Sunday 30 July 2023

Constant Lambert: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Conductors’ Gallery' Part II

IT WAS NOT UNTIL HE WAS APPOINTED MUSICAL DIRECTOR OF THE VIC-WELLS BALLET that he finally established his reputation as an authority on ballet. He took the Company to Paris for the 1937 Exhibition, and in 1939 appeared with them before the King and Queen at a special gala performance. The Ballet was reaching a high standard of perfection when war broke out and imposed great difficulties upon the Company. Nevertheless, it was not long before they were touring the provinces again - without an orchestra, and relying entirely upon two pianos, one of which Lambert had to play himself! They were in Holland on a propaganda tour when the Germans overran the country in 1940, and they had to fly for their lives.

In his association with the BBC, he has always specialized in programmes of contemporary and ballet music, and it is only in the last two or three years that he has done symphonic work. Recently, too, he has toured with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and worked with E.N.S.A. [1] in the provision of symphony concerts for factory workers.

Constant Lambert considers that the present routine of concert-giving is stultifying the art of music, for although he appreciates that the more popular works of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven have often to be used to draw the public, he can see no reason why the vast number of lesser-known compositions should not be mixed in with the popular music. The leading symphony orchestras should have a much larger and more varied repertoire.

It is interesting to note that far more modern and unusual work can be played in concerts given to factory workers than in the programmes played to the more sophisticated audiences in London Constant Lambert - finds that the "new" audiences appreciate anything that possesses vitality and colour.

He insists that we should do far more of the earlier works, because most people's knowledge of music starts with Beethoven, and the bulk of the music written before his time is unknown to them. There is also a tremendous amount of fine Russian and French music that has never been performed in this country. The neglect of this - as of the works of many of our contemporary composers - is probably due to the lack of time for adequate rehearsal in the arrangements of most of our orchestras to-day. The programmes we get now are becoming far too stereotyped: must we always have one symphony and one piano concerto? Lambert would like to see far more programmes made up of attractive smaller works.

The present boom in music will subside, he thinks, and therefore after the war we must be far more enterprising, choosing our programmes with greater care and thought for the audiences. People tolerate inferior work now because the war has restricted their other forms of entertainment and-recreation; but as soon as conditions revert to normal, as soon as people get the use of their cars again for weekends in the country, only first-class concerts will attract them.

The tremendous interest now being shown in ballet is more likely to continue because the English Ballet is now as firmly established as the Russian (which evolved from the Italian, by the way). Moreover, it now has a much more general following, whereas before the war it was patronized chiefly by an exclusive "highbrow" audience. But even in this sphere, untiring efforts must be made to improve the standard continually, since there is always the danger that the novelty will wear off and that the ' new " audiences will look elsewhere.
Brook, Donald, Conductors’ Gallery, The Lewes Press, 1945, pp.85-87

Donald Brook’s pen portrait takes the reader up to about 1944. Lambert was unfit for active service during the war years. However, he toured with both home and abroad. Until his death he continued with conducting engagements with the Proms, Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells. 

The 1940s and 1950s saw few new compositions. Lambert contributed two film scores – Merchant Seamen and Anna Karenina. There was also incidental music for a stage performance of Hamlet. In 1950, his Trois Pièces Nègres Pour Les Touches Blanches for piano duet was published by Oxford University Press. Lambert’s final score was the long ballet, Tiresias, which was based on the story of a Greek seer who changes sex. The premiere performance received typically negative reviews.

On 21 August 1951, Constant Lambert died. Overwork, an excess of alcohol and ill-health had taken their toll.


[1] E.N.S.A (Entertainments National Service Association) was set up in 1939 by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson. It provided a wide range of entertainment to members of the armed forces- both low and high brow. The initials were affectionately renamed as Every Night Something Awful!

Thursday 27 July 2023

Constant Lambert: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Conductors’ Gallery' Part I

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of instrumentalists, conductors, composers, and authors. He had met many of these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests.

Brook’s essay is self-explanatory. I have added a few foot notes as appropriate. Additionally at the conclusion I have brought Lambert’s biography up to date as Brook’s book was published in 1945, some six years before the composer’s death. 

Brook’s essay is self-explanatory. I have added a few foot notes as appropriate. Additionally at the conclusion I have brought Lambert’s biography up to date as Brook’s book was published in 1945, some six years before the composer’s death. 

Brook’s essay is self-explanatory. I have added a few foot notes as appropriate. Additionally at the conclusion I have brought Lambert’s biography up to date as Brook’s book was published in 1945, some six years before the composer’s death.       

"THAT CONSTANT LAMBERT SHOULD HAVE DISTINGUISHED himself in the world of Ballet is not surprising when one considers that he was brought up in an environment dominated more by art than music. His father was G. W. Lambert, A.R.A., the painter, and his brother Maurice has now risen to eminence as a sculptor. [1]

Born in London in 1905 and educated at Christ's Hospital, Constant Lambert did not fully appreciate what music meant to him until a prolonged illness cut him off from all the other and more usual schoolboy pursuits. He tells me that this illness affected the entire course of his life, because while he was indisposed, he had little else but music and books to occupy his attention. His piano was such a joy and consolation to him that he resolved to become a professional pianist, and at the age of seventeen he entered the Royal College of Music.

He had begun to compose when he was about sixteen, and the encouragement he received at the College - not only from the staff, but from the other enthusiastic students around him - stimulated him to write a considerable amount in his youth. He has now withdrawn most of his early works because he regards them as immature, but they must certainly have shown outstanding merit, for he was only twenty when Serge Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet for his famous Russian Ballet. Incidentally, he was the first English composer to be honoured in this manner. The result was Romeo and Juliet, [2] which was first produced at Monte Carlo in 1926 and put on in London soon after. He followed this with another ballet, Pomona, [3] which was given its first performance in Buenos Aires in 1927.

This promising start to his musical career did not pave an easy way to prosperity however, and he had to do a variety of odd musical jobs to pay his way in those days. Free-lance journalism in musical subjects was one of the methods he chose to augment his income, and in time he became a regular contributor to Figaro, [4] The New Statesman and Nation, and the Sunday Referee. His book, Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline was published in 1934. [5]

One of his most notable successes was his setting for chorus, pianoforte, and orchestra, of Sacheverell Sitwell's poem, The Rio Grande. It was first performed in Manchester on December 12th, 1929, and was heard in the Queen's Hall, London, on the following day, when an excellent performance was given by Sir Hamilton Harty and the Hallé Orchestra.

His Music for Orchestra was first played at Oxford in 1931, and then nearly five years elapsed before he produced Summer's Last Will and Testament, with words from Thomas Nashe's comedy. The latter made its debut when it was played in the Queen's Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under his own direction in January 1936 One of his latest works is the ballet Horoscope. [6]
Brook, Donald, Conductors’ Gallery, The Lewes Press, 1945, pp.85-87


[1] George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930) was a well-regarded portrait painter as well as being a war artist during the Great War. In 1921, he returned to Australia where he had been brought up, living his remaining years in New South Wales. Maurice Prosper Lambert RA (1901-64) was a British sculptor. Many of his works were public monuments. Between 1950 and 1958, Lambert was Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Arts.

[2] Lambert’s score was originally a suite dansée Adam and Eve, which was never performed in its original form. The composer made several changes and added an Alla Marcia. The ballet depicts a rehearsal of a ballet about Romeo and Juliet, rather than telling Shakespeare’s tale. Dancers practice at the barre and fall in love with each other. Constant Lambert was unhappy with decisions made by Diaghilev, especially the use of sets and costumes designed by Max Ernst and Joan Miró, rather than the composer’s friend Christopher Wood.

[3] Pomona tells the Ovidian story of the love between Vertumnus who was the god of seasons, change and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees, and the nymph Pomona.

[4] In fact, Lambert only contributed two articles to Le Figaro. He was much more prolific with his submissions to the Sunday Referee.

[5] The publisher described Constant Lambert’s Music Ho! as “A brilliant analysis of the music of the twenties and thirties, also discusses the music of composers like Stravinsky, Satie, Gershwin, and considers the contributions of jazz and other pop music of the time with classical music.” Where he got things wrong was his suggestion that the future of the symphony in the 20th century should follow Sibelius “leading the way out of an exhausted tradition while avoiding the sterility of Arnold Schoenberg’s dodecaphony.”

[6] Horoscope was created in 1937 by Frederick Ashton with scenery by Sophie Fedorovitch and music by Constant Lambert. “It is based on astrological themes and is reminiscent of Gustav Holst's The Planets in its musical exploration of the mystical.”

Monday 24 July 2023

William Henry Reed: String Quartets

There are two outstanding reviews of this new CD on MusicWeb International (Here and here). When my copy arrived, I decided not to read them until I had completed mine. So, any similarities, repetitions or divergences from Messrs. Greenbank and Barnard are entirely coincidental.

Most listeners will associate William Henry Reed as the friend and biographer of Edward Elgar. They met at the Three Choirs Festivals. Of interest is the fact that Reed played violin in the late flowering chamber works by the elder man: the Violin Sonata, the Piano Quintet, and the String Quartet. As a violinist, he was consulted by Elgar about the technicalities of the solo part of his Violin Concerto.

In fact, Reed was also a conductor, teacher, author, and composer. He was born in Frome, Somerset on 29 July 1875. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Émile Sauret, violin and Frederick Corder and Ebenezer Prout for theory and composition.

Much of Reed’s career was spent playing in chamber ensembles and the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1936, he published his important volume Elgar as I knew him. This is essential reading for all enthusiasts of his music. Interestingly, this book included sketches for the Symphony No. 3 which was later “completed” by Anthony Payne. In 1939 he issued a study of Elgar in the Master Musicians series.

W. H. Reed died whilst on Associated Board duties in Dumfries, on 2 July 1942.

As for Reed’s own compositions, there are numerous character pieces for violin and piano. Several of these were issued on the Dutton Epoch label (CDLX7135) in 2003, played by Robert Gibbs (violin & viola) and Mary Mei-Loc Wu (piano). However, this CD tended to provide a skewed impression of his achievement: it emphasised the “salon music” element. On a grander scale there are some orchestral works including the tone poems Among the Mountains of Cambria, The Lincoln Imp and Aesop’s Fables, as well as a set of variations for string orchestra, a Violin Concerto in A minor and the tantalising Two Somerset Idylls for small orchestra. These all remain unrecorded.

The String Quartet No.4 (1913) has four movements. The opening Allegro moderato presents a cheery first subject followed by a “wistful” second. The slow movement was regarded by contemporary critics as being the highlight of the quartet. Signed as Ritornello (Lento ma non troppo) this is really a “threnody” or lament for someone or something unknown. The title implies that all four soloists play the main theme, with episodes of “quasi-recitative” on single instruments. The third movement has two diverse moods. Firstly an “intermezzo reminiscent of Brahms.” This is succeeded by a “fantastical scherzo.” The final movement once again contrasts a “darkly portentous opening" [Adagio con espressione] with “a more light-hearted mood [Allegro moderato] …veering between playfulness and lyricism.”

Overall, this is “heterogenic” music: various models and influences (Brahms, Vaughan Williams?) will recommend themselves to the listener. This is not really a problem. The general balance of invention, wide-ranging moods, and emotions, outweigh any sense of lack of individuality.

The Quartet was dedicated to the Wessely Quartet, an ensemble popular during the first two decades of the 20th century.

The Légende for String Quartet was written in 1922-23. It was dedicated to “Miss Jessie Snow,” who led her own ensemble for some thirty years. The booklet explains that Reed had previously composed a Violin Concerto for her (a desideratum, surely) in 1918. Légende was originally produced as Two Legends. A contemporary review (The Era, 4 April 1923, p.7) described its impact perfectly: “Like all Mr Reed’s work, these show a refined and sensitive quality of musical thought and considerable ingenuity on quartet writing, though not, perhaps, a striking vein of inventiveness.” I do not know if there is any hidden programme implied by the legends. I think not. The first juxtaposes a pastoral mood with a “melancholy” waltz, whilst the second is a “romp.” The liner notes suggest it is like an “Irish leprechaun [who] has come face to face with Dukas’s Sorcerers Apprentice.” Listening to this piece a century later, reveals some considerable depth and nostalgia for a pre-War age then recently passed.

W.H. Reed finished his String Quartet No.5 in A minor during 1915. It was submitted to that year’s Walter Willson Cobbett chamber music competition where it won second prize. First prize was joint and was presented to Frank Bridge and Albert Sammons. There are four well balanced movements, each presenting hugely contrasting material. The opening Allegro con brio is deliberately insecure, balancing a searching mood with one of almost pastoral calm. The Vivace ma no troppo presto is carefree and certainly bounces along, with dynamic rhythms and a sense of fun. Here and there Reed introduces something a little more reserved. The slow movement, Adagio (quasi recitativo) opens with a melancholy cello solo before developing into a modally tinged elegy. It is hardly surprising that this deeply felt music was written during the second year of the Great War. The liner notes are correct in noting the mood of the finale, an Andante misterioso-Allegro Moderato, nodding to the opening movement, with its “questioning” tone. Yet, all is not as it seems. Somehow, Reed managed to pull the music out of the doldrums and lead the listener to a conclusion infused by optimism, if not triumph.

All three works are convincingly and sympathetically played by the Cirrus String Quartet. The sound quality of the recording is always vibrant and clear. The present violinist Martin Smith devised the detailed programme notes, as well as providing an impressive introduction to the life and times of the composer. The booklet has a well-designed cover montage of the Three Choirs venues, as well as including a couple of photographs of the composer.

This is a splendid introduction to the music of W.H. Reed. It provides three pieces that are well-constructed, technically competent, always interesting, and often quite moving. There is nothing challenging here. In fact, he was writing in an idiom that would have been deemed old-fashioned at the time. But to listeners in the 2020s this is no longer an issue.

I understand the Royal Academy of Music is custodian of Reed’s archive. Many interesting scores may be languishing in the stacks. Let us hope that many more are “re-discovered” and are performed in concert or on CD. W.H. Reed may not be a major composer, but based on this recording he deserves to be better known and enjoyed.

Track Listing:
William Henry Reed (1875-1942)

String Quartet No.4 in C major (1913)
Légende for string quartet (1922-23)
String Quartet no.5 in A minor (1915)
The Cirrus String Quartet: Martin Smith (violin), Suzanne Loze (violin), Morgan Goff (viola), David Burrowes (cello)
rec. 16-19 February 2022, Pamoja Hall, The Space, Sevenoaks School, Kent, England
Mike Purton Recordings MPR114
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday 21 July 2023

Alan Rawsthorne: A Musical Tidbit

"Composer Alan Rawsthorne, who has left the distractions of London for the comparative calm of a country cottage, tells me that he is working on a new work, this time a string quartet. “I am not hurrying it,” he says. “It will come right of its own accord.”
Rawsthorne, whose wide brimmed hat, black cloak and long silver-tipped walking stick were among the sights of St James’s district in London not so long ago, says that the country life is less distracting for a composer. In London he had rooms in the house where Chopin had stayed during his last few days in London before returning to Paris to die. Now the lower part of the house is a club restaurant where people of the theatre and literary world would congregate for late dinners. Rawsthorne prefers the quiet of Essex. “There’s a lot to be done on the cottage yet,” he told me, “But I can work there.”
Music Mans’s Diary, Music and Musicians, December 1953, p.14.

In 1953, Alan Rawsthorne and his partner, Isabel Lambert moved to Sudbury Cottage, Little Sampford, near Thaxted. The divorce from his first wife, Jessie, did not come through until 1954. During December 1953, he suffered a severe haemorrhage and was admitted to the University College Hospital for a month. A Blue Plaque was unveiled at the cottage by the composer, pianist and scholar, John McCabe in 1998.

The String Quartet No.2 was completed during December 1953, shortly after his conversation with the author. It was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival on 12 July 1954, by the Griller Quartet. The year had been a lean one for Rawsthorne, at least composition wise. There were the Four Romantic Pieces for piano and the Coronation Overture. Two film scores were also completed: The Drawings of Leonardo, a documentary, and the feature film West of Zanzibar.

The Quartet received mixed reviews at its premiers. Scott Goddard (Musical Times, September 1954, p.492) suggested that it was “extraordinarily impressive, tense and taut, concise...[and] kept one perpetually on the stretch and filled [the] imagination with exciting visions.” On the other hand, Gerald Abraham (Music Review August 1955, p.261) conceded that it was “a light-weight work, beautifully written but leaving one wondering why it was written…”

The London house where Chopin had stayed during his final days in the capital was No.4 St James’ Place. There is a Blue Plaque commemorating this historic residence. Sadly, the restaurant is gone, and the building is now commercial premises.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music, Volume Six

Volume 6 of Christopher Guild’s ongoing survey of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music concentrates on works produced at the beginning of his career. Much of this repertoire was written after his discovery of Ferruccio Busoni’s achievement, but before his relocation to Scotland. For details of the composer’s life see the biography published on the Ronald Stevenson Society website, here

Three rules of thumb will help the listener appreciate Ronald Stevenson. Firstly, he was eclectic, prepared to use forms, scales, and sonorities from both around the world and without historical prejudice. Secondly, he sits in an aesthetic trajectory that includes the big performers of the virtuosic piano: Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Ignacy Paderewski, and Leopold Godowsky. All these men were also distinguished composers and applied themselves to original music and arrangements, transcriptions, and fantasias of other people’s tunes. And finally, despite being born in Blackburn, Lancashire, Stevenson adopted Scotland as his home, subsequently being influenced by that nation’s art, literature, politics, and music.

Ateş Orga has stated that the Three Sonatinas are the “earliest piano works of significance” in Stevenson’s catalogue. I will avoid a discussion about the nature and technical demands of the genre “sonatina.” Suffice to say that two significant examples by Maurice Ravel and John Ireland are hardly the didactic pieces once beloved by piano teachers. For that matter, most of Beethoven’s Sonatina’s are hardly cinches to play.

Stevenson wrote his examples between 1945 and 1948, during his time as a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music. Orga explains that the Three Sonatinas are “interesting for many reasons, not least for showing the seeds of Stevenson’s art in embryonic form.”

There are several passages of virtuosic pianism in the Sonatina No.1 (1945). The composer himself stated that Hindemith influenced the linear first movement, with its counterpoint and harmonic clashes. The second movement “shows features absorbed from an early acquaintance with [Alban] Berg’s Wozzeck. Assorted styles combine in the Presto finale, including a sea shanty in the Dorian mode – Stevenson suggests that this shows the impact of Percy Grainger. There are also jazzy syncopations and chromatic passages. The liner notes explain that there are references here to the earlier movements, not always easy to spot without the score.

Once again Paul Hindemith would appear to have had an impact on the Sonatina No.2 (1947). It is difficult to classify this piece, is it neo-classical, or as Malcom MacDonald has suggested, neo-baroque? Despite its apparent angularity, the overall mood is piquant rather than dissonant. There is much beauty in passing, and some beguiling sounds in both movements. Christopher Guild has noted the scotch snaps in the opening Adagietto, predating Stevenson’s move to Scotland in 1952 and his absorption of many of the musical fingerprints of that country.

Sonatina No.3 (1948) is really of “sonata” length lasting more than 16 minutes. It must be recalled that at about this time, Stevenson had been imprisoned for conscientious objection to National Service. He had served time in jails at Preston, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Wormwood Scrubs. The opening movement is an “almost Mahlerian funeral march” which nods to the much later Passacaglia on DSCH, finished in 1962. The mood lightens with a quicksilver scherzo which seems devoid of angst. This magic is continued in the finale, although sounding much more sinister and sarcastic.  

Retrospect is an early work, completed around1945. There is nothing challenging here. I guess the title may refer to the notion that this beguiling song-without-words was looking back to a late-Romantic pianism and formal structures.

The Three Nativity Pieces date from 1949. They have charm and innocence but are tinged with a feeling of regret. They are based on the gifts brought to the Baby Jesus by the Three Magi – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The liner notes suggest that they are in a line from Franz Liszt’s Christmas-Tree Suite and Ferrucio Busoni’s Nuit de Noël. The first number, Gold: Children’s March is “non-militaristic” in mood. In fact, it is typically jaunty and merry in tone. The tune is based on the pentatonic scale (black notes on the piano). There follows the long and involved Frankincense: Arabesque which musically re-presents the “elaborate design of intertwined figures or complex geometrical patterns” often used in Arabic architecture. Here it creates more than a hint of the exotic, complete with drifting clouds of incense. The last of the set is Myrrh: Elegiac Carol. It is based on a carol, So she laid him in a manger, that Stevenson wrote in 1948, setting words by the Tyneside blast-furnaceman J.H. (Joe) Watson, a friend of D.H. Lawrence, and founder of the Frating Hill Farm near Colchester. This socialist institution had been set up to provide farm labour for pacifists, as conscientious objectors, to remain within the law. After a lugubrious angiosca soppressa (supressed angst) opening, the transcription of the carol follows. This is elaborated before the sombre opening theme returns.

The second of the Three Lyric Pieces, Chorale Prelude for Jean Sibelius (1948, rev.1963) was begun whilst Stevenson was incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs. It reflects his admiration for the Finnish master, whom he regarded as “a lighthouse amid the maelstrom of post-War contemporary music.” Equally at odds with the prevailing musical temper is the Andante Sereno (1950), with its “emphasis on melody.” There are touches of gentle dissonance here and there, caused by clashes of the Ionian and Lydian modes, but overall “serene” is an ideal title. Guild is correct in stating that the “sonorities achieved are most distinctive for piano music of this era, especially in Great Britain.” The opening bars of Lyric Piece No.1, Vox Stellarum (Voice of the Stars, or Cosmos) (1947), is impressionistic in its evocation of vast universal spaces. However, the composer did wish to evoke the sound of a girl singing and draws on Scotticisms in the middle section, once again using the pentatonic scales.

Christopher Guild is a powerful advocate for Ronald Stevenson’s piano music, bringing both technical proficiency to the performance and scholarly endeavour to the liner notes. The sound recording is ideal, and the duration of the CD is a remarkable 80 minutes.

I understand that Volume 7 is “in the bag” and subsequent releases are at the planning stage. Listeners should not forget Guild’s contribution to Scottish music with his excellent recordings of Francis George Scott, Ronald Center, and William Beaton Moonie.

I look forward to subsequent releases in this remarkable cycle of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music.

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)

Sonatina No.1 (1945)
Sonatina No.2 (1947)
Sonatina No.3 (1948)
Retrospect (c.1945)
Three Nativity Pieces: No.1 Gold: Children’s March; No.2 Frankincense: Arabesque; No.3 Myrrh: Elegiac Carol (1949)
Three Lyric Pieces: No.1 Vox Stellarum (1947); No.2 Chorale Prelude for Jean Sibelius (1948, rev.1963); No.3 Andante Sereno (1950)
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 29-30 May 2022, The Old Granary Studio, Toft Monks, Beccles, Suffolk
Toccata Classics TOCC 0662

Saturday 15 July 2023

Exploring Arnold Bax’s Phantasy for viola and orchestra (1920): Part 3

Reaction: The most significant discussion of the Phantasy was an essay titled “Bax’s Viola Concerto” included in the Bax Society Bulletin (June 1968, p.25). Graham Parlett begins by recognising that Bax early on recognised the “supreme technical mastery of Lionel Tertis, the salvation of the viola as a solo instrument.” After noting the six works that Bax wrote for the instrument he suggested that the Fantasy with piano and the Concert Piece were “not of any intrinsic value.” In his opinion the best of Bax’s works for viola was the Sonata with piano completed on 9 January 1922. Parlett states that “here form and content are admirably fashioned into a unified whole and the work must rank as amongst his greatest creations.” Turning to the Phantasy, he gives a descriptive analysis of its progress. Importantly, it “contains some of Bax’s most memorable melodic writing, often with phrases that are unmistakably Irish in origin.” 

Colin Scott-Sutherland (1973, p.80) gives little commentary on the Phantasy. He does explain that Bax “assimilated” many musical influences “with a mind receptive beyond the average.” This included Irish and English folksong. However, his attitude towards this resource was different to that of Vaughan Williams or Gustav Holst: “Only once did he consciously use a folk tune and he was not sufficiently a purist to leave it alone even then.”  Scott-Sutherland noted the use of the A chailín donn deas na gcíocha bána in the Phantasy and provided musical examples of the original tune and Bax’s elaboration. Here it is subject to ever more decoration and ornamentation resulting in a melody that “is expressive almost always of heightened emotion and excess passion and is born of a reluctance to complete the cadence or progression without dwelling on its beauties.” Scott-Sutherland does not mention Bax’s allusion/quotation of the Sinn Féin song, Amhrán na bhFiann.

In his biography of Bax, Lewis Foreman (2007, p.192) simply explains that the Phantasy was a result of Bax “re-establishing contact” with Tertis after the war. He states that it “is divided into three movements which play continuously and are interrelated thematically. The orchestration is light, eschewing the lower brass, and the invention is among the most memorable Bax ever penned.” He notes the “passing appearance in the bass” of the Sinn Féin Marching Song. Finally, Foreman considers that the “concerto, with its modal tonality, has an unmistakably Celtic flavour. It was to be Bax’s only completely joyous ‘Irish’ work.”

Conclusion: The final word about this remarkable Phantasy for viola must go to Bax enthusiast, Edwin Evans. He perspicaciously sensed that “If it had been produced abroad, and played by somebody with an unpronounceable name, we should have been smothered with articles about the viola, its master, and the composer. We are so constituted that after this performance it may be put back on the shelf for many months, and that will be our loss.” (Cited in liner notes Dutton Epoch CDLX 7295).

How right he was. Despite a few subsequent performances in Europe, the United States, and the United Kingdom, it never really caught on. Bax enthusiasts are lucky that there have been four recordings made of this Phantasy over the past 34 years.

Brief Bibliography:
Foreman, Lewis, Bax: A Composer and his Times (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1983, 1987, 2007)
Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999)
Scott-Sutherland, Colin, Arnold Bax (London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973)
Tertis, Lionel, My Viola and I, (London, Paul Elek, 1974)
White, John, Lionel Tertis, The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2006)
The files of the Bax Society Bulletin Daily Mail, the Daily Express, Musical Opinion, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Scotsman, The Times.
Additional information and contemporary reviews supplied by the late Graham Parlett with thanks.


  1. Vernon Handley/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Rivka Golani (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 (arr. for viola) and 3 Characteristic, Pieces, op.10 Conifer CDCF 171 (original LP release on CFC 171) (1989)
  2. Stephen Bell/BBC Concert Orchestra, Roger Chase (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Suite for Viola and small orchestra, Theodore Holland: Ellingham Marches for viola and orchestra and Richard Harvey: Reflections for viola and small orchestra. Dutton Epoch CDLX 7295 (2012)
  3. Andrew Davies/BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Philip Dukes (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Four Orchestral Pieces and Overture, Elegy and Rondo. Chandos CHAN 10829 (2014)
  4. János Kovács/Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV, Hong-Mei Xiao (viola), Phantasy for viola and orchestra, William Walton: Viola Concerto and Ralph Vaughan Williams: Suite for Viola and small orchestra, Delos DE3486 (2017)


With thanks to the Arnold Bax Website where this essay was first published. 

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Exploring Arnold Bax’s Phantasy for viola and orchestra (1920): Part 2

The Premiere: 

The Royal Philharmonic concert at the Queen’s Hall, on Thursday, 17 November 1921 was by any standards a varied programme. Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cortège des Noces from the popular three act opera, Le Coq D'or (The Golden Cockerel) (f.p. 1909). This was immediately followed by Arnold Bax’s ‘Concerto’ for viola and orchestra. The soloist was, as noted above, Lionel Tertis. Josef Holbrooke’s tone poem Ulalume (1909) came next. This was based on a narrative poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It was immediately followed by Frederick Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912). After the interval, a single work was performed: Johannes Brahms Symphony No.3 in F major, op.90 (1883). Albert Coates conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

A large section of The Times review (18 November 1921, p.8) considers the Bax premiere. The journalist (possibly H.C. Colles) noted that “the concerto is in a tripartite single movement, it is of clear structure, and it is refined music, full of melodies which appeal to educated tastes.” So far, so good. In a backhanded compliment, he suggests that “the middle section rises above this, and into it considerably the most work seems to have been put. The counterpoint is solid stuff and ‘comes off.’” Unfortunately, this means that the critic did “not care so much for either [the] exordium or peroration…”  It gets worse:

“Mr. Bax at his best has a kind of wistful poetry which is his very own, and at other moments he is no worse than others who fill music paper while they think what to say. He had a pretty folksong to give us, and he did not hammer it too much, but let it float in and out of the conversation on Mr. Tertis’s beautiful instrument.” 

The Brahms was not received too well either: it “filled one with despair and delight.” The problem here was that Albert Coates had his own ideas about texture and balance that are at variance with the composer’s.

The Times reporter did admit that he only heard part of the concert – the first two works and the final two movements of the Brahms Symphony. Cynically, he suggests that the Rimsky-Korsakov “served the purpose of ushering people to their seats for the Concerto.”

In the 21st century it would be unlikely that the Daily Express (18 November 1921, p. 8.) would devote around 120 words to a premiere performance of a British composer. A century ago, it was different. The unnamed critic began by acknowledging that “Mr. Arnold Bax is discovering himself and that quickly. He has emerged from the imitative stage and is rapidly acquiring an individual habit of thought and expression.” This may seem unfair to Bax’s reputation: several important and successful pieces had appeared during and just after the end of the First World War. These include the tone poems The Garden of Fand, November Woods, and the most popular, Tintagel.

The Express commentator continued:

“[Bax’s] latest work…is cast in so unfamiliar a mould…conforming more or less to the practices of tradition is in itself a novelty - and is couched in so personal an idiom that, beyond saying that the music is constructed on unexpectedly definite melodic lines of the wistful and hearty order, one prefers to wait until a second hearing before venturing on details. Mr. Tertis is, of course, the last word in viola players, and, with Mr. Albert Coates conducting, Mr. Bax was handsomely served.”

Under the heading “Charming New Concerto by Mr. Bax,” the Daily Mail’s (18 November 1921, p.5) assessment demands to be reproduced in full. R.C. (Richard Capell) considers:

English music was given us by the Philharmonic Society at Queen’s Hall…last night, by Arnold Bax, Holbrooke and Delius, and the novelty was Bax’s Concerto in D minor for viola. Had anyone there ever heard a viola concerto before? The music was Bax’s, but a good deal of the responsibility must be Mr. Lionel Tertis’s. Mr. Tertis believes in the viola, just as some perfectly nice folks have an eccentric taste for begonias, Scandinavian novels, or holidays in caravans. The shy instrument does its best to overcome a natural diffidence and play up to his belief in it. (Notably it rewards Mr. Tertis’s bow and fingers with a beautiful, unique tone from the A string). But it is no good pretending; it does not shine in the drawing-room of the concerto. It would be happier at a task in the back of the house with cook’s apron or gardening gloves.  

Despite the witty tone of this assessment, it is unfortunate that Capell pedals the old myth that the viola is the Cinderella of the orchestral string section. It was through the passion of Lionel Tertis that the status of the instrument was raised considerably. Yet, even today, the viola is rarely heard in the concert hall performing a concerto.

Doyen of the musical establishment at that time, Edwin Evans in the Pall Mall Gazette (18 November 1921, p.9) stated:

“The viola is commonly regarded as a grave companion to the violin, fond of its lower register, and of solemn thoughts. But Lionel Tertis, the finest player of this instrument known to the musical world today, has always claimed attention for its upper notes, and Arnold Bax, whose concerto Tertis introduced last night, evidently does not regard it as necessarily a solemn instrument. Not that he lures it into unworthy frivolity. He makes of it a blithesome, intimate, and even confidential friend. The music is tinged with the warmer hues of Irish folksong and dance, though not to the extent of employing authentic folk tunes [sic]. The work is concise, none too long, hauntingly beautiful in its melodic outline, and it was played in masterly fashion by Mr. Tertis, with Mr. Albert Coates conducting. The only doubt arose at some points where the viola tone did not seem to come through the orchestra, but that may have been a matter of the listener’s position in the hall, for Tertis’s tone in solo passages was big enough to fill the building…There was great enthusiasm alike for Coates, Tertis and Bax.”  

On the same day, The Scotsman (18 November 1921, p.7) reported that the Phantasy is: “unquestionably Mr Bax’s greatest achievement, for he has not only composed a great work for a neglected instrument, but he has succeeded in a sphere where other composers have failed. The tone of the alto instrument is not powerful, but in his D Minor Concerto the orchestra is used with such skill that the tone of the solo instrument is never submerged.”

 A contemporary edition of Musical Opinion noted that “…the work follows the classical tradition in consisting of three distinct movements, though these are linked together without a break in the flow of the music.” The critic felt that “The viola, like the cello, does not make an ideal instrument for concerto purposes: Mr Bax’s fondness for ornament and arabesque have led him to write passages not altogether suited to the genius of the instrument.” Contrariwise, he felt that “The concerto…contains some very pleasing music, and the solo part was finely played by Mr Lionel Tertis.” (Cited without date, White, 2006, p.61). 

Brief Bibliography:
Foreman, Lewis, Bax: A Composer and his Times (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1983, 1987, 2007)
Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999)
Scott-Sutherland, Colin, Arnold Bax (London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973)
Tertis, Lionel, My Viola and I, (London, Paul Elek, 1974)
White, John, Lionel Tertis, The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2006)
The files of the Bax Society Bulletin Daily Mail, Daily Express, Musical Opinion, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Scotsman, The Times.
Additional information and contemporary reviews supplied by the late Graham Parlett with thanks.

To be continued…
With thanks to the Arnold Bax Website where this essay was first published.

Sunday 9 July 2023

Exploring Arnold Bax’s Phantasy for viola and orchestra (1920): Part 1

Introduction: Arnold Bax’s Concerto, later the Phantasy, for viola and orchestra, was written for, and dedicated to, the violist Lionel Tertis. It was premiered by him during a Philharmonic Society concert on 17 November 1921. The Phantasy was played several times in the ensuing years but was then largely forgotten until its revival in 1989 by Vernon Handley and Rivka Golani. This essay will examine the context, provide a non-technical description of the music, and examine the reaction to the premiere performance. It will conclude with an assessment of modern responses to the Phantasy seen through Bax’s biographers. The paper concludes with a bibliography and discography.

Context: Arnold Bax (1883-1953) had met Lionel Tertis at the Royal Academy of Music whilst studying piano and composition. This immediately resulted in the attractive Concert Piece for viola and piano (1904) penned when the student was aged twenty-one.

In his autobiography, Tertis (1974, p.33ff passim) mentions three composers who out of “pure generosity” wrote music for the viola: Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, and Arnold Bax. These men made significant contributions to the viola repertoire at a time when publishers regarded this as a “distinctly bad commercial proposition.” Some of these were “beautiful and [were] a powerful influence in the advancement of the viola.” As for Bax, Tertis considered that he was “extremely prolific in chamber music and composed a number of works of that category for me.” Turning to their relationship, Tertis recalled that “[Bax] was very shy and reticent, and although an extremely good pianist, he rarely played in public.” He was “reputed to have been an excellent cricketer, both batsman and bowler.” On a social note, he recalls that when Bax was living in Storrington in Sussex, he “could not be got at by anyone when he was composing – but at opening time he could usually be found in the bar parlour with a tankard of ale, smoking his pipe, in animated conversation with the village farm workers.”

Two years after the above-mentioned Concert Piece, Bax completed a Trio in one movement, op.4 for piano, violin, and viola (or clarinet), under the auspices of Tertis. He later referred to this as “that early derivative and formless farrago” and wished “that the devil would fly away with the whole remaining stock of the damned thing and give himself ptomaine poisoning by eating it!” (Parlett, 1999, p.63). This Trio was dedicated to the composer A.J. Rowan-Hamilton.

After the Armistice in 1918, Bax and Tertis re-established contact. The Phantasy score carries only the date ‘1920’. It was composed whilst Bax was living at 155 Fellows Road, Swiss Cottage, London. In late 1921, Bax began his Sonata for viola and piano, and duly dedicated it to Tertis. He considered that one of the best pieces Bax wrote for him. It was premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 17 November 1922 by the dedicatee and with Bax playing the piano part.

Other “Tertis Connections” include the Elegiac Trio for flute, viola, and harp (1916), the Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp (1927) and the Legend for viola and piano (1929). Sketches exist for a second Viola Sonata drafted during 1933-34. Graham Parlett (1999, p.210f) notes that the final page of the second movement of this work surfaced as the ending of the slow movement of the Symphony No.6 (1935).

Parlett’s chronological catalogue reveals Bax’s industry in 1920. There were some eighteen pieces penned, completed, or premiered during that year. Major works comprised the ballet The Truth about the Russian Dancers written for Tamara Karsavina, the third revision of the Violin Sonata No.1 originally dating from 1910, as well as the definitive version of the Piano Sonata No.2. Of equal interest were some piano solos that have retained their popularity, including A Hill Tune, Mediterranean, and the Country Tune.

The Title: The work was billed as ‘Concerto, in D minor’ for viola and orchestra at the premiere performance. The manuscript was originally inscribed as Concerto for viola and orchestra; however, ‘Concerto’ was scored out by an unknown hand on both the cover and the title page and replaced by ‘Phantasy.’ Parlett explains that in the programme notes for the second performance on 13 November 1922, “Eric Blom still refers to it by its earliest title, though elsewhere in the programme booklet it is called ‘Phantasy’, suggesting that the name was changed shortly before the booklet went to press.” (Parlett, 1999, p.150)

A Paradigm for Listening: Overall, the Phantasy is a “passionately lyrical and romantic score.” (Chandos Liner Note, CHAN 10829, 2014). It must be recalled that for Bax, Ireland was a place of enchantment with its people depicted as Heroes. It distressed him to see the destruction of this dream. The country had been embroiled in what was known as the War of Independence (1919-21). After atrocities on both the British and the Irish sides, a truce was agreed and finally the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed off on 6 December 1921. This led to the partition of the country and the creation of the Irish Free State. What Arnold Bax did not foresee at the time of the composition of his Phantasy was the acrimonious Civil War, which began on 28 June 1922 and lasted until 24 May 1923. It left a bitter legacy.

Arnold Bax provided the basic model for appreciating the Phantasy:

“This Concerto follows established classical tradition in that it consists of three distinct movements, though these are linked together without a break in the flow of the music. The orchestra employed is a comparatively small one, the only member of the heavier brass instruments admitted being one trumpet, occasionally used for solo purposes. (Parlett, 1999, p.151)

The movements are:[1] Poco lento - Allegro moderato molto ritmico, [2] Lento semplice and [3] Allegro vivace.”

The Phantasy is characterised by warm melodies and sensuous harmonies as well as its subtle orchestration and grateful instrumental writing. Key things to look out for are the Nationalist fingerprints of Irish music. This includes the “rhythms and inflections” of Irish folksong. These are common attributes of Bax’s oeuvre. Despite this, he rarely included a genuine, as opposed to a confected, folk tune. In the Phantasy he has quoted two Irish folksongs. The slow movement presents a loose reference to A chailín donn deas na gcíocha bána’ (The Pretty Brown-Haired Girl of the White Breasts). This occurs some nine bars before letter “L” in the score. In his programme note for the premiere performance, Bax translates the title modestly as “The Pretty Brown-haired Girl,” describing it as “a little-known folksong.” The other quotation occurs in the final movement. Graham Parlett (1999, p.151) explains that at the letter “X” in the score, Bax has quoted a phrase from the opening measures of the Sinn Féin marching song Amhrán na bhFiann" (A Soldier’s Song). This had been composed by Patrick Heeney (1881-1911) to words by Peadar Kearney (1883-1942). It was originally published in the journal Irish Freedom (Saoirse na hÉireann, No. 23, September 1912). In 1926, it became the national anthem of Eire. Parlett notes that this was some five years after the Phantasy had been first performed. In the liner notes for the Chandos recording (CHAN 10829), Lewis Foreman explains that it was “a political aside that was not noticed by its first audiences.” To be sure, it is not mentioned in the programme notes provided by Bax for the premiere performance or for Eric Blom’s note in the programme booklet for a Concert of Recent Works by Arnold Bax, given at the Queen’s Hall on 13 November 1922.

Brief Bibliography:
Foreman, Lewis, Bax: A Composer and his Times (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1983, 1987, 2007)
Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999)
Scott-Sutherland, Colin, Arnold Bax (London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973)
Tertis, Lionel, My Viola and I, (London, Paul Elek, 1974)
White, John, Lionel Tertis, The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2006)
The files of the Bax Society Bulletin Daily Mail, Daily Express, Musical Opinion, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Scotsman, The Times.
Additional information and contemporary reviews supplied by the late Graham Parlett with thanks.

To be continued…
With thanks to the Arnold Bax Website where this essay was first published.

Thursday 6 July 2023

It's not British, but...Anthology of American Piano Music Volume 5: American Dances

This is the fifth volume of the Anthology of American Piano Music and is dedicated to an exploration of music that is “related to the theme of dance.”  The aim is once again to show “the stylistic breadth, high musical quality and great originality” of this repertoire. These aims are well achieved in this recital. 

The CD opens with Amy Beach’s delightful Tyrolean Valse-Fantaisie, completed in 1911. It explores several different moods. It has been likened to a “Godowskian Strauss paraphrase” and even prefiguring Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, dating from 1919-20. The piece presents elements of improvisation, leading to a fantasy on three [presumably] Tyrolean folk songs. There are dissonant elements in these pages as well as a deliberate distortion of the themes, only resolving themselves towards the end.

William Grant Still was “the most celebrated African American [classical] composer of his time.” His massive catalogue includes nine operas, five symphonies and four ballets scores. Many of his works have evocative titles such as the American Scene, Highway 1, and Lennox Avenue. Cloud Cradles is the first number from Seven Traceries (1940). The listener is conscious of a winding, evolving sound that is more than a touch impressionistic.

Best recalled for his arrangements of Native American themes, Carlos Troyer has created in the dynamic Kiowa-Apache War Dance (1907) a work which has all the fire of Prokofiev’s Toccata written five years later. Cecile Licad writes that “one needs to build one’s stamina to play it brilliantly. It is a real wrist breaker.”

Henry F.B. Gilbert believed that American music should not rely on just European models but should explore indigenous sources. Despite being white, he was most successful when exploring African American and Creole themes. He is best known for his remarkable orchestral work, The Dance in the Place Congo (1908), later performed as a ballet. The Five Negro Dances date from 1914. Licad has chosen No.5 which balances light-heartedness and pathos.

Charles Th. Pachelbel was the youngest son of the great Johann, of Canon fame. He emigrated to colonial America in 1733. The liner notes suggest that Charles was “one of the very few musicians who became rooted in North America, whilst still belonging to the Baroque era.” Cecile Licad has chosen the Minuet (1744). It is believed to hold the honour of being the “oldest surviving keyboard work composed on this continent.” For that reason alone, this miniature holds a special place on this disc.

Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs (1952) exist in various versions, including for orchestra and the original, for two pianos. Barber’s own words are all that are needed to enjoy this delicious suite of pieces: “Had I been a choreographer, I might have imagined a divertissement in a setting reminiscent of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York; the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos.” There are six dances in all: Waltz, Schottische, Pas de Deux, Two-Step, Hesitation Tango and a final Galop. We are wise to listen to Souvenirs “with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness.”

I did not get Micah Thomas’s Rotation. This was written during one of the Covid lockdowns. It is an “enigmatic dance” that is not sure whether it is jazz or something more “classical.” For me, the form is vague. That said there are some lovely moments in this piece’s progress.

Jazz Masks (1929) by Louis Gruenberg uses pre-existing music by composers such as Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Rubenstein, and Chopin. The present number takes Chopin’s “celebrated waltz” in C sharp minor as its source. This can be seen as an attempt at “jazzing the classics” although here he does not overdo the “swing” element.

Edward MacDowell’s Hexentanz is the second of Two Fantastic Pieces for Pianoforte, first published in 1884. The first, Legend, seems to suggest a quaint fairy tale. Hexentanz, translated as Witch’s Dance, became a major, if hackneyed, encore. The composer himself came to “detest its shallow outlook and the appeal it had to the flashy pianist” although he certainly played it himself. Rapid scales and arpeggios compliment a wistful trio section. The title is a bit of a misnomer: there is nothing scary or terrifying about MacDowell’s enchantress. In fact, she is witty and humorous, more in keeping with Mendelssonian fairies than Macbeth’s witches.

If ever there was a challenging piece, it must be Louis M. Gottschalk’s Grande Tarantelle, op.67 (1858-65). The tarantelle had its roots in southern Italy, and was an energetic dance in 6/8 time, once believed to cure people of snakebite. Countless composers have penned examples, including Liszt, Weber, and Chopin. The soloist writes that it “is a nightmare of technical hazards and is a dazzling piece of froth.” Clearly Gottschalk out-Liszt’s Liszt with this brilliant evocation of the sunny Mediterranean. Licad gives a stunning and technically brilliant performance of this hugely demanding work. It brings an excellent recital to a breathless conclusion.

The liner notes, signed by “Cecile” are most helpful to the listener. The sound recording is up to Danacord’s usual exacting standards. As in previous volumes, I find that Cecile Licad’s performances are impeccable, illuminating, and inspiring.

Track Listing:
Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Tyrolean Valse-Fantasie, op.116 (1911)
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Cloud Cradles, No.1 from Seven Traceries (1940)
Carlos Troyer (1837-1920)
Kiowa-Apache War Dance (1907)
Henry F. B. Gilbert (1868-1928)
Dance No.5 from Five Negro Dances (1914)
Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750)
Minuet (1744)
Samuel Barber (1910-81)
Souvenirs (1952)
Micah Thomas (b.1997)
Rotation (c.2020)
Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964)
Jazz Masks II, op.30a (1929)
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)
Hexentanz, from 2 Fantasiestücke, op.17, no.2 (1883)
Louis M. Gottschalk (1829-69)
Grande Tarantelle, op.67 (1858-64)
Cecile Licad (piano)
rec. 9-12 April 2022, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA
Danacord DACOCD 965