Tuesday 30 November 2021

The Younger English Composers: Walter Leigh by Roger Wimbush (Part II)

The second part of Roger Wimbush’s essay on Walter Leigh includes a Work’s List. This is not complete. To my knowledge, a definitive catalogue of his music has not been published.  It was published in The Monthly Musical Record (Jun3 1938 p.138-142).

IF REPERTORY IS THE FINEST TRAINING FOR THE STAGE, it can also be invaluable to the composer. A play a week means hard work for everybody, and Leigh found himself commissioned to furnish incidental music to Greek plays, Shakespeare, and the rest. [1] All this time his interest in the amateur was growing, and an important result was The Pride of the Regiment [2] the libretto again by Clinton-Baddeley. This was given at Cambridge in 1932, and in the West End at St. Martin's Theatre, where it had the bad luck to encounter a heat wave which killed nearly every play in London. In the meantime, a further piece for amateur orchestra had won a prize offered by the Danish publishers Hansen. [3] One of those interested in The Pride of the Regiment was Miss Rita John, [4] an actress who had inherited a fortune and had gone into management. She took upon herself the office of patron and was responsible for one of the greatest first-nights in the history of the London stage, when Jolly Roger [5] was mounted at the Savoy Theatre, with George Robey [6] raising both eyebrows at Equity. Such was the public interest that the first Saturday night broke all records for the house, and for some weeks Jolly Roger looked like making money. Gavin Gordon and Percy Heming [7] were giving the performances of their lives, and Mr. Leigh showed himself to be a man who knew the theatre as thoroughly as Purcell and Sullivan. Yet in six months the opera was withdrawn, and Miss John decided to stage a revue called Yours Sincerely. This flopped badly, the money dried up, and the stage temporarily lost a team who should never have been allowed to go. it is a sad truth that all recent productions of comic opera in London have failed; but that does not mean that a repertory season would fail, and it would be interesting to know what support there would be for an Opéra Comique in London.

After the end of' Jolly Roger Leigh once more looked about him. Sound-films were giving themselves airs and beginning to be important. The Post Office had organized their own film unit, and Leigh went into films. First came a cartoon Pett and Pott (directed by Cavalcanti) [8] and then in 1934 came Song of Ceylon, a propaganda film for tea, which was hailed in the press and given a season at the Curzon and later at the Polytechnic. [9] This film was important because the music was more than incidental; it had to fit and was used largely for creating atmosphere and psychological effects. Other jobs about this time—and it is not improper to think of these things as jobs—were a trio for three pianos performed at a luncheon given by Messrs. Challen [10] to celebrate their success in the ballot for instruments used at the B.B.C., the music for A Masque of Neptune (B.B.C.) and work for the Camargo Society, the organization which did so much to put ballet on its feet. Then in 1935 came Charlemagne, a B.B.C. adaptation of a French film.

Three years earlier, in 1932, a Sonatina for viola and piano was performed at the ISCM [International Society for Contemporary Music] Festival in Vienna, and in 1935 came the Trio for flute, oboe and piano, a work that is often broadcast. This was the year of George V's Silver Jubilee, and to commemorate the event the B.B.C. commissioned two works, one of which was Leigh's Jubilee Overture, now called Agincourt. The following year brought a commission of which the composer is justly proud. He was asked to write the music for the Greek Play Society's production of The Frogs at Cambridge. The music for these triennial productions bears the names of many of our most distinguished composers, a notable example being Vaughan-Williams's music to The Wasps before the War. Here again Leigh showed an unerring instinct for the theatre, as Londoners had an opportunity of judging when the entire production was transferred to the Chiswick Empire. A Concertino for harpsichord and strings appeared in 1937, which brings us to 1938 and Nine Sharp, the brilliant little revue now happily settled at the Little Theatre. [11] Here the music is subsidiary, but it provides another instance of the composer's adaptability to his medium.

It would be wrong to assume that Mr. Leigh does not want to write a great deal of music for its own sake. He is an artist with his own ideas, but he is also an artist who has to make a living, and while every artist has ideas, it is not everybody who can sell his work. It is not extravagant to say that Leigh resembles Liszt in his versatility, although his spirit would probably rebel at every other Lisztian principle. One day the symphonies and the operas will come, [12] but those who are impatient (as I am) can hasten the day by helping to create the necessary demand. We must never forget that Haydn wrote symphonies because it was his job to do so. He was always writing symphonies, and that is why he sometimes wrote masterpieces.

List Of Works
[Note that this List of Works provided by Roger Wimbush is a selection of music from Walter Leigh’s catalogue. There were several other pieces composed after this article was published.]

1929. String quartet.

Three pieces for amateur orchestra (Hug & Co., Zurich). 1930. Three movements for string quartet (Hansen, Copenhagen). Sonatina for viola and piano (I.S.C.M. Festival, 1932).

1931. Aladdin (book published by French).

Suite for amateur orchestra (Hansen).

1932. The Pride of the Regiment (Boosey & Hawkes).

Interlude (Camargo Society).

Trio for three pianos (Challen).

Masque of Neptune (B.B.C.).

1933. Jolly Roger (Boosey & Hawkes).

Music to Bastos the Bold (Embassy Theatre).

1934. Pett and Pott (G.P.O.).

Song of Ceylon (Tea Propaganda Board of Ceylon).

1935. Charlemagne (B.B.C.).

Agincourt Overture (available in O.U.P. Library).

Trio for flute, oboe, piano (Lemare concerts).

1936. The Frogs (O.U.P.).

Concertino for harpsichord and strings (Vieweg, Berlin).

1937. Music for The Silent Knight (St. James's Theatre).

1938. Nine Sharp.

In addition, Mr. Leigh has written numerous numbers for revues, a suite for A Midsummer Night's Dream (published by Vieweg of Berlin), and several songs, piano pieces and miscellaneous chamber works.

[1] Walter Leigh’s incidental music included the radio play Charlemagne (1935), The Frogs (1936) and A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1936).

[2] The Pride of the Regiment or Cashiered for His Country (1932) was a comic operetta with the libretto by Scobie Mackenzie and V.C. Clinton-Baddeley. It was described in the Daily Telegraph (30 June, p.34) as “a sort of burlesque monodrama” set during the Crimean War. It poked fun at “imaginary generals and Prime Ministers…”  The Telegraph (7 July 1932, p.8) reports that “the music [by Leigh] is almost on a par with the text – but not quite…” The composer who was deemed a “champion of modernity” at the recent International Society for Contemporary Music in Vienna, “showed himself…as the upholder of a very old order.”

[3] This was the Suite for amateur orchestra published by Hansen in 1931.

[4] Rita John (fl.1930s) “was an actor turned theatrical producer of musical theatre active in London in the 1930s, establishing the company Rita John Productions to carry out her business. Little surviving information can be found – it seems likely she was working with a stage name, which makes finding further information very difficult.” (Sarah Whitfield Blog, accessed 17 September 2021).

[5] The libretto for Jolly Roger was once again by Scobie Mackenzie and V.C. Clinton-Baddeley (1900-70). The first performance was on 13 February 1933 at the Opera House in Manchester, and it subsequently played at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.  A contemporary review in The Play Pictorial (April 1933, p.54) noted that “Mr Leigh’s music [is] tuneful and scholarly… [and] has caught something of Sullivan’s spirit and mingled it with his own creative gift…”

[6] George Robey (1869-1954) was an English music-hall comedian known for many years as “the prime minister of mirth.”

[7] Gavin Gordon (1901-1970) was a Scottish composer, singer and actor.  His best-known composition was the Hogarthian ballet The Rake's Progress produced at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1935.  Percy Heming (1883-1956) was an English operatic baritone singer and actor. He was well-known for his comic parts and lighter operas.

[8] Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti (1897-1982) was a Brazilian-born film director and producer. He was often credited on screen with the single name Cavalcanti. He directed documentaries, especially for the GPO film unit, as well a feature films, including Went the Day Well, Champagne Charlie and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. His best-known documentary is probably Night Mail, with music by Benjamin Britten and an iconic text by W.H. Auden.

[9] The Curzon Cinema is at 38 Curzon Street, Mayfair subsequently rebuilt on the 1960s. The Polytechnic opened as a theatre in 1848 and became famous after it featured the first motion picture shown in the United Kingdom.  It is located at 307 Regent Street and now trades as the Regent Street Cinema.

[10] Walter Leigh wrote his Music for Three Pianos in less than a week. The Challen Lunch was held on 27 September 1932. This event celebrated the adoption British pianos at Broadcasting House. Thirteen makes had been evaluated including foreign and British motes.

[11] The Little Theatre was situated in what is now John Adam Street. It opened in 1910. The theatre was bombed in 1917 during the First World War and was rebuilt. It was damaged again by bombs in 1941 and was finally demolished in 1949.

[12] Walter Leigh died in action during the Siege of Tobruk, Libya on the 12 June 1942. So, his last concert work was probably Eclogue for solo piano (1940). Or perhaps music for a Revue. The operas and symphonies never materialised.

Saturday 27 November 2021

The Younger English Composers: Walter Leigh by Roger Wimbush (Part I)

Posted below is the first major essay about the English composer Walter Leigh written in 1938. For a brief overview of his live and achievement, see my earlier post Introducing Walter Leigh. Roger Wimbush (1909-77) was a music critic who wrote for a wide range of journals including the Musical Times, The Gramophone and the Monthly Musical Record.

The essay was published in The Monthly Musical Record (June 1938 p.138-142)

The essay was published in The Monthly Musical Record (Jun3 1938 p.138-142). I have provided a few notes. 

IN AN AGE WHEN WRITING is becoming almost a heavy industry and artists' fees are coming more and more out of the pockets of manufacturers it is not surprising that composers are beginning to think in terms of supply and demand. After all there is nothing immoral or even inartistic in being business-like, and few would dispute that only when art is in service will it produce its proper quota of good works. Because music is the most intangible of all the arts it is not easy for the composer to adjust himself to this attitude. This is not always the composer's fault, for a prospective patron of music often realizes the difficulty of manifesting his munificence to an appreciative public. The man who buys or commissions paintings can hang them on his walls; but, as Mr. Constant Lambert [1] once pointed out, unless a patron chooses to stand outside a concert-hall informing the public that he has 'paid for the whole show', his material pride remains unsatisfied. Perhaps then it is for the best that big business is June 1938 taking the place of private patronage. No man can be an artist until he is first a craftsman, and consequently the greater the incentive to keep the wheels turning, the better for the expectant public. Journalism, for instance, is the finest training for literature largely because the journalist never stops writing, and by the law of averages he is bound to turn a good phrase during the week. If Walter Leigh's name is not often on the programme at Queen's Hall, the reason is probably because he is a busy man - busy writing music that is wanted elsewhere. A working man cannot afford to wait on inspiration, and Mr. Leigh long ago made up his mind to make a living out of music. That he has achieved this, stands to his credit, when financially music is mostly all top and bottom and no middle.

He was born in I905, and his first teacher was his mother. At the age of eight he came under the influence of Dr Harold Darke, [2] with whom he worked until he was seventeen. Meanwhile, the humanities were being looked after at University College School, and later at Christ's College, Cambridge. While at the University he was a pupil of Professor Dent. [3] The next step was Berlin, where for two years he studied with Paul-Hindemith at the Hochschule fur Musik. At this time, he was an ardent 'modernist', as the term was understood in 1927, and it is probable that the last thing that entered his head was to write for the public. Incidentally, one of the reasons why composers usually develop late in life is that it takes considerable time to assimilate the theories of their teachers, and still more to adjust them to their own ideas. But Hindemith has always believed in the practical value of music, and Mr. Leigh confesses that it was his contact with Hindemith that brought a sense of discipline into his work. A lot of nonsense has been talked about ' Gebrauchsmusik', [4] a term that has clung to Hindemith like the ivy to the wall and has done him considerable disservice. Hindemith's real philosophy is perfectly reasonable; it is simply that all music should serve some purpose, and whatever the purpose, the music should be well written. We are only too aware of the processes of Tin Pan Alley, [5] where it may take as many as six men to concoct a rather obvious melody and a seventh to fit it with saccharine drivel. That kind of procedure never produced a Strauss waltz or even a Sousa march. In our own day and in our own country we have seen the success of a man like Eric Coates, whose popular orchestral suites usually take some three months to score alone, just because Mr. Coates is a musician who believes in doing a job well.

Leigh was with Hindemith for two years, during which time he wrote a string quartet and three pieces for amateur orchestra which were later published by Hug & Co. of Zurich and played at the Baden-Baden Festival in 1929. These pieces were the first of a long succession of works expressly written for amateurs. In this respect Hindemith was something of a pioneer, and as a result of his teaching Leigh is one of the few composers of our time who is giving the amateur of average accomplishment new music that he can play. Here is another aspect of art in service, and it is an aspect that deserves every encouragement. In 1930, Leigh found himself in England again without work. He rejected a teaching post and made up his mind to earn his living as a composer. Consequently, he must write music that people wanted to hear - music that people were willing to pay for. It is the impresario’s plaint that there is no music written since the War that will bring half-crowns out of people's pockets, but concert promoters are not the only people who want music, and Leigh began to look about him, paying particular attention to light music. He met V. C. Clinton-Baddeley, [6] and together they wrote 'Aladdin' for the Festival Theatre at Cambridge. This superb pantomime - the first of the famous 'Baddeleigh' entertainments - was later given a London production at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, where it was sponsored by the late Sir Nigel Playfair. [7] What was more important, it took Leigh back to Cambridge as Musical Director of the Festival Theatre.


[1] Constant Lambert (1905-50) was a composer, writer, conductor and music critic. Much of his career was spent a musical director of the Sadler’s Wells ballet company. His provocative book Music Ho! (1934), subtitled ‘A Study of Music in Decline’, was “enthusiastically acclaimed in its day and remains a classic of its period.”.

[2] Harold Darke (1888-1976) was an English organist, composer, conductor and teacher. Best recalled today for his setting of A Bleak Mid-Winter. He composed many anthems, liturgical works and organ music. His Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for string orchestra is often played on Classic fM.

[3] Edward Joseph Dent (1876-1957) was an English scholar, teacher, author and occasional composer.

[4] “Gebrauchsmusik” is “Utility music”. The term applied in the 1920s “to works by Hindemith, Weill, Krenek, and others …which were directed to some social or educational purpose instead of being ‘art for art's sake”. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, online)

[5] “Tin Pan Alley” in a British context was a nickname given to Denmark Street in London. For many years it was the hub of the British music industry.  The sobriquet Tin Pan Alley originally referred to West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Flower District of New York. Several music publishers and songwriters in the late 19th century and early 20th century were located here.

[6] V. C. Clinton-Baddeley (1900-70) was a playwright, actor, and author.

[7] Nigel Playfair (1874-1934) was an actor and theatre manager.  “In 1918 he formed a syndicate to purchase a long lease on the Lyric, Hammersmith, where he presented Restoration comedies and contemporary satires.”

To be continued...

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Five Greek Folk Songs (1942)

Seventy-five years ago, tomorrow evening, (25 November 1946) the BBC Third Programme broadcast a remarkable concert of “Contemporary Music.” Sadly, it was late at night, beginning at 11.5 pm and concluding at midnight. The concert began with the “First Broadcast Performance” of Arnold Bax’s Five Greek Folk Songs. The BBC Singers were conducted by Cyril Gell. This was followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s “light-hearted” Suite for seven instruments, op.29. The soloists here were The London String Trio (Maria Lidka, violin, Watson Forbes, viola and Vivian Joseph, cello), Frederick Thurston and Frank Hughes, clarinets, Richard Temple Savage, bass-clarinet and Peter Stadlen, piano. The evening’s concert concluded with Anton Webern’s only a cappella work, the heart-breakingly beautiful Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen (Escape on Light Boats), op.2, sung by the BBC Singers once again under the direction of Cyril Gell. 

It must have been an interesting concert for those listeners who managed to stay awake. I wonder how well the Schoenberg and Webern would go down on Radio 3 nowadays, especially, late at night? 

The Five Greek Folksongs for unaccompanied chorus was composed during the Second World War and was completed in 1942. Graham Parlett in his essential Catalogue of Bax’s music quoted a letter written by the composer that succinctly sums up these settings: “I have been arranging some Greek folk-music…at the request of dear old Calvocoressi – such queer Balkan tunes that I have got quite a lot of amusement out of treating them…” Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (1877-1944) was a French music critic and author. He had made several translations of Balkan folk songs. 

Five Greek Folksongs begin with the “modally inflected” Miracle of Saint Basil. This is followed by the poignant The Bridesmaid’s Song, which includes two soprano solos. In far-off Malta captures the wit of the tale of the deacon who stained his surplice with ink, whilst writing his “tale of my great love”. My favourite of the set is The Happy Tramp. This is thoughtful and ends when the wanderer is safely home with “warm dry clothes”, “plump partridges a-roasting” and “loving arms.” A Pilgrim's Chant brings this cycle to a close, by once again referring to St. Basil, and the tolling of the church bells. All five folk songs are beautiful and have been “realised” by Arnold Bax with skill and understanding, despite him being “rather bored” by the whole project. The composer is quoted as saying that "They are very quaint and rather barbaric tunes, but I think I made something interesting of them.” He did.

The premiere performance of the Five Greek Folk Songs had been given at a Contemporary British Music Society Concert at Cowdray Hall on 11 November 1946 by the BBC Singers, this time under Leslie Woodgate. The reviewer in The Times (12 November 1946, p.6) was ambivalent in his view about this new work: “the Greek songs are so melismatic that it seemed doubtful whether they lent themselves to harmonisation at all,” but perhaps this was because “they were hard to judge, since the idiom is unfamiliar.” Other music heard at this concert included part songs by Anton Webern, Michael Tippett, Lennox Berkeley, Edmund Rubbra’s Five Madrigals, Zoltán Kodály and Leoš Janáček’s Nursery Rhymes. One interesting item was the Sonatina for viola and piano, by Walter Leigh, who was killed in Libya in 1942. This work was written for Rebecca Clarke, who premiered it in 1932. The soloists were Watson Forbes, viola and Alan Richardson, piano. Alas The Times critic (op.cit.) felt that it was “disappointingly dry” and suggested that “the composer’s talent lay in the direction of comic opera, by which he won his reputation.” Based on Leigh’s music that I have heard, including this Sonatina, this is an opinion with which I wholeheartedly disagree.  

Arnold Bax’s Five Greek Folk Songs have been released on two recordings.  (1) BBC Northern Singers, Stephen Wilkinson. Hyperion LP: A66092; (2) Finzi Singers, Paul Spicer. Chandos CD: CHAN 9139.

Sunday 21 November 2021

De Profundis Clamavi: English Piano Music played by Duncan Honeybourne

I am beholden to Duncan Honeybourne’s wise and informative liner notes for details of most of these pieces. Several other hands have contributed useful composer biographies to the booklet. 

Johannes Brahms seems to underly the post-romantic breadth of Christopher Edmunds’s powerful and impassioned Piano Sonata in B minor. And not only Brahms. He has absorbed the romantic pyrotechnics of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff. It may be regarded by some as a little “retro” in style, but who really cares.  I loved the introspective slow movement which is such a contrast to the “extrovert” opening movement. It builds up to a considerable, but largely lugubrious climax. The finale is typically vivacious but balanced by some quieter and more thoughtful moments. The movement ends with a convincing and dramatic peroration.

This is a magnificent Sonata which ought to be in the repertoire of all British pianists and not a few from other nationalities as well.  It was dedicated to the pianist Tom Bromley (1904-85) and was first performed in the summer of 1938.

Edgar Bainton had his fling on CD a few years ago with some important symphonic works issued on the Chandos and the Dutton Epoch labels. A few odds and ends have appeared since, including several songs from Naxos.  The present Variations and Fugue in B minor, op.1 (1898) dates from Bainton’s years as a student at the Royal College of Music. Seemingly, it was his first acknowledged opus.  I was amazed at the technical demand of this piece. There is nothing here that indicates the tyro. The entire work unfolds from a “melody of wistful nobility” which is developed into nine engaging variations. The final fugue is a surprising triumph. Equally remarkable is that a work of such vision and technical achievement lay in a drawer for over 120 years until Duncan Honeybourne unearthed it for this CD.  What does it sound like? Brahms is in there, and unsurprisingly Stanford. But the listener will be conscious of an individual voice emerging.

When I first inspected the track listing for this album, I imagined that Cecil Armstrong Gibb’s Essex Rhapsody (1921) would be something in the line of Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody or maybe Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody. In other words, a medley of folk tunes, or based on an original tune with rustic pretensions. How wrong can one be? Despite ostensibly being a paean of praise to his native county, this music is overblown, romantic, full of Listzian clichés. If RKO Radio Pictures had made a film called Ipswich Moonlight, (instead of a Dangerous one) this optimistic score would have been ideal. 

On the other hand, Gibbs’s significant Ballade in D flat is full angst and passion. It was composed during the Second World War, when the composer was staying in Windemere.  His house in Danbury, Essex had been requisitioned as a military hospital, he was displaced from his beloved county, and his son David was on active service. David would later be killed near Monte Cassino. The music is fraught, menacing and dramatic. It is hard to tell what the narrative of this Ballade is, but it is a story of fear and unsettling change.

Richard Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V Wind oor die Branders (Wind on the Waves) was completed in 2015. It describes well “impending blustery weather on the sea” before the storm arrives and then subsides. I hope the composer will not be offended if I suggest the hand of Claude Debussy lies behind this watery music. It is quite beautiful in its impact.

I can never hear enough of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Shulbrede Tunes. Apart from Jerusalem, it was the first piece of his music that I got to know. It dates from 1914, just before the start of the First World War. Parry was staying with his eldest daughter Dorothea, at Shulbrede Priory in West Sussex. The collection is a set of character sketches portraying individuals who were staying there, as well as some aspects of the building itself. The opening hymn of praise of to Shulbrede itself is a wonderful bit of romantic pianism. The second number is a depiction of Parry’s granddaughter Elizabeth. She must have been a bewitching wee lassie. There are two portrayals of Dorothea - Dolly No.1 and Dolly No.2, presumably as a mother and a daughter.  Rather haunting is the Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Night. This is followed by Matthew, the composer’s grandson who may have been a little precocious for his age. It is a touch serious. The Prior’s Chamber by Midnight is suitably descriptive. This is followed by the scherzo Children’s Pranks, which seems to include the entire family. The penultimate piece is In the Garden with the Dew on the Grass. This is a pastoral that evokes an idyllic summer’s day.   The finale, the broadly played Father Playmate illustrates the composer’s son-in-law. Parry wrote “‘Father Playmate’ is all sorts of delightful things - a great companion to the children as well as a great politician and deeply interested in Art and Music as well.”

Shulbrede Tunes is perfectly charming. But the listener cannot help thinking that this serene world of Edwardian family life was about to disappear forever as the cataclysmic War approached. They remain a perfect testament of a loving father and grandfather to his family.

The second CD opens with Edgar Bainton’s “sensitive” tone poem Willows, written in 1927. This music here is a little spartan in places. Despite its title, it owes nothing to the pastoralism of its time. Later Frank Bridge is one exemplar. Yet, Bainton has made this beautiful work all his own. It is a remarkable discovery. Equally impressive is his ravishing The Making of the Nightingale. This was meant to been one of a collection of three pieces. Only two were completed. Hopefully, Duncan Honeybourne will record the eloquently named Gardens of the Sea soon.

Much has been written about Frank Bridge’s monumental Piano Sonata. Duncan Honeybourne is correct in regarding it as “among the towering masterpieces of English piano music.” Pianist and musicologist Maurice Hinson (Guide to the Pianists Repertoire, Indiana University Press, 2000) remarked that it “is one of the most ambitious British piano compositions of its period.”

Many commentators note the decisive break between Bridge’s pre-war piano music and this sonata.  One of the half-truths is that was written in the composer’s ‘Dissonant Contemporary’ period. I worry a little about this classification. To be sure there are definite echoes of Alban Berg’s atonalism here. Scriabin’s “shifting tonalities” are obvious. Yet the formal structure looks back as far as Liszt.  Here and there, moments of Bridge’s earlier romanticism and even pastoralism reveal themselves amongst the “avant-garde angularity.”

Bridge’s Sonata is long, lasting for more than 35 minutes. The three movements are played without a break. Often the mood is one of great profundity and an uncompromising sense of despair and anger. Yet, occasionally, a sense of optimism appears almost from nowhere. The job of the pianist is to hold the stylistic elements of this massive construct together, as well as coping with highly challenging writing. I think that Duncan Honeybourne has made a splendid job in achieving all these aims. There are several other excellent readings of this sonata available, including those by Mark Bebbington, Peter Jacobs and Malcolm Binns.

Benjamin Britten’s poignant Night Piece (Notturno) is one of very few works for solo piano that he wrote. It was composed as a test piece for the first Leeds Piano Competition in 1963. It had been commissioned by the legendary Fanny Waterman for the occasion. The liner notes state that Duncan Honeybourne had the “privilege” of studying this work with her. The music muses on many aspects of the night: creeping things, birdsong, dreams and perhaps something a little darker in the human soul.

The inspiration behind Richard Pantcheff’s Piano Sonata (2017) seems to be “disquieting political and social events in the UK” during 2017. I can only think this must refer to the Brexit legislation, as this was the dominating political news of that year. The composer has written that its aim was to express “the greatest possible tumult, and on occasion, desolation.” A Remainer Sonata? But there is a deeper programme to this work. The composer has taken several snippets from the Greek Nobel Laureate Odysseus Elytis’s The Axion Esti (1959) and appended them to the score.  This is a long poem in which the author explores his own personality, as well as that of his country and its people.  The poem has been described “as a secular oratorio, reflecting the Greek heritage, and the country's revolutionary spirit, and also as a kind of autobiography, in which the spiritual roots of the poet's very individual sensibility are set in the wider philosophical context of the Greek tradition.”  Seemingly, (I have not read it) this poem examines the Eternal Greece, the horrors suffered during the Second World War and its aftermath. The poem concludes with a “celebration of human life.”

I certainly found Richard Pantcheff’s Sonata desolate and full of tumult. There is no optimism here. The musical language seems to me to be a concatenation of styles including Bridge, sometimes Debussy, and maybe even Messiaen. For me the slow movement is the highlight.  I did not enjoy this Sonata, but I respect and appreciate it.

This is an excellent CD with an adventurous and imaginative programme. Except for the Parry, the Bridge and the Britten, each work is a “World Premiere Recording.” It goes without saying that Duncan Honeybourne’s playing is superb throughout. He has rapidly become the Dean of British Piano Music. I have mentioned the excellent liner notes above.

Let us hope that there are many more CDs of British Piano Music “on the stocks” at EM Records and undiscovered music in Duncan’s piano stool.

Track Listing:
CD 1
Christopher EDMUNDS (1899-1990)

Piano Sonata in B minor (1938)
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
Variations and Fugue in B minor, op.1 (1898)
Cecil Armstrong GIBBS (1889-1960)
An Essex Rhapsody, op.36 (1921); Ballade in D flat (1940)
Richard PANTCHEFF (b.1939)
Nocturnus V Wind oor die Branders (2015)
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Shulbrede Tunes (1914)
CD 2
Willows (1927); The Making of the Nightengale (1921
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Piano Sonata (1921-24)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
Night Piece (Notturno) (1963)
Piano Sonata (2017)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
Rec. 20-21 August 2020, Potton Hall, Westleton Hall, Suffolk.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Introducing Walter Leigh (1905-1942)

Walter Leigh is one of several composers who were killed fighting for their country during the Second World War. Others included the Austrian Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) who died in Auschwitz, the Frenchman Jehan Alain (1911-1940) and British Michael Heming (1920-42).  All were accomplished musicians or at least showed considerable promise. 

Hubert Foss, (Musical Times, August 1942, p.255) summed up Leigh’s achievement: “This is a grave loss to British music. Walter Leigh was a composer through and through: a serious composer, especially when writing his light music. Composing music was for him a professional man's job, not an aesthetic's languorings or expressionisms. He tackled the job with his own special simplicity of mind and wisdom.”

The present-day listener will find Walter Leigh’s music approachable and often engaging. Whether it is the sub-Elgarian Overture: Agincourt, the abstract Viola Sonata heard at the 1932 Vienna I.S.CM. Festival or the Sullivan-esque operetta Jolly Roger, he is never patronising, deliberately obscure or difficult.

After a brief overview of Leigh’s career, Hubert Foss concludes “Leigh was one of the most charming musicians I have ever met, so absolutely sane and practical and without a single affectation. In losing him in battle, this country has not only lost a fine and lovable man, and a fine composer, but also an idea of music which it can ill afford to lose.”

Brief Biography of Walter Leigh

  • Walter Leigh was born on 22 June 1905 in Wimbledon, London
  • His earliest musical lessons were from his mother - who was a Prussian pianist - and with Dr Harold Darke. 
  • He was educated at University College School, Hampstead.
  • In 1922 Leigh won an organ scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge.
  • He studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge University (1922–1925) with Edward Joseph Dent and Cyril Rootham.
  • Between 1927 -1929 he studied with Paul Hindemith in the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin.
  • Leigh’s first published work, Three Pieces for Amateur Orchestra, dates from this period.
  • In 1930 Leigh declined a teaching job and began to accept commissions from a variety of sources and developed an interest in the theatre.
  • From 1931 to 1932 he was Musical Director of the Festival Theatre, Cambridge.
  • Two important light operas were composed The Pride of the Regiment (1932) and Jolly Roger (1933)
  • In 1934, Leigh composed the score for Basil Wright’s film The Song of Ceylon for the Ceylon Tea Board.
  • His most popular concert work, the Concertino for harpsichord and strings appeared in 1936.
  • In partnership with Herbert Farjeon, he produced music for the review Nine Sharp (1939) at the Little Theatre and In Town Again at the Criterion in 1940.
  • During 1941, Leigh joined the army in World War II serving with Royal Armoured Corps, 4th Queen's Own Hussars.
  • Walter Leigh died in action during the Siege of Tobruk, Libya on the 12 June 1942.
Six Essential Works
I have selected six compositions by Walter Leigh. The criteria is that they are currently available on CD, Download or YouTube. In fact, a large proportion of Leigh’s orchestral, chamber, and piano music has been recorded. The operetta Jolly Roger has also been issued in disc.

  • Sonatina for Viola and Piano (1930)
  • Music for String Orchestra (1931-32)
  • Music for Three Pianos (1932)
  • Concertino for Harpsichord or Piano and String Orchestra (1934)
  • Agincourt Overture (1935)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream - Suite for Small Orchestra (1936) 

Basic information about Walter Leigh can be found in the various editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, as well as other reference books, Wikipedia, obituaries and CD liner notes. Fortunately, there is also an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Sadly, there is no biography or musical study dedicated to the composer. Entry level would include a remarkable pen portrait of Leigh written by Roger Wimbush and published in the Monthly Musical Record (June 1938, p.138ff). Two major ‘recent’ essays include David Drew’s “North Sea Crossings. Walter Leigh, Hindemith and English Music” (2008) in Tempo April 2010, pp.44-64) and Thomas Irvine’s “Hindemith’s Disciple in London: Walter Leigh on Modern Music”, in British Music and Modernism, 1895–1960, (ed. Matthew Riley, Routledge, London, 2010)

If you can only hear one CD
In 1985, Lyrita records issued and LP of Walter Leigh’s music (SRCS126). It included the Concertino for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, Music for String Orchestra, A Midsummer Night's Dream - Suite and some incidental music from The Frogs (1936). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite and the harpsichord was played by Trevor Pinnock. In 2014 this was rereleased on CD (SRCD.289) and included the Overture: Agincourt and the Jolly Roger Overture. Thus, most of Leigh’s orchestral works are available to the listener.

Of further interest is the Dutton Epoch disc (CDLX 7143) which features virtually all of Walter Leigh’s chamber music. There is a Lyrita CD of the comic opera Jolly Roger (REAM 2116) and the hard-to-find Walter Leigh: Piano Music and Songs played by Peter Hewitt (and others) on Tremula REM 101-2, published 1992.

Finally, if you wish to hear just one work
It must be the Concertino for Harpsichord and String Orchestra. Hugo Cole has written that it “is one of a number of chamber works of the period [by Leigh]: an elegant and concise work, more French than German in its spare-notes neo-classicism, the keyboard writing showing signs of [Maurice] Ravel’s influence.” It is written in three movements: Allegro, Andante and Allegro Vivace. The work was premiered by Elizabeth Poston in 1934. It is sometimes performed with the harpsichord replaced by piano.

Monday 15 November 2021

Northern Lights: Organ Music from Trondheim

I visited Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim in 2011. It is a remarkable place of worship dating back to the time shortly after the death of King Olav II in 1030. Olav would become the Patron Saint of Norway. Built over a 230-year period, it is the most significant Gothic monument in Norway, and is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world. The music is played on the remarkable Steinmeyer organ, which was installed in 1930, but was recently (2014) rebuilt and transformed by Orgelbau Kuhn AG from Switzerland. Naturally, the full organ specification is included in the liner notes. 

This CD gets off to a lively start with the Spanish-infused tour de force Yes by the Norwegian composer Mons Leidvin Takle. It is full of catchy melodies, robust rhythms and delicious harmonies. Let’s hope that this exciting work catches on in the UK.

Iain Farrington’s Amazing grace is a set of variations on the well-known hymn tune. It is the third number of a cycle Lay My Burden Down, which features five pieces based on African American spirituals and traditional songs.  I confess that Amazing Grace is not my favourite tune. Ever since the Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards reached the Top of the Pops in 1972, I have had a strong negative reaction to this song. But in Farrington’s jazzed and blues-ed exploration, it hits the spot. It captures the full emotion of the hymn and the tune.

This meditation is followed by Theodore Dubois’s Fiat Lux, which develops from quiet music into a powerful peroration. It is taken from his Douze pièces nouvelles pour orgue published in 1892. Fiat Lux was dedicated to the English organist W.T. Best. The title is derived from the biblical book of Genesis, where God commands “Let there be Light.” The music mirrors a course from when the earth was without form and void to a glorious illumination of the Universe and the Soul. It is a compelling theological and musical statement.

The liner notes explain that the Danish composer Christian Praestholm (b.1972) has written “nearly 300 hymn preludes, which are widely-played liturgically and in concert, particularly in Denmark.”  Three chorale preludes featured here, present diverse musical effects. The first, See the golden sun rising from the ocean, opens with a churning sound down in the depths, before building up to a mighty C major chord – like the Dubois piece from darkness to light.  The second prelude is less profound. The sun is rising in the east opens slowly, moves into a “jazzy allegro that toys with strict fugato,” but soon goes its own way to a quiet ending. The last example, Lord, you give us life and happiness, is a full-blown warhorse that includes lots of repeated notes and chordal figurations.  No dates are given for these Preludes.

I was delighted that Christopher Herrick chose to include two remarkable pieces by Percy E. Fletcher. Both were completed in 1915. Much of his music has been consigned to the archives. However, his Epic Symphony for brass band is often dusted down for performance. Fletcher wrote a wide range of music, much of it “light”, often as part of his theatrical work in London, where he worked at a variety of venues including the Savoy, Drury Lane and The Prince of Wales. For many years he was the musical director at His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket. There are one or two tantalising orchestral scores in his catalogue: Parisienne Sketches (1914) and the At Gretna Green (1926) which surely deserve revival. The virtuosic Festival Toccata was written for the organist and composer Edwin Lemare. It is a brilliant piece that is often heard at weddings and as encores. Despite its seeming complexity, it is just about playable by the much-maligned “gifted amateur.”  The beautiful Fountain Reverie opens with will o’ the wisp, undulating arpeggios supported by a tune played on the swell organ. This has definite hints of Louis Vierne. There is a slightly more dramatic middle section. 

Anders S Börjesson’s Toccata “Herren, vår Gud, är en konung” (Praise the Lord, the Almighty King of Creation) is typically rhythmic from end to end. It is based on an old German chorale melody. The overall impetus never really lets up, with much of the music being dancelike. Like all good examples of the genre, it ends with a compelling coda. It dates from 2015.

German composer Hans-André Stamm’s Toccata giocosa was written in 2009. It is an attractive work that lives up to its title. The music is carefree from the first note to the last. This “non-stop” music builds up from a “light and airy” beginning, to a “thunderous and triumphal ending.”  

The ever-popular Toccata in B minor by Eugène Gigout “employs every trick of the trade generally found in the French organ toccata.” It is full of “flourishes and figurations”, deploys the usual powerful pedal part, and builds up to a striking conclusion.   It remains one of the most admired and played concert pieces from the French organ repertoire. It is the fourth number of the Dix Pièces published in 1892.

Johannes Brahms’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor WoO10 was originally conceived for pedal-piano. It was completed in 1857, when the Brahms was in his mid-twenties. It was lost for many years until rediscovered in 1927 amongst some papers in Clara Schumann’s estate.  The entire work is really a homage to Baroque era organ music, employing many clichés from that era. It has been pointed out that formally and thematically it owes much to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV 535.  Christopher Herrick writes that he has taken “modest liberties with Brahms’s pianistic writing.”

The title of Pietro Yon’s short, but potent Second concert study 'Flying feet' (No. 3 of Three Compositions for organ) says all that need to be said. The bit about the “Feet” is a later appellation. Pedalboard glissandi up and down, chromatic scales on the keyboards, and complex interaction of the parts suggest that this “impossible” étude is all over the place. It would have made a wonderful finale to this CD. Only it doesn’t.

The final track is a rather doleful Wedding March by the Norwegian composer Sverre Eftestøl. It is a nice enough piece for Mattins but lacks any pizzazz for a wedding service. One would imagine the happy couple being a little disappointed and downhearted as they exit the church and head towards married bliss.

It hardly needs saying that Christopher Herrick’s recital is superb. The CD sound is ideal and gives the impression of “being there”. The liner notes give all the information required for an intelligent appreciation of this repertoire. I would have liked all the work’s dates and source when part of a collection, included in the track listing. 

One thing though. I would not have put four toccatas back-to-back in the batting order. Perhaps something a little more intimate interposed here. That said, this is a well thought out recital, with lots of new discoveries (at least for me) and not a few “old favourites.” 

Track Listing
Mons Leidvin TAKLE (b.1942)

Yes! (2015)
Iain FARRINGTON (b.1977)
Amazing grace (no. 3 of Lay my burden down) (2017)
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924)
Fiat lux (no. 8 of Douze pièces nouvelles pour orgue) (1892)
Christian PRAESTHOLM (b.1972)
See the golden sun rising from the ocean, op.32 no.1; The sun is rising in the east, op.11 no.13; Lord, you give us life and happiness, op.22 no.110
Percy Eastman FLETCHER (1879-1932)
Fountain reverie (1915); Festival toccata (1915)
Anders S BÖRJESSON (b.1975)
Toccata (2015)
Hans-André STAMM (b.1958)
Toccata giocosa (2009)
Eugène GIGOUT (1844-1925)
Toccata in B minor no.4 of Dix pièces pour orgue (1890)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Prelude and Fugue in G minor WoO10 (1857)
Pietro YON (1886-1943)
Second Concert Study “Flying feet” (no.3 of Three Compositions for organ) (1913/15)
Sverre EFTESTØL (b.1952)
Wedding march (1982, rev.1988)
Christopher Herrick (organ)
rec. 6-8 August 2020, Organ of Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 12 November 2021

Arnold Bax: November Woods- a review of the First Performance

Arnold Bax’s tone poem November Woods (1917) received its premiere performance at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 18 November 1920. The Halle Orchestra was conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty. The composer and critic Marion M Scott provided a splendid review of this concert for The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, USA, Saturday, 8 January 1921. She was a regular contributor to this newspaper.  No further comment is needed on this critique.

MANCHESTER, England – Two new works were heard at the sixth Hallé concert – one of which, Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, was new only to Manchester; the other, Arnold Bax’s tone poem, "November Woods", had its première anywhere. The Rachmaninoff concerto afforded a brilliant opportunity to Cortot of showing off his surpassing gift as a pianist, being a work of enormous difficulty throughout, and in the last movement, one of fiery and flamboyant energy. At a first hearing, it cannot be said to have usurped the place of the second concerto of the same composer, or indeed done anything to dim the lustre of that beautiful work, which has won a warm place in the affections of pianists the world over.

Keener interest naturally attached itself to the new work of the young English composer. Mr. Bax was a student of the Royal Academy. He has devoted himself to composition and has had great difficulty in getting his reputedly numerous compositions published. True, many of his works have been performed once or twice from manuscript and have obtained friendly and even flattering recognition from eminent authorities. Mr. Hamilton Harty has ranged himself with these and spoken of Bax as the "most absolute genius among all our younger writers"; but publishers have hitherto fought shy of him, and his music has remained in MS.

In the present chaotic state of the music publishing business nothing is surprising, not even the well-nigh incredible statement made the other day, on the authority of the Manchester Guardian, that an enterprising publisher, struck with the injustice of this long neglect, had set aside a sum of £20,000 to be used solely for the publication of Mr. Bax’s music.

"November Woods," according to its composer, is a series of impressions of the dank and stormy rain, of nature in late autumn. It naturally suggests the Waldweben of "Siegfried", but there is no echo of Wagner in it, or indeed anything of the elemental grandeur of the nature-music of "The Ring." The inevitable comparison is only made to be rejected. "November Woods" enshrines some of the composer’s own personal experiences in this floating picture of Buckinghamshire woods where the idea of this work came to him.

In a private letter he says, "If there are sounds in the music which recall the screaming of the wind and the cracking of strained branches, I hope they may suggest deeper things than these at the same time. The middle part may be taken as a dream of happier days, such as may sometimes come in the intervals of stress, either physical or mental."

It is well that the composer should be chary of providing too literal a programme as the basis of his tone-poem lest the thoughts of his audience should be diverted from the deeper and more humane qualities of his music, the emotional appeal of which does not by any means end with the mere outward aspects of the autumnal season it ostensibly depicts.

There is certainly an underlying significance in the music which assures one that Mr. Bax has something original to say, and the way in which he develops his theme gives assurance of his ability to say it. There is more than mere accomplishment in it – a real power of orchestral expression, with none of the crudities and cacophonies which disfigure so much of the merely clever orchestral writing of the younger school of composition. 

There is always a sense of melody implicit in the web of his score, though there is nothing of the far-sweeping melody of the older composers. His aim is more in harmony with that of Delius, which ebbs and flows and produces a more or less atmospheric effect, as of a golden and melodious haze. Broken chords are not so much in evidence as of wailing, wind-like figures, which are thrown into relief by solo passages for individual instruments. In this respect he steers a middle course between the diatonic manner of the classical tradition and the dissonance of the moderns. If there is no profound originality in his work, one always feels that it is real genuine music and in the line of legitimate development.

The fact that Mr. Bax was present in the audience, and that he was called twice to bow his acknowledgements to the public was proof that "November Woods" made a direct appeal to the musical appreciation of Manchester music lovers. Mr. Hamilton Harty, by his energy and skill, has done all that was possible to ensure a worthy hearing for a composer who, in the north of England at any rate, had for many years been only a name. With the warmth of public encouragement, Mr. Bax will be spurred to achieve more of that power and felicity at which his "November Woods" does scarcely more than hint, though the hint is an unmistakable one. 
Marion M Scott The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, USA, Saturday, January 8, 1921
This review appears here with the kind permission of Pamela Blevins

Tuesday 9 November 2021

It's Not British but...Christopher Howell plays Claude Debussy's Préludes

Christopher Howell has wisely eschewed providing detailed analytical notes for the two Livres (Books) of Claude Debussy’s remarkable Préludes. Instead, he gives an interesting strategy for listening to them. This is based on approaching the entire cycle without reference to the “traditional” titles of each Prélude. This tactic is especially recommended to anyone who has not heard this music before. Howell proposes that the listener notes the impression made on them during an “innocent ear” hearing. For the titles are not really titles at all: these are not character pieces written to evoke a predefined landscape, character or weather feature.  In fact, the composer’s words or short phrase suggest “what the music might have expressed.”  In other words, the image was supplied after the each Prélude was completed, or at least drafted. It is understood that Debussy and his daughter ‘Chouchou’ discussed each number at the piano and debated the “literary or impressionistic” labels. Alas, once these “after-titles” are known, they colour subsequent hearings. Howell wonders if it might even be possible for those of us who know these Préludes well, to clear our minds and ask ourselves “what does the music suggest”.  As readers of this review will note, I am unable to do this. Fifty years is a long time to break a habit. 

Another important point is that Debussy did not insist that both sets of Préludes be played together, or even as a single book at a time. He considered that they were uneven and of varying quality. We may disagree with the maestro! Most recitalists will play selections or maybe select an entire Book for performance. It is only on CD that they are typically issued complete.  

So, each listener will have their own way of approaching this disc. Once a year, I sit down with the piano score and through listen to each book – with a tea break in-between. I guess other people will pick out their favourites. If they are Classic fM listeners, this may be the ubiquitous The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. Through-listening is fine, but I think the listener must keep an eye on the titles (notwithstanding Howell’s dictum) and have the odd time out.

On first hearing a new recording of the Préludes, I usually pick one example from each book to get a general impression of the playing. Firstly, I listen to the Sérénade interrompue from Book I and then Les tierces alternées from Book II. Despite what is said above about ignoring the titles, I cannot help picturing an old guitarist in some sequestered square in Spain. He muses on old love affairs, long forgotten dances, and is perhaps roused by a sly comment from a passing schoolboy. It has been suggested that this piece was a “sketch” for Iberia from Images. Does Howell hit the spot? The answer is Yes. It is the changes of mood that do it for me. And it does remind me of a sultry day in Spain, where alas I have not been for two years thanks to Covid.

Howell points out that the only Prélude that has a title with a purely technical description is Les tierces alternées. This is really a study rather than an evocation. Yet even here, there is a charm that offers interest.  Perhaps Debussy is looking back to the days of the 17th century clavecinists? If the recitalist can convince me with a magical performance of this Prélude, then I am certain that the others are good beyond doubt. He does.

Howell impressed me with the entire cycle. A few examples of what caught my ear will suffice.  I do keep the images created by the composer’s titles in mind.

Voiles, with its whole tone and pentatonic scales and cool chords in thirds, perfectly creates images of boats at anchor in the Mediterranean sun.  Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest ("What the west wind saw") is the most demanding piece in Book 1. It gives a vision of a coast battered by storms and the sea’s fury. Remarkable use is made of tremolos, sonorous chords and demanding figurations. La Danse de Puck is summery, witty, sometimes mocking and often capricious. Just as it should be.  Does the pianist summon up the image of the Cathedral of Ys, the birthplace of Isolde, rising from the sea in La Cathédrale engloutie? He does: the plainsong, the ancient organum, the tolling bells and the swing of the tide all combine here to create a perfectly stated vision of an emerging and then submerging cathedral. One of many Spanish masterpieces by a Frenchman is La Puerta del Vino. Here the pianist is required to evoke images of a humid Spanish night, complete with an equally sultry dancer, close to the Alhambra Palace in Granada. This “habanera” requires considerable changes of mood and pace. Subtle adjustments to its dynamics are well played here. Ondine (or Undine) has always been one of my favourite Debussy’s Préludes.  The title refers to an elemental being associated with streams and water pools. Over the centuries, she has been transformed into a water nymph. This piece must capture the games and sports and even mischievousness of Ondine. Therefore, a good contrast of pianism is required to capture all the changes and chances of her moods.  The last Prélude from Book 2 that struck my ear was Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) which is a complex fusion of impressionism and sheer Lisztian virtuosity.  It is full of “glittering arpeggios, trills, [and] explosive chords” which are executed here with perfection. The night sky is truly lit up on Bastille Day. All these, and the other Préludes are played to my satisfaction and enjoyment.

Finally, as a bonus, Christopher Howell has included the fugitive “prélude” written as a donation to a charity for the war wounded. Pièce pour l'oeuvre du “Vêtement du blesse” is just under a minute and a half, yet it is a perfect example of the composer’s art. It is lovingly played here on this CD.

There are 94 versions of Livre 1, and for some reason only 79 of Livre II, in the current Arkiv Catalogue (accessed 4 September 2021). So, why another recording. I asked Christopher Howell, he told me: “Debussy’s Préludes in particular, have always been close to me, I was already playing them by the book-full while at university.” He sees it as a stimulating change to move momentarily away from his major projects of British music such as the cycles of Stanford’s and Mackenzie’s works that he is often associated with. He thinks that “it is good to show from time to time that my horizons extend a little further”.

I was impressed by this new recording of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece for piano. The performance met my expectations in every way, the recording is superb and the liner notes refreshing in their approach. It is a worthy addition to the many recordings of this wonderfully evocative piano music.

Track Listing:
Préludes Première Livre (1909-10)
Préludes Deuxième Livre (1912-13)
Pièce pour l'oeuvre du "Vêtement du blessé“ (1915)
Christopher Howell (piano)
Rec. 2018-2020 Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy.
Da Vinci Classics C00424

Saturday 6 November 2021

Introducing William Baines (1899-1922)

William Baines wrote over two hundred works in several genres, including a symphony, a piano concerto and chamber music. However, it is his piano solo compositions that are his most successful and enduring achievements. He worked better as a miniaturist rather than on larger canvases. Many of his piano pieces are impressionistic, others range through a variety of moods and styles. It is not fair to try to attach influences onto Baines, but the works of Scriabin were seminal. Add to this the unique but underrated achievement of Cyril Scott, and we have an idea of how Baines approached the timbres of the piano. He was able to fuse the style of the Russian with that of English Pastoralism and Romanticism. Baines’s music covered a range of emotion and styles; his harmonies could be rich or sparse. Grove’s Dictionary (2001/02) points out that the key to composer’s style is his Seven Preludes, composed in 1919. It is here that many of the aspects of his style are plain – “from virtuoso brilliance to rhapsodic contemplation, and from a lush Romanticism to sparse textures and acrid harmonies.” Frederick Dawson, Baines' music adviser and promoter, once wrote that the young composer had "an inexhaustible fancy and the enviable gift of translating into terms of sound his love of Nature and his joy in the beautiful"

Much of William Baines’s music was imbued with his love of nature, especially the countryside of East Riding and the seascapes of Flamboro' Head. 

Brief Biography of William Baines (1899-1922)
  • William Baines was born at 11 Shepstye Road, Horbury, Leeds on 26 March 1899The young composer had some piano lessons from his father and composition study with Albert Jowett, at Yorkshire Training College of Music in Leeds.
  • In 1916, the Baines family moved to 91 Albemarle Road in York, William remained in Horbury.
  • The Symphony was completed in 1917.
  • The same year, Baines had moved to York, and assisted his father as accompanist at the Fossgate Cinema.
  • Baines was called up for military service in 1918. He was destined to be a batman in the Royal Air Force.
  • Several days after arriving at Blandford Forum camp, Baines contracted septic poisoning, which coupled with his underlying tuberculosis led to him being invalided out of the military.
  • During his recovery in York, he continued to compose and give piano recitals locally.
  • In 1920, he enrolled in the British Musical Society.
  • Baines played at the Bournemouth Pavilion under the auspices of Sir Dan Godfrey. He performed his piano piece The Tides.
  • William Baines died in York on 6 November 1922 aged only 23 years.
Six Essential Works
William Baines’s catalogue of music is considerable, running from op.1 to op.216. Precious few pieces have been published, and even fewer recorded. I have selected six works that are currently available on CD – all of them for piano.

  1. Paradise Gardens (1918-19)
  2. Seven Preludes (1919)
  3. Silverpoints: ‘Labyrinth in a Deep-Sea Cave,’ ‘Water-Pearls,’ ‘The Burning Joss-Stick’ and ‘Floralia’ (1920)
  4. Tides: ‘The Lone Wreck’ and ‘Goodnight to Flamboro’’ (1920-21)
  5. ‘The Naiad’ No.2 of Three Concert Studies (1920)
  6. Coloured Leaves: ‘Prelude,’ ‘Valse,’ ‘Still Day,’ and ‘Purple Heights’ (1920)

There is only one major study of the composer. Goodnight to Flamboro’: The Life and Work of William Baines written by Roger Carpenter was published by the Triad Press in 1977. It was reprinted with revisions in 1999, by the British Music Society. This volume gives a detailed account of Baines’s life and music, as well as a complete works list, bibliography, and the then current discography. There are some evocative pen and ink sketches and decorations by Richard A. Bell.

Important essays include Peter Pirie’s ‘William Baines,’ (Music and Musicians, November 1972) and Fiona Richards’s ‘William Baines and his Circle’, (Musical Times, August 1989).

Earlier appreciations of Baines and his music include, Rutland Boughton’s ‘A Musical Impressionist’ (Musical Times, March 1926), Frederick Dawson’s ‘On the Interpretation of William Baines’s Music’ (Musical Opinion, December 1922), Katherine Eggar’s ‘The Music of William Baines’ (Music Teacher, December 1925). There are two important essays by A. Eaglefield Hull: ‘The Music of One William Baines’ (Musical Opinion, March 1920 and ‘A New Yorkshire Musical Genius’ (The Bookman, April 1922). There are the usual entries in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Wikipedia, and further information in CD liner notes.  A few Webpages are devoted to William Baines.

There have been few records or CDs dedicated to William Baines. In 1972, Lyrita Recorded Edition released an LP devoted entirely to Baines’s music (SRCS 60). Eric Parkin included Silverpoints, Paradise Gardens, Coloured Leaves, Twilight Pieces, Tides, and the Seven Preludes on the record. It was re-released on CD in 2007 (SRCD.266) coupled with piano music by E.J. Moeran.

In 1990, Alan Cuckston issued a compact disc of Baines’s piano music entitled Goodnight to Flamboro’. This included Pictures of Light, Glancing Sunlight, Island of the Fay, Concert Study: “Exaltation,” Idyll (Nocturne), Elves, Paradise Gardens, and Tides. The CD (Swinsty Records Few 119CDr) also included Eugene Goossens’s remarkable Nature Poems.

In 1996, Eric Parkin recorded another selection of Baines’s piano works on the Priory label. (PRCD 550). This included The Chimes, Paradise Gardens, Seven Preludes, Coloured Leaves, Silverpoints, Idyll, Tides, The Naiad, Twilight Pieces, Pool-Lights, and the Etude in F# Minor. There is much overlapping with the Lyrita edition. A few other pieces by Baines have been included on various compilation albums.

Finally, the Symphony has been uploaded to YouTube. It is a recording of a live broadcast at Grassington Town Hall on 2 June 1991. The Airedale Symphony Orchestra was conducted by George Kennaway.

If you can only hear one CD...
Eric Parkin’s fine conspectus of the composer’s music on Lyrita is the ideal introduction. Baines’s Seven Preludes offers an overview of his musical achievement. These pieces, written in 1919 explore a wide range of moods and technical requirements. It is therefore surprising that there is a keen sense of unity and purpose about these Preludes when we consider the contrast. The listener finds a romanticism and sustained passion in the first, an ‘opiate tonality’ in the fifth. The fourth prelude is a ‘torrent of semiquavers without key or time signature.’ Yet, the second Prelude is deeply reflective. The set ends with a fine explosion of complex Rachmaninov-like octaves and pianism. The coda to this work leaves the listener ‘up in the air.’ It is Scriabin who is the most obvious influence here.

Tides is a work that epitomises William Baines’ art. This is music that tied to a location – Flamborough Head in the East Riding – yet is timeless. This is fine sea music that is both descriptive and reflective.

Coloured Leaves are an interesting set of ‘fancies’ and although they may not be a critical part of Baines’s catalogue, are certainly attractive, and reveal the composer’s technique and imagination to the full. The Twilight Pieces are advanced in their harmonic language. They are less romantic in nature than much that Baines wrote – in fact, there is a simplicity about these pieces that is almost hypnotic. All of them are quiet and reflective and are valedictory. The composer died the following year.

Silverpoints, which were composed in 1920/21, consist of four short tone poems. ‘Labyrinth’ is another highly effective sea–picture: a repetitive, almost monotonous piano figuration is used with significant effect. ‘Water pearls’ is a little waltz - but not in any way sentimental. ‘The Burning Joss Stick’ is atmospheric as it should be: the music moving in slow, soft chromatic chords, and we can feel the incense slowly rising. The last piece is ‘Floralia’ - which well suggests the voices of laughing children.

Finally, if you wish to hear just one work…
This must be Paradise Gardens. Willaim Baines wrote: "…there was a lovely view, overlooking the gardens of the Station Hotel in York. You looked through thick green foliage onto the grounds, which were beautifully laid out with flowers - and in the centre a little fountain was playing. A perfect blue sky, and the sun shining low - made indeed a grand picture."

He had watched as the sun set over York. It was on a summer’s day too - 2 June 1918: a few months before the Great War ended. The vision inspired him to compose his masterpiece. It is an attractive and beguiling tone poem that successfully balances impressionism with sheer romance. This is a technically difficult piece that exploits the resources of the piano. Baines makes use of three staves, and even then, one wonders if it is enough. There is a touch of ecstasy and passion about this work that makes it special.

Sadly, the much of the gardens has become a car park – but the music remains. It makes a fine introduction to Baines’ piano works.