on the French folk song that satirized a French bailiff by the name of Guillaume (William) Rousselle. They were Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, John Ireland and Eugene Goossens. These were originally devised for soprano and piano. Goossens made this attractive and humorous transcription for orchestra in 1930. It is hardly a masterwork, but certainly deserves its place on this CD.

The Two Nature Poem presented here began life as Three Nature Poems, Op.25 and were originally devised for piano solo. They were composed in 1919. The three movements were – ‘Awakening’, ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Bacchanal’. In 1937 the composer chose to orchestrate only the second and third Poems. The liner notes are correct in warning the listener not to expect an ‘idyllic English scene’ in the Pastoral. Having said that, I do feel this music is not quite as bleak as Lewis Foreman has suggested. It is more a Northern landscape (Mill-stone Grit, Pennine) than something with blue southern skies. The muted trumpets may well suggest a blasted heath? This is appropriate bearing in mind when the pieces were originally composed. The ‘Bacchanal’ is a masterpiece: this is a riot of orchestral colour that amply suggests the wine, women and song that was the modus operandi of the god Bacchus and his merry crew.

The opera Don Juan de Mañara was composed in 1935 and duly received a single performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  The libretto of the opera had been written by Arnold Bennett and was based on a story by the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas’ father.  The plot would appear to have lost its way, and would be regarded as being a bit ‘melodramatic’ by today’s opera-goers. The ‘Intermezzo’ was a prelude to Act IV which was set in the Church of the Sacred Rosary. This is attractive music and it makes one wonder what the rest of the opera must have sounded like.  Interestingly, Gerald Finzi was not impressed, he felt that it ‘had not the bones of life in it’ and that it was ‘second hand [Richard] Strauss.’

It is almost redundant to praise the excellent sound quality of this CD. The same applies to the enthusiastic, but always sensitive and sympathetic playing by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis. The liner notes written by Lewis Foreman are informative and make essential reading.

This CD is a tremendously important addition to the catalogues. The main competitor is Vernon Handley’s fine 3-CD retrospective of the composers music recorded on ABC CLASSICS 476 7632. Chandos are picking up a number of loose ends. Volume 1 included the fundamental Symphony No.1 and the ‘Phantasy’ Concerto for piano and orchestra Op. 60.  Looking at Goossens catalogue there are certainly more works to be recorded. I am not aware if it is the intention to record the ‘complete’ orchestral works’ or just a selection. Let us hope it is the former option. There are a number of withdrawn works that may be ripe for rediscovery – such as the symphonic poems based on ‘Ossian’ and ‘Perseus’. Then there is the ‘Cowboy’ Fantasy and the Variations on a Theme of Eugene Goossens. Some of his stage music may also be worth reviving, such as the ballet-score L’ecole en crinoline and the incidental music to East of Suez. Meanwhile enjoy these eight works and take them steadily: they all deserve the listener’s undivided attention.

Track Listing: 
Eugene Goossens (1893-1962)
Kaleidoscope, Op. 18 (1933) 
Tam o'Shanter, Op. 17a (1918-19) 
Three Greek Dances, Op.44 (1926, revised 1927) 
Concert Piece, Op.65 for oboe/cor anglais, two harps and orchestra (1957) 
Four Conceits, Op.20 (1918) Suite Orchestration by the composer of the original version for solo piano (1917) 
Variations on 'Cadet Rousselle' (French Folk Song) (1930) 
Two Nature Poems, Op. 25(1937-38) Intermezzo from Don Juan de Mañara, Op. 54 (1935)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis  Jeff Crellin (oboe/cor anglais) Marshall Maguire (harp I) Alannah Guthrie (harp II)
With thanks to MusicWeb international where this review was first published.

Friday 19 April 2013

John Ansell: The Shoe Ballet

I came across the delightful The Shoe Ballet by John Ansell whilst reviewing one of the latest releases from the Guild Light Music Series (GLCD5195). The full review will appear in due course. I had not heard this work before.  
John Ansell is recalled for two works these days – the fine Overture: The Windjammer and the pot-pourri of nautical songs that makes up Plymouth Hoe. Both these pieces are available in a fine recording on SOMM 243

John Ansell was born in Hoxton, London on 26 March 1874 and later studied at the Guildhall with the well-known Scottish composer Hamish Maccunn. At this time he was a regular performer on the viola and achieved considerable distinction playing under the baton of Sir Arthur Sullivan.  However his main task in life was as musical director at a number of theatres including the Alhambra, the Playhouse, the Adelphi and the Winter Gardens. In 1926 he joined the BBC at Savoy Hill and conducted the 2LO wireless orchestra for four years. John Ansell died on 14 December 1948 at his home in Marlow.

Ansell wrote a huge range of music that deserves to be at least catalogued.  These included a comic opera Violette, three overtures, a set of Danses Miniatures de Ballet, Three Irish Dances, Three Irish Pictures and incidental music for a number of stage productions. There are a number of piano pieces as well as reductions of the orchestral works.  A Serenade for cello and orchestra was featured during the 1898 Promenade Concerts.

I do not know if The Shoe Ballet was used for dancing or whether it is simply a musical confection designed for the concert hall or pier-head pavilion. There were originally five movements; however the Guild CD only has three (1, 3& 5). The first introduces the ‘Sabot’ which is in the form of a ‘rustic dance. The second is more romantic and depicts the ‘Ballet Shoe’. Then comes the Court Shoe’ which is in the form of a ‘passpied.’ This is followed by an exotic ‘Eastern’ piece representing ‘The Sandal’ that may have been worn by Scheherazade. The final section is ‘The Brogue’ which is fine Celtic music that has the skirl and drone of the pipes and a Maccunn-like ‘Mountain Flood’ swagger. It is one of the best Irish/Scottish dance in the book.
Philip Scowcroft has quoted TheTimes obiturist (15 December 1948) which notes that Ansell's incidental music 'exhibits a soundness of construction and vein of fantasy which should ensure it the regard of discriminating audiences'.  Ansell’s music is typically in the ‘light’ genre, however there is no ‘suggestion of triviality.’
The listener feels that each of the surviving (recorded) works is formally sound and well-scored. Much of Ansell’s music was composed for theatre band or light orchestra, with the attendant limitations. Certainly the recording by Charles Williams and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra reveal a charming, well crafted work that would certainly benefit from an updated performance. 

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Joseph Holbrooke in Gerald Cumberland’s ‘Set Down in Malice’

Nothing need be added to this brief pen portrait of the English composer Josef Holbrooke from Gerald Cumberland’s (pseudonym of Charles Frederick Kenyon) witty book of essays, Set Down in Malice.  Cumberland (1879-1926) at the time of writing this book was music and drama critic at the Daily Critic. He also wrote a number of other books and plays.

Joseph Holbrooke, for sheer cleverness, for capacity for hard work, and for intellectual energy, has no equal among our composers. It was Newman who first spoke to me about him, and it was Newman [1] who made me curious to meet this extraordinary genius.
Holbrooke's weakness, but I do not consider it a weakness, is his pugnacity. He has fought the critics times without number and, in many cases, with excellent results for British music, though Holbrooke must know much better than I do that in fighting for his colleagues he has incidentally injured himself. A chastised critic is the last person in the world likely to write a fair and unbiased article on a new work produced by the hand that chastised him. But not only the critics have felt the lash of Holbrooke's Scorn: conductors, musical institutions, some very prosperous so-called composers, committees, publishers and, indeed, almost every kind of man who has power in the musical world, have felt his sting.

But if he is clever and witty in his writing, he is much cleverer and wittier in his talk. I do not suppose I shall ever forget one Sunday I spent with him, for by midday he had reduced my mind to chaos and my body to limpness by his consuming energy. When he was not playing, he was talking, and he did both as though the day were the last he was going to spend on earth, so eager and convulsive was his speech, so vehement his playing.
Perhaps his most remarkable quality is his power of concentration. I remember his telling me that when he was yachting with Lord Howard de Walden [2] in the Mediterranean, he was engaged on the composition of Dylan, an opera containing some of the most gorgeous and weirdly uncanny music that has been written in our generation. At this opera he worked, not in hours of inspiration (for, like Arnold Bennett, he does not believe in inspiration), but when he had nothing more exciting or more necessary to do. For example, he would begin work in the morning, cheerfully and without regret lay down his pen at lunch-time, return to his music immediately lunch was finished, and unhesitatingly recommence writing at the point at which he had left off. Interruptions that arouse the anger of the ordinary creative artist do not disturb him in the least. He can work just as composedly and as fluently when a heated argument is being conducted in the room as he can in a room that is absolutely quiet. Music, indeed, flows from him, and if moods come to him which render his brain numb and his soul barren, I doubt if they last more than a day or two.
Of the truly vast quantity of music he has written, I, to my regret, know only a portion, and that belongs chiefly to his very early period, when he was under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is his spiritual affinity, and Holbrooke's setting of Annabel Lee a work which I can play backwards from memory is more beautiful and haunting than the beautiful and haunting poem itself.
I have called Holbrooke pugnacious and, some years ago, much to his amusement and, I think, gratification, I called him the stormy petrel of music. But what makes him stormy? What are the defects in our musical life that he so persistently attacks? First of all, he hates incompetence, especially official incompetence, and the incompetence that makes vast sums of money. He hates commercialism in art, and by that phrase I mean the various enterprises that exploit art for the sole purpose of making money. He hates publishers who issue trash; he hates critics who write rubbish. He hates the obscurity in which so many of his gifted colleagues live, and he hates the love of the British public for foreign music inferior to that which is being written at home. And I believe he hates the system that presents editors of newspapers with free concert tickets for the use of their critics. But, in dwelling at such length on Holbrooke's combativeness, I feel I am giving a rather one-sided view of his true character. For he is not all hate. Indeed, it is true to state that no composer has written more in appreciation of men who may be considered his rivals. He is anxious and quick to study the work of men of the younger generation, and whenever any of that work appeals to him he either performs it in public or writes to the papers about it. I have heard him called perverse, unreliable, injudicious, and many other disagreeable things. He may be. But Holbrooke is not an angel. He is simply a composer of genius working under conditions that tend to thwart and paralyse genius.
Gerald Cumberland Set Down in Malice, New York 1919.

[1] Ernest Newman, actually William Roberts, (1868-1959) English musicologist and critic. He wrote extensively on Richard Wagner. Newman was critic at the Manchester Guardian (1905, the Birmingham Post (1906), the Observer (1919) and the Sunday Times (1920).
[2] Lord Howard de Walden (T.E. Scott-Ellis) was a British peer, landowner, writer and patron of the arts. He was also a motorboat racer who competed in the 1908 Summer Olympics. He was a patron to Josef Holbrooke and wrote the libretti for a number of his operas. 

Saturday 13 April 2013

Musical Impressions of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

I have always been a great enthusiast of the Scottish author Sir James Barrie. He is almost exclusively regarded as the creator of the children’s classic Peter Pan; however, he wrote a wide range of literary genres, including novels, short stories and plays. He was born in the Scottish market town of Kirriemuir in 1860 and died in London in June 19, 1937. It is not my intention to evaluate the man or his achievements save to suggest that like all artists he is subject to various fashions of praise and criticism.

Composers have been attracted to Peter Pan over the years. Perhaps the most important essay is the relatively unknown score of incidental music written by Leonard Bernstein in the late nineteen forties. The play was first produced in 1950 with Jean Arthur as Peter Pan, Boris Karloff as George Darling, the father and also playing Captain Hook and Marcia Henderson as Wendy. Although Bernstein had written extensive lyrics and music, only a handful of songs were used in this production. It was not until 2006 that the first complete performance using all of the music was given at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, London.  A recording of the score was released the previous year.

In 1956 the Viennese composer Ernest Toch wrote a delicious orchestral work, Peter Pan, A Fairy Tale for Orchestra op.76.  Toch was born in Vienna in 1887 and studied medicine and philosophy. However this largely self-taught musician began to make a name for himself. In 1909 he was awarded the prestigious Frankfurt Mozart Prize. He subsequently studied there and eventually became professor of music at the Mannheim Hochcschule fur Musik in 1913.  After four years of military service he settled in Berlin .However, in 1933 he went to Paris and London: finally he emigrated to the United States. He was to settle there and taught in New York for two years and then moved to Hollywood where he worked as a film composer and teacher. Ernest Toch died in Los Angeles in 1964.  His catalogue is extensive and includes seven fine symphonies (recorded on CPO), two concertos for piano, one for cello and a deal of orchestral works.  Many of his pieces have humorous or evocative titles – the best known including Pinocchio: A Merry Overture, Big Ben: Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, the unpublished The Enamoured Harlequin and Peter Pan. This Fairy Tale was composed in 1956. As the liner notes of the New Worlds Recording (80609-2) suggest, this ‘is an airy, immaterial piece as befits its subject matter, one might consider it Mendelssohnian or perhaps a companion piece to Berlioz’s 'Queen Mab' Scherzo.’ I was impressed by both the subtle formal construction and the splendid orchestration of this quicksilver piece.

However it the British contributions to the story of Peter Pan that I want to consider. The main event would appear to be Sir Henry Walford Davies’ 'Peter Pan' Miniature suite for String Quartet in five movements written in 1909. A number of other titles appear in the COPAC catalogues search however, the ones that struck me most were Harry Farjeon’s 'Peter Pan Sketches' for piano, Peter Pan: An intermezzo by Arthur Ager and a song cycle by Joan Trevalsa.   My next Peter Pan Post will investigate Walford Davies’s Quartet, however this will depend of getting a sight of the score - so do not hold your breath!

Wednesday 10 April 2013

John Ireland: A Collection of Music on ASC Records

This outstanding CD opens with one of John Ireland’s ‘late’ works – in spite of the fact it was composed nearly twenty years before his death in 1962. It was his last major work for chamber ensemble.
The liner notes suggest that the Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano was in the ‘line of succession’ from the Cobbett Chamber Competitions which demanded a one-movement work that nodded to the early English ‘fancy’.  However the present sonata is actually a considerable development of that form. What Ireland has achieved is the metamorphosis of the ‘Phantasie’ into that of a formal sonata. Although the work is nominally in one fourteen minute sweep, the actual structure reflects three ‘interrelated but unrepeated sections’. 
The Fantasy Sonata can be seen as a summing up of the composer’s musical styles. There are elements of impressionism here, possible allusions to Brahms, an extension of his characteristic bitter-sweet harmonies and even the ‘jazzy’ mood that was a feature of his Piano Concerto.  In a contemporary article, Scott Goddard suggested that there is a stylistic balance between the ‘newer’ instrument (the clarinet) and the ‘older’ piano. This is a deep work that has autumnal colouring, however it is also broadly optimistic; I note the especially beautiful ‘tranquilo section at the start of the nominal ‘slow movement.’  Linda Merrick and Julian Hellaby give a definitive performance.
The Fantasy-Sonata was dedicated to Frederick Thurston, who gave the premiere in a Boosey and Hawkes concert at the Wigmore Hall on 29 January 1944: the pianist was Kendall Taylor.

I was a little disappointed that space could only be found for two of the songs from the Housman cycle The Land of Lost Content. The opening number ‘The Lent Lily’ and the fourth song ‘Vain Desire’ have been included and are well sung. The ‘agnostic’ ‘Santa Chiara’ (Palm Sunday: Naples) with words by Arthur Symons may well echo the composer’s ‘inner conflict between Christianity and paganism’: it is full of sorrow and despair. This is a beautiful description of Palm Sunday in the Bay of Naples –‘The sea is blue from here to Sorrento/And the sea wind come to me’.

The Rhapsody (1915) is a big, complex work that has been described as a ‘symphonic poem for piano.’ It was composed in 1915 during the First World War and reflects the composer’s troubled mood at this time.  The progress of the work is dominated by the contrasting of two themes – one ‘rugged and assertive’ and the other is ‘more pastoral and reflective’ in mood. The Rhapsody is well-played here with an ideal balance of the two prevailing temperaments.

I must confess to not being a great fan of the song cycle Mother and Child which are settings of poems by Christina Rossetti. There is always a danger that these sentimental verses become morose and ‘lachrymose.’  Although the words of these songs may no longer appeal to the modern ear three things can be said in mitigation. Firstly, in Rossetti’s time, many more children died young than is now the case. Secondly, Ireland’s attraction to these poems may well reflect his anguished approach to the loss of many friends during the Great War: they were composed in 1918. And lastly, whatever the listener’s feelings are about the naivety of the text there is no doubt about the quality of the music. John Ireland has pared down his largely ‘romantic’ piano accompaniment style to the barest minimum: there is nothing ‘splashy’ here, only a perfectly judged balance between singer and accompanist.  These songs are given a beautiful performance: Catriona Lang manages to bring out their essence without ever becoming mawkish. It is a rare achievement.
There are nine or ten versions of the Cello Sonata currently on the books of the Arkiv catalogue, so it is interesting to hear another offering. The Sonata was completed during December 1923 and was given its premiere the following year by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones. This is not programme music; however it is difficult not to sense some of the feeling that imbued works such as The Forgotten Rite. Places associated with this work may include The Devil’s Jump and Chanctonbury Hill, both in Sussex. The Sonata is written in three movements - a ‘moderato e sostenuto’, a ‘poco largamente’ and a ‘finale, con moto a marcato’.  Musically, this is a tightly constructed work that has cross-referencing of themes across all movements.  For me the highlight is the introverted middle movement –it is one of the loveliest things in the cello/piano literature.  The work has been well described by Marion Scott as ‘...beginning quietly for cello alone, is cumulative and [ends] very brilliantly!’  This performance by Naomi Wright and Peter Noke is impressive.
The CD sound quality is excellent. The liner notes are a good basic introduction to the composer and this music; however, I felt they could have been a little more fulsome. For examples, the great Rhapsody is dealt with in just over 50 words, with nearly half of these discussing the early 1906 ‘Rhapsody’. The performances were all enjoyable; however I was most impressed by the Fantasy Sonata. It will be my preferred version over the coming years.
I believe that this CD is a fine introduction to the music of John Ireland – featuring chamber works, a piano piece and a number of songs. The project had been supported by the John Ireland Charitable Trust and is worthy of support. All John Ireland ‘fans’ will want this CD in their collection.

Track Listing:
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1943) The Lent Lily from The Land of Lost Content (1920/21) The Vain Desire from The Land of Lost Content (1920/21) Santa Chiara (Palm Sunday) Naples (1925) Rhapsody for Piano (1915) Mother and Child (Song Cycle) (1918)
Sonata for Cello & Piano (1923)
Julian Hellaby (piano) Peter Noke (piano) (Cello Sonata) Naomi Wright (cello) Linda Merrick (clarinet) Catriona Lang (soprano).
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Frank Tapp: Beachy Head Overture

There is a lot of history about Beachy Head. This wonderful landmark is situated near to the holiday resort of Eastbourne in Sussex. The cliffs have the honour of being the highest chalk cliffs in the country. I do not believe that Frank Tapp’s music has anything to do with military matters; however the Battle of Portland in 1653 during the Anglo-Dutch War was fought off this point. During the Second World War there were a number of installations on cliffs that survived into the Cold War era.  On the other hand, what I think that Tapp is suggesting is the mood of the holiday maker to either enjoy the view or to the coastal hamlet of Birling Gap with its steps down to the sea. The romantic theme may be indicative of lovers having afternoon tea before returning to the lights of London or Eastbourne.
Beachy Head Overture opens with a moody horn call followed by soft strings that has an almost Delius-like effect. This is dawn looking out across the English Channel –just before the visitors arrive by train from The Smoke. However the music soon moves into a more typical ‘light music’ style with rushing strings, perhaps suggesting the surging of the sea. However the second theme of this overture is a romantic song worthy of the likes of Henry Mancini and Frank Chacksfield. The basic ternary form of this overture is satisfied by the return of the fast music. I guess that the visitors are leaving with happy memories and Beach Head is left in peace.
Once again this piece of music suggests that Frank Tapp (1883-1953) is a composer worthy of investigation.  Alas he has not made it to an entry in the revised edition of the British Music Society’s revised edition of British Composer Profiles.  Tapp did produce a Symphony and a deal of other music including a once popular set of variations on the tune ‘Pop goes the Weasel.’  With Rob Barnett’s permission I published a brief account of Tapp’s life and works on my blog.  The Beachy Head overture can be heard on Guild Light Music GLCD5107. Although there is nothing wrong with this 1940’s Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra recording, there is surely a case to be made for a modern version, along with some of Tapp’s other music. 

Thursday 4 April 2013

Was Handel an English Composer?

Whilst considering Sir Herbert Brewer’s ground breaking experiment in allowing the audience to sing the Hallelujah Chorus in the December 1927 performance of Messiah at the Bristol Colston Hall I came across this short note attached to the review of the oratorio.  It is interesting and deserves to be rescued from obscurity.
Handel is now typically regarded as a German-born British Baroque composer.

There are still people about who consider that Handel (1685-1759) must be counted among the great German composers. although he left his native country as a young man at an age when many men have done nothing of note. Even among those who claim him as an English composer, who point out that he changed his name and took out letters of naturalisation [1] and that he owed many of his ideas and still more of his style of writing to Purcell, Blow and other British composers do not always seem to realise that for nearly half a century, so far as can be ascertained, he did not write one note of music to German words. [2] It is true that he wrote many works to other words than English, that is to Italian opera libretti, but this was the fashion of the time. Opera that was not Italian was scarcely known. All his greatest choral works, however, were written to English words, and although he never spoke English very well, in his setting of English words his accent was as good as that of almost any Englishman of his time, and a good deal better than that of some of them.
Western Daily Press Friday 09 December 1927

[1] Handel became a permanent resident in 1712 and became a naturalised British subject on 20th February 1727. Handel died in his house in Brook Street, London on April 14 1759.
[2] The last work composed to a German text was probably the second German Passion based on the poem by Brockes which was written in 1716. Handel was at this time only 31 years old. 

Monday 1 April 2013

Some Gems from Punch, 1903 style.

Musical Gossip
Sir CHARLES STANFORD has purchased a motor-bicycle, which he rides with the soft pedal down. Punch March 18 1903

It is announced that Sir HUBERT PARRY has postponed his attempt to swim the Channel until after the Hereford Festival. The eminent composer will be accompanied on his great natatory effort by his trainer Mr. HENRY BIRD, and a tug containing Dr. HANS RICHTER, Mr. J. P. SOUSA, Mr. STEPHEN ADAMS and Herr RICHARD STRAUSS, who will at intervals join Sir HUBERT in the water as pacemakers. Punch September 9 1903

Mr. ELGAR, the famous composer, is a fervent devotee of the Royal and Ancient Game, and has dedicated a new set of Symphonic Variations to TOM MORRIS. The other day, when playing over the Malvern links with Sir CHARLES STANFORD, Mr. ELGAR gave a wonderful exhibition of his power as a driver. Slicing his tee shot at the short hole over the railway, Mr. ELGAR managed to land his ball in a passing motor-car, which was not stopped until it had gone half a mile, thus surpassing all Mr. BLACKWELL'S records. Punch October 21 1903

N.B. Messrs Morris and Blackwell were well-known golfers in the Edwardian era [ed]