Tuesday 27 February 2018

Bruce Montgomery: Overture to a Fairy Tale.

As children we have fairy tales read to us (at least we used to do). Get a bit older, and we may start to read them for ourselves. My copies of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang were never far from me as youngster. Then we put them aside as ‘childish things’. If we are blessed, a day comes, sooner or later, when we pick these books up again, and approach them as an adult. If we are exceptionally lucky we can still capture the wonder and the magic that first revealed itself so many years ago. 
Musically, we need only think of Tchaikovsky’ Nutcracker ballet, Prokofiev’ Cinderella, Ravel’s Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose Suite), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Nielsen’s Aladdin to realise that this magic moves on into adulthood. In England, Elgar was enthralled the magic of the nursery stories, with his captivating Wand of Youth Suites and the aptly named Nursery Suite dedicated to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Turning now to Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale. David Whittle (2007) notes that the ‘circumstances of its composition are unclear’ but he feels that it was unlikely to have been a commission, due to the work having been completed some two years before its premiere.
Whittle further suggests that the Overture is an important work, as it is one of only three completed scores for full orchestra, that were not ‘linked to his film work.’ The others were the Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby.

The orchestral score of Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale was completed on 23 February 1946, although the piano ‘reduction’ had been written a year or so earlier. Currently, the composer was living in the nearby fishing village of Brixham.  Although Whittle’s book states that the score was published by Oxford University Press in 1944 (?) I was unable to find any reference to it in the catalogues at the British Library, COPAC or WorldCat.

I do not know if there is any particular ‘fairy’ story underlying Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale.  I doubt that there is. In fact, I think it is a little bit like creating a set of variations without a theme. Here we find a succession of magical melodies, delightful instrumentation and a typically imaginative overall structure. Whatever the story, we are invited to dream and recapture our youth.
The listener will be impressed by the tone of this score. It has been criticised as owing much to Elgar (Wand of Youth?), especially in the opening bars. Yet the profusion of tunes - there are four major themes in the eight-minute duration - does seem to owe much to the idiom of light music in vogue in the immediate post war years. It is not quite the soundscape of Montgomery’s scores for the Carry On or the Doctor films, but the idiom is beginning to emerge.

The premiere of the Overture was given on 28 February 1948 at the Torquay Pavilion by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Goss. The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo (1 March 1948) reported that Kyla Greenbaum, ‘one of the younger generation of distinguished pianists, delighted the audience…yesterday afternoon, when she was the guest celebrity at the fortnightly celebrity concert.’ She chose to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor. The critic thought that this ‘was a happy [choice] and her perfect technique, coupled with a fine reading by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, left little to be desired.’ Greenbaum also played some solos including Chopin’s Ballade in F minor, and the Schubert-Liszt arrangement of Soiree de Vienne no.6 in A, which was a ‘notable contrast to the preceding work.’
There were several orchestral works featured, including the now largely forgotten arrangement by Reginald Jacques of Handel’s Gavotte from the opera Amadigi di Gaula and the Minuet from Berenice. A relatively rare Russian work was the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, op.31 by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Alas, the critic said little about Montgomery’s Overture which opened the afternoon’s concert, save that the composer was ‘receiving increasing recognition.’
The Western Times (5 March 1948) was slightly more fulsome in its praise: it suggested that Overture to a Fairy Tale was ‘a well-constructed work in the style of Elgar…’

In 2003 ASV Record Company issued a performance of Montgomery’s Overture on the third volume of a series of British Light Overtures (CD WHL 2140). This disc also included music by Matthew Curtis, Carey Blyton, Montague Phillips, John Fox, Adam Saunders, Roger Quilter, Philip Lane, James Langley and Matthew Taylor.   It is available on Amazon as a ‘second hand’ CD. There is currently no YouTube file for the Overture to a Fairy Tale.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Ashgate 2007)

Saturday 24 February 2018

Stanford Two pieces from Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 for organ (1908)

At an excellent organ recital recently (21 February 2018) given by Tiffany Vong at the Glasgow University Memorial Chapel, three pieces stood out (for me). Firstly, there was a gorgeous ‘Sicilienne’, originally for violin and piano, by Maria Theresia von Paradis about which more in a subsequent post. Then there were two numbers from Charles Villiers Stanford’s popular Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908). The ethos of her programmes was ‘Old Wine in New Bottles.’ This was the first in a series of recitals that promised to explore a wide variety of transcriptions, reworkings and arrangements of music by other composers. The recital also included a Concerto by Johann Gottfried Walther based on Vivaldi, J.S. Bach’s Fugue on a theme of Corelli, BWV 579 and a transcription of Edward Elgar’s Prelude ‘In Memoriam’ from the cantata ‘For the Fallen.’

Tiffany Vong chose to play the Prelude No.1 on Song 34 by Orlando Gibbons and followed this with the following Postlude No.2 on Song 22.
The venerable (and oft quoted) John F. Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford, London, 1921) summed up the Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908) in one short sentence: ‘These are a further convenient little set of short organ pieces.’ Very true and succinct, but I think it needs a little more comment. This second volume was published in 1908 following the first instalment in the previous year. They are printed as alternative ‘Preludes’ and ‘Postludes’.

The first, a Prelude, is based on Orlando Gibbons’ Song 34 sometimes known as ‘The Angels’ Song’. This hymn tune is often used to set Charles Wesley’s words ‘Forth in thy name O Lord I go.’ In this attractive, restrained ‘andante tranquillo’, Stanford presents the tune in the pedal part with the manuals providing a gently contrapuntal accompaniment. It makes an ideal Evensong voluntary.
The second piece played by Tiffany Yong was a ‘Postlude’ utilising fragments of Gibbon’s Song 22. The tune often accompanies ‘Lead Us, O Father, In the Paths of Peace’ by William Henry Burleigh. This is a short, powerful voluntary. Here the composer develops these melodic fragments in both manuals and pedal which results in ‘rich polyphonic texture.’ This G major ‘allegro; ends with a strong coda,  which well displayed the instrument’s ‘full organ’ capability.

The other four pieces in Stanford’s Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 are also worthy of attention. The ‘Lento’ is (I understand) an original tune, which appears in various guises: it is, for me,  the loveliest of the set. Postlude 4, an ‘allegro moderato’, features yet another hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons (Song 24), with intricate parts on the manuals and considerable vivacity. The Trio, (No.5) is the most chromatic of these pieces and involves regular changes of manual. The final number, which is the best-known of both sets of Preludes and Postludes is a vigorous piece in 6/4 time opening in D minor.

The Glasgow University Memorial Chapel three-manual organ was originally commissioned in 1927 by Henry Willis and Sons, and was restored by Harrison and Harrison in 2005. It was a gift to Glasgow University from Joseph Paton Maclay, Lord Maclay, in memory of his two sons who were killed during the Great War.  

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) Mater Ora Filium

Arnold Bax did not compose a great deal of music for unaccompanied chorus, yet the few works he did write are invariably well produced and effective for both singers and audiences alike. A brief study of Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue reveals six works that could be classified as being for unaccompanied chorus.

The earliest of these is the present ‘Mater Ora Filium’ (Mother pray for thy Son) from 1921. The following year saw the desolate ‘This Worldes Joie’ written to a 14th century text. The short ‘carol’ entitled ‘The Boar’s Head’ was composed in 1923 for, and dedicated to, the Blackpool Festival Committee.  Out of interest, this event was won by the Warrington Male Choral Union –still going strong under a different name. The same year saw the straightforward working of ‘I sing of a maiden.’
Nearly twenty years elapsed until the 1942 settings of Five Greek Folksongs – which Bax himself regarded as being based on ‘...very quaint and rather barbaric tunes…’
Virtually the last composed work by Arnold Bax was the part-song What is it like to be young and fair?’  This was a setting of words by the composer’s brother Clifford. It was performed as part of the Garland for the Queen as an event at the Coronation Celebrations during 1953.

Bax contributed little music for use in the church: there is a Magnificat, and a Nunc Dimitis. The present work could be given happily at a Christmastide recital or a choral concert in one of our great cathedrals. This is not to suggest that Bax was anti-Christian, yet he certainly did not relate to the ritual and ceremonial of the Roman or Anglican Churches. In fact, he had had a non-conformist childhood.  It is better to suggest that Bax’s piety was found in other directions than conventional religion.  It could be that his spiritual temperament was more in tune with the Celtic Twilight as exemplified by W.B. Yeats.

Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes a personal reminiscence by Charles Kennedy Scott – ‘His [Bax’s] unaccompanied motet for double choir, ‘Mater Ora Filium’ came later when I had the satisfaction of performing it with the Oriana [Choir] at Messrs Murdoch’s concert of recent works of Arnold [Bax] at [the] Queens Hall in November 1922. I have no doubt that this and Arnold’s other motets can be associated with what Arnold heard the Oriana do at the Balfour concerts ten years earlier…’

Yet despite Kennedy Scott claiming his choir to be the stimulation for ‘Mater Ora Filium’, the immediate inspiration for this work was found at a performance by the Tudor Singers of the William Byrd’s Five Part Mass. Bax heard this work at one of Harriet Cohen’s soirees at Wyndham Place. This great liturgical setting made a huge impression on Bax; he thought it more significant than the music of J.S. Bach himself. Bax was attracted by this ‘spiritual, ornate and emotionally austere’ music.

It could be argued agued that ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is imbued with the spirit of the Elizabethan age, yet it would be unfair to suggest any kind of pastiche or archaism.  The work is a fine example of Bax’s contrapuntal technique – although use of this ‘technical’ word is in danger of giving the impression that this work has an academic nature. ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is scored for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. Even a superficial hearing reveals extremely difficult part writing that makes strong demands on the singers. There is timelessness about this setting that seems to make influences and musical allusions unnecessary. It is a truly lovely anthem of devotion to Our Lady and her Son.
Interestingly, a similarity of theme has been identified between the ‘Alleluias’ of ‘Mater Ora Filium’ and the tone poems Nympholet and November Woods.
It was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Choir conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.

There are several recordings of this motet available. Graham Parlett (Arnold Bax Website, Discography, February 2017) has listed a baker’s dozen of recordings. I recommend The Carice Singers conducted by George Parris on NAXOS 8.573695.  

With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes. 

Sunday 18 February 2018

Some thoughts about Bruce Montgomery: Composer and Detective Novelist

It was on the P&O liner Oriana that I discovered Bruce Montgomery. In fact, it was quite a coincidence, with three strands coming together at once. Let me explain. The cruise's first ‘leg’ was the long but relaxing journey from Southampton to Barcelona. I spent most of the time eating, reading, swimming in the Riviera pool and listening to a carefully chosen play list of ‘classical’ music on my iPod. An apparently annoying habit I developed was whistling the ‘hornpipe’ as I walked round the promenade deck. But not just any ‘hornpipe’ – it was the catchy version used in that great comedy classic (at least I think so) Carry on Cruising. I could talk for hours about this film. There are so many ‘classic’ lines – 'I’ve been up to the sharp end, I‘ve been to the blunt end…'  'Italy has nothing to offer me I cannot get here (the bar!) – break out the Chianti…' etc. etc.

I had been reading an article about detective novels in general and so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries in particular. One of the texts mentioned was a book called The Moving Toyshop by a writer called Edmund Crispin. This was part of my holiday reading. And last, but not least, I included several classical music CDs in my listening plan – including a certain Concertino for String Orchestra.  It was not part of my plan to make connections – but I did. I soon realised that all three of the above indulgences were written or composed by a remarkable, if somewhat melancholic, man called Bruce Montgomery.

I imagine that relatively few folk will have heard of Bruce Montgomery, yet there will be hardly a person in the United Kingdom who is not acquainted with at least half a dozen of his film scores. I have already alluded to Carry on Cruising – add to this Constable, Nurse, Regardless, Sergeant and Teacher. I can only presume that everybody must respond to a least one of these classic excursions into British comedy. But Montgomery did not just compose music for the Carry On films: he provided scores for the equally enjoyable Doctor movies starring the redoubtable Dirk Bogarde, Leslie Phillips and James Robertson Justice.  How often do we look for the composer’s name in the credits of a film? I guess rarely.

Bruce Montgomery was born in Chesham Bois in 1921.  He had a good education both locally and at St John’s College, Oxford.  He studied modern languages and subsequently filled the vacant post of organ scholar there – the incumbent had gone off to fight Hitler.
Montgomery was inspired to write his first detective novel after reading a book by one of the mid-century doyens of that genre, John Dickson Carr.  He was motivated to write The Case of the Gilded Fly in an unbelievably short time, and it was equally speedily published by Victor Gollanz in 1944. It was the first foray of the detective/don Gervase Fen into the criminal complexities of Oxford. Fen, a professor of English Language, was to feature in most of Montgomery’s subsequent crime writings. The detective novels were all written using the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin. 
Clearly, Gervase Fen may have had a profound influence on Colin Dexter and his ‘scholarly policeman’ Inspector Endeavour Morse.

Concurrently with his writing, Montgomery was keen to follow a musical career.  His early works were small scale piano pieces or anthems.  His masterpiece, apparently, is An Oxford Requiem which was commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951.  I have not heard this work. The Times reviewer believed that this ‘is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date; it confirms the suspicion that he is a composer with something of real significance to say.’ According to contemporary reviews, a recording of this work may well be long overdue.

Bruce Montgomery was not a major ‘concert hall’ composer. He had only some twenty-four works published – most of which was choral or vocal music.  However, two key works stand out for me – the above-mentioned Concertino (a modest title) and the Overture to a Fairy Tale. In addition, there are the attractive Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby – both re-workings of film scores. But the critical thing is, that these four works would be a feather in the cap of any composer – both great and small.  They are interesting, well-wrought and full of character.

When Bruce Montgomery turned his hand to the lucrative business of film music, his compositional career really took off. In total, he provided the score for some forty odd films of greater or lesser importance. Perhaps his greatest achievement was in producing both the music and the screenplay for Raising the Wind – a comical story about music students. David Whittle in his study of the composer, tells the tale that Kenneth Williams and Leslie Phillips were coached on how to conduct Rossini’s William Tell Overture.  Furthermore, Montgomery himself had a cameo role in this film on the podium.
Alas, Montgomery had a propensity to fail to meet the strict deadlines that the film producers imposed. This came to a head when the music for Carry on Cruising had to be completed by Eric Rogers.
The years after ‘Carry on Cruising’ marked a decline in Montgomery’s health and fortunes. Poor health and alcoholism led to long stays in clinics, little work and financial insecurity. He spent the last fifteen years of his life contributing reviews to the Times, editing collections of Science Fiction stories and writing his ninth and last novel, The Glimpses of the Moon. Bruce Montgomery died on 15 September 1978.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Ashgate 2007)

Thursday 15 February 2018

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile – Coronation March.

Most listeners associate British ‘concert marches’ with composers such as Edward Elgar and his Pomp and Circumstances 1-5[6] William Walton’s two Coronation offerings, Crown Imperial and the Orb and Sceptre and Eric Coates ubiquitous The Dambusters. Another good source of marches is film music: I recently watched The Yangtse Incident starring Richard Todd which featured a splendid score by the largely forgotten composer Leighton Lucas. This must be one of the most impressive marches written: restrained and deeply moving, yet full of hope. Still on nautical matters, Alan Rawsthorne produced a fine example for the 1953 film The Cruel Sea.
North of the Border, the prolific composer Cedric Thorpe Davie wrote his stirring Royal Mile: Coronation March in 1952 in preparation for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2 June 1953. Clearly, it has not had such a high profile as Walton’s efforts and has been almost forgotten, save for a single recording.

The work was premiered at a Coronation Concert at the Dundee Caird Hall on 8 April 1953. This event also featured Eileen Joyce as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, an arrangement of Handel’s Royal Firework Music made by Hamilton Harty, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Johann Strauss II’s Tales from Vienna Woods.  Karl Rankl conducted the Scottish National Orchestra in all these works except for Thorpe Davie’s March, which was conducted by the composer.
The Dundee Courier reported that an audience of some 2700 ‘a Dundee record’ attended the concert. This large audience ‘imparted a gala atmosphere to the concert, which brought out the best from the orchestra.’ As for Thorpe Davie’s march, Royal Mile this work gave a ‘thrilling start’ to the proceedings. The work was ‘full of the spirit of pageantry and nationalistic fervour’: the work ‘under Mr Davie’s workmanlike baton, was given a sound performance.’  Interestingly, Eileen Joyce, who had recently cancelled a concert in Dundee due to illness, played the Grieg concerto ‘with unusual passionate intensity, so much so that a large portion of the audience burst into applause at the end of the first movement.’ Whether this ‘breach of orthodox musical manners’ was a good thing, the reviewer felt the it was a ‘reflection of the emotional grip achieved [by Joyce].’

Ian Lace, reviewing John Wilson and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s CD The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: Scottish Orchestral Music (MusicWeb International, February 2000) explained that ‘…Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-83) was prolific; his output included music for radio, theatre and 24 films. He is represented on this disc by his Royal Mile – Coronation March, composed in 1952 in anticipation of the celebrations of the Coronation of Elizabeth II the following year. The work inevitably has a strong Scottish character.

Colin Scott-Sutherland also reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (March 2000) wrote: ‘…it is some time since we heard the luscious music of Cedric Thorpe Davie's 'Royal Mile' march, to the strains of which the Royal party, on a coronation visit to the capital [Edinburgh] in 1952 left St Giles - and whose great central melody (the tune Molly Stewart) was, said Edward Greenfield in the Guardian like 'Walton in a kilt', a tune that brings back for me fond memories of 'The Highland Fair' at the Edinburgh Festival of that year.’
Alas I was unable to confirm this citation in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, however it is a wholly appropriate comment.  

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile – Coronation March can he heard on The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: Scottish Orchestral Music WHL 2123 This CD has been deleted, and I guess will only be available second hand. Other works on this exciting disc Iain Hamilton’s Scottish Dances, Buxton Orr’s Celtic Suite, Hamish MacCunn’s Highland Memories and his ubiquitous Land of the Mountain and the Flood, and Muir Mathieson’s lovely Suite: From the Highlands

Monday 12 February 2018

Sea-Croon: The Voice of the Cello in the 1920s

Eric Fogg is barely known to enthusiasts of British music. He is remembered now only for a splendid Bassoon Concerto (1931), the atmospheric tone-poems Sea-Sheen and Merok and the William Blake setting The Seasons for chorus and orchestra. 
The present Poem was composed in 1922 for Fogg’s wife, the cellist Kathleen Moorhouse. There is certainly nothing ‘modernist’ about this piece. In fact, the listener will consider this to be more in the vein of Bantock’s Scottish inspired works.  It is a reflective piece, sometimes hinting at Rachmaninov. The liner notes draw attention to the two major themes – one elegiac and the other noble. Poem is in ternary form with a stormy middle section. This is a poignant and often moving work that does not deserve to remain in obscurity. It is an impressive discovery.

The life and times of John Ireland needs little discussion. The present sonata is one of the composer’s most important works. The Cello Sonata was composed in 1923 and was premiered by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones at the Aeolian Hall in London on 4 April 1924.  The Sonata is imbued with a strong sense of place and mystery inspired by the landscape around Chanctonbury Ring in Sussex and the set of Bronze age barrows near Devil’s Jump on Treyford Hill. The music has been described as ‘pervaded with the brooding mystery of the deep past.’
The liner notes explain an important clue to the work’s inner significance. In the opening movement, ‘moderato e sostenuto’, Ireland quotes music from his song ‘The Trellis’, a setting of Aldous Huxley. The lines referred to are ‘None but the flowers have seen/Our white caresses.’ Presumably this is a ‘hidden’ programme to this part of the music.
The slow movement, ‘poco largamente’, is played with rapt attention, allowing the heart-breaking pastoral mood of the music to ‘stand revealed.’   The idealised picture of the landscape is destroyed by the aggressive opening pizzicato in the ‘finale’, ‘con moto e marcato’. This is in complete contrast to what has transpired. This changes the music from a gentle, smiling landscape to something caustic, sometimes frightening and emotionally challenging.
The entire Sonata is played with drama, care and constant recognition of the ‘unity in diversity’ of this great work.

I loved Cyril Scott’s short, but utterly beautiful arrangement of the Irish folk-song ‘The Gentle Maiden’. Originally published for violin and piano in 1912, the present cello version (c.1925) remains unpublished.  Scott captures the magic and the sheer innocence of the original song, and this is reflected in the performance.

I was disappointed that the liner notes give comparatively little detail about Frederic Austin’s ‘exquisite’ Cello Sonata.
This large-scale three movement work was completed in July 1927, and was most likely written for John Barbirolli, who was an accomplished cellist as well as a conductor. Interestingly, Martin Lee-Browne in his study of Austin (Thames, 1999) writes that there is no record of a public performance and that Austin’s daughter-in-law Leily Howell, a professional cellist, was unware of the Sonata’s existence.
I found that this Sonata was a delight to listen to. It is typically rhapsodic in mood, but never meandering. There are occasional hints of Delius, impressionism, and folksong in these pages. In several passages Austin seems to move the argument of the work towards the more ‘advanced’ sound-world of Continental Europe. The heart of the sonata is the thoughtful ‘moderato’ which creates a magical mood.
Frederic Austin’s is fortunate in having several of his orchestral works on CD. This includes the Overture: Sea-Venturers, the Symphony in E major, the Rhapsody: Spring, The Pageant of London and the Richard II Overture.  The present Cello Sonata is a worthy addition to this sadly short list.

For many years, a desideratum of mine was Greville Cooke’s Cormorant Crag for piano solo. A few years ago, Duncan Honeybourne obliged me with the excellent CD A Forgotten English Romantic (EMRCD022). Not only did this feature that wonderfully atmospheric tone-poem for piano, but several other piano pieces by Cooke.  Sea Croon, the eponymous track of this CD, is four minutes of delight. Nodding to the Gaelic ‘ethos’ of Granville Bantock and Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930) this is a work that seems to be based on a folk-song, but probably isn’t. It is a lyrical piece that tugs at the heart strings. I am not sure how Gaelic the mood of the music is, but to me at least, it conjures up mages of the far-distant Western Isles if not Tir-na-nÓg, the Land of the Young so sought after by Arnold Bax.

When I first gained an interest in William Alwyn, the received wisdom was that the earliest acknowledged works were the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet (1939) and the Divertimento for Solo Flute (1940). It was assumed that he had destroyed or suppressed all his student and early music. In recent years there has been a rediscovery of much of these ‘lost’ works. These include several orchestral pieces, some youthful string quartets and a selection of piano pieces. To this listener, at any rate they have proved of considerable musical and artistic interest.
The Two Folk Tunes for cello and piano date from 1929, when the composer was aged around 24 years old. The first, a ‘Meditation on a Norwegian Folk-Song Fragment’, would appear not to be based in any actual tune. This hauntingly beautiful piece looks back to Grieg and his arrangements of the ‘calls of Norwegian cowherds.’  According to the liner notes, Ole Bull’s ‘The Dairymaid’s Sunday’ may have been an inspiration.  The second miniature is an animated little number based on a genuine Irish tune, ‘Who’ll buy my besoms.’ But don’t miss the wistful middle-section.

Benjamin Burrows is usually regarded as an ‘art-song’ composer. However, a glance at his catalogue of music suggests that his interests ranged much wider. There are several attractively titled orchestral works, a large corpus of piano music and many chamber pieces. The present Sonatina for cello and piano was completed in November 1930 and published the following year. Most musicians associate the formal title ‘Sonatina’ with ‘teaching’ music (although Ravel and Ireland disprove this theory in their piano works of that name). It is unfortunate that Burrows did not call this piece a Sonata. Despite the brevity of its four movements, there is a profundity intensity and technical accomplishment. The liner notes explain that it was composed after the break up of a relationship with a student, Jane Vowles. The present soloist, Joseph Spooner has summed up the Sonatina’s aesthetic: [It is] a very lyrical piece that is nevertheless marked by a terseness of expression not generally found until much later in (for example) Rawsthorne.’ 

The liner notes are divided into several sections. After the track listing there are helpful biographies of each composer. These are written by several hands. Photographs of each composer are featured as well as the artists. The second section of the insert are the programme notes for each work. There are the usual performer bios.

This is a well-produced CD. The programme is excellent and imaginative and deserves to be heard at a sitting – with maybe just a tea-break (interval) after the Frederic Austin. I am not sure, but I think all these pieces (except for the John Ireland), are premiere performances. I have noted above the excellence of the readings by the soloists. This is enhanced by the exceptional recording.

Finally, this CD is yet another splendid example of the deep exploration of the British music repertoire by EM Records and the English Music Festival. It reveals to listeners the depth of interest in music that has lain undiscovered for many years. Yet, there is so much more hidden in archives and music libraries of similar quality that need to be excavated. All concerned have done, and are doing, a sterling job.

Track Listing:
Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Poem (1922)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Sonata (1923)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) The Gentle Maiden (Irish Air) (c.1925)
Frederic AUSTIN (1872-1952) Sonata (1927)
Greville COOKE (1894-1992) Sea-Croon (1929)
William ALWYN (1905-85) Two Folk Tunes
Benjamin BURROWS (1891-1966) Sonatina (1930)
Josephs Spooner (cello), Rebeca Omordia (piano, Fogg); Maureen Galea (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb Where this CD was first published.  

Friday 9 February 2018

Maurice Lindsay and Scottish Music: 1947

As part of the Penguin Music Magazine’s overview of music during 1947 in the United Kingdom, the Scottish author, poet and broadcaster Maurice Lindsay reported on ‘Scotland’ for the ‘Northern Diary’ section of the journal. I want to look at the first few paragraphs where he considers the dearth of Scottish ‘classical’ music at the Edinburgh Festival.

The major cultural event in Scotland in 1947 was the City of Edinburgh’s first International Festival of Music and Drama. Lindsay immediately weighs into the politics of the event by noting that the ‘columns of two leading Scottish daily newspapers (The Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman) were filled with controversy over Scotland’s representation’ at this event.  These are references demanding investigation.
Much of the criticism centred on the lack of contemporary Scottish music and drama. There were only two musical works in this category: Ian Whyte’s Piano Concerto and Dr David Stephen’s elegiac Coronach. Stephen (1869-1946) was one of Whyte’s musical teachers. Both works have disappeared from the repertoire, if they were ever really in it. The latter was heard at a London Promenade Concert, on 6 September 1935 and had reasonable success in the years prior to the Second World War.
I looked at the reviews of Ian Whyte’s Piano Concerto which was performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Wednesday 10 September 1947. This may be the subject of a further post, however the consensus seems to be that it is a worthy work that does tend to introduce certain elements of Scottish folk-tunes into its progress.

Maurice Lindsay writes: ‘Many people…feel that a foreign visitor…coming to Scotland for the Festival would naturally expect to be able to get some idea or what contemporary Scottish composers are doing.’ Unfortunately, the two pieces cited above, in Lindsay’s opinion ‘do not give an adequate picture of the creative position in [Scotland.]’
Current listeners have no way of proving or disproving this statement as there are no recordings of these two pieces (that I am aware of) in the catalogues. They may exist in private or corporate collections. On the other hand, Lindsay states that within ‘the last eighteen months or so, Cedric Thorpe Davie’s Symphony in C has been performed under John Barbirolli and Constant Lambert in England, and Walter Susskind and Ian Whyte in Scotland.’ This, in his opinion is a work ‘of undoubted merit and an obvious choice for inclusion in that representative programme of Scottish music which should form a feature of a Scottish Festival.’
Regrettably, Cedric Thorpe Davies’ Symphony has not been given a commercial recording, although a broadcast performance circulates amongst enthusiasts.  This work was composed in 1945 in response to the Daily Express ‘Victory’ Symphony contest:  it was inscribed ‘In honour of my brother.’ The Symphony gained second prize with the first going to Bernard Stevens’ powerful Victory Symphony.
Thorpe Davie explained in a contemporary interview that ‘there are no bombs, guns or sirens in my symphony. It was meant to be cheerful and I hope that is how it sounds.’ Certainly, the work is impressive and is in the mainstream of British post-war symphonic style: it does not resort to obvious Scottish musical clichés.  It deserves to be revived.

There follows a discussion of the position of ‘art’ song at the Festival. Maurice Lindsay reminds readers that ‘Scotland’s greatest contributions to modern music so far are the songs of Francis George Scott. If any proof of this statement need be given, listen to Racheal Liddell singing Scott’s The Discreet Hint.’  Fortunately, there is a CD devoted to Scott’s songs: Moonstruck & other songs, released on the Signum label: it is available as a download.
Lindsay thinks that ‘Scott has written songs which give the impression of having behind them a ripe, unbroken Scottish vocal tradition.’ Unfortunately, Lindsay insisted that this was not the case. Much of the indigenous achievement was discouraged or actively suppressed by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.  On the other hand, the musicologist (composer, poet and playwright) John Purser, in a footnote in his book Scottish Music, wrote that 'There was, of course, a vast living tradition among folk-singers, and an unbroken classical tradition of setting of Scots songs, to which most classical composers in Scotland had contributed, from Thomson through MacKenzie to MacCunn.'

Francis George Scott could be likened to Charles Ives: Scott took Scottish traditional music and reformed it in his own image, in the same way as the American took Americana and recreated it with his own unique voice. Nearer to home, Scott preempted Erik Chisholm who took the Scottish bagpipe ‘Piobaireachd’ and created many derivative works utilising his own distinctive personal language.

Maurice Lindsay concludes his discussion of Scottish song by insisting that ‘the mere idea of a Festival of Music in Edinburgh without any of these fine song is, to say the least of it, puzzling and perplexing.
Time has hardly been generous to Scott. As noted above, he is represented by a single CD, albeit a masterly one. There are a few fugitive songs on compilation albums.

It could be argued that Lindsay was here indulging in a little special pleading: thirty years later he was to write the definitive study of Francis George Scott’s music and his place in the Scottish [Literary] Renaissance.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Sappho, Shropshire and Super-Tramp: A Collection of Modern English Art-Song

The CD liner notes begins with a sobering reflection on British music-making. Richard Carder notes that ‘[The English Poetry and Song Society] competitions for composers started in 1992, celebrating the bi-centenary of the birth of Shelley, and continued every year after that with anniversaries of various poets, as a way of increasing interest in English Art-Song, which has always been a poor relation compared with German Lieder, French Mélodies, and Italian Arias; – as Hubert Parry noted in his History of Music, ‘The English prefer foreign music!’
I have always been in the minority in this matter. Although I enjoy Schubert, Wolf, Duparc et. al. my preference has always been for English art-song. The first major work in this genre that I heard was John Shirley Quirk’s performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ magical Songs of Travel (Robert Louis Stevenson). It has been a genre that has captivated and fascinated me ever since.
This new release from Divine Art, sponsored by The English Poetry and Song Society contains music by eight Society composers, ‘who have all featured as prize-winners in past competitions, including the three complete cycles [alluded to in] the album title, and a song by each of the four past chairmen of the society.’ It is a potpourri of fascinating music.
Of the 52 songs on this 2-CD set, I will note several highlights-for me.  

The main event are the three song cycles by Ivor Gurney, William Carnell and Dennis Wickens. These are settings of poetry by Sappho, A.E. Housman and W.H. Davies respectively.
Clearly Ivor Gurney is the best-kent composer on this album, with many CDs devoted to his vocal music. Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs were selected from poet William Bliss Carman’s (1861–1929) volume Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. This book was an adaptation of several fragments by the Aeolic Greek lyric poet. Three songs were originally published by Oxford University Press, with the remaining four being edited by Richard Carder as part of a project to realise Gurney’s unpublished songs.  I understand that this is the first recording of Gurney’s complete ‘Sappho’ cycle. These are beautiful songs that are full of passion and emotion: they perfectly reflect the blue skies and seas of the Isle of Lesbos.
It is hardly surprising that Housman is represented on this disc. For many years, he was one of the foremost poets set by English composers. William Carnell has selected six songs from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, including such favourites as ‘In Summertime on Bredon Hill’, ‘Along the Field’ and ‘O see how thick the gold cup flowers’. They are all well-crafted songs and that are in the trajectory of earlier settings. A Country Lover is splendidly sung by Johnny Herford. The work was first performed in 2007.

When I was a teenager, I read W.H. Davies Autobiography of a Super Tramp. This fascinating ‘romp’ around Great Britain, the United States and Canada appealed to my sense of adventure and history. It was not until many years later that I discovered that Davies had also written poetry. Dennis Wickens has set several of these verses. Alas, the liner notes give no information about this work, which is a pity. For me, it is the most important and vibrant work on this CD.

The second CD presents several standalone songs by a variety of composers as detailed in the batting-order above. These set an eclectic variety of poets, including relative rarities in the English art-song tradition such as Carol Ann Duffy, Rabindranath Tagore, Hart Crane and Edith Sitwell. More common sources for songs include Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy.
I enjoyed most of these songs, however a few especially captured my imagination. I always admire a composer who sets a text that has become a standard in another composer’s oeuvre. Brian Daubney’s ‘Bredon Hill’ is a satisfying take on a song that has been defined by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Equally enjoyable is Daubney’s version of Humbert Wolfe’s poem ‘The Dream City’. This has been previously set by Gustav Holst. It is one of my favourite poems, and Daubney rises to the challenge.
Another interesting and imaginative song is Graham Garton’s ‘The Shade-Catchers’, with text written by Charlotte Mew.
Robert Hugil’s settings of Rabindranath Tagore are particularly lovely with an impressive sound-world that compliments the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ from this largely-forgotten poet.
One of the most delightful songs on this second CD is Janet Oates settings of Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Cupboard’, complete with ‘lollipops’ and ‘Banbury Cakes’ and hand-claps. It is a little masterpiece.
My favourite song here is Simon Willink’s heart-achingly beautiful realisation of his own poem ‘Sea and Sky’.
There are plenty more interesting numbers, each of which deserves a detailed analysis.

The liner notes have been assembled by Richard Carder, David Crocker and several of the composers. They vary in information, with Carder’s comments on Ivor Gurney being essay-length and notes on several of the composers and their contribution being little more than a couple of short paragraphs. I was not sure why Alfred Warren (1926-2014) is mentioned in these biographical notes, as I could not find any music by him: I think that he is, in fact, a poet who wrote the text for ‘My Whole World’, set my David Crocker. But I could be wrong.
The texts of all the songs are provided which is helpful, although I would have liked the source of each text to have been included in the track-listings. Dates of composition were not included in the track-listings and are not always given in the liner notes.  For biographical details of the performers, the listener is invited to visit the Divine Art Website.

The performance of these songs is typically very good. Both Sarah Leonard and Johnny Herford bring considerable skill, magic and understanding to this music. The words are always clearly enunciated and are immediately understandable.  The piano part is well-executed by Nigel Foster.

This is an excellent exploration of (mainly) contemporary English art-song, written in largely, but not exclusively traditional style, and goes a long way to prove that the genre is alive and well in the early 21st century. 

Track Listing:
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Seven Sappho Songs [14:38]
William CARNELL (b.1938) A Country Lover [18:42]
Michael WATTS (b.1937) Gypsy Girl [20:07]
Dennis WICKENS (b.1926) This Life [23:59]
Simon WILLINK (1929-2015) Sea and Sky [4:13]
David CROCKER (b.1943) A Great Time [1:59], My Whole World [1:46]
Sulyen CARADON (b.1942) Silver [2:32]
Brian DAUBNEY (b.1929) Bredon Hill [3:56], Boot and Saddle [1:34], Because I could not stop for death [2:35], The Dream City [4:32], Waiting Both [2:08]
Graham GARTON (b.1929) Leisure [5:05], The Eagle [2:32], The Song of the Secret [2:45], The Shade Catchers [1:23]
Frank HARVEY (b.1939) Dawn [3:58], The Convergence of the Twain [4:43], I so liked spring [1:10], Remember [5:02]
Robert HUGILL (b.1955) Voyages III [4:24], Gitanjali XIII [3:48], Gitanjali II [4:06], The Pillar [3:01]
Janet OATES (b.1970) Bee: Dance [3:53], Money [2:13], The King of China’s Daughter [3:18], The Cupboard [2:18]
Sarah Leonard (soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone) Nigel Foster (piano)
DIVINE ART dda21230
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 3 February 2018

Ignaz Moscheles: A Composer's Chagrin.

I have adopted Ignaz Moscheles as an ‘honorary Englishman’ so I found this short anecdote rather amusing. Of course, it is not side-splittingly funny in today’s terms but is a little bit of gentle humour. It is worth recording.

Ignaz Moscheles, the virtuoso, composer, and teacher, had one fault that we must say was not confined to him alone. In teaching he used frequently to forget the purpose for which the pupil was present, and instead of using every minute for the pupil's advancement, he would take up much time in relating his experiences and reminiscences, and telling about the different composers and notable people he had met in his long and busy life. And his pupils were oftentimes not averse to this, for besides being very entertaining, it occasionally concealed the fact that the lessons were not as well prepared as they might have been.
In one of his classes were Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the violinist, Karl Feininger [1]. As they came to recitation one morning all the class was struck with the downcast expression on the face of the usually smiling Moscheles, and as the pupils came in each one would exclaim: ‘Goodness gracious, Herr Professor, what is the matter; are you ill?’ But never a word did they get in reply, only a wave of the hand toward the piano, as much as to say, ‘You are here to study music and not to pry into my feelings. Do not chatter to me; sit down and attend to the lesson.’
The last pupil to enter was Feininger, and he being Moscheles' pet pupil, felt brave enough to insist that the dear Herr Professor tell his anxious pupils what had occurred to so cast a cloud over his genial spirits.
"Well," said Moscheles, ‘I will tell you.’ So, with laboured breath he began: "I got up this morning I dressed myself I went to eat my breakfast there was no butter I sent my Dienstmadchen [maidservant] for some butter’ and then his voice burst forth in agony, almost in sobs, ‘and what do you think she brought it in? That butter was wrapped in a page of my G minor Concerto’. [2]
W Francis Gates, Anecdotes of Great Musicians (Weekes & Co., London,1896) (with minor edits)

[1] Karl Feininger (1844-1922), a German American pianist. Was also a performer and teacher.
[2] Ignaz Moscheles’ Piano Concerto No.3 in g minor (1820) is fortunately still extant. It can be heard on YouTube in its entirety, including the page noted above”