Tuesday 29 August 2023

Constant Lambert on Atonalism in Music

“Atonal music” can be described as music without a key. It is a term that can be used for music in which the twelve semitones of the scale are “of equal value, as there is no fundamental note or tonic thus: at the outset no note is established being more important than another.” (Erwin Stein). Going further, as no note is more significant than another, melodies must be formed in such a manner so that no note predominates. It is essential that dissonances rather than consonances are the harmonic norm. Key centres are abolished, and the common chord is abandoned. This “school” has been prominent since about 1907 when the term was coined by Joseph Marx. Some critics used the word “atonal” as a derogatory term for music that they deemed as “non-musical.” 

Examples of “atonal music” would include Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912), the final movement of his String Quartet No.2 (1908) and Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1925). Atonalism would soon shade off into twelve-tone, integral serialism and indeterminacy.

It should be noted that Schoenberg and Alban Berg did not approve of the term “atonal.” The former preferred the term “pantonal,” “denoting [a] synthesis of all keys.”

In 1934, composer and conductor Constant Lambert (1905-51) published his idiosyncratic but lively and provocative study of the then-contemporary music scene, Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline. His comments on Atonalism are both witty and pertinent. He did get wrong the ongoing impact on subsequent classical music. Nowadays, however, many listeners can enjoy atonal music as well as works constructed on traditional key-centred structures.

Lambert wrote: “There is one objection to atonalism so simple and childish that no one seems to have had the courage to make it. Although atonalism has produced complicated and objective fugal structures that can with justice be compared with the Kunst der Fugue of Bach, subjective and neurasthenic operas that can be compared with Tristan and Isolde or Parsifal, it has produced nothing that we can set beside Chabrier and Offenbach, let alone the comic operas of Mozart. The dance movements in the Serenade and the op. 25 Piano Suite, which are Schönberg's nearest approach to this genre, are sufficient proof of the essential solemnity of atonalism. An atonal comic opera is a chimerical thought, and though it is unlikely that either Schönberg or Berg would in any case wish to attempt such a genre, the mere fact that the task would be impossible is a proof of the narrow emotional range offered by their idiom.

Atonalism, though plastic in minor details of texture, is in fact the least flexible and most monotonous of media, and for that reason alone it is unlikely to play much part in the music of the future. It will always remain a thing apart, having something of the hieratical solemnity and exclusiveness of a hereditary religious order; and the more we free ourselves from tonal prejudice and from the tyranny of textbook harmony the less appeal atonalism will have, because it is based on a direct reversal of academic method. Like blasphemy, it requires a background of belief for its full effect. Composers like Bartók or Vaughan Williams could no more become atonalists than a freethinker could take part in a Black Mass.”
Constant Lambert, Music Ho! (Faber and Faber, London, 1934, p.246)

Saturday 26 August 2023

Songs of Elizabeth Maconchy and Ralph Vaughan Williams Volume 2

Continuing their survey of songs by Elizabeth Maconchy and Ralph Vaughan Williams, James Geer and Ronald Woodley begin their recital with the latter’s Four Last Songs. (See here for review of Volume 1). These were published posthumously in 1960. All the texts were written by RVW’s wife, Ursula. It has been explained that originally, these songs may have been supposed to have been parts of two separate cycles: Procris and Menelaus exploring Classical themes from the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome and Tired and Hand, Eyes, and Heart concerned with love between partners. The liner notes explain that later research has suggested another grouping of the texts. Whatever the original intent and scope of the proposed publication, the theme of all four songs is “Love.”  The mood of the songs is different, Procris and Menelaus are like accompanied recitatives with vocal line and piano part “doing their own thing,” where the other two are more melodic and have straightforward accompaniments. The version of the Four Last Songs heard here has been transposed for tenor. A mezzo-soprano or baritone usually sings it.

Vaughan Williams’s The House of Life (1903) sets six numbers from the first part of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s eponymous collection of sonnets. Written slightly earlier than the ubiquitous Songs of Travel, this cycle looks more towards European songwriters such as Schumann, Wagner and “perhaps Duparc.” The entire cycle has been described as “a meditation on the concept of duality: life and death, time and eternity, erotic and Platonic love, matter and spirit.” (Vaughan Williams Project). I associate this work with a baritone (Roderick Williams, Benjamin Luxon, etc.) however, James Geer’s performance is satisfying in every way. The RVW discography cites some sixteen recorded examples of The House of Life, with only five of the Four Last Songs.

In Volume 1 of this project, Geer and Woodley performed two unpublished songs from Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Garland: Variations on a Theme. In 1938, her husband, William Le Fanu, had translated seven poems from the Anacreontea, a volume of about sixty short verses authored by post-Classical Greek authors. The themes of these poems are wine, beauty, erotic love, and the worship of Dionysus. The songs heard on this present CD were published in 1984 as a group of four. They are delightful, often quite beautiful, not challenging, and full of colourful imagery, both verbally and musically. As a pendant to this group, another number from the cycle, The Swallow, has been included as a separate entity, to respect the composer’s desire to have the published set “retaining its own identity.”

Several standalone Maconchy songs have been included. The Exequy (Funeral Rites) (1956) sets a few lines from Henry King, Bishop of Chichester’s long poem Exequy on his wife, written when in mourning after the death of his young spouse. It is not an easy piece to listen to. The musical texture is astringent, often intense, but sometimes quite beautiful. The liner notes suggest that the “tolling accompaniment” nods to Maurice Ravel’s Le Gibet from Gaspard de la Nuit.

Two settings (1941) of the Anglo-Irish poet Sheila Wingfield (later Viscountess Powerscourt) are of interest. The first, Sailor’s Song of the Two Balconies provides a marked contrast between bleakness (of Northern climes) and the warmth of the Hispanic imagery in the “middle eight.” This is followed by the equally gloomy The Disillusion. Due to copyright issues, the texts of these are not given in the liner notes.

An early song was The Poet-Wooer, with words by the Jacobean/Carolinian poet Ben Jonson, completed in 1928. Much of the vocal line is unaccompanied, with the piano providing the lightest of touches. Bleakness is again the watchword for Maconchy’s setting of Emily Bronte’s Sleep Brings No Joy to Me (1937). It matches the mood of Emily’s sad memories and her suffering in life. In a Fountain Court (1929), with a text by Arthur Symons, is much closer to RVW’s aesthetic with its gently moving modal melodies and harmonies. The music perfectly mirrors “The fountain murmuring of sleep/A drowsy tune.”

The final song (really a scena) on this disc is Maconchy’s How Samson Bore Away the Gates of Gaza (original version of 1937). I do not like this caricature/pastiche on the biblical story, which is confused and overblown. It is based on a William Topaz McGonagall-esque text by the modernist poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). The liner notes suggest that her “extended, dramatic setting deliberately plays with certain parodic Middle Eastern harmonic clichés of the period and seems not to take itself entirely seriously.” For this listener, its ten-minute duration seems to go on for ever. That said, there are many good things in the vivid vocal line and the sympathetic accompaniment. Just a pity about the text.

Like Volume 1, the performances by James Geer and Ronald Woodley, the recording and documentation are second to none. I reiterate, that it was a splendid notion to pair RVW with his erstwhile pupil Elizabeth Maconchy. This second volume also makes a wonderful opportunity for exploring the vocal music of these two English composers.

Track Listing:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Four Last Songs (pub. post. 1960)
1. Procris
2. Tired
3. Hands, Eyes, and Heart
4. Menelaus
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94)
5. The Exequy (1956)
The Garland: Variations on a Theme (1938)
6. The Garland
7. Old and Young
8. I Would I Were a Mirror
9. No End to Love
10. Sailor’s Song of the Two Balconies (1941)
11. The Disillusion (1941)
12. The Swallow (1938)
13. The Poet-Wooer (1928)
14. Sleep Brings No Joy to Me (1937)
15. In Fountain Court (1929)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The House of Life (1903)
16. Love-Sight
17. Silent Noon
18. Love’s Minstrels
19. Heart’s Haven
20. Death in Love
21. Love’s Last Gift
Elizabeth Maconchy
22. How Samson Bore Away the Gates of Gaza (original version of 1937)
James Geer (tenor), Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. 6-9 September 2022 Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Resonus RES10317 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Herbert Walton: Organist Extraordinaire

Any research into the history of Glasgow’s musical life during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century invariably throws up the name of Herbert Walton. I first read about him in a cutting from The Glasgow Herald (Monday, 28 April 1913, p.11). He had been invited to inaugurate the new organ at Cardross Parish Church on the previous Saturday. The instrument was not large – two manuals, pedals and 14 speaking stops, with tubular pneumatic action. The organ was built by Mr Henry Hilsdon of Glasgow, who is now probably best recalled for his cinema organ design. The concert programme was varied, with several arrangements and transcriptions. There were original works by Alfred Hollins and William Wolstenholme, as well as Bach’s “delightful Fugue alla gigue” and Theodore Dubois’s war horse, the Toccata in G. Clearly, the programme was designed to display the new organ, as well as demonstrating the soloist’s technical virtuosity. Similar newspaper reports appear from many other towns including Arbroath, Dundee and Twechar. In fact, one obituary suggested that Walton had given concerts in “practically every town in Scotland.”  His recitals became known throughout the United Kingdom and extended to the Continent and the United States

Herbert Walton was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire town of Thirsk on 27 February1869. His father was a local schoolmaster and organist at the Parish Church. Early study with Dr John Naylor at York Minster led to his appointment as organist at Kirby-Wiske Church, near Thirsk, in the North Riding.

He later studied on an open scholarship at the Royal College of Music, under Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Walter Parratt and Frederic Cliffe. For two years, Walton held the sinecure of personal organist of the Earl of Aberdeen. He relinquished this post when his Lordship proposed relocating to Canada. Shortly after, he was appointed organist at St Mark’s Church, Leeds.

In 1897, Dr Albert Lister Peace (1844-1912) left his position as musical director at Glasgow Cathedral for the prestigious St George’s Hall, Liverpool. Walton was chosen unanimously as his successor. There were more than 200 applicants for the position. For 31 years, Herbert Walton remained the distinguished organist at the Cathedral.

The Daily Record (Monday, 23 August 1897, p.4) advertised “The First Organ Recital by Mr Herbert Walton.” On that day at 8pm, the audience heard Alexandre Guilmant’s Sonata No.1 in D minor, a Pastorale by Theodor Kullak, J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, and Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture. There was also an improvisation on An Old English Air by Dr Thomas Arne. The performance received high praise.

These annual recitals continued for many years until shortly before his death. Typically, critics remarked that he was a master of his instrument, was able to bring out the tone and strengths of any organ he played, and always designed programmes to reveal the full capabilities of the instrument.

Despite not being a prolific composer, Walton’s Rhapsodic Variations on two contrasted themes were (seemingly) popular in his day. They were published by Bayley and Ferguson of Glasgow in c.1921. I have been unable to inspect a copy of this score.

Walton was a member of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, and belonged to the Palette Club, a musical institution based in 518 Sauchiehall Street. He was president of the GSO for the year 1922/23. His interests, apart from music included walking, reading and billiards. His residence was 1 Queen’s Terrace, now 127 West Princes Street in the West End of Glasgow.

On 12 July 1929 Herbert Walton died in a nursing home in Bournemouth. He had been in failing health for some time. R. H. Clifford Smith succeeded him as organist of Glasgow Cathedral.

The CHARM discographic website, which chronicles early recordings, has three entries for Herbert Walton. The most substantial is J.S. Bach’s Fugue alla gigue dating from April 1927, performed on the organ of Glasgow Cathedral. On the same day, Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria was also recorded. Unbelievably, both have been uploaded to YouTube (search on performer/title). There was also an unissued recording of the Cathedral Choir singing Flowers of forever, with Walton accompanying. At least two records of Old Scottish Psalm Tunes: Scottish Airs were later issued. Some popularity was gained with “Lament for Sir Rory Mor,” a traditional Scottish tune.

Sadly, Cardross Old Church was destroyed during a Luftwaffe raid on Clydeside on 5 May 1941. After the war ended, the church tower was retained as a war memorial. The congregation moved to the Free Church building in Station Road. No information is extant as to what happened to the remains of the organ. 

With thanks to the Glasgow Society of Organists Journal, where this essay was first published. 

Sunday 20 August 2023

Songs of Elizabeth Maconchy and Ralph Vaughan Williams Volume 1

My introduction to English Song back in the early 1970s was John Shirley Quirk’s account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel (Saga XID5211). These settings of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “wayfarer poems” appealed to me, as a teenager who had been brought up on the author’s timeless romances Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona. Since that time, I have heard various recordings of this great cycle, including those by Bryn Terfel, Roderick Williams and Will Liverman (reviewed here). 

Songs of Travel were written between 1901 and 1904. They have been published in several editions. It was not until after the composer’s death that Ursula Vaughan Williams released, I have trod the upward and the downward slope. Also not included in the original score was the sad Whither must I wander.

I prefer Songs of Travel being sung by a baritone. My go-to version of this cycle is still John Shirley Quirk, even after more than 50 years. However, the present liner notes gave me pause for thought. Although typically a work that exhibits “sturdiness,” the other side of the coin is that “the delicacy and lightness of touch of many of the songs, and their eminent suitability for the tenor voice, have been comparatively neglected.”

Despite my preference above, James Geer’s account is outstanding in every way. The highlights (for me) are Let Beauty Awake and Bright is the Ring of Words. My favourite number is Youth and Love. I never fail to be moved by the lines “but waves a hand as he passes on/ Cries but a wayside word to her at the garden gate/Sings, but a boyish stave and his face is gone.” Perhaps the most poignant moment is in the final number, I have Trod the Upward and Downward Slope, when RVW alludes to previous songs in the cycle, bringing it to a poignant conclusion.

Less-often performed are RVW’s Four Poems by Fredegond Shove completed in 1925. Fredegond Shove (pronounced as in ‘Grove’) was related to the composer: his first wife Adeline Fisher was Shove’s aunt. Her poetry was included on a volume of Georgian Poetry (1918-19) published by Sir Edward Howard Marsh. For much of her life, Shove was an adherent of the Bloomsbury Group.

Sadly, some commentators have criticised Shove’s verse as being “a little too idyllically cosy” or “clawingly religiose for comfort,” and RVW’s settings presenting “dreadful verse…transcended by the music.” Trevor Hold wondered if “family ties had not influenced Vaughan Williams in his choice [of texts].” Lacking taste, (perchance) I appreciate both text and music.

The last, The Watermill has become one of his most popular songs, with its detailed correspondence between the mill and its inhabitants with the resultant music. As a work of art, it reaches towards Schubert. The subject of the mystical The New Ghost may not be to modern taste, with the newly departed soul meeting Christ, but there is no doubt that RVW has created some wonderfully numinous music equal to his Bunyan settings. Equally magical is the opening number, Motion and Stillness which majors on “The sea-shells lie as cold as death/Under the sea/The clouds move in a wasted wreath Eternally.” RVW has produced a song that is dead-slow-stop, as befits the title. Equally lovely is Four Nights which muses on the passing of the Four Seasons, (and its metaphor of life), a sentiment caught by his setting.

For details of Elizabeth Maconchy’s life and achievement, I recommend her daughter Nicola Le Fanu’s essay on MusicWeb International, here.  Suffice that Maconchy studied at the Royal College of Music with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. Her catalogue includes music written in most genres including orchestral, concerted, opera and chamber music. The latter is represented by an important cycle of thirteen string quartets. Her songs are the least-well-known aspect of her achievement. Stylistically, she has absorbed and synthesised many influences, including Bartók, Stravinsky, Janáček, and her former teacher, RVW. She was later to develop her own brand of serialism, but later “disowned these works.”

The earliest Maconchy song recorded here is Impetuous Heart, Be Still (1924), setting a text by W.B. Yeats from his play The Countess Cathleen. It is remarkably confident for a seventeen-year-old student. Five years later, in The Cloths of Heaven (1929), again with a text by Yeats, she creates an “unsettling” mood that emphasises desolation and a stark mood, far removed from the romantic take by Thomas Dunhill. The following year she set Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s contemplative poem, The Woodspurge (1930) which deals with heartbreak and grief. The liner notes explain its genesis: Maconchy describes in a letter to Grace Williams that it was “composed first as a solo piano piece in 1929, while away in Prague, and then transmuted into song when she read the poem while on honeymoon the following year.” The Thrush (1934), to words by John Keats, is dry and intense. The sonnet expounds what is going on in the bird’s mind, not the poet’s. True knowledge and joy will come to those who are “passive and receptive” and not “impatient.”

In 1938, Elizabeth Maconchy’s husband, William Le Fanu, translated some poems from the Anacreontea, a volume of about sixty short poems authored by post-Classical Greek writers. These date from the first century BC to the sixth century AD. Their subject matter includes wine, beauty, erotic love, and the worship of Dionysus. Elizabeth set seven of them in her The Garland: Variations on a Theme. Four were later published in 1984. James Geer has chosen to sing two of the remaining songs, from manuscript. Love Stood at My Door and The Bee-Sting complement each other in their subject matter: “the wayward and cruel antics of the boy-god Cupid (Eros) with his love arrows.” The former is almost operatic in concept: Britten may be an influence here. The Bee-Sting is absorbed and intense, reflecting on Cupid having been stung by a bee, and his mother saying to him “If the bee-sting hurts/How do you think they suffer, Love/Whom you shoot?”

I found the final Maconchy work on this CD, Faustus, quite challenging. Not so much by avant-garde standards, but simply that its sound world is unique in English music. Written in 1971, this is less a song than “a dramatic scena for tenor and piano.” Here the listener will find no echoes of her teacher’s modalism. Neither has she imitated Benjamin Britten.

The burden of the text is taken from The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe: it majors on the last hour before Faustus descends to hell. The notes explain that the entire piece contrasts consonance and dissonance in “playing out metaphorically…as symbols of heaven and hell.” Extravagant music for an overblown text.

Ronald Woodley provides detailed liner notes. They explore the relationship between RVW and his pupil Elizabeth Maconchy. Considerable space is given to a discussion of the “newly recovered Maconchy songs.”  All the texts are included. It would have helped if the dates of the works had been given in the track listing. The booklet is illustrated by photographs of the two performers and a thoughtful study of Maconchy as a young woman. The charming cover, Herding cows before a farmstead, is by the Newlyn School artist, Harold Charles Francis Harvey (1874–1941).

James Geer is always sensitive to the music and the words. Ronald Woodley provides the perfect accompaniment. The balance between singer and piano is ideal.

It was a wonderful idea to pair RVW with his erstwhile pupil Elizabeth Maconchy. It makes a fascinating opportunity for exploring the vocal music of these two English composers. I look forward to reviewing the second instalment of this series.

Track Listing:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Songs of Travel (1901-04)
1. The Vagabond
2. Let Beauty Awake
3. The Roadside Fire
4. Youth and Love
5. In Dreams
6. The Infinite Shining Heavens
7. Whither Must I Wander?
8. Bright is the Ring of Words
9. I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–94)
10. Love Stood at My Door (1938)
11. The Bee-Sting (1938)
12. The Woodspurge (1930)
13. The Cloths of Heaven (1929)
14. The Thrush (1934)
15. Impetuous Heart, Be Still (1924)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Four Poems by Fredegond Shove (1925)
16. Motion and Stillness
17. Four Nights
18. The New Ghost
19. The Water Mill
Elizabeth Maconchy
20. Faustus (1971)
James Geer (tenor), Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. 5-8 September 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Resonus RES10299
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Thursday 17 August 2023

Discovering Arthur Bliss’s Second String Quartet (1950) Part 3

Excursus 2: The American Premiere: Bliss’s Second String Quartet was given its first United States performance on 21 February 1952 at the Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, New York. The Griller Quartet also included Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in E flat, op.64, no.6 and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet No.15 in a minor, op.132 in the programme. The critic in the New York Times (22 February 1952, p.14) begins by noting that the “Griller Quartet has existed with the same personnel since its birth, twenty-three years ago. This makes it the oldest such organisation still in one piece, and – as one might expect – gives it uncommonly strong cohesiveness and maturity of ensemble spirit.” Turning to the Bliss Quartet, the journalist reminded the readers that “…the English composer, was impressed with the Grillers recently, and wrote his Quartet No.2 for them.” The recital “did the [Bliss] proud.” Musically, they “brought out the blunt, rather old-fashioned sounding dissonances with the same kind of pleasure that Bliss must have enjoyed when he wrote them, and lovingly floated the mellow harmonies that contrasted.” Strangely, the only criticism is that it “is five movements long, which seemed too much – ten minutes fewer would have made one less aware of its outmoded aspects.” As noted above, it is only four movements long.

The reviewer thought that the Haydn was “suavely romantic” and “seemed perfectly matched to the music.” And the Beethoven was a little disappointing but the “performance picked up as it proceeded…” 

Recording: Currently, there are five commercial recordings of Arthur Bliss’s Second String Quartet in the catalogue (See discography below). I do not intend to discuss or compare all these versions.

It is unusual for a new British chamber work to be recorded in the same year that it was premiered. On 29 September 1950, the Griller Quartet entered the Decca studios in West Hampstead to begin work on Bliss’s Second String Quartet. The LP was issued on LPS 299 in February 1951. Bliss’s String Quartet No.1 had been released during June 1943 and issued on K1091-4. Both have been subsequently remastered onto CD.

The Gramophones (June 1951, p.8) critic A.R. (Alec Robertson) gave a long and detailed discussion of the new record of the Quartet. Overall, “the Grillers play the difficult music with complete understanding and with a splendid ensemble.” The sound quality has a few issues. The tone of the first violin is “rather wiry at various points in the opening movement,” and the viola “lacks body in the tune given to it after the fugato in the scherzo [and] there is a lack of bite in the pizzicato semiquavers in the slow movement.”   Of importance is the perceived balance between the composer’s “lively wit and zest for life” and a “prevailing sense of disillusionment with the human scene.”  As for the music, “the workmanship…is grand but we can admire here not only the qualities of head but of the heart.” In a personal note, A.R. writes that “I myself should rate this quartet as one of the finest pieces of chamber music that these last years have brought forth.”

Conclusion: On 2 August 1966, the Amici String Quartet broadcast on the BBC Third Programme a performance of the Second String Quartet, as a part of Bliss’s 75th Birthday Celebrations. The song cycle A Knot of Riddles and the Clarinet Quintet were also given. (Radio Times, July 1966). In his memoirs As I Remember (Bliss, 1970, 1989, p.186) Bliss reflected on this “splendid performance of this difficult work, and on rehearing it, I captured once again the excitement with which sixteen years previously, I had started work on it.”

1. Bliss, Arthur, Second String Quartet, Griller Quartet, Decca LX 3038 (10” mono) 1950, also London LPS 299 LP; London LL 1550, LP; Dutton CDBP 9780 CD (2008)
2. Bliss, Arthur, Second String Quartet, with String Quartet No.1, Delmé Quartet, Hyperion CDA 66178 CD (1989)
3. Bliss, Arthur, Second String Quartet, with String Quartet No.1, Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, Troubadisc, TRO-CD 01412 CD (1996)
4. Bliss, Arthur, Second String Quartet, with Clarinet Quintet, David Campbell (clarinet) Maggini Quartet, Naxos, 8.557394 (2004)
5. Bliss, Arthur, Second String Quartet, Barbirolli Quartet, Nimbus NI 6165 (2011)

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember (London: Faber and Faber, 1970: Revised and enlarged, Thames Publishing, 1989)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1996)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (Sevenoaks, Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991)
The files of Daily Telegraph, The Gramophone, The Musical Times, New York Times, Press and Journal, Radio Times, The Scotsman, The Stage, The Times, record and CD liner notes etc.


With thanks to The Arthur Bliss Society Journal where this essay was first published.

Monday 14 August 2023

Discovering Arthur Bliss’s Second String Quartet (1950) Part 2

Premiere Performance: The premiere of Bliss’s Second String Quartet was given at a morning concert by the dedicatees at the Freemason’s Hall in George Street, Edinburgh, on Friday 1 September 1950. It was during the fourth annual Edinburgh International Festival. Other pieces heard included Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, K.421, and Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115. The soloist in the latter was Frederick Thurston. 

The Scotsman (2 September 1950, p.6), possibly Christopher Grier, reported that Bliss’s new quartet “was not one that gave up its secrets at a first hearing.” True, Bliss had harked back to the “romantic” Music for Strings (1935). This was itself in a trajectory from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, op.47 (1905) and to a lesser extent, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913, 1919). What the reviewer was getting at is that Bliss had used the formal construct of the Music for Strings but made it “much more intense with fewer concessions to tunefulness.”  It reflected “the severer side of his composition.”  The performance was given “in the Griller Quartet’s most vigorous, uncompromising style.”  Finally, the critic suggests, “if in some ways the work was a trifle disappointing, there were many interesting features…but with a work of this nature, the only thing is to hear it again.”

Richard Cappell, writing for The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post (2 September 1950, p.5) gave a succinct commentary on the Quartet. He considered that “it is a work of important scope, abounding in invention and vigour.” Cappell continues by comparing the new piece with Music for Strings and suggests that “it will surely be found a pleasure to play, challenging as its difficulties are, by a first-rate team.” He concludes with the notion that the Quartet is not “sensuously beguiling music [but] it holds the listener by the play of a keen and masterful mind.”

The unsigned review in The Times (2 September 1950, p.8) gave a balanced critique of the Quartet: “It showed ample invention and contained many happy ideas, though their sequence often seemed more skilful than imperative or inevitable.”  The two middle movements were of interest “[sounding] a new note in Bliss’s music, the slow movement being particularly striking for a shadowy and fugitive quality, which transformed itself into something more robust, but still half veiled in the scherzo.” The “first movement was terse and athletic...” and the finale was “the most complex and highly organised movement.” It was played “with the Griller’s accustomed care, vitality and rectitude of ensemble.”

Another positive evaluation (The Stage, 7 September 1950, p.12) stated that Arthur Bliss has provided “the Griller Quartet with four movements which never slacken in complexity and yet reveal his knowledge of their musicianly capacity.” It concludes by admitting the Quartet is not “sympathetic to the average listener at first hearing, the grating passages of the early movements are compensated for later, and the new quartet is a “birthday present” reflecting credit on the giver as much as on the recipients.”

Finally, the unnamed critic of the Aberdeenshire Press and Journal (2 September 1950, p.3) brought a light touch into their assessment. For one thing he used the quaint title “Quartette!” A lady sitting next to them, who was conservative in her tastes said that the first movement “was like four musicians tuning up and none of them playing the same tune.”  Fortunately, the second movement was more to her taste – “it began and ended in almost inaudible pianissimo and throughout was very lovely.”   The reviewer felt that the Scherzo was “the least distinctive of the four [movements] – rather chirpy, as if written to order, the order that a scherzo had to come in there.” Wittily, they concluded by noting that in the finale, “we were again among the modern steam, but again the end was Bliss and beauty.” Overall, they wanted to “hear [it] again and that frequently.”

A Path Through the Quartet: The Second String Quartet is presented in four movements, although it is possible to analyse it as having five. The opening Allegro con spirito, has four principal themes, however, it is the opening energetic subject, played initially in unison, which dominates this section, and is presented in various guises. The other ideas are a quiet chorale, a rhythmically percussive motif and a “gently flowing tune.” It concludes with a gentle coda. The slow movement begins Sostenuto and is characterised by dotted notes. It is remarkably meditative in effect although there are many soft dissonances. This is followed by a Pui mosso section that increases the intensity and is supported by gruff cello pizzicato and bowed chords. The strings are muted throughout, except for a short, dramatic cello solo. The movement ends quietly. There is a brief pause before the vibrant and bubbly Scherzo, Vivo e con brio, explodes with an upward sweep of arpeggios. Several contrasting, but always rhythmical tunes emerge. The irregular phrase length lends a sense of elasticity to this characteristic music. Bliss uses the opening theme of the Scherzo to create a short, chromatic fugato passage, before recapitulating the opening themes. The trio section, with the tune played on the first violin in harmonics allows the pace to ease a fraction. Once again, this movement closes calmly and quite suddenly. The finale opens with an enthusiastic Larghetto cantabile, which includes a plaintive passage for cello, played “quasi recitativo.” The succeeding Allegro is elaborate in construction. The Quartet closes with an echo of the second subject, but this time played Largamente. Surprisingly the work ends with a whisper, the final chord being in solid F major and played pizzicato.

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember (London: Faber and Faber, 1970: Revised and enlarged, Thames Publishing, 1989)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1996)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (Sevenoaks, Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991)
The files of Daily Telegraph, The Gramophone, The Musical Times, New York Times, Press and Journal, Radio Times, The Scotsman, The Stage, The Times, record and CD liner notes etc.

To be continued

With thanks to the The Arthur Bliss Society Journal where this essay was first published.

Friday 11 August 2023

Discovering Arthur Bliss’s Second String Quartet (1950) Part 1

Introduction: This essay concerns the genesis, the context, and the premiere of Arthur Bliss’s Second String Quartet. Included is a discography as well as a single of the first recording by the Griller Quartet, the work’s dedicatees. The composer provided a detailed technical analysis. (Roscow, ed., 1991, p.192-195). I have made much use of this in my “A Path Through the Quartet” below. 

Genesis: There is only one other work listed in the Bliss catalogue shown to have been completed in 1950. (Foreman, 1980, p.113). This was the grand sounding Heritage of Britain which consist of two orchestral signature tunes for BBC Radio. The total duration is 73 seconds. They were first heard during a broadcast on 3 April 1951, (Radio Times, 30 March 1951, p.21) played by Ian Whyte and the BBC Scottish Orchestra. Dutton Epoch have recently issued these two miniatures on CDLX7387.

The previous year (1949) had seen the completion of Bliss’s first opera, The Olympians, with a libretto by J.B. Priestley. Its first night at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden was on 29 September 1949. The same year saw the first screening of the Gainsborough Picture film Christopher Columbus, starring Fredric March in the title role, and Florence Eldridge as Queen Isabella. The final offering that year was the incidental music for Summer Day’s Dream. This play, written by J.B. Priestley, was given its first London performance at the St Martin’s Theatre on 8 September 1949. It starred Herbert Lomas and Andina Mandlova. The plot, set in the future (1975), posits a post-nuclear war scenario, with the British nation returning to a pre-industrial agrarian economy. Bliss’s contribution was Christopher’s Theme, lasting for just over a minute.

In June 1950, Bliss received a Knighthood in the King’s Birthday Honours List. Along with Trudy, they celebrated their Silver Wedding Anniversary. They had been married on 1 June 1925, at the Old Mission, Santa Barbara, California. (Craggs, 1996, p.20f)

Bliss writes (Bliss, 1970, 1989, p.186) “to free myself from brooding over all the hopes and subsequent frustrations associated with The Olympians I retreated into the intimate and private world of chamber music.” The Griller Quartet were “four old friends” of the composer. In 1950 they were celebrating the twenty first anniversary of their “coming together.”. Bliss resolved to give them a “birthday present which they could acknowledge at the Edinburgh Festival that year.” The Quartet was written during the spring and summer of 1950. The result was the “most substantial chamber work that I had attempted.”

Anecdotally, as each movement was completed, it was sent to the Griller Quartet for study and preparation. The complex finale was in rehearsal only a few days before the premiere. (The Stage, 7 September 1950, p.12).

A Question of Numbering: Arthur Bliss composed several essays for this medium. The earliest was the String Quartet in A major, op.4 completed around 1914. The “parts” were published by Stainer and Bell in 1915 but were subsequently withdrawn. (Foreman, 1980, p.46). Two years later, the Fugue for string quartet was entered into the Elgar Fugue Competition. Bliss wrote (Music Student November 1916, p.108) that “I intended to write a phantasy of three movements…but time has only allowed me to complete the first and give an inkling of the second…” It was never published, and the holograph is missing. Around 1923/4 Bliss wrote another string quartet. Foreman (op. cit. p.46) explains that the surviving manuscript “is an unfinished working score and not the fair copy.” Chronologically, this is the “second string quartet.”  There is also a short Allegro in manuscript. This was written in the late-1920s. The first of the “official” String Quartet was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and was dedicated to her. It was published by Novello in 1942 simply as ‘String Quartet,’ and with the miniature score as ‘String Quartet No.1.’ (Craggs 1996, p.153f)

There is, then, a possibility of confusion over the numbering of Arthur Bliss’s string quartets. Craggs (1996, p.154) refers to the present example as Quartet No.4 for strings. Yet, the miniature score published in 1951 carries the title “Second String Quartet.”

The problem is solved by Lewis Foreman (1980, p.44). He explains that “the identification of a number of manuscripts which have come to light since the composer’s death has resulted in the discovery of the String Quartet written in 1923, previously thought lost. Thus, four quartets are in existence.” Foreman suggests that the quartets should be identified by date of composition. Sadly this suggestion has not generally been taken up. The current situation is that the quartets published as Nos. 1 and 2 are in fact Nos. 3 and 4 respectively.

In this essay I have used the published title, the Second String Quartet.

Excursus 1: The Griller Quartet: The Griller Quartet came together in 1928/29 and survived until 1961 without a change of personnel. The original members were Sidney Griller, (1st violin), Jack O’Brien, (2nd violin), Philip Burton, (viola) and Colin Hampton, (cello). All were, or had been, students at the Royal Academy of Music where they were encouraged to play as an ensemble by the violist and teacher Lionel Tertis.

These four musicians were highly skilled at performing the main classical repertoire, but they were especially adept at introducing contemporary music by British and Continental composers. They were soon recognised as one of the foremost English ensembles. On 5 February 1939, the Griller Quartet made their debut in New York. At that event they performed Arnold Bax’s Quartet in G major, No.1, as well as works by Mozart and Haydn.

To help their music making, they moved into the same house. Even marriage did not interrupt this professional menage à quatre. During the Second World War, the members of the Quartet all enlisted in the Royal Air Force, however, they were still able to concertise. After the end of hostilities, the Griller Quartet resumed recitals and returned to the United States on a regular basis.

The Quartet had a yearly residency at the University of California between 1949 and 1961. Several celebrated composers have dedicated music to them, including Darius Milhaud, Ernest Bloch, Roger Sessions and, of course, Arthur Bliss.

In 1960, O’Brien and Burton left the quartet. After some attempts at replacement, Griller finally abandoned the ensemble in 1963.

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember (London: Faber and Faber, 1970: Revised and enlarged, Thames Publishing, 1989)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1996)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (Sevenoaks, Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991)
The files of Daily Telegraph, The Gramophone, The Musical Times, New York Times, Press and Journal, Radio Times, The Scotsman, The Stage, The Times, record and CD liner notes etc.

To be continued

With thanks to The Arthur Bliss Society Journal where this essay was first published.

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Ronald Stevenson and Friends

This fascinating recital opens with one of many arrangements Percy Grainger made of Country Gardens between 1908 and 1947. This is for two recorders (descant and treble). It was completed at Balfour Gardiner’s home at Fontwell Hill. The liner notes remind the listener that Ronald Stevenson and Grainger were close friends. 

The text of A Year Owre Young (1987) was written by the Scottish novelist and poet James Hogg. Stevenson has set it for mezzo soprano and violin. The subject matter is that “the bonnie lad with the yellow hair” no longer comes to woo her. It is an evocative song that is timeless and modern at the same time. “Owre” is Scots language for “Over.” 

Equally enchanting is his setting of William Blake’s poem To Autumn for soprano and recorder (1965). It is effectively a “monody” for voice, with the recorder providing a prelude and interlude. In the “middle eight” the two performers come together. The text explores the colours and sentiments of an autumn day.

Celtic Triptych (2010) for solo recorder may be Ronald Stevenson’s last composition. It was dedicated to the present soloist John Turner. The liner notes explain that he had adapted material from his Scots Suite for solo violin, dating from 1974. There are three absorbing movements. The work opens with a Slow Air which is “the song of a lonely soul.”  The second, a Strathspey incorporates a Scottish folk tune, The Marquis of Huntley. The finale is a twelve-tone rondo. Stevenson gave it an unofficial subtitle of The Drunk Man Looks at the Fiddle. Fans will get the allusion to his friend Hugh MacDiarmid’s legendary stream of consciousness poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

For sheer delight, the listener cannot beat Stevenson’s A Wee Holiday Suite. It was composed in 1978, whilst he was visiting Percy Grainger’s home in White Plains, New York State. His companion on the trip was the co-founder of the Percy Grainger Society, Barry Peter Ould, nicknamed Bipo, with a clear allusion to the Marx Brothers. Three of the movements portray Bipo’s escapades including his Dance, his Sleepo and his Ear-Pop. Other folk are portrayed too: A Balow for Balough nods to Teresa Balough who published the first catalogue of Grainger’s music and Ulla’s and Ella’s Hike refers to Grainger’s niece, and his wife respectively, and their daily walks around the veranda of the house. The Suite is just a pleasure to hear: it should be in the repertoire of all competent recorderists.

Dundee-born Wilma Patterson has contributed five Little Cynical Songs to this CD. Originally written as incidental music to a play by author Joan Ure (pen name of Elizabeth Clark) they were assembled here as a miniature song-cycle. These fetchingly tonal melodies are scored for soprano and recorder.

Doyen of Scottish composers and musicologists, John Purser has contributed a lovely little number for solo recorder: Skye Blue (2019). Purser explains that this is a set of four variations on a “simple fourteen bar theme.”  These “share the characteristics with those of the piobaireachd – the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.” The last time I visited the Isle of Skye it was a perfect, cloudless, summer’s day. Skye Blue is certainly evocative of this wonderful part of Scotland. 

Fellow Scottish composer David Johnson wrote a series of Twelve Preludes and Fugues for piano (c.1990s). We hear three of them on this CD. The Prelude No.1 uses a four-note figure echoing pronunciation of the Gaelic word bheatha, “meaning life, welcome, livelihood [and] food.” It opens quietly, soon building up to a climax. The associated fugue is a “homage to Bach” with bluesy-blue notes. The second, No.6 in G major opens with a lugubrious prelude. This is a transcription of a piece Johnson penned in 1974, a setting of Hugh MacDiarmid’s O Jesu Parvule (O little Jesus). This poem is a Scottish dialect meditation on the Nativity of Christ. The fugue uses a theme combining B-A-C-H, a fragment of an Hebridean lullaby as well as the German chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How lovely shines the morning star). The liner notes print the inaccurate reverse translation “Wie school leuchtet dear Morgenstern.”  The final Prelude and Fugue No.8 in F parodies an old psalm tune, complete with piquant “wrong” harmonies and the fugue is fairly “in the groove.” These are delightful, non-academic, sometimes humorous, and always technically consistent preludes and fugues. Twenty-five years ago, Ian Hobson recorded the entire set on Zephyr Z113-97 (reviewed here). I need to discover this CD.

Ronald Stevenson’s pleasing Three Improvisations on Themes by Emanuel Moor (1986), for solo recorder were dedicated to “my South African friend Katherine Moor…” Moor was a puppeteer whom he met whilst he was teaching at Cape Town University. The first two pieces, minuets, are noticeably short, lasting only seconds. The finale is a little set of variations, masquerading as a gavotte and a gigue. Interestingly, no mention of Katherine Moor nor the present work is made in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music, edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland (Toccata Press, 2005).

William Soutar was a Scottish poet who wrote poetry in both braid Scots and English. He led a tragic life, being bedridden for many years until his death in 1943. The first of the Two songs to poems by William Soutar (1965) is Hallow’en Song, which is a trippy little number suggesting to the protagonist “Do not go out tonight” on this most haunted time of the year. This is followed by The Quiet Comes In which is a meditation of life and death and the weather – “When the rage is by/The Bluid grows still” until “Whan the sang is owre/The quiet comes in.”

Edward McGuire’s Prelude 29 is his tongue in cheek title for this attractive little study. It is a supplement to his two sets of twenty-four preludes written for a wide variety of instruments. The piece was specially commissioned for this present CD. It was inspired by David Betteridge’s poem Not to be Hushed (In memory of Ronald Stevenson). The final lines suggest that Stevenson will “not to be hushed ever/given a world attuned to hear.” An appropriate (hopefully) epitaph.

The last two works on this CD are by Percy Grainger. Over the Hills and Far Away (Children’s March) for piano was arranged for two descant recorders and piano by Ronald Stevenson in 1978. This is followed by another rendition of Country Gardens (1947) for two descant recorders, this time all Grainger’s own effort. It brings the recital to a charming conclusion.

This is a splendid CD. The repertoire is novel and always interesting. The performances by all concerned are superb. Special mention must be made of John Turner’s splendid playing on the recorder and Lesley-Jane Rogers beautiful, clear soprano voice. The recording complements the performance. The booklet includes detailed information about the composers, the music, and the performers. All the texts of the songs are given, including translations of the Lallans Scots poems. 

This CD is an outstanding collection of music by Ronald Stevenson and some of his friends. It is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest, but sadly underrated, British composers of the last hundred years.

Track Listing:
Percy Grainger (1882-1961)

Country Gardens for two recorders (descant and treble) (1947)
Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015)
A Year Owre Young, for soprano and violin (1987)
To Autumn for soprano and recorder (1965)
Celtic Triptych, for solo recorder: Slow Air; Strathspey (Scottish Dance); Twelve-note jig (Giga dodecafonica) (2010)
A Wee Holiday Suite, for recorder and piano: Bipo’s Dance; A Balow for a Balough; Bipo’s sleepo; Ulla’s and Ella’s Veranda-Hike; Bipo’s ear-pop (1978)
Wilma Paterson (b.1944)
Little Cynical Songs, for soprano and tenor recorder: Nostalgia for Sweet Friendship; The Little Goddess Pan; Torch Song for Dead Love; Weave me; Happy Ending Song (?)
John Purser (b.1942)
Skye Blue, for solo recorder (2019)
David Johnson (1942-2009)
Preludes and Fugues for piano (from Twelve Preludes and Fugues for piano): No.1 in B Flat; No.6 in G; and No.8 in F (1992-95)
Ronald Stevenson
Three Improvisations on Themes by Emanuel Moor, for solo recorder: Allegro Moderato; Tempo di Minuetto grazioso; Andante - Tempo di Valse - Alla gavotta - Alla giga (1986)
Two songs to poems by William Soutar, for soprano and piano: Hallowe’en Sang; The Quiet Comes In (1965)
Edward McGuire (b.1948)
Prelude 29, for solo treble recorder (2022)
Percy Grainger arr. Ronald Stevenson
Over the Hills and Far Away (Children’s March), for two descant recorders and piano (1978)
Percy Grainger
Country Gardens, for two recorders (two descant recorders) (1947)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 5 August 2023

Eric Coates: Lazy Night - a valse romance (1932)

During the 1920’s Coates’s began to make a considerable amount of money from his compositions. He and his wife, Phyllis, were able to buy a house at Selsey in Sussex. This was to be a retreat when he wanted to get away from London.

Writing in his autobiography, Coates wrote that the house was in “one of the most barren spots on the South coast.” However, the contrast of this “unpretentious village, with its bathing, its glorious beaches and the life-giving air” was to act as the perfect restorative to the pressures of the Capital. The house itself was on the main street and was regarded by the Coates family as the ‘bathing box’ from where they could walk on a hot summer’s day to the beach and bathe in waters as clear and almost as warm as you would find in any South Sea Lagoon.

It was at this time that Eric Coates wrote one of his most celebrated pieces – Sleepy Lagoon (1930), which is still the signature tune for Desert Island Discs. How many folk listens to this music and feel that it must have been inspired by somewhere in the Seychelles rather than Bognor Regis!

Yet, one of the lesser-known works of this period is the valse romance Lazy Night. This was composed in 1932 but failed to catch the public imagination. It was recorded in 1938 by the Cedric Sharpe Sextet and was not heard again on disc until the 1988 recording by the BBC Concert Orchestra under John Wilson on ASV. A decade later the piece was recorded by Andrew Penny and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra on the Marco Polo Label. It has since been transferred to the Naxos label. 

Lazy Night is full of ‘Coates style’ atmospherics. However, it is not a miniature tone poem musically painting images of the sun setting over the beach at on the South Coast. It is much more active than that. The clue is in its subtitle – 'valse romance'. This is music that is evocative of someone dreaming, perhaps whilst sitting in the garden of a big art deco hotel in Bournemouth and hearing the waltz music in the ballroom. Maybe the listener is waiting on his lover’s arrival? Or perhaps she will never come... However, there is a warmth to this music that suggests contentedness rather than sadness. Coates makes uses of a lovely tune that is repeated with slight changes to the harmony and orchestration. Good use is made of sweeping strings and some introspective woodwind writing.

There has been little attention in the media and reviews of this piece are few and far between. On MusicWeb International, Ian Lace has noted that “Lazy Night has a nice, dreamy atmosphere which is just as satisfying as Wilson's more hurried but nicely turned version.” Another reviewer has suggested that this piece is a “mirror image” of Sleepy Lagoon. I can find no reference to the piece in Geoffrey Self’s otherwise helpful In Town Tonight study of the composer. It is not even mentioned in the ‘list of works.’

A performance of Eric Coates’s Lazy Night can be heard on YouTube. It is played by the Slovak Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. (Naxos 8.555194, 2022)

Wednesday 2 August 2023

New College, Oxford: Commissions and Premieres

The opening number on this splendid new CD of “Commissions and Premieres” is William Harris’s Faire is Heaven (1925). This is often touted as being his masterpiece: it certainly retains its popularity in Quires and Places where they Sing. Harris was organist and choirmaster at New College between 1919 and 1929. This anthem was dedicated to Harris’s predecessor, Hugh Percy Allen. The text is assembled from Edmund Spenser’s An Hymn of Heavenly Beauty dating from 1596. This anthem for double choir is timeless. On the one hand Harris looks back to the era of Tallis and Tompkins, and on the other, he is saying farewell to the confident Edwardian Era, so destroyed by the Great War. The span of the anthem is in ternary form, moving from the “Faire Heaven” to a “endless perfectness,” by way of “Those eternall burning Seraphins/Which from their faces dart out fiery light...”  

Herbert Howells wrote several settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for a variety of ecclesiastical foundations. Often, they were tailored to the acoustic characteristics of the particular building. As the liner notes explain, the dry acoustic of the chapel “does not allow for the ethereal atmosphere of the Gloucester or slow-burn grandeur of the St Paul’s Service.” The New College Service was composed in 1949. It is an intimate work that is simple in its progress. I understand that Howells was delighted with it.

Kenneth Leighton composed Crucifixus pro nobis, op.38, for soloist, choir, and organ, in 1961, dedicated to David Lumsden and the present choir. It sets texts by the seventeenth-century poets Patrick Carey and Phineas Fletcher. This is a deeply felt meditation on the Passion of Christ. It is in four movements, or meditations: Christ in the cradle; Christ in the Garden; Christ in his Passion, with a concluding hymn, Drop, drop, slow tears. The three sections use the tenor soloist, the choir and the last, combining the two. The organ provides support and sometimes even commentary, throughout. In the last section, which is “musically and verbally the climax” of the piece, the organ is finally silent, allowing the choir to bring this beautiful but tragic work to a serene close.

The second New College Service on this CD was written in 1968 by Paul Drayton. Multitalented, Drayton has worked in a variety of musical disciplines, including as pianist, teacher, composer, conductor, author, and lecturer. The Magnificat is vibrant, rhythmic, and joyful whereas the Nunc Dimittis is thoughtful and typically pensive. Despite this introspection, it is unusually long and expansive, complete with two climaxes and a “hushed coda.” Piquant dissonances add to the numinous quality of this unaccompanied service.

The final three tracks all date from the 21st century. The liner notes give little information about Caitlin Harrison’s introit O pastor animarum (2022) save that it sets a text by the German Benedictine abbess and polymath, Hildegard of Bingen. This short piece has delicious harmonies complimenting the “bell-like exchange between sopranos and altos.”  

Deborah Pritchard’s New College Service (2020) is summed up in the booklet as “protean.” Certainly, its progress does assume different forms and gives much variation of emotion. The Magnificat has a “fluctuating tempo in tandem with the intensity of the harmony and vocal tessitura” whilst the meditative Nunc Dimitis uses gentle counterpoint to create its ageless effect. It is a worthy successor to the Howells and the Drayton services.

Toby Young’s O God, make the door of this house sets a text by New College alumni Thomas Ken (1637-1711). This is a vibrant anthem that uses “pop-inflected rhythm and harmony.”  There is a big finish on the “door” being made “the gateway to thine eternal kingdom.” The anthem was premiered in 2016 for the installation of the new warden of the College.

Robert Quinney and the New College Choir give an outstanding performance of all these works. And let’s not forget the valuable contribution from the organist, Dónal McCann. The recording is clear and detailed, reflecting the spaciousness of the Chapel. Yet, the more intimate moments are not any less perfect.

The liner notes by the choir’s director are informative. Dates for all the works in the track listing would have been helpful. All texts are provided.

This new release by the celebrated Choir of New College, Oxford, follow their successful CD of music by “old boy” John Sheppard. (Linn CKD 632, reviewed here). The foundation of this College was founded by William of Wykeham in 1379, so they have a lot of experience.

The choir has explored seven works specially composed for them in the twentieth and twenty-first century. As the CD advert suggests, this “provides a compelling historical tour of changing musical styles and liturgical practices.”

Track Listing:
William Harris (1883-1973)

Faire is Heaven (1925)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
New College Service (1949)
Kenneth Leighton (1929-88)
Crucifixus pro nobis, op.38 (1961)
Paul Drayton (b.1944)
New College Service (1968)
Caitlin Harrison (b.1996)
O pastor animarum (2022)
Deborah Pritchard (b.1977)
New College Service (2020)
Toby Young (b.1990)
O God, make the door of this house (2016)
Choir of New College, Oxford/Robert Quinney, Dónal McCann (organ)
rec. 18-22 July 2022, New College Chapel, Oxford
Linn CKD 720
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.