Wednesday 28 September 2022

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): The Sword in the Stone: Concert Suite for Chamber Ensemble

In May 1939 Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears left England and headed towards North America. They spent a few weeks in Canada where Britten wrote Young Apollo, Op.16 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  He also began work on the Canadian Carnival Overture, Op.19. Earlier that year he had been commissioned by the BBC to write the incidental music for a six-part adaptation by Marianne Helway of T.H. White’s Arthurian novel The Sword in the Stone.

This book, which was written in 1938, is a standalone novel but subsequently became the first part of what was eventually issued as The Once and Future King. The story of The Sword in the Stone tells of a young boy called Wart, who came to realise that he was King Arthur. He is instructed under Merlyn’s guidance in the rituals and activities of the medieval royal court and is found worthy to be king.  The title refers to the famous sword that was magically set in a stone: it could only be removed by the true King Arthur, the rightful heir to the British throne.

Britten completed the score on arrival in Canada and posted it back to London. It was subsequently broadcast during June and July 1939.

The incidental music for The Sword in the Stone score was written for a chamber ensemble including winds brass, harp and a vast array of percussion. In 1983 some ten of the original fifteen ‘sections’ of this music were compiled into a concert suite by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews.  The suite, which was first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival of that year was organised into six movements: -

  1. Introduction and Boys Tune
  2. Merlyn’s Tune and Tree Music
  3. Merlyn’s Spell and Witch Tune
  4. Bird Music
  5. Lullaby
  6. Water Theme and End Music

One of the interesting things to look out for in this music is the ‘witty borrowings’ from Richard Wagner’s operas which Britten indulges in.  The Prelude to Rhinegold is alluded to in Merlyn’s Tune and the use of the ‘Sword’ motif played on the trumpet. The fourth movement creates its effect by utilising several musical birds taken from the works of various composers including Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss and Delius. The scoring is excellent with various instruments being used to highlight characters and events in T.H White’s story.

It cannot be argued that this work contains the best of Britten’s music or even prefigures what achievements were to follow. However, it a Suite that is full of youthful energy and has an undeniable ‘enchanting’ quality.

Contemporary reports suggest that the atmosphere of the wireless adaptation was complimented by Benjamin Britten’s music, which "brilliantly sharpened the word-pictures’.

In 1996, Hyperion included Britten’s The Sword in the Stone: Concert Suite for Chamber Ensemble on a remarkable CD. Other works included a concert realisation of Night Mail with Nigel Hawthorne as narrator, the cantata PhaedraLachrymae for viola and piano (1950) and the Sinfonietta (1950). It was played by the Nash Ensemble supported by several instrumentalists.  

It has also been issued in the Naxos Label (8.573446) featuring the Ohio State University Wind Symphony. 

Thanks to the English Music Festival where much of this post was first published. 

Sunday 25 September 2022

Charles Villiers Stanford: Children's Songs

Charles Villiers Stanford’s first effort at composing for children was A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30, dating from 1892. As a youngster, I was “brought up” on Robert Louis Stevenson. Not only the wonderful novels such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona, but the corpus of poetry, especially, The Child’s Garden of Verses. This latter volume was first published in 1885 and contained some 64 poems. The key to understanding this collection is to recall is that Stevenson wrote these verses from the perspective of a child, not as an adult. 

The poems chosen by Stanford from this volume explore several childhood themes. They are certainly not parochial, with the imagination exploring Foreign Lands and Foreign Children. Indeed, one of these poems even carries a trigger. Then there are tales of adventure with a cast of Pirates, Grenadiers, Highwaymen and Sailors. Sometimes these poems can be a little reflective and may have been the mature poet recalling days when, as a youngster, he was incapacitated in bed. Each song has a memorable tune, simple, but effective accompaniments and immediate appeal. Three are sung as duets: Pirate Story, Marching Song and My Ship and Me. Overall, I am reminded of RLS’s introductory poem to Treasure Island: He wonders if this tale “Can please, as me they pleased of old/The wiser youngsters of today…!” It is a point to ponder in our “sophisticated” era. Finally, see Christopher Howell’s outstanding study of these songs here.

The Four Songs, op.112 (1908) have a different ethos. In these poems by Tennyson, the world is no longer seen entirely from the child’s point of view. The liner notes explain that “childlike sentiments are here juxtaposed with more adult interrogation.”  This is exemplified by the questioning theological reflections about the Raising of Lazarus in The Silence. The opening song, Spring, deals with love in the springtime, for men, women and Jenny Wren and her partner. One guesses that the third song, The City Child, will be pathetic, however it is simply a charming reflection on the pleasures of an idyllic countryside somewhere near Canterbury. The final number in this set, The Vision, is more serious. Taken from In Memoriam, it reflects one of many emotions that Tennyson felt at the death of his friend Arthur Hallam. Musically, this collection offers no great challenge, but are quite simply exquisite examples of the composer’s craft.

Six Songs, op.175 set six poems by five authors. The booklet suggests that they were “probably finished in 1920.” The first, A Song of the Bow is by the Victorian poet and hymn author, Reginald Heber, onetime Bishop of Calcutta (Kolkata). This is a swaggering little number that extolls the soldier’s way of life, emphasising jollity, friendship, hope and avoidance of melancholy - at least for a day. This is followed by another Tennyson setting, Drop Me a Flower, about the lover and his desire for a blossom from his best girl. It must be one of the few vocal scores to set the word “clematis.” Winifred Mary Letts is represented with two songs. The first, The Winds of Bethlehem gathers up several legendary tropes concerning the Nativity of Christ. Stanford’s second setting of Letts is The Monkey Song, echoing the thoughts of a street entertainer’s pet in the run up to Christmas. It is a sad and thoughtful response. The magical setting of George Levenson-Gower’s Lullaby is an impeccable miniature. Poet and composer create a perfect synthesis of imagery and melodic interest. It is hard to imagine that the author of the last song of the set died as late as 2005. Mary Kitson Clark was only fifteen when she penned The Unknown Sea. This little barcarolle considers the relationship between father and child, in travelling the oceans of their imagination. Children of all ages will find this enchanting setting brings a tear of remembrance to their eye.

I enjoyed the two sets of Songs from the Elfin Pedlar (pub.1925). The twelve numbers in this collection derive from Helen Douglas Adams’ The Elfin Pedlar and Tales told by Pixy Pool. This volume was published in 1923 when she was only 14 years old. The material contained included faerie poems written from the age of four. The liner notes explain that Stanford “was charmed by Adams’s aphoristic, gem-like verses” which reflected “his fascination for children’s verse and the ‘other’ world of fairyland.” They all reflect a “childlike innocence and wonder.”

A reviewer of the Hyperion LP recording of these songs (A66058), which I have not heard, seemed to miss the point. Trevor Harvey, in the May 1983 edition of The Gramophone, suggests that the texts are “so appallingly coy,” and he wonders why Stanford bothered to set them. It is sad that Harvey has totally forgotten the childlike wonder that many of us still retain, and to which the composer responded to with such creativity. Bottom line: If you still appreciate Winnie the Pooh, you’ll love these!

The disc concludes with seven individual songs. Ben Johnson’s gently Gothic poem Witches’ Charm is designed to provide a frisson of fear to the young listener. Richard Watson Gilder’s Summer Rain and Winter’s Snow is not in the least scary. It is a little pastoral idyll, with an imaginative vocal line. The spell-like Fairy Lures exploits the contemporary enthusiasm for “fairies at the bottom of the garden.” It is totally captivating with its well-wrought melody. I enjoyed the imagery of The Hoof of the Horses, setting a text by Will H Ogilvie. The accompaniment utilizes galloping sounds. Were these smugglers passing by in the night? The Japanese Lullaby to a text by American poet Eugene Field has an intimation of death at the close. John Greenleaf Whittier’s pantheistic hymn of Worship is a thoughtful presentation of Nature praising God in a “Chorus of Prayer.”  Finally, the patriotic The Kings Away to words by Henry Newbolt was penned in 1914 and comes from the same stable as Stanford’ Songs of the Sea and the Songs of the Fleet. It concludes with a ghostly reference to the sailors who may not return to land. A terrific finish to this CD.

The singing by the two soloists, Kitty Whately and Gareth Brynmor, is flawless. Susie Allan adds enchantment throughout with her superb and always sympathetic accompaniments.

The liner notes are exemplary. Written by Stanford specialist Jeremy Dibble, they give a good introduction to this repertoire, without providing a detailed technical analysis. It would have been helpful if the dates of each song/cycle had been included in the track listing. Sometimes it is not possible to divine when they written and/or published. The texts of all thirty-eight songs have been included, which makes a fascinating anthology of poems. Biographical details of the three performers are included. Readers of the booklet are reminded that The Stanford Society supported this project. The cover features a charming, anonymous, Victorian painting entitles The Morning Hymn.

This CD is a delightful addition to the growing discography of Charles Villiers Stanford. Listen to this repertoire carefully. Perhaps take each cycle or collection one at a time. There is much to relish in these lovely songs. What is clear is that although all these pieces were devised with children in mind, the composer is never patronising or condescending. Each one of them is a little gem. Often sentimental, always charming, they surely will appeal to the lingering child in us all. That said, there is not a single bar where Stanford has written “childish” music.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30 (1892, 1922)
Four Songs, op.112 (1908)
Six Songs, op.175 (c.1920)
Songs from the Elfin Pedlar Book 1, (pub. 1925)
Songs from the Elfin Pedlar Book 2, (pub.1925)
Witches’ Charms (pub.1928)
Summer’s Rain and Winter’s Snow (1893)
Fairy Lures (pub.1923)
The Hoofs of the Horses (pub.1923)
A Japanese Lullaby (1918)
Worship (1893)
The King’s Highway (c.1914)
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 7-8 January 2022, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey

Thursday 22 September 2022

Felix Mendelssohn’s Kindness: An Anecdote

I recently read this short anecdote about Felix Mendelssohn. I have long regarded him as a “honorary” British composer. The story is self-explanatory, however a few words about Henry Chorley may be of interest. Born in Blackley Hurst Lancashire on 15 December 1808, he became one of the leading music critics of his day. He also wrote libretti for operas, perhaps most famously for Arthur Sullivan’s The Saphire Necklace (c.1862). He was the author of many books, novels and plays as well as being a regular contributor to the long running Athenaeum journal. Henry Fothergill Chorley died in London on 16 February 1872. 

Grove’s Dictionary explains Chorley’s musical tastes: “he disliked and Wagner’s he detested. Schumann’s music repelled him. He admired Mendelssohn, however, almost without reservation, and in 1847 attempted to persuade him to set his own adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It could have been a wonderful work if written…

Henry Chorley, an English critic and musical writer of much note, on one of his trips to the continent went to Leipzig for the purpose, among other things, of meeting Mendelssohn and hearing some of his works. Shortly after his arrival he was taken with an acute attack of illness and confined to his room, a small apartment in a crowded German inn. He had met Mendelssohn and other musicians before his illness. It is not pleasant to be sick among strangers in a foreign land, and his feelings were not of the most enjoyable kind. His illness had been known but a few hours when he heard a heavy tramping up the stairs. It stopped at his door. "Who is there? “He called. "A grand piano to be put in your room," was the reply, "and Dr Mendelssohn is coming directly."

And soon Dr Mendelssohn did come, with his warm smile and hearty greeting. "If you like," said he, "we will make some music here to-day, since you must not go out," and down he sat and began to play a lot of music about which Chorley had expressed some curiosity the day before. For hours

Mendelssohn stayed there delighting, as Chorley modestly said, "an obscure stranger as zealously and cheerfully as if his time could not be measured by gold, and as if his company was not eagerly and importunately sought by the 'best of the best,' who repaired to Leipzig with little purpose but to seek his acquaintance."

The present tale was taken from Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (London, Weekes & Co., 1896)

Monday 19 September 2022

Tournament for Twenty Fingers: British Piano Duets

The concept behind this CD is to present the “complete” works for piano duet (four hands, one piano) by four British composers. Not included are any pieces written for two pianos. 

Lennox Berkeley’s Palm Court Waltz, op.81, no.2a for piano duet dates from 1971. It was originally devised for orchestra and called the Diana and Actaeon Waltz. The liner notes do not mention that it was written at the request of Richard Buckle for The Greatest Show on Earth, held in aid of the “Save the Titian” fund.

It is difficult to know if this is a pastiche of the Viennese valse or just a bit of fun. Erik Satie’s Je te veux may be another model. After an overblown introduction, the rather Poulenc-ian main waltz theme is introduced. A characteristic of this number is the tendency for the progress of the work to suggest that the performers have “lost their way” or are going back to the beginning of the score – yet the steady 3/4 time is never lost for a moment. (Liner notes)

In 1954, Alec Rowley succinctly summed up Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina for piano/four hands, op.39. He notes “a minimum of notes, [and] refinement of taste…in texture, it is a true Sonatina, and in appearance, ingenuous and stark in outline.” (Musical Times, December 1954). Yet, this bleakness becomes less fearsome on repeated hearings. In fact, there is significant warmth and elegance in much of this refreshing music. The three movements are well contrasted featuring lively syncopation in the opening Allegro moderato, well-considered lyricism in the Andante and concluding with a definite nod to Poulenc in the Allegro finale.

It is the first time I have consciously listened to Berkeley’s Theme and Variations for piano duet, op.73. It was completed in 1968 and dedicated to Annie Alt and Gerald Stofsky. For many years it remained unpublished. Stylistically, this is a serial composition that never quite avoids a sense of tonality. For some tastes, the harmonies will be considered “astringent” but the “Gallic sensibility of Ravel and Poulenc is still very much in evidence.”  (Liner Notes). This is serious music, which is also infused with a sense of humour. There are seven contrasting variations following, based on a largely “in key” arpeggio Theme.

This disc includes the premiere recording of Richard Arnell’s Sonatina for piano duet, op.61. Not mentioned in the liner notes or track listing, this was composed in 1950. Like many other Sonatinas for piano (Ireland, Ravel) this is not technically easy: it was not designed for pianists learning their trade. There are four short, concentrated movements. It would be easy to define this work as neo-classical. Yet there are moments of romance in these pages. The booklet suggest the influence of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but the overall impact is very much of Arnell’s own devising.

The clever thing about Stephen Dodgson’s Tournament for Twenty Finger (1952, 1954) is that it sounds more difficult than it is! It is written in two parts (volumes), with Part One majoring on a selection of dances which include a Gavotte, a Romance, the Fantasia in C minor, a Cradle Song and the unusually titled Hill-Billy. Despite this latter term being nowadays derogatory, no offence was meant by Dodgson. Part Two also has a Cradle Song, preceded by a brief Allegretto. It concludes with A Bohemian Entertainment which is inscribed “To the memory of Antonín Dvořák.” It is certainly a celebration of Czech music, which as the liner notes explain, was particularly important to the composer.

I found Dodgson’s Sonata for piano duet (1949) rewarding. This single movement work is constructed as a central Allegro moderato framed by two Maestoso sections. There is much of interest here. It is not a particularly dissonant piece, but one that is extremely flexible in tonality and making much use of chromaticism. The entire Sonata is always entertaining. It reflects Hugo Cole’s opinion that Dodgson’s music was “designed to divert and charm, rather than edify or promulgate great truths.” (Quoted Liner Notes).

The final offering is Constant Lambert’s crossover Trois Pièces nègres pour les touches blanches. This work was commissioned by the London Contemporary Music Centre and was dedicated to that organisation’s president, Edward Clark. The premiere was given by Mary and Geraldine Peppin on 17 May 1949. The three movements are entitled Aubade, Siesta and Nocturne. Various influences seem to appear. This includes Lambert’s own jazz cantata The Rio Grande (1929) and the cool pianism of Dave Brubeck. Strangely, the gorgeous Siesta nods more to Francis Poulenc rather than to any bop musician. The work’s title may seem inappropriate in the 21st century. To be sure Lambert’s use of the word nègres would seem to embrace Afro-Caribbean and Latin-American cultures. Then, there is the conceit of “Black” music played on the “White” keys only. This was one of the last pieces that Constant Lambert had written before his early death in 1951. It is surely one of his most characteristic.

The performances by Emma Abbate and Julian Perkins are thoroughly enjoyable, committed, and technically sound. The BIS recording is excellent. Analytical notes are authored by Stephen Johnson, with an introduction by Julian Perkins. There are brief bios of the two performers. It would have been helpful if the dates of all the pieces had been given in the track listing. The booklet is printed in English, German and French. I appreciated the humorous cover design, based on illustrations by Dresden artist Friedrich Martin von Reibisch, realised by David Kornfield.

I suggest a careful exploration of this CD. Each work is worthy of due attention and concentration. I guess that few of these duets will ever become “popular,” however they are all important contributions to the genre. All deserve to be in the repertoire of piano duet players.

Track Listing:
Lennox Berkeley (1903-89)

Palm Court Waltz, op.81 no.2 (1971)
Sonatina in E flat major for piano four hands, op.39 (1954)
Theme and Variations for piano four hands, op.73 (1968)
Richard Arnell (1917-2009)
Sonatina for piano duet, op.61 (1950)
Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013)
Tournament for Twenty Fingers (1952, 1954)
Sonata for piano duet (1949)
Constant Lambert (1905-51)
Trois Pièces nègres pour les touches blanches (1949)
Emma Abbate, Julian Perkins (piano)
rec. 16-17 November 2020, St George’s Bristol, England

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 16 September 2022

Ernest Tomlinson (1924-2015): Gaelic Lullaby from Three Gaelic Sketches

In 1958 Fred Benson published Ernest Tomlinson’s Three Gaelic Sketches for orchestra. The individual movements were titled, Fairy Cobbler, Gaelic Lullaby and Legend of the Sea. Sadly, only the middle movement has appeared (to date) on record or CD (Marco Polo 8.223413). The liner notes explain that the composer mined incidental music he had written for a 1956 revue, The King and the Mermaid with the “book” by L.A.G. (Leonard Alfred George) Strong (1896-1958). The plot centres around a King who falls in love with an amphibious lady from the deep. This source is entirely appropriate when transferred to his Gaelic Lullaby. Students of folklore will be well-aware of the legends of merrows, seals, selkies and Maighdean-mara - “maidens of the sea.” Granville Bantock himself wrote a short choral work entitled The Mermaid’s Croon which seems to tie up various similar legends.  Gaelic in the context of these Sketches probably refers to Ireland rather than Scotland. 

The CD booklet explains that the Lullaby featured in the original revue where the king, having brought the mermaid to his castle finds she is tired. She is put to bed, attended by her hand-maidens. To help here sleep, the king’s harpist plays a gentle lullaby to her.  

Tomlinson’s take on this subject is quite charming. The short piece opens with some lovely harp chords, before the violin enters with a wistful melody. Soon the orchestra lends support, but the tune is never totally submerged. Flutes add to the magic. There is a little bit of development, with some hints of Delius here and there. The song is echoed by a lugubrious horn solo. The short piece ends quietly with the mermaid sound asleep.  I am not sure if Tomlinson has based his delicious tune on a “found” melody or if it is own devising.

The King and the Mermaid was first broadcast on the BBC Light Programme on 25 December 1956 at 8:30pm. The BBC Concert Orchestra was conducted by Wilhelm Tausky.

Gaelic Lullaby has been uploaded to YouTube. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by the composer.

Tuesday 13 September 2022

Don Banks’s vocal and chamber music

A few pointers to the life and achievement of the composer. Don Banks was born in South Melbourne, Australia on 25 October 1923. His early career concentrated on jazz piano and arranging. In 1950 he came to London as secretary to Edward Clark, then head of music at the BBC. Later, he studied with Mátyás Seiber in the Capital and with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence. His catalogue is varied with a wealth of chamber music, two effective concertos (one for horn and one for violin) and several Third Stream/Crossover works. He was successful in the Hammer film studios with many scores to his credit, especially horror movies. Finally, Banks was never averse to writing light music. His technical vocabulary extended from his preferred serialism to electronics as well as jazz. Stylistically, his music (the few pieces I have heard) are infused by drama, lack of pedantry and wit. Everything is well-crafted, and ideally suited to the chosen instrumentation. 

In 1972 he returned to Australia, where he held the post of Chair of Composition at Canberra School of Music and latterly at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Don Banks died on 5 September 1980, aged only 56 years.

An effortless way to begin exploring this CD is with the Five North Country Folk Songs. Dating from 1953, this work was written for the Swiss soprano, Sophie Weiss, who was living in London at the time. Listeners who know Seiber’s Three Hungarian Folk Songs will spot the influence of teacher on pupil immediately. And Benjamin Britten’s folk song settings may have functioned as a spur as well. As the liner notes explain, Banks “spices up these traditional melodies with piquant harmonies and unexpected rhythmic twists.” There is a well-wrought piano accompaniment which adds to the songs’ success.

The tunes set are Buy Broom Buzzems, My Bonny Lad, King Arthur’s Servants, Bonny at Morn and O the Bonny Fisher Lad.

Don Banks’s Trio for horn, violin and piano was composed in 1962, and dedicated to the Australian instrumentalist Barry Tuckwell. The liner notes do not mention that it was first performed at that year’s Edinburgh Festival, played by the dedicatee and Brenton Langbein (violin) and Maureen Jones (piano).

The work is not “officially” serial, although it often sounds like it might be. It has been well described as atonal but making considerable use of the dodecaphonic composers’ tricks of the trade, such as canon, retrograde and inversion and close thematic relationships. It does not matter really except to the musicologist. Banks has created a rewarding score that explores several moods and styles. Antony Payne (Tempo, Winter 1966-67) has well described it as “[embodying] a warm and romantic atonalism.” To this could be added several nods to jazz, especially in the highly syncopated finale. The first movement opens with a dramatic introduction and is immediately followed by lyrical music. The central Adagio espressivo is elegiac in mood, with a “long arching melody” for the horn, later balanced by “a grazioso episode for violin and piano only.” (Liner Notes). Overall, there is a touch of humour in this Trio that enlivens this “robust and uncluttered music.” 

Despite its title, the Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two for clarinet and piano (1968) is not a crossover work. To be sure there are several nods to jazz, but the general mood is strictly classical and probably serial. The Prologue is forceful and acerbic, whilst the Night Piece is gently and dreamy. There is a touch of “swing” in the opening section of the Blues, however this soon gives way to a cadenza and a dramatic close.

Serialism plays a significant role in the Three Studies for violoncello and piano. The liner notes explain that this work, dating from 1954, reflects the profound influence of his teacher Luigi Dallapiccola. Despite the use of all the twelve-tone paraphernalia of “canon, retrograde and inversion,” these Studies present deeply thought out melodic and formal structures. The opening study is dramatic, whilst the second presents an involved recitative for solo cello, with several gnomic interruptions from the pianist before a “violent outburst from both players.” (Liner Motes). This movement ends calmly. The finale is a robust scherzo.

Like many examples labelled as Sonatinas, Don Banks’s example for piano is no cinch. It was written in Melbourne in 1948, before he left for London. This is no serial composition but pushes the concept of C sharp minor to the limits. It is a highly chromatic piece that the booklet suggest may have been inspired by the “daringly free chromaticism of Margaret Sutherland, who at that time was one of Melbourne’s leading composers…” The opening Andante – Moderato is conceived in sonata form with an animated main subject, contrasting with an expressive second theme. There is little time for development, however several derived sections add interest to the proceedings before the formal recapitulation. The second movement, Lento espressivo, opens with a fugato section, building to a climax and followed by a chorale-like tune. The Sonatina closes with an interesting rondo, using a big, gutsy refrain, and highlighting several contrasting and sometimes wayward episodes. Altogether an enjoyable work, which deserves to be better known by pianists.

Don Banks regarded his Sonata for violin and piano (1953) as his “Op. 1.” The booklet explains that it “by no means follows classical sonata form.” What Banks has done is create a mosaic of highly contrasting sections which are patched together to make a convincing whole. Some of these are developed as the music progresses. The Sonata ends on a hugely optimistic note. The listener will be struck by the constant evolution of thematic material, over which the composer has complete control: there is no padding. Every bar of this 15 minute Sonata is essential to its overall impact. It was dedicated to Mátyás Seiber.

The most challenging work on this CD is Tirade for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble finished in 1968. It is a setting of a poem by Australian born, but London based, poet Peter Porter. I confess that many of the text’s allusions are a little beyond my grasp. There are several references to antipodean events and culture. I guess that the overall plot of this ironic poem is a tilt at the then current “alleged philistinism of [the arts] of Australia.” (Liner Notes)

Tirade requires a massive battery of tuned and untuned percussion instruments including a siren, harp and piano. The marvel of this piece is the diversity of the vocal line as it explores this pop-poem. Jenny Duck-Chong presents the listener with spoken words, sprechstimme, shouting, a scream, jazz scat and “normal” vocalisation. It is always supported by a perfectly contrived accompaniment. This latter often sounds improvised, but I understand that it is all notated exactly.

Many years ago, Peter J Pirie summed up Tirade in the Musical Times (December 1969) as representing the “middle avant-garde” which seemed at the time to have a penchant for vocal solo with instrumental (largely percussive) accompaniment. Pirie considered that it “was one of the more successful specimens.”  Truly, adjectives stack up: explosive, manic, impressionistic, improvisatory, energetic. It is one of the most approachable works of its kind from the 1960s. It deserves revival in the concert hall.

The performance of all this material is excellent and clearly sympathetic: it is complimented by a clear and vibrant recording. The helpful booklet notes were written by the present pianist Daniel Herscovitch. I am grateful to them in preparing this review. They include detailed comments on all the music, the texts of the songs and brief biographies of the performers.

Next year (2023) sees the Centenary of the Birth of Don Banks. I wonder how extensively it will be celebrated in the concert hall and the recording studio? One thing for sure, the present CD gives the composer an enjoyable and satisfying early birthday present.

Track Listing:
Don Banks (1923-80)

Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano (1962)
Five North Country Folk Songs (1953)
Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two for clarinet and piano (1968)
Three Studies for violoncello and piano (1954)
Sonatina in C sharp minor for piano (1948)
Sonata for violin and piano (1953)
Tirade for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble (1968)
Robert Johnson (horn), Ole Böhn (violin), Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo-soprano), Francesco Celata (clarinet), Geoffrey Gartner (cello), Rowan Phemister (harp), David Kim-Boyle (siren), Alison Pratt, Daryl Pratt and Joshua Hill (percussion), Daniel Herscovitch (piano).
rec. September/November 2020, Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 10 September 2022

Arthur Bliss (1891-1975): The Early Reception of the Colour Symphony: Part 3

The review that pleased the composer, was H.C. Colles in The Times (8 September 1922). In this the Colles states that the colour references did not aid his understanding of the work.  He wonders if the title, A Colour Symphony, and the description of the four movements as purple, red, blue and green, ‘is a happy way of bringing his hearers into touch with him is an open question’. He found himself constantly referring to the programme to find out whether he ‘ought to be seeing red or looking blue at certain moments, and some of it certainly made the audience feel green’. 

However, Colles was impressed with the formal structures of the work, ‘its strong melodic outlines and its processes of contrasted episodes’. He allowed that ‘clear distinct melodies spring forward at times, and have definite characters of their own.  The harmonies – or should we call them the conflicts? – of parts have the feeling of inevitability: they are certainly no affectation.’

The following day the Cheltenham Chronicle (9 September 1922) gave a long, well-considered review of the work. The writer points out that the programme notes offer a ‘rough suggestion to the moods of the music.’  However the colour associations did not impress him. He writes that the ‘idea of the composer enough thematic scope for a life’s work: in fact he would seem to have rather overburdened himself with ideas of the danger of becoming scrappy rather than symphonic.’ Of the actual performance, he thinks that ‘the very least one could say even after a first hearing, is that the work is full of evidences of ability ...’ however he did not feel that it would ‘take rank amongst the greater orchestral compositions, but yet certainly as one that is likely to be heard frequently and that will gain in appreciation with opportunities of further hearing.’ 

A.J. Sheldon contributed a major review of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival to Musical Opinion (October 1922) He writes that ‘A Colour Symphony’ was ‘of outstanding interest.’ It is clear that the work earned ‘enthusiasm and hearty dislike, with the latter predominating.’  Sheldon is clearly a ‘conservative reviewer’ who has the ‘old predilection for a consonance now and again.’ He suggests that unqualified admiration for a work nearly innocent of such a weakness was hardly possible.’  He declined to analyse the work, as ‘Mr Scholes’ brochure on the subject is available.’  Unfortunately for Sheldon, he did not get to read this brochure before the concert, or he ‘might have been less puzzled by the colour attributions.’ However this reviewer’s important point is that these ‘attributions’ ‘seemed to matter little, the note of the work coming to me in terms of energy rather than colour.’ He continues by confessing that he learned afterward from Percy Scholes that these were ‘an afterthought’ and were more concerned with the ‘fancied need for a title of some kind.’

Herbert Thomson provided a review of the Gloucester Festival in the Musical Times (October 1922) He is one of the few writers to accept the ‘colour scheme’ proposed by Scholes/Bliss. He writes that ‘the composer is one of those not very rare individuals who associate music and colour, and who is therefore able, from a motive which is not merely capricious, to label the several movements by the colours purple, red, blue, or green, together with certain abstract ideas which they connote: pageantry, magic, loyalty, or youth, as the case may be.’ Yet in spite of this endorsement Thomson agrees that  Bliss ‘offers these as no more than suggestions, arising from his own personal preconceptions, but it is enough that they have served to give him the cues for some strange music, which is sometimes attractive, sometimes repellent, but generally intrigues the hearer by its adventurous spirit’. The Musical Times review concludes by noting ‘the composer conducted, and, as he has not had much experience in this role, it is doubtful whether the utmost possible was made of the music, so all we can say is that, considering its great and perhaps gratuitous difficulty, a performance which was at least effective was achieved.’

The well-known critic Ernest Newman effectively summed up the arguments that had bedevilled the first performance. Writing in The Graphic (September 1922) he concedes that he did not attend the previous week’s concert. However he had seen the score in July and had an opportunity for a quick read through.  He claimed that it was ‘news to me, when the reports of the festival came out, that Mr. Bliss had called the symphony a ‘Colour Symphony,’ and invited his hearers to see, with him, a particular colour in each movement. I am sure he has been wise in a worldly, if not in an aesthetic sense; by calling his work a ‘colour symphony,’ and giving musical critics something more definite to write about than music, he secured an amount of publicity that a mere ‘symphony in Q flat’ might not have done.’

Yet Newman was not convinced by Bliss’ ‘chattering’ about the colour. He insists that ever since music was first played scientists and musicians have been trying unsuccessfully to postulate an ‘intimate union between music and visible colour.’ He regards this attempt as futile and adduces three reasons. Firstly, no two musicians who commence comparing notes on colour-music will manage to agree as to the colour analogies of even half a dozen orchestral instruments.  Secondly, he believes that, although a machine can create musical effects from a given chord, they have ‘no more to do with music than so many perfumes would have had. He considers that ‘what makes music is the musical idea, no equivalent to which can possibly exist in combinations of colour.’ And finally, most critical of all is the fact that no ‘movement of a musical work can possibly be characterised by one colour, because of the the constant changes in it not only of orchestration, but of harmony and idea.’ He concludes his discussion by allowing ‘Mr. Bliss to write good music’ if ‘fallacious analogies’ help him. However he suggests that he for one would be ‘more grateful to him if, having made these analogies serve him, he would keep them a secret from the rest of us.’

In spite of the fact that Percy Scholes seemingly muddied the waters leading up to the premiers, it is only fair to give him the last word. I wonder if Scholes had read some of the immediate reviews and had decided to salvage his reputation on this issue. He writes (Observer Sep 10 1922) that Bliss’ ‘objective is always essentially musical and essentially aesthetic. There is no literary intention, no confusion of different types of expression in the work itself. But there are certain disappointing elements: never before has Bliss evinced so much subordination to external influences’.  Is this an attempt to shift the blame for the ‘colour scheme’ onto the composer? Scholes concludes his review by suggesting that the points of technical interest in this work can be summed up:- 1. A moderately conservative form, 2. An advanced liberal harmony and finally 3. An individual type of orchestration which largely abandons the older Wagnerian-Straussian-Elgarian mass treatment

Interestingly, after having ‘hyped’ the colour references, Scholes now suggests that ‘the colour implications of the various sections are of considerable interest, but not of prime importance.

It is a view that largely holds to this day with analysis of Arthur Bliss’ ‘A Colour Symphony’.

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember (London: Thames Publishing, 1970, 2/1989)
Boden, Anthony, Three Choirs: A History of the Festival (Stroud, Gloucestershire, Alan Sutton, 1992)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scolar Press; Ashgate Pub. Co., 1996)
Craggs, Stewart R., (ed.) Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: a Catalogue of the Complete Works (London: Novello, 1979; suppl. 1982)
Holbrooke, Josef, Contemporary British Composers (London: Cecil Palmer, 1925)
Scholes, Percy, A Few Notes upon the Work of Arthur Bliss and Especially upon his Colour Symphony (London: Godwin and Tabb, 1923)

Select Discography:
Bliss, Arthur: Colour Symphony, Music for Strings, Introduction and Allegro, London Symphony Orchestra /Sir Arthur Bliss HERITAGE HTGCD222 (2011) (original LP release: DECCA LXT 5170) (1955)

With thanks to the Arthur Bliss Society where this essay was first published in 2013


Wednesday 7 September 2022

Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) : The Early Reception of the Colour Symphony: Part 2

Criticism: Many newspapers and musical journals sent their music critics to the 1922 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. A list of many of them is given in the Gloucester Journal (9 September 1922) I have selected a number of examples which give a wide cross-section of opinion on the premiere of A Colour Symphony. However, one common theme is the confusion introduced into this work by the ‘colour scheme.’ 

The reviewer (A.P. Higham) in the Bristol-based Western Daily Express (8 September 1922) gives an admirable summary of the Symphony. He writes that Bliss has tried to ‘express the aesthetic emotions suggested by colour impressions.’ However the Higham is at pains to point out that Bliss is not dogmatic about this ‘programme.’ ‘On the contrary, he has allowed it to be said that whilst he feels the influence of colours through the medium of music, he does not make other people see with him, but is content to let them take his work from a purely musical point of view. After a detailed analysis of the work, he notes that the symphony is an 'extremely difficult problem for the performers.’ This difficulty was not helped by Bliss only having two rehearsals.

Higham’s general impression of A Colour Symphony was hardly encouraging. He seemed unable to discern the formal basis of each movement. He regards the tone-colour scheme as being too difficult to understand at ‘one sitting.’  But his critique gets worse – ‘the composer has evolved from his own inner consciousness something that is too abstruse for even the London Symphony Orchestra to interpret’. He concludes by stating that the Symphony ‘is clever’ and that it may ‘win the admiration of those who like cataclysmical outbursts’ – however he says that for the ‘rank-and-file of music lovers it must for some time remain an enigma.’

The critic of the Morning Post (8 September 1922) suggested that ‘Mr. Bliss’ ‘Colour Symphony, is frankly an experiment. He certainly shows much ingenuity in devising dissonances, but whether they produce any definite impression of colour is another matter.’ He concludes by wondering ‘whether experiments of this sort should be carried out in a Cathedral is a question on which there may be more than one opinion.'

The Westminster Gazette (R.J. Buckley) was totally unimpressed: ‘What the composer’s exact aim may be is problematical – not beauty assuredly and without beauty music has nothing attractive for some of us.’

The Daily Mail (8 September 1922) gives a succinct account of the new symphony. ‘...there are strong influences noticeable in this music. The temptation to keep on saying 'Stravinsky' was irresistible to some, and such a moment as the violently hammered close of the scherzo brought back 'The Rite of Spring.' The reviewer suggests that  ‘we can brush aside the 'colour' titles’...they do not help, and if there is anything in these analogies of colour, the titles apply equally to hundreds of other symphonies.’ His impression of the music was mixed – after a ‘disappointing’ first movement the scherzo had an ‘extraordinarily gay turbulence.’  He considered that the slow movement was in ‘pastoral vein’ and has ‘a range of poetry beyond any previous work of the composer’.  The finale was ‘a climax of proper daring and brilliance’. Finally the reviewer insisted that ‘the symphony left no one indifferent; and expressions of active dislike were free in the precincts and at the hotel luncheon tables,’ however he imagined that ‘the Three Choirs audience were bound to be a little baffled’.

An ultra-conservative view was taken by South Wales News: ‘Mr Bliss is a disciple or leader of the modernist school, which sets at defiance all established rules and practices of the art.’   He felt that the ‘result was beautiful in parts but completely bizarre and disturbing’. He considered that the performance suggested ‘a musicians’ workshop where experiments are being tried in unusual combinations of the sounds of instruments of the orchestra.’ He concluded by saying that the ‘old musicians shake their heads.’

An interesting review appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post. (8 September 1922). He begins by suggesting that ‘many ears accustomed to mellifluousness must have ached long before its thirty minutes of dissonance had expired. The Bliss Symphony lives in dissonances and ends its life in a blaze of them.’ However, this is not negative criticism.  He continues by noting that ‘it is the most remarkable work of symphonic proportions produced in recent years. It is the work of a live force, a composer to be reckoned with, whether or not we take kindly to his idiom...there can be no doubting the mastery with which Bliss uses the idiom he has chosen, for every point tells, and not a note can be said to run to waste...’

All respect has to be given to the views of the Manchester Guardian’s critic Samuel Langford writing the day following the concert. Concentrating on the ‘colour’ references.  He begins by noting that ‘those who expected a revelation or a miracle of association between colour and music in the 'Colour Symphony’ of Arthur Bliss would be disappointed. Bliss works through an association of ideas which are already familiar, and though it is claimed for him that he has a definite sensibility to the suggestions of colour in music, the listener will find this symphony quite lucid without calling upon any but the most normal associations of thought.’

Contrasted to other reviewers Langford considers that Bliss ‘delights in tunes, though they are not popular or fashionable to-day’ yet he feel that the work ‘rather eschews development as such, and assimilates to the sectional manner of dance music’.

After a detailed commentary on the four movements, he concludes by suggesting that ‘A Colour Symphony’ ‘is a great quickening to the English school of music to have such a man alive. The general public, despite its protests to the contrary, is apt to take all music of any difficulty with too much seriousness... but it will do much to leaven the dead lump of English music.’

Mr F. Bonavia writing in the Daily Telegraph (8 September 1922) suggested that in ‘his new 'Colour Symphony' Mr. Bliss uses his great skill to finer purpose than ever before. He has always been pointed and witty, but in the Symphony there is also a tenderness and delicacy that were lacking before’. Like a number of subsequent reviewers he notes that the Symphony is ‘unquestionably indebted to Stravinsky for some of his materials’ however he states that Bliss has ‘not attempted to borrow another man's tools and copy the other's style. He has refined and improved upon the older man's method, until it bears a totally different complexion and is capable of expressing ideas and feelings wholly foreign to the Russian. His never-failing sureness of touch, like the wealth of resource shown in every one of the four movements is a delight’.

However, once again Bonavia is alarmed by the work’s title. Wittily, he proposes that in relation to the ‘Red of the second movement which is the colour of rubies, wine revelry, furnaces, courage and magic, ‘it may be objected that red is also the colour of poppies, tomatoes, orangeade, shame and shyness, and there is apparently no sound reason why red should suggest one set of objects and feelings rather than another.

With thanks to the Arthur Bliss Society where this essay was first published in 2013

To be continued...

Sunday 4 September 2022

Arthur Bliss (1891-1975): The Early Reception of the Colour Symphony: Part 1

Introduction: The purpose of this paper is to examine the immediate critical reception of the first performance of A Colour Symphony at Gloucester one hundred years ago on 7 September 1922. The work was heard at the Thursday morning concert, and included Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’Extase, Parry’s Ode to Music and his motet ‘There is an old belief,’ Eugene Goossens’ new work for chorus and orchestra ‘Silence’ and Gustav Holst’s ‘Two Psalms’. This long concert concluded with Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Requiem’.  

The literature on Arthur Bliss’ A Colour Symphony is considerable. The easiest essay to access is Robert Meikle’s argument in the chapter ‘Metamorphic Variations: The Orchestral Music’ in Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (2002). This discussion includes a debate on the sense of colour and an analysis of the work in its 1932 revision.  Harder to consult is M. Adkins thesis, A Re-appraisal of A Colour Symphony by Arthur Bliss’ (1993) which remains unpublished. In a previous generation, Percy Scholes produced his A Few Notes upon the Work of Arthur Bliss and Especially upon his Colour Symphony (1922). Arthur Bliss’ recollections in his As I Remember (1970) are also important. There were many reviews of the Symphony in the musical journals and the press, however any student must be aware that critics writing before 1932 were discussing the original version of the work. 

The critical ambiguity concerning A Colour Symphony began some two months before the work’s first performance. Percy Scholes writing a detailed critique of the projected work in The Observer (30 July 1922) disingenuously suggested that the composer ‘yielded to the pressure of a friend (my italics) who had pointed out to him the advantage gained by...other composers in the use of distinctive titles’ for their symphonic essays. He cites Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetic’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ and ‘Pastoral’ as examples. Percy Scholes later expanded on this (quoted in Holbrooke, 1925) and stated that ‘the composer met me for a chat and in order that I might with him study the score of the new work... I urged upon him the abandonment of the vague title (Symphony) so far announced and the substitution of something more definite’.  Scholes then outlined the various theories propounded for the association of music and colour. These included the colour schemes devised by Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin.  He conceded that not everyone has these colour-key associations as is clear from the numerous disparities between the Rimsky Korsakov’s and Scriabin’s lists.

Scholes reports that Bliss had told him he ‘hears colour’ and ‘saw red’ whilst ‘frenziedly’ composing. He then elaborates on a number of examples of association between music and colour which he declares are universal. For example if we wished to suggest red, we would use the trumpet, if ‘blue of the midday ether or of a starlight night we should all perhaps agree on slow tremolo chords played by violins divisi’. Yet Percy Scholes seem to destroy his own argument by suggesting that he does not know if there is ‘some connection’ by direct association between music and colour or whether it is ‘via mood as a buffer state.’

Scholes then gives an analysis of each movement of the Symphony which includes the well-known symbolic correspondence between colour and gems and mood that is included in most programme notes for A Colour Symphony:-

Movement I Purple: The Colour of Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty and Death.

Movement II. Red: The Colour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage and Magic.

Movement III. Blue: The Colour of Sapphires, Deep Water, Skies, Royalty and Melancholy.

Movement IV. Green: The Colour of Emeralds, Hope, Joy, Youth, Spring and Victory.

So, from Percy Scholes point of view ‘A Colour Symphony’ was not only ‘distinctive but embodies a hint of an interesting personal confession which the composer had previously no intention of making public.’ This was to haunt the few early performances of the work until the revision of 1932.

Arthur Bliss has written about the genesis and the reception of his A Colour Symphony. In a broadcast talk on BBC Radio (2 March 1969) he noted that he ‘had produced rather a travesty of this [work] at the Gloucester Festival...’ He claimed that ‘the score was very difficult, the rehearsal time scanty, I was inexperienced as a conductor, the platform in the cathedral was not large enough to contain my huge orchestra.’ Bliss admitted that he ‘knew before hand that there would be something of a disaster.’ Writing for the sleeve note of the Decca (LXT5170) recording of the revised ‘A Colour Symphony’ which was released in 1955, the composer noted that Elgar had invited him to write a new work for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival. He states that the format of the symphony resulted from his fortuitous reading of a book on heraldry which explained the symbolical meaning associated with the various colours, purple, red, blue, green, etc.  He then gives a detailed explanation of each movement.

In his autobiography As I Remember (1970), Bliss had a slightly different recollection of this process. He suggested that ‘there was no attempt at a semi-scientific basis whatever, if there is such a thing.’ He realised that different colours ‘arouse quite different emotions in different people’ and concluded that he was speaking only for himself in this work. However, he did admit to being ‘won over by the argument put forward by Percy Scholes that I had found initial inspiration in the idea of colour, it was timid not to proclaim it.’

Josef Holbrooke in his quixotic book, Contemporary British Composers (1925) has taken an outspoken view on Bliss and A Colour Symphony. He prefaces his remarks by noting that Bliss is ‘a semi-wild young man, who has perpetrated some singular and comic music, which has shocked a lot of people – and also amused many’.  However he acknowledges that he is ‘very young, [and] we must not be impatient with him’. He notes that the ‘last effusion’ from Bliss’ pen is A Colour Symphony and regards it has ‘perhaps the most serious effort of the composer’ however he is ‘quite baffled to give any judgement. He suggests that ‘it follows his [Bliss’] own ideals in sound, which seem to us to be cacophony, and hardness of brilliance with “effect” written all over the four movements.’ He states that ‘melody, such as we know it, there seems to be no trace.’ In a side swipe, Holbrooke wonders is music is ‘going towards the region where description of colour, metallic effect and nursery things abound.’

With thanks to the Arthur Bliss Society where this essay was first published in 2013

To be continued...

Thursday 1 September 2022

Ernest Tomlinson (1924-2015): Silverthorn Suite

One of Ernest Tomlinson’s most delightful offerings is the short Silverthorn Suite, completed during the 1950s. Gardeners will know that Silverthorn is a large, fast-growing shrub that is often planted in hedgerows or along roads, as it can quickly give screening. Yet, despite the horticultural overtones, Tomlinson did not derive his title from any such pastoral musings. It is much more prosaic than that. Back in the day, when BT was called the GPO, telephone exchanges had names, rather than numbers. Many bore some relation their location, others did not. For example NAT was National and covered the City of London (Moorgate): REN was Renown for the Fulham area. At the time of writing the Suite, Tomlinson was living in Chingford, Essex. The telephone exchange there was SILverthorn. 

The Silverthorn Suite is written in three short movements, lasting for about ten minutes. The opening Alla Marcia is flamboyant and extravagantly scored. The middle section is a little more relaxed. The Marco Polo CD liner notes by Tim McDonald rightly point out that this march is “singularly un-martial in character, notwithstanding the prominence of a side-drum.” It is the sheer exuberance of the Essex countryside on a hot summer’s day. Evening comes with the second movement. This is a lushly orchestrated Canzonet. This title means quite simply “a little song” perhaps a light songs or short and simple air from an opera. Tomlinson has created a wistful little number that is “shot through with lyricism.”  It is the heart of this Suite. The finale is a Concert Jig, that is full of vivacity. Once again, the listener will be struck by the elaborate scoring and a sense of momentum as the work reaches its conclusion.

Ernest Tomlinson’s Silverthorn Suite can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223413. It has been uploaded to YouTube: Alla Marcia, Canzonet, Concert Jig.