Sunday 31 August 2014

Lost Works No.2: G.W.L Marshall-Hall's Symphony in Eb

G.W.L. Marshall-Hall (1862-1915) is a name that is now little known in the United Kingdom. Yet his provenance is second to none. He was born in London and studied with Parry and Stanford. Soon assuming a place of importance in the musical life of London, he wrote a number of significant works which reached a degree of popularity. In 1892 he emigrated to Australia to become Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne. He was a ‘character’ – Bohemian would have been the contemporary epithet - and had a colourful career. He was sacked from the University for publishing a ‘sacrilegious’ book. However he was eventually reinstated in 1915, a few months before his death. His catalogue includes operas, chamber music songs and symphonic works.
The Symphony in Eb was written for ‘his friends and comrades under the Southern Cross.’ The composer wrote, ‘…it represents in purely lyrical form the manifold impressions of various lives upon an ardent, active temperament. Scenes, impressions, passions, activities, continuously succeed each other, as in life itself.’

It has been described as ‘exuberant and rich in orchestral colours with strong thematic ideas.’ (MOVE Record Label Advert for CD MD 3091) This is seemingly passionate and approachable music nodding to both Brahms and Wagner with a touch of the forelock to Schumann. The Brisbane Sunday Mail wrote that this symphony “breathes the spirit of romanticism…the slow movement particularly reflecting the Australian outback.”
Although this Symphony has been issued on CD it seems virtually impossible to acquire a copy. Let us hope that some enterprising record company will re-issue this work in the near future. 

Thursday 28 August 2014

David Dubery: Observations- Seventeen Songs and a String Quartet

A brief thumbnail sketch of the composer may be of interest to listeners who have not come across his music before. David Dubery was born in Durban in South Africa. In 1961 he came to live in the United Kingdom in his mother’s hometown of Manchester. From a very young age Dubery composed music but studied formally at the Northern School of Music in Manchester between 1963 and 1971. He studied piano with Eileen Chadwick and Kendall Taylor. Dubery’s composition teacher was Dorothy Pilling. Much of his musical activity has been in broadcasting and for the stage where he has worked as a solo pianist, accompanist, vocal coach, musical director and teacher of piano and voice.  From a compositional point of view he is quite definitely a miniaturist (however his Quarteto Iberico is certainly no bagatelle) He is particularly interested in writing for the voice and has written many songs over his career. Dubery has contributed music for the theatre including an American-styled musical Love Line. His musical language is immediately approachable but can also be challenging to the listener.

The longest work on this new CD of music by Dubery is the fine above-mentioned Quarteto Iberico (Los fantasmas de los tiempos pasados): ‘Ghosts of Times Past’ which was composed in 2005 and reworked in 2013.  This string quartet is conceived in four movements with each having a ‘picture postcard’ title.  Dubery has noted that his interest in Spanish music began when he was still living in South Africa and witnessed Antonio and his Dancers at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban.  It was not until some years later that he visited the places that his youthful dreams had nurtured. The four movements are entitled (in English) ‘The Dancer in the Square’, ‘In the Maria Luisa Park, Seville’, ‘The Beggar Man in the Gothic Quarter’ (of Barcelona) and ‘Carnival’. The musical language of this work holds no terrors. In fact, it is ‘intentionally accessible, tonal and impressionistic.’  There are nods to a variety of composers that Dubery has come to admire – de Falla, Granados, Albeniz, Piazzolla and Rodrigo.
The liner notes provide a detailed ‘programme’ for each movement which can give a literary and topographical impulse to the listener’s experience of this Quartet. However, this is not necessary: it is sufficient to note that this work is inspired by the sunshine, occasional drama and edginess, and the charismatic characters of the Iberian Peninsula. I tend to regard each of these movements as a kind of aide-memoire that the composer has written for himself. If the listener wishes to share these impressions good and well – if not, just enjoy this vibrant, well constructed, sun-drenched score.  It is one of the most delightful ‘modern’ string quartets I have heard in a while.
The main proportion of this CD is devoted to a number of David Dubery’s songs. Four complete cycles are included as well as the early ‘Full Fathom Five’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Interestingly, this lugubrious version won an important composition prize in 1965. I guess that Holst and Britten are the models, but it is a delight in in its own right.

It is good to see the the song-cycle Observations recorded here. These settings of Walter de la Mare’s Rhymes and Verses for Children include some poems which do not appear to have been set before. The cycle was completed in 1979 but was later revised. These songs are composed in a vibrant style that reflects the mood of the text. Poems include ‘The Barber’s’, ‘The Old Sailor’ ‘Esmeralda’, ‘The Window’, ‘Done For’ and ‘The Promenade 1880’.   They cover a wide range of experience and emotion, including ‘noise and bustle’, shopping in the rain and the ‘question’ of hunting.
Dubery has noted that these songs often ‘reveal musical theatre influences’ from a time when he was writing for that medium. However, do not for one moment think that these little works of art are in any way ‘Lloyd-Webberian’ – they are much cleverer. Dubery has managed to balance innocence with subtlety in a very successful ‘song cycle’ that deserves to be in the repertoire. They are beautifully and imaginatively sung by Adrienne Murray.
The poet Douglas Gibson has clearly caught David Dubery’s imagination. Gibson was born in 1912 and wrote much of his best work whilst working in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford during the Second World War. He had been allocated this position by the courts as he was a conscientious objector.  Many of Gibson’s poems reflect a deep interest in nature and a largely ‘pastoral’ interpretation of the landscape.
The opening song-cycle presents three of Gibson’s poems: ‘Swans in Flight’, ‘Lizard’ and ‘A Memory’. The first and last songs feature a beautifully written flute obligato. One of the characteristics of Dubery’s vocal music is his ability to indulge in some subtle word-painting. In the first song we hear undulating music which depicts the swans in flight. There is a clever musical reference to the Lizard’s darting tongue in the second.  The final song is (as the composer suggests) ‘Schubertian’: the accompaniment conjures up the ‘rhythm of the rails’ as the singer recalls a memory as seen from a carriage window. At the end of this song, the mood changes to an almost Constant Lambert-ian blues riff. Altogether a superb set of songs.
The second song-cycle featuring Douglas Gibson’s poems is the Housman-sounding Time will not Wait. These settings date from 1982.  Dubery suggests that this work is conceived as a ‘sonata for voice and piano in three movements.’  These songs major on the passing of time in a passive landscape where little appears to happen. There is a sense of stasis here that leads the listener into the poet’s dream-world.  Only occasionally does passion break forth – ‘the way the clouds are blown… [clouds] that now slide down the wooded hill’ or the dramatic opening and closing of the eponymous song.
Four other songs are included on this CD. They are grouped here as ‘Nightsongs’: they are all meditations on evenings during the year and also have a flute obligato. ‘One Night in December’ is an exquisite version of the beloved carol ‘Away in a Manger’. The second and third songs are further settings of Douglas Gibson. ‘The Evening in April’ is an enchanting number that perfectly balances flute, singer and soloist. It is dedicated to the author/composer Anthony Hopkins.  ‘June Evening’ is a lugubrious number that explores the beauty of creation in the countryside: ‘there is genius here/In the delicate hand/That traced these exquisite pastels across the sky…’ The flute takes on the persona of birds in flight. The final song in this ad-hoc group is Thomas Hardy’s ‘An August Midnight’. It is dedicated to the composer Peter Hope. The song imagines the great poet and novelist at his desk and the various insects that are attracted to his desk lamp. ‘A Longlegs, a moth, and a Dumbledore (bumble bee)… While ‘mid my page there idly stands/A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands.’ But the thought provoking element of this poem is the realisation that ‘God’s humblest, they!...They know Earth-Secrets that know not I.’ It is an idiomatic setting of what is one of my favourite Hardy poems.
The performance by the singers James Gilchirst and Adrienne Murray are superb. The composer is a remarkably sympathetic pianist and the flautist Michael Cox brings a magic to the two song cycles that include an obligato.  Finally the Cavaleri Quartet gives a well-balanced and convincing performance of David Dubery’s Iberian adventures.  The liner notes by the composer are detailed and include valuable biographies of all the participants.

This is a worthy disc of attractive music that demands to be explored slowly. There is nothing here that is particularly challenging or difficult to grasp on a first hearing. Each song is a perfect example of the composer’s art. The advertising for this CD suggests that the composer is one of the ‘leading exponents of the new lyrical post-modern music in Britain.’ David Dubery writes music that is in the trajectory of all that is best in English song – Ireland, Britten and Finzi. Yet there is an individual element that ensures that his music is never parody or pastiche. 

David Dubery (b. 1948)
Three Songs for voice, flute and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (2012) [6:53]
‘Full Fathom Five’ for alto voice and piano (Shakespeare) (1965) [4:26]
Time will not wait: Three songs for tenor voice and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (1981/2) [9:44]
Night Songs: for voice, flute and piano (2010-13) [14:53]
Observations: Six songs for voice and piano to poems by Walter de la Mare (1979) [12:32]
Quarteto Iberico (Ghost of times past) for string quartet (2005, rev.2013) [22:46]
James Gilchrist (tenor) Adrienne Murray (mezzo-soprano) Michael Cox (flute) David Dubery (piano) Cavaleri Quartet: Martyn Jackson (violin) Ciaran McCabe (violin) Ann Beilby (viola) Rowena Calvert (cello)
Carole Nash Recital Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester 6 September 2013 (all vocal tracks) 12 September 2013 (Quartet)
Metier MSV 28548 [71:13]

Monday 25 August 2014

Lost Works No.1: Felix White’s Overture Shylock

Felix White’s Overture, Shylock showed ‘great promise,’ according to ‘X’ writing in the socialist New Age Journal. He further pointed out that the composer was only 23 years old and this perhaps explained his tendency to ‘…wallow in psychological analysis.’ I must confess I cannot imagine this discipline rigorously applied to the composition of a Concert Overture! The orchestration was excellent and resulted in some delightful scoring. ‘X’ considered that the construction of the Overture was ‘puzzling’ and he lamented the fact that a ‘programme’ was not provided. He felt that the composer had produced an ‘involved piece of writing.’ The conclusion of the work was doubtless meant to portray the state of Shylock’s mind as Shakespeare leaves him to us at the conclusion of the Merchant of Venice. However it was of concern that the overture ‘petered out’ and this is surely not the emotional state of Shylock at this time. The conclusion of the review has a sting in its tail. Apparently ‘Mr White might as well have been describing the collapse of a favourite writing desk for all the emotion he squeezes out of the subject.’
Stewart R. Craggs writing in 1984 writes that White regarded his work as being ‘a little Straussy’ here and there. White himself noted that the work was ‘voted extremely difficult at its first performance.’ The Musical Times critic stated that the overture was ‘a cleverly-scored production that so appealed to the audience that he was recalled to the platform three times. Although the design is entirely modern in conception the development is rational and the scoring clear and exaggerations are carefully avoided.’
This is certainly a work that would bear re-discovery. Although whether it ought to come before some of Felix White’s other orchestral compositions such as the Impressions of England or The Deserted Village, after Goldsmith is a debatable matter.

Friday 22 August 2014

Elgar & Sawyers Violin Sonatas on Nimbus Alliance

There are currently some 24 recordings of the Elgar Violin Sonata in E minor listed in the Arkiv catalogues. When these include such ‘big’ names as Nigel Kennedy, Hugh Bean, Tasmin Little and Lydia Mordkovitch, it has to be a special new release that would prompt me to purchase yet another version of this great, late chamber work. What the Steinberg Duo have done is to match an excellent new performance of this Sonata with two impressive examples of the genre by the contemporary composer Philip Sawyers. It is a good permutation.

I do not intend to give a biography of Philip Sawyers: there is a perfectly good thumbnail sketch on his webpage. Three points are worth noting. Firstly, Sawyers has been composing since he was 13. He later studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where he majored violin with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal, and composition from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.
Secondly, it is only in the past twenty years or so that he has been fully recognised as an important composer, although I admit to not having consciously heard any music by him until this present release.
And finally, after a career with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Sawyers now spends his ‘spare time’ from composing as a ‘freelance’ violinist, teacher and adjudicator having spent 12 years as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music from 2001-2013’.
His musical style has been summed up by Robert Matthew-Walker writing in Classical Source who reviewed the premiere of the Second symphony ‘deeply impressive work, serious in tone throughout, and genuinely symphonic…’ It is a sentiment I can apply to these present Violin Sonatas with the change from ‘symphonic’ to ‘instrumental’.

The first violin sonata began life as one for viola. It was written quickly for a Guildhall student during 1969.  Later it was ‘transcribed’ for another student performer, this time a violinist. What impressed me about this work was the extraordinary balance between what could be described as ‘bartokian’ drive coloured by harmonic piquancy and a more reflective, native sound that sits in a well-defined trajectory of the English Music Renaissance. I am not sure if the musical material of this sonata is derived from a ‘series’, but whatever the constructive scaffolding of this music, it is attractive, inspiring and moving.  The work is in three short movements with the beautiful central ‘andante’ forming its emotional depth. Stylistically, it must have seemed a very ‘conservative’ work when it was first performed at the end of the nineteen-sixties, yet the intervening years have given this music an almost timeless feel.

Musicologists usually regard with suspicion any composer who does not ‘develop’. They often try to categorise ‘periods’ in an artist’s musical biography, suggesting that ‘later is better’: that somehow the composer has been straining towards some particular goal all their creative live.  For example, it is a long way, musically, from Igor Stravinsky’s Russian works, through his neo-classical period to the serial compositions. There may be connections, stylistic markers and self-references, but there is also clear development –for better or worse. On this basis Philip Sawyers’ two violin sonatas he does not appear to have ‘developed’ in a stylistic sense. What has happened is that he has matured – both at a structural and technical level.  The second violin sonata is claimed as a twelve-tone work; however the composer wears this process lightly. He does not allow the ‘series’ to control his ‘inspiration’ –it is a tool, not a straightjacket.  This complex and virtuosic sonata is once again in three movements. The first, an allegro, is typically a ‘toccata’ balanced by some retrospective moments. Sawyers has noted that he made a ‘nod’ to the ‘baroque’ in this movement, but this is no ‘Back to Bach’ exercise.  The introverted ‘andante’ includes a hidden ‘brief 4-note quotation from Schoenberg’s 2nd Chamber Symphony’. Apparently judicious ‘homage’ to other composers is one of his ‘fingerprints.’  The final movement fairly romps along. This is more a ‘scherzo’ than a ‘sonata’ or ‘rondo’. There are a number of references to material from the previous movements.  The work ends with drama and energy. The entire Sonata is a tour de force for both performers. 

Alongside the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet, the Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 represents a late-flowering of Elgar’s compositional powers. They are commonly known as the ‘Brinkwells’ after the cottage in Sussex where the composer spent time recuperating during the last year of the Great War. The Sonata was dedicated to M.J. (Marie Joshua) who was a family friend. Elgar wrote to her, "I fear it does not carry us any further but it is full of golden sounds and I like it, but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist". Shortly after receiving this letter Marie died.

There were many who expected the new Sonata to be reflect the opulence of his symphonies however the result was much more concise and concentrated than many of his better known masterpieces. Elgar himself wrote that ‘the first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for violin…they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in an expressive way…the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony.’ There is much passion and ‘violent outpouring of emotion’ in these pages with the quieter and more tranquil themes reflecting grief, sadness and ultimately resignation.  The final movement is much more positive in its effect and the work concludes with great hope for the future. One particularly beautiful moment is the self-quotation of the central theme of the slow movement in the last pages of the work – this was in memory of Marie Joshua.  Its first public performance was by W.H. Reed and Landon Ronald on 21 March 1919.

The Steinberg Duo consist of the husband-and-wife partnership of Louisa Stonehill, violin and Nicholas Burns, piano. They are based in Greenwich in South-East London and have created a ‘specialised chamber music studio’ where they hold monthly recitals. Local residents are encouraged to ‘experience chamber music in its natural habitat, away from the concert hall’.  For the past two years the Duo has been in ‘residence’ for the month of January in the Banff Centre in Canada, the venue for the present recording.
As part of their commitment to contemporary music, they have a strong relationship with Philip Sawyer. They plan to record some examples of his concerted music, including the Concertante for Piano, violin and strings.

There is little to grumble about any aspect of this CD. I guess that Nimbus could have found one or two smaller pieces by Elgar or Sawyers to boost the total beyond 62 minutes. The liner notes are excellent and give a helpful introduction to Sawyers’ violin sonatas. A little more general information about this composer would have been helpful. I concede that Sawyers has an attractive Webpage although this is a little shy on detail. For example, there is no listing of all his works to date. The link to his music publisher refers only the 1st Violin Sonata.  The liner notes by Nicolas Burns for the Elgar sonata are ideal.  Finally the CD cover does not inspire me: the pianist sitting on the floor looks as if his shoes could do with a brush!

I imagine that few listeners will chose this CD solely for the Steinberg Duo’s rendition of the Elgar Sonata, in spite of the fact that it is given an exemplary performance. However, the two Philip Sawyer Sonatas are such a startling discovery that it makes a surprisingly good package. The common thread between these three works is the sense of retrospection balanced by an often intense outpouring of emotion in Elgar’s case and energy in Sawyers’.
It is good to come across music from a composer who has not gone down the avenue of producing ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ inspired music that lacks emotion, structure and challenge. After hearing so much Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow on the airwaves it is refreshing to hear some respectable, honest, down to earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled structure and moments of sheer inspiration. I look forward to hearing more of Philip Sawyers music.

Taken as a whole, this CD is an excellent addition to the violin sonata repertoire. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Philip SAWYERS (b. 1951) Violin Sonata No.1 (1969) [13:46] Violin Sonata No.2 (2011) [21:05]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918) [26:46]
Steinberg Duo Louisa Stonehill (violin) Nicholas Burns (piano)
Rec. The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada January 2013
Nimbus Alliance NI6240 [61:37]

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Sir Edward Elgar Introduction and Allegro – Sir Adrian Boult 1937 Recording

Sir Adrian Boult
My introduction to the music of Sir Edward Elgar was some 43 years ago when I was still at school. In those days the music department record library consisted of a good selection of vinyl 33rpm and old 78rpm records. Amongst the latter, was the 1937 recording of an Introduction and Allegro for Strings played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This two-record set also included the haunting Sospiri. I remember somehow getting those fragile records home on the school bus without breaking them. Fortunately, my father’s stereogram still had the 78rpm stylus fitted, so I was able to listen to them as soon as I got home. A recording was made on a cassette tape (which I still possess) simply by placing the microphone in front of the speakers and hoping my mother did not come into the sitting room to announce that tea was ready.

In the October 1934 edition of The Gramophone magazine H.E.J. Collins had declared a wish list of up-to-date recordings that he felt ‘are ardently desired by many gramophiles’. He listed five or six works with accompanying artists. This included Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony by Koussevitzky and the Boston Orchestra, Schubert’s 7th Symphony by Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings with Boult and the BBC Orchestra.  His letter also refers to the music of Bax and Moeran, but that is perhaps for another post.
Three years later HMV released the wished-for recording of Elgar on DB3198-9. It had been recorded on 24 March 1937 at the EMI Studio 1 at Abbey Road.
The most extensive review of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro was printed in the August 1937 edition of the Musical Times:-

Full marks to Adrian Boult and the strings of the B.B.C. orchestra for their performance of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro (DB 3198-99). This, to my mind, is better than Toscanini's performance with the same players on May 28, [Queen’s Hall, London] brilliant as that undoubtedly was, and well as it deserved its chorus of praise. What startled everybody on that occasion was, I think, the virtuosity of the string-playing and the daring leadership that asked everything of the players and got it. Under Toscanini we were given an unsurpassed realization of Elgar's string-writing. Yet it was an incomplete interpretation of Elgar's music, for it passed over those implications that are only to be perceived by one who has had a life-long intimacy with Elgar's special code. This intimacy does not proceed from an eclectic appreciation, such as Toscanini's, that fastens upon a few works such as the Enigma Variations and the Introduction and Allegro for what they possess of everyday merit. Its ground is an appreciation that is sympathetic to Elgar as a whole and catches the drift of all his music, both of the kind that breaks down European barriers and of the kind that stays within its own frontiers. It is thus that Adrian Boult appreciates Elgar. He sees in the Introduction and Allegro, not only what the writing says, but all the modifications and glosses put upon it by the Elgarian code. To play the music as the composer wrote it will not serve here, although with Elgar's almost garrulous directions the process gives the conductor plenty to attend to... …One of the few definite points of comparison between Toscanini and Boult is the tempo primo at the beginning of the fugue. Possibly Toscanini's headlong tempo was strictly primo by the clock. But Boult's more measured beat gives a clearer definition to the contrapuntal lines and their separate incidents. Moreover, it leads to a more distinct pui animato at the twenty-second bar of the fugue…Where memory is the only guide it is difficult to be specific; but it can be affirmed that in total effect Boult's interpretation is Elgarian in a way that Toscanini's just failed to be. The recorded performance sounds as if it had been thoroughly rehearsed, the players giving the conductor all the quick response that he asks of them… 
A review in the Yorkshire Evening Post (Friday 2 July 1937) suggests that the Introduction and Allegro holds ‘an assured place as one of the finest compositions ever written for string orchestra…and has the emotional uplift which Elgar at his greatest can inspire. He believes that this music ‘truly are strains that might create a soul under the ribs of death.’ (John Milton, Comus). Commenting on the ‘new’ records he rather oddly states that ‘In the wide field which he must cover, Sir Adrian does not always please.’  However, with the Elgar ‘in his aspiring mood the BBC music director can be deeply impressive, and so he is here.’ He concludes his review with praise for Sospiri and states that ‘these are two deeply satisfying records.’  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Inteligencer (Thursday 15 July 1937) also picked up on this new record release: ‘We may rely on Sir Adrian Boult to give a better account of Elgar than any foreign conductor, however gifted. Here is Elgar at his ripest, moving happily in a large design and showing at every turn his deep love and understanding of strings. The playing is almost impeccable and the fluctuating tempi are felt to be part of this conception.’

The July 1937 copy of The Gramophone carried an extensive review, a comparison with a recent performance by Toscanini and an ‘analysis’ of this new record. The reviewer immediately suggested that Boult used too much ‘rubato in this recording (stolen time where the conductor gives some of the time value of longer notes to shorter ones without changing the rhythm).  However, he considers that the music speaks ‘with some of the deepest feeling and the finest architectural sense.’
He suggests that the performance is ‘good, but not more.’  He is concerned that the recording conditions may have had a negative impact on this music.’ The playing was ‘honest’ but not exciting’.  He thought that the climaxes were understated.  On the positive side, Boult ‘feels the Englishness of it all, and that (without entering into the impassioned debate about this business of Englishness and foreignness) does matter.’

There are currently some sixty recordings of Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for string listed in the Arkiv Catalogue. However, from a personal point of view it is a classic example of when the first performance of a work which one hears is the ‘lifetime’ touchstone. Since those far off school-days I have heard many versions of the Introduction and Allegro including performances by Colin Davis, Mark Elder and Richard Hickox. But for me my favourite is still the old 1937 Boult recording. Fortunately it is available on download and on CD.

Brief Discography:
Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1937 recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings is currently available on:-
CD EI CDM 763 097-2 (1986)
CD VAI Audio VAIA 1067-2 (1

Saturday 16 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Conclusion

I have considered three works in this paper. They are representative of the genre of music which could (and often is, identified) as ‘pastoral’ music. 
Ivor Gurney’s A Gloucester Rhapsody is sunshine all the way. In spite of considerable suffering during the Great War, Gurney has written an optimistic work that furthers the ‘myth’ of an unspoilt pre-industrial revolution English countryside with Yeoman stock. It is a work that is purely descriptive of the landscape and the perceived, inherently good people that lived there.

Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera uses many of the clichés of musical pastoralism, however this is a deeply introverted work that is more concerned with loss of life seen through the lens of the arch-typical English countryside. Finzi was too young to have fought in the First World War, but his Requiem is one of most thoughtful meditations on loss, and futility. Yet beauty of landscape and the pain of war cannot be disentangled in this work.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his Pastoral Symphony, has produced a masterpiece of reflection. He was present on the battlefield and saw for himself the tragedy of war.  Yet his music does not seek to exorcise the evil of war nor to arouse pity or create a rose-coloured picture of foreign fields forever England. He is neither a musical Rupert Brooke nor a Wilfred Owen.

This music presents the thoughts of a man longing for his homeland and at the same time recognising that evil is an ever present feature of the Human Condition. More than the other composers he evokes the balance of a pantheistic attachment to the landscape with a deeply considered understanding of the inherently selfish, fallen (and sometime evil) nature of humankind. It is a perfect definition of that which is best and lasting in the genre. In this sense the Pastoral Symphony epitomises a genre which can be redefined as Cows, Gates and the Sob of Memory. 
John France July 2014

Wednesday 13 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part Four

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams: Pastoral Symphony
On face value, there are few works to beat Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony as an example of the eponymous genre. (I have eschewed discussing the ever popular, chart topping, Lark Ascending.) The Symphony was begun shortly after RVWs return from France and was completed in 1921. From the opening bars to the dying pages of the wordless soprano solo in the epilogue, it appears to epitomise the English landscape. Frank Howes wrote that this work does for the countryside as the same composer’s first symphony did for the Sea and the second did for London.  The Pastoral Symphony is largely contemplative from end to end. Michael Kennedy has insisted that Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony cannot bear comparison to Beethoven’s. He declares that ‘There are no imitation bird-calls, no thunderstorms and no ‘awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the countryside.’
The composer made use of modal melodies derived from his enthusiasm for folksong and Tudor ecclesiastical music, although there are no ‘actual’ folksongs quoted in this work.  There is a constant interweaving of melodies with triadic blocks of harmonies setting up false relations. Page after page of this score is restrained: there are virtually no climaxes.
Vaughan Williams had prepared the ground for music critics to derive a false understanding of this work within the parameters of ‘English Pastoral’. Pre-war compositions had included the Norfolk Rhapsodies and In the Fen Country. Earlier tone-poems musically evoking the English countryside and coast had delivered Harnam Down, Boldre Wood and The Solent. And finally there was that arch-typical example of the pastoral genre The Lark Ascending which had gestated during the war years.

In 1916 Vaughan Williams joined the Royal Army Medical Corp as an ambulance driver and saw action on the Western Front and latterly in Salonica.
The composer never explicitly defined what inspired his Pastoral Symphony. However the nearest he came to explaining it was in a letter to his future wife Ursula Wood: -
‘It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted… It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like  landscape in the sunset’.
There is the oft-told tale of how the composer heard a bugler practicing ‘behind the lines’ or was it at the RAMC depot at Borden in Hampshire? Sometimes the bugler would hit the seventh instead of the octave. This has been preserved as the key theme in the second movement.
The third movement ‘scherzo’ which barely lives up to its name has ‘menace’. It is as if a malignant force has appeared on the sunlit uplands. Yet even here this is not the clash of armies or the despair of the wounded and the horror of the dying. It is something deeper: something elemental.
Modern criticism evacuates the notion that this is a work that evokes a summer Sunday’s ramble on the Cotswolds or a climb up Box Hill on a sunny day.  It is the French Landscape that is meditated on…
But what are we left with? Perhaps this modern criticism is misplaced?
Three things can be adduced:-
Firstly, the composer was clearly conscious of the English landscape: presumably he did not forget the moods, the sights and smells and sounds of Gloucestershire and the South Downs even when he was in action. He would often have recalled happier days tramping the countryside with Gustav Holst in search of the remnants of a rural musical past. This would have been intensified by the insecurities of the battlefield surroundings.
This remembrance of happier times surely coloured much that is in this symphony.
Secondly, the landscape of Northern France is in many ways similar to parts of England-and it was not all a sea of mud as the well-worn myth implies. It would have reminded the composer of those cheerier days. So, perhaps there is a touch of ‘cow and gate’ here, though this is definitely not the predominant mood.
One can only imagine his duties as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corp with a shudder. He must have witnessed things that no-one should ever have to see. True, there would have been lighter moments, humour, banter and the huge satisfaction of saving lives –and time spent on R&R behind the lines. However, the horrors would lie deep. The loss of friends would colour his thoughts. Vaughan Williams once wrote to Gustave Holst:-
‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps’.  The name of George Butterworth springs to mind: there were many others. 
So, I believe that there is a deeply elegiac mood to much of this music. This is the composer’s War Requiem.
The Pastoral Symphony is a huge ‘tragedy’ modified by a great hope for the future. It is loss, but it is also a reflection on the nobler aspects of humankind’s nature.  This is music that looks forward to the triumph of Bunyan’s Pilgrim as he nears the end of his journey with a glimpse of the Celestial City from the ‘Delectable Mountains’. It also looks back to something more tragic in the pages of Job or more horrific in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In this sense, Ralph Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony epitomises a subtle balance of melancholy with and active remembrance of the rural aspects of England that the composer recalled whilst on active service.
To be continued...

Sunday 10 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part Three

Ivor Gurney
Ivor Gurney: The Gloucestershire Rhapsody
Ivor Gurney was a casualty of the war just like so many others: in his case he was gassed, as well as receiving a shoulder wound. In March 1918 Gurney had a serious breakdown which was misdiagnosed, and subsequently treated, as ‘shell-shock.’ Nowadays he would have been recognised as bi-polar. Gurney was both poet and composer.
Unfortunately, there is a persistent rumour that bedevils virtually all of Gurney’s post-war music. Many of his songs and chamber works have been declared unpublishable due largely to the incoherence of their formal construction. There are a number of pieces that have been recovered. In some cases they have only required minor editing. However, in the case of The Gloucestershire Rhapsody a virtual reconstruction was required.
Anecdotally, it was long regarded as one his most important compositions, in spite of it not being performed until 2010 at the Three Choirs Festival.
Philip Lancaster has described this work as ‘a great sweeping landscape which portrays the nobility of Gurney’s Gloucestershire’. This work does not wallow in a ‘clichéd rhapsodic lyricism’ but cleverly presents ‘unity in diversity’. In parts of the score, Gurney nods towards a musical medievalism which Lancaster suggests may represent an almost Virgilian Pastoralism.
The Gloucestershire Rhapsody is a long, wide ranging work that eschews pessimism or self-pity.  The march-like themes, which are ever present in this work, owe much to Elgar in their ‘Nobilmente’ sound. However. these are ‘Marches of the onset of the high-pomps of summer’ rather than reflecting the clash of empires.
It is surprising that a composer who was suffering so many personal problems and health issues could have written such an optimistic work. There is no darkness here. It may not be a masterpiece, but what it achieves is a glorious musical picture of Gloucestershire. It is ‘pastoral music’ at its best.  
Here Gurney is looking back before the First World War and is endeavouring to recapture a lost world-partially true partially imagined.  It is truly a view from Chosen Hill so beloved of the composer.

Gerald Finzi: Requiem de Camera
Gerald Finnzi
Much of Gerald Finzi’s music could be described as being ‘pastoral’ in its mood and sound. For example, the evocative Severn Rhapsody is descriptive of a landscape beloved of the composer himself, Gurney and Herbert Howells.  It fulfils Perkins ‘pastoral’ criteria to a tee. When Finzi was seventeen years old he was studying with the composer Ernest Farrar. In 1918 Farrar, who had enlisted and was killed on the battlefield near Cambrai. Six years later Finzi began to compose his Requiem da Camera whilst living in the Cotswolds.
The work was dedicated to his teacher and was Finzi’s indictment of the war.  Philip Thomas has noted that in spite of the ‘elegiac stillness’ of much of the Requiem it is still a work of protest – it is ‘a desperate cry for certainty in a faithless world.’  I think that this description could serve as a good definition of the pastoral genre.
The opening section of the Requiem is a ‘prelude’ for orchestra which sets the melancholic mood of the piece. This is followed by John Masefield’s ‘blasted ‘pastoral’’ ‘August 1914’ which epitomises the ‘lost generation’ of artists, agriculturists and artisans that are so often alluded to in any discussion of this period.
The third movement was realised by Philip Thomas from a manuscript found in the Bodlean Library: it is a setting of Thomas Hardy’s magisterial war poem ‘Only a man harrowing clods’.  The final section of the work is a ‘Lament’ by the ‘Georgian’ poet William Wilfred Gibson which reflects on how the survivors of the war dealt with memories of what had happened.  Gibson, who had been a close friend of Rupert Brooke and the publisher Edward Marsh was a private in the trenches and thankfully survived the war.

Requiem da Camera is a perfect balance of introspection about the human cost of war, counterpoised with a musical depiction of a (for the composer) half-recalled landscape and society that had largely (but not quite) disappeared by the time the 1914-18 War began. This has remained as a ‘Land of Lost Content’ that composers, artists, poets and dreamers have long sought and are still seeking and will only ever find echoes.  
To be continued...

Thursday 7 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part Two

Pre-Great War Pastoral Music
This essay is not a history of British pastoral music. However, the genre existed for a number prior to the Great War.
If we hold to Ted Perkins three point definition of pastoral music it is necessary to exclude a number of pieces seemingly fit the bill.
Works like Edward German’s delightful opera ‘Merrie England’ and Luard Selby’s Village Suite are more ‘bucolic’ than pastoral.  John Blackwood McEwan’s Grey Galloway is a tone-poem more in akin to Liszt than a piece of pastoral music alluding to a landscape.  Many character pieces display rustic titles that were added by the publisher after the music was composed.
During the first three decades of the twentieth century many Rhapsodies were composed using folksongs and national tunes. These are often well-written and finely orchestrated but are usually just a pot-pourri of well-known melodies.
Much nearer to our definition are two important tone-poems by George Butterworth – On the Banks of Green Willow and his Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad.  This latter is a melancholic work that reflects on the transience of life. It fulfils all of Perkin’s criteria in spite of its musical subject being a song written by the composer himself.  Both were composed before the Great War.

The Wartime Situation
Looking at British music composed during the 1914-18 War reveals two predominant responses to unfolding events:-
Firstly, there were ‘wartime’ works by Sir Edward Elgar (and others) which included Polonia, a rhapsody on popular and patriotic Polish tunes. There were also the recitations now deemed ephemeral, such as Le Drapeau Belge – The Belgian Flag and Une Voix dans le Desert – A Voice in the Desert. 
The second response to the shattering world events was ‘business as usual’. It is difficult to read any great war-torn trauma in contemporary works by Havergal Brian, Frederick Delius or Percy Grainger.
The musicologist Lewis Foreman has noted only one ‘war symphony’ dating from 1914-18 – Thomas Dunhill’s A minor.
One important exception is Herbert Howells. Better remembered today as a prolific composer of liturgical and organ music, his earlier output included many orchestral and chamber works. The ‘Elegy’ for viola and String Quartet and String Orchestra from 1917 and the 'The B's' Suite for full orchestra written in 1914 both contain heartfelt ‘elegiac’ music commemorating friends and colleagues who had fallen or were combatants. In particular Francis Purcell Warren who was reported missing at Mons in July 1916. Other musicians ‘remembered’ by Howells included Arthur Benjamin, an Australian, who became a prisoner of war, Arthur Bliss who was later wounded on the Western Front and Ivor ‘Bertie’ Gurney.

The Post War Situation.
Pastoralism was only one musical response to the social, political and artistic challenges to emerge from the war. On September 3 1912 Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces had been heard in London for the first time. As can be imagined, it drew considerable negative criticism.   It was a work that impressed Peter Warlock who felt that ‘one gets now and again a glimpse…of some weird, new country, and although one can only see it from a distance, there is a strange fascination in the idea of its further possibilities.’
In the United Kingdom there was a considerable diversity of musical expression. Elgar, Holst and Delius continued writing characteristic music until their deaths in 1934.   Bax was inspired by Eire and produced a series of evocative scores. John Ireland wrote urbane music that often evoked a kind of English impressionism: certainly they were given titles such as Amberley Wild Brooks and The Towing Path.
After the 1914-18 War, Frank Bridge developed ‘disturbing’ tendencies. Once a composer of powerful, romantic orchestral tone-poems and character pieces for piano, his musical language began to reflect Modernistic developments from the Continent including the music of Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Bridge did not entirely lose his post Brahmsian voice, but in works such as the Piano Sonata he was exploring radical new territory.
Arthur Bliss, who was later to become Master of the Queen’s Music is remembered for his sub-Elgarian Colour Symphony and his biting score to the film Things to Come. Yet in the immediate post-war years he was absorbing influences from Ravel, Stravinsky and Jazz.  His great ‘war’ work was Morning Heroes which was first heard in 1930 and dedicated to his brother Kennard, who had been killed in action.
William Walton was a North Country lad who fell in with the Sitwells and produced his early masterpiece Façade, which looked towards Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for inspiration.  Yet his style soon changed and after adopting neo-classicism exemplified by Portsmouth Point and then Sibelius in his First Symphony. He is best remembered now for his sub-Elgarian marches.
Pastoral music was just one trajectory in the music being written in the post Great War years.

I want to look at three diverse works all of which are claimed by musicologists as belonging to the Pastoral School. They are all composed by men who would have known Chosen Hill with the view towards the Severn and the distant hills.  Two were composed by veterans of the conflict. 
To be continued...

Monday 4 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part One

Herbert Howells
Chosen Hill, with its views over the Vale of Severn toward the Forest of Dean and the Black Mountains, now unbearably close to the M5, acts as a kind of nodal point for a number of British composers. Four in particular demand our attention.
Herbert Howells, whose Piano Quartet is dedicated to a fellow Gloucestershire composer with the inscription ‘To the Hill of Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it".
Then there was Gerald Finzi, born in London but who loved Gloucestershire and the Severn. Finzi was diagnosed with Hodgkinson's Disease in 1951. Five years later, he and Ralph Vaughan Williams went on a walking trip to Chosen Hill. They visited the local sexton’s cottage for tea. Unfortunately, there were children with chickenpox in the house. Finzi contracted the disease. Due to his weakened state it caused severe brain inflammation. So Chosen Hill was to be the death of Finzi.
And finally there is Ralph Vaughan Williams, also a Gloucestershire man born in Down Ampney who loved walking on Chosen Hill.   His music is often deemed to evoke various English landscapes.
All four composers have been condemned for writing ‘pastoral’ music.  
All four composers have been accused of writing ‘cow pat music’ or of ‘rolling in the mud’ or being ‘just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate’.
Yet ‘English Pastoral’ Music is popular.
It sells CDs and fills concert halls.
It gives the listener warm, cosy feelings about an England that used to exist – sometime in the past, just before our grandparents were born.
It presents an aural impression of an imagined ‘Golden Age’ or ‘Garden of Eden’.
Yet pastoral imagery in music can be tainted. The Fall of Humankind limits its effect.
Like the Shropshire Lad himself the pastoral image has been smutched with violence.
The Great War gouged a great scar in the largely fictional concept of a rural paradise.

What is Pastoral Music?
The musicologist Ted Perkins has suggested that there are at least three stylistic markers for this genre:
1) The use of folksong or modally inspired melody: this can include music from the Tudor era.
2) Impressionistic techniques beloved of Ravel & Debussy
3) A neo-classical, as opposed to sub-Wagnerian romantic, colouring.
To complicate matters further, Eric Saylor has recognised the concept of ‘soft’ pastoral and ‘hard’ pastoral that can be applied to literature and music.  
‘Soft Pastoral’ seeks to escape from the relative chaos of urban life to the rural idyll.  An example would be The Lark Ascending.
 ‘Hard’ Pastoral would attempt to ‘present an unsentimental view of nature and the countryside, free from escapist trappings.’   Examples include the novels of Thomas Hardy.
To be continued...