Wednesday 30 June 2021

Brian Ferneyhough: Complete Piano Music 1965-2018

Sometimes it is profitable to push beyond one’s comfort zone. Just before receiving this CD, I had been exploring John Ireland’s piano music.  Every few years I work my way through the entire corpus, in chronological order. This present CD is also presented by date which is surely a good way to investigate any composer’s work. Chalk and cheese spring to mind. I understand and relate to Ireland: I struggled to make much sense of Ferneyhough.  I certainly do not “get” his piano music, yet there is a strange alchemy at work here that just might begin to make me change my mind… 

The liner notes state that “Brian Ferneyhough is widely recognized as one of today's foremost living composers. Since the mid-1970s, when he first gained widespread international recognition, his music has earned him an enviable reputation as one of the most influential creative personalities and significant musical thinkers on the contemporary scene.” None of this means that he is popular or approachable today. It was hard work listening to 90 minutes of music lazily defined as “New Complexity.”  I took one piece at a time, with a longish intermission between bouts.

The early Invention (1965) and Epigrams (1966) are didactic pieces used by the composer to hone his skills. He has used formal constructs such as palindrome and variations to achieve his ends. These are sometimes quite beautiful in effect.

The Sonata for Two Pianos (1966) presents, according to the liner notes, a “continuous elaboration and transformation of the basic material, which in the case of the Sonata is presented at the outset in the form of a series of harmonic and rhythmic “cells””. I guess these are not obvious without the score. The Sonata is played in one continuous movement, although this is divided into seven sections. These are varied by tempo, typically fast/slow. This is clearly a virtuosic work, that requires considerable concentration to perform. Despite sounding as if it is a free extemporisation, I understand that every note is played as written!  There is a magic about this music that I cannot put my finger on.

The Three Pieces (1966-67) are dissimilar in their sound, yet the composer is keen to point out that there is a unifying structure here. The Lemma-Icon-Epigram apparently uses the “emblema”, an old Italian literary pattern, as its inspiration. The notes explain that this is taken “to mean an epigram which describes something so that it signifies something else.” Simple!  Despite the word Epigram in the title, this is a long work lasting 16 minutes. Ian Pace refers to “the challenge of this black and dense score and especially the extremely detailed rhythms.” Certainly, there is nothing here to catch the ear, yet it strikes one as a powerful work.

I could make little sense of Opus Contra Naturam (2000). Ferneyhough writes that “this piece forms part of my opera project, built around the death of the influential German-Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin on the Spanish border in 1940.”  The present extract “represents the orphic descent of Benjamin’s avatar into the Underworld, through whose portals he is welcomed – to the strains of a series of sclerotically [?] repetitive fanfares – by a Dante-esque gathering of demons and the feral shades of historical figures...” It certainly does not sound like an entertaining evening at the opera! The piece is slated to be played by a Liberace-like figure and “is to be accompanied by a silent film projection encompassing the chaotic intersection of scenes from fin-de-siècle Berlin cabaret, medieval labyrinths and images from the hyper dissimulatory environment of present-day Las Vegas.”  I guess Liberace’s pianism was a touch more popular and profitable than Ferneyhough’s.  There seems to be chatting going on in the background, yet no suggestion is given as to what is being said.  No text is given in the liner notes. Perhaps the words do not really matter? This entire piece is characterised by “its relentless montage of highly contrasting materials with little respite in terms of density (mostly written on three packed staves) …”  Surprisingly, shockingly, in the third movement a little phrase emerged, some repeated thirds, that I could remember. A peg to hang my hat on.  

Quirl is a mass of complex rhythms that are repeated, changed and entangled with even more complex rhythms. More of a Whirl than a Quirl.

Finally, I did enjoy the El Rey de Calabria (c. 2019) (The King of Calabria) composed in memory of the composer’s cat Trifolio (1988-2005). I do not get the relevance of the title. This is the most approachable piece on these two CDs and suggests that the composer may have a sense of humour.  Nodding more to Schoenberg’s atonal Klavierstücke op. 33a and 33b than the frenetic music heard earlier, this is a truly moving piece of music.  I do wonder why it took Ferneyhough 14 years to compose this elegy after pussy’s death.

The liner notes are helpful towards understanding this complex and often impenetrable music. There is a short biography of the composer, followed by surprisingly concise programme notes for each work. Despite the soubriquet of “New Complexity” these details are readable and reasonably understandable to the average reader. In others words they are not totally submerged in technical jargon and arcane philosophical speculation. Harder to get to grips with is the long essay by Ian Pace “Absorbing and Enacting the Piano Music of Brian Ferneyhough.” It comes complete with footnotes. Here we get technical. Phrases like “fractal rhythms”, and a philosophical quote from the composer himself: “A notation which specifically and programmatically deconstructs the sound into its subcomponents sensibilizes the mind towards aspects of the work which a seemingly more straightforward image would not be in a position to do.” It doesn’t for me. There are brief details about the two pianists.

I am not sure what the CD cover picture of the Victor Emanuele monument at Reggio Calabria on the southern tip of Italy has to do with the case. I can only assume that it refers to the final piece, El Rey de Calabria, dedicated to the composer’s cat. That said, it is a magnificent monument, a beautiful place and a stunning photograph.

I guess that this CD is one that needs considerable application from the listener. I feel that only those who are already committed to Brian Ferneyhough’s musical project will be prepared to invest the time, money and effort. I listened to this album twice. The music did begin to grow on me, in a curious way. Sometimes it is profitable to push beyond one’s comfort zone.

Track Listing:
Disc A
Invention (1965)
Epigrams (1966)
Sonata for Two Pianos (1966)
Three Pieces (1966-67)
Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981)
Disc B
Opus Contra Naturam (2000)
Quirl (2011-13)
El Rey de Calabria (c.2018)
Ian Pace (piano), Ben Smith (piano, Sonata for two pianos)
rec. 2005; 2018 (Sonata for Two Pianos, Quirl, and El Rey de Calabria)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 27 June 2021

Introducing Maurice Duruflé’s Organ Music Part 3

This is not the place to discuss the life and works of the French organist and composer Jehan Alain (1911-40), save to make a single comment. Alain was one of the greatest losses to French music sustained during the Second World War.  I remember many years ago visiting the spot at Saumur, near the Gratien and Meyer winery in the Loire Valley, where the 29-year-old soldier was killed. I found it an extremely poignant and moving moment. 

The Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain is Maurice Duruflé’s best known work. It was composed immediately after Alain’s death in 1942; the score is prefaced with the following words (translated) – “To the memory of Jehan Alain, who died for France.”

The work is based on two major elements - a motif derived from the letters A.L.A.I.N related to the scale, and a second theme taken from Alain’s masterpiece Litanies for organ.  Duruflé uses a little creative licence here.  The crucial relationship is between the two ‘A’ notes. For the other letters Duruflé feels free to use other notes useful to his purpose. The actual note sequence is a - d - a – a –f.

The opening prelude is a perpetuum mobile – in many ways it is will o’ the wisp. Soon the second motif emerges. This is not really a direct quotation of Litanies – much more of a paraphrase. Yet to anyone knowing Alain’s music it is obvious. Strangely, there are no profundities in this music: the sadness is only apparent to those who know about the work’s genesis. Often there is a sense of pure delight in these difficult pages. At the end of the prelude the Litanies theme is quoted verbatim before leading into a double fugue. This is a formal construct based on two separate subjects. The first theme is a quiet and slightly introspective 6/8 theme based on the A.L.A.I.N motive This in turn gives way to a new melody written in semiquavers. It is complementary to what has gone before. Strict fugal procedures are used to combine both themes leading up to a fine peroration. I must say at once that although this fugue is academic – it is not as dry as dust. The music wears it structure well. It is a moving tribute to a great man. The mood is triumphant and reflects a tremendous hope, both for the memory of Jehan Alain and for the greater good of France, for which he had so bravely laid down his life.

Duruflé contributed a miniature to the ‘festschrift’ for the teacher of composition Jean Gallon upon his retirement. Gallon had taught several illustrious musicians between 1919 and 1948, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux and Paul Tortelier. The piece by Duruflé was composed in 1919 and entitled Chant Donné (1949).  It is difficult to decide if this was originally written with the organ in mind. The holograph is in short score on two staves, but the published version was in four staves using ‘antique’ notation. There is no indication of instrumentation. So perhaps it could be a short string quartet movement? It is very short, at under a minute and half. However, its attractive modal harmonies and rather lovely melody make this a delicious miniature. The last chord seems just a little too long for equilibrium.

The Prélude sur l’introit de l’Épiphanie op.13, was written for an anthology of music for use before mass. It was entitled ‘Preludes à l’introït.’  This was composed in response to a commission by the musicologist and organologist (a new word for me!) Norbert Dufourcq. It was competed in 1961 shortly after the composer had received the Vatican citation of Commander in the Order of St Gregory. This is appropriate. The composer uses a tune or cantus firmus which is firmly in the ‘Gregorian’ model. This is introduced on the ‘trompette.’ Around this theme Duruflé weaves a complex but always modal counterpoint. It is one of these pieces that although short in actual minutes seems to be almost timeless. Not the greatest example of Duruflé’s art, but certainly one that deserves our attention.

The Fugue sur le theme du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons is a short piece: barely three minutes long. Yet the musical content is intense. The work was written in 1962 for an anthology of music published to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Louis Vierne’s death. The theme of this fugue is based on the melody played by the clock at Soissons Cathedral. It is a bit of an unusual fugue. The theme is presented at the beginning with counterpoint as opposed to the usual single voice. Duruflé uses all the academic devices that are available to “fugal” composers. However, there is nothing pedantic about this work. From its gigue-like opening to the final chords it is full of vigour and even fun.  It is interesting that Vierne himself had written a piece which he dedicated to his pupil, Duruflé. It was the first section of his Triptyque, op.58 (1929-31). He had called it Matines, basing it on a bell sequence heard at St Geneviève-du-Mont, Paris. So, it is pleasant to see the pupil similarly honouring the master.

The Meditation is a small but extremely attractive piece. It was written and dated in 1964. This was round about the time of Duruflé’s first concert tour of the United States. I am unaware if it was played there. The Meditation is cast in the form of a rondo; the main theme or as the programme notes refer to it as the ‘refrain’ was used by the composer in the Agnus Dei of a later choral work, the op.11 Messe cum Jubilo.  This is an introverted piece that muses on the theme, which is quite angular in its melodic construction, even if it has its roots in Gregorian chant. There is even a touch of exoticism here. The episodes exploit the string stops and give the work an air of improvisation. The work ends with a long closing chord. It is not a major work but one that adds a congenial number to the composer’s limited catalogue of organ pieces. Meditation was not published until 2002.

Essay Concluded.

Thursday 24 June 2021

Introducing Maurice Duruflé’s Organ Music Part 2

The Scherzo, op.2 is one of Duruflé’s great works. It was written in January 1926 as an examination exercise and was completed when Duruflé was a student at the Paris Conservatoire. He dedicated it to his organ teacher Charles Tournemire, who at that time was organist at Sainte-Clotilde, Paris. The score is inscribed, “To my dear master, Charles Tournemire in grateful homage.” This Scherzo displays the influence of Louis Vierne, Paul Dukas and the dedicatee, yet it is a completely new work that is not dependent on anything that has gone before. It not an academic exercise but displays all that is best in Duruflé’s compositional skill. There is an imaginative sense of colour; it has a hazy mystical feel that defies categorisation. This is a difficult work to perform and calls for considerable technical skill from the organist. Despite its nebulous mood, it is built on strong formal foundations. In fact, it is a small rondo. The Scherzo opens slowly and quietly with string stop sound. But soon, what the organist Friedhelm Flamme calls “motorically filigree playing figures” announces the main rondo refrain. The episodes are based on “chordal chorale like” motives which provide considerable contrast. Throughout the entire work, the listener is captivated by the many mood swings, changes of tempo and modulations. A revised version was used at the premiere performance in 1928. 

Another work which is full of the Duruflé “magic” is the Prelude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du Veni Creator op. 4. This was submitted as an entry to a composition competition organized by the Friends of the Organ (Les Amis de l’orgue) in 1930.  It won first prize.

The form of op.4 is a “triptych”. The word is more commonly met in the art world where it means a painting or perhaps a carving, often as an altarpiece that has three panels side by side. The transferred meaning is something composed or presented in three parts or sections.  The work begins with a rather fast but very quiet passage in triplets. This is the basis of the whole of the first movement. Melodic phrases based on plainsong, rise out of this rippling effect one of the fragments nodding to the theme used in the final movement. One of the characteristics of this composition is the ‘interlude’ material between movements. At the end of the Prélude, the triplets give way to a Lento passage of long notes. There is a complimentary “recitative” passage before the second part of the triptych begins. The Adagio is the heart of the work. It is signed to be played ‘sweetly and sustained.’ There are additional directions instructing the performer to play with warmth and with much expression. This is seven minutes of pure organ-music heaven. Towards the end of this movement the texture becomes much more turbulent. It becomes louder and more insistent and even quite violent. However, it ends quietly. There is a short pause before the great theme of ‘Veni Creator’ is announced in all its glory. There follows four variations. The first with triplets harking back to the opening movement. The second is for manuals only. The third is an “academic” structure – a canon at the fifth. It is the final variation that sums up the work. This is a brilliant Toccata that seems to arrive from nowhere and goes on to dominate all that has gone before. The work closes with a very loud “Largamente.”

The Suite op.5 is Maurice Duruflé’s longest work composed for organ. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece and a defining work in the history of organ literature. I recall being terribly impressed on my first hearing of the Finale performed in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral way back in 1976. Hearing the complete work reveals this exciting last movement in the context where it belongs. It is wrong to take the Toccata out of context. I concede that it may be acceptable to do this for a recessional voluntary after Mass or a wedding. But at a recital I feel it ought to be all or nothing. Like all Duruflé’s music there is a sense of unity created from the first to the last bar. Strangely, Duruflé did not like this Toccata and refused to record it. The Suite was dedicated to one of Duruflé’s composition teachers: Paul Dukas. Unfortunately, this composer is remembered for one work – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Out of 153 current (May 2021) recordings of this composer’s music some 79 are dedicated to this single piece. So much for Walt Disney!  I recommend a study of his great Symphony in C major or the wonderful Piano Sonata. Then there is his opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleu.

There are three movements in the present Suite. The opening Prélude is marked as Lento. It begins with long, slow notes that build up into more animated music. There is a funereal sense to this music that not even the massive climax can quite dispel. This pinnacle subsides into one of Duruflé favoured “recitative” sections. The music becomes reflective before the end of this movement is reached. The second movement is a Sicilienne in 6/8 time. It is a long, flowing piece based on the rondo form. Yet somehow the listener is not aware of this structure. The music evolves, always leading towards the conclusion where several of the elements are combined. The last statement of the theme with accompanying triplets is a stroke of genius. This is one of the truly lovely, intimate moments in Duruflé’s corpus. The Toccata is a splendid movement. It must be regarded as one of the great ‘war horses’ of organ literature. It ranks beside other Toccatas by Vierne, Widor, Gigout and J.S. Bach. It is written very much as would is expected of such a work. Full of intricate figurations that require a virtuoso’s technique: it never relaxes. Like all good examples of this form there is a strong pedal ‘refrain’ that underpins the semiquaver activity on the manuals. There are moments when the tempo eases off or the tension relaxes a bit. However, the feeling is given of great energy surging forward to “an ecstatic conclusion.” The Suite was published by Durand in 1934 and was revised and republished in 1978.

The final post will consider Duruflé’s organ best known work, the Prelude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain as well as several miniatures.

Monday 21 June 2021

Introducing Maurice Durufle’s Organ Music Part 1

I know that Maurice Duruflé is not a British composer! Yet, he retains a huge popularity in the United Kingdom with organists and audiences. I first discovered his music during an organ recital at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Great Western Road, Glasgow. It was 1976. The organist, whose name now escapes me, finished off his recital with the Toccata from the Suite Op.5.  I was seriously impressed then and have enjoyed Duruflé’s music ever since. 

List of Published Organ Works:
Scherzo op.2 (1926)
Prélude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du ‘Veni Creator’ op.4 (1926/30)
Suite op. 5 (1933)
Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain op.7 (1942)
Chant Donné – Hommage à Jean Gallon (1949)
Prélude sur l’introït de l’Épiphanie op.13 (1961)
Fugue sur le thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons op. 12 (1962)
Méditation (1964).
There are several unpublished pieces and fragments.

A few biographical notes will be of interest.  Maurice Duruflé was born at Louviers, near Rouen, on 11 January 1902. At the age of ten he entered the choir school at Rouen Cathedral where he studied piano, organ and theory. Here, some key formative musical experiences were laid down. Most important was Gregorian chant, which was to become an essential feature of his work. It was regularly used at Mass in those pre-Vatican 2 days. Later, he moved to Paris where he became assistant to the enigmatic Charles Tournemire at the Basilique Saint-Clotilde. Entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1920, he had further studies with Eugène Gigout and Paul Dukas. This gave him an incredible technical background as both an organist and composer. As a result of this expertise, Duruflé was selected as organist of St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris at the age of 28. During the war years he was appointed to the staff of his old alma mater, the Paris Conservatory.

In 1953 he married his second wife, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, who was also a considerable musician. They became a well-known organ duo, touring through much of the world.

In 1975 he was involved in a serious car accident in the south of France, and, because of his injuries he lost the ability to play the organ. The choral work Notre Père is probably his final composition. Duruflé died on 16 June 1986, some twelve years later.

Maurice Duruflé wrote comparatively little. He was extremely self-critical and destroyed many pieces that he was not totally satisfied with. All his music was meticulously composed; there is never a note too many. His undoubted masterpieces are the Requiem op. 9 which was written during 1947 and his Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain,’ op. 7 (1942).

The Duruflé “style” is influenced from two main directions. Firstly, Louis Vierne (1870-1937) and secondly, Charles Tournemire. Vierne was possibly the biggest name of his day. Organist at Notre Dame, he was the composer of a great cycle of Organ Symphonies amongst many other works for organ and other instrumental forces. It was Vierne who gave Duruflé a sense of form in his works. There was always a danger when using Gregorian chant as a compositional basis, to meander. Vierne insisted on structure. He encouraged the younger man to make full use of both the organist’s and the organ’s technical capabilities in all his compositions.

Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) influenced Duruflé in another direction altogether. This French composer was well known for his improvisations. He had been a student of the legendary César Franck. Tournemire’s major achievement was to combine an acute understanding of Roman Catholic liturgical practice with his personal, almost mystical style of writing. His magnum opus is the L’orgue Mystique (1927-32) which is a huge cycle of pieces spanning the churches year. It makes use of the plainchant that the Missal prescribed for each Sunday and Feast Day. Tournemire was influenced by both the organ style of Franck and the harmonic freedom of Claude Debussy. He was one of the earliest of the ‘modern’ composers to explore the scales and modes of several Eastern cultures.

Maurice Duruflé made considerable use of Gregorian chant though not to the extent of Tournemire. Duruflé uses plainsong to generate harmonic and contrapuntal structures which can be used in a variety of moods. Nicolas Kaye states that his muse extends from “the ethereal to the powerfully foreboding.”  I agree with this but feel that even in the more exuberant moments there is a powerful restraint stopping the music getting out of hand. Even the great Toccata from the Suite op.5 never loses the plot; it is always under control. One other trait of Duruflé’s muse that is evident in the virtually unknown orchestral Three Dances is a sense of the exotic. This was not developed in his other works, although there are a few intimations of this in both the organ and the choral pieces.

The following post will look at some of Maurice Duruflé’s earlier organ works.

Friday 18 June 2021

The King’s Alchemist: British String Trios

Gerald Finzi’s Prelude and Fugue for string trio, op.24 (1938) is anything but an academic exercise. Standing as the only piece of chamber music that he composed for string ensemble, it is hardly typical of his perceived pastoral style. This contrapuntal music makes use of exquisitely devised dissonances and presents a more astringent atmosphere than expected. One reviewer has suggested that it owes much to the plaintive mood of Peter Warlock’s The Curlew. This Trio was written as a tribute to R.O Morris, who had been one of Finzi’s music teachers.

For me, the most significant work on this CD is Hugh Wood’s Ithaca (2016). The original inspiration was the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s (1863-1933) poem, Ithaka. The composer has declared that “I suppose this piece is a sort of mini-symphonic poem – it is at least programme music.” Certainly, the music takes the listener on a journey, analogous to Ulysses/Odysseus’s homeward voyage. Every school child will recall the hero’s trials and tribulations: the Laestrygonians, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, and the sea-god Poseidon. The journey is long. There are all kinds of challenges, intellectual revelations and pleasures. Hugh Wood has used fugal exposition to represent the long journey, contrasting with several lyrical interludes.  Typically, he balances intense drama with revelatory lyricism. There is a clear analogy between Ulysses’s voyage and humankind’s journey through life. The impact of the music reflects the rigours of the journey as well as the invocation of the peaceful Isle of Ithaca itself. It is a splendid work.

Sally Beamish’s The King’s Alchemist for string trio (2013) is also a mini-symphonic poem. The details of the underlying programme are explained in the liner notes written by the composer. It is set at the inspiring edifice of Stirling Castle. The date is prior to 1513, when King James IV is in residence, shortly before his death at Flodden Field. His guests included the composer Robert Carver and the “bizarre John Damian, a European alchemist who charmed the King with promises of creating gold from base metals.” Damian was clearly a charlatan. He distilled whisky as experiments (!), was big on organising entertainments and largely failed to achieve anything useful by his alchemy (apart from the whisky). Then, there was his attempt at manned flight. This failed. He ended up in the castle midden.  Sally Beamish writes, “I was enchanted by this colourful figure, and the trio reflects some aspects of his story. It takes the form of four variations on the French folksong ‘L’Homme Armé’ – a theme used by Carver in one of his masses; and perhaps appropriate to the court of the high-living James IV, who was fond of holding shooting competitions in the beautiful Great Hall of Stirling Castle.” The music is immediately approachable: there is nothing challenging. The overall impression is of a bewitching soundscape, appropriate to the subject matter 

The earliest work on this CD is E.J. Moeran’s Trio for violin, viola and cello, completed in 1931. Moeran has created chamber music that “possesses distinction of thought and clarity and precision of style.”  There is no doubt that this is an “English” work, yet there is no direct quotation of folk-tunes.  The entire Trio is well-written for the present instrumental forces.  There is a good balance between lyricism and some discrete astringency. The heart of the piece is the elegiac second movement adagio.  The work was dedicated “To the Pasquier Trio” who gave the premiere performance on 20 October 1931, during a Music Society concert at the St John’s Institute, Tufton Street, Westminster. 

My only complaint is the stingy 50 minutes playing time. Surely another English Trio could have been found – even a wee one. The CD company will no doubt argue that this is reflected in the relatively moderate price of the disc. The liner notes, by various hands, are excellent. They are conveniently divided into two sections: The Music and the Composers.  The performances by the Eblana String Trio are always inspiring and convincing. The recording is clear and luminous throughout. Altogether, it is a refreshingly well-balanced and imaginative programme.

Track Listing:
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Prelude and Fugue for string trio, op.24 (1938)
Hugh WOOD (b.1932)
Ithaka for string trio, op.61 (2016)
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956)
The King’s Alchemist for string trio (2013)
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
String Trio in G major (1931)
Eblana String Trio: Jonathan Martindale (violin), Lucy Nolan (viola) Peggy Nolan (cello)
rec. 24-26 April 2019, Recital Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Musings on The Pirates of Penzance: The 1971 Coatbridge High School Production.

Exactly half a century ago this evening, the curtain went up on the First Night of Coatbridge High School’s production of The Pirates of Penzance.

Since the 1920s the school had put on a yearly production of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Principal and chorus parts were open to 4th, 5th and 6th formers only. In 1968, as a First Year, I attended my first ever opera, Ruddigore. I recall to this day how impressed I was with the transformation of the Murgatroyd family portraits into ghosts, and the genuinely scary “When the night wind howls”. It still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The following year, the production was The Gondoliers, which I remember enjoying with its sparkling tunes.

My interest in G&S and classical music goes back to early June 1970. I was whiling away time in the Physics lab, exams over. The teacher asked me to take up a document to Mr Miller, one of the stage managers. He was in the school assembly hall rehearsing Princess Ida with the cast. I carried out my commission and decided not to rush back to the class. There were some seats at the rear of the hall, so I sat down and listened and watched. What struck me was that the cast were having a great time. They were in their school uniforms but were acting and singing and dancing in such a way as to give me a clue of the action. I watched these rehearsals for a while, thinking, “I want to be a part of this.” Then back to Physics.

At that time my main interest was Railways, not just train spotting but actively helping (or perhaps hindering) in the preservation movement. Saturdays were often spent at the Scottish Railway Preservation Society’s depot at Springfield Yard, Falkirk. This Aladdin’s cave gave the enthusiast all they could wish for: steam locomotives, old coaches, diesel shunters and wagons. Every so often they were steamed or started up or moved. I lived for these days, dreaming of smokeboxes, valve gear and regulators during Maths classes, longing for the weekend.

Musically, at this time I was interested in the groups of my generation. This included late Beatles, Led Zepplin and Santana. Less frenetic pleasures (usually not admitted to my friends) were Jim Reeves, the Carpenters and Cliff Richard.  

Sometime during September 1970, the opera auditions were held. At this distance, I cannot recall what the tests included. Certainly, at that time, I could barely read music. Just a general feeling for the tadpoles moving up and down on the fence. I could sing a Doh-Ray-Mi scale, as we had done that in music lessons. Somehow, I passed the audition, and was deemed to be a tenor. I was never comfortable in that role. Rehearsals started on Tuesday (I think) evenings after school. The boys and girls were rehearsed separately. And then the parts were put together. I still have my chorus book. Only the principals were blessed with a copy of the “full score.” Slowly but surely, we learnt the music. I soon managed to pick some of it out on the piano at home. I found that I loved everything about these rehearsals. I enjoyed the timeless humour of Gilbert’s libretto, and the tunefulness of Sullivan’s music. This was so different from what I had been used to. Although I attended a church that had a choir and a good Connacher organ, the anthems heard there tended to be quite staid: John Goss, Henry Smart and John Stainer. Even the organ voluntaries were often taken from the Village Organist. At this time the minister had introduced guitars into some of the worship, which I have never appreciated.

Socially, opera rehearsals were a revelation. Suddenly, I was with a group of pupils who knew a lot about classical music. I recall been given a lift home by one of them, who had just received his provisional driving licence. He asked me if I had listened to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat “St Anne” on Radio 3 the previous evening. I hadn’t, and, more to the point, had no clue what a Prelude and Fugue was. In order not to look naïve, I had to find out. In those days before the Internet, it was a lunchtime trip down to Coatbridge Central Library, and the reference section. So, by the end of the day, I was a little, but not much, wiser.

During that spring and summer, I began to pick up bits and pieces about classical music. The only records my father owned were Ronald Smith’s Piano Masterpieces, excerpts from the Huddersfield Choral Society’s iconic recording of Messiah, with Malcolm Sargent at the helm, and Kathleen Ferrier’s A Song Recital. I soon started listening to Radio 3. By the time school resumed in August 1971, I deemed myself an “expert” on music. In 2021, the learning process continues, and I now realise how little I do know about the subject. But, as Gilbert once said, “Youth will have its fling.”

Other excitements for me in the run up to the opera performance, included the day the costumes arrived, the first time I had theatrical make-up put on, the dress rehearsal and, perhaps strangely, hearing the band tuning up before the curtain-up. And then there was the Last Night cast party!

In the Pirates, the opening chorus is "Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry" for Samuel and the Chorus of Pirates. So, we were “on stage” ready to go. The orchestra, conducted by Moffat Radcliffe, the Head of Music, struck up with the Overture. I was nervous. Butterflies in my tummy. And I was only a back row Pirate. Eventually the curtain rose, and, on Wee Mo’s beat, we began to sing…

Two more G&S operas would follow, before I went into the world of men: Iolanthe and The Mikado. The second one, about the Peer and the Peri was, and remains my favourite.

Sadly, as the world moved into a more “enlightened” era, the annual Coatbridge High G&S operas were deemed elitist, and a school concert (from classical to pop) replaced them. I would call this dumbing down; others would say it was progressive.

I often wonder what happened to them all: the cast, the teachers, the orchestra. I have managed to keep in touch with three or four of the former pupils. News filters through. One of my school friends still sings in a choir that regularly performs the Policeman’s Chorus. Some of the teachers have sadly passed away, including Mr Radcliff, Mrs Gallacher and the irrepressible Bill Russell. Perhaps, for those of us pupils who have survived into our mid-to-late sixties, this school production has been largely forgotten. To others, myself included, it was formative and has remained active in my mind. It has been responsible for leading me along a fascinating 50 years of musical exploration in many directions, but especially into British music. This includes an abiding love and appreciation of the delightful words and music of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Hopefully, this is true for many former pupils who took part in the Coatbridge High School operas over the years. 

Saturday 12 June 2021

Peter MAXWELL DAVIES: Renaissance and Baroque Realisations

Blackpool Pleasure Beach Hall of Mirrors provides a good hermeneutic for appreciating and enjoying this remarkable CD.  Assuming that it is still extant, this attraction provides intriguing distortions of physical reality. It made the visitor fatter or skinnier, top heavy, egg timer shape, pulled them this way and that, and squashed, elongated and stretched them. It raised many laughs. And only cost 6d. Maxwell Davies’s Renaissance and Baroque Realisations are a bit like this. Virtually every track deploys “modern” instruments used in an idiosyncratic manner. Maxwell Davies used this early music as “a departure point for his own very personal interpretations.” As the liner notes suggest, PMD’s realisations provide a “refreshingly different view” of the art of re-presentation of period music, yet never denies his love, admiration and appreciation of it. Each work exhibits humour, parody, wit and irony. Yet, they are almost all “new creations” that increases the value of the original, rather than diminish it. If you are an early music cognoscenti, forget this album. If you worry about “authenticity” this CD is not for you. Three methods of realisation are used here. Firstly, the “identity of the original” is maintained, despite being reorchestrated. The second procedure takes the historic models, and subjects them to radical change which may or may not completely disguise the source. And finally, there are those pieces where PMD cleverly fuses his own musical language with that of the original.

The first three tracks present Purcell in a new light. The Fantasia on a Ground is given a vibrant re-orchestration. The liner notes highlight the piccolo doubling the melody at the 12th, offering a good imitation of a slightly out of tune Baroque organ. The two Pavans are morphed into “foxtrots”. Enthusiasts of PMD’s music will know that he was fascinated by this ubiquitous dance dating from the 1920s. The composer simply stated that “one dead dance form is merely being reinterpreted in terms of another. These slightly wayward (and out of tune) Pavans are a joy to listen to.

Purcell’s Fantasia upon one note is subject to a complete facelift. I guess that the innocent ear may not divine the underlying work or its creator. The music emerges from a “blue haze” and, after some distractions such as Hillbilly and Foxtrot, it returns into the mists.

The realisations of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues are a rare treasure. Most often heard on piano or harpsichord, Maxwell Davies has used an ensemble of flute, clarinet, viola, cello, harpsichord and most innovatively, a marimba. This is magical in effect. These are my favourite pieces on this disc. They should be solidly in the repertoire.

The most challenging work here is Tenebrae super Gesualdo realised in 1972. There is no doubt that PMD is exploring the darker side of the Italian composer in these pages. Carlo Gesualdo was also a lutenist, a nobleman and quite possibly a murderer. He lived in the 16th century at a time when intrigue in political, social and artistic circles had developed into an industry.  Maxwell Davies has created an “elegiac meditation” on Gesualdo’s Latin setting of “Attendite et videte si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus'” (Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow). There are four instrumental movements here, separated by three interludes sung by soprano, accompanied by guitar.  This is dark and unsettling music, that matches the concept of Tenebrae. This is a church service observed during the final part of Holy Week, commemorating the sufferings and death of Christ. Typically, the candles are extinguished one by one after each recitation of a portion of the Psalter. It is slow music, that only occasionally gives a flash of illumination. The entire work is characterised by the sheer colourful effects of Max’s instrumentation.

The realisation of John Dunstable’s Veni Sancte-Veni Creator Spiritus is in two parts. The first is a faithful arrangement of the original. This is followed by a “free fantasia” that provides a commentary in PMD’s own style. The liner notes sum up this well: “The discrepancy between the work's size and weight gives the impression that a very large piece is being looked at through the wrong end of a telescope, creating a fascinating perceptual distortion.”

The first of the Three Early Scottish Motets, Si Quis Diligit Me (If anyone loves me) is a setting of a touching piece by the former abbot of St Andrew’s Abbey, David Peebles (c.1510-79). In 1547, a novice at the Abbey, a certain Francy Heagy (fl.1547) added the alto part. Paul Griffith has noted that this is “a straight transcription, albeit a very colourful one.” It is scored for alto flute, clarinet in Bb, celesta, crotales, viola, cello.  The second Motet, Our Father Whiche in Heaven Art was an ancient Psalm tune, written by John Angus (?). The melody is heard in the in the low notes of clarinet and is then subject to some astonishing commentary by PMD provided by the flute, celesta and marimba. This is lugubrious music, but also deeply meditative. The final number, All Sons of Adam, is based on an anonymous 16th century motet. Sometimes the exemplar is clearly presented, in its new scoring, but often there is an out of focus sound, using deconstructed elements from the original. It creates a mysterious mood.

I first heard the music of the 16th century Scottish composer William Kinloch[e] on a notable CD of his keyboard music, performed by John Kitchen. (ASV CD GAU 134, 1993). Included in that recital was the “original” of the present Kinloch his Fantasie.  Maxwell Davies has remained faithful to the melodic and harmonic content of the piece. It is in the instrumentation that he has gone to town. He has arranged it for the typical Pierrot ensemble of flute, clarinet, harpsichord, glockenspiel, violin and cello. Despite this modernisation of the scoring, the sheer joy, fun and exuberance of the prototype has been preserved, if not enhanced. I think the old Scotsman would have delighted in this arrangement of his music. 

When I was growing into classical music in the 1970s, The Fires of London were the “go-to” ensemble for modern and avant-garde music. Formed in 1965 as the Pierrot Players they made an immediate success with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. They went from strength to strength. Rebranded in 1967, The Fires were instrumental in promoting music-theatre including such masterpieces as Maxwell Davies’s Seven Songs for a Mad King and Harrison Birtwistle’s I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg. To be sure, they did specialise in the work of Maxwell Davies, their musical director, but often commissioned new music from aspiring composers. The Fires of London was disbanded in 1987. Over the years the line-up of the Fires changed, however, Stephen Pruslin (keyboards) and the late Mary Thomas (soprano) were with the ensemble for the duration.

The present disc is an exact copy of the 1991 CD reissue of the 1981 LP. The LP did not include the Tenebrae super Gesualdo: the CD did. The excellent liner notes by Stephen Pruslin are original and even Max’s demise has not been noted in the composer’s dates. It is to be hoped that more of the Unicorn back catalogue will soon be available once more. Certainly, there are several other albums of PMD’s music on this label, that demand to be re-presented to the musical public.

I thoroughly enjoyed this disc. Back in 1981 I invested in a copy of the vinyl album. I bought this at the once-legendary Bank’s Music Shop in York. My LP disappeared sometime over the past 40 years. It is good to have this music in my collection once again.

Track Listing:
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016)
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Fantasia on a Ground (1968)
Pavan in A (1968)
Pavan in B Flat (1968)
Fantasia upon one note (1973)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude & Fugue in C Sharp Minor (1972)
Prelude & Fugue in C Sharp Major (1974)
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Tenebrae super Gesualdo (1972)
John DUNSTABLE (c. 1390-1453)
Veni Sancte-Veni Creator Spiritus (1972)
Three Early Scottish Motets: Si Quis Diligit Me (1973); Our Father Whiche in Heaven Art (1977; All Sons of Adam (1974)
William KINLOCH (fl. c. 1600)
Kinloch[e] his Fantasie (1975)
The Fires of London/Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. 29-31 January 1980, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Whatever Happened to…Alan Rawsthorne’s Triptych (1969)

Enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne’s (1905-71) orchestral music can be satisfied that most of this repertoire is available on at least a single CD.  One piece that seems to have escaped the recording studio is the late Triptych, completed in 1969. To be sure at least three archive recordings are extant. 

The year 1969 had been relatively quiet for the composer. The Triptych was the only completed composition listed in Dressler (2004), p.319).  On the academic front, Rawsthorne had been awarded honorary D.Mus. from both Liverpool University and Queen’s University, Belfast. (McCabe (1999, p.299). Triptych was the last orchestral work that Rawsthorne wrote. The following year would see a final flowering of chamber music: The Quintet for clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano, and the Oboe Quartet No.2. There remained an unfinished Elegy for guitar (1971) which was completed by Julian Bream.

The basic information about Triptych is straightforward. It was also known as the Prelude, Fantasia and Fugue [or Postlude] and was completed in 1969. It was a BBC commission. The large orchestra included triple woodwind, harp and tuba. The duration is about 16 minutes.

The premiere was on Sunday 23 February 1969 at the Ashton Hall in Lancaster, with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Norman Del Mar. This concert was part of the BBC Lancaster Music Festival running for three days. The entire concert was broadcast live on Radio 3. During the interval, John Amis talked about this new work.  Other music heard included Roussel’s Symphony No.4 and Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with Alfredo Campoli as soloist. No further performances are listed in John Dressler’s Bio-bibliography (2004, p.71).

Peter Heyworth, reviewing Triptych’s first performance in The Observer (2 March 1969, p.28) notes that “…in scale it was a fairly modest affair, scored for conventional orchestra...” On the other hand, it seemed “to contain more imaginative music than, for instance, his last Symphony [No.3] (1964) or the cantata Carmen Vitale (1963).” The progress of the composition is predicated on the opening chords for “its distinct harmonic flavour” and acts as “a quarry for its melodic material.”  Stylistically, Heyworth thinks that there are nods towards Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande and Sibelius, at least in the opening pages. He considers that the central Fantasia is “the most assertive and forthright of the three movements, yet…also the least interesting.” The finale is the most elusive part of the Triptych. Despite having been billed as a Fugue, only the central section displays much “contrapuntal movement.” The remainder recalls chords from the opening Prelude and provides a cyclic form to the work.

Heyworth concluded his review by insisting that “in no sense is this a major piece and its very inconclusiveness is likely to limit its appeal.” He felt that “it had an unobtrusiveness that is all too apt to be shouted down today.” However, the ultimate success of Triptych is found “behind its bare and un-gesturing style [where] there lurks a distinct and individual mood of disenchanted romanticism, and behind an apparent waywardness and disinclination to force ideas into an ‘effective’ mould, there lies a firmer snse of purpose and direction than one might suppose.” Quite a positive assessment, I think.

The Musical Times (April 1969, p.408) critic John Manduell wrote that the concert “began with Roussel's Fourth Symphony, sensitively and sympathetically shaped by Norman del Mar…[and] the first performance of Rawsthorne's Prelude, Fantasia and Postlude [Triptych], in which the delicately drawn outer sections enclose a Fantasia (in sonata form, be it noted) rich in invention and characteristically strong in logic. Rawsthorne has here richly rewarded the BBC for its policy of commissioning a new work for each of these Weekends.”

Norman Kay provided an extensive analysis and assessment of the Triptych in the Tempo journal (Spring, 1969, pp.54-55). He notes that despite the “fairly large orchestra” the “resources are used sparingly.”  There are “few doublings, and few overt gestures.” The composer utilises much solo writing, especially in the woodwind, brass and percussion departments of the orchestra.  Formally, the structure is “economical” with the two slow and sometimes serious outward movements (Prelude and Postlude) framing the central faster Fantasia. Kay notes many cross references between movements, especially the first and last. The essay concludes by the assertion that: “In general, then, the work's main value is in confirming Rawsthorne's trend towards unsupported line, and an increasing desire to leave harmonic implications to the listener's imagination, rather than spell them out in chordal accompaniments. The present work, in fact, may very well prove to be a transition to a style based on the 'orchestra of soloists' which would seem to be the perfect vehicle for Rawsthorne's ideas.”

Sadly, the composer’s death in 1971, did not allow this premise to be tested, at least not in a further orchestral piece.

The study score, a facsimile of the manuscript of Triptych, was published in 1971 by Oxford University Press. R.T.B. writing in Tempo (October 1971, p.463f) notes that the original title, Prelude, Fantasia and Fugue, “describes the nature of the music well enough; it is interestingly conceived, there are some unusual and imaginative orchestral textures and the whole work makes a convincing impression, which is what one would expect from its composer.”

Sebastian Forbes (Poulton, 1986, p.136) devotes a brief paragraph to Triptych. He explains that the opening Prelude is a “miniature slow movement”, followed by the middle section where “energetic outbursts are short-lived, and the result is fragmentary.” As for the fugue (Postlude) he notes the subject contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and relates to the opening movement. Unfortunately, the “development [of the fugue] is unworthy…”

In his monograph on Alan Rawsthorne, John McCabe (1999, p.274f) reminds the reader that the composer had third thoughts about the title: Prelude, Fantasia and Fugue, then Prelude, Fantasia and Postlude and finally Triptych. The implication was that the composer “was not completely sure of his aims in the writing of the work.” 

The finale, apparently, begins as a fugue, but does not develop as such. One touching aspect of Triptych was that it concluded on a single C major pizzicato chord. McCabe notes that this was Rawsthorne’s favourite tonality, and therefore presents “a genuine air of finality about it, as if he knew it was his farewell to the orchestra, whose repertoire he had so marvellously enriched during his career.” Yet, for McCabe, this sentimentality does not justify positive criticism of the music. He thinks that “the ideas are patchy…and the vigour of the central Allegro is fitful.”  As the realization of this middle Fantasia is critical to the work’s success, “its failure to maintain a line or develop material convincingly is most disappointing.”  There was some positive elements, with some “beguiling orchestral colours” near the Triptych’s start.

I have never heard Alan Rawsthorne’s Triptych. Due to the Covid Pandemic, I was unable to search out the score or recordings in the music library. From the above assessments, contemporary critics did not regard it as a great effort. Yet even Beethoven did not produce masterpieces every time. I note that the German master’s Wellington’s Victory op.91, which must be his most drivelling composition, has 18 CDs listed in the current Archiv Catalogue. Surely there must be an opportunity for a single recording of Triptych. It need not even be a new production. As noted above, there are several broadcast recordings available which could surely be mined for a new CD or stream.

Dressler, John C. Alan Rawsthorne: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004).
McCabe, John, Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a composer (Oxford University Press, 1999).
Poulton, Alan, ed, Alan Rawsthorne, Essays on the Music (Hindhead, Bravura Publications 1986).
Files of The Musical Times, The Observer, Tempo etc.

Sunday 6 June 2021

Phoenix: Music for oboe and piano

This imaginative and rewarding CD opens with Richard Rodney Bennett’s Four Country Dances composed in 2000. The source of these tunes was John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, first published in 1651 and followed by various revisions, expansions and supplements. The four Dances are: A New Dance, Lady Day, The Mulberry Garden, and Nobody’s Jig. The liner notes explain that these “are characterised by faithful, expressive statements of the dance tunes by the oboe, supported by rich, chromatic piano accompaniments that betray the composer’s stature as a jazz pianist.”  I was struck by the generally reflective nature of this music. Despite RRB’s contention he had been let down by the musical establishment in the UK, all four dances, including the final Jig, seem to harbour a considerable nostalgia for England. These dances were written in New York. It should be noted that there are other collections of Country Dances by Rodney Bennett, including more for oboe and piano, some for orchestra, as well as an arrangement of the present set for soprano saxophone and piano. 

The longest work on this CD is William Alwyn’s Sonata for oboe and piano (1934). This is a remarkable essay, despite being one of several disowned by Alwyn when he destroyed (or at least hid) many of his compositions written before the Second World War. This Sonata is not written in a folksy or bucolic style: nor is it modernistic. The three-movement work is deliberately unbalanced: the first movement equals in length the second and third combined. I have noted before my surprise that the opening movement sometimes defies its ‘grazioso’ tempo. There is much here that is slow and introspective. The second Andantino prolongs this mood of reflection. The finale is a little waltz, very French in style. Splendidly played here.

Michael Berkeley’s Snake (1994) for solo cor anglais is an interesting little study. It was inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s eponymous poem. The music echoes the hot, sultry weather of Sicily, where the poem was written. Berkeley’s score balances the “languorous, lithe nature of this majestic creature” with the atmospherics of a summer’s day in Taormina, situated close to a pool of water far beneath Mount Etna. It is sinewy and exotic in mood. 

The traditional Irish song, My Lagan Love is the basis for Jonathan Dove’s Lament for a Lovelorn Lenanshee for oboe and piano. It was composed in 1993 and premiered in January the following year. For the curious, the Leanhaun Shee (several spellings) is a “fairy mistress” who desires the love of mortals. There is a catch, however: if they consent, they are subject to her forever, unless they can find a willing substitute. If they refuse, they become her slave for eternity. Dove’s music is effectively a commentary on My Lagan Love. It is a long work, lasting for 11 minutes. Many moods are explored including a misty opening, river music, a jig, and fairylike will o’ the wisp. A lovely example of late 20th century Celtic Revival!

My favourite work on this CD is the moody and sometimes smoochy Westbourne Nocturne for cor anglais and piano written by Jonathan Pease in 2019. The notes explain the background to this music. Save to say that it is a musical impression of Westbourne Park in north west London. There is a smoky feel about this music that somehow makes me think of 1950s nightlife (Not that I recall that!). Perhaps it is the cocktail piano style accompaniment that emerges here and there? Weirdly, the composer refers to this as a “sonatina” in his liner notes. Even a superficial hearing defines it as a “Nocturne”, and a stunningly beautiful and evocative one at that. Presenting not just night clubs with their jazzy rhythms, but also the gently moving waters of the Grand Union Canal, the biz of the A40 Westway and a late night, semi-deserted Westbourne Park tube station. One of the most evocative “London Pieces” in the repertoire.

Paul Patterson’s Phoenix Sonata (2010) is a transcription of his Phoenix Concerto for oboe and orchestra, premiered in 2009. Seemingly, the duration has been condensed. Patterson has explained that “The fire, passion and power of the Phoenix are very present in the outer movements of this composition, with the last movement filled with mesmerising dance-rhythms. The oboe’s unparalleled ability to recreate the feel of exotic birdsong is showcased in the opening cadenza and central slow movement.”  There is an improvisatory feel about much of this music, although, I understand that the rhythmic and melodic virtuosity is strictly controlled.  The finale is dashing, vibrant and complex.

It is good to have Fred Delius’s Harmonic Variations on CD. This piece is effectively a reworking of parts of Delius’s Dance Rhapsody No.1 which was premiered in 1909. The liner notes explain that Delius’s “fondness for the Theme and Variations form here expressing itself through the increasingly chromatic transformation of a simple country dance tune, first stated in the orchestra by the oboe.”  The original title appended to the holograph of the Dance Rhapsody [No.1] was simply “Harmonic Variations”. The late Philip Threlfall has arranged this as a “showcase” for oboe and piano. It is about half the length of the original. How successful this reworking is, will be up to the listener to decide. My jury is still out on this one.

The playing by Nicola Hands (oboe/cor anglais) and Jonathan Pease (piano) is splendid in every case. The recording is ideal. The liner notes by various hands, provide all the information required for understanding and enjoyment of every work. Details of the composers and soloists are also included. This is an imaginative and varied recital presenting at least one old favourite (Alwyn) and introducing several World Premieres.

Track Listing:
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Four Country Dances (2000)
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Sonata for oboe and piano (1934)
Michael BERKELEY (b.1948)
Snake (1994)
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
Lament for a Lovelorn Lenanshee (1993)
Jonathan PEASE (b.1988)
Westbourne Nocturne (2019)
Paul PATTERSON (b.1947)
Phoenix Sonata (2010)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) arr. Robert THRELFALL (1918-2014)
Harmonic Variations (1909/1998)
Nicola Hands (oboe/cor anglais), Jonathan Pease (piano)
rec. 21-23 October 2019, Plumcroft Primary School, Woolwich, London
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 3 June 2021

Cyril Scott Twilight-Tide: for piano solo (1918)

An advert in the Musical Times (October 1918, p.440) noted that four new piano pieces by Cyril Scott (!879-1970) were available from Elkin & Co., Ltd. These were Consolation, Requiescat, Rondeau de Concert and Twilight-Tide. Both the Consolation and the Rondeau were noted as being in the current repertoire of the Russian-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963). There were also four new songs listed. The advert included a short quote from a recent copy of the Musical America journal: “Cyril Scott is one of the biggest men in English music, in fact in the music of today.” How the mighty have fallen.

The enigmatic piano piece Twilight-Tide was composed in 1918 and was published in the same year by Elkin. The War years had been strange for Cyril Scott. In 1914 he had been exempted from war service. He was subsequently employed as a clerical assistant in a typing pool. However, Lloyd George declared that Scott’s musical talents were of greater value to the nation than his office skills. During the latter years of the War, he played concerts for the War Charities efforts.  At the end of the conflict, Scott returned to Germany and Austria to assist in the reconstruction of the nation.  Clearly, the War had profoundly saddened the composer: so many of his friends had been German, and he had a great respect for the culture of that country.

Twilight-Tide neatly slots into the classification of “Nature Pieces” as proposed by Thomas Darson (1979, p.142f). Darson writes that “Nature, one of Romanticism’s primary sources of inspiration, is abundantly represented in Scott’s works. Not only does he evoke the expressive moods of nature, but also its sounds, motions and picturesqueness.” Aspects of nature that appealed to the composer included woods, mountains, water, the animal kingdom, flowers and the times of the day or year. These encompassed character pieces such as Impromptu (A Mountain Brook), Two Alpine Sketches, Water-Wagtail, Autumn Idyll, Rainbow Trout, A Lonely Dell and Twilight-Tide.  Most of these are salon pieces, however, Rainbow Trout is certainly a considerable work of art. 

The overall mood of Twilight-Tide is one of restraint and reflection. This is supplemented by a musical onomatopoeia of water gently lapping on the shore; the tide being on the turn. The work is paced at Andante (not too slowly). This is typical for the entire piece. There are further dynamics of Poco animato for the middle section, a return to Andante, with the work concluding Tranquillo. The time signature is 6/8 with the occasional bar in 3/8 or 9/8. This adds a little rhythmic flexibility, without upsetting the general flow of the piece. A relatively simple left had accompaniment supports various chords of different density.

There is no key signature for Twilight-Tide, however, there is a loose reference to D flat major throughout the piece, which finds rest in the final chord.  The first three chords presents a transition from D flat major to D major, which is a characteristic of this piece.

The structure of Twilight-Tide is interesting. The overall form is basically ternary. However, the opening section is more episodic than may be expected. There are three phrases here that are largely unrelated. The first phrase is simply a sequence of parallel thirds, with considerable harmonic ambiguity. When this is repeated, the left-hand plays arpeggios supporting these thirds:

The second episode is predicated on several augmented triads in first inversion, with a double pedal point in an unrelated key:

The third event  is really a bridge passage leading into the Trio section of the piece. When the first part is reprised at the end of the work, only the first two of these episodes are used:

The middle section of Twilight-Tide musically represents the flowing water:


This features a chain of first inversion chords that are more or less related key wise. The chords are supported by rising or falling 5ths and 4ths in the left hand. 

Allusions in this piece abound. There are certainly echoes of Claude Debussy, especially the Voiles and La fille aux cheveux de lin from Book 1 of his Preludes.

I was unable to find any details of a premiere performance for Twilight-Tides. As noted above, the piece is classified as salon music. So, it is likely to have been first heard in someone’s music room or a local concert. 

Fortunately, in 2005, Leslie De’Ath began a major project encompassing much of Cyril Scott’s piano music. Twilight-Tide duly appeared on the first volume of this edition. The CD was well received by critics, though none seemed willing to give a detailed comment on this present piece. There is no reference to it in the liner notes.

The score of Cyril Scott’s Twilight-Tide for piano solo (1918) is available on IMSLP.

Darson, Thomas H., The Solo Piano Works of Cyril Scott, City of New York University, 1979)
Scott, Cyril, Complete Piano Works Volume 1 Suites and Miniatures, Leslie De’ath, Dutton Epoch CDLX7150, 2005.