Wednesday 31 August 2016

Introductions XVIII: E.J. Moeran by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock): Part III

Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) c.1924
Of his original compositions the most important that have yet appeared in print are the Violin Sonata [1] and the String Quartet [2] which were first introduced to the public at the concert of his works given at [the] Wigmore Hall early in 1923 with the co-operation of Miss Harriet Cohen, M. Désiré Dufauw, [3] and the Allied String Quartet [4]. Both works have three or four predecessors in the form lying in manuscript, which accounts for the entire absence of any of the signs of technical limitation and uncertainty which are often conspicuous in a composer’s earliest publications. Both display a notable wealth of ideas very completely expressed, but the quartet is undoubtedly the more original work of the two.
In the Sonata the texture and disposition of notes in the piano part, as well as certain harmonic progressions, betray too obviously the composer's intimate acquaintance with the work of John Ireland, and several pages are conceived in a turgid style which contrasts very markedly with the delightful clarity and simplicity of the Quartet. Moeran has a fine harmonic sense, wide in its range and subtle in its workings, intuitive and quite untheoretical, but in his piano writing it occasionally runs away with him at a moment of stress and defeats its own object by producing a blurred and clotted effect. But these lapses are not of frequent occurrence, and in the ‘Toccata’ (Chester) [5] we have as brilliant – and, in its middle section, as sensitive - a piece of piano writing as any British composer has given us.

Moeran's classical predilections have fortunately secured him from the too common error of supposing that a piece of music can consist exclusively of a series of curious chords. His work is always distinguished by clear melodic outlines and firm rhythmic structure, and if in his chamber music he adheres very largely to traditional forms, the admirable continuity of line and sense of climax displayed in his smaller pieces afford ample proof that this adherence is far from being servile or mechanical. In spite of his tendency to work outwards, so to speak, from a purely harmonic basis, he contrives very ingeniously to impart a quasi-contrapuntal vitality to the texture of his piano-writing by means of little wayward inflections of rhythm; even in his most massive progressions of heavy chords the sense of direction and line always predominates over the more harmonic interest of the moment.

If there is an emotional shortcoming in his work, it is that where we might look for passion we find only restless energy and a rather physical sort of exuberance; but in his quieter moments he has contrived, like Butterworth, to capture and reflect in his music in a very delightful and individual way something of the indefinable spirit of the English landscape and the life of the English countryside. There is a refreshing open-airiness about his music which is as untainted by the futility of academic prejudices as it is unaffected by the stupendous musical revolutions which take place on the continent with monotonous regularity two or three times every week.

Moeran is at present in his thirtieth year. Dr. Ernest Walker, in his History of Music in England, [6] suggests forty as the earliest age at which a composer can challenge opinion of his work as a whole; and in recent generations British musical talent seems to have come very slowly to maturity. The reputations of Delius, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams, for example, would be slender indeed, did they depend entirely on works composed before the age of thirty. But there is no British composer from whom we may more confidently expect work of sound and enduring quality in the next ten years than from Jack Moeran; there is certainly no one of his years who has as yet achieved so much.
Philip Heseltine The Music Bulletin June 1924

[1] E.J. Moeran’s Violin Sonata was composed in 1923. The Sonata was dedicated to Désiré Dufauw (see note 3 below) and was first heard at a concert in the Wigmore Hall on 15 January 1923 with the dedicatee and the pianist Harriet Cohen.
[2] The String Quartet in A minor was composed during 1921. It was first performed as the Wigmore Hall on 15 January 1923. It was dedicated to Désiré Dufauw. Moeran had written an earlier String Quartet in E flat which is undated but was probably composed between 1918 and 1920.
[3] M. Désiré Dufauw (1885-1960) was a Belgian violinist and conductor. During the First World War he toured England with the Allied String Quartet.
[4] Allied String Quartet (for the String Quartet) consisted of Désiré Dufauw (violin) Charles Woodhouse (violin) James Lockyer (viola) and Ambrose Gauntlet (cello). The personnel changed over time.
[5] The ‘Toccata’ for piano was composed around 1921. It was first performed in London on 15 or 16 October 1924 in London by the pianist Archy Rosenthal, who was also the work’s dedicatee.  It was published by J. W. Chester & Ltd in 1924. 
[6] Dr. Ernest Walker’s History of Music in England was first published in 1907 by the Clarendon Press, Oxford and subsequently reissued a number of times, latterly with additional information by J.A.Westrup (3rd edition, 1952). 

Sunday 28 August 2016

Introductions XVIII: E.J. Moeran by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock): Part II

[Moeran] then spent a year at the Royal College of Music, joined the army at the outbreak of war, was severely wounded in France in May 1917, and after his recovery was attached to the transport section of the R.I.C, [Royal Irish Constabulary] [1] remaining in Ireland until demobilized in 1919. Military service did not, however, entail a complete suspension of his musical activities. By the end of the war he had acquired considerable facility in the technique of composition, and had a fair amount of chamber music to his credit. But feeling still a little unsure of himself he had some lessons from John Ireland, for whose work he had conceived a particular admiration.
It was about this time that Moeran discovered that the tradition of folk-singing was still vigorously alive in the district of Norfolk in which he had lived from his eighth to his twentieth year. His familiarity with the neighbourhood gave him facilities which are often denied to the stranger, and his collection of songs, which now number considerably over a hundred, is undoubtedly one of the finest that has yet been made in any part of the kingdom. There has certainly been no collector who has entered more whole-heartedly into the spirit of the old tradition. He collects these songs from no antiquarian, historical, or psychological motives, but because he loves them and the people who sing them. It is of no more interest to him whether a tune be referable to this, that, or the other mode, or whether a variant of its words is to be found on some old broadside, than it is to the singers themselves. For him, as for them, the song itself is the thing - a thing lived, a piece of the communal life of the country; and, indeed, it is a much more heartening musical experience to sit in a good country pub and hear fine tunes trolled by the company over their pots of beer than to attend many a concert in the West End of London. It is no good appearing suddenly at a cottage-door, notebook in hand, as if you might be the bum-bailey [2] or the sanitary inspector, and - if you manage to overcome the singer’s stage fright at all - holding up your hands in pious horror at any verses of a song which may conflict with the alleged tastes of a suburban drawing-room; nor should you spoil the ground for other collectors (as someone has tried to do in Norfolk, its seems) [3] by forgetting that old throats grow dry after an hour’s singing. The scholarly folklorist has his own reward, but he does not get in touch with the heart of the people. Perhaps the finest tribute that could be paid to Moeran’s personal popularity in the district was the remark of an old man at Sutton after a sing-song to which Moeran had brought a visitor from London: ‘We were a bit nervous of him; with you it’s different, of course - you’re one of us - but he was a regular gentleman, he was.’

Of the ‘Six Folk-songs from Norfolk’ arranged for voice and piano (Augener) [4] which were first sung on the concert platform (and inimitably well sung) by John Goss at South Place last winter, three are quite perfect specimens of the English tradition in its purest and most beautiful form. These are ‘Down by the River side’, one of the most natural 5/4 tunes imaginable (incidentally 5/4 is quite a favourite measure in Norfolk, and any suspicion of it being a possible distortion of triple or quadruple time is dispelled by the decisive thump with which mugs come down on the table or boots come down on the floor to mark the rhythm); ‘The Shooting of his Dear,’ which is an excellent example of Moeran’s characteristically free but always appropriate methods of harmonization; and ‘Lonely Waters,’ which he has treated in a more extended manner in a very attractive little piece for small orchestra. [5]

The influence of English folk-song is naturally apparent in many of Moeran’s original compositions, notably in the spacious and impressive ‘Rune’ for piano (Augener), [6] in his admirable setting of ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’ from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (Oxford University Press), [7] and in the principal theme of his first orchestral ‘Rhapsody’ which - presented by the bassoon in its upper octave - will always appeal to the ribald as the ideal tune for all Limericks. There are occasional traces also of the very different and rather less salutary influence of Gaelic folk-song. It is an influence that is too easily over-worked and, although there are undoubtedly many whom no melody that suggests a Scottish or an Irish origin can fail to enchant, there are others to whom the all-too-frequent appearance of pentatonic tunes in our music of recent years recalls the story Robert Burns [8] tells of a gentleman who ‘expressed an ardent ambition to compose a Scots air’ and was told to ‘keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, and preserve some kind of rhythm, and he would infallibly compose a Scots air.’ But Moeran has far too strong a vein of original melodic invention to rely overmuch upon this too facile resource.

[1] This is part of the ‘Moeran Myth’. There is no suggestion that he was posted to the Royal Irish Constabulary.  In his thesis, The Importance of being Ernest John, Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E.J. Moeran, (University of Durham, 2014) Ian Maxwell states that in January 1918 units of Moeran’s outfit, the 1/6th (Cyclist) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment ‘were deployed to Ireland to support efforts to control increasing Nationalist disturbances.’ At this time Moeran was still assigned light duties which included being a motor-cycle dispatch rider. No documentary trace of Moeran being attached to the Royal Irish Constabulary can be found. Maxwell suggests that ‘the most likely explanations for this notion having arisen are either that Moeran misremembered his attachment or that Heseltine misunderstood Moeran’s story.’
[2] ‘Bum-bailey’ was an Elizabethan expression for the bailiff or the sheriff's officer, who was deemed to catch people by sneaking up behind them.  It was used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night Act III Scene IV.
[3] I wonder who this individual folk-song collector was. I was unable to trace him. Any information welcome.
[4] ‘Six Folk Songs from Norfolk’ were written in 1923 and published in 1925 by Augener.  The songs include: ‘Down by the riverside’, ‘The Bold Richard’, ‘Lonely Waters’, ‘The Pressgang’, ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ and ‘The Oxford Sporting Blade.’
[5] ‘Lonely Waters’ is the first of ‘Two Pieces for Small Orchestra’. The second is ‘Wythorne’s Shadow.’ Both were published by Novello in 1935. However, there is some debate as to when ‘Lonely Waters’ was composed. Clearly, Warlock writing in 1924 claimed to know the orchestral piece. Geoffrey Self believes, based on a stylistic analysis, that it was revised in later years, possibly 1930-1. The score calls for an ad-lib folksinger positioned at the back of the orchestra to sing ‘Then I will go down to some lonely waters/Go down to where no one shall me find/Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices/And every moment blow blustering wild.’
[6] ‘Rune’ is the second number of Two Legends composed in 1923. The first was ‘A Folk Story.’ They were both published by Augener in 1924.
[7] ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’ was completed in ‘Midsummer 1916’and was the final song in the cycle ‘Ludlow Town’ derived from Alfred Edward Housman’s ‘Shropshire Lad’. The other poems in the set included ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’, ‘Farewell to barn and stack and tree’ and Say, lad, have you things to do?’
[8] Robert Burns (1759-96) the Scottish poet and lyricist wrote in a letter dated November 1794 to his editor, George Thomson concerning the song ‘Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonie Doon’: ‘Do you know the history of the air? - It is curious enough. - A good many years ago a Mr Jas Miller, ... was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air. - Mr Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air. - Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr Miller produced the rudiments of an air, which Mr Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question ...

To be continued…

Thursday 25 August 2016

Introductions XVIII: E.J. Moeran by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock): Part I

E.J. Moeran
I have collated the original text with that published on the Moeran Database. A few minor edits have been made. I have provided a few glosses and comments on the text.

Jack Wilkes, [1] the famous member for Middlesex, once remarked to Dr Johnson that ‘there is something in names which one cannot help feeling. Now, Elkanah Settle [2] sounds so queer, who can expect much from that name? We should have no hesitation to give it for John Dryden in preference to Elkanah Settle, from the names only, without knowing their different merits.’ It does very often happen that one reads a man's name repeatedly in the newspapers before one has any knowledge of his work or his personality, and from the name itself an impression of its owner is made on the mind which in some cases is apt to colour, all unconsciously, our subsequent opinion of him. Now it is the aim of every ambitious young author or composer to keep his name before the public, and he is a fortunate man if that name is one that is easy to pronounce and to remember and, moreover, a name that arouses pleasurable anticipations when it is heard and read. I must confess that when I first encountered the name of E. J. Moeran in the Daily Telegraph [3] some years ago, no clear impression was made upon my mind. In the first place there is something cold and inhuman in the indication of the Christian name by a mere initial. A good tradition has ordained that composers shall be more to us than N. or M. until such time as fame bestows on them the dignity of a surname tout court. J S Bach is admissible - though the sonorous Johann Sebastian is vastly preferable; but R. V. Williams gives but a distorted image of a personality singularly clear in its full denomination; and the monstrosity of F. A. T. Delius [4] has never even been perpetrated by those who are pedantic enough to announce a work by W. A. Mozart. In the case of Moeran, the nationality of the name is dubious at first sight; it is actually Irish (though not in accordance with Gaelic orthography); but the oe suggests the Teutonic modified o as in Koeln - or again, might be pronounced as in oesophagus. Whereas when we hear of Jack Moran [5] (with the accent on the Mor) all is clear at once and a personality is apparent. It sounds so delightfully unlike a professional musician - and one might spend many pleasant hours in Moeran's company without discovering that, officially at any rate, he was accounted one.

His strength as a composer lies in the fact that he is a human being first and a musician afterwards. A man of many interests, he does not - for example - compete in an arduous motor-cycling reliability trial in the vague hope that this exercise may somehow improve his music; nor did he begin his career as a musician in the spirit of the small boy who, when asked by his schoolmaster what he was going to be when he grew up, replied: ‘An author, sir!’ and was met with the facer: ‘But supposing you can't auth?’ - a contingency the young mind had not envisaged.

Moeran began writing music when a boy at Uppingham. He had heard a good deal at school concerts and elsewhere, and thought it would be fun to try and produce some out of his own head. In fact, one may say that he learned composition simply by practising it. Of all the English public schools, Uppingham seems to provide the most favourable conditions for the development of musical talent. The music master occupies a position second only to that of the head master in importance, and the boys are encouraged to develop a living interest in music, quite apart from any lessons in instrumental playing to which they may be committed. During the four years spent at Uppingham (1908-12) Moeran achieved considerable proficiency as a pianist; he also mastered the technique of the violin sufficiently well to be able to take part in performances of chamber music, and, under the sympathetic guidance of Robert (grandson of Sir William) Sterndale Bennett, he learned also how to listen intelligently, how to read and absorb music - far more important accomplishments than the mere ability to perform it - so that by the time he left the school he had gained a very fair knowledge of what are called the classics, from Bach to Brahms.

Beyond Brahms he had not pursued his investigations. He felt no curiosity about the music of his contemporaries; even Wagner was unknown to him. But chance came to his assistance one night in the spring of 1913 when, finding himself crowded out of St. Paul’s Cathedral where Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ [6] was to be given, he went to Queen’s Hall to hear a concert of modern British music rather than hear no music at all. This was one of the admirable series [7] given by Balfour Gardiner - concerts that will long be remembered in the annals of British music, though they were insufficiently appreciated at the time they were given - and the programme contained the Delius Piano Concerto, which accomplished for Moeran the same sort of miracle that ‘Tristan’ and certain works of Grieg had effected for Delius in the eighties, and revealed a new world of sound to his imagination.

[1] Warlock refers to John (Jack) Wilkes (1725-1797) who was an English radical, journalist, and politician.   
[2] Elkanah Settle (1648-1724) was an English poet and playwright.  He was the author of ‘a series of bombastic oriental melodramas which threatened Dryden's popularity and aroused his hostility.’ It explains to some extent, Warlock’s convoluted metaphor.
[3] I have searched the files of the Daily Telegraph and have been unable to come up with any references to Moeran before 3 March 1924 where the Sonata for violin and piano is briefly reviewed.
[4] Frederick Theodore Albert Delius (1862-1934) is more often than not referred to a Frederick, or sometimes simply Fred.
[5] The composer’s full name was Ernest John Smeed Moeran (1894-1950). His surname was probably pronounced as ‘Moor-an’ but the composer doubtless heard many variations on this. He was known to his friends as ‘Jack.’
[6] I was unable to find details of this performance of Brahms’ ‘German Requiem.’
[7] The concert that Moeran attended was the Balfour Gardiner’s Eighth Concert at the Queen’s Hall on 18 March 1913. The programme included, as noted in the text: Fred. Delius’ Piano Concerto (with the soloist Evelyn Suart), Arnold Bax’s In the Faery Hill, Granville Bantock’s tone poem Fifine at the Fair and Gardiner’s ‘Shepherd Fennel’s Dance.’ The New Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Balfour Gardiner. 
To be continued...

Monday 22 August 2016

Gaudeamus Igitur: John Kitchen plays the organ of the McEwan Hall

I have known John Kitchen for some 45 years. In that time, he has introduced me to a wide range of music on his many CDs, at his recitals and personally. I count my love of Vaughan Williams Oxford Elegy as being entirely his doing. Tristan and Isolde, Gotterdammerung and The Trojans, I owe to his enthusiasm. He introduced me to Bach’s organ music in the early 1970s, especially the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Dorian).
Recent years have seen a number of important CD releases of harpsichord and organ works by John Kitchen including the six-volume ‘Complete Organ Music of Johann Ludwig Krebs’, the keyboard music of William Kinloch, an exploration of a number of Victorian organ sonatas and music from the reign of Louis XIV and XV of France. There have been many discs featuring important organs in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling. 

The McEwan Hall, Edinburgh, was designed by the ecclesiastical architect, Sir Rowand Anderson and was financed by Sir William McEwan of Scottish brewing fame (McEwan’s Export). The hall was built between 1888 and 1897 and was mainly intended for use as the University of Edinburgh’s graduation hall, however it also functioned as the main concert venue in Edinburgh until the Usher Hall was opened in 1914. Unusually, the original design of the McEwan Hall did not feature a location for an organ, although this deficiency was soon remedied.
The organ was built by the Wirral-based firm Robert Hope-Jones (1859-1914) in 1897. It was restored with several additions by Henry Willis III in 1953. Further work was carried out by Rushworth and Dreaper in 1980 and Forth Pipe Organs in 2014. It is a large four-manual instrument with a considerable pedal department.  Interestingly, Hope-Jones is deemed to be the inventor of the theatre organ, and worked at the ‘cutting edge’ of electric action and detached consoles.
The present CD ‘celebrates the organ’s [2014] restoration’: it seeks to include music that has been played at graduation ceremonies in the McEwan Hall, Edinburgh.
The recital can be satisfactorily listened to in the order presented on the CD. I was impressed by the variety of music that John Kitchen has given. There are a number of pieces that are new to me, as well as a few of old favourites.

The recital opens with the eponymous track, ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’ (So let us rejoice) which has often been sung in European university graduation ceremonies. It is an anonymous arrangement.

Cecilia McDowall’s ‘Celebration’ (2014) for organ was specifically composed for degree ceremonies: in this case at the University of Portsmouth. The work is dynamic and positive and ‘captures the joy and excitement of such occasions…’ McDowall has included a quotation from a round by the 17th century composer Thomas Ravenscroft (c.1599-1635), entitled ‘To Portsmouth.’

True to form, John Kitchen has come up with a little gem from Johan Helmich Roman who has been dubbed the ‘Swedish Handel.’ Certainly, the Sinfonia di Chiesa (Church Sonata) has all the hallmarks of the German/English master. Henry Purcell’s ‘Trumpet Tunes’ from King Arthur and The Indian Queen are suitably ceremonial in their mood.  The little ‘Rigaudon’ by the French composer André Campra is taken from his opera Idoménée which was first performed in 1712. It is a lively dance written in common time, but having a robust main theme which is repeated a number of times, as well as a contrasting middle section.

The major event on this CD is Kenneth Leighton’s massive ‘Et Resurrexit’ which was composed half a century ago in 1966. It has three movements: Theme, Fantasy and Fugue. The composer wrote that it is ‘…purely abstract in design, [however] the work attempts to give musical expression to the individual’s struggle for belief in the miracle of the resurrection…’ Although in three distinct movements, the form of the piece could be described as continuous variation. It is a deeply thought out work that is typically profound, moving and ecstatic. It is certainly a piece to show the colours of the organ as well as the virtuosity of the organist.
Kenneth Leighton was born in Wakefield, West Riding, but spent much of his career in Scotland as the Reid Professor of Music in the Faculty of Music in Edinburgh University. 

Alfred Hollins wrote three Concert Overtures. The first, in C major was published in 1889 and was apparently his earliest published work. The Overture is written in standard ‘sonata form’, but does not have an academic feel. As the liner notes suggest, ‘the piece sets out to entertain and divert’ and offers ‘attractive melodies, infectious rhythms and well-planned structures.’ It is an outstanding example of Victorian organ music at its best, displaying self-assurance and vigour as well as a featuring a reflective ‘second subject’.

I was delighted that John Kitchen chose to perform one of Widor’s less well known Symphonies (at least to the average organ enthusiast). The Symphony No.3 op.13 was composed in 1872 [the track listings wrongly quote op.69, which is the Symphony No.3 for organ and orchestra (1894)] The Marcia is stoutly played here.
I have not come across the composer Theodore Salomé before. His Grand Choeur in G major is fairly and squarely in the French ‘sortie’ style.  The work was written around 1875 and was part of ‘Ten Organ Pieces: Volume 1. It is certainly not ‘op.68, no.2’ as quoted in the track listing, which also happens to be a ‘Grand Choeur’.  

The French title of Alexandre Guilmant’s contribution to this CD is Marche religieuse: sur un motif du chœur «Lift Up Your Heads» du «Messie» de Händel, op.15 no.2 or in the Jules Bonnet and A Eaglefield Hull edition ‘March upon Handel’s “Lift up your heads”’ with a dedication ‘Hommage à Thalberg’. The work opens with a solemn march and is followed by a lively fugue and then a little bit of development using both melodies, before a powerful restatement of the march theme. 

The final piece on this CD is by Handel himself: The Overture and March from the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76. This choral work was composed in 1739 and is a setting of a poem by John Dryden. The liner notes explain that the ‘March’ is a favourite graduation day piece at the McEwen Hall. It provides a vivacious and upbeat conclusion to this imaginative CD.

The booklet notes are good and feature a discussion about ceremonial music, a short history of the building and the organ and a brief consideration of the music. I would have preferred more detail about the repertoire especially those pieces that are less well known. The dates of composition for all pieces (where known) ought to be included in the track listing and/or the liner notes. The listener should not need to trawl the internet to find this information. 

This is an excellent CD with interesting and inspired repertoire as recital-goers and listeners have come to expect from John Kitchen. All the music is superbly played and brilliantly recorded. It is a CD to savour and to enjoy. 

Gaudeamus Igitur: John Kitchen plays the organ of the McEwan Hall
ANON Student Song, Gaudeamus Igitur (18th century)
Cecilia MCDOWALL (b.1951) Celebration (2014)
Johan Helmich ROMAN (1694-1758) arr. Patrik VRETBLAD (1876-1953) Sinfonia di chiesa (?/1931)
Henry PURCELL (1659-95) Two Trumpet Tunes from King Arthur z.628 (1691); Trumpet Tune from The Indian Queen z.630 (1695)
André CAMPRA (1660-1744) Rigaudon from Idoménée (1712)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Et resurrexit (Theme, Fantasy and Fugue), op.49 (1966)
Alfred HOLLINS (1865-1942) Concert Overture [No.1] in C major (1889)
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937) Marcia from Symphony No.3, op.13 (1872 rev.1918)
Théodore SALOMÉ (1834-1896) Grand Choeur in G, from 10 Pieces for Organ, Volume 1 (1875)
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) March religieuse (March on a Theme of Handel), op.15. no.2 (c.1881)
Georg Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759) Overture and March from Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76 (1739)
John Kitchen (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.  

Friday 19 August 2016

Charles O’Brien: Scottish Scenes, op.17 for piano solo

A few months ago I reviewed Volume 2 of Charles O’Brien’s orchestral music (Toccata Classics TOCC 0263) for MusicWeb International. One of the works included on that CD was ‘Scottish Scenes’, op.17.  I concluded that O’Brien’s evocation of the Scotland did ‘not depend on clichés from the music hall or cinema screen. Admittedly, there are a number of Scotch snaps and melodies that nod to Scottish folksong. Yet, he has managed to absorb the landscape into his heart and soul.’  
This short orchestral suite was originally composed for piano between 1914 and 1915 and was subsequently orchestrated in 1929 for a BBC broadcast. At about the same time (1914) O’Brien’s mentor, the better known Hamish MacCunn had composed his ‘Two Scottish Scenes’ for piano: the two movements were ‘In the Glen’ and ‘In the Ingleneuk’. Whether O’Brien was influenced by this, is a moot point, but it does seem highly likely.  
There is a little disparity in dates between the liner notes for the piano music and for the orchestral works CD. The former suggests that 'Scottish Scenes' was composed in 1917. The latter sometime between 1914-1915.  Until Charles O’Brien scholarship catches up, this will no doubt remain a minor mystery.

‘Scottish Scenes’, op.17 consists of three character pieces: ‘Moorland’, ‘Voices in the Glen’ and finally ‘Harvest Home’.
‘Moorland’ is a little tone-poem that manages to portray the Scottish moorland as dark and brooding. However, the middle section has some sunlight on these remote moors, represented by a heartbreakingly beautiful melody. The composer uses typically Scottish pentatonic melodies (black notes on the piano) to give ‘local colour.’ He also features Scotch Snaps (inversion of dotted notes, where the short note is played before the long) as well as the occasional whole tone melody to create an impressionistic effect. I feel that these are Lowland moors such as those in Galloway rather than the remote Highlands.
The second piece, ‘Voices in the Glen’ manages to reflect the bad and sad days of the Highland Clearances where entire households and villages were moved off the land in favour of sheep. Many emigrated to Nova Scotia, Australia and New Zealand. A ‘Highland Clearance’ has been defined as "an enforced simultaneous eviction of all families living in a given area such as an entire glen.”  
O’Brien has created an evocative ‘keen’ which suggests a lament for a way of life lost and left behind.  The music begins with a typically pentatonic folksong before moving into the minor key. It opens into a massive use of arpeggios at the climax. Surely this reflects the strife between clans and the indignity of the clearances. Once again the lament returns, this time the melody is decorated with filigree passages in the right hand, before the music closes. It is as if the singer is calling to her children from afar.
The final piece, ‘Harvest Home’ is a precipitous reel that moves along at a terrific rate. The middle section makes use ‘bagpipe drone’ effects in the left hand. All the stops are pulled out for this bright and vivacious finale. 
It is interesting to note that Hamish MacCunn had included a piece called ‘Harvest Dance’ as the third of his orchestral ‘Highland Memories’, op.30 which was composed during 1896 for performance at the Crystal Palace. This was also published in versions for piano, piano duet, organ and violin and piano. 

Paul Mann’s comment in the liner notes for the orchestral suite are equally relevant to the piano work: “O’Brien’s image of Scotland didn’t come from the top of a shortbread tin. His is a country of ruggedly beautiful, sometimes inhospitable landscapes…”  

Charles O’Brien’s Scottish Scenes, op.17 for piano can be heard on Toccata Classics TOCC 0256. It can also be accessed on the Naxos Music Library site for those with library access. 

Tuesday 16 August 2016

George Butterworth: Orchestral Music on BIS

George Butterworth enthusiasts now have two versions of the composer’s ‘incomplete’ Fantasia for orchestra: the earliest completed by Martin Yates and the present version by Kriss Russman. Both appear to have been ‘finished’ sometime during 2014/15. The most obvious difference is duration: Russman’s clocks in at 8:36 whilst Yate’s is nearly twice as long at 16:30.
The Fantasia was begun during the summer of 1914 and the full score was left incomplete when Butterworth joined the army. There a note on the front page which states ‘see short score’ which infers that the work was completed in outline: all trace of this has been lost. The sketches extend to some 93 bars of music, lasting for around three-and-a-half minutes.
Russman has ‘completed the work by developing Butterworth’s original ideas and combining them with additional material derived from an analysis of his other music.’ He has not tinkered with the music written in the original full score manuscript.
It seems ironic that after a century, two versions of Butterworth’s Fantasia should appear within a few months of each other. (Yates working has been issued on Dutton Epoch CDLX7326). As part of this review I listened to both a couple of times, and if I am honest, I believe that is impossible to choose one or the other. I cannot say that either ‘completion’ is more or less convincing. The longer version does allow the listener more ‘wallow time’ in this lovely pastoral music: Krissman’s is concise and could not be accused of meandering. The reality is that we have two excellent ‘new’ Butterworth works in the pastoral/romantic idiom influenced not only by folksong, but also Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony and developments in continental Europe. Both should take their place in the orchestral repertoire.

The Idyll: The Banks of Green Willow is a stalwart of Classic FM and compilations of British music. There are some two dozen versions of it currently available on CD. However, it always deserves another outing and I feel that Kriss Russman and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales give a splendid performance.  The work dates from 1913 and is scored for a small orchestra. It is in the ‘arch’ form beloved by Butterworth. The composer has described the work as a ‘musical illustration to the folk-ballad of the same name.’ The work also includes the tune ‘Green Rushes’ and an original theme.

The cycle Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad is the definitive setting of A.E. Housman’s melancholic poetry. Butterworth’s music seems to epitomise the ‘poet’s evocative portrayal of rural life and untimely death.’ Readers and listeners are reminded that Housman’s verse refers to the years after the First Boer War, not the Great War: it was published in 1896. 
George Butterworth began work on this song cycle in 1909 and completed it two years later. The first London performance was on 20 June 1911 at the Aeolian Hall with the baritone Campbell McInnes and Hamilton Harty (piano).
I was a bit surprised to see that the liner notes bill this as ‘World Premiere Recording of the orchestral version’ by Kriss Russman.  I understood the honour for this ‘first arrangement’ went to Lance Baker with the version recorded on Chandos (CHAN 8743, 1989) by Stephen Varcoe and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox. Whatever the history, this is an impressive account of this great song cycle. If I am honest, I prefer the Baker edition, but the present recording is also near perfect. Butterworth’s settings are a perfect fusion of words and music.

Equally striking is the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad which has been described as an ‘orchestral epilogue’ to the Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad. The main musical material is derived from the poignant song ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and majors on the sadness implied by ‘fifty springs is little room…to see the cherry hung with snow.’  It was composed in 1911 and received its premiere at the Leeds Festival on 2 October 1913. This is George Butterworth’s masterpiece. It is appropriately placed in the track listings after the Six Songs.

The Two English Idylls is George Butterworth’s earliest surviving orchestral work. I understand that they are considered to be one work and not two. ‘It’ was composed around 1910/11. The first Idyll incorporates the tunes ‘Dabbling in the Dew,’ ‘Just as the Tide was Flowing,’ and ‘Henry Martin.’ The second makes use of ‘Phoebe and her dark-eyed sailor’ and is much more serious in its conception. Both pieces epitomise the ‘pastoral’ school of composition. What makes them valuable, is their charming scoring and nuanced use of folksong which avoids Constant Lambert’s dictum of simply playing it again, only louder.

Love Blows as the Wind Blows is a setting of poems by the poet W.E. Henley. It is the only one of Butterworth’s song cycles to have been orchestrated by the composer himself: it was originally written for string quartet and voice during 1911/12. In the present version, the third song, ‘Fill a glass with golden wine’ was not orchestrated by Butterworth, so is omitted.  Perhaps, Russman could have made up this deficit?  This orchestral version is subtle and expressive in its exploitation of orchestral colouring and compliments the soloist. They are finely and movingly sung by James Rutherford.

The Suite for string quartet, arranged by Kriss Russman for string orchestra, is a delightful addition to Butterworth’s catalogue of recorded music. The liner notes print ‘quartette’ which was the composer’s chosen spelling of the work; the catalogue in Michael Barlow’s book (Whom the Gods Love: The Life and Music of George Butterworth, Toccata Press, 1997) cite ‘quartet.’
The manuscript of the Suite is undated, but is likely to have been composed around 1910 when Butterworth was living in Chelsea. It must not be confused with the early String Quartet dating from his Eton days and which has been lost.
The Suite has five movements, each between four and five minutes long. So this is a considerable work. Barlow notes a folksong influence in the progress of the music, however this is not based on direct transcriptions of particular tunes. The composer has typically devised themes based on the characteristics of folksong.
Butterworth does use ‘classical’ devices such as sonata form and fugal writing. It is likely to have been an ‘academic’ work, but never becomes pedantic. Russman is correct when he states that the work ‘sometime [reaches] almost symphonic proportions in its breadth of expression.’
I have not heard the original string quartet version of the Suite: the present orchestration is impressive, often very beautiful and is a considerable achievement in its own right. The net result is to add an interesting and attractive work to the string orchestra repertoire in general and the addition of a satisfying Suite from the pen of George Butterworth, in particular.

The music is splendidly played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of Kriss Russman. The sound quality is ideal and the duration of the CD good value. The liner notes are in two parts: a helpful overview of Butterworth’s life and work by Anthony Murphy and information about each work by Kriss Russman.  The words of the songs are given at the back of the booklet. Dates of Russman’s realisations and orchestrations are not given. 

This is a fascinating addition to the catalogue of recorded music by George Butterworth. In fact, it presents an outstanding introduction to his music, with everything (extant) he composed for orchestra as well as two orchestral versions of his best known song cycles.

George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
Idyll: The Banks of Green Willow (1913)
Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ orchestrated by Kriss Russman (1909-11)
Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad (1911)
Two English Idylls 1. (1910/1911), 2. (1911)
Suite for string quartette, arr. for string orchestra by Kriss Russman (c.1910)
‘Love Blows as the Wind Blows’ for medium voice and orchestra (1911-12, 1914)
Orchestral Fantasia completed by Kriss Russman (c.1914)
James Rutherford (baritone) BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Kriss Russman
BIS BIS-2195
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.  

Saturday 13 August 2016

Jack Beaver: Holiday Camp March

When I was a youngster, I always wanted to go for my summer holidays to Butlin’s Heads of Ayr Holiday Camp on the ‘sunshine’ west coast of Scotland. It was never to be, although I did get a day’s visit there.  The camp was built during the Second World War and became a shore training establishment, HMS Scotia for the duration. After decommissioning, it opened to holiday makers in 1946 and survived until 1987 when it was renamed Wonderwest World. Ten years later it closed before reopening as Craig Tara ‘under new management.’
What appealed to me most was the ‘Olympic sized’ outdoor swimming pool with the magnificent fountain, the miniature railway and the amusement park. Added to this, Billy Butlin had acquired a British Railways steam locomotive, The Duchess of Sutherland, No. 6233. It had been built in 1938 by London, Midland and Scottish Railway. It remained at the camp between 1965 and 1971. Fortunately, it has been restored to full working order and regularly runs on rail tours.

Jack Beaver (1900-63) was a London-born composer. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music. During the 1930s and 1940s he was involved with Louis Levy’s team of film composers producing scores for Gaumont British as the resident composer. To his credit was the pre-war blockbuster Alfred Hitchcock film, The Thirty-Nine Steps starring Robert Donut and Madeleine Carroll, also featuring John Laurie (Private Frazer, Dad’s Army and Miles Malleson).  Beaver received no credit in the film titles for his score.

The ‘Holiday Camp March' dates back to the early post-war days of the holiday camps. I am not sure which one he had in mind: Ayr, Clacton, Pwllheli, Minehead, Filey, Bognor etc. Or did he imagine his work in a Pontin’s camp instead of Butlins?
The music is a perfect foil for the excitement and fun of a holiday, even if the events and amusements still had something of wartime organisation about them.  As the liner notes point out, the march epitomises the time when most British holidaymakers had ‘yet to discover the delights of foreign package holidays.’  

Jack Beaver’s Holiday Camp March can be heard on The Golden Age of Light Music: Bright Lights (GLCD 5212) It was recorded in the late 1940s by the New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

The Anthology of American Piano Music, Volume 1: American First Sonatas

I know that this CD is ostensibly American music and not British, however the first composer represented on this disc is Alexander Reinagle who was born in Portsmouth, England and lived in the United Kingdom before emigrating to the United States.  He is a composer that deserves investigation.
This is a new series from Danacord, designed to reveal ‘the stylistic breadth, high musical quality and great originality of the best American piano works.’ For listeners who are already attuned to this repertoire, they will not need to be reminded of that fact, and will simply relish the music. However, I guess many enthusiasts of piano music will be unfamiliar with these sonatas and in some cases even the composers. There is a definite (but certainly not absolute) euro-centric perception of classical music in the UK, especially in piano repertoire.
The series presents music from the 18th century through to the present day.  Two criteria have been used in selecting works: primarily musical worth and secondly originality and characteristic American flavor’.  Danacord have not issued a detailed ‘batting order’ for this series of CDs although I understand that the second disc (for which we will have to wait until 2017!) will be entitled ‘Music of the Night’ and will feature a selection of American ‘nocturnes’. I am not sure if it will feature the same pianist.

I was impressed with Alexander Reinagle’s ‘Philadelphia’ Sonata I in D major. It is the only work on this CD that is completely new to me: it is a pure delight. It is claimed that this is the first piano sonata to have been composed in the United States. 
Reinagle was born in Portsmouth, England on 23 April 1756 to a Hungarian father and a Scottish mother.  His early musical development and alternative career in the shipping trade was spent in London and Scotland with several trips to the States.  He met C.P.E. Bach whilst on his travels on the Continent. In 1786 he emigrated to New York and hence to Philadelphia where he had an important role in developing the musical culture of that city introducing (amongst other things) concertgoers to the music of Haydn and Mozart. He is the regarded as the most significant composer from that period of American history.  Apart from keyboard works, Reinagle composed a deal of theatre music.  Alexander Reinagle died in Baltimore in 1809. 
There is a danger of confusion with his nephew, Alexander Robert Reinagle (1799-1887), also a musician, but who resided in Great Britain for all his life.  

There are three Sonatas for the Piano Forte which are known as the ‘Philadelphia Sonatas’, believed to have been composed shortly after Reinagle’s arrival in the States in 1786.  They were immensely popular and received many performances by the composer in the following decade. The musical style would seem be inspired by Haydn, Clementi and C.P.E. Bach. But then, many other composers were influenced by these ‘big names’ as well. The freshness and vivacity of this present sonata is striking. Unusually, this work lacks a slow movement. 

Little need be said about Edward MacDowell: there is plenty of biographical detail on the internet and in standard reference works. However, one point needs to be made. If the listener were to judge his career from Classic FM, the assumption would be made that he a) wrote only one piece: ‘To a Wild Rose’ and, based on this hypothesis, if he composed anything else, b) his musical style would be that of miniature character pieces.  This is wrong. I agree, that there is much piano music that fits this description, but there are also two superb piano concertos, important orchestral tone poems and suites as well as many accomplished songs. In fact, the first piece of MacDowell I heard was his Piano Concerto No.2 played by Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Hendl (RCA RB16244). It was only then that I put MacDowell and his ‘Wild Rose’ together in my mind.
It is largely forgotten that Edward MacDowell composed four impressive and romantic piano sonatas: No.1 ‘Tragica’, No. 2 ‘Eroica’, No.3 ‘Norse’ and No.4 ‘Keltic’.  They were composed between 1891 and 1900.
The liner notes quote William S. Newman (The Sonata since Beethoven) that these ‘easily outrank any other U.S. sonatas produced before World War 1.’ On the ‘Tragica’ Sonata in particular, James Huneker, the celebrated American critic, pronounced that this sonata was ‘the most marked contribution to solo sonata literature since Brahms' F minor piano sonata’. Strong praise indeed.
MacDowell’s Sonata lives up to its subtitle, ‘Tragica.’ It was written in memory of composer, pianist and teacher, Joachim Raff, who had died in 1882. There are four well balanced movements.
The listener will not hear any ‘Americanisms’ in this music. It was written at a time when MacDowell was still in thrall to the European model. It was only later in his career that he began to make use of the parameters and mood of American folk-tunes; he did not collect these in the same manner as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams. The fact that MacDowell studied in Frankfurt with Carl Heymann and Joachim Raff, and also moved in Liszt’s circle explains this European influence on the present work. The Sonata was composed in 1893, the first movement was played by MacDowell that year in Boston, and the work was published during the following year. It soon became popular with pianists and recital goers.

Charles Griffes’ Sonata for piano was premiered by the composer on 26 February 1918. Interestingly, it was performed at the MacDowell Club in New York. It is usually regarded as one of the finest examples of the genre written by an American.  Maurice Hinson describes it as being ‘a peak of neo-romantic expression in American piano music.’
Griffes is often regarded as an ‘impressionist’ composer. This is usually predicated on the back of works such as the The White Peacock and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. Much of his music was influenced by Scriabin, Debussy and Japanese folk music.
On the other hand, the Sonata is an abstract work with no literary programme. It was originally conceived as a single movement work, but before the premiere Griffes decided to present it in ‘standard’ three movement form.  The Sonata probably represents the beginning of Charles Griffes ‘experimental’ period.  In this work, Griffes expands his musical horizons to include inspiration from Liszt, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. It balances aggression with lyrical melody and a ‘clearly perceived formal structure’.

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) was a New York born composer who studied at the Columbia University with Seth Bingham, had private lessons with Wallingford Reigger and latterly with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.  Much of his career was spent in New York as a conductor, pianist, teacher and composer.  His catalogue is considerable, with some eight operas, nine symphonies, many concerti and piano music. His style is always approachable and eclectic, sometimes making use of jazz and American folk-music.
The first of Elie Siegmeister’s five piano sonatas is hugely impressive. In the composer’s own words it is ‘an American panorama, blending jazzy and folk-like themes with purely classical form.’ The work was completed in Brooklyn in 1944.
I first heard this work in the Kenneth Boulton’s fine performance on Naxos 8.559020. I believe that this is the only other version of this work currently available on CD.  The sonata has three ‘classically’ designed movements. The first and last demand highly rhythmical playing from the soloist whilst the middle movement is lyrical, quotes the protest song ‘Sistern and Brethren’ and avoids the use of jazz.  The last movement is stunning: Siegmeister contrasts boogie-woogie themes with a typically lilting cowboy song.  It is my favourite work on this CD. For my ear, Cecile Licad brings just that little bit more magic than Boulton’s superb reading.

Cecile Licad was born in Manila in the Philippines. She began piano lessons when only three years old, with her mother. Unbelievably, she made her debut, aged only seven with a performance of a Beethoven Piano Concerto.  After moving to the USA she attended the Curtis Institute of Music and studied with Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski.  After her first professional engagement, her career went from strength to strength.   In recent years she has developed an interest in playing chamber music. Her repertoire is wide ranging – from Mozart to Gershwin and from Beethoven to Bartok.
Major recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 began her successful recording career.  She has also covered work by Schumann, Chopin and Ravel.  In 2003 she turned her attention to the American composer, Louis Gottschalk with a CD for Naxos. Her playing was summed up in a review in the Washington Post: "every sound she made was beautiful, every note and phrase the result of intellect warmed by emotion." Most recently, she recorded the Leo Ornstein Sonata for the Danacord Husum Festival Series, 2013.

This is an exciting new release that promises to expand into a collection of American musical masterpieces, albeit at a slow rate. It is essential listening for all who consider the piano as their favourite instrument and who regard the piano sonata as one of the most important and sophisticated forms. 

Track Listing:
Alexander REINAGLE (1756-1809) Philadelphia Sonata I in D major (c.1786)
Edward MACDOWELL (1861-1908) Sonata No.1 in G minor, op.45 (Tragica) (1893)
Charles T. GRIFFES (1884-1920) Sonata for Piano (c.1904)
Elie SIEGMEISTER (1909-1991) American Sonata (Piano Sonata No.1) (1944)
Cecile Licad (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 7 August 2016

The Piano Pieces of Arnold Bax: Katharine E. Eggar Part II

The Composer's Opinion.
‘Nereid’ is less formidable to tackle, but at the same time highly characteristic of the composer. It is, as he remarked to the present writer, “nothing but tone-colour - changing effects of tone,” and for that especial reason it is worthy of very careful study by the pianist who wishes to gain an insight into the modern treatment of his instrument. It will reveal to him much of the possibilities of the piano as a musical palette, in contradistinction to its too-familiar function as a physical gymnasium; and it will also give him a true impression of this particular composer's cast of musical thought.
The two other pieces that may be specially commended to players for the same reasons as the ‘Nereid’ are ‘A Hill Tune’ and ‘A Mountain Mood’. They are both composed on quite simple melodies of what we now consider folk-tune character, and they are wrought with rare skill and unfailing beauty.

‘Poking’ versus ‘Floating.’
All of the foregoing require a sensitive ear, much musical imagination, a beautiful touch, considerable variety of tone and complete command of the pedals for their rendering. Brilliance and endurance are not called for to any great extent. A preliminary note to ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’ may be taken as the general clue to the composer's intentions. It runs as follows: ‘This piece must be played as simply as the elaborateness of its detail will allow. No harmonic points should be [made] emphasized, and the accompaniment figures generally should be kept wholly subservient to the melodic line.’ Mr. Bax explains that he put this note because "when people see a peculiar combination of notes they poke it out—whereas, the whole thing ought to float. There should be no shock of arrival at any particular harmony. You don't hear crashes of harmonic points with a string quartet - the harmonies dissolve. So they should in this piano music."

The ‘Alert’ Pieces.
Let us now consider the pieces belonging to the other category. ‘In a Vodka Shop’ is a great contrast to any which have been mentioned. "Coarse and rough” is the indication for its rendering, and coarsely and roughly (but musically) it plunges into noisy tramplings of chords for an introductory six bars in seven-beat rhythm. With the seventh bar comes the melodic theme which is the core of the piece, and its rhythmical variety was something very "new" and uncommon in British music in 1915, the year of its publication. The numbers of crotchets in the bars constantly change from seven to eight and to six, the figure being indicated over the bar in question. To those of us who have not been in a vodka shop, the impetuous, stamping music recalls moments on the stage when the Russian Ballet gave us national characteristic dances; and on the last two pages the inconsequent way in which, after portentously dragging out the originally brisk theme, the two hands pursue each other uncertainly up the keyboard and then execute a pas de deux which is a grotesque likeness of previous passages, suggests irresistibly the effect upon deportment which one would expect to result from a little too much indulgence in the national drink.
The ‘Toccata’, as its name implies, is a showy piece demanding a great deal of endurance and executive readiness, although a certain amount of respite in the last page allows the player to recover enough freshness to make the ending thoroughly brilliant. The amusing ‘Whirligig’ is a ‘study’ in disguise, which requires strenuous practice for its mastery, but presents few subtleties of interpretation. The well-known ‘Gopak’ Mr. Bax considers not very characteristic (of himself), and ‘not really a Gopak’ [No.2 of Two Russian Tone-Pictures] although he admits that it makes a jolly Russian piece. ‘Mediterranean’, too, is ‘not really’ Spanish and Italian music, but a recollection of the racial types of those seaboards [1]. The ‘Burlesque’, as indeed any of these lively pieces, must be played with great spirit and humour, and the overcoming of their technical difficulties must never be allowed to rob them of their gaiety.

The Sight Reader and His Difficulties.
A good many people seem to be so pre-occupied with the ‘difficulty’ of Mr. Bax's music that they never win through to its real musical significance. This is an attitude which makes a composer a little impatient, for if a musician has given what is to him the natural and simple and sincere expression of his own clear thought, it is difficult for him to realise that other people may be puzzled or confused by it.
In preparing this article, the writer and Mr. Bax talked over this matter of ‘difficulty’ at some length, and he admitted that our method of notation does make the reading of highly chromatic pieces very confusing, “although,” as he had to add with a sly smile, “I myself can't remember ever having had any difficulty in reading anything.”
“But few people,” I protested, “have what is practically the fairy-gift that you possess. What do you advise the ordinary pianist or teacher to do, so that your music may not remain a more or less sealed book to them?”
He thought a moment, and then said: "Let them take a course of reading the Wagner piano scores - preferably not the simplified vocal scores with the inner parts taken out, but the piano reductions of the whole thing. There they will find the contrapuntal basis of harmony exemplified, and that, I think, is what bothers them in my music. My harmonies come about as the result of contrapuntal movement. It's no use thinking in up and down blocks of harmony if you're trying to read my things: each part must be taken as a melodic line. But, after all, there's nothing new in saying this. These people surely don't think, for instance, of Bach in up and down blocks of harmony. They think in the lines of the parts."
"Ah!" I said, "There you put your finger on the weak spot. It never occurs to 'these people’ to think of connecting your music with Bach's. Because you are 'modern' you are put in a watertight compartment."
He looked amused. ''Oh well, if they're going to take 'modern' music as a thing apart, without seeing the links by which it is joined to the past, there's not much hope for them. And if they're going to expect to find modern music without chromatics - if they stop short at the Classics—or if they expect it to be like Chopin, shall we say?"
A gesture filled in the gap, and then he added: “Why, what do they make of French writers? Of Mr. Ravel? Of Florent Schmitt? [2] If they ever do try to know anything of them. (But some pianists, you know . . .  well  . . . Of course vocalists are worse…But that's beside the point). John Ireland, now: do they find his music difficult? It can't be just mine that floors them?”
“No" I said, “it merely happens that yours is the case in point. It is typical of all that (by them) undiscovered country which lies on the other side of all undefined frontier. Those who cannot see it clearly, wonder if it is the Promised Land, or only a portion of The Wilderness. It is strange, but I really believe that, with the best will in the world, actual musical training can be an obstruction in the way of coming into contact with modern thought and inspiration. Education should, of course, give an open mind and make the trained person more receptive than the untrained; but in our own mysterious art, it really seems as if knowledge could be a barrier to further knowledge."
“Yes," he said. "The prejudices of learning are hard to overcome, and the result of that is that music is helped on to new positions by the sensitive amateur who listens without preconceived objections."
The Music Student Katharine E. Eggar November 1921 pp 65-67

[1] ‘Mediterranean’ was composed after a visit to Mallorca with Bax’s brother, Clifford, Gustav Holst and Balfour Gardiner. It is really a ‘postcard’ rather than a meditation on ‘racial types’. It has been compared to Maurice Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso.’
[2] The French composer Florent Schmidt (1870-1958), wrote three symphonies, much chamber music and a number of piano pieces. His music has largely fallen into obscurity, although in recent years a considerable number of his compositions have been committed to CD. His music is eclectic, deriving his inspiration from ‘whatever took his fancy.’ 

Thursday 4 August 2016

The Piano Pieces of Arnold Bax: Katharine E. Eggar Part !

Katharine Emily Eggar was born in London on 5 January 1874. She studied piano in Berlin, Brussels and London and composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Frederick Corder. In 1911, along with Marion Scott and Gertrude Eaton, she was a founder member of The Society of Women Musicians.
Eggar had a great interest in the works of Shakespeare and maintained the theory that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, Lord Oxford.   She wrote a considerable amount of musical criticism, much of it concentrating on British works.
Her compositions were mainly for chamber ensemble and piano solo, but also include a number of songs.  Katharine Eggar died in London on 15 August 1961.
‘The Piano Pieces of Arnold Bax’ was published in The Music Student, Volume XIV, November 1921. The essay is largely self-explanatory, however I have provided a few endnotes. I have made a few minor edits to the text.

The work of Arnold Bax [(1883-1953)] claims the attention of all who wish to keep in touch with the best in modern British music. His name is probably as familiar to our readers as that of any other of our important composers; but although so much of his work for the piano is in print and therefore readily accessible, the complexity of its thought and idiom prevents its being as well-known as it should be.
He has written two Sonatas[1] for the pianoforte. The first, in F [# major], was composed some ten years ago, revised four years ago and is now in the press. The other, in G [major], a recent work, was lately given its first performance by Miss Harriet Cohen.[2] These exceedingly difficult larger works lie outside the scope of this article, which will concern itself with the shorter pieces. There are about 20 of these latter, and most of them come within the practical politics of the ordinary pianist's repertory.
Roughly speaking, the pieces fall into two categories—the dreamy and the alert. Dreamy and delicate in fancy are ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’, ‘May Night in the Ukraine’, ‘Nereid’, ‘Apple-Blossom-Time’, ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’, ‘A Hill Tune’, ‘A Mountain Mood’ and the ‘Lullaby’ [‘Dream in Exile’ and Sleepy-Head]. Alert and vigorous, on the other hand, are the ‘Toccata’, the ‘Burlesque’, ‘In a Vodka Shop’, ‘Gopak’, ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Whirligig’.[3]

But however delicate and elusive the play of fancy, there is no uncertainty of touch in the workmanship; nor, however vigorous the handling, does one ever feel that a theme has been ‘brutalisé’ in the treatment. Beauty always matters to this composer - beauty, not of a superficial kind, but essential in his whole approach to music. He does not lay rough hands on it as if determining to shake the secrets out of it, and players who treat his compositions in a violent spirit will miss all their charm.
One sometimes hears Arnold Bax spoken of as “obscure” and “diffuse.” To condemn a work as obscure is sometimes a convenient way of absolving the accuser from lack of perception; and certainly the more familiar one becomes with these piano pieces the more one realises the underlying simplicity and the clearness of mind which has controlled the intricacies of their expression. Nearly all the ‘dreamy’ pieces are composed on very simple diatonic themes which are made to carry a wealth of delicate ornamentation, and though it is only natural that on a first hearing, the ear, and on a first reading, the eye, should fail to disentangle the melodic line from the accompaniment figures, a little loving attention will soon reveal the graceful proportions.

1910 and 1920.
The accusation of diffuseness is certainly not justified in the later piano pieces, but we will allow it in the case of the earliest, the ‘Nocturne, May Night in the Ukraine’, dated 1910 (No. 1 of Two Russian Tone-Pictures), which should be compared with one of the latest, the ‘Lullaby’, dated 1920. The composer himself may never have been conscious of any connection between these two, but to the student they form a curiously interesting example of evolution of style. Both are nocturnal in description, although probably widely divergent in mood of inspiration. Both are in the key of A, with the time signature 2/4, both have a simple theme embroidered, and in the left hand the first two bars of each piece are almost identical. But the difference in treatment is remarkable. Cheap this composer could never be, but in comparison with the reticence and subtlety of the ‘Lullaby’, the florid ornamentation of the ‘Nocturne’ is almost garrulous.
The ‘Dream in Exile’[4], an early work, is another which is open to the charge of excessive length, but in every other case the ideas are very concisely presented.

Music Fresh and Dainty.
Of the five Pieces dated 1915, perhaps the best known is ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’, which it is interesting to contrast with Debussy's Flaxen-haired Maiden.[5]   The title[6], like most of Bax's, is discreetly chosen to suggest a mood rather than to give a programme, and by the words of direction, ''fresh and innocent…playful and capricious…bright…” which occur from time to time, the player's mind is attuned to express qualities which are the gracious attributes of music as well as of maidens and flowers. This piece is one of the most clear in sonority, a good many passages being for one hand alone, and it needs great spontaneity and freshness of rendering. 
‘Apple-Blossom-Time’ is a little piece full of moods and is considered by the composer to be, with ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’, the most difficult of his works to interpret. The opening Allegretto is marked ‘fresh and rhythmical’ and has a mazurka-like lilt (though without the slightest atmosphere of the ballroom—its suggestions are all of the fresh air). The ‘gay and playful’ portion which follows has a tripping (7/4) measure, and when the first theme returns, ‘exuberant,’ it showers light notes from itself. Then it gradually becomes ‘more serious,’ and at last, with falling petals, drifts ‘slow and sad’ into extinction.
‘Sleepy-head’ is in ‘slow and drowsy’ mood, and the softly shifting, drifting harmonies give the feeling of the faint sounds and flitting thoughts and fancies which come and go around one in the half-conscious moments of a delicious sleepiness. However, as the composer himself considers this piece not really suitable for the pianoforte, on account of the impossibility of making the melody carry as it should at the very slow tempo, pianists may relegate it to the wind-player, for whom, it is to be hoped, it will shortly be arranged.
‘The Princess's Rose Garden’ is another drowsy, languorous piece of music, soft all through, save for a broad and passionate few bars and one or two momentary crescendos. The immense number of accidentals, as well as a very complicated texture, make it very difficult to read.
To be continued in the next post...

[1] In fact, Bax wrote a number of Sonatas for piano, including works that are lost or incomplete. At the time of writing, Eggar would have certainly known the Sonata No.1 in F# major (1910, rev.1917-21) and the Sonata No.2 in G major (1919, rev. 1920).
[2] Harriet Cohen gave the first performance at the Queen’s Hall, London on 15 June 1920.  The original version was premiered by Arthur Alexander at the Aeolian Hall on 24 November 1919.
[3] ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’ (1915), ‘May Night in the Ukraine’ (1912), ‘Nereid’ (1916), ‘Apple-Blossom-Time’ (1915), ‘The Princess's Rose Garden’ (1915), ‘A Hill Tune’ (1920), ‘A Mountain Mood’ (1915). ‘Lullaby’ (1920) and ‘Sleepy-Head’ (1915).  Alert and vigorous, on the other hand, are the ‘Toccata’ (1913), the ‘Burlesque’ (1920), ‘In a Vodka Shop’ (1915), ‘Gopak’ (1912), ‘Mediterranean’ (1920) and ‘Whirligig’ (1919). Interestingly, Eggar does omit a number of pieces that had been published including, but not limited to, ‘Winter Waters’ (1915), ‘On a May Evening’, (1918) and ‘What the minstrel told us’ (1919).
[4] ‘Dream in Exile’ was composed during February 1916 the year after many of the piano works discussed.
[5] Refers to Claude Debussy (1862-1918) ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ from the first book of Preludes for piano composed between 1909-10. It is often translated as ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.’
[6] Actually the inspiration for this work was seeing Harriet Cohen at a party wearing a daffodil in her dress. The piece was premiered by Myra Hess on 24 March 1915 at the Aeolian Hall.