Friday 30 June 2023

Of Delights and Passions: Chamber Music by Rutland Boughton

The present CD introduces the listener to a cross section of Rutland Boughton’s chamber music, ranging from the early Celtic Prelude to the post Second World War Trio for violin, violoncello, and piano. I am grateful to the excellent liner notes in the preparation of this review. Also helpful was Michael Hurd’s 1993 volume Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals

A few pointers to Rutland Boughton’s life and achievement may be of interest. He was born in Aylesbury on 23 January 1878. Twenty-two years later he entered the Royal College of Music to study with Stanford and Walford Davies. Sadly, academic rigour did not agree with him, and he left after year, to pursue his own interests. Under the auspices of Granville Bantock, he taught at the Midland Institute. In the early years of the 20th century, Boughton developed a desire to found a “British Bayreuth” at Glastonbury. The idea was to promulgate the legends of King Arthur. To this end he wrote a series of Arthurian operas/music dramas. Although the festival ran for a number of years, the proposed theatre was never built. His biggest success was his opera, The Immortal Hour based on the doings of nature spirits and fairies. Sadly, Boughton’s political views, which were left wing (he was a member of the Communist Party), may have led to the lack of financial interest in his project. Aside from opera, he composed much orchestral and concerted music, chamber works and several cantatas. Sadly, most of his oeuvre remains unheard in our day.

Jeremy Dibble has succinctly summed up Boughton’s musical aesthetic: “[His] style ranges from the genuinely symphonic (as in the Third Symphony of 1937) to the naively simple…underpinned by a conservative harmonic vocabulary symptomatic of his socialist realism.” (The Oxford Companion to Music). Rutland Boughton died on 25 January 1960.

It is unbelievable that the Trio for violin, violoncello, and piano, written in 1948, was not performed until the present ensemble played it at a lunchtime recital in Aylesbury, during March 2019. It is presented in two balanced movements, played without a break. The opening Allegretto sostenuto packs many moods into its progress. There are nods to the English pastoral school, as well as moments that are angry, tempestuous, but eventually triumphant. The movement ends in peace. Immediately following, is a bouncy “scherzo” which is both “extrovert and slightly comical.” Boughton runs with four themes, not quite contrasting, but always rewarding. The Trio concludes with an uplifting coda, Piu Allegro, which seals the optimistic conclusion to this remarkable work.

There is no doubt that Boughton’s Sonata in D major for violin and piano is “an impressive and virtuoso work, structured on a grand scale.”  It was completed at Glastonbury during May 1921, and was dedicated to the violinist Désirée Ames. The entire sonata can be construed as a “love letter” to Boughton’s third partner Kathleen Davis. Each movement is prefaced by a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Whether this volume’s consideration of the Übermensch, the death of God, the will to power, and eternal recurrence, is a suitable source for a romantic offering remains to be seen. I looked up the quotations in Michael Hurd’s biography: I am not sure I understand Boughton’s drift. Perhaps it is the translation of Nietzsche’s text that is difficult. Hurd wonders if the Sonata does not live up to the promise of its thematic material. He gives an example of the beautiful slow movement “dissipating its strength in a trivial folk-dance ending.” It does seem to be a characteristic of the entire work: bold material petering out. Yet, it caused me no problems, and made an interesting change to the “big finish.” In fact, it mirrors the quixotic mind of the composer. Stylistically, this Sonata nods to Brahms and Franck rather than anything more modern.

Whether one agrees with a contemporary reviewer in the Daily Telegraph (8 February 1922) that “the music [flows] from the words which the composer has taken as his motto,” one cannot deny that the overall impact is “a work of vigour and vision.” The present violinist told me that Boughton writes well for the violin and shows great understanding of its possibilities and strengths. She considered that this virtuosic sonata is appealing to the listener as well as being extremely enriching to perform. Certainly, Jane Faulkner has created a convincing and substantial account of this imaginative work. Hopefully, it will remain in her repertoire for many years.

The Sonata for violoncello and piano is another late composition, completed in 1948. It was also dedicated to Kathleen Davis. Davis was an accomplished singer as well as a composer and cellist. Once again, the liner notes offer no indication that this Sonata was performed in Davis’s lifetime. It is suggested that it “may have been more difficult than she could play.” The work was premiered in 2010 at a recital in Hitchin. The general mood of the piece is introspective, especially in the long Poco adagio. Yet here and there bursts of passion explode through the typically dark progress. There is even a hint of Celtic wistfulness. The opening movement has two contrasting themes, one “declamatory” and the other “playful.” The development section is full of rhythmic variety, leading to a Largamente climax, with the spirited tune now transformed. The finale is a jig, with a thoughtful middle section, which recalls the Adagio. This is a splendid sonata, full of life, variety, and technical wizardry. It is incredible to believe that such a striking work has remained in the shadows for three quarters of a century. It is given a stunning performance by Pál Banda, cello, and Timothy Ravenscroft, piano.

The Celtic Prelude was composed in 1917, whilst Boughton was on active service with the Cambridgeshire Regiment. It was originally part of incidental music from W.B. Yeats’s’ play, The Land of Heart’s Desire. It is through-written with various contrasting sections including a folk dance and a “tender and dreamy” moment. It makes use of modal tunes and gentle harmonies. Michael Hurd suggested that it was “pleasant rather than powerful.” I find this a delightful miniature that does indeed create the mood of the Celtic Twilight.

Sadly, Boughton’s proposed Celtic Sonata never came to fruition. It would have been dedicated to The Sonata Players. He did, however, write the short Winter Sun for them. It was premiered by the dedicatees on 4 February 1934. The liner notes explain that it was based on Boughton’s eponymous orchestral piece completed in 1932. It “can be considered as a meditation on the tragic story of Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat.” As all enthusiasts of Arthuriana will recall, this Lady of Shalott was deserted by Lancelot, after she had nursed him back to health. Winter Sun is not programmatic but is a deeply felt musing, and packs a wide variety of emotions into its four-minute duration. The opening and closing sections present frosty music.

I was impressed by the English Piano Trio’s performance of all these pieces. The recording is outstanding. Like all EM Records, the liner notes are ideal. There is a brief introduction to the composer by Ian R Boughton, the composer’s grandson. The detailed and informative programme notes are by members of the English Piano Trio. There is a resume of the ensemble.

There is nothing difficult in these five works: but challenge is not the be all and end all of a listener’s pleasure. What Rutland Boughton provides is enjoyable and inspiring music that is characterised by melodic interest, well-devised formal structures and satisfying harmonies.

Track Listing:
Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)

Trio for violin, violoncello, and piano (1948)
Sonata in D major for violin and piano (1921)
Sonata for violoncello and piano (1948)
Celtic Prelude (The Land of Heart’s Desire) for violin, violoncello, and piano (1917)
Winter Sun for violin and piano (1933)
English Piano Trio: Jane Faulkner (violin), Pál Banda (cello), Timothy Ravenscroft (piano)
rec. 23-25 March 2022, SJE Arts, Oxford, England
EM Records EMR CD081

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Rutland Boughton: Love Duet from The Immortal Hour

There are many ways to approach a composer. In my case, I came to the music of Rutland Boughton by way of the superb Symphony No.3 in B minor (1937) which I heard broadcast on Radio Three some four decades ago. It is a work that I immediately fell in love with and still regard as one of my favourite British Symphonies. However, I imagine that many people will have first heard of the composer through his wonderful opera, The Immortal Hour

The composer and (maverick) music critic Josef Holbrooke was a little ambivalent to Boughton’s music. Writing in 1925 he suggested that “his Female Suffrage songs and his Labour ditties did not prognosticate such an ethereal morsel and spiritual entertainment as the music-drama, The Immortal Hour.” A paragraph later Holbrooke is proposing that “Uncouth is much of Boughton...,” yet a few words later he suggests that “the gods came to him in the songs...” in this work.

The history of the opera can be briefly noted. The libretto was adapted from a verse-drama by Fiona Macleod, who was the literary pseudonym of William Sharp. It is based on a legendary Irish story relating the loves of Etain, who is a girl of the Faery Folk, and Eochaidh, the King. Etain is summoned by Midir, prince of faery to the Land of Heart’s Desire. Behind the thoughts and deeds of all the characters lurks Dalua, ‘the Shadow that lies behind life.’ Holbrooke defines the relationship of words and music – “The poems...are of the slightest and most ethereal. Nothing in music is more refined and delicate than the orchestral score of the Immortal Hour.”  It is well said.

The opera was first performed on 26 August 1914 during the Summer Festival of the Glastonbury Festival School. It was conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott, however, at that event there was only a piano accompaniment. The composer sang the role of Dalua, the shadow God, due to one of the singers being indisposed. It has been revived a number of times since –most notably in London in 1922/23 and on New York in 1926. A recording of the opera was made in 1984 and is currently available on Hyperion CDD22040.

The music of the Love Duet begins just before fig.121 in the vocal score and is part of Scene 2. It is at the point that Manus and Maive are discussing a stranger who has visited them and given them three pieces of silver –one piece for Etain, who is also in the house, one for any stranger who may visit and one piece for their silence. Etain laments the beauty of her Faery world. A horn is heard and Eochaidh enters the hut. He sees Etain. Together they sing their love. The whole sequence of the music is haunted by the lovely phrase below:  

Surely this is one of the loveliest tunes written by any Englishman. It is reminiscent of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Boughton has not transcribed the whole passage: he omits some of the music supporting recitative. The climax comes shortly before the point where the couple sing the words ‘The years, the bitter years of all the world are now no more.’ The extract continues with the lovely music accompanying the words, ‘Dear Lord, sit here, I am weary.’ Finally, the music closes with ‘a strange faraway look coming into Etain’s eyes and Eochaidh quietly singing Etain, dear love!

The Love Duet was arranged by the composer and was duly published by Stainer & Bell in 1923. It was also available in a version for piano solo.

"Love Duet" (From THE IMMORTAL HOUR) arr. by the composer for orchestra Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ronald Corp (Dan Godfrey Encores: Dutton Epoch CDLX7276)

Saturday 24 June 2023

Gerald Hendrie: Complete Organ Music Volume 1

Gerald Hendrie is an English scholar, composer, organist, pianist, and harpsichordist. There is a Wikipedia article, here as well as a short biography provided by The Society of Old Framlinghamians, here. Hendrie himself gives a good introduction to his life and times in the booklet included in the present CD, available to download at the Toccata Records webpage. I am beholden to it in the preparation of my review. 

Le Tombeau de Marcel Dupré was written over a two-year period, 1990-92. It consists of three preludes/toccata and fugues, and Two Sketches on the name BACH. Hendrie insists that they are not “parodies” of Dupré’s remarkable Trois Préludes et Fugues, op.7 (c.1912) (not 1918 as stated in the liner notes) or his Deux Equisses, issued in 1946. Yet even a cursory hearing suggests that the Frenchman was a model: they “hold up a mirror to them and endeavour to reflect something of the style and spirit of each.”  The opening Toccata displays the virtuosic passage work in both pedals and manuals typical of the genre. The Fugue is quite jazzy and ends with a jazz players added sixth chord. The following Prelude and Fugue is quiet, slow, and restrained. The third example, in G minor, presents a rapid, but sustained will o’ the wisp Prelude, followed by an energetic Fugue. It is based on the notes B-A-C-H and its retrograde. Equally airy is the first of the Two Sketches on BACH, whereas the second is “bold and dramatic” bringing the sequence to a stunning conclusion.

I am not sure whether Le Tombeau de Marcel Dupré ought to be played as a collection or whether it is fine to excerpt. To be sure, the preludes/toccata and fugues were all published separately. On the other hand, it is satisfying to hear the complete work. It lasts for about 34 minutes.

The Sicilienne: Hommage à Maurice Duruflé was finished in 2022 and was dedicated to the present recitalist. As the title suggests, it was inspired by the eponymous movement from the French composer’s Suite, op.5 dating from 1933. Both are episodic in structure and use a similar “lilting rhythm.” It is a beautiful tribute.

qually convincing is the Choral: Hommage à César Franck written in 1990. It commemorated one hundred years since his death. Hendrie’s methodology was to study Franck’s organ music as well as the Prelude, Aria, and Finale for piano to create a Chorale No.4 in C minor as a pendant to the Trois Chorals completed by the Belgian in the last year of his life. Hendrie’s Hommage is a long work, lasting nearly 14 minutes. It is sectionalised, with a slow introspective opening, a loud bridge passage leading to a reflective ‘choral’ and then slowly but surely building up to a restrained climax and then continuing with rapid figuration and a powerful peroration. The piece subsides to end quietly. My only concern was to wonder when it was to “get going,” but once it did, it certainly blows the cobwebs out of the organ pipes.

Specula Petro (loosely translated as Mirrors of Peter) is a twelve-tone composition. The composer states that it was “much influenced” by Olivier Messiaen’s Livre d’orgue (1951) and Malcolm Williamson’s Fons Amoris (1955-56). Certainly, Hendrie has used the serial method to define “pitch, rhythm and structure.” The impact of the work is characterised by a series of short, but contrasting, “statements.” It would make a splendid recital piece, appealing to folk that may find the Messiaen exemplar a wee bit long.

The final work on this CD is the Sonata: In Praise of St Asaph/Mawl i Asaff Sant completed in 1994. It was dedicated to the memory of the late William Mathias who had died in 1992. The four movements look at various aspects of St Asaph’s career. Hendrie explains that his sonata is “partly twelve-note and partly tonal.”  The opening movement reflects St Asaph’s call to his vocation, “anguished at first” but soon becoming tranquil. Plainchant is used here. The brilliant rough and tumble Fugue follows, reflecting “the vigour and rough simplicity of everyday medieval life,” but still dominated by the church. The Interlude, which has hints of Messiaen’s more contemplative music, is quite lovely. It represents St Asaph at prayer, possibly in the monastery founded by St Kentigern (or Mungo). The finale is a “paean…of praise for St Asaph.” Use is made of the Scottish hymn tune St Asaph in this toccata’s progress. It is a big, powerful statement, clearly designed to “bring the church down.” The entire sonata represents the holy man’s journey from darkness to light and from denial to acceptance.

The comprehensive liner notes, compiled by Gerald Hendrie, also include “reflections” on the music by Tom Winpenny.

The recital is performed on the Harrison and Harrison organ built in 1962. It was the first English cathedral instrument “to be voiced and built on neo-classical lines.” A full history of the instrument, as well as the all-important specification is given in the booklet. The recording well reflects the ambience of St Alban’s Cathedral.

Gerald Hendrie has a great champion in Tom Winpenny, who is currently Assistant Master of Music at St Alban’s Cathedral. He gives a committed and technically outstanding performance of each piece.

I look forward to hearing the subsequent volume of this cycle of organ music.

Track Listing:
Gerald Hendrie (b.1935)

Le Tombeau de Marcel Dupré (1990-92)
Sicilienne: Hommage à Maurice Duruflé (2022)
Choral: Hommage à César Franck (1990)
Specula Petro (1968)
Sonata: In Praise of St Asaph/Mawl i Asaff Sant (1994)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 1-2 June 2022, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK.
Toccata Classics TOCC0684

Wednesday 21 June 2023

The Reception of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ In the Fen Country Part 2

First Proms Performance: In the Fen Country had to wait until Thursday 28 August 1969 before its first and only (at 2015) appearance at a Promenade Concert. The work featured alongside the world premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Worldes Blis, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Charles Groves conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

John Warrack, in his programme note makes a number of pertinent observations about In the Fen Country. Firstly, the composer’s belief that through folksong he would be able to find the ‘roots of a personal style and a hope for English musical independence,’ led to critics accusing him of ‘homespun parochialism.’ Secondly, Vaughan Williams not only used folksong (and Tudor music) as he found it but absorbed ‘the characteristics into a musical idiom that could range wider than the simple folksong or even the impressionistic piece.’ And thirdly, the work represented what was RVWs first surviving attempt to synthesise folk melody with symphonic development. Warrack observes that In the Fen Country ‘is something of a pioneer period piece... [and] its rondo-like construction on a folk-like tune of Vaughan Williams’s own is in no way sophisticated, the music has a harmonic range, an alertness and a feeling for colour that were new in English music at the time, and reflect a proper sense of artistic responsibility.’

Edward Greenfield in his review of the Prom concert for The Guardian (29 August 1969) devoted most space to the Maxwell Davies premiere. He reports simply that Charles Groves conducted the ‘rarely heard In the Fen Country (surprisingly a favourite of Beecham’s).’ The Times (29 August 1969) was equally sparing in its comment: Stanley Sadie felt that the work was one ‘of the freshest and most poetic of his [RVWs] folk song works.’

Academic review: Frank Howes (1954) asserted that In the Fen Country displayed impressionism like that ‘being applied at the turn of the century to instrumental music for piano and orchestra, especially to any music that derived its inspiration from visual impressions.’ Unlike the Norfolk Rhapsodies, it does not quote a genuine folksong. He proposes that the formal characteristic of the work is that of a ‘simple rondo’ where instead of the classical ‘episodes’ there are ‘developments from the simple and almost unadorned melody to a very complex and impressionistically orchestrated texture.’

Like most other critics he points out that this is the composer’s ‘first orchestral work’ [recognised by the composer] and that it is an ‘attempt to achieve by means of the current practises of nationalism…an independence of German symphonic methods.’

A.E.F. Dickinson (1963) gives a detailed technical analysis of the work. He begins his study with a misconception: that the title ‘evokes a-wandering in Norfolk…’ A definition of ‘Fen Country’ implies land lying around the coast of the Wash; it reaches into six counties including parts of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, a small area of Suffolk, Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. So, it could refer to the exploration of a wide range of places. Dickinson denies Simona Pakenham’s description of the work giving ‘a truthful impression of that flat wind-swept East Coast.’ RVW had encouraged ‘her to ‘dig’ that coast for origins.’  He repudiates the existence of any East Anglian folk-tune characteristics in the music. Wittily, he implies that if the composer had entitled the work ‘‘Mist over Russell Square,’ it would not have sounded less characteristic.’ The use of the modal idiom has ‘no more monopoly in Norfolk than in Transylvania.’ What the composer had in mind was ‘orchestral colour’ rather than folksong defining the topography.

James Day (1998) believes that In the Fen Country is ‘a curious, often attractive, yet uncertain amalgam of Vaughan Williams’s ‘pre-Raphaelite’ style with his newly-emerging folksong based melodic idiom.’ Day continues, ‘As a piece of orchestral landscape evocation, the work is excitingly original if it is rather uneven in quality.’ He based this opinion on the disparity between the ‘folk-song-like themes’ and ‘the post-Wagnerian harmonic support.’ The work is ‘an uneasy and unintegrated pattern of meandering downward-gliding chromaticisms, unstable tonality and some rather aimless imitative writing.’ The composer has not ‘reconciled the harmonic and rhythmic implications of his thematic material and the demands of traditional form.’

Despite these stylistic issues, Day recognises that the ‘first faltering steps have been taken towards his mature style.’ 

Michael Vaillancourt presented the most significant discussion of In the Fen Country to date, in his essay ‘Coming of Age: the earliest orchestral music of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (Frogley, 1996). Firstly, he reminds readers that this is the ‘only one of his early orchestral works that he did not withdraw.’  He notes the various revisions, with the final orchestration ‘…[achieving] a luminosity of texture and beauty of tonal colour far beyond that found in any of the early orchestral works.’ After a detailed description of the formal, melodic, and harmonic structure of the work, he comments on the ‘gradual fading into nothingness’ of the ending. This was to become a characteristic of Vaughan Williams’s music. In the Fen Country ‘represents the composer in full control of his material.’ Vaillancourt feels that there is ‘a compelling relationship between the various facets of musical expression, with melody, harmony and orchestration fused to a degree not yet encountered in a large-scale Vaughan Williams composition.’ It is fair to add that the work as ‘received’ was subject to the above-mentioned revisions over thirty years, well into the composer’s maturity.

In The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (2013), Alain Frogley examines the ‘History and geography: the early orchestral works and the first three symphonies.’ As part of this study, he explores the post-1902 works that ‘carry programmatic titles specifying particular geographical locations.’  These works divide conveniently into two groups – whether they make ‘clear reference to English folk song,’ either alluded to or quoted directly. In the Fen Country falls into this latter group – where the musical material ‘evokes’ but does not cite folk-song.

All RVWs early orchestral works tend to share ‘an intensified interest in modal harmony, combined with more chromatic elements in sometimes experimental ways…’ Frogley points out that In the Fen Country has the ‘awkward combination of Wagnerian or Straussian chromaticism, fleeting echoes of Debussy…’  He believes that in order ‘to generate momentum from contemplative musical material’ it ‘relies too heavily on imitation or strained modulations…’ Yet it retains ‘many compelling and beautiful passages and sustains its sense of musical direction overall.’

Discographic Overview: This essay does not propose to examine all versions of In the Fen Country that have been commercially recorded. However, it is interesting that the first recording made of this work was not until 1968, ten years after the composer’s death. It was released by HMV ASD 2393 and featured Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The LP included the Pastoral Symphony with the soprano Margret Price featured in the final movement. ‘T.H.’ (Trevor Harvey) writing in The Gramophone (September 1968) was impressed by this new record. He writes, ‘I cannot think that you will be bored by this performance, the very best of Boult – unless, of course, you would hate the idea of lying on your back on the Downs watching the clouds floating by.’ This is a dated view of the Pastoral Symphony which many commentators regard as being the Vaughan Williams’ ‘War Symphony’ rather than ‘frisking with lambkins.’  When he considered In the Fen Country, he felt that this was not a good coupling – ‘…for it is more slow music.’ He thought that despite the revisions it ‘remain[s] an undistinguished piece – not nearly as good as the Norfolk Rhapsody [No.1] ...’ He regarded it as a ‘pity…that it is put at the end of side 2 as an ‘encore’’ as the listener must ‘jump up quickly’ to turn the record player off after having enjoyed the ‘niente’ of the symphony. Two months later (The Gramophone November 1968) Robert Layton agrees with his colleague about this ‘early and not particularly strong piece’ though he was ‘glad’ to have heard it on record.

A quarter of a century later, Michael Kennedy, (The Gramophone April 1992) reviewing Ross Pople and the London Festival Orchestra’s CD (ASV CDDCA 779) of RVWs orchestral music was more fulsome in his praise of the work – ‘The extraordinary feature of In the Fen Country…is that was written at the start of Vaughan Williams’s own folk-song collecting career, yet is imbued with the spirit of folk-song without ever quoting any.’ Interestingly, he suggests that it is ‘a forerunner of A Pastoral Symphony, although the scoring is richer and fuller.’ He reminds the reader that Thomas Beecham ‘liked the work’ which successfully evoked ‘the amazing skies of East Anglia as much as its landscape.’

Conclusion: In the Fen Country deserves to be at the forefront of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ achievement. Although no actual folksong is used in this work, it is inspired by modal melodies and harmonies: it breathes the spirit of the English landscape and its inhabitants. The progress of the work is from the simple opening woodwind melody to a complex structure and then back to stasis. Into this musical canvas Vaughan Williams has absorbed influences from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, and Delius, but has synthesised this to create what is an engaging example of English Pastoral infused with impressionism. The work is not based on any locality in East Anglia, nevertheless the mood of the music does evoke a sense of wide skyscapes and lonely places.
Finally, if there is a topographical inspiration it is more likely to be the countryside around Ely as implied by Ursula Vaughan Williams rather than the flat wind-swept coast of Norfolk advocated by Simona Pakenham.

Select Bibliography:
Day, James, Master Musicians: Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Dickinson A.E.F., Vaughan Williams (London, Faber & Faber, 1963)
Foss, Hubert, Vaughan Williams: A Study (London, Harrap, 1950)
Frogley, Alain, (ed.) Vaughan Williams Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
Frogley, Alain & Thomson, Aidan J. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Howes, Frank, The Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1954)
Kennedy, Michael, A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams 2nd Edition, (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Marshall, Em, Music in the Landscape (London, Robert Hale, 2011).
Pakenham, Simona, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Discovery of his Music (London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1957)
Vaughan Williams, Ursula, R. V. W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964)
The files of The Musical Times, The Times, The Manchester Guardian, The Athenaeum, The Gramophone etc.


With thanks to the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue 65 February 2016, where this essay was first published.

Sunday 18 June 2023

The Reception of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ In the Fen Country Part 1

Introduction: I often turn to Simona Pakenham’s Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Discovery of his Music (1957) when I need to gain an overview of one of the composer’s works. Pakenham declared that she sought to ‘pass on to ordinary listeners like myself some of the joy I discovered when I found out the existence of Vaughan Williams,’ (cited, 9 December 2010 Daily Telegraph). She writes: ‘[In the Fen Country] is a work of some importance, for it bears the outward shape of so many of his compositions – that of a gradual ascent from a grey, still quietness to a glowing climax and back again to silence.’ Another interesting observation is her belief that the landscape of the ‘flat land of East Anglia…would seem to have had a more lasting effect on the pictorial landscape painting of Vaughan Williams’s music than the lusher beauty of his own Gloucestershire.’

She concludes her evaluation of the work by suggesting it is ‘a truthful impression of that flat wind-swept East Coast, where the largest wildflowers in England grow and the most romantic wading birds inhabit, and which you either loathe, or love from the bottom of your soul.’ 

One of the latest assessments of the work is by Em Marshall in Music in the Landscape (2011). In the Fen Country was ‘The earliest work to demonstrate the suffusion of folksong into his [RVWs] own voice...’ Marshall writes that:

 ‘It features folk-like melodies of Vaughan Williams’s own invention, and the pastoral feel is reinforced by the use of the bucolic and rural-sounding oboe, generating an air of mystery. The result is a work that exudes the spaciousness and tranquillity of the broad, flat countryside with which the composer was so familiar.’

Genesis: The facts about In the Fen Country, Symphonic Impression (originally Prelude) for Orchestra are straightforward. The work was subject to a number of revisions. Michael Kennedy (1996) quotes an inscription on the final page of the manuscript: ‘Finished April 10, 1904’; ‘Revised Feb. 28, 1905’; ‘Again revised Dec. 21st, 1905’; ‘Further revised July 29th, 1907’; ‘Orchestration revised 1935’.

The work was dedicated to R.L.W., the composer’s cousin Sir Ralph Wedgewood. The MS of the full score and piano arrangement is lodged in the British Library. These carry the title in French: ‘Dans les landes d’Angleterre, Impression Symphonique.’ In the Fen Country is scored for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, solo violin, and strings. The full score was not published until 1969 (Oxford University Press).

In the Fen Country was composed at a time when Vaughan Williams had begun to collect folksong in the Eastern counties of England. In December 1903 he visited Charles Potiphar’s cottage in the Essex town of Ingrave and heard ‘Bushes and Briars.’ Further work was done in Surrey and even Barton Street in Westminster. The early part of 1904 saw RVW collecting in Essex once again. The ‘field days’ to Norfolk did not begin until January 1905 and to Cambridgeshire in August 1906.

Other works written at this time included in 1903, Willow-Wood for baritone (or mezzo-soprano) and orchestra (or piano), the well-loved songs ‘Silent Noon’ and ‘Orpheus with his Lute’, and the Quintet in C minor. The following year saw the Symphonic Rhapsody (manuscript destroyed), the Ballade and Scherzo for string quintet and the two important song cycles The House of Life (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) and Songs of Travel (Robert Louis Stevenson). During this period Vaughan Williams composed two of a projected Four Impressions for Orchestra: ‘Burley Heath’ and ‘The Solent’ (1903) as well as Two Impressions for Orchestra, ‘Harnham Down’ and ‘Boldre Wood.’ (1904). The three extant works (‘Boldre Wood’ does not survive) have been successfully revived in recent years.

I believe that the clue to the genesis of In the Fen Country lies in Vaughan Williams’ exploration of the Cambridgeshire countryside whilst studying at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1892-95. Ursula Vaughan Williams (1964) writes that during this period ‘One winter, the frosts were so hard that is was possible to skate from Cambridge to Ely,’ implying that Vaughan Williams made this journey. Ely was an important focal point for RVW - he often travelled there to attend Choral Matins on summer Sundays. She recalls that ‘the exciting moment when the towered hill [Ely Cathedral] appeared from the surrounding fens was one that never ceased to delight him.’ This topography is more pertinent to the music than Pakenham’s ‘…flat wind-swept East Coast…’

It is not possible to recover the early incarnations of In the Fen Country, nor I believe would it be wise to. Unlike the orchestral works written prior to this, RVW had a soft spot for the work, which clearly led him to make a number of revisions as his compositional technique matured. Hubert Foss (1950) proposes that ‘Nothing we can do now will bring back to us those first sounds, the spirits of those players.’  Foss muses poetically that the ‘frigid, misty mornings that make the journey from Cambridge to Ely so soul-searching a trek are portrayed here.’ Like Pakenham, he points out that the landscape of Severn and Gloucestershire are ignored in this work. He remarks that: ‘In this flat and watery part of England the sea is always near, the waters seep into the land, the tang of Holland [presumably the historical subdivision of Lincolnshire and not the Netherlands] stings the nostrils.’

Premiere: The premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s In the Fen Country was given at the Queen’s Hall on 22 February 1909. Thomas Beecham conducted the newly constituted The Beecham Orchestra. Vaughan Williams’ orchestral work was up against formidable opposition. Other works heard that night included Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and his ‘Te Deum,’ Roland Rogers’ part-song ‘Storm’ and Frederick Delius’ Sea Drift. The soloist in this last work was the baritone, Frederic Austin. The choral parts were sung by the North Staffordshire Choral Society. It is interesting that Beecham was no lover of the folk-song school of music, yet he did take RVWs work to heart and gave occasional performances of this work well into his later years.

The reviewer of the premiere in The Times (23 February 1909) noted that:

 ‘Dr. Vaughan Williams’s new work is called a ‘symphonic impression’ and has for title ‘In the Fen Country.’ It is something more than a musical landscape, and though the theme is fragrant of the soil, it appears to be only in the style of folk-music, not an actual specimen. The treatment of the theme and its derivation is remarkably powerful, and all the composer’s orchestral devices make their full effect. His progressions are often bold but are never impertinent; and if all the new school of composers knew how to use their tools as well as he does, the outlook for the future would be a good deal brighter than it is.’ 

He concludes by regretting that there was not ‘a huge audience to welcome the [re]formation of a fifth regular orchestra in London.’

The Athenaeum (27 February 1909) reported the novelty at Mr. Thomas Beecham’s ‘first concert of his second series on Monday evening’. The ‘theme heard both at the beginning and the end of the tone-poem clearly indicates a plaintive mood, and so, indeed, do all the fresh themes introduced.’ The reviewer laments the fact that the composer has ‘given no clue beyond the title’ as to the works inspiration. He submits that the more the listener hears ‘modern music,’ the more a programme is needed, especially when the work is an ‘Impression.’  Other genres include sonatas, rondos and song-form pieces which allows the listener to follow the progress of the music. When a work is based on a text or ‘as it seems here, a pictorial basis’ it ought to be revealed to the listener ‘since form and mood or moods are determined by it.’  Without the formal structure or the text, there is a danger that the score is ‘…bound to be, and to remain vague.’ He concedes that ‘Dr. Williams’s music…is cleverly put together and picturesque in its scoring.’

The less-than-enthusiastic review in The Observer (28 February 1909) proposed that In the Fen Country:

 ‘…is almost insidiously egotistical in the manner in which it keeps to the little modal theme forming the basis of its structure. The composer has such a quivering sensitiveness for the affected turns and graces of his tune that the delicate harmonic devices with which he clothes it scarcely suffice to disguise its naïve candour.’ He finishes by noting that the ‘work was pleasant enough hearing.’

The Musical Times (April 1909) commented:

A 'symphonic impression ' - as it was styled in the programme - In the Fen Country, by Dr. Vaughan Williams, was performed for the first time, and is a highly creditable product of the composer's thoughtful and imaginative attainments. It is a meditative and moody composition relieved by a fine, strong climax, which, if not of obvious significance, is at least fully interesting as absolute music.’

Select Bibliography:
Day, James, Master Musicians: Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Dickinson A.E.F., Vaughan Williams (London, Faber & Faber, 1963)
Foss, Hubert, Vaughan Williams: A Study (London, Harrap, 1950)
Frogley, Alain, (ed.) Vaughan Williams Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
Frogley, Alain & Thomson, Aidan J. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Howes, Frank, The Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1954)
Kennedy, Michael, A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams 2nd Edition, (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Marshall, Em, Music in the Landscape (London, Robert Hale, 2011).
Pakenham, Simona, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Discovery of his Music (London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1957)
Vaughan Williams, Ursula, R. V. W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964)
The files of The Musical Times, The Times, The Manchester Guardian, The Athenaeum, The Gramophone etc.

To be continued…

With thanks to the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue 65 February 2016 where this essay was first published.

Thursday 15 June 2023

György Ligeti: Complete Works for A Cappella Choir

For listeners who know some of György Ligeti’s orchestral music or his chamber works, this two-disc CD may come as a surprise. Apart from Lux Aeterna, the Hungarian Etudes and the Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin all these pieces may at first hearing seem traditional and uncomplicated. Certainly, there is a well-defined lyricism in the folksong inspired numbers, which may well be absent from the composer’s exploitation of complex polyphony, massive cluster chords and an emphasis on timbre, rather than harmony, melody, and rhythm. To be sure, now, and again something in these “folksongs” seems to push outwards towards Ligeti’s more mature style. 

Throughout his career, Ligeti composed a cappella music for amateurs, church, workers, and professional choirs. These were often organised by the Béla Bartók Association, and featured music from the Renaissance to the 20th century. There were also large choral works such as the Requiem for soprano and mezzo-soprano solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1963–65), the Adventures (1962) and the Nouvelles Adventures (1962-65) for voices and instrumental ensemble.

A few general remarks may be of interest. Firstly, most of these pieces are settings of Hungarian texts. Ligeti’s preferred poets were Bálint Balassa (1554-1594) and Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). Several use “found” folksongs and others use elements of this style such as pentatonic scales, frequent changes of rhythm and unusual time signatures. The liner notes help us approach these pieces with useful advice. It states that Ligeti wanted to “realise the respective contents to music programmatically but focussed especially on particular phonetic sound sequences, rhythms, intonations and accentuations of the Hungarian language.” Furthermore, it is felt that “translations of this speech music are nigh on impossible” and in some cases “even dispensable as you do not have to understand the words in order to experience the choral works as music that is rich in tone colours, rhythmically concise and extremely expressive.”  That said, I would recommend a quick scan of the English translations just to get a clue as to the flavour of the piece.

Secondly, the listener will detect the influence of Béla Bartók in the earlier numbers in this collection. This is hardly surprising as the elder composer was a forerunner in the (re)discovery of folk music from the Austro-Hungarian empire, which at that time included Romania and much of the Balkans. Other influences include Zoltán Kodály and possibly Mátyás Seiber.

And thirdly, it is important that the listener recognize the political ramifications of Ligeti’s art. He began composing in the dark days of Nazism, then he suffered the censorship of his work by the Soviets and was affected by the impact of Socialist Realism. After the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 he fled with his wife to Austria and then on to Cologne. And then there was his meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen in that German city…

There are fifty-two pieces included in this album. I do not intend to comment on each. As can be seen from the track listing, there are several sets or groups. I do not know what logic was used to devise the order of the tracks. I wish it could have been chronological, and that is how I approached my review. That said, most of the numbers on this CD were composed in the 1940s and 1950s. Only the haunting Lux Aeterna (1966), the Hungarian Etudes (1983) and the Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin (1982) were written many years later. These three works, which promulgate an avant-garde aesthetic, are placed last on CD2. Enthusiasts of the composer will claim that these present the “real” Ligeti.

The liner notes, devised by contemporary music specialist, Rainer Nonnenmann, provide a detailed study of this repertoire. All the works are set in their cultural and political milieu. The texts of all the songs are given, along with an English translation. The only exception to this is the Drei Phantasien, which are printed in German only.

The radio choir of Südwestrundfunk (Southwest Broadcasting) was established 75 years ago. Their chief conductor, Yuval Weinberg, has been in post since 2020. They give immaculate performances of these widely diverse pieces. They are clearly sympathetic to Ligeti’s music in all its manifestations.

Before reviewing this 2 CD set, I knew little about the sheer variety of Ligeti’s a cappella works. These range from the avant-garde to music that could almost have been heard in cathedrals during the 1500s and even earlier with plainsong. Take these songs two or three at a time. Through-listening will deprive the listener of the magic and wonder that these often-beautiful pieces stimulate. There is much loveliness here. Despite some arguing that this album will only be of interest to Ligeti enthusiasts and completists, there really is something for everyone here. It adds a great deal to our appreciation of one of the most important 20th century composers.

Track Listing:
György Ligeti (1926-2006)
Disc 1

Haj, ifjusag! (Hey, Youth!) (1952)
Pápainé (Mrs. Pápai) (1953)
Kállai kettős (Couple Dances from Kálló): No. 1. Felülről fúj az őszi szél (The autumn wind blows from above); No. 2. Eb fél, kutya fél (Only a dog is afraid) (1950)
Mátraszentimrei dalok (Songs from Mátraszentimre): No. 1. Három hordó (Three Barrels); No. 2. Igaz szerelem (True Love); No. 3. Gomb, gomb (Button, Button); No. 4. Erdöbe, erdöbe (In the Woods) (1955)
Magány (Solitude) (1946)
Éjszaka, Reggel (Night, Morning): No.1 Éjszaka (Night); No.2 Reggel (Morning) (1955)
Húsvét (Easter) (1946)
Betlehemi királyok (Kings of Bethlehem) (1945-46)
Chorlied nach Goethe (Choir Song after Goethe) (1942)
A varró lányok (The Seamstresses) (1942)
Idegen földön (In a Strange Land); No. 1. Siralmas nékem (Woeful for Me); No. 2. Egy fekete holló (A Black Raven); No. 3. Vissza ne nézz (Don't Look Back); No. 4. Fujdogál a nyári szél (The Summer Wind Is Blowing) (1945-46)
Bujdosó (The Fugitive) (1946)
Magos kősziklának (On the Side of a High Cliff) (1946)
Négy lakodalmi tánc (Four Wedding Dances): No. 1. A menyasszony szép virág (A bride is a splendid flower); No. 2. A kapuban a szekér (A Surrey at the gate); No. 3. Hopp ide tisztán, szép pallútt dëszkán (Jump over here, on a nice duckboard); No. 4. Mikor kedves Laci bátyám szépen hegedülne (When my dear Uncle Laci plays his beautiful fiddle) (1950)
Lakodalmas (Wedding Song) (1950)
Inaktelki nóták (Songs from Inaktelke): No. 1. Sej, hideg sincsen (It's not even cold); No. 2. Úri bicsok, nincsen nyele (The master's pocket-knife has no handle); No. 3. Én az uccán már végig se mehetek (I can't even go out on the street anymore) (1953)

Disc 2
Hortobágy (1952)
Temetés a tengeren (Burial at Sea) (1943)
Hajnal (Dawn): Hajnal I (Dawn I); Hajnal II (Dawn II); Hajnal III (Dawn III) (1949-50)
Burját aratódal (Buryat Harvest Song) (1945)
Nagy idök (Great Times) (1946/48)
Dereng már a hajnal (Dawn is Breaking) (1945)
Tél (Winter) (1950)
Két Balassa Bálint-kórus (Two Choirs on Poems by Bálint Balassa): No. 1. Csillagok palotája (Palace of Stars); No. 2. Mezök illatoznak… (Fragrant Meadows…) (1946)
Orbán (1942)
Az asszony és a katona (The Woman and the Soldier) (1951)
Két kánon (2 Canons): No.1. Ha folyóvíz volnék (If I were a River); No. 2. Pletykázó asszonyok (Gossiping Women) (1947/52)
Lux aeterna (1966)
Magyar etüdök (Hungarian Studies): I. Etude No. 9; II. Etudes Nos. 49 and 40; III. Etude No. 90 (1983)
Phantasien (3 Fantasies): No. 1. Hälfte des Lebens (Halfway through Life); No. 2. Wenn aus der Ferne (If from a Distance; No. 3. Abendphantasie (Evening Reverie) (1982)
SWR Vokalensemble/Yuval Weinberg
rec. 2019-2022, SWR Funkstudio, Stuttgart, Germany
SWR Classic SWR19128CD 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 12 June 2023

Arnold Bax: Festival Overture (1909)

In 1988 I purchased the Chandos LP of Bax’s Symphony No.6 (1935). Coupled with this was the Festival Overture. When I bought my first CD player a year or so later, I reinvested and bought the compact disc. Somehow, I never got around to listening to the Festival Overture. It was not until the other day that I put the disk into the player and enjoyed this overblown, but thoroughly enjoyable, festal piece. 

The Festival Overture dates from the autumn of 1909 when Bax was living at Cavendish Square, in London. The piece was first written out in short score but was not completed and orchestrated until 1911 whilst Bax was on honeymoon with Elsita Sobrino in Renvyle, Connemara. Lewis Foreman (Liner Notes CHAN 8586) indicates that Bax only completed the score because of a forthcoming performance at a Balfour Gardiner concert on 27 March 1912. The work was dedicated to the impresario.

This concert featured Bax’s Overture as well as Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in Bb minor, op.23 (1875/88) with Percy Grainger as soloist. The long concert concluded with a performance of Elgar’s Symphony No.2 in Eb major, op.63 (1911). Balfour Gardiner conducted the New Symphony Orchestra. Foreman has suggested that the reception of the Bax work was thus overshadowed.

In a note for the premiere performance, Bax wrote that the mood of this overture “…shows little formal deviation from the scheme employed by classical writers in compositions of its genre.”  He further adds that the only “divergence from accepted lines will be noticed in the middle of the piece, where in place of the usual short development section, a new melody is introduced of a more serious sustained character than that of the remainder of the work and appearing again in still broader and more triumphant guise towards the close.”  With this exception, the overture “May be said to present the festal spirit in somewhat riotous mood.” On the other hand, the critic Edward J. Dent wrote that “Bax is a clever brat; but what has a born Cockney to do with Celtic Twilights?” and concluded by suggesting that “…his Bohemian overture was like Hampstead people in a Soho restaurant.” (Cited in Liner notes, Naxos 8.570413).

A review of a later performance in the Musical Standard (6 April 1912, p.215) suggested that it was “…a depraved version of Smetana and Dvorak – with a spice of Byng in his best Alhambra mood.” George W Byng was a once popular composer of musical comedies.

It has been a critical axiom that the Festival Overture is scored ‘too heavily.’ This disapproval also applied to Christmas Eve in the Mountains written in 1912. Yet, Foreman writes that both these works are “lusciously scored” and are “effective and strong in personality…” (Foreman, Bax A Composer and his Times, 1983, p.103)

The overriding problem with this exuberant overture is that it does not really sound like Bax. There is nothing here evocative of the Celtic Twilight or the Sibelian grandeur of the North. A more appropriate exemplar for this Overture could be Richard Strauss. There is also the sheer exuberance of Percy Grainger in much of this score.

The Overture was forgotten in the aftermath of the Great War, and apart from an amateur concert revival, was not heard again until Chandos recorded the work in 1988. Since that time, it has been ignored, with no further recordings of this orchestral work have been made.

In 2007, a recording by Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe was made of the two-piano version, made by another hand than Bax. This had been revived in 1983 during the Bax Centenary Concerts on the BBC.

In 1918, Bax made some revisions to the orchestral score. Graham Parlett (A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999, p.136) has explained that the differences between the two versions of the Overture “are too numerous to list in detail, [however] they are all very minor and mostly to do with orchestration.”  This revised version was performed at a Royal Philharmonic Society Concert at the Queen’s Hall on 27 February 1919. The conductor was Sir Adrian Boult. At that event, the audience also heard the premiere performance of the first five movements of Holst’s The Planets.

The Festival Overture has remained unpublished, although a set of parts is available from Chappell & Co.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bryden Thomson recording has been uploaded to YouTube.

Bax, Arnold, Festival Overture (1918), Symphony No.6 (1935) London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson, Chandos LP: ABRD 1278; Tape Cassette: ABTD 1278; CD: CHAN 8586 (1988); CHAN 9168 (1993); CHAN 10158 (2003).
Bax, Arnold, Music for two pianos, Festival Overture, Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe, (pianos) Naxos 8.570413 (2007)

Friday 9 June 2023

English Piano Rarities played by Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs states that “the genesis of this CD is curious, and a little unusual.” He explains that between 1980 and 2005 he recorded some 30 CDs/LPs. These were with record companies that are defunct in 2023. In 2019 Heritage Records began a major project of reissuing several of these albums. The present “sampler” is designed to allow the interested listener to appraise some of this unfamiliar repertoire. 

The recital gets off to a good start with Henry Balfour Gardiner’s Noel dating from 1908. It is quite definitely a Seasonal piece with its direct quotation of Good King Wenceslas. It is a little unusual as it begins energetically and ends softly after having explored the well-known carol.

Billy Mayerl wrote many once popular piano pieces but is now remembered for just one: Marigold. He fell out of fashion in the late 1930s but was revived in the 1990s. Due to the diligence of Eric Parkin, Leslie De’Ath and Peter Jacobs, the listener can hear a wide selection of Mayerl’s work. The evocative Sleepy Piano (1926) is no cinch as a glance at the sheet music will reveal.

In 1932 the great and good in English music published A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. It included offerings from Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, William Walton, and Vaughan Williams. On this CD we hear first the Chorale Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ, as Bach harmonised it, followed by RVWs delightful re-creation of it.

Incunabula refers to written material prior to 1501. I am not sure what relevance this has to Thomas Wilson’s eponymous piece written in 1983. It is presented in six unrelated sections, balancing moods of agitation and tranquillity. Not easy music to come to terms with, but no doubt about the imaginative and colourful pianism.

Frank Bridge’s oeuvre divides into several periods. These include Edwardian romanticism, impressionism and finally a well-developed individual modernism that was dissonant, almost atonal in style. Hidden Fires was composed in 1926/27. It has been suggested that this “simmering toccata” recalls Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. There are nods to Bartók and bitonality and a lingering romanticism.

Calum MacDonald in the liner notes for the original CD release of Jacobs’s recording of Gargoyle (1928) suggests that it is an “astonishing, eldritch, (weird, uncanny) [and] sardonically witty piece.”  He notes the “spiky, angular melodic material, bitonal harmonies, frequent biting dissonance and stark, uncompromising textures.” MacDonald concludes by suggesting that this is “...a brilliantly vivid impression of some scuttling, sarcastic, impish being.” Nothing more need be said. 

Charles Villiers Stanford completed two volumes of 24 Preludes, op.163 (1918) and op.179 (1920). I accept the warning from Jacobs that the listener may “become submerged by sheer weight of numbers” if they try to through listen to all forty-eight. So, it is OK to excerpt. One from each book has been selected here. Both contain well-wrought pianism, rich harmonies, and flowing melodies. The track listing should have mentioned that the Prelude in E flat minor, from Set 1 is subtitled a Study and is eighth of that volume. The Prelude in E flat Major, from Set 2 is the seventh number of that series. 

Hubert Parry’s Hands across the Centuries Suite dates from 1918, the last year of his life. It reflects his lifelong interest in the music of J.S. Bach. The Suite presents a selection of baroque dance forms, reimagined for the twentieth century. Jacobs writes that The Passionate Allemande is “a thrilling tour de force, Bach and Brahms combined in British optimism…”  

Benjamin Dale is recalled (when remembered at all) for his massive, Sonata in D minor for piano, op.1 (1902-5). He composed a few other works for the instrument including the character piece Prunella, an English Dance and the present Night Fancies, Impromptu for piano, op.3 (1907). This latter is substantial, lasting for some ten minutes. The booklet suggests that it has “rich harmonies and Elgarian opulence” and shows that Dale knew Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. There are also moments when it seems impressionistic as well as romantic. And look out for nods to the Westminster Chimes.

In the 1980s, Peter Jacobs recorded several Piano Sonatas by the forgotten British composer Harold Truscott. In 2019, they were re-issued by Heritage on three CDs. For this sampler, he has chosen the Allegro from Sonata No.13 completed in 1967. It is exciting and immediately approachable: it must have been at odds with much that was being written at this time. Jacobs explains that “everything [he] recorded was studied with the [Truscott], who was present at all the sessions.”

Alan Bush’s Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op.75 (1972) was dedicated to “Those men and women of Guyana who faced a British warship and stood their ground.” This (apparently) refers to the population’s reaction, back in 1953, to the Royal Navy response to a “brewing Communist conspiracy”, in what was then a British colony. The toccata-like piece is based on an old African tune commemorating the abolition of slavery in British Guiana in 1842. All overly complicated date-wise. The title Kwe-Kwe alludes to a traditional Guyanese wedding ceremony where songs and dances are performed around the new bride’s house. Lots of rhythmic vitality here, but just a little predictable.

I did not warm to Trevor Hold’s enigmatic Musical Clocks taken from his Six Kaleidoscopes. It does not seem to develop or go anywhere. The musical onomatopoeia created as “the clocks chime, buzz, strike and whirr” are fun, though.

The final composer represented on this smorgasbord is John Foulds. First up is his Gandharva-Music, op.49 (completed 1926). Often inspired by Eastern religion and mythology, Fould’s alludes to Hindu/Buddhist “musical angels” which he insisted he heard one summer’s day during 1915. What the angels sang, he jotted down. A toccata-like right hand part is supported by a ground bass. I have suggested before that this is “the ultimate in Impressionistic music, full of the warm haze of an English summer’s day.” We are not wised up to what the angels sang, save perhaps that the world is a beautiful place.

Most John Foulds enthusiasts will know the extrovert April-England op.48, no.1 in its splendid orchestral arrangement. That said, it was originally a study from an unfinished suite, Impressions of Time and Place completed on the morning of the vernal equinox, 21 March 1926. Listeners will certainly make a connection with Robert Browning’s evergreen poem, O to be in England, now that April’s here (despite the date of composition being a few days previous!) Evoking “the boundless fecundity, opulent burgeoning of Springtime,” it provides an excellent conclusion to this remarkable recital.

The liner notes, devised by the soloist, present an interesting introduction to each piece of music on this CD. One serious drop off is that typically both the track-listing and the text do not provide the dates of composition, the opus numbers, nor in most cases, the given-name, and dates of each composer. This is essential information. I have provided these in this review. Neither are the venue and dates of recordings presented. I attach below details of the Heritage Record re-masterings from which this recital was derived.

The “compilation” does what it states, “on the tin.” It provides the listener, who may not have the patience to listen to the entire run of Peter Jacobs’s English music recordings, to get to know some of these works and decide whether to invest further. Measuring up the performances here, which are diligent and skilful throughout, I imagine that many listeners will wish to pursue this beguiling repertoire so well promoted by this soloist.

Track Listing:
Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950)

Noel (1908)
Billy Mayerl (1902-1959)
Sleepy Piano (1926)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Chorale Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ; Chorale Prelude: Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (1932)
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001)
Incunabula (1983)
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Hidden Fires (1926/27); Gargoyle (1928)
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Prelude in E-Flat Major, Set 2, op.179 (1920); Prelude in E-Flat Minor, Set 1, op.163 (1918)
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
The Passionate Allemande from Hands Across the Centuries (1918)
Benjamin Dale (1885-1943)
Night Fancies, Impromptu for piano, op.3 (1909)
Harold Truscott (1914-92)
Allegro from Sonata No. 13 (1967)
Alan Bush (1900-95)
Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op.75 (1972)
Trevor Hold (1939-2004)
Musical Clocks (1989)
John Foulds (1880-1939)
Gandharva-Music, op.49 (1926); April-England, op.48, no.1 (1926)

The Piano Music of Hubert Parry HTGCD 160
British Piano Collection Volume 1 HTGCD 405 (Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams)
British Piano Collection Volume 2 HTGCD 406 (Balfour Gardiner, Bush, Dale, Foulds)
The Piano Music of Trevor Hold HTGCD 294/5
Piano Music of Billy Mayerl HTGCD 176
Harold Truscott: Piano Sonatas and Prelude and Fugues HTGCD 304 (Three CDs)
Frank Bridge: Complete Music for Piano CCD1016 (Three CDs)
Thomas Wilsons Incunabula was issued on a cassette tape, Aspen Music PEN103

Tuesday 6 June 2023

The Reception History of Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra (1949): Part 3

Discographic Overview. In 1963 Alan Rawsthorne journeyed to the Soviet Union in the company of Alan Bush, as representatives of the Composers’ Guild. Whilst there, they performed several of their works. Subsequently, (1983) the Russian record company Melodiya issued a few of these on a double LP. This included Rawsthorne’s Second Symphony ‘Pastoral’ and the Concerto for String Orchestra coupled with Alan Bush’s Nottingham Symphony and Birthday Overture. To my knowledge this has never been reissued: I was unable to find a significant review.

In 1965 the Little Orchestra of London released an LP of the Concerto for String Orchestra coupled with Peter Racine Fricker’s Prelude, Elegy and Finale (1949) and Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings (1939). It was reviewed in The Gramophone (August 1965) by Edward Greenfield. who claimed that Rawsthorne had been ‘thinly, almost shabbily treated over [his] sixtieth birthday celebrations’ so this present disc made ‘some amends.’  Rawsthorne is ‘one of those composers who benefit specially from the sort of repetition made possible with a record.’ The composer’s style, Greenfield felt, is not ‘usually easy to grasp in the memory at a first hearing, yet the argument is the very opposite of unmemorable once the essentials have been grasped.’  This is especially true with the Concerto with ‘its strong, aggressive first movement…’ followed by a ‘thoughtful slow movement that seems at first to add coda upon coda, but which in fact is very surely constructed.’  And finally, ‘the rondo-like finale with a fugato doing far more that spin out argument…it reconciles the main subjects of the first and last movements.’ Edward Greenfield was equally enthusiastic about the Fricker and the Berkeley despite having one or two minor complaints about the quality of the recording. In all cases the playing was ‘passionate and convincing…’

Anthony Payne (Tempo Spring 1966) welcomes the LP of string music by Rawsthorne, Berkeley and Fricker and reminds the listener that these composers ‘have of late been ousted from the public eye by the younger generation and who, in the present works at least, have made a break with parochial Englishry without being influenced by the Schoenbergian revolution.’ He writes that, in Rawsthorne's Concerto for String Orchestra, ‘we are faced with sadly undervalued music…for it is a rich and complex work, and one which needs several hearings of the sort a gramophone easily affords, before its subtleties fall into place and prove their memorability.’

The Concerto for String Orchestra was re-released by PYE in 1969, coupled with Rawsthorne’s Piano Quintet (1968) and Cello Sonata (1948). John Dressler (2004) notes that the Concerto was further reissued in 1997 on CD: I cannot find any other reference to this re-release.

BBC Radio Classics issued a CD of a broadcast of the Concerto made in 29 September 1966 by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It included music by Moeran and Bliss. This CD has been subsequently deleted.

In 1999 Naxos released an important CD of orchestral works by Alan Rawsthorne including the Concerto for String Orchestra, Light Music for Strings, Divertimento for Chamber Orchestra, Concertante Pastorale for Flute, Horn and Strings, the Suite for Recorder and String Orchestra and the Elegiac Rhapsody for String Orchestra.  The last three works were ‘world premiere recordings.’  The Gramophone (July 1999) regarded this CD as ‘yet another Naxos/British music bull’s eye, comprising an imaginative programme realized with great sympathy by all involved.’ Andrew Achenbach thought that the ‘most substantial offering here [was] the resourceful and magnificently crafted Concerto….’  The orchestra gave a performance which ‘in its emotional scope and keen vigour, outshines Sir Adrian Boult’s (now deleted) 1966 radio recording with the BBC SO…’ David Lloyd-Jones and the Northern Chamber Orchestra bring ‘a more thrusting urgency in the outer movements, he also locates an extra sense of slumbering tragedy in the Lento e mesto.

Conclusion.  I believe that two considerations lead to the Concerto for String Orchestra’s ultimate   success. Firstly, Rawsthorne has written a piece of music that stylistically takes a ‘middle road’: it neither emulates the then-current hegemony of Ralph Vaughan Williams, nor experiments with the nascent modernism being explored by Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens and soon to explode into avant-garde music driven by Darmstadt. Secondly, the argument of the Concerto is sustained from the first bar to the last: stylistically the entire piece is thoroughly integrated. This is a hugely satisfying work that engages successfully with tragedy, passion and humour. Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra is a masterwork: it is one by which the composer will be remembered in perpetuity. 


  1. Alan Rawsthorne/USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Alan Rawsthorne, Concerto for String Orchestra, Symphony No.2 ‘Pastoral’, Alan Bush/USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Symphony No.2 ‘Nottingham’, Birthday Overture, Melodiya D012687-90 (2 LPs) (c.1983)
  2. Leslie Jones/Little Orchestra of London, Alan Rawsthorne, Concerto for String Orchestra, Lennox Berkeley, Serenade for Strings, Peter Racine Fricker, Prelude, Elegy and Finale, Pye Golden Guinea Collectors Series GSGC 4042 (Mono) and GSCG 14042 (Stereo) (1965) Reissued on Collector GSGC 7060 (LP) (1969) coupled with University Ensemble of Cardiff, Piano Quintet and George Isaac/Eric Harrison, Cello Sonata
  3. Sir Adrian Boult/BBC Symphony Orchestra, Alan Rawsthorne, Concerto for String Orchestra (rec. 1966), Arthur Bliss Music for Strings, E.J. Moeran Sinfonietta, BBC Radio Classics 15656 91632 (1996)
  4. David Lloyd-Jones/Northern Chamber Orchestra, John Turner (recorder) Rebecca Goldberg (horn) Conrad Marshall (flute) Alan Rawsthorne, Concerto for String Orchestra, Concertante Pastorale for Flute, Horn and Strings, Light Music for Strings, Suite for Recorder and String Orchestra, Elegiac Rhapsody for String Orchestra and Divertimento for Chamber Orchestra Naxos 8.553567 (1999)

Dressler, John C. Alan Rawsthorne: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004)
Frank, Alan, Modern British Composers (London, Dennis Dobson Ltd., 1953)
McCabe, John, Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a composer (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Poulton, Alan, ed, Alan Rawsthorne, Essays on the Music (Hindhead, Bravura Publications 1986)
The files of De Gooi, The Observer, The Times, Western Morning News, The Creel, The Gramophone, Music Review, Musical Quarterly, Musical Times, Notes, The Radio Times and Tempo.

This essay was first published The Creel: The Journal of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne Volume 8, No.3, 2017

Saturday 3 June 2023

The Reception History of Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra (1949): Part 2

World Premiere. The world premiere of Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra was given during a Hilversum radio broadcast on 13 June 1949. I located a single newspaper review of this work presented in the local Dutch language Hilversum newspaper, De Gooi dated Tuesday 14 June 1949.  

The critic (J.d.v.H) wrote that ‘yesterday, the Dutch String Orchestra led by Gerbrand Schürmann had the honour of broadcasting…the world premiere of the Concerto for String Orchestra by the English composer Alan Rawsthorne.’ He thought that ‘the conductor well-interpreted this fascinating score, assisted by players of great talent and enthusiasm…[with] a flawless technique and clear concentration.’  The chamber-music quality of the Concerto was prominent: the scoring was ‘delicately nuanced with precisely balanced parts and accuracy of attack.’ The stylistic parameters of the work impressed the reviewer: ‘This ingenious structure of beautifully-themed material reflects a strong constructive spirit which expresses itself with warm sentiment and clear…thematic development. [This is] vital music utterly devoid of that nervous, sometimes overwrought, mood that so-called present day composers try to take advantage of and which are a reflection of the prevailing chaos and frenzy of the 'modern' setting.’ The reviewer concluded by maintaining that ‘this first performance was a remarkable success: hopefully this work will find its way into the hearts many music-lovers, whilst also being an incentive to Dutch composers.’

One short review was provided by W.R. Anderson in his ‘Round about Radio’ (Musical Times December 1949) feature: ‘Rawsthorne's string concerto (1949) is among his most accomplished essays in what seems to me nervy, dark, acrid, uncomfortable music. I wished for more rests, and was glad of the long one when it ended. Alas, some of us will never be fit for this order of art, which may be destined to rule the future.’ 

Unfortunately, it is not possible to know if this was based on the Hilversum production or (more likely) the Norman del Mar/BBC Symphony Orchestra concert, broadcast on 12 November 1949. (Dressler, 2004).

At the Proms. Two months later (Thursday, 11 August, 1949) the Concerto was heard at an Albert Hall BBC Promenade Concert with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron.  Other works performed that evening included Arnold Bax’s Symphony No.4, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (soloist Cyril Preedy) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture: The Maid of Pskov.

The Times (12 August 1949) reviewer (possibly Frank Howes) felt that Rawsthorne’s work is ‘a concerto in the sense that it exploits its players to the full and, as in the eighteenth-century concerti grosso, there are some solo passages for the principals.’  The music was ‘contrapuntal and harmonically individual, [and] tonal without being oppressively diatonic…’, which is both ‘thoughtful’ and ‘effective.’ He considers that the ‘admirably varied’ string writing ‘is often reminiscent of Bliss or Walton.’  The work was played with ‘commendable drive’ by the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron.

The Western Morning News (August 13, 1949) in the syndicated ‘Our London Letter’ reported the premiere and suggested that ‘There is no doubt that the mature Rawsthorne is now emerging, for in this intelligent piece of string composition the blend of ideas is skilfully woven and the composer is less abstract that usual.’ Specific elements that caught the author’s attention included ‘a striking passage for solo violin to pianissimo accompaniment, a fugal section, and occasional broad chordal writing reminiscent of Elgar in [his] Introduction and Allegro.’ He concludes by noting that the ‘opening grim dissonance does not foretell the beauty, ascetic though it may be, which follows.’

Damning with faint praise, The Observer (14 August 1949) pointed out that Bax and Rawsthorne ‘do not pack them in as a solid programme of Tchaikovsky does.’ The Concerto for String Orchestra which was presented as ‘absolute music’ was never ‘abstruse or trying.’ In fact, the solo violin and viola passages are given an ‘almost human eloquence.’ C.F.D. thought that the work’s ‘main achievement’ was ‘its use of great smooth masses of string tone, like cumulus clouds in motion. The effect is hypnotic.’ The performance by Cameron and the London Symphony Orchestra had ‘every sign of personal enthusiasm.’

Martin Cooper, reviewing the work with the Proms performance at the back of his mind (Musical Quarterly April 1950) recorded that ‘the [Concerto] made little mark when it was first performed…in the Albert Hall last August.’ He believed that the venue was ‘too big and the orchestra too little rehearsed, so that the intensity of the first two movements was never communicated to the audience (or else unrealized by the orchestra) and the effect Rawsthorne's close thinking and compressed writing was simply one of crabbedness.’ Referring to a later concert at the smaller Chelsea Town Hall (12 December 1949, Boyd Neel Orchestra conducted by the composer), he wrote that ‘these judgments were entirely reversed and the work stood out as a remarkably strong and typical example of Rawsthorne's music.’

Rawsthorne’s Concerto heard at this concert was described by Donald Mitchell (Music Survey, Winter 1950 Vol 2, No.3) ‘as one of our civilisation's few civilised pieces.’

Finally, William Somervell Mann (W.S.M.) reviewing the Prom concert for the Musical Times (September 1949) gave a lengthy commentary on the work. He held that it was the most important novelty at that year’s Proms. Mann gives a detailed analysis echoing the programme notes. He concluded by stating that: ‘Rawsthorne's technique is not a goal in itself, for the material evokes vital and stimulating emotions in its hearers, while the occasional use of soloists either singly or as a group, adds brilliance to a work that blends logic and sympathy most happily.’

The Score. The score of the Concerto for String Orchestra was published in 1949 by Oxford University Press, It was reviewed (unsigned) in Music and Letters (April 1950)

Rawsthorne's concerto is no serenade. Indeed, its most obvious feature is the tension brought about not only by dissonances no less real for being mainly diatonic but also by the unremitting skill with which a minimum of material is developed into a large-scale fabric…The whole work is one of Rawsthorne's finest constructions.’

It was also examined by Richard Bales in Notes (June 1950):

‘Rather than apply the classic meaning of Concerto to this work, it had better been titled a Suite, since there is but one short section for solo violins, viola, and cello in the entire composition. [The only critic to emphasise this point.] Nevertheless, this is a welcome addition to string orchestra repertoire and it has been written with a sure hand. If conservative in idiom, it has the virtues of rhythmic vitality and fine formal proportions. One feels that it is just the right length, that it is really for the strings and not just piano transcribed. A good group of players will be required to elicit the maximum effect.’

 Academic Study. One of the most important studies of the Concerto was given in the short-lived Music Survey journal (Autumn 1949, Volume 2, No. 2) by Paul Hamburger. It is worthy of lengthy quotation:

‘[One cannot] say of [Rawsthorne’s] latest full-scale work, as one could of the [Piano] Sonatina, that its material is not worked out in all its possibilities... This is most apparent in the first movement, in strictest sonata form, with three well-defined subjects, the first contrapuntal, the second a lyrical passage for solo viola…a short development in double-counterpoint being followed by an emotional climax of the movement, a quiet solo-violin passage over a string-tremolo; followed in turn by a shortened recapitulation. The 2nd movement, a kind of chaconne, has the same 4-note motto as 'La Folia,' used by Corelli and others, and has some of the grave charm of those early Italian chaconnes. Whether the quotation is conscious or not, one thing is certain: Rawsthorne's musical roots strike very deep. Lastly comes a serious Rondo, thematically related to the first movement, with a quiet, almost stagnant first episode, and a fugue as second episode. The main section is progressively shortened until at last the few firm chords of the 2nd subject that are left put their foot down and call a halt.’

‘La Folia’ was originally an Iberian dance adapted to several melodies. One of these tunes developed a considerable vogue and has been used by many composers. It is based on the four-note theme D-E-C#D. The best known 20th century work utilising this theme was Sergei Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. It is also the thematic paradigm for ‘God Save the Queen’, hence Alan Frank’s comment above.

A.E.F. Dickinson in his ‘The Progress of Alan Rawsthorne’ (Music Review, May 1951) pointed out that the first movement is ‘somewhat unexpectedly, a kind of sonata-form, in which the second subject is distinguished by solo-descants the first time and general counterpoint the second.’ He thinks that the second movement ‘…has a grave principal mood, not unlike the finale of Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony, and a declamatory, mysterious interlude.’ The finale is unbalanced, and the ‘main refrain thins in repetition.’ Interestingly, Dickinson feels that the concerto ‘suffers audibly from being confined to strings.’ He is surprised to see that the work has been placed beside the Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro by at least one responsible critic (See Western Morning News (August 13, 1949) review above).

Sebastian Forbes in his examination of Rawsthorne’s orchestral music (ed. Poulton, 1986) defines the Concerto and the Symphony No.1 (1950) as two important works from Rawsthorne’s middle period. He states that both have been acclaimed ‘for their fastidious technique and avoidance of anything excessively flamboyant.’  On the other hand, they are ‘equally notable for their nervous energy and busy counterpoint, particularly in their first movements.’ Each work has made great use of ‘slender material.’ The stylistic mood of both works exemplifies a ‘touch of sadness’ which is ‘more telling than merely the fact of a minor key (D minor for the Concerto).’

Forbes thinks that the Concerto’s opening movement balances a sense of assertiveness with one of introspection. The slow movement is formally a ‘rondo’ with the development of the first episode emerging directly from the main theme. This contrasts with the second episode which is ‘more unsettling.’  There are two ‘passionate climaxes.’ Forbes points out that the ‘finale’ opens with a theme that resembles the ‘basis of [Rawsthorne’s] Theme and Four Studies for piano solo…’ (c.1940). This ‘easy going’ opening proceeds with ‘fluency and confidence’ and ‘energetic bravura.’ He feels that ‘the spirit of Vivaldi is not far away.’

The analysis concludes: ‘This [Concerto] and the Symphony No.1 represent a genuine flowering of neoclassicism: they are instrumentally conceived, with purely musical terms of reference, functional tonality and evident manipulative skill.’   

John McCabe (1999) considers the Concerto to be an ‘outstanding contribution to that extraordinarily rich repertoire of string orchestra music by British composers.’ He writes that it is ‘coloured by a strong neo-classical impulse, a true concerto grosso influence.’  McCabe explains that this ‘baroque’ effect is only explicit in the finale, where the composer contrasts the solo group with the main ‘tutti.’ Elsewhere in the work the scoring typically calls for a ‘single unit.’  The ‘most arresting’ thing about the Concerto is ‘its emotional directness.’  Rawsthorne has used his trademark augmented chords, but has also made use of major and minor triads in various inversions.  As for the slow movement, McCabe feels that this is not so much ‘melancholic’ as ‘full of compassion and imbued with a sense of sorrow that is both personal and universal.’ No explicit mention is made of the ‘La Folia’ theme, but he points out that this music has the ‘air of a funeral procession.’ McCabe notes the ‘sunny freedom’ of the finale achieved by the ‘wider-ranging intervals’ in the melody. This contrasts to much that has passed which is ‘marked by passion and even tragedy.’

To be continued…

Dressler, John C. Alan Rawsthorne: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004)
Frank, Alan, Modern British Composers (London, Dennis Dobson Ltd., 1953)
McCabe, John, Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a Composer (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Poulton, Alan, ed, Alan Rawsthorne, Essays on the Music (Hindhead, Bravura Publications 1986)
The files of De Gooi, The Observer, The Times, Western Morning News, The Creel, The Gramophone, Music Review, Musical Quarterly, Musical Times, Notes, The Radio Times and Tempo.

This essay was first published The Creel: The Journal of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne Volume 8, No.3, 2017