Friday 28 December 2018

Henry Charles Litolff: A Famous London Composer

Back in January of this year I flagged up that 2018 was the bi-centenary of Henry Charles Litolff. I guess that I had not realised that he was a British composer, despite having heard his delightful Scherzo many times. In fact, the Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 is the only work that is regularly heard. There are currently some 12 or 13 recordings of this movement in the CD catalogues. This compares to only a single entry for the entire concerto! The other four piano concertos are represented by a single recording of nos. 2 and 4, two discrete versions of no.3 and none of no.1 (as this score is lost). As for any other music by Henry Litolff there appears to virtually nothing, although I did find reference to a now deleted LP of a Piano Trio. (Genesis ‎– GS1058/59)

What of Henry Charles Litolff himself? He was born in Marylebone, London on 7 August 1818. His mother, Sophia Hayes was Scottish, and his father, Martin Louis Litolff was Alsatian (Alsace Lorraine). Interestingly, Martin, serving in Napoleon’s army, had been captured during the Peninsular Wars. He was a violinist in a ‘dance band.’ Litolff studied music with his father until he was twelve years old. In his early years, he worked at the Bond Street premises of Collard and Collard where he demonstrated pianos. Collard was so impressed by the young man’s playing that, c.1831, he introduced him to the great pianist, teacher and composer Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) (in my opinion, an ‘honorary Englishman’ himself) and Litolff soon became one of his pupils.  One of his earliest solo appearances was at Covent Garden Theatre on 24 July 1832, as ‘a pupil of Moscheles, 12 years old…’ He was actually 14 years old.

Litolff studied with Moscheles for five years until he was 17, after which he eloped (1835) to Gretna Green with a certain Miss Elizabeth Etherington. After their marriage, they fled to Melun in the Île de France and then to Paris.  Unfortunately, the couple lived in near-penury. Shortly, Litolff separated from his wife. With encouragement from François Fétis, Henri Pape and Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, he began to build his career as a pianist.  Tom Blair (Grove’s) suggests that Litolff moved to Warsaw for several years during which time he was conductor if the National Theatre. There is no record of this appointment.

Litolff went on to develop a stunning career as a virtuoso pianist. In fact, he was known as ‘The English Liszt’. As part of his solo career, Litolff travelled extensively throughout the world. He performed many concerts and recitals in Paris, Brussels, Leipzig, Prague, Dresden, Berlin and Amsterdam. Litolff suffered from a nervous disorder and was helped through this illness by the Bülow family. As a thank-you, he taught the great German conductor, composer and pianist Hans von Bülow for a short time.
Despite being a brilliant technician, his contemporaries often criticised his style as being ‘more showy than correct’

In 1845 he returned to England to attempt to get a divorce from Elizabeth, but his in-laws prosecuted him for abduction. He was fined heavily and given a prison sentence. He managed to escape with the assistance of the jailer’s daughter and set up base in The Netherlands.
The following year he became friendly with Gottfried and Julie Meyer. Meyer was the founder of Meyer music publishing. A few years later, Gottfried died and, after becoming a citizen of Brunswick, Litolff married Julie on 30 March 1851. The name of the firm was changed to Edition Litolff Verlag, later becoming noted for their yellow bindings. This popular edition made many of the ‘classics’ available to the ‘man in the street.’ The upshot of this was that for many years Litolff’s name was only recalled as a publisher.

Litolff was active in Brunswick music scene and was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1855. He was not happy in his new marriage and repeatedly ran away from his wife. She eventually divorced him in 1858 (or was it the other way around?).  Litolff’s third marriage in 1860 was to Comtesse Blanche, who was the daughter of Count Wilfred de la Rochefoucald. In the same year, he transferred his business interest in Edition Litolff to his adopted son (from Julie Meyer) Theodor Litolff (1839-1912) and made his retirement to Paris. 
In 1873, three years after the death of Blanche, Litolff married for a fourth time, to the seventeen-year-old Lucie who had nursed him through his illness. Little is known about the years from 1873 until his death in 1891.
Henry Charles Litolff died at Bois-Colombes, near Paris on 5 August 1891, aged 73 years.

Litolff’s compositions include the above mentioned five piano concertos a dozen stage works, an oratorio as well as several chamber music works and more than a hundred solo piano pieces. There are four overtures including Maximilian Robespierre, op. 55 which is occasionally revived. In his day, his greatest success was his comic opera Heloise and Abelard – a somewhat strange subject for a comedy.

The important thing to recall about the ‘piano concertos’ are that Litolff effectively created a new form: these were ‘symphonies’ with a complex and virtuoso obligato. An ‘obligato’ is an essential accompanying solo passage for an instrument. In other words, it performs an important formal or structural function. What this means is that the orchestra generally introduces and develops the thematic material and the piano was used to provide textural interest. It was not a battle between orchestra and soloist. Musicologists see Henry Charles Litolff in a trajectory from the ‘classically-derived concertos of Hummel, Moscheles and Chopin’ towards the more romantic works of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Edvard Grieg.

Finally, listen to Henry Charles Litolff most popular work, Concerto Symphonique No.4, Op.102 - 2. Scherzo on YouTube.  This is my favourite version with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent with Moura Lympany as soloist.
All four remaining Concerto Symphoniques have been recorded on the Hyperion CD label with Peter Donohoe (piano) and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (CDA66889 and CDA67210).

Tuesday 25 December 2018

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Many years ago, in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, I discovered a Nativity scene by the Scottish artist William Bell Scott (1811-90). This had been painted around 1872.  The artist had used the landscape of south Ayrshire as his inspiration. This Nativity was set in a dilapidated barn near Penkill Castle. In the background can be seen the rural lowland Scottish landscape: one of the approaching shepherds is playing the bagpipes. It was this painting that made me realise that the Nativity is universal. European Renaissance painters had set it in their local landscapes, both rural and urban. So why not Ayrshire, or anywhere? 

Light in the Darkness
Norval Clyne (1817-1888)
The blasts of chill December sound
    The farewell of the year,
And night's swift shadows gath'ring round
    O'er cloud the soul with fear;
But rest you well, good Christian men,
    Nor be of heart forlorn;
December's darkness begins again
    The Light of Christmas morn.

The welcome snow at Christmas-tyde
    Falls shining from the skies:
On village paths and uplands wide
    All holy-white it lies;
It crowns with pearl the oaks and pines,
    And glitters on the thorn,
And purer is the Light that shines
    On gladsome Christmas morn.

'Twas when the world was waxing old,
    And night on Bethlehem lay,
The shepherds saw the heavens unfold
    A light beyond the day;
Such glory ne'er had visited
    A world with sin outworn;
But yet more glorious Light is shed
    On happy Christmas morn.

Those shepherds poor, how blest were they
    The angels' song to hear!
In manger cradle as He lay,
    To greet their Lord so dear!
The Lord of Heaven's eternal height
    For us a Child was born:
And He, the very Light of Light,
    Shone forth that Christmas morn!

Before His Infant smile afar
    Were driven the hosts of hell;
And still in souls that childlike are
    His guardian Love shall dwell:
O then rejoice, good Christian men,
    Nor be of hear forlorn;
December's darkness bring again
    The Light of Christmas morn.

Saturday 22 December 2018

J.S. Bach: Some [Very Unoriginal] Thoughts on the Chorale Prelude ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ (The Day is Full of Joy) BWV 605

Every Christmas I listen to certain works that have become old favourites. For me, they are a part of my Yuletide‘tradition.’ I will listen to Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hodie, and over a few days, J.S. Bach’s monumental Christmas Oratorio. This list does not include the many carols I will hear in church, on the radio and in the shops. And then there are the popular songs that are trotted out each year. These traverse the repertoire from Bing Crosby to Slade and from Leroy Anderson to Wizard. All memorable stuff.

This year I have decided to listen (with attention) to the Christmas choral preludes from Bach’s remarkable Orgelbüchlein. For this blog post I have picked out my favourite seasonal number: ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ (The Day is Full of Joy) BWV 605.

Now, there has been much commentary on the Orgelbüchlein in general and also the individual chorale preludes. This ranges from the technical to the single sentence on a record sleeve. The definitive example of the former category is Peter Williams’ The Organ Music of J.S. Bach (Cambridge University Press, 1980, 2003). No lover of Bach should be without this and its companion volume. An example of the former writing for this present prelude is ‘Notice…the overwhelming joy of BWV 605…as conveyed by the exuberance of the rhythmical interplay…’

First, some words about the Orgelbüchlein itself. The Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) is a collection of relatively short organ works by J.S. Bach. Albert Schweitzer calls it ‘the lexicon of Bach’s musical speech’. It was originally conceived by the composer to include 164 preludes based on 161 hymn tunes used by the Lutheran Church on ‘high-days and holy-days’ during the Church’s Year. It is to be eternally regretted by organ enthusiasts that he only completed 46 of these pieces (BWV 599-644). Bach abandoned the project when he was appointed to the Court at Köthen. The Orgelbüchlein served (and serves) a dual function – for liturgical use and as a ‘primer’ for organ students. The British organist James Lancelot remarked that Bach’s Orgelbüchlein ‘has become the organists bible’. He further suggests that ‘no organist should be ignorant of the collection and every organist should master some, at least, of these chorales which have adorned the liturgy of churches throughout and far beyond Lutheran communities’. The Orgelbüchlein features largely chorales from the first half of the Christian year – Advent to Whitsun. As noted, they are short. The chorale is typically presented in the right hand ‘treble’ part and does not have ‘interludes’ between the sections of the tune. The ‘added value’ of these chorale preludes is found in the registration, the harmonization and the embellishment with musical ornaments. 

Turning to ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605. The melody for Bach’s chorale was based on the plainsong ‘Dies est laetitiae in ortu regale’ (Royal Day that chasest gloom!) which dated back to the 14th century. Both melody and text were first published in 1529: 

Bach also used this melody in BWV 719, a chorale prelude which is part of the Neumeister Collection. This was ‘rediscovered; by Christopher Wolff et. al. the in Yale Library. It contained 82 chorales by several composers including Pachelbel, Walther and J.C. Bach. There are some 38 chorale preludes by Bach, although a few of these are also attributed to Pachelbel and Walther.  
‘Dies est laetitiae’ was harmonised in four parts by Bach in BWV 294:

  ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ (The Day is Full of Joy)
 O hail this brightest day of days,
All good Christian people!
For Christ hath come upon our ways,
Ring it from the steeple!
Of maiden pure is He the Son;
For ever shall thy praise be sung,
Christ's fair mother Mary!
Ever was there news so great?
God's own Son from heaven's high state
Is born the Son of Mary!

This day the wondrous Child is born,
Lent to earth from heaven.
He comes to cheer a world forlorn,
Its heavy sin to leaven.
So, sing ye all the glorious birth
Which doth redeem our fallen earth,
And works our salvation.
Laud to Thee, Child Jesu Christ!
With mankind Thou'st kept the tryst
Thou Star of every nation.

The chorale prelude is ostensibly written in G major. There are a few chromatic notes. However, there is a tendency for the tune the harmonisation to explore the G mixolydian mode expressed through several F naturals in the entire prelude, including one in the melody itself. This gives a flavour of the ancient ecclesiastical mode.
The melody, for the right hand, is written in the ‘treble’ part, and is played on a ‘solo’ manual. I think that this should ideally be a reed stop, however it would also be effective on choir or great flutes. The left hand plays interesting motives, which are cleverly split into two parts or voices. These are played as ornaments. This figuration is upheld until the conclusion of the prelude. Registration for the left-hand music includes foundation stops 8ft, 4ft and 2ft. It would be possible to include a ‘quiet but scintillating mixture.’ The pedal presents a ‘firm quaver’ part.

The great German scholar Julius August Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) in his Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685–1750 (1873/1880) stated that ‘The Christmas melody ‘Der Tag der ist so freudenreich’ is beautified by a joyful soaring rhythm…’. Harvey Grace (The Chorale Preludes of J.S. Bach, 1922) has written that ‘The [accompaniment] figure is used…to express the joy of confidence in the Divine goodness, and its rhythm is the main feature in [this] gay prelude…the gaiety, by the way, comes out only when the piece is played very quickly and cleanly.’  
I wonder if this prelude ought to be taken a wee bit slower than Grace suggests. By doing so, it is possible to create a numinous atmosphere that reflects Keller’s (The Organ Music of J.S. Bach, 1948) contention that the left-hand part imagines the ‘rocking cradle’ at the nativity.

For me, Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605 epitomises the Christmas season and its message. On the one hand, there is the intimate mystery of Jesus’s birth in the mean stable in Bethlehem and on the other, the joyful announcement of the Incarnation of God made Man.  All this profound symbolism, truth and wonder is contained in less than two minutes worth of music.

A good example (if a little fast for me) of ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605 can be heard on YouTube. Olli Porthan plays on the Verschueren organ (1994) at Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Benjamin Britten: The Holly and the Ivy for choir.

In late 1956, Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was asked by June Gordon (1913-2009), Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair to arrange ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ for the Haddo House Choral Society’s annual Carol Concert. The Britten Catalogue (1999) explains that the reason for this request was because the choir ‘were heartily sick of all arrangements…tried so far.’
June Gordon was a near-contemporary of Britten and had graduated from the Royal College of Music at the same time. In 1945 she founded the Haddo House Choral Society.

‘The Holly and the Ivy’ for unaccompanied chorus (SATB) was completed by Britten during January 1957. The text is derived from an original carol collected by Cecil Sharp’s published in his English Folk Carols (1911). Sharp states that he heard the tune sung by Mrs. Mary A. Clayton, aged 64, at Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire on 13 January 1909. He had noted five versions of the carol. These were denoted as A, B, C and D – text and tune and E - text only. Britten used version ‘A’ for this setting.  
The sheet music carries the dedication ‘For June Gordon and the Haddo House Choral Society, 1957.’

The holly and the ivy are trees that's both well known;
Of all the trees that grows in woods, the holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun, the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry harp, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom as white as any flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Saviour.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a colour as green as any tree,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to set poor sinners free.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ at Christmas day in the morn.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
The rising of the sun…
English Traditional carol

Britten has created a kind of ‘palindromic’ setting of this carol. The arrangement of each verse is given a different combination of voices as follows: Verse 1, solo treble accompanied by altos, Verse 2, tenor solo accompanied by basses, Verse 3, alto (or mezzo soprano) solo accompanied by tenors, Verse 4, baritone solo accompanied by sopranos and altos. The process is then reversed. The soloists may be replaced by a semi-chorus. In each case the accompaniment is simple, often depending in a ‘pedal’ note.
In the first six verses the refrain ‘The rising of the sun…’ is heard in the same harmonisation. There is considerable use of parallel thirds here. The final chord is at the unison. Britten subtly varies this refrain for the final verse providing a descant and concluding with a six-part (basses and altos divisi) chord contrasting dramatically with the spare conclusion of the previous six refrains. It includes effective crossing of parts.
The harmony of this carol is straightforward: there is not a single accidental in the entire piece. The harmonic interest is devised by gentle clashes in the part writing creating and dissolving gentle dissonances. Much use is made of major and minor 7th and 9th chords.

The carol was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1957 and was reissued in 1963 by Novello in their compilation volume Sing Nowell: 51 carols new and arranged and edited by Louis Halsey and Basil Ramsey. The present arrangement also appears in The Cambridge Hymnal ed. David Holbrook and Elizabeth Poston. (OUP 1967)

The Britten Catalogue (1999) notes that the first performance of this carol was during a BBC Home Service Broadcast on 22 December 1957. It had been recorded on 14 December at Haddo House in Aberdeen by the Haddo House Choral Society, conducted by June Gordon.  I was unable to find an exact entry in the contemporary Radio Times.

It is good to know that the Haddo House Choral and Operatic Society is still going strong. They have presented a series of Carol concerts over in the run up to Christmas 2018.

There is a splendid version of this carol on YouTube sung by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks and originally issued in 1966 on the LP Christmas Music from King's.

Finally, my (very tatty) copy of the sheet music for Britten’s ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ was bought in a now-defunct second hand bookshop in North Wales for 5 pence. The copy, presumably surplus to requirements, is stamped up as belonging to the Frodsham and District Choral Society. It is satisfying to discover that this Cheshire organisation is still performing happily in 2018.

Brief Biography:
Banks, Paul etc., Benjamin Britten: A Catalogue of Published Works (The Britten-Pears Library, 1999)

Sunday 16 December 2018

Edwin Evans: The Younger English Composers. Xl—Ernest John Moeran. Edwin Evans. Part II

This article is being written without consultation with its subject, who has just emerged from a nursing home and gone to Hastings to recuperate. This makes it difficult to achieve completeness in enumerating his published works, and impossible to deal with those remaining in manuscript. It is, of course, a tribute to his quality that the former should leave one with appetite for more, but with publishers as amenable as they have nowadays become, there would certainly be more but for his own inclination to reticence.
It is perhaps because of this that he has not yet acquired that professional slickness which tells a composer what to do in any contingency. He may even be one of those composers - often men of vivid musical imagination - who never acquire it. There is a certain kind of clumsiness, of embarrassed articulation, that seems, if anything, to accentuate the personal quality of musical thought, just as the imperfections left by a not too cunning hand often add to the characteristic value of a piece of plastic craftsmanship.
Mannerisms, of course, are a different matter. Moeran's include, for instance, a fondness for the sharp tang of a false relation [1]; for certain tight clusters of notes which suggest that their origin is the keyboard rather than the mind; for the Dorian form of the minor mode [2]; for abrupt excursions into keys whose distance from the main tonality is out of proportion to the dimensions of the piece. All these are deliberate integral features of Moeran's musical physiognomy. If they ever involve transient clumsiness - which I do not suggest - it is in the handling of them, not in their mere presence.
I am scarcely in a position to write intimately of Moeran's orchestral works. I heard some time ago one of the Rhapsodies, [3] and read ‘In the Mountain Country’, [4] an attractive little work of no great pretensions; but one would need to have both heard and read the same work recently to convey something of its quality. With his published chamber music, however, I am well acquainted, and I rank the String Quartet [5] first among his compositions in the larger forms. It is a fine work, as full of character as it is of musical interest, and deserves to be more often performed. And if I place the Violin Sonata [6] second to it, it is mainly because of that extraneous influence to which I have referred above. The melodic invention in both works frequently betrays the subsoil of folksong, though the hand of the cultivator has much transformed its character. Moeran has made his own personal synthesis of folk tune elements, and though its lyrical character more frequently "indicates" song, it lends itself with ease to development. The remaining work, a Trio, [7] is less satisfactory, and though published after the others, would appear from internal evidence to have been written earlier.
The available piano music consists of a set of Variations and fifteen [other] pieces. [8] The interest of the former consists, as so often, of that inherent in the adventures of a young composer with a good tune on which to try his teeth. Among the latter are several worthy of attention, such as Two Legends [9], and particularly the second of them, ‘Rune’, with its fine melodic breadth; Stalham River [10], a poetic landscape; a Toccata [11] with a quiet lyrical episode to offset its brilliance; Autumn Woods, another landscape included in Three Pieces [12], Summer Valley, dedicated to Delius and harmonically a subtle tribute to that master [13]; Bank Holiday [14], inscribed to Gordon Bryan, but suggesting a touch of Percy Grainger; a couple of Irish tunes arranged for the series Folk Dances of the World. [15]
But, for the present, next to the Quartet and Violin Sonata, it is to Moeran's songs that one turns with the most pleasure. There is little question but that his gift is almost entirely lyrical, even when he is in his most robust and energetic mood. His thought expresses itself with most ease when linked with verse and flowing with the lilt of a song. Among the best are the two settings of poems by Robert Bridges, ‘Spring goeth all in white’ and ‘When June is come’ [16]; those from A Shropshire Lad, consisting of 'Tis time I think by Wenlock’ - a little gem – ‘Far in a Western Brookland’, and the four comprised in the very attractive cycle Ludlow Town, [17] and that of Yeats's ‘A Dream of Death’. [18]
Here and there possibly a mannerism may obtrude itself, without impairing the clear, sometimes even spare, outline of the lyrical thought. Unfortunately, excluding folk-songs, there are no more than fifteen of them published. The folksongs Moeran has collected in East Anglia exceed a hundred, although he has avoided the methods of those enthusiasts to whom anything they hear sung is a specimen. He has collected with discrimination, and then made a further selection for publication. The Six Folksongs from Norfolk [19] rank with the best work done in this fascinating field, each song owing its inclusion to some characteristic quality, such as the flowing quintuple metre of ‘Down by the Riverside’, which appears to be typical of many songs of that particular region, or the Dorian flavour of ‘The Shooting of His Dear’, the harmonization of which is effective, though not over-scrupulous. ‘Lonely Waters’ is another favourite. Those published separately are ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’, and two from Suffolk: ‘The Jolly Carter’ and ‘The Little Milkmaid’. [20]

Except a few contributions to the Oxford Choral Songs the above covers practically the whole of Moeran's published output. Quantitatively it is meagre enough, but its quality is such as to make one indifferent to superficial considerations such as those I have described as mannerisms. The main characteristics of his style fall into two alternating groups. He has a kind of robust infectious energy, peculiarly English in tone, and at other times he muses upon nature with a quasi-mystical tenderness which is also English, but is intensified by his Irish antecedents, so that the underlying sentiment has more fervour than belongs to the English landscape. If his works have not yet ranked him with the most prominent composers of his generation, they have certainly placed him among those of whom every successive utterance is awaited with warm and confident interest.

[1] A ‘false relation’ is a ‘chromatic contradiction’ between two notes in a chord or adjacent chords. For example, and F# and F natural appearing in successive chords in different voices.
[2] A medieval scale like that on the piano beginning and ending on ‘D’ using only the whites. Clearly, these intervallic relations can be transposed to any other key.
[3] This could have been the Rhapsody No.1 composed in 1922 or the Rhapsody No.2 in 1924. This latter was revised by the composer in 1940-1 for a smaller orchestra. The Rhapsody No.3 in F# for piano and orchestra did not appear until 1943.
[4] ‘In the Mountain Country’ is Moeran’s earliest surviving orchestral work, having been completed in 1921.
[5] The String Quartet No.1 in A minor was completed in 1921.
[6] The Sonata in E minor for violin and piano was written in 1923.
[7] The Trio in D major for violin, cello and piano is Moeran’s earliest surviving chamber work. It was written in 1920 and published by OUP in 1925. There was a later Trio for violin, viola and cello written in 1931.
[8] Virtually all Moeran’s piano music had been composed prior to Evans’ article. Only the Two Pieces: ‘Prelude’ and ‘Berceuse’ would follow in 1933. Evans does not mention ‘On a May Morning’ (1921) and the Three Fancies for piano (1922).
[9] Two Legends for piano (1923) include the above mentioned ‘Rune’ and ‘A Folk Story’.
[10] ‘Stalham River’ was composed in 1921.
[11] ‘Toccata’ was composed in 1921.
[12] Three Pieces for piano included ‘The Lake Island’, ‘Autumn Woods’ and ‘At the Horse Fair. They were completed in 1919 and are Moeran’s earliest extant work.
[13] ‘Summer Valley’ was composed in 1925.
[14] ‘Bank Holiday’ was composed in 1925.
[15] The two traditional Irish folksongs transcribed for piano are the ‘Irish Love Song’ (1926) and ‘The White Mountain' (1927).
[16] The two Robert Bridges settings were composed in 1920 but were not published until 1924.
[17] E.J. Moeran set several songs by A.E. Housman. The earliest was the song cycle Ludlow Town in 1920. This included ‘When Smoke Stood up from Ludlow’, ‘Farewell to Barn and Stack’, ‘Say Lad have you Things to do’ and ‘The Lads in their Hundreds. Standalone settings included ‘Tis time I Think by Wenlock Town’, ‘Far in a Western Brookland’, ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and ‘O Fair Enough on Sky and Plain’ which exists in three versions.
[18] Yeats’s ‘A Dream of Death’ was composed in 1925.
[19] The Six Folksongs from Norfolk are catalogued as folksong arrangements. They were composed in 1923. They include ‘Down by the Riverside’, ‘The Bold Richard’, ‘Lonely Waters’, The Pressgang’, ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ and ‘The Oxford Sporting Blade.’ This was published by Augener in 1924. The songs were collected in three villages in the County from performances by four local men. Two of the tunes collected, ‘Lonely Waters’ and ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ were to be used in orchestral compositions by Moeran.
[20] ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’ was collected in Norfolk (1924) and two from Suffolk: ‘The Little Milkmaid’ (1925) was from Suffolk and the ‘The Jolly Carter’ (1925) was collected in Suffolk.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Edwin Evans: The Younger English Composers. Xl—Ernest John Moeran. Edwin Evans. Part I

In February 1929, the respected music magazine Monthly Musical Record began a series of profiles entitled ‘The Younger English Composers.’ These were written by prominent musicologists and historians. Composers featured included Edmund Rubbra, Peter Warlock, Constant Lambert, Arthur Bliss, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, Gordon Jacob, Freda Swain, Alan Bush and William Walton. In January 1930, the eminent English music critic Edwin Evans produced a 2000-word study on Ernest John (E.J.) Moeran.  I present this text in two blog-posts and include a few footnotes and have made a few minor syntactical changes. I have included Evans’s evaluation of the use of folk music with which he opens his pen portrait. Dates of compositions are included where appropriate.

ONE of the strongest influences contributing to that side of a composer's ego which reveals his nationality is admittedly that of folksong, which has played so conspicuous a part in the general upheaval of musical nations during the past few decades.
With some composers, especially during the early phases of the various wars of independence, it was deliberately cultivated as a means of extrication from other influences. Having fulfilled its mission, it has become in more recent years a mere affectation of students, who love to write pentatonic tunes - the easiest of all to write - plaster them with a few triads on the less frequented degrees of the scale and call the result composition. These two extremes have one attribute in common. They are artificial and adopted of a set purpose, which is in one case emancipation, in the other the finding of a short cut to the satisfaction of one's budding musical vanity.
But not all preoccupation with folksong is deliberate. There are some to whom the employment of the folksong idiom comes naturally, as being in tune with their own characters. They have the gregarious instinct, and it leads them, metaphorically or in person, to the company in which folk lift up their voices in song. They have Elizabethan leanings, but they cultivate them less in the study than in their mental attitude towards music, which they conceive to be an art of human habit, an expression of life, but also an amenity of human intercourse, and none the worse for being perhaps an occasional aid to conviviality. It is an attitude of mind that recurs sometimes in our poets, and then they produce verse that can be delivered lustily, with gusto, in contrast to the mournful tone so often adopted for it. They are the true lyri[ci]sts. If the Elizabethans teach us naught else, they teach us that the man who makes a good song when it is wanted is a man responsive to moods, and capable of interpreting many others besides, including those of nature.

If Moeran's music reveals the influence of folksong it is not because he sought it out and cultivated it, but almost for the opposite reason, that it sought him out and cultivated him. It invited him to an ambit in which he could have his musical being, take his musical ease, stretch his limbs, and let his mind roam over scenes that had attracted it, so that it gave forth not merely the adaptation or even transfusion of folk music, but also the lyrical expression of moods more intimate than is compatible with the theory and practice of folk music.
It was the air he breathed during the formative years, and it is the reason why, without deliberate intention on his part, his music has a racial lilt which we recognize at once as being native to these islands. Not that it is of one racial type. It alternates between Irish and English, the former being atavistic, the latter the product of environment; and since his use of it is spontaneous, the two tend occasionally to coalesce in a manner which no composer would consciously seek to contrive. It might seem incongruous to find sometimes a Celtic bloom upon a melody rooted in East Anglian soil, were the blend not the result of complete assimilation into the musical system and the true expression of the man.
[Ernest John Smeed] Moeran was born on the last day of 1894 at Osterley, near London. [1] The name is Irish, and shows the family origin, but from his eighth year to the outbreak of war his home was in Norfolk. From early boyhood he had musical leanings, and when he went to Uppingham in 1908 [2] he was fortunate in finding conditions more encouraging than was at that time the rule in public schools. He learned to play the piano well and the violin tolerably, took part in chamber music, listened and read a great deal, and presently began to try his hand at composition. [3]
His guide, philosopher and friend was Robert Sterndale Bennett, [4] to whom he confessedly owes much. He left Uppingham in [July] 1912, and the following year entered the Royal College of Music.

Eighteen months later war broke out. He joined up, fought on the Western front, was wounded, and afterwards served in Ireland until demobilized in 1919. During the latter part of his war-time service his pen had not remained idle, but most of the work that resulted - chiefly chamber music - was afterwards discarded as immature. He was, in fact, little satisfied at that time with his technical equipment. Having conceived a warm admiration for the works of John Ireland, he addressed himself to that composer for further guidance.

From him he absorbed much that was craftsmanship and also something that was John Ireland, as is clearly shown in the Violin Sonata and elsewhere. His own enthusiasm would have made that practically inevitable, however much John Ireland as teacher might contend against it. However, these spells of hero-worship rarely harm a young composer if he has the material in him. About this time Moeran made a clean sweep of the works of his nonage [immaturity], relegating to the ‘might have been’ string quartets, trios, and sonatas galore, with some orchestral music, and settled down to produce in real earnest. Meanwhile he had frequently revisited Norfolk and laid the foundation of his collection of folksongs of the region.

There are some young composers who produce just as much as agrees with their musical constitution - but they are rare. The majority write far too much. There remain a few who write less than their musicality warrants. Moeran is of these. Among the generation of composers to which he belongs he stands out by the genuinely musical quality of his temperament. He feels musically. Music is a form of natural speech with him, and it should be his habitual mode of expression, instead of which surprisingly little has come from him during the ten years or so that he has been on the active list.

[1] Actually, Moeran was born in the village of Heston, in the former county of Middlesex. At this time his father was vicar of St. Mary’s, Spring Grove in Middlesex. After a series of short incumbencies, Moeran’s father took up the living at Salhouse with Wroxham in the county of Norfolk.
[2] Moeran went to Suffield Park Preparatory School aged ten, and then to Uppingham School at the age of thirteen.
[3] Ian Maxwell (The Importance of Being Ernest John: Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran, Durham theses, Durham University, 2014) suggests that ‘it is more probable that Moeran’s first exposure to music and playing – the piano in particular – took place when he was no more than about five or six.’ This contradicts Evans’ assertion that it was at Uppingham.
[4] Robert Sterndale Bennett, grandson of the composer William Sterndale Bennett was in fact the director of music at Uppingham School. Evans seems to imply that he was a contemporary of Moeran. 
To be continued...

Monday 10 December 2018

Frank Merrick (1886-1981): A Recorded Legacy

This six-CD boxed set of recordings made by the English pianist Frank Merrick is remarkable for its diversity and sheer competence of performance. The collection is based largely on the ground-breaking collection of LPs issued by the Frank Merrick Society and the Rare Recorded Edition from 1961 onwards. This featured many important works from Merrick’s recital career. The liner notes explain that these recordings were made for private listening. In fact, one member of the Merrick family noted that less than 100 copies of each LP were produced. There were 24 numbered releases by the society, with three issued by the Rare Recorded Edition and one by Cabaletta. This former company went on to produce some 17 numbered releases, including the nine-volume John Field Edition.  
It was not possible to find all the LPs needed to produce a ‘Complete Frank Merrick.’ Some ‘tough selection’ was done and several important works were omitted. This included sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Balakirev as well as several piano concertos. One reason cited was that with the best will in the world, even modern restoration techniques could not correct the original recordings. Other works that did not reflect Merrick at his best were also excluded. I understand that the exigencies of the original recording process did not allow for ‘retakes and edits.’

James Methuen-Campbell has provided a detailed 9-page biography and assessment of Frank Merrick in the first section of the liner notes. I present a few brief details of his notable career to aid the reader in situating his life and times.
Frank Merrick was born into a musical family at Clifton, near Bristol, on 30 April 1886. After a strong grounding in piano playing and theory from his parents, he went to Vienna to study with the Polish pianist, professor and composer, Theodor Leschetizky. I think is fair to say that after the completion of his training, Merrick proceeded to have a distinguished career rather than a spectacular one.
Listeners owe to Merrick the rediscovery of John Field, the Irish precursor of Chopin. Often regarded as being a great interpreter of JS Bach, Merrick apparently caused quite a stir with his ‘Proms’ performance of the Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052.
Aside from his concertizing, Merrick was a respected teacher, both at the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal College of Music. Eminent students included Alan Rawsthorne and Tom Pitfield.  
Frank Merrick composed a considerable catalogue of music including two piano concertos. In 1928, during the Schubert Centenary Year he won a prize offered by the Columbia Gramophone Company for a completion of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.

Merrick’s non-musical activities included the post of Treasurer of the Suffragist Movement and he was an active member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Merrick’s first wife was Hope Squire, who was also a composer.
During his time in Manchester, Merrick was Treasurer of the Suffragist Movement. Following a strong campaign by the RSPCA for the humane slaughter of animals, he became a vegetarian and latterly was Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society. Merrick was a conscientious objector during the Great War and was subsequently imprisoned at Wandsworth Prison and Wormwood Scrubs.
Frank Merrick died on 19 February 1981 aged nearly 95 years.

There are more than forty works in this six CD collection. It does not seem a good idea for me to write a critique and commentary on every one of them. So, I will mention a few highlights – at least for me.
Frank Merrick has a wide-ranging musical interest. From the early ‘Diferencias sobre el canto del caballero’ by the 16th century Spanish Renaissance composer Antonio De Cabezon to the relatively modern Four Romantic Pieces by Alan Rawsthorne, he explored virtually the entire range of piano music.
There are many well-known pieces included on these six discs such as Chopin’s lyrical ‘Berceuse’, an extract from Granados’s Goyescas, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor D845, Johannes Brahms’s Rhapsodie in B minor, op.79, no.1 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor.  I warmed to Merrick’s playing of ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Claude Debussy’s Estampes.
A step down the musical ‘popularity’ hierarchy is represented by an entire disc devoted to relative rarities by Max Reger. At least they are not often heard these days in the concert hall or recital room. These include the wonderful Variations and Fugue on a theme of J.S. Bach, op.81 dating from 1904. This work, based on a theme from the Cantata No.128, may well be regarded as Reger’s piano masterpiece. It is an enormous edifice consisting of 14 variations and a highly developed fugue leading to a massive peroration.
John Field has a certain degree of standing in our time: he is occasionally played on Classic FM! Many listeners were probably introduced to this music by the wide-ranging survey made by Míceál O'Rourke in the 1990s and issued on Chandos. Frank Merrick had preceded him with a complete cycle of Field’s music as part of this recording project. This included the Nocturnes and the seven piano concertos. The liner notes explain that these do not do composer or pianist justice. So only four examples have been included.  

I was fascinated by the two CDs which feature all four (numbered) piano sonatas by Arnold Bax. I came to this music by way of Iris Loveridge’s Lyrita recordings. In later years, I picked up on Eric Parkin’s cycle for Chandos and finally Ashley Wass on Naxos.  I have not heard the Michael Endres reading on Oehms Classics
It is a revelation to listen to Bax’s Piano Sonatas played by Merrick (for the first time). For me it is the missing link between Iris Loveridge and the age of digital recordings.  Contemporary reviewers suggested that the sound recording quality of Frank Merrick’s Bax Sonatas was far superior to Loveridge. I would agree.
If I am honest, I would like to explore the various recordings of Bax’s piano sonatas in considerably more depth than time allows for a review – preferably with the scores.
Meanwhile, I am enthralled by Merrick’s rhapsodic approach to these powerful works. He is well able to provide the energy needed to convincingly present this powerful music whilst at the same time delivering ‘great delicacy’ where appropriate. Merrick can balance the Russian influence and complexities of Sonatas No.1 and 2, the nature worship and incipient impressionism of the Sonata No.3 and the concentrated and often terse lyricism of the Sonata No. 4.
The liner notes reveal that Bax told Merrick that ‘on reflection he preferred many of his interpretations to Harriet Cohen’s’!
Included in this collection is Bax’s subtly Ravelian Moy Mell: an Irish tone-poem for two pianos. The other pianist is Michael Round. Other Bax works include the idyllic ‘Hill Tune’, the Grainger-esque ‘Burlesque’, the ‘noisy little’ ‘Paean’ (dedicated to Merrick) and the lovely ‘Lullaby.’
Other English works featured on CDs 3 and 4 include an evocative performance of John Ireland’s Prelude No.1 ‘The Undertone’, Hope Squire’s Variations on ‘Black Eyed Susan’ and an imaginative playing of Alan Rawsthorne’s gnomic Four Romantic Pieces.

The final disc is reserved for music composed by Frank Merrick. The first selection is the inspired and often beautiful Eight Esperanto Poems. Merrick had become an adept in that manufactured language during his years as a conscientious objector. Five songs have been recorded here. They date from 1950. I was impressed by the purity and depth of mezzo-soprano Sybil Michelow’s voice. I wonder if Merrick wrote many songs? If so, they would be well worth exploring.
A major concerted piece is the ‘Seascape’ from the Piano Concerto No.2 which was composed in 1936. This atmospheric piece incorporates a Hebridean song ‘Chant of the Fisherwomen of Skye’. The entire concerto (along with No.1) is available on YouTube, however I do hope that one day it will be issued in a new CD version. It may not be the greatest example of the genre, but it certainly demands to be in the recorded repertoire.
Two Movements in Symphonic Form: A Completion of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are a little bit of an enigma. They were ‘completed’ in 1928 with the composer using his own material. Merrick did not use Schubert’s sketches for the ‘scherzo.’ It is worth hearing for his creative use of Schubertian ‘characteristics’. At best, one could describe it as resourceful.
The other three piano pieces are of mixed interest. I enjoyed the enthusiastic ‘Bonny Blue Bell Variations on a Somerset Folksong’. On the other hand, ‘The Ocean Lullaby’ is not the dreamy piece of impressionism promised by the title. And finally, the ‘Hares on the Mountains’ is a dashing little three-part invention that does manage to present a musical ‘moving picture’ of the title.

As noted above the liner notes include a detailed biography of Frank Merrick’s life: in fact, I believe that it is the most comprehensive study yet made available. James Methuen-Campbell has also provided notes about the repertoire. Unfortunately, Nimbus have not included the dates of every work presented. Some are cited in the programme notes, but they have not been included in the track listings. I know that it is easy to discover this information in reference books, online and in hard-copy but I do think it is an essential part of any CD package. The texts of the Esperanto poems have been included. Several photographs of Merrick at various stages of his life are featured throughout the booklet.

It is proposed to issue a companion set of 4 CDs in 2019. This will feature recordings made by Frank Merrick in partnership with the violinist Henry Holst. It will include Bax’s violin sonatas, and works by Max Reger, Jean Sibelius, Frederick Delius, Sergei Prokofiev, Ernest Rubbra, Edward Isaacs and Bernard Stevens. Based on the present set of CDs, it promises to further enhance the memory of one of the most remarkable pianists from the United Kingdom.

Frank Merrick (1886-1981): A Recorded Legacy
NIMBUS NI8820-25
For full track listing please see Nimbus webpage, as this is very long.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 7 December 2018

Henry Hugo Pierson: Macbeth: Symphonic Poem

Macbeth: Symphonic Poem was composed by the largely forgotten Henry Hugo Pierson. It was written in 1869 at a time which traditionally has been regarded as a downbeat period in English musical history – ‘The Land without Music’. This work categorically disproves the sentiment of that myth.

Henry Hugo Pierson, originally spelt ‘Pearson’, was born in Oxford in 1816. After a good classical education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge he studied music in England and Germany. In 1844 he accepted the post of Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. However, most of his life was spent in Germany, where he died in Leipzig in 1873. He wrote several works in different genres, but he is noted for his choral music, songs and stage works. Grove mentions only a handful of pieces for orchestra besides the present work. These include a Hamlet: funeral march, and a handful of overtures, including a Romantic Overture, Romeo and Juliet and The Maid of Orleans. The Romeo and Juliet Overture was recorded on Hyperion CDH55088.

There are several things that need to be said about this present work. Firstly, although the composer annotated his score with quotations and ‘stage directions’ it is not necessary to follow the plot of ‘The Scottish Play’ to appreciate this work. Secondly, the orchestration is impressive; without going overboard it is fair to say that Pierson was a master of his art. Thirdly, this is a major work lasting some twenty minutes. At the back of my mind was the fear that the interest of the music could not be maintained. Somehow, the residual prejudice that exists about ‘Victorian’ music made me doubt whether the invention and integrity of this composer’s tone poem would hold up. The reality is that from the first note to the last, Pierson holds our attention. There are considerable mood changes to catch the imagination - from the witches’ incantations through Lady Macbeth’s death. We also hear the marching English army and a musical representation of the ‘dagger’ scene. The only problem is that much of this music is frankly quite beautiful as opposed to sinister or macabre: and one would be tempted to put Duncan, Banquo et al to one side and just enjoy the tunes. Yet, the piece does work as a tone poem and deserves our consideration. It is a minor masterpiece and the sooner we hold up our hands and recognise this, the better. Pierson, along with George Alexander Macfarren, Arthur Sullivan, Frederick Corder and possibly Sir Alexander Mackenzie are considerable composers and must not be relegated as also-rans under the overpowering shade of Sir Edward Elgar.

Henry Hugo Pierson: Macbeth: Symphonic Poem can be heard on Lyrita SRCD318 played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Thea Musgrave: New CD from Lyrtia

This CD continues the 90th birthday celebrations of Thea Musgrave, (27th May 1928) who is one of the most remarkable of living British composers. Although hailing originally from Barnton, Edinburgh, she has spent much of her working career based in the United States.  This disc presents two orchestral works and a song-cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands).

Phoenix Rising for orchestra is one of my ‘great’ discoveries in 2018. This tour de force was composed some 21 years ago in 1997. It was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Musgrave has explained that the original intention was to present an ‘extended single movement progressing from dark to light.’ The form of the score took its final shape after she had seen a ‘phoenix’ sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia, USA. It was this concept of ‘the phoenix rising from the ashes as the promise of hope and rebirth’ that provided the main impetus of the work.
There are six sections to this piece: Dramatic/violent, Desolate, Aggressive, Mysterious, Peaceful and a short coda.
I felt that this composition is a bit like a ‘concerto for orchestra.’ For example, there is an ongoing struggle between the timpanist unsurprisingly representing ‘stormy’ violence and destructive forces and the French horn promising hope.  The middle section of this work begins with a wonderful moment with two harps followed by a magical integration of pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel). This is surely the Phoenix being reborn from the flames.  After this renaissance, the music glows with romantic sounds, before closing with a gentle coda.
What impressed me most with Phoenix Rising was the orchestration. It is a masterclass in the creation of a score that shines with luminosity and shudders with dark aggression.

If Phoenix Rising is a ‘concerto for orchestra’ the delightful Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland can be regarded as a ‘concertino’ for tuba.  I guess that some critics present at the work’s premiere (during the Proms on 5 August 2012) had not read the composer’s words suggesting that this is ‘a light-hearted work.’ Certainly, it is an enjoyable piece that develops an almost cinematographic programme. Early one morning, Nessie emerges from the depths of the Loch which is shrouded in Highlan’ mist. As this clears, s/he plays in the ‘sparkling sun’ musically painted by trumpets – and then an old Caledonian melody is heard. Alas. the day is soon over and the monster (if monster it is) dives back into the depths of the loch. There is a big orchestral splash followed by an evening breeze rippling the dark waters.
There are precious few ‘tuba concertos’: Vaughan Williams’ being the most familiar. The present work is an ideally crafted ‘concertante’ piece demanding a large orchestra and idiomatic playing from the tuba soloist, who takes his normal seat and not that of a soloist at the front.  Clearly, Musgrave has decided that Nessie sings with a ‘basso-profundo’ voice rather than ‘contralto.’ But is works. It is a splendidly orchestrated work.  In fact, this is an attractive ‘post-card’ to her native land from the United States. It deserves to be popular.

I found Poets in Love: a song cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands) (2009) quite a difficult work to get my head around. It is not so much the ‘sound’ of the music, but the concept of having the songs presented in differing forms – duets and solos – and sometime overlapping.  
The idea is that the seventeen songs present a variety of ‘views’ on the nature of love. The conceit that has typically been used is that the tenor is the romantic protagonist with the baritone takes as more ‘realistic and cynical’ view of love. This may be a bit clichéd.  
Musgrave has collected her texts from a wide range of poets including (but not limited to)  Afansay Fet, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Hölderlin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Francis William Bourdillon, James Boswell, Torquato Tasso, Robert Burns and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Several different languages are used, although ‘workable’ translations have been presented in the score where Russian is not in the gift of the soloists.
As the liner notes explain, these songs reflect a wide variety of emotion: from the ‘warmly romantic to the cold and cynical, the rapturous and stormy to the pensive and philosophical, the jaunty and light-hearted to the sad and mournful.’
The songs are split into four groups for the sake of the CD track-listing, although I understand that they are to be performed without a break.
Stylistically, there is nothing particularly challenging here. Occasionally, the piano accompaniment calls forth something innovative (played on the strings inside) and then suddenly this is replaced by piano writing reminiscent of Schubert. There is some splendid ‘falsetto’ singing too.
Perhaps it is the eclectic nature of the texts and the songs themselves that I struggle with. All that said, these complex and often beautiful songs are well sung by Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wallfisch (baritone) with accompaniment by Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi.
Poets in Love was premiered at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania on 4 March 2010.

The liner notes by Paul Conway are excellent. They are divided into a discussion of the composer and followed by a detailed programme note about each work. The texts of Poets in Love are given in full, with translations where appropriate. There are no biographical details of the performers.

This is a great addition to the relatively sparse number of CDs devoted to Musgrave’s music. At present, there are about 30 discs featuring her music (many featuring several composers). It is a splendid 90th birthday gift to this eminent composer.

Track Listing:
Thea MUSGRAVE (b.1928)
Phoenix Rising for orchestra (1997)
Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland (2012)
Poets in Love: A song cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands) (2009)
Daniel Trodden (tuba, Loch Ness), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton
Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wallfisch (baritone), Simon Callaghan (piano primo), Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano secondo)
Rec. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff 4-5 January 2018, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth 7-8 March 2018 (Poets in Love)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 1 December 2018

Percy Whitlock: Deo Gracias for organ

I saw the first Christmas display in a shop during September. With each passing day, more and more retail stores increase their seasonal sales pitch. I think my first Carol was heard during the early days of November. This is not the forum to argue for and against the commercialisation of Christmas, but I must state that personally I find it unsettling.

Today, at Evensong, the season of Advent formally begins. Tomorrow is Advent Sunday. I am reminded of a note provided in the revised edition of Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook.  (Cyril Pocknee, 1965). He begins by explaining that ‘Advent’ is the season of ‘expectation and preparation’ for Christmas. It is not its ‘satisfaction’ as commerce would wish. He suggests that churches avoid the ‘deplorable tendency to anticipate 25 December by the singing of [popular] Christmas carols…’  He reminds church officials that there are a host of good hymns that can be used during the Advent season. I would add that that there are several good Advent carols that would seem entirely appropriate.

So, what does Advent celebrate?  In the Western tradition the season begins on the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day which is always celebrated on 30 November. This year, 2018, Advent Sunday is 2 December. Typically, the Church regards this as a penitential season, although fasting is no longer observed. There are two parts. Firstly, a preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ on 25 December, but secondly it looks forward in the longer term to the Second Coming of Christ. The first of these looks at Jesus coming as a tiny, helpless child. The second envisages Christ in power, glory and might.  Meditation is given to the ‘Four Last Things.’ These are ‘the ultimate realities awaiting humanity and the cosmos.’  They include Death, the Day of Judgement, the nature of Heaven and of Hell.
Advent, then, is not about boozy Santas, tipsy robins and improbable snow scenes. It is about the deepest realities of the human psyche. And these thoughts need not only occur to practising Christians. It is only on Christmas Day itself, that thoughts of joy and peace and celebration can flow into the mind.
Figure 1 Opening Bars of Deo Gracias

The appropriateness of using Percy Whitlock’s ‘Deo Gracias’ as an Advent recessional voluntary surely derives from one of the strands of liturgical theology inherent in the Season.  Without developing this blog-post into a bible study, the words ‘Deo Gracias’ mean ‘Thanks be to God.’ It is used as a response in the Latin Mass and was derived from the Vulgate (Latin) text of 1 Corinthians 15:57 (KJV) and 2 Corinthians 2:14 (KJV).  The first of these texts says ‘But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Whilst equally important is the second: ‘But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.’ The key part being the ‘triumphal procession’ inherent in the Second Coming of Christ.

Fig. 2 Original Agincourt Tune
It should be admitted that the text of the Agincourt Song has little to do with Advent or even Christianity as such. The burden of the song is the triumph of Henry V at that battle. However, it could easily be read as an allegory for the eschatological triumph of Christ in the latter days. Or if we wish to evacuate theological and religious terminology, simply the triumph of good over evil.

Percy Whitlock’s Six Hymn Preludes were composed over a considerable period. The earliest would seem to be 1923 with the final touches being applied shortly before publication by Oxford University Press in 1945. It was the last work that Whitlock saw published. According to Malcolm Riley’s (1998) catalogue printed in his study of the composer, the holograph is missing. The six pieces are ‘Darwall’s 148th’; ‘Song 13’; ‘Deo Gracias’; ‘St. Denio’; ‘Werde munter’ and ‘King’s Lynn.’

‘Deo Gracia’s was transcribed for organ by Whitlock from his Suite: Music for Orchestra which was composed in 1940. There were four movements in this orchestral work: ‘Peter’s Tune’, ‘Caprice’, ‘Reverie’ and the ‘Fanfare on the tune ‘Song of Agincourt.’’  Riley explains that this ‘fanfare’ was composed during December 1940 after Whitlock had heard a broadcast of the ‘Agincourt Song’ on the BBC Home Service. His wife, Edna, suggested that he ‘…should write a piece on this fine tune…’  Apparently, Whitlock started in the score immediately. 
The broadcast in question would appear to have been made on 4 September 1940 and featured the baritone John Morel singing early English songs from the 13th to the 15th century.  ‘The Song of Agincourt’ dates from 1415.
Fig.3 Deo Gracias 'Tune' highlighted in yellow

The general effect of Whitlock’s Hymn-Tune Prelude ‘Deo Gracias’ calls for the use of reed stops, including the 8’ Tuba stop as well as mixtures. Mixtures call for a range of pipes with more than one note to each key. The sound produced includes the actual note as well as some of that note’s harmonics. It adds brightness to the sound.  The texture of ‘Deo Gracias’ calls for some contrapuntal writing as well as some straight-forward harmonisation of the ‘chorale’ tune.

Whitlock has presented this arrangement in a ‘military style’ which provides a triumphal effect, mirroring the sentiment of victory of Henry V at Agincourt. It is worth recalling that William Walton used the same tune in his score for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

Percy Whitlock’s ‘Deo Gracias’ can be heard on YouTube. (at 1 December 2018). It is from PRCD 542 (see below for details).

Riley, Malcom, Percy Whitlock: Organist and Composer, (London, Thames Publishing, 1998)

Brief Discography:
The Complete Organ Work of Percy Whitlock, Volume 3 includes Six Hymn Preludes, the Sonata in C minor, the ‘Adagio’, the March: Rustic Cavalry, Graham Barber, ogann of Downside Abbey, Priory PRCD 542 1998
The Organ of Chester Cathedral, includes Whitlock’s Sonata in C minor, Six Hymn Preludes and Charles Hylton Stewart’s Five Short and Easy Pieces on Hymn Tunes. Philip Rushworth, organ, Priory PRCD 1070, 2011.
The Gentle Art of Percy Whitlock, includes Six Hymn Preludes, Three Reflections, Five Short Pieces, Salix etc. Roderick Elms, the organs of Rugby School and Brentwood Cathedral. Herald, HAVP359, 2010.