Sunday 30 October 2016

Eric Coates: Interlude -The Unknown Singer (1952)

Much criticism of the early years of the Cheltenham Festival was aimed at works which seemed to exhibit a relatively conservative concept of ‘modern music’.
Malcolm MacDonald, in The Symphonies of Havergal Brian. Volume 2, Symphonies 13-29. (Kahn & Averill, 1978) summed up much criticism of many of the festival’s ‘novelties’: ‘ may be [a] prevailing 'Englishness' that leads one to view it as almost a representative manque of that peculiarly English genre, the 'Cheltenham Symphony': the formally correct, harmonically fairly innocuous symphony in a 'modern English' idiom (Post-Hindemith, post-neo-classical Stravinsky, with some post-Vaughan Williams tunes, if we must be unkind) acceptable to the English critical establishment of the 1950's but with little to offer more exploratory minds.’ I understand that he later retracted the force of this comment. I am glad he did, as I am a great fan of the so-called Cheltenham Symphony’.

In spite of this seemingly ‘innocuous’ diet of modern music, it must have come as a wee bit of a surprise when a new piece, Interlude: The Unknown Singer, by the then doyen of light music was given its first performance at the 1952 Cheltenham Festival.  It was performed by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by the composer on 20 July 1952. Also heard at that concert of ‘light music’ was Coates Valse from the Four Centuries Suite.

Other premieres that year included Richard Arnell’s String Quartet No.2, op.14, Arthur Benjamin’s Piano Concerto (quasi un fantasia), Geoffrey Bush’s Overture: The Spanish Rivals, Anthony Collins’ Hogarth Suite for solo oboe and string orchestra, Gerald Finzi’s Suite: Love’s Labour Lost, op.28, John Gardner’s Variations on a Waltz of Carl Nielsen, the revised Symphony No.1 by John Veale and William Wordsworth’s Sinfonia in A minor for string orchestra, op.6.
Clearly, looking at the above list, very few works have entered the repertoire: the Finzi is the exception, although live performances of this piece are few and far between. I think only the Arnell Quartet has been professionally recorded (Dutton Epoch). There are radio broadcast ‘downloads’ of some of the other pieces.
None of the new works (that I have heard, or read reviews about) can be regarded as avant-garde or cutting edge: certainly not by the standards of then contemporary ‘modernist’ music being composed on the continent, or by the British composers Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens.  In actual fact, Coates Interlude harks back to a pre-war light music tradition, which in 1952 would have been seen as ‘dated.’

Eric Coates: Interlude -The Unknown Singer was written after a lean period for the composer. Geoffrey Self notes that after an illness, Coates has been advised to give up smoking. The composer’s son Austin wrote: ‘For three years he didn’t write a note of music, not connecting this in any way with smoking. Then one day he thought, ‘Doctors be damned. I must have a cigarette.’ And musical ideas promptly began to flow again. It was only then he realised the connection.’ The musical silence was broken with the completion of the score of the present work on 24 May 1952.  At this time the composer was living in Selsey, on the South Coast.

The composer’s wife, Phyl, (Phyllis Marguerite Black) had been admitted to hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Whilst she was recovering in hospital, Coates stated that the idea of the work occurred to him. In his important study of the composer, The Life and Music of Eric Coates, Michael Payne (Ashgate, 2012) cites a letter from Coates to Oscar Preuss (24/02/1952):
‘Early one morning, as I slept, I dreamt I heard someone singing from out of a deep wood – it was a lovely soprano voice. I listened to the melody the unseen soprano was singing and to my astonishment, on waking I remembered every note of it. Such a thing had never happened before and I can assure any possible readers that it saved me a great deal of trouble, besides getting me out of an awkward predicament. And so my dream-melody became “The Unknown Singer” The original title had been ‘A Voice in the Night’.

The Interlude -The Unknown Singer is restrained, with an attractive melody for saxophone which has been described as representing a crooning singer. There is no outstanding climax in nearly seven minutes of music. However, the composer makes use of three melodies, which are, according to Payne presented in ternary form and ‘is essentially a set of variations’ on these tunes though none are played in combination or counterpoint.
This is a beautiful miniature, which deserves to be in the repertoire. It seems to have been ignored, even by aficionados of Eric Coates.

As far as I know there is currently only one performance of this piece currently available on CD. This is Eric Coates: 17 Orchestral Pieces played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. It was released on the ASV label in 1997. I understand that is has been deleted, but is still regularly available at Amazon.  The score was published in an arrangement for solo piano (Chappell & Co., 1954) as well as for light orchestra (Aldwick, c.1952) 

Thursday 27 October 2016

Alan Rawsthorne: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra, Part IV

In 2008 Dutton Epoch released an important CD which drew together a number of works by Alan Rawsthorne that were either premiere recordings or were hard to find and currently missing from the record catalogues. This included the Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra. The main work on this disc was the composer’s take on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Other works on the disc comprised the relatively popular ‘Street Corner’ Overture written in 1944 for ENSA. The Madame Chrysanthème ballet suite (1957) derived from the ballet first performed at Sadler’s Wells on 1 April 1955. A recording of the complete score was issued on White Line (CD WLS 273), with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Barry Wordsworth in 2004. It was part of the remarkable ‘Tribute to Fred [Ashton] album.  The other premiere performances featured on this CD include the ‘Medieval Diptych’ for baritone and orchestra (1962) and the ‘Coronation Overture’ (1953) which was completed by John McCabe.  The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. The narrator in ‘Practical’ Cats is Simon Callow.

The CD featured as the ‘editor’s choice’ in the July 2008 edition of The Gramophone. James Inverne did not specifically mention the Theme, Variations and Finale, however he was enthusiastic about ‘Practical Cats’ and mentions the ‘enjoyable companion pieces’ in passing. He thinks the CD ‘is a real treat.’
Andrew Lamb formally reviewed the disc in the same edition. Once again he does not explicitly discuss the present work, save to say that is was previously unrecorded. Most of his enthusiasm is directed to ‘Practical Cats.’ His conclusion is that ‘altogether this impressive and important collection is clearly recommendable – and not only for Rawsthorne Fans.

Rob Barnett comes to the rescue by actually writing about the work (MusicWeb International, 8 May 2008). He mentions that ‘The Theme, Variations and Finale dates from 1967 but presumably because it was written for Graham Treacher and Essex Youth Orchestra it is softer in language than we might expect from late Rawsthorne. There is an angularity to this writing but it's gentle and the turmoil is comparable with that of Cortèges and Street Corner.’

The June 2008 edition of the Rawsthorne Society newsletter The Sprat notes that the Theme, Variations and Finale ‘makes no concessions for this age group [youth orchestra] in its technical demands or seriousness.’ The review was written by the late John Belcher, who has made use of his own liner notes for the CD. He concludes by pointing out that ‘earlier acquaintance with the work had been gained from an inferior dubbing from the composer’s record collection of very low fi and badly abused acetate. This well-played performance, in pristine sound, does provide the opportunity to appreciate the strengths of this work, the subtleties of the orchestral writing and the quality of the thought which informs the development.’

Alan Rawsthorne’s Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra is available on Dutton Epoch CDLX7203.

Monday 24 October 2016

Alan Rawsthorne: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra, Part III

The third post on Alan Rawsthorne’s: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra features a major review of the score written by Paul Earls in Notes (March 1970). The score was published in 1968.

Although this review was completed about 18 months before the Rawsthorne’s death on 24 July 1971, Earls does seem to have suggested that the composer’s career was ‘rounding out a distinguished career in the British musical world.’ Nowadays someone aged 65 would feel that they may have at least another 15-20 years of achievement before them.  Earls reminds the reader that Rawthorne’s musical style reflects ‘a solid neo-classical, modal, Hindemithian idiom’ that has suffered little change since the early 1950s.  He considers that the present work is in the lineage of ‘Vaughan Williams, Walton, and early Britten.’ The reason adduced for this apparent conservative style is the ‘functional’ requirement of a commission for the Essex Youth Orchestra.
An excellent (if overly technical) analysis and overview of the work is presented which includes ‘revolving open-fifth bass underpinnings, bel-canto melodic patterns containing fold-back cross-relations, half-step modulations, melodic and harmonic sequences, hemiola patterns, two-voice checker-game counterpoint, two-voice semi-chromatic tetrachordal wedges (evolving to a banal fully chromatic open wedge to unison C at the end), triadic and quartal sonorities (along with a few poly-modal structures), perfect-fifth modality, motoric rhythmic flow, and the leisurely logic of his variation technique.’ Dissonance, where encountered is nearly always mitigated by other ‘musical elements’ that are fundamentally ‘conventional.’
I accept that these technical descriptions will need to be unpicked with a music dictionary in one hand. Without the score, I could not even begin to relate this commentary to the music.

Finally, Earls considers the scoring of the work. He thinks that this is contrived to ‘textbook’ standard. Elements of the score ‘often look like pages from an exercise book, and would probably serve that ancillary purpose well, as they thoroughly explore variants of familiar finger patterns.’
He concludes his detailed reviews with a bit of a backhanded compliment ‘The work should be gratifying to play and hear, considering its purpose and modest and honest pretensions. Although it will make no mark for itself on any wider scale, it is a worthy example of well-wrought education materials in an outmoded style.’
Unfortunately, it has remained one of Alan Rawsthorne’ least known orchestral works even amongst those listeners who are enthusiasts for his music. 

The final instalment of these postings will examine some reviews of the only recording of Alan Rawsthorne: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra, Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7203, 2008).

Friday 21 October 2016

Alan Rawsthorne: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra, Part II

The late John McCabe, in his definitive study of Alan Rawsthorne (Oxford University Press, 1999) only makes two mentions of this work. He places the work in its chronological position, between the only work that the composer completed during 1966, The God in the Cave, for chorus and orchestra, to a text by Randall Swingler. The year 1967 was more productive. Apart from the present work, Rawsthorne completed his short ‘Overture for Farnham’, the Ballade for piano solo and the ‘Scena rustica’ (John Skelton) for soprano and harp.

After enumerating a brief history of the Theme, Variations and Finale, McCabe states that he has some reservations about the work. He also wonders if ‘the larger canvas [it is more than 15 minutes long] enabled [Rawsthorne] to relax somewhat.’ Writing for a good youth orchestra is presumably easier than composing for a secondary school: ‘one may reasonably have higher expectations of their expertise.’
McCabe thinks that the ‘theme’ is one of Rawsthorne’s ‘amiable compound-time tunes (12/8) …not especially memorable either as a tune or in orchestral texture, but with potential for variation.’
The propensity for each variation to gradually die away is seen a negatively by McCabe. For example, he considers the sixth variation ‘opts merely for hints of a possible extra variation’ before ‘drifting’ into the finale.

There is potential in the first (Allegro energico) and sixth (Declamando-Allegretto) variations, although he deems them to have insufficient development. He thinks that the variation 5 (Allegro risoluto) is the ‘best’ with a ‘sometimes raucous 3/4 at a speed bringing it close to the spirit of Beethoven one-in-a-bar scherzo, before it becomes apparent that it is really a somewhat crazy waltz, a highly entertaining one at that.’ ‘Freshness’ is a distinguishing feature of finale, with its ‘hornpipey’ mood and diatonic harmonic structure. John McCabe feels that the work had a clichéd ending: with ‘contrary motion scales to bring the piece to a thoroughly manufactured conclusion.’

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Remains: Music inspired by Ted Highes

Surprisingly few poems by Ted Hughes (1930-98) have been set to music by contemporary composers. The most impressive is the song cycle The New World by friend of the poet, Gordon Crosse. He also devised Meet My Folks! for a children’s musical group. Nicola Le Fanu has included some fugitive lines in her Song for Peter for soprano, clarinet and cello. ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, ‘The Horses’, ‘Pennines in April’ and ‘September’ have been set by Hugh Wood. It may be that copyright issues discourage composers setting this poetry. Music inspired by Hughes’ writing is even rarer. Examples include Sally Beamish’s Cello Concerto No.1 based on the ‘River’ Poems and Benjamin Dwyer’s interpretation of the Scenes from Crow. 

On 8 November 2008, two remarkable new works were heard in Todmorden Town Hall. The ‘Elmet Suite’ by John Reeman and the ‘Ted Hughes Suite’ by Lawrence Killian. They had been premiered a few days previously at the 2008 Ted Hughes Festival in Mytholmroyd (28 October 2008). Both works were introduced by their respective composers and this has been included in the CD.  
The Town Hall concert also included Gustav Holst’s The Perfect Fool and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major. 

The Elmet Suite was commissioned by the Elmet Trust as part of the 10th anniversary of the Ted Hughes death commemorations. The composer reminds listeners that Elmet was the ancient name for the kingdom covering Calderdale and the surrounding Pennines.  There are five descriptive movements in this work. ‘Remains of Elmet’ suggests the ancient history of this landscape. This is followed by a powerful scherzo, ‘Football at Slack’ depicting an amateur football match, complete with a final shout of ‘Goal!’. The middle movement, ‘In April’ is almost pastoral, describing a gentler Pennine landscape. There follows another roistering scherzo, ‘Weasels we smoked out of the bank’ that nods to Malcolm Arnold in its vivacity. 
The final movement ‘There come days to the hills’ is a broad portrait of the Pennine landscape. This is positive, wide ranging music that is sometimes discordant as befits the scenery, but reaching a climax of considerable power. The composer quotes Thomas Tallis’ great 40-part motet ‘Spem in Alium’ (Hope in God) which was heard at the poet’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey. In an ideal world, the poems that Reeman used as his inspiration would be read at the start of the work or before each movement. 
This is an inspiring Suite, that is musically sophisticated, well written and competently scored: it splendidly evokes the disposition of the landscape that was beloved by Ted Hughes. It is a perfect fusion of literature and music.

Lawrence Killian’s Ted Hughes Suite takes a different approach to Ted Hughes’ memory. Instead of concentrating on the visual and social aspects of the landscape as in ‘Remains’ Killian presents an impressionistic musical biography of the poet. The opening movement majors on Hughes’ presence in the landscape as a lad. The listener imagines ‘bubbling springs and a clear gusty wind’ and reflect on the young boy’s ‘Red Indian Camp’, and trails and adventures in the woods and hills. The second part is much more serious. It is a roller coaster ride through Ted Hughes’ often turbulent life: ‘excitement, passion, joy, children, then tragedy, overwhelming grief, utter devastation, numbness…’ however, the underlying trend is strangely optimistic. The final movement is a paean of praise to Hughes final years as Poet Laureate. It reflects prizes won and his second marriage. The coda of this movement comes full circle to the half-remembered images of boyhood. 
Musically, this is a beautifully constructed tone poem, that is eclectic (look out for the amazing soft-shoe-shuffle in the middle movement) in style, but retaining a huge overall sense of purpose and unity.  

The Todmorden Orchestra under Nicholas Concannon Hodges give a superb account of both works. John Reeman and Lawrence Killian’s tributes to Ted Hughes demand to be known by a much wider audience. It is no criticism of the present band to suggest that a full professional recording of these two pieces, along with other Hughes’ inspired music is an urgent priority. 

Track Listing:
John REEMAN (b.1946) The Elmet Suite (2008) [20:40] + Introduction [5:41]
Lawrence KILLIAN (b.1959) Ted Hughes Suite (2008) [18:54] + Introduction [3:05]
Todmorden Orchestra/Nicholas Concannon Hodges 
Rec. 8 November 2008 Town Hall, Todmorden, Lancashire.
Elmet Trust Recording [48:20]

Saturday 15 October 2016

Alan Rawsthorne: Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra, Part I

I have come to appreciate Alan Rawsthorne's Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra since I heard the ‘world premiere recording’ issued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7203) in 2008. It was commissioned by the Essex Education Committee to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Essex Youth Orchestra.  The first performance was given at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford on 4 September 1967, by the orchestra with Graham Treacher conducting.  Other works in this concert included Hector Berlioz’s (1803-69) ‘Roman Carnival’ Overture and J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for violin and oboe, BWV1060. The soloists in this work were Christopher Rowland (violin) and Mary Cotton (oboe).  Alas, Rowland died in 2007.
A few days later the orchestra went on tour and played the work on two occasions in Berlin. There have been a number of subsequent broadcasts of the piece featuring the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

John Belcher contributed the liner notes to the Dutton Epoch CD. He begins by explaining that the ‘Theme’ enters after a few introductory bars. This not so much ‘a melodic statement’ as a ‘collection of germinal cells, ideas with developmental opportunities…’
The variations in order are: 1. Allegro energico; 2. Allegretto; 3. Allegro; 4. Adagio mesto; 5. Allegro risoluto and 6. Declamando-Allegretto. One unusual feature of the piece is the way each variation collapses to virtual silence before the next one commences.
The Finale, Allegro commodo, features a considerable mood change. The harmonies are more diatonic and there is dance-like music. In fact, this is really like film music. Belcher suggests the opening titles of the film Uncle Silas (1947) as a possible model. The work closes with a solid C major chord.

Mosco Carner reviewed the Essex Youth Orchestra concert for The Times (5 September 1967). He considered that the ‘special distinction of the evening was the first performance of a new work, Theme, Variations and Finale…’  Carner declared that ‘it is a reflection on the quality of these young players that Rawsthorne, far from making any concessions, produced music wholly characteristic of his sophisticated style and technically no whit less demanding.’  The composer’s ease with variation form is noted: ‘…the medium in which his individual mode of musical thinking appears to find its natural expression.’
The work opens ‘with a sinuous, shapely theme in siciliano rhythm, and this is followed by six variations concisely worked, spare in their harmonic language and pointedly scored.’  Carner insisted that ‘As always with this composer, one had the impression that every note in the melodic line and every chord in the harmonic texture were in the right place. Which is another way of saying that with Rawsthorne idea and realisation are perfectly congruent.’ The review concludes by noting that ‘The variations represent a kaleidoscope of moods, with the second and central Mesto variations as perhaps the most imaginative ones. On first hearing, however, there seemed to be too frequent changes of mood, an impression which subsequent hearings may prove to have been mistaken.’

John C. Dressler in is invaluable bio-bibliography of the composer (Westport CT, Greenwood Press, 2004) cites a review in the Essex Weekly News (8 September 1967): ‘…’how magnificently the orchestra dealt with [this work] …both the opening and closing sections made a great impact and I look forward to hearing it again.’

Stephen Walsh writing in The Observer (10 September 1967) states that the title ‘suggests something rather more symphonic than the usual set of contrasted variations string together like so many beads.’  He concludes that the work does contain ‘a pattern of quite sharp tempo contrasts, but very carefully worked so as to form a continuous development, with the finale as its logical outcome.’  Walsh considers that the scoring is ‘bold and distinctive, especially in its deployment of antiphonal strings and wind, and there is a winning viola solo.’ He concludes his review by suggesting that it is ‘an acquisition on which Mr Treacher and his orchestra can congratulate themselves.’

The premiere was briefly noted by Bernard Barrell in the Composer journal (Winter 1968/69). He wrote: [The] Essex Youth Orchestra introduced Alan Rawsthorne’s Theme, Variations and Finale at Chelmsford and Elizabeth Maconchy’s ‘Essex’ Overture at Snape (also written for the EYO under Graham Treacher). Sadly, Maconchy’s work still awaits revival.

Part II of this post will review John McCabe’s analysis of the Theme, Variations and Finale for orchestra.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Sir Frederic Cowen (1852-1935): Some Witty Definitions

The small book Music as she is Wrote is a ‘glossary of musical terms very much up to date by the composer and conductor Frederic H. Cowen.’ It was published c.1915, however this has not dated the humour. I give four short definitions from it below.

A display of musical fireworks, introduced into a song by a prima donna to show the public that she possesses ever so many good (or bad) high notes that she has not had a chance of singing in the song itself. In a Concerto the cadenza is often nearly as long as the whole piece, but it has the advantage of giving the conductor a well-earned rest.

Part Song
A short unaccompanied piece of vocal music in several parts, which begins in one key and usually ends half a tone or more lower.

A succession of notes used to fill up a bar in a composition when the composer has exhausted every other device he can think of.

An obsolete term. 

Sunday 9 October 2016

Arnold Cooke (1906-2005) Symphony No.1 (1947)

I am convinced that one of the major problems in approaching Arnold Cooke’s music is the presumption that it owes virtually everything to Paul Hindemith. At least this seems to be the prevailing view amongst the few music critics that I have read. Most listeners will acknowledge Hindemith as a well-known composer and teacher, yet I guess he is not universally popular beyond Germany. There is a thinking abroad that somehow Cooke sold-out on his Britishness to become a kind of Germanic clone. On the other hand, there is an expectation that an English composer should write music in a recognisably nationalistic style: perhaps making use of folk tunes or nodding to the vocal lines of Tallis or the romanticism of Elgar. Yet, this assumption would destroy the reputation of a number of fine British composers. Think of Lennox Berkeley and his French connection, or Vaughan Williams’s valuable lessons with Maurice Ravel. And what about the Frankfurt Group including Balfour Gardiner and Cyril Scott? All these composers have absorbed teaching from French or German composers, yet have retained to a greater or lesser degree a sense of Englishness. So it is with Cooke.
Arnold Cooke was one of only two English pupils of Paul Hindemith: the other was Walter Leigh. It is fair to say that he learnt much from his teacher. Malcolm MacDonald sums this up in the programme notes to the Lyrita CD of this work. He writes that what Cooke ‘really imbibed was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.’ As Havergal Brian wrote in 1936, Cooke ‘appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss.’ And note here Brian's reference to the Elizabethans.
This is not the place to write even a short biography or musical study of Arnold Cooke. There is plenty of information available on MusicWeb and a fine booklet written by Eric Wetherell and published by the BMS that may still be found in second hand bookshops.
The first Symphony was composed in 1947, when Cooke was 41 years old. The general opinion of the critics seems to be that this work represents the first major statement of Cooke’s fully developed style – a style that was to change comparatively little over the next half century.

There are a number of possible models for this work including Hindemith’s Symphony in E dating from 1940. The British exemplars of that time would have been Walton’s B minor and Vaughan Williams’ 4th and 5th. It is fair to say that Cooke neither parodies nor cribs from any of these works. What he has written is original and quite personal.

There are four movements with the first being the longest. Interestingly, the classical model is altered, with the scherzo coming second. The general mood of the Symphony  as a strong and robust work is immediately apparent in the opening movement. This is in a reasonably traditional sonata form. Yet the tempo does not slow up for the second subject. There is some fine brass writing, particularly for the French horns. A good balance is maintained between what may be deemed ‘aggressive’ and ‘lyrical’ music.
The second movement is not really a proper Scherzo. The classicist would tell us that the ‘trio’ is missing. The impression is of activity: the momentum never seems to stop. It is not quicksilver - more of a whirlwind. There is a swing and a swagger to this movement that continues unabated to the very last bar.
The heart of this work is the elegiac slow movement. This is deeply considered music, timeless and beholden to no man. Here we find music that may nod, according to MacDonald, towards Bach or perhaps even the Elizabethan viol school. However, all this ‘source criticism’ is small beer compared to the overarching power of this expansive and frankly sad music.
Fortunately, the tension is diminished during the finale. This is an exuberant excursion into the world of festivals and fanfares. Lots of different themes and figures and episodes are tossed around before the work concludes with a fine coda.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published 7 May 2007. 

Arnold Cooke’s Symphony No.1 has been recorded in LYRITA SRCD.203

Thursday 6 October 2016

Harold Craxton: The Plaint of Love

In a recent review of the 2015 Husum Piano Music Festival CD (DACOCD779) for MusicWeb International, I praised Harold Craxton’s ‘Siciliano and Rigadon’ played by Jonathan Plowright. I wondered ‘how many recordings there are of Harold Craxton’s music?’ I imagined that there would have been ‘precious few.’ For one thing I felt that ‘Craxton is a name that is usually remembered in connection with the Associated Board (AB)’ and the hard toil of piano grades. 
So imagine my delight and surprise when Christopher Howell emailed me to explain that, way back in 2000, the Craxton Trust had issued a CD of the composer’s music: piano, cello and vocal. He had been instrumental in its performance and production. It had passed me by at the time: clearly I had not persisted in ‘googling’ as I prepared my review of Husum 2015. In mitigation, I did check a couple of CD websites and found nothing: I found no review on The Gramophone. Neither did I discover that the present CD is, and has been, available from the Craxton Trust website.  Further investigation disclosed a review by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International (1 August 2001).  
In addition, Howell has completed a major study of the composer for MusicWeb International: Forgotten Artists - An occasional series by Christopher Howell: 12. Harold Craxton (1885-1971). This explores the composer’s life, works and recorded legacy in considerable detail.
So, some 16 years after its release I am reviewing the CD. And I am delighted to say that it has been well worth the (unintended and unrealised) wait. The repertoire may not be ‘revelatory’ but it is honest-to-goodness, always deeply musical, convincingly played and thoroughly enjoyable.

Readers will be glad that I do not intend to elaborate on all 22 tracks. However, a few comments on some of the pieces that particularly struck me may be of interest.  The repertoire is divided into piano solos, songs and a few numbers for cello and piano. The text of the liner notes of this present CD appear on MusicWeb International, as well as a list of the Craxton’s works.

Harold Craxton is best recalled (where recalled at all) for his ‘teaching pieces’. There are also a number of pieces that could be deemed ‘concert works’ and plenty of ‘transcriptions.’  He was the ‘assistant’ editor of the monumental three-volume Associated Board edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: the editor in chief was Donald Tovey.  Craxton was interested in early music and published a number of transcriptions of this music.  He was a concert pianist in his own right, as well as a teacher. His pupils included Denis Matthews, Peter Katin and Noel Mewton-Wood. 

One of the problems that would appear to afflict Craxton’s transcriptions and realisations of early music is the boundary between the original and Craxton’s imagination and inventiveness. The opening piece and title track, ‘The Plaint of Love’, derived from ‘A Lute Book, c 1535’ is a deeply thoughtful work that seems to defy time. It could be 16th century or could belong to the 20th century English Musical Renaissance. Witness similar works as Herbert Howells Lambert’s Clavichord etc. The Two Pastoral Pieces, ‘Heather Bells’ and ‘Bird Song’ are poetic tunes that do not conform to historical placement. On the other hand, the ‘Tahitian Dance’ has a tinge (or is it twinge) of modernism about it:  Bartok meets Africa or the South Seas. Craxton apparently used material from this dance in his ‘African Dance.’ My favourite piano piece on this CD is ‘A Shepherdess in Porcelain’ which was often used as a Grade exam pieces. Yet its simplicity and subtle beauty defies analysis. Howell includes the ‘Siciliano and Rigadon’, which, as I noted in my Husum 2015 review, was difficult to work out what was Craxton and what ‘Anon.’ I hold that ‘whatever the provenance,’ it is perfectly contrived piece that cannot be ever be out of date.
I enjoyed the songs. I had not realised that Craxton was such an accomplished composer of this genre. Particularly memorable are the ‘Quilteresque’ setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’ and more complex ‘Mavis’ (L.A. Lefevre)

The pieces that feature the cello are all transcriptions. The ‘Almans’ by Richard Johnson, ‘A Maske’ by Giles Farnaby and the plaintive Sonata in B flat by Thomas Arne are all worthy, if a little uninspiring, pieces. They deserve to be given the occasional airing.

The performance is always sincere and showcases these straightforward pieces with integrity and enthusiasm.
As noted above, the liner notes by Christopher Howell have been published online, and represent the most extensive essay on the composer produced so far, as well as being an ideal introduction to the present CD. The booklet also includes the texts of the songs. There are the usual mini-biographies of the performers, although these will now be a wee bit out of date.

I thoroughly enjoyed this CD, even if it came to me 15 years late. I hope that there may be more music from Craxton’s pen in the offing someday. There is certainly plenty of it. Meanwhile, I will keep my eyes open in the second-hand shops for any sheet music featuring Harold Craxton’s original piano pieces. 

Harold CRAXTON (1885-1971)
1. The Plaint of Love (from a Lute Book, c. 1535) Freely transcribed by Harold Craxton. Pianoforte (1935)
2. Two Almans by Richard Johnson transcribed by Harold Craxton. Violoncello and pianoforte (1931)
3. O mistress mine (Shakespeare). Baritone and pianoforte (1944)
4. Meditation (Vita in ligno moritur) (from a Lute Book, c. 1530). Freely arranged by Harold Craxton. Pianoforte (1938)
5. A Maske by Giles Farnaby transcribed by Harold Craxton. Violoncello and pianoforte (1931)
6. It was a lover and his lass (Shakespeare) Soprano and pianoforte. (1944) Performing edition Christopher Howell
7. Siciliano and Rigadon (c. 1735) Freely transcribed by Harold Craxton. Pianoforte (1935)
8. Sonata in B flat by T. A. Arne transcribed by Harold Craxton. Violoncello and pianoforte (1931)
9. A Requiem (R. L. Stevenson). Baritone and pianoforte (1914)
10. Woodland Lullaby. Pianoforte (1917)
11. Oh! To see the Cabin Smoke (P. J. O'Reilly). Soprano and pianoforte (1915)
Two Mazurkas. Pianoforte (1937)
12. 1. F minor
13. 2. D flat major
14. Beloved, I am lonely (May Aldington). Baritone and pianoforte (1926)
15. Mavis (Lefevre). Baritone and pianoforte (1914)
16. A Shepherdess in Porcelain. Pianoforte (1917)
Two Pastoral Preludes. Pianoforte (1931)
17. 1. Heather Bells
18. 2. Bird Song ("I love my love and my love loves me")
19. Hearts in Love (Edward Oxenford). Soprano and pianoforte (1915)
20. The Snowdrop (Norman Gale). Soprano and pianoforte (1924)]
21. A Tahitian Dance (founded upon native rhythms) Pianoforte (1931)
22. Bourrée Humoresque (founded on an 18th Century tune) Pianoforte (1938)
Caroline Goodwin (soprano) James McOran Campbell (baritone:) Alison Moncrieff Kelly (violoncello) Christopher Howell (piano)

Monday 3 October 2016

Arnold Bax: The Earliest Article, 1915

Lewis Foreman in his magisterial book, Arnold Bax: A Composer and his Times (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 1983, 2007) has suggested that the present short article from the Monthly Musical Record (November 1915) is the ‘earliest…on the composer that has been traced other than newspaper reviews and lists of works.’ It comprises a short overview of his life extracted from the Programme Book of the 'Festival of British Music, 1915 as well as a photographic portrait of Bax. Little commentary is needed on this text, however, a number of the concerts and recitals mentioned will bear further investigation.  

We have great pleasure in publishing in this number a portrait of Mr. Arnold Bax, who was born in 1883, and entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1900, where he studied composition for five years under Professor Frederick Corder. He made his debut as a composer in 1903 at the old St. James's Hall. [1] Since that date he has been prolific in the matter of composition.
‘A Celtic Song Cycle’ (settings of some of Fiona Macleod's poems) was produced by Mr. Thomas Dunhill at one of his British chamber-music concerts in 1907, and several large works were included in the programmes of Mr. Balfour Gardiner's two seasons of concerts at Queen's Hall in 1912 and 1913, notably a large choral work, ‘Enchanted Summer’ which was subsequently performed at one of the London Choral Society's concerts under Mr. Arthur Fagge. A new orchestral work in four movements, ‘Spring Fire’ was down for performance at last year's Norwich Festival, which did not take place owing to the war. [2]
Much of Mr. Bax's music is steeped in the mysterious atmosphere of Celtic mythology. In this respect it has some affinity with the poetry of Mr. W. B. Yeats. Nearly all the orchestral works are, according to the composer himself, "based upon aspects and moods of external nature and their relation to human emotion." Mr. Bax's latest compositions include a Piano Quintet and an orchestral poem, ‘The Garden of Fand’ inspired by the legend of the enchanted islands in the Atlantic, off the western shores of Ireland; and some highly interesting pianoforte solos, entitled ‘In a Vodka Shop’ ‘The Princess’s Rose Garden’, ‘Sleepy head’ and ‘Apple Blossom Time.’  (Programme Book of the 'Festival of British Music, 1915).
Monthly Musical Record November 1915.

[1] The premiere of the String Quartet in A major composed in 1902. The third movement only was given on 23 November 1903.

[2] ‘Spring Fire’ was not performed until 8 December 1970, by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Leslie Head.