Monday 29 March 2021

Eugene Goossens: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part 2

In the following year his Sinfonietta was first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. [1] This work, in three linked movements, is rather more diatonic than his earlier compositions.

At about this time he was appearing frequently as a conductor at Covent Garden, and seemed to be making good progress, but in 1923 America tempted him with a much more rapid means of rising to fame, and he went to New York to become the conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. [2]. In the United States he soon established a reputation as one of the world's most brilliant conductors. In 1927 he caused quite a sensation by conducting a very revolutionary type of symphony by Charles E. Ives of New England, thereby finding favour in New York's more advanced schools of thought in music. [3] In the same year, at Rochester (New York), he conducted the first performance of his Rhythmic Dance; a scherzo in duple time. Four years later he succeeded Fritz Reiner as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. [4]

Return visits to Britain were made in 1926 when he conducted at His Majesty's Theatre for the famous Diaghilev season of Russian ballet, [5] in June 1929 to conduct his own opera Judith at Covent Garden, [6] and again in 1937 when at the same opera house he conducted during the international season held to celebrate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.[7] It was during this memorable season that he had the honour of directing another of his own works, the four-act opera Don Juan. [8] The libretti of both of his operas, by the way, were written for him by Arnold Bennett.

Goossens' compositions are chiefly in the chromatic idiom; they are modern and experimental without being freakish, although his earlier works suggested that he might develop on rather curious lines. This has not happened, for his later compositions show some concern for the more elegant style. Of the two operas, Judith, the shorter, is the more satisfactory. Percy Grainger was very favourably impressed by it, and declared that "only a keen, vigorous mind could have conceived this music: in the main somewhat unbending in its extreme austerity and conciseness, though flowering forth occasionally into brief moments of luscious sensuousness." [9]

Writing in Music and Letters some years ago, R. H. Hull said of Goossens' work: "Notwithstanding a prolific output we find much to show a true co-operation between mind and intellect. From the beginning, Goossens has never lacked imaginative qualities, although their strength has greatly increased with experience. Since he began to see his way clearly, his sense of beauty, which is both delicate and subtle, has also gained in depth. The principal works reconcile convincingly an elegance of style and solidity of ideas." [10]

Goossens' most recent work of importance is his Symphony, op.58, which was first performed in this country on July 6th, 1943 during a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall. It is an impressive work, but some of his critics were disappointed because they thought that in undertaking a work of this magnitude Goossens would have made it his masterpiece, whereas the Symphony scarcely comes up to the standard of some of his other works, and its performance in 1943 was not a great success.

To all but his more intimate associates Goossens is apt to give an impression of aloofness, though he does so quite unconsciously. He prefers to conduct other people's works to his own, but always enjoys writing music, and finds that the morning and early evening are the best times of the day for composing. He has several other interests besides music. The sea has always fascinated him, and at one time he would spend hours on docks and harbours looking at ships and occasionally talking to their crews. This nautical interest originated in his boyhood when he was living at Liverpool, for much of his leisure time was spent on that city's docks, and it explains his passion for saltwater fishing.

Goossens still retains his boyish interest in steam engines. He was once allowed to drive a locomotive and has never forgotten the thrill of it: even today he could not resist an invitation to ride on an engine if one were sent to him. Add to this a great love of architecture and an occasional game of golf and the picture is complete.

Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)

[1] The Sinfonietta was performed for the first time at a London Symphony Orchestra concert on 19 February 1923 held in the Queen’s Hall, London. The composer conduced. The Proms premiere was on 16 August 1934, with Henry Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

[2] The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by the industrialist George Eastman in 1922. Eugene Goossens was the first musical director, a post that he held from 1923 until 1931.

[3] Eugene Goossens premiered (incomplete) Charles Ives Symphony No.4 on 29 January 1927 during an International Referendum Concert sponsored by Pro Musica at Town Hall in New York. The orchestra included members of the New York Philharmonic.

[4] Goossens was to retain this position with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra until 1946. He was succeeded by Thor Johnson (1913-75).

[5] In 1926, Goossens was engaged for the Russian Ballet season at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. Ballet works that were conducted by Goossens included Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Pulcinella, Erik Satie’s Jack in the Box, and Georges Auric’s Pastorale. A new addition to the ballet season were the introduction of Interlude’s written by mainly French and Russian composers. Three British interludes included William Walton’s Portsmouth Point overture, Lord Berners’s Fugue and Eugene Goossens’s Nonet.

[6] Judith with a libretto by the English novelist, journalist, and playwright, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was premiered on 25 June 1929 at Covent Garden.

[7] Operas at this International Season for the Coronation included Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (Thomas Beecham), Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (Philippe Gaubert), Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (Francesco Salfi), Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (Fritz Reiner), Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot (John Barbirolli), Christoph Gluck’s Alceste (Philippe Gaubert) and Verdi’s Aida (Francesco Salfi). There were two complete performances of The Ring (William Furtwangler). The London Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied throughout the season.

[8] Don Juan de Maraña is a four-act opera, based on Arnold Bennett’s eponymous 1923 play. The libretto was completed in 1931, but the opera was not premiered at Covent Garden 24 June 1937.

[9] Grainger’s comment comes from the fourth in a series of ‘Impressions of Art in Europe’, published on 28 September1929. It is reprinted in ed, Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross, Grainger on Music OUP 1999

[10] R. H. Hull, Music & Letters, October 1931, pp. 345-353.


Friday 26 March 2021

Eugene Goossens: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part I

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Clearly, he had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944) by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’

On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second-hand books about music that I bought. In the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Eugene Goossens as well as a brief resume of his career after this book’s publication. 

On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second-hand books about music that I bought. In the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Eugene Goossens as well as a brief resume of his career after this book’s publication.

A BRILLIANT conductor, and composer of many interesting orchestral works, Eugene Goossens is one of the English musicians who have sought wider scope for their work on the other side of the Atlantic. I do not, of course, exclude the possibility that the great revival of interest in music at home might tempt him to return to us permanently in due course, nor do I overlook the fact that the wonderful development in air transport will in time make it immaterial whether one lives in Britain, America or even the South Sea Islands. [1] Science, it seems, will probably do more than anything else to make us realize that art is international.

Goossens was born in London on May 26th, 1893 of a distinguished musical family. His father and grandfather were both eminent conductors in the realm of opera; his brother Leon is now one of the greatest oboists in the world, and two of his sisters are prominent harpists. [2] He entered the Bruges Conservatoire when he was only ten years of age but came to England later and attended the Liverpool College of Music until a scholarship brought him to London to study at the Royal College of Music under C. V. Stanford for composition, and Rivarde [3] for the violin. His first composition for the orchestra, Variations on a Chinese Theme was given under his own direction at one of the students' concerts. [4]

In 1911 Sir Henry Wood engaged him for the Queen's Hall Orchestra, and he played with that august body of musicians until Sir Thomas Beecham sought his services as an assistant conductor in 1915. One of his outstanding memories of the years he spent with Sir Henry Wood is of a Promenade Concert in the autumn of 1914 when his second orchestral work Perseus was given its premiere. [5] After six years with Sir Thomas Beecham, Goossens founded an orchestra of his own and gave a series of symphony concerts which not only drew considerable attention to him as a conductor, but also enabled him to present one or two of his own compositions. [6]

In the previous autumn his symphonic poem The Eternal Rhythm had been performed at a Promenade concert, and it was then chosen for a second performance at the inaugural concert of the British Music Society in June 1921. [7] By this time, he had also made a name for himself as a player and composer in the world of chamber music: he had done excellent work as a member of the Philharmonic String Quartet and had impressed the critics with his Fantasy for String Quartet (1915), his Quartet in C [major] (1916), and his two sketches By the Tarn and Jack O' Lantern (1916). Of the Fantasy, Delius said that it was the best thing of its type he had ever seen from an English pen. [8]

The influence of Ravel seems to have played some part in the shaping of this work. The three movements of the Quartet in C [major] were dedicated to his three colleagues in the Philharmonic String Quartet: Arthur Beckwith (first violin), Raymond Jeremy (viola) and Cedric Sharp ('cello). [9] Each movement is really a subtle musical portrait, and the four notes that open the concluding movement are taken from the music-hall song ‘You're Here and I'm Here’ which Cedric Sharpe had "on the brain " and persisted in whistling to the annoyance of his friends shortly before the Quartet was written. [10]

Goossens' next task was the conducting of the Russian ballet in The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra. [11] In 1922 he wrote the overture, six entr'actes and the incidental music to Somerset Maugham's play East of Suez. [12] All his enthusiasm for oriental effects went into this music, and it aroused so much curiosity that everybody believed a rumour that he had procured Chinese music and had forced his orchestra to use fantastic eastern instruments! Actually, the music Goossens had written contained 
nothing but western harmonies, and his players were using their normal instruments.
Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)

[1] Eugene Goossens departed for Australia in 1947 to take up the post of conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He was also appointed director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium. In 1956 he was forced by scandal to resign both positions. He returned to the United Kingdom and spent his remaining years of his life working freelance. Eugene Goossens died on 13 June 1962.

[2] Eugene Goossens was a member of a family of musicians. His grandfather, Eugene (1845-1906) was an orchestral conductor. His father, also Eugene (1867-1958) was a conductor and violinist. His sister, Marie (1894-1991) was a harpist, performing as a soloist and with several orchestras. His brother, Leon (1897-1988) was a highly respected oboist. And finally, his sister Sidonie (1899-2004) was also a harpist. There was another brother, Adolphe (1896-1916) was a gifted horn player, who died in France during the Great War.

[3] Achille Rivarde (1865-1940) was an American born violinist and teacher. Much of his career was spent in London and Europe. He became a professor at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in 1899.

[4] Goossens’s Variations on a Chinese Theme were given its World Premiere on 6 September 1913, during the Proms. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra was conducted by the composer. It had previously been given a rehearsal and run through at the RCM in 1912.

[5] Perseus, a ‘Straussian’ symphonic poem for orchestra, was premiered during the 1914 Proms Season on 13 October. Once again, Eugene conducted the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

[6] The Goossens Orchestra was a hand-picked selection of 105 of the ‘best instrumentalists’ including his siblings Marie, Sidonie and Léon. The first major success was the British premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on 7 June 1921. Goossens also included his own The Eternal Rhythm and a Fanfare in subsequent concerts. (Carole Rosen, The Goossens: A Musical Century, 1993, p.66ff)

[7] The Eternal Rhythm was played at the British Music Society’s concert on 14 June 1921. Other music included the premiere of the orchestral version of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. The soloist was Marie Hall.  Josef Holbrooke’s Overture: The Children of Don, Holst’s The Planets and Cyril Scott’s Piano Concerto [No.1] completed the bill.  The repertoire of this entire concert can be recreated with contemporary CD/downloads.

[8] Carley, Lionel, Delius: A Life in Letters, Scolar Press, 1988, p.163

[9] The Philharmonic Quartet was an English string quartet musical ensemble founded during the period of the First World War and remaining active until the early 1940s, by which time none of the original members were present in the group. (Wikipedia)

[10] ‘You're Here and I'm Here’ is a song with words by Harry B Smith and music by Jerome Kern, published in 1914.

[11] Better known as The Sleeping Beauty, The Sleeping Princess was given by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London. The British premiere was on 2 November 1921. It was to run for 115 performances.

[12] In 1922, Eugene Goossens composed incidental for Somerset Maugham’s 1920s play East of Suez. Based on a story set in Beijing, it delves into the intersection of cultural traditions. The music is mysterious and oriental. In fact, the composer had visited a pub in Limehouse, and had jotted down tunes played by Chang Tim’s band of Chinese seamen. Rosen (op.cit. p.71) explains that these musicians ‘played Chinese fiddles, flutes, wooden blocks, gongs and cymbalum…’ Goossens tailored their themes to Western musical instruments and notation.

To be continued…

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Ernst Toch: Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes (1934) -The Recordings

There is only a single commercial recording of Ernst Toch’s Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes currently in the catalogues. This was released in 2002 by New World Records (80609). The CD also included the ‘early’ Piano Concerto op. 38, (1926), Peter Pan, A Fairy Tale for Orchestra, op. 76 (1956) and Pinocchio, A Merry Overture (1935).  The piano soloist was Todd Crow, and the Hamburg North German Radio Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Leon Botstein. The entire CD provides a splendid introduction to Toch’s music, featuring music from a 30-year period. 

James H North, writing in Fanfare: The Magazine for the Serious Record Collector (March 2003, p.191-2) felt that ‘the 16-minute piece encompasses many moods and is extremely clever, perhaps too much so for its own good: What could have been a sure fire, Elgarian pops hit, to a tune known the world over, is filled with little fugues and other esoteric musical devices.’ For me, it is mysterious quality that make this piece such a winner.

Turning to the other works on this disc, North regards the Piano Concerto as ‘a more sophisticated cousin of George Gershwin's Concerto in F’ with a ‘complex orchestral accompaniment that sounds mildly dissonant to our ears [but] must have been hot stuff in 1926; some sections are nearly atonal, but a breezy, free-swinging attitude prevails, with both Romantic and neo-Classical touches.’  

Mark L. Lehman American Record Guide (March 2003 p.177-8) considered that ‘Peter Pan, in three short movements, is appropriately whimsical and dancing-on-airish, its outer fast movements enclosing a…faux-rustic gavotte, while the harmonically tamer [Pinocchio] overture is ebullient and tuneful.’ Turning to the Big Ben Fantasy which is ‘more substantial and more various, Big Ben, which begins with the famous chimes, proposing, solid, Brahmsian edifice that seems to encompass the many aspects of the city around it, from stately and sonorous to vigorous, and bustling to ceremonious and grand to misty and mysterious.’ One of the remarkable qualities of the Big Ben Fantasy are the balance between ‘masterly contrapuntal skill’ and ‘easily assimilated melodic appeal.’ It was a style that Ernst Toch mastered to a fine degree. Finally, Lehman’s assessment of the piano concerto deserves to be quoted on full:
‘The Piano Concerto allows Toch's long-lined, bittersweet, and deeply Viennese lyricism full flower. His richly chromatic, eloquently sculptured phrases - similar to Hindemith in language but closer to Mahler in their nostalgic longing - are spun out and entwined with a sort of ecstatic poignancy in the magnificent central adagio, 11 minutes of almost Bergian pantonalism that grows from a halting, limpid piano solo of exquisite shapeliness and haunting expressive resonance. There's really nothing like this adagio in all the concerted piano literature, and it remains one of Toch's most personal and individual creations.’

The Gramophone (October 2003, p.54-55) reviewer was impressed with this new CD, which was part of the ‘Toch Revival.’  To what extent this revival remains to be seen. To be sure, listeners now have a wide range of recordings to explore, including the cycle of seven symphonies, the extant string quartets and a good selection of piano music. Yet, his sun seems, once again, to have set, at least in the concert hall.

Guy Rickards thought that the Pinocchio Overture was ‘a lively affair, pure entertainment’ whereas the Big Ben fantasy ‘showcases’ the composer’s talents to greater effect. He considers it to be a ‘masterly piece’ which ‘adds up to slightly more than the 1955 Peter Pan, which, despite the work’s orchestral brilliance (with some distinctly [Malcolm] Arnold-like touches in places) is more of a character study than as narrative poem.’

Turning to the main work on this disc, the critic considers that the Piano Concerto (1926) displays ‘plenty of light and shade in its turbulent but ultimately ebullient course.’ This is particularly evident in the opening ‘Allegro’ and the ‘seething climax of the central adagio.’ The concerto is played by Tod Crow ‘with great elan.’ Overall, Rickards thinks that Leon Botstein ‘secures some excellent playing from the North German Radio players and New World’s sound is clear and exciting.’

For completeness, it should be noted that in 1975 an early monaural recording of Ernst Toch’s music appeared including the Big Ben: Fantasy. The cover title was ‘In Memoriam Ernst Toch (1887-1964)’ This was a non-commercial recording made by the RAI [Radiotelevisione italiana] National Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Kempe. The album included Pinocchio: A Merry Overture and the Symphony No.1 (1950). This vinyl LP was issued on Educational Media Associates EMA 101.

In 1997, Exton Records (OVCL 00126) released a compilation album which included the Big Ben Variation alongside Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Benjamin Britten’s Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Djong Victorin. I was unable to locate any reviews of these recordings.

Meanwhile Ernst Toch’s Big Ben Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes can be heard on YouTube. (Accessed 27 January 2021).

Saturday 20 March 2021

Exploring Ernst Toch’s Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes (1934)

Several composers have become beguiled by the sound of the Westminster Chimes. Organ music enthusiasts will know Louis Vierne’s great paean of praise, the Carillon de Westminster, the final piece in the third volume of his 24 pieces de fantaisie, op.54, first published in 1927.  Some years earlier, Ralph Vaughan Williams had introduced the ‘chime’ motif into his great London Symphony (1914, rev.1936). Best known of all, is the beautiful second movement, ‘Westminster’ of Eric Coates London Suite. This was completed in 1932 and includes the ever-popular ‘Knightsbridge March’.  

There are (at least) two stories about the composition of Ernst Toch’s (1887-1964) Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes. The first part is common to both tales. Toch stated that when he was in London (1933-34), he was out walking in a ‘fog enshrouded’ evening. He went across Westminster Bridge. As he did so, he heard once again the ‘deep-toned’ chimes of Big Ben. On this evening they seemed ‘to be especially strange and moving, muffled as it were, in the mist the blanketed the River Thames.’ At this point he decided to write a ‘fantasy in variation form, basing it on the chimes of Big Ben’.  Ernst Toch elaborated on his thoughts of that night’s peregrination: ‘The familiar theme lingered in my imagination for a long while, and evolved into other forms, somehow still connected with the original once, until, finally, like the chimes themselves, it seemed to disappear in the fog from which it emerged. I have sought to fix the impression in my variation fantasy.’ (New York Philharmonic Programme Note, 8 February 1943)

The second part of the story has two versions. In the first, the work was written whilst crossing the Atlantic on board the Laconia. This is the romantic tale. The other is that it was largely composed during his first weeks on the staff of the New School for Social Research in New York.  This is the mundane narrative. The piece, then, was probably written later in New York, during October and November 1934." It is dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky.

To confuse the issue further, Paul A. Pisk and Manton Monroe Marble (The Musical Quarterly, October 1938, p.446) state that Big Ben was composed in 1932 whilst the composer was in New York. This implies that it was written whilst Toch was on his tour of United States during the spring of 1932.  This was before the composer came to London.

For interest, in 1934 the Austrian composer Ernst Toch had left the United Kingdom bound for the United States. He departed from Liverpool on 15 September on board the Cunard Line Laconia. His London address is given as 88 Leadenhall Street which was at that time the shipping company’s offices. Interestingly, Toch’s occupation was given as ‘Medical’! Unsurprisingly, he was accompanied by his wife, Alice.

Musically, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s programme notes (20 December 1934) explain “The score opens and closes with the full Westminster chimes to a background of violin figures, and finally to a roll of the timpani and small drums. There are sections in contrasted tempi suggesting variations, but after the theme is fully stated by the strings in the first (Vivace) it recurs only in fragmentary fashion. Different instruments give one of the "quarters," but with rhythmic attention or embellishment of the essential notes. The listed tempi (andantino — scherzando leggiero — slower, free — molto tranquillo) suggest the course of the variation fantasia.”

The Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Burgin on 20 December 1934. It was held at the Sander’s Theater, Harvard University. Unfortunately, Serge Koussevitzky was ‘indisposed.’  This concert was part of the Fifty-Fourth Season, 1934-35. Other works at this concert included Edward Burlingame-Hill’s Symphony No 1 in B flat major, op.34 and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98.  Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck’s Sinfonia in G major, edited by Hans Gál was to have opened the concert, but this was cancelled.  Ernst Toch’s Big Ben Fantasy was reprised at the ninth pair of Symphony concerts held at the Symphony Hall, Boston held on the 21 and 22 December. Toch had been heard previously in Boston, where his Piano Concerto, his Little Theater Suite and his Bunte Suite had been performed.

The Christian Science Monitor (22 December 1934, p.11) reported on the concert. The critic, L.A.S. insisted that this Big Ben Fantasy, is an ‘impression’ which ‘has involved a good deal of ingenuity, considerable cleverness and some able contrapuntal writing.’ On the downside, ‘the score is uneven. Some of its inspirations were quite brilliant; others were dull and obvious, verging at times on vulgarity.’ Despite this, the work ‘was well received.’

I do not agree with this assessment. This is a magical score that creates a numinous impression of the River Thames and the ‘Tower of Big Ben’ (Elizabeth Tower) that is unequalled by musician or painter.  It is the musical equivalent of a Whistler painting.

The Fantasy was composed for a large orchestra: two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets in B flat, clarinet in E flat, tow bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, tympani, low chimes (E-D-C-G), small chimes, large drum, side drum, cymbals, xylophone, triangle, castanets, two small Chinese wood drums, tam tam, celesta, harp and strings.

The next post will look at the single recording of this work.  Meanwhile Ernst Toch’s Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes can be heard on YouTube. (Accessed 27 January 2021).

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Francis George Scott: Complete Piano Music

A few biographical details of Francis George Scott may be of interest. He was born in the Scottish Border town of Hawick on 25 January 1880. After education at the town’s Academy, Scott studied English at Edinburgh University and latterly at Durham University. He later taught this subject in secondary schools in Dunoon, Langholm and Glasgow. One of his pupils at Langholm was the legendary Christopher Grieve, later known as Hugh MacDiarmid. From MacDiarmid, Scott later became acquainted with Scots Language verse.
Scott studied music with the French musician Jean Roger-Ducasse and initially developed a cosmopolitan style. He later chose to research Scottish folksong (including pibroch, loosely, a theme with variations for bagpipe)) and applied the results to his compositions. This deep interest resulted in six volumes of Scottish Songs published between 1921 and 1945.
For many years Scott was a lecturer in music at Jordanhill Training College for Teachers in Glasgow. After his retirement in 1946, he published Thirty-Five Scottish Lyrics and Other Poems (1949).
Many of Scott’s settings were of poems by Robert Burns, William Dunbar and Hugh MacDiarmid Other works included a Renaissance Overtire for orchestra and a ballet based on the William Dunbar’s The Seven Deidly Sinnis which may deserve revival.
As The Times (8 November 1958) obituarist put it, Scott was “a Scottish Nationalist composer whose music never invaded England.” Unfortunately, it did not receive a great deal of recognition in Scotland (common to most Scottish composers). A few people were enthusiastic about his achievement, including the musician Ronald Stevenson, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the music critic and author Maurice Lindsay.
Musically, Scott’s style is a subtle fusion of Scottish speech rhythm, folksong and pibroch as well as an infusion of European developments initiated by his study of Bartók and Schoenberg.
Francis George Scott died in Glasgow on 6 November 1948.
The only major study is Francis George Scott and the Scottish Renaissance (1980) written by the larger-than-life critic, broadcaster and poet, Maurice Lindsay.

One point needs to be summarised. The Scottish Renaissance refers to an artistic movement prominent between the First and Second World Wars but extending back and forward in time. This was mainly a literary revival promulgated by writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir and William Soutar.  However, the movement’s influence was also found in music, art and politics. It was also important in the rise of Scottish Nationalism (but by no means restricted to it).  Often, the resulting artistic works were influenced by contemporary philosophy and modernism but synthesised with Scottish culture and tradition. Composers within the ambit of this movement included Erik Chisholm, Ronald Center, William Beaton Moonie and Francis George Scott. Ronald Stevenson was a late adherent.

The present CD divides into three sections. The opening work on this CD is Eight Songs of Francis George Scott transcribed by Ronald Stevenson. This is followed by the first recording (and probably first complete performance) of Intuitions, which presents 57 fugitive miniatures. The last element consists of four interspersed, miscellaneous piano pieces.

I began with the early Minuet and Trio dating from around 1903. This is Scott’s earliest surviving piano work. It is commonplace, like so much music composed at that time. This is followed by the short, undated, gavotte, La Joie which was penned when he was at teaching Langholm School between 1903 and 1912. Once again, it is proficient, tuneful and in the gift of an amateur pianist. When I first read the track listing, I wondered if April Skies might be a John Ireland-esque character piece with a Scottish accent. A little disappointment ensued. It is an attractive but “lengthy waltz sequence…imitating the Viennese style”. It was written about 1912.  The most promising of these short numbers is Urlar. This title is a noun describing a “basic theme of a piece of bagpipe music”. It is a beautiful modal number in ternary form. The liner notes indicate that the middle section imitates the clarsach (Celtic harp) whilst the opening and closing sections are thoughtful and “gently lilting.”

Eight Songs of Francis George Scott transcribed by Ronald Stevenson are a masterly re-creation. I think that the best way of approaching them, is to see them in a trajectory from Franz Liszt’s adaptations of Schubert’s lieder.  Here Stevenson takes Scott’s songs and reworks them for piano solo. Kaikhosru Sorabji has written that these songs are “not just des mélodies, des chansons with a piano accompaniment, with the pianist a bad (and more than slightly ignominious) poor relation, but they are conceived as duos for voice and piano in which neither is in any way subordinated to the other.”  In other words, the songs in their original incarnation, have the vocal and piano parts integrated, not just a melody supported by a vamped piano accompaniment. This lends itself to “the idiom of the solo piano.” In Stevenson’s transcriptions, there is a clever juxtaposition of Scott’s melodies with various harmonic and accompaniment styles.

The eight songs transcribed are: No.1 Since all thy vows, false maid, are blown to air. No.2 Wha is that at my bower-door? No.3 O were my love yon lilac fair. No.4 Wee Willy Gray. No.5 Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton. No.6 Crowdieknowe. No.7 Ay Waukin, O and No.8 There's news, lasses, news.

The liner notes give an incredibly detailed analysis and examines the technique used by Ronald Stevenson to re-imagine them. Colin Scott-Sutherland (BMS Newsletter, Jun 1997, p.58) as insisted that “these transcriptions belong to Scotland and to the whole world.” Would that they did.

The Intuitions present several problems to the listener. Firstly, this is a work made up of 57 very short fragments (plus one variant). The longest being 2 minute 10 seconds and the shortest lasting a mere 12 seconds. Most are under a minute in length. Some have evocative titles, many just an indication of dynamics and several only a number.  They were composed over a ten-year period, 1943 to 1953.

How do we approach them? I guess one way is to see them as being “Moments in Time.”  I baulk at using this phrase: my English teacher “Noddy” Robertson, once told me that it was a tautology - all moments are in time. But this is, perhaps, the very point this music.

What is the mood of these Intuitions? The liner notes suggest that they “animate a very improper sense of the eldritch and eerie, moonlit worlds of liminality and transformation. They never rest complacently – irony keeps them sharp and the humour is sometimes merciless…”  But there is another side to this series of miniatures: “a sense of tenderness, a poised sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of childhood and old age which counterpoints the vigorous expressions of force and power.”

Furthermore, the notes states that “Each one of these pieces gently discloses balances of depth, speed and the highly sensitised character of what one might call intimation. They touch on tragedy sometimes, and sometimes flirt and fleetly run with high comical spirit.”

For me, Intuitions remind me of two contradictory composers: Fibich and Webern. The latter is noted for concentrating his musical material to the barest minimum, and the former’s Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs, where each one was designed to capture a single impression of an intimate moment.

The reader will be delighted that I am not going to comment on/describe/analyse each Intuition. This is done on some detail in the liner notes. A few examples will suffice.  No.51 is entitled Evening on the Loch. It is not descriptive of any highland scene. Just evocative of mood: a single idea lasting less than a minute. Yet somehow it captures a whole world of emotion. No.3, Lonely Tune is written in in four-part harmony, with a few chromatic twists and a wide-ranging melody. All in 48 seconds. The following Running Tune hints briefly at a half-remembered Scottish Reel.  Schumann can be heard in the Border Riding-Rhythm (No.12). Even this horseman has gone before he can be apprehended. The Deil’s Dance (No.14) looks to Khachaturian with its “urgent, savage rhythmic drive.” The longest is a ballad. For a few moments No.15, An Seanachaidh (The Bard), tells his ancient tale. What it was about we do not know. Finally, many of these Intuitions do not have titles. Take No.21 for example. Just a few enigmatic bars, “ending with a question mark”. So, the only way to listen to them is to take them slowly, use the liner notes to pick out something of interest and enjoy, imagine and dream. The more I have listened to them, the more I get out of them. They are little gems.

I cannot fault the sound quality of this CD. Christopher Guild’s recital of this music is engaging and always convincing. There is no element of condescension when he is playing the “easier” numbers and the unsophisticated early works.

The liner notes are superb. There is an introductory essay by the poet and academic Alan Riach, providing a good appreciation of Francis George Scott. This provides biography, context within the Scottish Renaissance and some well-judged pointers to the appreciation of the music. It is followed by Christopher Guild’s indispensable dissertation exploring the repertoire on this CD in considerable detail. There are numerous quotations from music and literary critics. Non- technical details of each piece are incorporated.  The usual particulars about the soloist, Christopher Guild are included. The text is complimented by photos of Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid.

There is apparently no more of Scott’s piano music left to record. But what is a desideratum is a complete cycle of the (more than 300) songs: it would be a massive project. And maybe the Renaissance Overture for orchestra. Of equal importance is an easily available printed edition of the sheet music for Intuitions. There is much in these pages that does not require a virtuosic technique that would be of considerable interest to many pianists of all abilities.

As a Scot, born and bred in Glasgow, it never ceases to amaze me how little interest we show in our native classical music. It is good to have such a dedicated and committed advocate for “our” music as Moray-born Christopher Guild. I eagerly look forward to many more explorations of forgotten repertoire from him.

Track Listing:

Francis George SCOTT (1880-1958)
Eight Songs of Francis George Scott (transcribed by Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)) (1963-82?)
Urlar (1948)
April Skies (?1912) 
Intuitions (1943-53) 
The Two Neighbours (Campbell Hay) – alternative setting (1952) 
Minuet and Trio (1903) 
La Joie (c. 1910)
Christopher Guild (piano)
Rec. 24 February 2019 in the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 14 March 2021

Introducing Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

For British listeners, Ernst Toch is usually recalled for his magical score, Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, for orchestra, op. 62, completed in 1934. At this period, Toch had just left London after working in film industry for two years.  He had escaped from Germany and was one of many émigré composers who would live and work in London and the United States.

Toch composed a wide range of music including seven symphonies, several string quartets, four operas, three concertos and many piano and vocal works.  He also created many film scores, but never gained the recognition of fellow Austrian Korngold in this medium. 

Toch composed a wide range of music including seven symphonies, several string quartets, four operas, three concertos and many piano and vocal works.  He also created many film scores, but never gained the recognition of fellow Austrian Korngold in this medium.

Much of Ernst Toch’s career was spent teaching. However, in the last 15 years of his life, he concentrated on composition. The entire cycle of symphonies were written at this time.

The sad thing about Toch’s life is his sense of failure. He often referred to himself as ‘the world’s most forgotten composer.’ It has been suggested that this is a ‘wistful joke’ but ‘betraying a certain painful validity.’

Stylistically, Toch’s music does not belong to any ‘school’. His earliest works were Mozartian in effect, whilst some of his later music presented his own ‘take’ on Schoenberg’s 12 tone methodology. It is fair to suggest that Ernst Toch ‘was dismissed as too traditional by avant-gardists and too avant-garde by traditionalists.’

Brief Biography of Ernst Toch:
  • Born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna on 7 December 1887.
  • Two early String Quartets performed whilst still at school.
  • Educated at the University of Vienna, the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music and the University of Heidelberg.
  • Appointed teacher of music at the Hochschule fur Musik at Mannheim between 1913 and 1915 and again 1921-28.
  • Served in the Austrian Infantry on the Italian front during the First World War
  • Married Alice Babette Lilly Zwack, the daughter of a financier, in 1916. Toch had one daughter, Franzi.
  • Toured in the United States during 1932 where he played his Piano Concerto, op.38 with great success.
  • Compelled to leave Germany on the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Worked in Paris during 1933
  • Moved to London where he wrote film scores for The Rise of Catherine the Great, The Private Life of Don Juan and Little Friend.
  • In 1934 was appointed to a teaching posts at the New School for Social Research – the ‘University in Exile’ in New York
  • Commissioned to write film music in Los Angeles 1936. Toch would compose 16 film scores.
  • Taught at the University of Southern California, 1937-48.
  • Became a naturalized American from 1940.
  • Died Santa Monica, California, 1 October 1964

Six Essential Works
I have selected six compositions by Ernst Toch. The criteria is that they are currently available on CD, download or YouTube.

  1. Concerto for piano, op.38 (1928)
  2. Geographical Fugue (1930)
  3. Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, for orchestra, op. 62 (1935)
  4. Symphony No.3, op.75 (1954-5)
  5. Peter Pan: A Fairy Tale, op.76 (1956)
  6. String Quartet No.13, op.74 (1953-4, published 1961)

Many of Ernst Toch’s works have been recorded. It is possible to gain a great idea of his stylistic development from the early Sonata for violin and piano, op.21 to the Symphony No.7 completed in the year of his death. Clearly, there are still many pieces that would seem to demand at least a single recording. The stage works are not represented in the CD catalogues.

There is only a single biography of Ernst Toch available. This is Diane Peacock Jezic’s The Musical Migration and Ernst Toch (Ames, IA, 1989). This book majors on Toch’s life and work but includes a valuable chapter on ‘The Émigré Contribution to Musical America’. Helpful appendices chart the migration of German-Austrian composers, the Toch works list, a filmography of his film scores and a then current discography. There is a good, but now out if date bibliography. There are several theses devoted to Toch’s life and work.

If you can only hear one CD:
I would suggest the New World Records 2002 (80609) anthology including the Concerto for piano, op. 38. Peter Pan, A Fairy Tale for Orchestra, op. 76. Pinocchio, A Merry Overture and Big Ben, Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, op. 62. The NDR-Hamburg Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leon Botstein. The soloist in the piano concerto is Todd Crow. 

And finally, if you only wish to hear one work:

As this is a British music blog, I have no hesitation than recommending the Big Ben Variations.  Completed in 1934, it has been defined as ‘a post Atonal, pre-Hollywood’ work that presents a sometimes-impressionistic view of the London icon. The chime theme clearly dominates the work and appears in many guises, sometimes obvious and at often well-hidden. The orchestration reflects the blurred atmosphere of Westminster by night. It has been described as ‘not your standard theme and variations, but the unprecedented product of a well-developed musical mind.’ It remains Ernst Toch’s best-known work (where he is recalled at all).  

Thursday 11 March 2021

British Piano Collection Volume I on the Heritage Label

A few notes about Peter Jacobs may be of interest. Born in 1945, he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music some twenty-two years later. His teachers included Alexander Kelly and Eric Fenby.  After a short spell as Director of Music at Taunton School, he returned to London to begin his career as a concert pianist, an examiner and an adjudicator. Beginning in the 1980s Jacobs began to explore, learn, perform and record a wide range of then-neglected British composers including John Foulds, Alan Bush, Harold Truscott and Billy Mayerl. Of huge interest to me was the complete piano works of Frank Bridge. These have remained my favourite exposition of these pieces, despite rival releases by Ashley Wass (Naxos) and Mark Bebbington (Somm). The liner notes of this current CD point out the sad fact that many of these definitive recordings have “fallen into obscurity” and have been deleted from the catalogue. Several of these were originally released on the Continuum and Olympia labels, now long defunct. It is fantastic news, then, that Heritage Records are currently in the process of re-releasing several of these important CDs. 

Volume 1 of this project covers Parry, Stanford and Vaughan Williams.  My introduction to Parry’s piano music was the evocative Shulbrede Tunes (1914), conceived when the composer was staying with his eldest daughter, Dorothea, at Shulbrede Priory in West Sussex. I had found a score of this music in a second-hand bookshop. Most of these pieces were beyond me, but I could just about manage the second, Elizabeth.  The concept behind Shulbrede Tunes was the creation of sketches of the folk who lived there, as well as the numinous aspects of the Priory itself. Hence the mysterious Prior’s Chamber by Firelight and In the Garden with Dew on the Grass.  People depicted include Parry’s son-in-law Arthur Ponsonby in Father Playmate. Matthew and Elizabeth were the composer’s grandchildren, whilst Dolly No.1 and Dolly No.2 were different characterisations of his daughter, Dorothea (Dolly).  The reader will note that these charming pieces were composed in 1914: just before the optimistic Edwardian Era vanished during the cataclysmic Great War.

The earliest piece here is Parry’s Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor (c.1878-85). This is a rewarding work that was ignored during the composer’s lifetime. Once described as being “a most inartistic and depressing arrangement” it seems to have come of age. It is wide-ranging and offers a challenging and idiomatic pianism. 

The attractive Hands across the Centuries: Suite for Piano was written towards the end of the First World War in 1918. This work reflects Parry’s interest in J.S. Bach. The entire progress of Hands across the Centuries relies on Baroque dance forms, brought up to date, at least to Parry’s musical aesthetic. Its retro mood falls into the same category as his Lady Radnor and English Suites, both composed for strings.

If this piano music echoes Mendelssohn and Schumann, this is no problem. Often, Parry’s own individual voice shines through to great and moving effect.

Peter Jacobs brings this music to life. His rendition is always full of charm, warmth and a total lack of condescension.

The next two CDs in this boxed set explore the music of Charles Villiers Stanford. Peter Jacobs presents the massive Twenty-Four Preludes Set I, op.163 (1918) and Twenty-Four Preludes Set II, op.179 (1920) as well as the Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 (1912) and the Three Rhapsodies op.92 (1904). In recent years Christopher Howell has issued the ‘Complete Piano Works’ in three volumes. (Reviewed here Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3). These latter are essential purchases for all Stanford enthusiasts.

The reader will excuse me for not musing on each of the 48 Preludes. Three things need to be said to aid appreciation. Firstly, they follow the key scheme of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893. Secondly, they are not academic or pedantic. John F. Porte has suggested that they “cover almost every mood, from that of the funeral procession to the jovial, and from the weighty Hibernian march to fairy-like charm and grace.”  Here are waltzes and Irish melodies as well as a Study and an In Memoriam. Thirdly, they are deemed to be highly pianistic and do not introduce technical difficulties for the sake of it.  One last thought: are these two sets of Preludes meant to be heard as two cycles or can they be excerpted? I guess that either approach can be made.

The Three Rhapsodies were inspired by Dante Alighieri. These powerful pieces were composed in 1904. J.A. Fuller-Maitland defines them as “the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions” but also “strangely lacking in inspiration.” Charles Porte considers that despite the Dante theme “they are rather dull as musical works.” I disagree with these negative comments: I find these explorations of ‘Francesca’, ‘Beatrice’, and ‘Capaneo’ moving, inspiring and beautiful. They are “gorgeous expressions of love and loss.”

Stanford wrote his Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 in 1912 for the Polish pianist and composers, Moritz Rosenthal. There is considerable variety in this music, ranging from the sometimes-fervent, but always lovely, Romance to the Schumannesque Roundel, and from a Study that echoes Felix Mendelssohn to the final Toccata that appears to forth-tell George Gershwin’s big hit I got Rhythm composed some 18 years later. It is a splendid set of pieces, brilliantly played here.

The Vaughan Williams CD divides into two parts: those pieces which are slight and those that are deeper in intent. I recall (c.1971) finding the sheet music for The Lake in the Mountains in the Coatbridge Town Library. I couldn’t play it, but more pertinently, it did not sound like the Vaughan Williams I had been discovering, such as the Greensleeves Fantasia, The Lark Ascending and Hugh the Drover. The present piano piece, which has its origins in the film score 49th Parallel (1941) was written for the pianist Phyllis Sellick. Although the music is quiet and reflective, it hardly ticks the boxes of ‘pastoral’. RVW has injected more than a hint of acerbity, as befits the plot of the film. The Lake in the Mountains was to be Vaughan Williams final work for the piano.

The Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) (1930) is a perfect fusion of styles. The music seems to emerge from the Tudor past and is imbued with RVWs personal musical fingerprint. It was written for, and dedicated to, Harriet Cohen. Peter Jacob captures the timeless magic of this music.

The other important work here is the Chorale and Chorale Prelude 'Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ'. It was included in the Harriet Cohen Bach Book (1930). This is a collection of pieces by several front-ranking British composers including Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, William Walton and Vaughan Williams.  RVWs contribution is a ‘re-imagining’ Bach’s Chorale Prelude ‘Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’, BWV 649 (the fifth of the six Schübler Chorale Preludes). This in turn was Bach’s own transcription of the of the third movement of his Cantata ‘Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden’ BWV6. Vaughan Williams’s take is a little masterpiece. 

The Six Little Pieces (Teaching Pieces) (1934) and the Suite in G Major (Suite of Six Short Pieces) (1921) are both minor works that are nevertheless enjoyable and satisfying if not vital.  

All this music by Stanford, Parry and RVW is played with conviction and perception. Jacobs is not a flamboyant pianist. He uses his considerable technique to better reveal the musical content of each piece. That said, he is well able to introduce passion, vivacity and intimacy when appropriate. The liner notes would appear to be from the original CDs and records: Jeremy Dibble for the Parry and Stanford, and Robert Matthew-Walker for RVW.

The only thing I could not find in the liner notes were details of the original releases. I think that they are as shown here:
1. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Priory PRCD 451 (c.1995)
2. Charles Villiers Stanford Volume 1: Priory PRCD 449 (c.1996)
3. Charles Villiers Stanford Volume 2: Olympia OCD 638 (c.1997)
4. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Phoenix Records DGS1019 (c.1982)

This is an excellent re-presentation of old[ish] but essential recordings of piano music by three great composers from the British Isles. Those of us who are long in the tooth will probably have some, or all, of these albums in our collection. On the other hand, there must surely be a new generation of listeners who will enjoy exploring this music, so ably performed by Peter Jacobs. 

Track Listings:
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Shulbrede Tunes (1914)
Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor (1878)
Hands across the Centuries: Suite for Piano (pub.1918)
CD 2
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Twenty-Four Preludes Set I, op.163 (1918)
Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 (1912)
CD 3
Charles Villiers STANFORD

Twenty-Four Preludes Set II, op.179 (1920
Three Rhapsodies op.92 (1904)
CD 4
The Lake in the Mountains (1947)
Six Little Pieces (Teaching Pieces) (1934)
Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) (1928)
Suite in G Major (Suite of Six Short Pieces) (1920
Choral and Choral Prelude (Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ – Lord Jesus Christ with us abide) (1930)
Peter Jacobs (piano)
Rec. Roslyn Hill Chapel, London, 17 December 1992 (Parry); 14-17 December 1992; RVW [?]

Monday 8 March 2021

Arnold Bax’s What the Minstrel Told Us. An Explanation – of sorts!

The facts about Arnold Bax’s What the Minstrel Told Us (Ballad) for pianoforte are straightforward. It was composed in the aftermath of the Great War and was dedicated ‘To Harriet Cohen’. Bax finished it after he had made a return visit to Ireland in 1919. He was troubled by the political tensions there, especially in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising. At the time of Bax’s residence, the Irish War of Independence was about to get under way. 

Aesthetically, What the Minstrel Told Us is conceived as a rhapsody. Structurally, the music can be construed as modified ternary form or perhaps a set of variations on two tunes. The outer sections presents an opening ‘call to attention’ followed the Celtic folk tune, initially in innocence but when it is reprised at the piece’s conclusion it has become funereal, keening. The middle section is presented in two parts: ‘first a typical passage of restless dreaming soon superseded by relentless and aggressive writing, [with] Bax almost shaking a fist at heaven’ (Lewis Foreman, Naxos Liner Note). Harriet Cohen gave the first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 15 June 1920.  (Parlett, 1999, p.143)

The work is subtitled a ‘Ballad’, hence the connection to the Irish Minstrel. But what was the story he related?

The Scotsman (19 October 1944, p.4) reported on a lunchtime recital by the pianist Harold Craxton (1885-1971), given the previous day at the Royal Scottish Academy Galleries in Edinburgh. The reviewer explained that Bax’s What the Minstrel Told Us ‘had its meaning made more explicit by a few characteristic and pleasantly informal remarks made by Mr Craxton.’  He subsequently played it ‘with fine feeling for its Celtic embroideries.’

Other works performed at this recital included Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, and Chopin’s ‘Barcarolle’, the Nocturne in F major and an unspecified Mazurka. The concert opened with some Old English piano pieces by William Boyce, Henry Purcell and Thomas Arne. Clearly, the critic enjoyed the recital, but was keen to point out that ‘one does not look for any display of virtuosity for its own sake in Mt Craxton’s playing; it is the playing rather of a musician who feels himself at home in front of a keyboard than of a pianist who imposes his will on both instrument and audience.’  This was borne out by his ‘gentler approach’ to the Beethoven, which ‘had much to yield’ to the listener. 

In the same issue of The Scotsman, (op.cit. p.6) an unsigned wit presented the following (extravagant and sexist) revelation about this piano piece: “He should not have told them, that minstrel (Craxton?). He was just putting ideas into their heads. It was at the lunch hour concert that some of us heard the Ballad [What the Minstrel Told Us] for the first time, as set so witchingly to music by Sir Arnold Bax. In case you do not know, the story is in three stages, the same tune expressing varying moods. Two sisters walk peacefully by the riverside. That is stage one. At stage two they discover that they are both in love with the same man. There is a certain terseness about stage three. One sister just pushes the other into the water, whereafter the music reverts to its former even flow.

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” Impossible to tell by watching the faces of the listeners through how many minds that thought may be crossing. The women there represented were either too gentle, to wise, or were just lacking in initiative? One or two looked as if they might enjoy settling that tiresome sister out of hand. But not – just as they were on the point of giving her that little push that meant so much, a sense of humour stopped them. The smile that started on their eyes had spread and the tension was over. But it just shows how careful Minstrels ought to be.”

Some 77 years on, it is impossible to discover if this explanation was Craxton’s or whether it was the journalist’s vivid imagination.

The fact remains that it is impossible to recover exactly what the ‘minstrel told us’, any more than to discover the Tale the Pine Trees Knew. The most likely explanation of this piano piece is presented by Colin Scott Sutherland (1970):

‘The substance of the tale is divulged only by its emotions. Like all true heroic ballads, it is sad, beautiful and virtuosic…The strange sad song of the melody is given out unaccompanied, in heroic fashion, then deliciously coloured in chromatic harmony, recalling some ancient rune, a race-memory half forgotten…’

That said, both ‘Love’ and ‘Heroism’ were on Bax’s mind at the time of the composition of What the Minstrel Told Us. The first emotion being engendered by the start his stormy relationship with Harriet Cohen, and the second with the deteriorating situation in Ireland. In the latter, Bax’s ‘otherworld’ was slowly being shattered. The Minstrels of old were seemingly falling silent.

Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999)
Scott-Sutherland, Colin, Arnold Bax (London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973)
Files of The Scotsman.

Friday 5 March 2021

Bryan Kelly: Orchestral Music Volume II

The first piece of music by Bryan Kelly (b.1934) I ever heard was his Exultate which was included in the Oxford Book of Modern Organ Music, Volume 1 (1965). This would be around 1974. It was played at the end of the service in a Glasgow church. Since that time, I have come across a few odds and ends by this composer, including anthems, carols and liturgical music – and, on a much larger scale, his Symphony No.1. The present CD introduces the listener to a wonderful selection of Kelly’s orchestral music. 

The Fantasy Overture: San Francisco was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and premiered at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon sometime in 1975. Clearly, Bryan Kelly had recently visited that West Coast city.  The liner notes by Philip Lane explain that “the composer was amused to find along Fisherman’s Wharf, groups of musicians playing for money. These included a folksinger with guitar, two trumpeters, a solo violin and a jazz band…” Somehow, Kelly has managed to work these diverse elements into his score. There are quiet moments, where some reflection on the scenery and the history of the city may be being contemplated. The overall mood is a good balance between pizzazz and contemplation. The only issue with this Overture is that it is a mood picture, with musical diversions that may be a touch too eclectic and episodic for some tastes. But in the round, this is an interesting and effective portrait of The Golden City.


Next, a visit to the mythological Calypso’s Isle. This piece is a short interlude from Kelly’s Look Stranger, on this island, for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1999), with a wide-ranging selection of texts by W.H. Auden, Derek Walcott, George Mackay Brown, William Shakespeare, John Masefield and Andrew Marvell.  Calypso was a nymph or a goddess who lived on the island of Ogygia, which may be the modern Gozo. In the story she attempted to detain Odysseus from his voyage. Calypso managed this for seven years before Hermes ordered her to release him. Kelly has created a superb evocation of this mysterious island. The music is normally restrained, but just occasionally restless. The masterly scoring reveals not only an “Isle…full of noises” and a “thousand twangling instruments” but also “sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not” (Shakespeare’s, The Tempest).


The Concerto de Camera was a wedding gift for Kelly’s friends the oboist Deidre Lind and the conductor Marcus Dods. The liner notes state that it was completed in 1972.  The opening, a Moderato giocoso, is presented in a crafty sonata form. It is lively and rhythmically diverse. The thoughtful Aria balances a heartfelt melody with a chipper central section. It is the highlight of this concerto. The finale is a straightforward, good old-fashioned scherzo, with a lively minuet and a darker, but equally fast trio. It closes with a challenging (for the soloist) cadenza. This is a great concerto, which should be in the repertoire of all oboists. It is so much more than just light music. Here is a work that is interesting and arresting from the first note to the last.


The Four Realms Suite never lapses into parody or quotation. It was composed in 1972 and won a BBC competition for light orchestral music. The concept of the Suite is to highlight various national traits. Just what these are, is not stated. The titles of the movements may help. First up, is an English Jig. This is lively and a touch nautical. Then follows a Welsh Choral March. This balances slow music for brass with some capricious adventures for the woodwind. The Scottish Air is my favourite moment. This is a wistful exploration of a lovely tune, with just a touch of Celtic magic. It does not descend into tartanry at any point. It makes me think of sitting beside Loch Lomond reflecting on past-what-might-have-beens. The finale is an Irish Reel. Little more need be said. It brings this well-constructed and beautifully scored work to scintillating finish.


It is hardly surprising that Capricorn has to do with the stars. It is a set of five variations on a theme. It does not take an astrological aficionado to divine that the work’s purpose is to display some of the characteristics associated with the eponymous star-sign – sensitivity, confidence and intelligence. After the original theme, played on the clarinet, successive variations feature a lively tune exploring changing time signatures, a pensive slow movement, two energetic numbers which may or may not be a march and a dance respectively. The piece ends with sadness and soul-searching.  One characteristic of the Capricorn is its craftsmanship. Every bar reveals Kelly’s coincidence with the attributes of the star sign mentioned above.

A Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley) is taken from a larger composition, Scrooge for narrator and orchestra. The present dance is heard during the party at Scrooge’s relations after he has become a changed man. It is just a little too short to gain a life of its own.

The Concerto for Two Trumpets was originally written for soloists and organ, it was later orchestrated for strings. This is a difficult (to perform) piece that showcases the trumpeters’ technique. The three movements are varied, with the thoughtful Andante providing the elegiac heart of the concerto. The final Allegro is a romp that brings this exciting work to a dramatic and finely executed conclusion.

The concluding work on this CD is Comedy Film (1963). The liner notes explain that this was one of several “orchestral suites, overtures and short pieces” written specifically for the wireless, when light music was often heard on the BBC. It is an imaginary film score which allows the audience to bring their own plot to the party. After the vibrant and sweeping Credits .and Titles, the music progresses to Night Music. Is the story going to be a romance? Perhaps. On the other hand, the Comic Interlude suggests something a little bit more Carry On. The Theme Song could be from any genre, maybe even a whodunnit. There is a touch of ‘pop’ here.  The final scene is full of pure energy, vim and verve.

This is a splendid CD. It is full of interesting music that provides the listener with pleasure and delight rather than major challenges. Several soloists, orchestras and conductors (they are detailed above) contribute to the success of this new release. The recording is bright and clear, and the playing second to none. The liner notes give all the necessary particulars about the music.

There is no doubt that Bryan Kelly is a master of the orchestra. Hopefully more music from his pen will soon find its way onto CD. YouTube features the composer’s Symphony No. 1 (1983) however, this upload is not a particularly good recording, sound-wise. Suffice to say, that from what one hears, this work deserves a full professional recording: hopefully, record producers will have a listen…

Track Listing:
Bryan KELLY (b.1934)
Fantasy Overture: San Francisco (1975) [11:46]
Calypso’s Isle (1999) [3:56]
Concerto da camera (1972) [12:52]
Four Realms Suite (1972) [12:12]
Capricorn (2000) [11:09]
A Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley) (2010) [2:29]
Concerto for Two Trumpets (1982) [10:31]
Comedy Film for orchestra (1963) [12:22]
Rachael Clegg (oboe), John Bradbury (clarinet), Michael Allen and Tim Hawes (trumpets)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Ronald Corp (Fantasy Overture, Calypso’s Isle), Gavin Sutherland (Concerto for two trumpets); Manchester Sinfonia/Bryan Kelly (Concerto da camera), Philip Spratley (Capricorn); RTE Concert Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland (Four Realms, A Christmas Dance); Raphaele Orchestra/Erwin Rondell (Comedy Film)
Rec. Angel Studios, London, 14 November 2018 (Fantasy Overture, Calypso’s Isle); 24 March 2016 (Concerto for Two Trumpets); St Thomas’s Church, Stockport 18 January 2018 (Concerto da camera, Capricorn); RTE Radio Centre, Dublin, 1 September 2015 (Four Realms Suite); 20 October 2014, (A Christmas Dance); Munich, 18 September 1968, Comedy Film for orchestra.
HTGCD 180 [77:17]

Tuesday 2 March 2021

Alan Langford: Four Pieces for String Orchestra (1960-62)

One of my minor (re-)discoveries of 2021 so far, is Alan Langford’s ‘Waltz’ for String Orchestra. To be honest, it is one that slipped through the net. I first heard this miniature more than fifty years ago when I purchased (second hand, in the Barras Market, Glasgow) George Weldon’s British Light Music of the 20th Century with the Pro Arte Orchestra on EMI 0887962. This LP has an evocative cover complete with E-Type Jaguar, Weldon himself, Hyde Park and with the London Hilton, Park Lane in the distance. I have not heard this album since my record deck became largely defunct.

Weldon’s LP covered a wide range of music including works by Edward Elgar, Eric Coates, Haydn Wood and Anthony Collins. The third track on Side 2 was Langford’s ‘suave’ Waltz. 

Just the other day, I was delighted to find that Langford’s Waltz (1960) is the first of Four Pieces for string orchestra, designed to be played as set. The other numbers are the ‘Pizzicato Polka’ (1960), a ‘Pastoral’ (1961) and a ‘Scherzetto’ (1962). Clearly, these were written over a three-year period and were assembled into a ‘Suite’ later. In 1999, the now defunct ASV label released a disc of English String Miniatures which featured Langford’s Four Pieces. Other music included Geoffrey Bush’s Divertimento (1943), Geoffrey Wright’s Two Pieces for strings and harp (1959), Herbert Sumsion’s A Mountain Tune (1940), David Lyon’s Intermezzo (1968) and finally, Anthony Hedges’s Divertimento (1971). These are played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by David Lloyd-Jones.

The ‘Waltz’, which caught my imagination nearly half a century ago, is urbane and full of ‘easy-going elegance’ perhaps even ‘chintzy.’  The ‘Pizzicato Perpetuo’ as been mooted as a good and viable ‘alternative to the oft performed ‘Playful pizzicato’ of Britten's Simple Symphony’ (Paul Conway, MusicWeb International, 2000). The heart of the ‘Suite’ is the ‘Pastoral’. Despite its title, this is not the proverbial ‘cow pat school’ of Elisabeth Lutyens’s ire, but something much deeper. To be fair, this is not a depressing threnody for a lost era, but more of a nostalgic reminiscence. The final piece is a vibrant ‘Scherzetto’ which moves the action from the countryside to the city. For me, it evokes a ‘Boulevardier’ up ‘In Town Tonight’, taking a stroll along Piccadilly or Regent Street.

The first thing to say about Alan Langford is that he is no relation of Gordon Langford. Some critics have adduced that the two composers were brothers. In fact, Alan’s real name is Alan Owen. He was born in London on 28 February 1908. After studying at the Guildhall School of Music with Benjamin Frankel, he worked for many years for the BBC as a music producer for programmes such as Matinée Musicale and Friday Night is Music Night. Most of his compositions appear to have been written during the 1960s. Respected for his contribution to ‘light music’ his works include Three Amusements, a Little French Suite, Three Dance Contrasts, the overture Two Worlds, a Dance for a Square, the Chanson Populaire and a tantalising Chanson du Café Triste, all for full orchestra (Philip Scowcroft, British Light Music, Dance Books, 2013, p.139). There was also much incidental music for radio.  Langford also wrote a quantity of mood music for commercial recording libraries. The Times obituary states that he composed ‘many avant-garde pieces for his own enjoyment’. Unfortunately, none of these have surfaced (so far). Alan Langford died in London on 9 February 2011.

The reviewer of the ASV CD (Michael Stewart, The Gramophone, December 1999, p.85) stated that ‘as Alan Langford’s Waltz glides in on track 1, instinct tells you that this CD is going to be a delight to all lovers of English string music…’ It turns out to be the case. Stewart considers that the ‘four pieces gathered here combine to make a perfect little suite and displays Langford’s masterly writing for strings.’

Alan Langford’s Four Pieces have been uploaded to YouTube: Waltz, Pizzicato Perpetuo, Pastoral and Scherzetto. (Accessed 06/01/21).  George Weldon’s recording of the Waltz can be heard here. Under ‘show more’ click on track 4.