Thursday 30 November 2023

Christopher Howell plays Charles Hubert H. Parry's Piano Music: Volume 1

Like London buses, Parry CDs come in twos. I have recently reviewed favourably (here) Richard Deering’s two CD album featuring the two Piano Sonatas, the Charakterbilder and the premiere performance of the Five Miniatures (Heritage, HTGCD140-141). Arriving in my letterbox around the same time was the present disc played by Christopher Howell. I am guessing that this is the first instalment of a “complete” cycle of Parry’s piano music. This would complement his magisterial performances the piano works of Alexander Mackenzie and Charles Villiers Stanford.

Hubert Parry’s Shulbrede Tunes have long been a personal favourite. I found a dusty copy of the score in a music shop more than half a century ago and have enjoyed trying to play them ever since. The Tunes date from 1914, shortly before the start of the First World War. The composer was in residence with his daughter, Dorothea, at Shulbrede Priory in West Sussex. The idea behind it was to sketch some of the residents as well as the architecture and the entertainments. The opening Shulbrede is a portrait of Parry himself, with its intensely romantic pianism. This is followed by a tribute to his granddaughter Elizabeth. His other grandchild, Matthew, is more serious than would seem appropriate for a wee laddie. The house and gardens are represented by the shadowy Prior’s Chamber by Firelight and the idyllic pastoral, In the Garden with Dew on the Grass. The Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Nights is a haunting little scherzo. Children’s Pranks may refer to father and grandfather’s shenanigans, rather than those of the younger members of the family. The robust Father Playmate is Parry’s son-in-law Arthur Ponsonby. Dolly No.1 and Dolly No.2 present two facets of his daughter, Dorothea.

The optimistic and largely cheerful Shulbrede Tunes is to Parry what the Wand of Youth Suites are to Elgar: a reflection on childhood and lost innocence, reflected on in maturity. Sadly, this serene evocation of an Edwardian family would be lost during and after the catastrophic Great War.

Howell provides a sense of wistfulness and confidence to these pieces. It is exactly their interpretive requirement.

The main event on this present CD is the Sonata No.1 in F major, which was published in 1877. I repeat some of my observations made for Richard Deering’s recording.  It is possible that this Sonata may have begun life as a “sonatina” written three years previously. This “original” has been lost. The Sonata was dedicated to George Grove, the then Director of the Royal School of Music. It was originally to have been Lady Pembroke, but at that time, Parry’s relationship with her was “strained.” 

The Sonata is presented in four movements and lasts for about 22 minutes. Formally, Beethoven would seem to be the model, although the listener will be aware of the influence of other composers: Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann. The pastoral Non troppo allegro is followed by a short, skittish scherzo which suggest Sprites that Gambol by Night from the Shulbrede Tunes. The Andante is a perfectly stated barcarolle that nods to Schubert. Howell has written that the finale could have been written by Cramer or Dussek. It is easy to detect a huntsman’s galop in these pages.

It could be argued that this Sonata is “regressive” or “derivative.” Despite this implied criticism, I feel that this is a successful work that appeals to the mind and the heart. Formally it is a splendid example of the genre.

Added value to this CD is the premiere recording of Parry’s Sonnets and Songs Without Words Book 1 dating from around 1869. It was his earliest piano publication. The set opens with a delightful Pastorale. The liner notes refer to it as a “modest piece of fashionable tone painting.” More Theocritean than cow leaning over the gate, I think. Owlet is quiet and reflective: it is more concerned with mood than avian description. It is perfect in effect and execution. Strangely, Gnome is not a scherzo, but a thoughtful meditation that is “curiously original and even characteristic.” The final number is a Lied which owes a debt to Mendelssohn with its balance of a “rippling” opening section with a hymn-like trio. These four pieces are truly lovely and are an important addition to Parry’s catalogue of recorded music.

The liner notes, produced by the present soloist, give a thorough, non-technical analysis, as well as providing helpful context and relevant biographical information. There are details about the soloist as well as references to his many recordings. The CD cover features an antique print of Shulbrede Priory, Sussex dating from1784.

This is a fine recording, with superb playing. I have noted before that the key to the successful interpretation of Parry’s piano music is the ability to synthesize the influences that lie behind each composition with the unique contribution from Parry himself. In every case Howell provides this fusion of history and progress.

Track Listing:
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)

Sonata No.1 in F major (pub.1877)
Sonnets and Songs Without Words: Book 1 (1868, pub. 1869)
Shulbrede Tunes (1911-13, pub.1914)
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 4 June 2021; 9 July 2021, Studio of Griffa e Figli, Milan, Italy
Da Vinci Classics C00759

Sunday 26 November 2023

Introducing Charles Villiers Stanford

Charles Villiers Stanford’s music results from a careful fusion of his Irish birth and his English formation. Coupled to this, is his musical training in Germany. Stanford’s work is characterised by a rigorous technical craftsmanship. His genius is best seen in the songs, the part songs, some smaller choral works, several of his refined and well-wrought chamber works and the orchestral rhapsodies. That said, his cycle of seven symphonies, the concertos, and certain large-scale choral pieces, once criticised as uninspiring, can be seen in recollection as full of interest and delight.

Sadly, from the beginning of the 20th century his music entered the doldrums. Stanford never attached himself to any of the “modernist” schools such as impressionism, atonalism, or serialism. Since the 1990s, Stanford has seen a considerable revival in the recording studio, if not the concert hall. Interestingly, his liturgical settings have never absented itself from our native cathedrals and “quires and places where they sing.”

Stanford was also a notable educator as professor of music at Cambridge University, and a successful, if sometimes controversial, teacher of composition at the Royal College of Music.

Percy M. Young once wrote that Stanford is “a composer to whom one may return with cultured pleasure.” That is no mean achievement.

Brief Biography of Charles Villiers Stanford:
  • Born at 2 Herbert Street, Dublin on 30 September 1852
  • Studied music privately with Robert Prescott Stewart and Michael Quarry.
  • Came to London in 1862 and studied with Arthur O' Leary and Ernst Pauer.
  • Went up to Cambridge in 1870, with an Organ and a Classical Scholarship.
  • In 1873 he transferred to Trinity College as organist.
  • Studied in Leipzig with Carl Reinecke and later at Berlin under Friedrich Keil.
  • Came to public attention with the incidental music for Tennyson’s Queen Mary (1876).
  • Attended the First Bayreuth Festival in 1876.
  • Involved with the Cambridge University Musical Club from 1871 to 1893.
  • Married Jennie Wetton on 8 April 1878
  • His first opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan was completed in 1877 and was premiered at Hanover on 6 February 1881.
  • The ever-popular Service in B flat, op.10 was written during 1879.
  • In 1883, he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music, London.
  • From 1885 to 1902 he was conductor of the English Bach Choir.
  • In 1887, he succeeded George Alexander Macfarren as Professor of music at Cambridge.
  • First performance of the Symphony No.3 (Irish) heard at St James’s Hall on 27 June 1887, under the direction of Hans Richter.
  • Knighted in 1901.
  • At the Royal College of Music, his pupils included Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss, and Ivor Gurney.
  • Charles Villiers Stanford died in 9 Lower Berkeley Street, Portman Square, London on 29 March 1924. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.
Twelve Selected Works:
Charles Villiers Stanford’s catalogue is massive. He completed nine operas, seven symphonies, thirteen concertos, six Irish Rhapsodies, more than twenty anthems and services for liturgical use, sundry secular cantatas, incidental music, eight string quartets, six duo sonatas, six organ sonatas, numerous songs, and part-songs. The twelve works, which cover most genres, given below are all available on CD/LP/Download. Several have been uploaded to YouTube.
  1. Morning, Communion and Evensong Service in B flat, op.10
  2. Piano Quintet in D minor, op.25
  3. Symphony No.3 in F minor (Irish), op.28
  4. Funeral March from the incidental music to Tennyson’s Beckett, op.48.
  5. Violin Concerto in D major, op.74
  6. The Fairy Lough, op.77, no.2 for voice and piano.
  7. Three Rhapsodies from Dante for piano, 1. Francesca, 2. Beatrice, 3. Capaneo, op.92
  8. Songs of the Sea, op.91 and Songs of the Fleet, op.117
  9. Part Song: The Bluebird, op.119, no.3
  10. Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.126
  11. Irish Rhapsody No. 4 in A Minor, op. 141, "The fisherman of Lough Neagh and what he saw."
  12. Organ Sonata No.5 in A major, (Quasi una fantasia) op.159
Stanford authored a book on Brahms and his Music (1912) and was joint author with Cecil Forsyth of A History of Music (1916). Of significant importance to historians are his “autobiography,” Pages from an Unwritten Diary (1914) as well as two collections of essays, Studies and Memories (1908) and Interludes, Records, and Reflections (1922).
The earliest study of the composer was John F. Porte’s Sir Charles V. Stanford published in 1921. The volume included a brief sketch of his career as well as an annotated catalogue of his music. The first formal biography was authored by his friend, the Irish baritone, Harry Plunkett Greene, and published in 1935.
The definitive biography is Jeremy Dibble’s Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, which was published in 2002. In the same year, Paul Rodmell’s study was issued by Ashgate Press in their Music in 19th Century Britain series.
Finally, of considerable interest is Gerald Norris’s Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee, and Tchaikovsky (1980).

If you can only hear one CD:
This must be the Lyrita recording of the Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.126, coupled with the ‘Funeral March’ from Beckett, op.48, and the Irish Rhapsody in A Minor, "The fisherman of Lough Neagh and what he saw," op. 141 (SRCS102, 1985, SRCD219, 2015), Malcolm Binns gives an excellent performance of this wonderfully romantic concerto: he is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nicolas Braithwaite. Reviewing this recording for The Gramophone (August 1985, p.244) Michael Kennedy suggests that “This recording will encourage some brave orchestral administrators to invite the eloquent soloist, Malcolm Binns, to play the concerto in public. Several much less attractive and well-written concertos are heard which one would happily see yielding place to it.” Apart from another recording of the concerto by Margaret Fingerhut, and the Ulster Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley, (CHAN8736, 1989) this desideratum never happened.

Thomas Dunhill wrote about the Irish Rhapsody No.4, “If I wanted to impress a foreign unbeliever with the real beauty of British music at its best I should take him to hear a performance of the ‘Ulster’ Rhapsody, that he might have a glimpse of what the "Fisherman saw at Lough Neagh," and of what the great Irish composer was able to reflect of this vision in his music. ‘Dark and true and tender is the North’ is the quotation attached to the closing page of the score - a mere expression of an Orangeman's sympathies, probably - but the three adjectives describe the loveliness of the music itself in a way that no other words could do. It is a work of imperishable quality.”

Finally, if you can only listen to one work:
One of my Desert Island part-songs is Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Blue Bird, a setting of a text by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. There are many recordings of this piece, including this one by the Cambridge Singers, on YouTube. The poem is taken by the composer and is turned into a glorious miniature. Few other motets have this feeling, this magic, this power to move. There is a “combination of coolness and warmth - of sunlight and cloud.” If this were the only music that we remembered Charles Villiers Stanford for, he would be well-worth recalling.

Friday 24 November 2023

Richard Deering plays Hubert Parry's Piano Music on the Heritage Label

Several years ago, I heard Anthony Goldstone on disc, (Albany Records Troy 132, 1994) playing Hubert Parry’s two piano sonatas. For better or worse they were played on the composer’s Hagspiel grand piano at Shulbrede Priory in Sussex. I was disappointed that they were not played on a modern instrument. It was listenable, but not particularly easy on the ear. Somehow, I never got around to engaging with this repertoire again until the present CD arrived.

Parry is not particularly noted for his piano music. Amongst enthusiasts, the charming Shulbrede Tunes (1914) are the best known. His most significant piece for piano is the Theme and Nineteen Variations written between 1878 and 1885.

The liner notes suggest that Hubert Parry’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F major (1876) may have started life as a “sonatina” produced three years previously. Furthermore, it was originally intended to be dedicated to Lady Pembroke, but was changed to George Grove, the then Director of the Royal School of Music. His relationship with the countess was “strained.” 

The Sonata is Beethovenian in its “classical approach to sonata form.” That said, there are also reminiscences of Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann throughout the work’s twenty-odd minute duration. The “Arcadian” opening movement balances a warm first subject with something a little more pastoral. I loved the Scherzo which is full of puckish delight. It is unusual in having three “unrelated sections arranged in an arch form.” The booklet remarks on the trio’s “plodding bass suggesting a ceremonial march rather like Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance” some 25 years in the future. The moving Barcarolle recalls Mendelssohn or Schubert and is none the worse for that. It is profound, lyrical, and imaginative. The finale is a good old-fashioned rondo, which begins slowly and introduces four themes. Christopher Howell has noted that it could well have been composed by Cramer or Dussek and called La Chase. Certainly, there is an element of a huntsman’s galop in these pages. Despite its “regressive” and derivative nature, this Sonata works well, is always pleasing to the ear, and succeeds as a well-structured example of the genre.

The Piano Sonata No.2 in A minor/major was finished in 1876. It was dedicated to Tora Gordon on her engagement to Victor Marshall. Tora was Parry’s close, but platonic friend. The first movement is a kind of modified sonata form, really a rhapsody on two contrasting themes. The liner notes explain that this “flexible approach to form” and the “chromaticism” owes much to Brahms and Wagner. The slow movement, Adagio con sentimento, may nod to Weber and Schubert, but features Wagnerian harmonies. It is romantic and reflective, presented in a complex binary form, with each section having two themes. The Beethovian Scherzo is presented in a lively 6/8 time with one or two novel twists and turns. The finale is a well-constructed rondo, with a genial “refrain” and two contrasting episodes which has many splendid modulations in its progress. There are references to the first and the slow movements towards the end. Once again, if the listener enjoys Schumann and Schubert, they will love this pleasing sonata that is replete with warmth and affection.

Hunt the influence is an easy game to play with Charakterbilder (Seven Ages of Mind) written in 1872. Yet despite echoes of earlier composers, Parry has created a delightfully charming take on romantic piano music. It may be that he was inspired by the soliloquy from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the “Seven Ages of Man.” That said, he does not replicate the Bard’s sequence in these pieces. The titles were not included in the score, and only became known in a letter from Parry to the dedicatee, the pianist Susan Stephenson. The batting order here begins with the beautiful Dreaming, inspired by a reading of Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters. This is followed by Learning, which uses the technical tool of strict canon – the young man understanding his trade? Yet there is lyricism here and no sense of the didactic. Passion, in binary form, develops from flirtation to urgency in mood. The Age of Striving can be seen in the context of “intellectual freedom” with much of its figuration centring on rising arpeggios in the “trio” section. There are also lots of octaves and thick chords. Things calm down with the lovely Longing. This acts as a foil to the sixth piece, Triumphing. Once again, Parry has deployed powerful octave figurations in the refrain, contrasting with more relaxed ‘dolce’ episodes. It concludes with a powerful and challenging coda. Charakterbilder ends with a quiet and thoughtful Adagio con sentimento. It has been said that this may represent the 24-year-old composer’s “meditation on the far-off inevitability of old age.” Whatever the “programme” of these seven studies, Parry has created a distinctly engaging suite that deserves to be in the pianist’s repertoire.

A delightful addition to this CD set is the Five Miniatures: I think that they are premiere recordings. These were collected and published posthumously in 1926. Sleepy has all the hallmarks of Schumann. It is a delicious little “berceuse” or “romance.” The second, A Little Christmas Piece is a brisk allegro: it was originally entitled Cosy. There is little to remind the listener of the Season in these subtly syncopated rhythms. The Capriccio is played Leggiero molto capriccioso and is really a little toccata with a gentle 6/8 movement. The lingering Pause is, as one commentator suggested, full of diminished sevenths, “of which certain of Parry’s admirers are getting a little tired.” It is a pensive number that explores chromatic harmony and a dotted rhythm. The final Miniature, Envoi, may be the last piece that Parry wrote. It is gently optimistic.

Little information about their genesis is known, however Sleepy was probably written in 1917, and Cosy first appeared in the Girl’s Own Paper during 1892.

The informative liner notes are by Lisa Hardy, the author of the commanding study The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 (The Boydell Press, 2001).

Pianist Richard Deering is an authority on British music and has been “entrusted” with premiere performances by a wide range of composers, including Malcolm Arnold, Malcolm Williamson, Thomas Wilson, Edward Gregson, Edward McGuire, and Brian Chapple. Over the years he has worked with Alan Rawsthorne, Elisabeth Lutyens, Bernard Stevens, and William Alwyn. As well as concertising, Deering’s activities include lecturing, broadcasting, recording, teaching, adjudicating, and authoring.

Current CD projects also include the re-issue of the Pearl LP (SHE 537) taken live from Elisabeth Lutyens’s Birthday Recital in 1976 with works by Lutyens, Michael Blake Watkins, Malcolm Williamson, and Richard Rodney Bennett. Equally important is the remastering of a cassette (BMS 407) featuring the complete piano works of William Wordsworth plus pieces written for Deering by Thomas Wilson and Edward McGuire. His past catalogue includes a recital of English Piano Music on the Saga Label. (SAGA 5445). Composers here included York Bowen, Cyril Scott, Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Eugene Goossens and John Ireland.

Overall, this is a splendid new release of piano music by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Richard Deering brings consummate skill to these varied works. He assimilates the influences of earlier composers with Parry’s personal skill and creates a satisfying whole. The recording is outstanding, as is the CD documentation. I look forward to his subsequent issues on the Heritage Label.

Track Listing:
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
CD 1

Sonata No.1 in F Major, (1876)
Charakterbilder (Seven Ages of Mind) Studies for the Pianoforte: 1. Prelude-Andantino (Dreaming), 2. Con energia (Learning), 3. Con moto (Passion), 4. Allegro (Striving), 5. Espressivo Longing), 6. Allegro energetico (Triumphing), 7. Adagio con sentimento (1872)
Sonata No.2 in A Minor/Major (1876)
Five Miniatures 1. Sleepy (Dreamily), 2. A Little Christmas Piece (Allegro), 3. Capriccio (Leggiero, molto capriccioso), 4. Pause (Lento), 5. Envoi (Tenderly) (pub. post.1926)
Richard Deering (piano)
rec. 15 July 2023, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Heritage Records HTGCD 140-1 

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hallé, Venice 1882

Despite his reputation as an irascible teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford had a developed sense of humour. Coupled to this was an eye for journalistic detail. He penned three books of “memoirs”: Studies and Memories (1908), Pages from an Unwritten Diary (1914), and Interludes, Records and Reflections (1922).  This present anecdote is taken from the Unwritten Diary (p.206f).

Stanford explains that after the Birmingham Festival of 1882 he travelled with his wife to Switzerland. He wrote:

After the 1882 Festival we went to Monte Generoso and had experience of the worst floods I have ever seen. After a long spell of doubtful weather, three thunderstorms met over our devoted hotel, and over most of the rest of the range of mountains to the North of Italy and deluged the plains below. We got with difficulty to the station outside Verona, and made our entry into the town between two banks of mud standing three feet high on either side of the

streets. The only bridge left was the old Roman structure. The buildings on each side were mostly like dolls' houses with the front taken off. Two or three fell into the Adige as I watched.

Going on to Venice the next day, we were turned out at Padua and had to drive along an interminable road between two muddy lakes, which extended at least half-way to the sea-city, in a most rickety vehicle, drawn by a shying horse.

Venice made up for the risky journey, and the floods to an unusual extent counteracted the perfumes at low tide. There was a pleasing uncertainty as to our exit; so many were the broken bridges, and so dangerous the sunken and (far from) permanent way on the railways. But we contrived to escape from an unduly long imprisonment by way of Trieste and Vienna. I saw one sight in Venice which alone repaid the journey: Charles Hallé in a frockcoat and a white top hat reading the Daily Telegraph while seated in a gondola and floating under the Bridge of Sighs.

Monte Generoso is a mountain located on the Swiss-Italian border. At the time of Stanford’s visit, the mountain railway had not been built.

Charle Hallé (1819-95) was an Anglo-German pianist and conductor. He studied at Darmstadt and later in Paris. In 1848 he arrived in Manchester where he took on several conducting posts. Nine years later he founded the orchestra that bears his name.

It is interesting to recall that Stanford’s reference to the Roman bridge at Verona, being the only one left standing. Sixty-three years later the structure was blown up by the retreating German army. It was rebuilt in 1957, using rubble recovered from the River Adige.

Saturday 18 November 2023

A Year at Llandaff...

Llandaff Cathedral is sited on the banks of the River Taff, to the north of Cardiff. It is effectively the Anglican cathedral for the Welsh Capital. This splendid building was badly damaged by a parachute mine during the Second World War. Much restored by the architect George Pace it has many impressive features. Most striking is the sculpture by Jacob Epstein, Christ in Majesty (1954) which towers over the interior of the nave. Lightning damaged the organ in 2007, and a new instrument was procured. The current instrument was built by Nicholson and Co., Malvern and was commissioned in 2010. The Cathedral supports a lively musical tradition.

This present CD is one of several that explore A Year At… These include York, Winchester, Bristol, and Exeter.

The Christian Year begins on the First Evensong of Advent Sunday (held on the Saturday). The anonymous Creator of the Stars of Night gets this choral concert off to a good start. John Scott, onetime Organist and Director of Music at St Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, provides a moving setting of the ancient plainsong melody. It sets the scene for the church’s meditation on the imminent Birth of Jesus and the hope of his Second Coming. I am not sure that Bob Chilcott’s vibrant Nova! Nova! is appropriate for Advent. I think that the story of the Angel Gabriel and his visit to Our Lady is more appropriate to the Annunciation on 25 March. At Christmastide, Christina Rossetti’s haunting In the Bleak Mid-Winter is ever popular – in the Harold Darke or the Gustav Holst version. The present number was “souped up” by Mack Wilberg, and given “luscious, romantic harmonies.” This uses Holst’s tune to great advantage.

Epiphany celebrates the Coming of the Magi. For this Feast, we hear Gaston Litaize’s stirring organ solo, Epiphanie. This celebrates both the wonder and the numinous qualities of the story. The Spiritual, Down to the River, commemorating the Baptism of Christ does not work for me. Candlemas celebrates the moment that Mary presented the Infant Child in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jonathan Dove has set a Vast Ocean of light, a poem by the seventeenth century author, Phineas Fletcher. The text majors on the manifestation of the divine which inspired Simeon in the Temple to sing “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…” Dove has created a magical score that balances a moto perpetuo organ accompaniment against soaring vocal parts and sensitive harmonies.

Lent arrives with another Spiritual – We shall walk through the valley. I am not sure the choice of this piece reflects the penitential preparation for Easter, that the Christian tradition demands.

We are on more secure liturgical grounds with Philip Wilby’s setting of Isaac Watt’s moving hymn When I survey the wondrous cross. Wilby has through composed this anthem, with a gentle exposition of the first two verses, followed by some intensity at the words “See by his head, his hands, His feet/Sorrow and Love flow mingled down.” The calm of the opening music returns for the final verse, the reader’s response to Christ’s suffering. This is my big discovery on this CD: it is incredibly beautiful. Edward Elgar’s Ave Maria is suitable for the celebration of the Annunciation. This deeply devotional anthem is a well-wrought meditation on the Angel Gabriel’s words to Mary and our reaction to them.

The Father’s Love, sung here on Maundy Thursday, speaks of service to, and love for, one another. I have not heard (knowingly) anything by Simon Lole before. His beautiful setting of a text from St John’s Gospel is tranquil, melodic, and fully within the Anglican choral tradition. Equally moving is the Good Friday offering: Philip Moore’s It is a thing most wonderful, to words by William Walsham How. It reflects the progress of the text’s sentiment, beginning peacefully, building up to an intense middle section where the choristers consider the “cruel nails, and crown of thorns.” The anthem concludes with a gentle interweaving of voices in the serene final stanza.

Easter is celebrated with a dynamic arrangement of the Dutch Carol by Philip Ledger. This Joyful Eastertide recalls the passion, but also looks to the hope of the risen Christ. Healey Willan, although born in England in 1880, is regarded as the “Dean of Canadian Composers.” Most listeners will associate him with organ and choral music, however, amongst his eight hundred works, he did write a piano concerto, two symphonies and at least seven operas. Rise up, my love, my fair one, is drawn from The Song of Solomon and can be interpreted allegorically as Christ’s Ascension. It is a perfect fusion of words and music.

The second organ solo on this CD is Kenneth Leighton’s Veni Creator Spiritus, completed in the year before his death. Regarded as a meditation on the eponymous ninth century plainsong chant it is a formally imaginative piece. It explores various moods appropriate to Pentecost, including a powerful climax and calm conclusion. Sometimes the aesthetic of Vaughan Williams is apparent.

Today’s sophisticated musicians often decry John Stainer as being “deservedly forgotten” and his work riven by “a tide of sentimentalism,” “cheaply sugary harmony” and “palsied part-writing.” Anyone listening to Stainer’s I saw the Lord (1858) will have to retract this view. They will be surprised by its technical competence. Jeremy Dibble, in his study of the composer has noted that it is devised in a tri-partite structure, makes an unconventional use of fugue, has unusual tonal schemes, and exhibits a “striking dialectic of drama and serenity which is articulated by the anthem’s larger architectural plan.” The text is taken from the book of Isaiah and an eleventh century hymn concerning the Trinity.

All Souls is represented by Bob Chilcott’s second offering, Even such is time, using a poem penned by Sir Walter Raleigh on the evening before his execution at the hand of James I. The words explore the idea of death and the hope of eternal life. This understated setting retains a definite sense of optimism.

The Call of Wisdom was composed for the Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral for the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The text, based on verses from the Book of Proverbs, is by Michael Hempel. There is considerable beauty in Will Todd’s lyrical anthem. It is heard here in its SATB version. Here it is used in a celebration of All Saints.

The final track is an evening hymn, Arglwydd mae yn nosi (Lord, the Night Approaches) written by Caradog Roberts in 1918. Lasting just over a single minute, it perfectly complements the text’s plea for God to “Stay with us” as “the night approaches.”

The liner notes are first-rate and provide succinct details, texts, and translations. There is a helpful introduction to the Cathedral and its musical heritage. Dates for all the pieces would have been useful. I have provided them where possible. Lists of choristers and choir members are included, as well as biographical details of the Assistant Director of Music, Aaron Shilson, and Director of Music, Stephen Moore.

Altogether a splendidly eclectic mix of church music mainly from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is magnificently sung with an outstanding ambient recording. 

I look forward to subsequent releases from this series of A Year At…

Track Listing
Anon Medieval, arr. John Scott

Creator of the stars of night (2007)
Bob Chilcott (b.1955)
Nova! Nova! (2002)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) arr Mack Wilberg

In the bleak mid-winter
Gaston Litaize (1909-91)

Epiphanie for organ (1984)
Baptism of Christ:
Spiritual, arr. Philip Lawson

Down to the river
Jonathan Dove (b.1959)

Vast ocean of light (2010)
Spiritual arr. Undine Smith Moore

We shall walk through the valley.
Philip Wilby (b.1949)

Wondrous Cross
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Ave Maria (rev.1902)
Maundy Thursday
Simon Lole (b.1957)

The Father’s Love (1987)
Good Friday
Philip Moore (b.1943)

It is a thing most wonderful (2005)
Dutch Carol arr. Philip Ledger

This joyful Eastertide
Healey Willan (1880-1968)

Rise up, my love, my fair one (1929)
Kenneth Leighton (1929-88)

Veni Creator Spiritus for organ (1987)
John Stainer (1840-1901)

I saw the Lord (1858)
All Souls’
Bob Chilcott

Even such is time (2002)
All Saints’
Will Todd (b.1970)

The Call of Wisdom (2012)
Caradog Roberts (1878-1935)

Arglwydd mae yn nosi (Lord the Night Approaches) (1918)
The Choir of Llandaff Cathedral/Stephen Moore; Aaron Shilson (organ)
rec. 21-23 June 2022 Llandaff Cathedral.
Regent Records REGCD573

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

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Organ Masterworks II: Jean Roger-Ducasse: Pastorale for organ.

I first heard Roger-Ducasse’s Pastorale at a remarkable recital given by Sarah Dawe during a Celebrity Organ Recital in Wellington Church, Glasgow on 23 November 1977. Other music featured at this concert included Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat (St Anne), BWV 552, and the Messe pour les couvents by François Couperin. The twentieth century Flemish tradition was represented by Joseph Jongen’s Chant de mai and Flor Peeter’s Suite modale. The programme concluded with French composer Jehan Alain’s ubiquitous Litanies.

Sadly, Jean Jules Aimable Roger-Ducasse is nowadays only remembered for his Pastorale. Yet, behind this seeming underachievement lies a long and distinguished career. He was born in Bordeaux on 18 April 1873. After study at the Paris Conservatoire with the now largely forgotten teachers Émile Pessard and André Gédalge, he had further lessons from Gabriel Fauré. In 1902 he obtained the second prize for his cantata Alcyone in the Grand Prix de Rome. Much of his career was spent in teaching. He was Inspector of Singing in the schools of Paris from 1909 and succeeded Paul Dukas as Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1935. Distinguished pupils were the French composers Jacques Ibert, Jéhan Alain and the sadly ignored Scottish composer, Francis George Scott.

Roger-Ducasse wrote in a wide range of genres. This included an opera Cantegril (1931), and a mime drama Orphée (1913). Several major orchestral pieces include a symphonic poem with chorus, Au jardin de Marguerite (1905), after the Faust legend and Epithalame (1923) featuring some then “popular” dance movements. There were a few chamber works as well as motets, songs, and piano music. A recording of his large-scale Mahler-esque Ulysse et les sirènes (1937) for chorus and orchestra remains a desideratum for his admirers. In 1919, he completed and orchestrated Claude Debussy’s Rhapsody for saxophone and orchestra (1911).

Jean Roger-Ducasse died at Le-Taillan-Médoc near Bordeaux on 19 July 1954, aged 81 years. (Grove’s Dictionary).

The Pastorale was completed in 1909 and was published in that year. It carries a dedication to the celebrated French musical educator and conductor, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). The premiere was on 20 April 1910 given by Alexandre Guilmant during the inaugural concert of La Société Musicale Indépendante, which had been founded the previous year by Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel and others. A review of the premiere (Le Monde Musicale) suggested that it “seemed long, tedious and opaque.”

Pastorale can be analysed as a classical “storm piece” or ternary form (A-B-A) with a quiet and peaceful beginning and ending, contrasting with a powerful and violent middle section. The opening theme, a Siciliana, was originally conceived in 1904 as an exercise in writing canon. The piece can also be understood as a theme, with eight variations, transitions, and coda. It subtly unfolds as Roger-Ducasse increases the tension with more complex rhythms and with ever-increasing harmonic daring and textural intricacy. Pastorale exploits an enormous range of the instrument’s tonal colours.

Two fundamental stylistic influences can be heard in the Pastorale. Firstly, Impressionism which is reflected with various compositional devices. This includes parallel triads, ostinatos, the whole tone scale, and arpeggios. Harmonically, much use is made of seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords, often with added dissonances. On the other hand, Roger-Ducasse was also attracted to classicism, as represented by pre-nineteenth century “styles and forms, albeit in a contemporary musical vocabulary.” There are similarities to J.S. Bach’s Pastorale BWV 590, both works being in the key and time signatures, F major and 12/8 respectively.

It must be recalled that Roger-Ducasse was not an organist by profession – he did, however, play the piano. The Pastorale is the only solo composition for the instrument that he produced.

I found a review of Sarah Dawe’s recital in the Glasgow Herald (25 November 1977). “T.R.” suggested that her account of Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue “showed off the diapasons and mixtures” of the rebuilt organ, whilst the “lovely flute stops” enhanced Jongen’s Chant de Mai. Equally impressive was Dawe’s reading of Flor Peeters’s Suite modale which exploited “almost the entire range of the organ.”  He was less impressed with the lack of French voicing in Couperin’s Messe pour les Couvents, however the ‘Plein Jeu’ and the ‘Dialogue’ “sparkled.”  The critic noted that in Roger-Ducasse’s Pastorale the quieter stops were a “feature.” Finally, the organ was “given full rein in the authoritative performance of Litanies by Alain – a tremendous piece with which to finish any recital.”

From my own recalling of the performance, I remember being most impressed by the Pastorale. So much so, that I bought the score the following day, from Biggars Music Shop in Sauchiehall Street. Its technical prowess was beyond me then and has remained so ever since.

With thanks to Jung-Won Kim’s Analysis of Roger-Ducasse’s Pastorale pour Orgue, a dissertation, prepared for the Degree of Doctor Of Musical Arts, University of North Texas, May 2012 for much helpful information. 

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

Sunday 12 November 2023

Two Rare Chamber Works by Bernstein and Copland

Most listeners in the United Kingdom will associate the name Leonard Bernstein with West Side Story, the overture, Candide, the film score On the Waterfront or the musical, On the Town. Enthusiasts may think of his Chichester Psalms or the Missa Brevis. I guess fewer people will be advocates of his three symphonies, the Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) or the incidental music to Peter Pan. On the other hand, no one can ignore his achievements as a conductor, an educator, an author, and a television personality.  

Bernstein wrote precious little chamber music. Examples include the early Piano Trio (1937), the Violin Sonata (1940) and the Clarinet Sonata (1942).

In 1936, whilst still a student at Harvard University, he completed his Music for String Quartet. The Allegro vivace, first movement (at least) was played through at rehearsal by members of the New England Quartet. Afterwards, Bernstein asked one of the violinists, Stanley Benson, if he would like to keep the manuscript score. It was preserved in the family music cabinet and was occasionally played during ‘at-homes’ but was then largely forgotten about. When it surfaced again, it was edited by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Around the same time, Sunderland located what seemed to be a second movement of this quartet in the Library of Congress. The liner notes explain that musicologists are certain that both movements are part of the same work: there are thematic references to the opening Allegro vivace in the concluding Andante (tempo di sarabande). Stylistically, the Quartet is eclectic. Echoes of Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith, as well as George Gershwin may be detected. I found this an approachable and satisfying chamber composition. Whether it will successfully enter the repertoire remains to be seen.

The coupling on this CD is with the rare Elegies for violin and viola by Aaron Copland, written when he was living in Mexico. It received its premiere in New York on 2 April 1933.  The work was withdrawn shortly after the performance. However, the composer mined it for the fourth movement, Subjective, of his orchestral Statements (1932-35). According to Copland scholar Howard Pollack, it is “virtually a note-for-note transcription.” The liner notes explain that the conclusion of Elegies is “the basis of the last portion of the third movement of Copland’s…Symphony No.3.”

This chamber piece is lugubrious and introverted with much interplay between contrapuntal and harmonic textures.  There is nothing that foreshadows Copland’s populist “American” works. If anything, this music nods more to Berg and Bartók than jazz or the “vernacular.” That said, it is interesting and rewarding.

The performance by the assembled Quartet is outstanding. It provides an illuminating account of these roughly contemporaneous pieces by two of America’s most significant composers. The liner notes give a detailed overview of Leonard Bernstein, and succinct programme notes. It should be noted that this is a short duration CD, lasting for18 minutes. It is what in the good old days we would have called an EP (extended play).

Listeners should approach this CD aware of the fact that neither work is in the “received” style of each composer. That said, both are important and deserve to be in the repertoire to allow a greater understanding of each man.

Track Listing
Leonard Bernstein (1918-90)

Music for String Quartet (1936)
Aaron Copland (1900-90)
Elegies for violin and viola (1932)
Lucia Lin (violin), Natalie Rose Kress (violin), Danny Kim (viola), Ronald Feldman (cello)
rec. 6 February 2023, Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport Massachusetts.
Navona Records NV6557

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

Thursday 9 November 2023

George Antheil’s Wigmore Hall Concert, 22 June 1922.

On 7 June 1922, George Antheil (1900-1959) arrived at Southampton Docks aboard the Canadian Pacific Line transatlantic liner the Empress of Scotland. He had set sail from Quebec in Canada. The official incoming passenger document stated he was a composer/pianist. His proposed address in London was the Old Colony Club, Pall Mall.

A syndicated article in Westminster Gazette (21 June 1922, p.3) reported that: “Mr. George Antheil, who is giving a pianoforte recital at the Wigmore Hall tomorrow afternoon is a young American musician who is said to be of remarkable promise. Although not yet in his twenties, one of his symphonies has been played by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and his pianoforte compositions, some of which he is including in his programme, to-morrow are attracting attention in the States.”

He was, in fact, nearly 22 years of age. His Symphony No.1, which had been completed in March 1922; it was not performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra before Antheil’s trip to Europe. The premiere was given on 30 November 1922, in the German capital by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Rudolf Schulz-Dornburg.

The author of the only critical study of George Antheil, Linda Whitesitt, has included a list of music performed at the Wigmore Hall at 3pm on 22 June 1922. It was in three discrete sections, with works by Chopin, several “modern pieces,” and a selection of Antheil’s own works.

Part 1
Frederic Chopin: Ballade in G minor, op.23; Nocturne in F-sharp minor, op.48, no.2; Mazurka in G-sharp minor, op.33, no.1; Etude in G-flat major, op.10, no.5; Valse in A-flat major, op.69, no.1

Part 2
Igor Stravinsky: Khorovod (Round Dance) (from Firebird Suite)
Isaac Albéniz: Malagueña, (from España, op.165, no. 3)
Claude Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau
Achilles Alpheraky: Sérénade levantine (from Trio Morceaux, op.25)

Part 3
George Antheil: Fireworks and the Profane Waltzes (1919); Negroes (c.1920-21); The Golden Bird: Chinoiserie (1921); Sonata II. (Street Sonata) (c.1920-21); Sonata III. (Steel-Roads-Airplanes) (1922)
(Cited in Whitesitt, Linda, The Life and Music of George Antheil 1900-1959, (Studies in Musicology, no.70, Ann Arbor, MI 1983, p.8).

It should be noted that not all of Antheil’s compositions played at the Wigmore Hall are extant. Although Whitesitt refers to Negroes in the catalogue section of her book, there is no suggestion that it still exists, even in holograph. The same source states that the Sonata II. (Street Sonata) was destroyed by the composer. Finally, Sonata III. (Steel-Roads-Airplanes) may have partly survived in the Airplane Sonata (1922).

Historiographers are lucky to have the Antheil’s own account of this concert. Nevertheless, there seem to be a few discrepancies in the “historical facts.”

“When I went to Europe it was not very long after the last war. I gave my first European concert in Wigmore Hall, London, on June 22, 1922. Soon after I began the concert, I noticed that an elderly lady sat in the front row. I kept seeing her very distinctly. She had an enormous ear trumpet in her ear, and she was smiling. I was playing Chopin. The Chopin was going into her ear trumpet and making her smile. I played a Mozart sonata. That made her smile too. Then I played some Schoenberg and some pieces of my own. She looked mystified, shook the ear trumpet. Then she put it up to her ear again, listened, and looked very sour. She shook the ear trumpet again, this time but good. She listened again. No good. She shrugged her shoulders, put her enormous ear trumpet in her bag and went out. Obviously, something was wrong with her ear trumpet.” (Antheil, George, Bad Boy of Music, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y.,1945 p.4ff)

A delightful story. Yet, there is no indication that Antheil played either Mozart or Schoenberg at that concert. To be sure, this account was written twenty-three years, so later there could have been a lapse of memory. Maybe it was at another concert altogether...

In a letter (1922) to the American writer, artist and social activist, Muriel Draper, Antheil lamented that in London he “encountered only profound boneheads. … Goosens [sic] was the only one who understood. I wept. They are fish. They write with incredible stupidity about ‘rattling, percussive music.’ I deduct from their writings about the matter that they think [my] music is bad.” Cited Leland, Hannah The “Bad Boy of Music” in Paris George Antheil’s Violin Sonatas 2015, p.9)

The following day, The Times (23 June 1922, p.7) considered that the titles of Antheil’s piano pieces implied that they were “extremely modern” however “they were not as interesting as this kind of music can be, on account of their technical limitations.”  The critic was reminded of the work of Leo Ornstein, however “nowadays, the style and method have become commonplace, and one soon finds it difficult to keep one’s attention unless, maybe, some very strong personal factor comes into play in the performance. Mr Antheil’s playing is too superficial for that, and though he can be noisy and vehement and has plenty of facility and agility, it all sounded very dry and unconvincing.”

The Manchester Evening News (23 June 1922 p.3) reported that “A very remarkable exhibition of pianoforte playing was given at the Wigmore Hall, London, yesterday, by Mr George Antheil… It was a doubly remarkable performance inasmuch as Mr Antheil is a brilliant executant and exceptionally fine pianist, who apparently prefers to squander his heritage on a mass of rubbish. One of his pieces was entitled ‘Sonata 3 (Steel-Roads-Airplanes)’ It is difficult to know where one movement ended and the next began, the medley was so bizarre and the noise so terrific. This eccentricity was one of five of his own composition. Another he called Fireworks and the Profane Waltzes. The one attempt at conventionality was a group of Chopin rendered with the most aggressive accents. The sole saving grace of the recital being his playing of Debussy’s Reflets L’eau. The pity of it all was that Mr Antheil, with his wonderful gifts, might have obtained a genuine success had he only employed legitimate means. As things happened, we were left simply gaping.”

The Daily Telegraph (24 June 1922, p.5) reporter, possibly Robin Legge, considered that “[Antheil’s own compositions’] outstanding quality was their clear and distinct individuality. Influence there had certainly been, influence from Stravinsky and from Debussy, and from all the teeming ideas and forms which go to make Modernity, and yet we received the impression that all these had been reduced to their prime elements and by an inexplicable alchemistic process had mingled together to produce a new idea and a new form. This depended chiefly on an extremely delicate and ever-varying rhythmic sense. It was all - especially the “Street Sonata” - restless and intense, and created a yearning to which nothing would yield...

Such “Claustrophobia-music” as Antheil’s must be judged not according to any pre-conceived idea of Beauty, or of what Art is allowed to express and what not, but according to the degree of efficiency in which its functions are carried out; this is the only way in which a critic can be said to have a leg to stand on, and a firm place to put it.”

Monday 6 November 2023

Arnold Cooke: Complete String Quartets, Volume 1

The final paragraph of the liner notes brilliantly provides the context for this first volume of Arnold Cooke’s cycle of five string quartets: “Taken as a series [they] form an important thread through the chamber music of Britain in the middle years of the twentieth century. The longest-surviving pupil of Hindemith in England, he admittedly used the language and mannerisms of his teacher – but with restraint and always with an ear for lyrical beauty.”

A good hermeneutic for appreciating Arnold Cooke’s music is to accept his debt to his composition teacher Paul Hindemith. Musicologist Malcom MacDonald stated that what Cooke “imbibed was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S Bach.” Also of importance is the influence of Bartók. And then there are some nods to “an undeniable English lyricism” that does not depend on overt pastoralism. Finally, Cooke typically did not use compositional systems such as serialism.

Helpful biographical details about Arnold Cooke can be found here on MusicWeb International.  

The String Quartet No. 1 was completed in 1933, shortly after Cooke had returned from study in Berlin. This was just before he assumed the position of Professor of Harmony at the Royal Manchester College of Music. The Quartet lasts for about twenty-two minutes. A contemporary critic (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer) noted that Hindemith’s influence was clear in “its lack of adipose tissue [body fat!], its studious avoidance of the purple patch, its astringent but apt writing for strings and for the quartet medium, and its strained tonality.”  The Manchester Guardian suggested that listeners “wore the hairshirt of Mr. Cooke’s quartet.” Yet there is more to this work than acidity. The opening fugue begins conventionally, but soon drifts off into a tonal no-man’s land. The Scherzo, which is placed second, is vibrant, if severe. Yet, the slow movement, an Intermezzo, is often songlike, if at times a little bitter. The finale is vibrant, with little to challenge the listener. Strangely, it ends on a common chord, thus negating much of its modernity.

According to Eric Wetherell’s monograph on Arnold Cooke (British Music Society, 1996) the composer wrote the String Quartet No.3 (1967) “because he had always enjoyed playing quartets at Cambridge but had not tried his hand at this medium since 1948.” I think that Bartók is a more relevant influence here than Hindemith. The opening Allegro energico sports a “strong dotted rhythm” and is “strongly contrapuntal.” Equally Bartókian is the Scherzo with its driving dance-like theme. This is preceded by a lyrical Andante where Cooke charts his own individual course. The middle section disturbs the overall poise of the mood with its “martial interlude.” The finale, Allegro vivace, is characterised by a prominent “Scotch-snap” as well as a remarkable pizzicato passage. The movement concludes emphatically in the “home” key of G major.

Arnold Cooke’s final String Quartet (No.5) was completed in 1978. It was commissioned by the Ticehurst and District Music Club, Sussex. This is a short piece, lasting for less than ten minutes. Although the track listing shows that there are three movements, the liner notes suggest that it is “ostensibly in one movement, embracing all the elements of a traditional four-movement sonata. The opening Moderato presents a short unison theme, which is the basis for the melodic material of the entire quartet. It is initially worked out in shortened sonata form. This slips into an energetic Scherzo, which also includes two “calmer and more lyrical” passages. The finale is powerful, combining a fugal opening, a dance-like romp, hints at earlier material and a brief, but vigorous, coda culminating in a terse pizzicato chord.

The liner notes, written by Peter Marchbank, give detailed information about all three quartets, including descriptive notes as well as some reception history. They have been immensely helpful in the preparation of this review. This is preceded by a useful mini biography of the composer. A resume of the Bridge Quartet is included. Toccata Records have already release a CD of Arnold Cooke’s organ music, reviewed here.

The performance by the Bridge Quartet is committed and enthusiastic. They have played these works at concert venues over the past few years and are clearly powerful advocates of Cooke’s chamber music. The recording is ideal.

Finally, Hindemith is often credited with promoting Gebrauchsmusik which effectively meant music aimed at a social or didactic purpose, often deemed to be playable by amateurs. It was not seen as being “art for art’s sake.” Hindemith was to eventually disown this appellation applied to his work. Certainly, the term cannot be applied to Cooke’s music on this CD, whether descriptively of pejoratively. Each Quartet is an accomplished piece of writing, technically involved and satisfying to all concerned. Even a cursory hearing will not detect any element that can be described as “improving” for either the performers or the audience.

It is fantastic that listeners can hear a fairly wide range of Arnold Cooke’s large catalogue, including symphonies, organ music and chamber works on CD. I look forward to assessing the second volume of String Quartets soon.

Track Listing
Arnold Cooke (1906-2005)

String Quartet No.3 (1967)
String Quartet No.5 (1978)
String Quartet No.1 (1933)
Bridge Quartet, Colin Twigg (violin), Catherine Schofield (violin), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)
rec.21-22 November 2022, All Saints’ Church, Thornham, Norfolk.
Toccata Classics TOCC0696

Friday 3 November 2023

Introducing George Antheil (1900-1959)

On 10 April 1927, George Antheil’s “notorious” Ballet mécanique was introduced to an American audience. It had, for its time, an eccentric scoring: ten pianos, one mechanical piano, six xylophones, two bass drums, a wind machine with a regulation airplane propeller and siren. The pianists included Aaron Copland and Colin McPhee.

This was heard at an all-Antheil concert given at the Carnegie Hall. Prior to the Ballet mécanique, listeners heard his String Quartet [No.1], the Jazz Symphony and the Sonata for violin, piano and drum.

The Ballet had been premiered in Paris during 1926 and had generated a near riot. Nothing as serious occurred at the New York performance. That said, the New York Times reported that “The audience did not restrain itself. A number of persons cheered loudly while others expressed their disapproval in other kinds of vocal activity.” This included waving of handkerchiefs to denote their pleasure, while one beleaguered man tied a particularly white kerchief over a cane, hoisted it over his head and waved it from side to side in token of surrender.” The cries of “pleasure and pain” at times failed to drown out the “Mécanique” elements of the music.

Sadly, despite the success of the Jazz Symphony, the critics were not overenthusiastic. Looking back, a hundred years on, it is difficult to see what the fuss was all about. In the post-John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frank Zappa age, the Ballet mécanique is remarkably tame, but exciting all the same. I guess that Antheil’s music has been under a shadow ever since. He never recaptured the modernity of this work: in fact, his later style returned to a tonal, more traditional aesthetic.

Brief Biography of George Antheil

  • Born on 8 July 1900 at Trenton, New Jersey. He was of German descent.
  • Studied music with former Liszt student, Constantin von Sternberg, Ernest Bloch and at the Settlement School in Philadelphia.
  • Toured Europe in 1922, staging several concerts. He concertized as a pianist in England and France.
  • The Symphony No.1 “Zingareska” premiered in Berlin during 1922.
  • Began to gain a reputation as an enfant terrible with his avant-garde music.
  • Settled in Paris during 1923 to concentrate on composition.
  • Whilst in Europe, Antheil moved in the rarefied circles of the arts world. He counted James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Ernest Hemingway among his friends.
  • Gained the nickname of “The Bad Boy of Music.”
  • First public performance of the infamous Ballet mécanique in Paris, 19 June 1926.
  • Appointed Assistant Musical Director of the Berlin Stadtheater.
  • Successful performance of the jazz-opera Transatlantic in Berlin, on 25 May 1930.
  • Awarded a Guggenheim Scholarship in 1932, which enabled him to travel abroad and complete his opera Helen Retires.
  • Returned to the United States during 1933. His music was unwelcome in Nazi Germany.
  • Began his career as a film score writer and moved to Hollywood in 1935.
  • In 1939 Antheil resumed composition for the concert hall.
  • Completed his autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, published in 1945.
  • Developed a more traditional style, which was romantic in feeling.
  • George Antheil died on12 February 1959 in New York City.

Six Selected Works:
Few people will have explored the entirety of George Antheil’s vast catalogue which includes more than three hundred compositions. The core of his achievement are the six numbered symphonies, (there were others), two piano concertos, many chamber works and many pieces for solo piano. Music for films included The Pride and the Passion starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Sophia Loren.

The clue to understanding Antheil’s music is the simple rule of thumb that as he aged, his style became more ‘conservative’ and ‘tonal’ in sound. By the mid-1930s he was progressing towards neo-romanticism and neo-classicism.

I have selected six of George Antheil’s works that give a broad view of his achievement. All are available on CD, streaming, download or YouTube.

  1.  Symphony No.1 “Zingareska” (1922)
  2.  Ballet Mécanique (1924)
  3.  Jazz Symphony (1925)
  4.  Sonatina for Radio, piano solo (1929)
  5.  McKonkey’s Ferry (Washington at Trenton): A Concert Overture (1948)
  6.  Violin Concerto (1946)

The key text is Linda Whitesitt’s The Life and Music of George Antheil 1900-1959, (Studies in Musicology, no.70, Ann Arbor, MI 1983). This book documents every aspect of Antheil’s life. There is a detailed catalogue of his music, a discography (up to 1982), endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. Peter Dickinson, in a contemporary review, noted that Whitesitt “is under no illusions” for “In Antheil's music there are many beautiful moments; however, there is also a sense that the totality of the creation is incomplete, that the overall conception lacks a certain amount of spiritual discipline, purpose and maturity.”

Mention must also be made of Antheil’s autobiography Bad Boy of Music published in 1945. Virgil Thomson, reviewing the book for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote "just as in Antheil's musical composition, a rude and rowdy surface texture deceives many into thinking the content irresponsible. It is not so, I assure you... He is a satirist, a great clown, in both music and letters. Viewed in this light, his memoirs (and don't forget that they deal with the nowadays pretty incredible '20s) appear to a survivor of that period quite as realistic as anybody else's. Need I add that they are also hilariously diverting?"

These memoirs give an entertaining impression of the period, although I guess that historians will be obliged to double check (where possible) the facts and stories presented.

If you can only hear one CD:
There are many CDs devoted either entirely or in part to the music of George Antheil. Chandos have issued three volumes dedicated to his orchestral works, including all the extant numbered symphonies (No.2 was withdrawn). CPO have released six CDs also including the symphonies as well as the two piano concertos, several tone-poems and the opera, The Brothers. Naxos has recorded the Symphony for five instruments as well as the Ballet Mécanique. This company have also issued Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6. Other CDs have promoted the violin sonatas, chamber works and the piano music.

I would recommend George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique on Nimbus Records NI 2567. The entire CD is a recreation of his Carnegie Hall Concert in 1927. The disc also includes the approachable A Jazz Symphony, the Second Sonata for violin, piano, and drum and the String Quartet No.1. Maurice Peress conducts the New Palais Royale Orchestra and Percussion Ensemble. It was originally released in 1992 and was reissued in 2010.

Bob Briggs, assessing this disc for MusicWeb International states that “Here [the Ballet Mécanique] is, in all its 1920s gaudy splendour, colossal, noisy, outrageous, a tough listen – without a doubt – but a rewarding one.” And the other performances are worthwhile too.

Finally, if you can only listen to one work:
On the one hand, I would recommend the Ballet Mécanique. Most musical historians would regard this as Antheil’s most significant achievement. For all the outrage (some of it faux) that it caused at the premieres, it is now regarded as being tame. Even by the time he revised it in 1954, the sting in its tail had virtually disappeared. A performance can be heard on YouTube, here. This video features the surrealistic film, Ballet Mécanique, that was created by Fernand Léger in collaboration with American film-maker Dudley Murphy. It is often claimed to be the earliest and best example of experimental films. It is “a cornucopia of fibrillating images, geometric figures, kaleidoscopic objects and so forth. All glued together with a cacophonous and bizarre music score by George Antheil.” (Warning: it contains flashing images). It remains an iconic film experience.

On the other hand, I suggest that a good approach to Antheil’s music is the Jazz Symphony dating from 1925. This was composed the year after George Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody in Blue. Antheil’s take is a fusion of modernism, neo-classicism, jazz, and romanticism. There is even an allusion to a Franz Lehar-like waltz at its conclusion. Elizabeth Schwartz has characterised it as “a crazy-quilt pastiche of Tin Pan Alley, Afro-Cuban jazz, evocative solos (for piano, trumpet and clarinet, in particular) and dissonant chord clusters.”  At the time, the composer stated that “I have written a piece - a super jazz piece…as they call it, which even Gershwin’s best friends assure me will put Gershwin in the shade…It is a tour de force of America today…”

Originally scored for jazz orchestra, Antheil reworked it for a small symphony orchestra in 1955. Both versions demand to be heard.

Finally, my personal favourite score by George Antheil is his Violin Concerto (1946). To my knowledge there is no modern recording of this piece, although YouTube does have the a copy of the live première performance given on 9 February. The soloist was Werner Gebauer with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under Antal Dorati.