Thursday, 22 March 2018

Celebrating Hamish MacCunn’s 150th Anniversary

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) is best known for his overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, which is often heard in concert halls, Classic FM and on CD. This work regained popularity in the 1970s when it was used as the theme tune to the BBC television series Sutherland’s Law. Apart from this, his music remains virtually unknown at present.
Hamish MacCunn’s romantic-sounding music, which also includes songs, part-songs and piano pieces, owes much to Mendelssohn, Grieg, Dvorak and Wagner in its style. The earlier works are marked by a considerable use of Scottish literary themes and musical devices. Later compositions tended to explore a wider range of inspiration, but towards the end of his life MacCunn began to rediscover his Celtic roots once more.

Brief Biography of Hamish MaCunn:
  • Born at Greenock, Scotland on 22 March 1868, son wealthy ship-owner: his mother Barbara had once studied piano with William Sterndale Bennett.
  • Headed down to London to take up an open scholarship at the Royal College of Music, aged only fifteen.
  • Studied with Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.
  • Resigned the course, without a degree.
  • First major performance was at the Crystal Palace in 1885 with the ‘Cior Mhor’: Overture (now lost). 
  • Produced several once-popular cantatas including Lord Ullin's Daughter, Bonny Kilmeny, The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Cameronian's Dream.
  • Appointed Professor of Harmony and Compositon at the Royal Academy of Music in 1888.
  • Married, in the same year, Alison, the daughter of Scottish painter John Pettie (1839-1893)
  • Commissioned by the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1889 to write the opera Jeannie Deans which was first performed in 1895.
  • Appointed in 1898 as conductor with the Carl Rosa Opera Company
  • Taught composition at the Guildhall School of Music
  • Died on 2 August 1916, aged only 48.

Five Key Works:
These works are available on CD or download. There are several other works that demand interest and a possible professional recording.
  • The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Op.3.
  • The Ship o’ the Fiend, Op.5
  • The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, ballad, Op.6.
  • The Lay of the Last Minstrel, op.7 for soli, chorus and orchestra.
  • Highland Memories, op.30 for orchestra or piano.

Key Bibliography:
  • Janey Drysdale (probably) The Dunedin Magazine (Volume 2 No.2) March 1914)
  • Henry George Farmer, A History of Music in Scotland (Hinrichsen, London 1947)
  • John Purser, Scotland’s Music: A History of the Traditional and Classical Music of Scotland from Early Times to the Present Day (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh 1992)
  • Jennifer Oates, Hamish MacCunn (1868–1916): A Musical Life (Ashgate, Farnham, 2013)
  • Alasdair Jamieson, The Music of Hamish MacCunn (AuthorHouse UK, 2013)

There is only one CD totally dedicated to MacCunn’s music:
Hamish MacCunn, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, The Ship o’ the Fiend, Jeanie Deans (excerpts) and The Lay of the Last Minstrel BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins, HYPERION CDA66815, 1995.

And finally, if you have only time to hear one work:
Yes, you’ve guessed it - The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. However, all three overtures are worth hearing. And Highland Memories are absolutely charming too.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Benjamin Britten: Choral Dances from Gloriana

It is not necessary to take a view on the success or failure of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana to be able to enjoy and appreciate these five Choral Dances. However, a little background information is useful.
Gloriana was completed by the composer in 1953 as a major part of the musical celebrations for the Coronation. It was ‘Dedicated by gracious permission to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’. In many ways this was an a-typical opera for Britten. The three-act work was made up of several tableaux, rather than a developed narrative that had been the hallmark of Peter Grimes or Billy Budd.
The basic ‘plot’ of the opera was the relationship between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex: it explored the dilemma the queen felt between her sense of public duty and the affection she had for the Earl.  The Earl was condemned to death for treason.
The opera was not particularly well received at the time: in fact, it has been suggested that the young Queen was not amused by watching the ‘affairs’ of her illustrious predecessor. The audience were apparently bored, the critics were disappointed, and the composer became displeased with the work.

The Choral Dances are derived from the second act of Gloriana. In the first scene of this act, Elizabeth I is portrayed making her royal progress to Norwich. The loyal subjects decide to present a masque in her honour. In the opera, the scene was choreographed and was performed by dancers from the Royal Ballet. There were six tableaux which were introduced by the Spirit of the Masque.
The Choral Dances opens with Time, a vivacious madrigal that explores considerable rhythmic and harmonic patterns that are both adventurous and engaging. The second, Concord is written entirely in perfect chords: there is no dissonance. It is a lovely dance that is both ‘simple and subtle’. The two concepts of Time and Concord are united with a well-written, ‘graceful’ double canon, juxtaposing male and female voices. The sprightly Country Girls dance is written for women only. This movement makes extensive use of dotted rhythms and antiphonal use of the voices. This dance is balanced by an energetic scherzo-like movement for male voices, Rustics and Fishermen which is hardly as bucolic as the title suggests. Perhaps the listener will be reminded of the composer’s Spring Symphony? The Final Dance of Homage is a well-poised and gorgeous setting of the subjects final bidding to Gloriana:-
These tokens of our love receiving,
O take them, Princess great and dear,
From Norwich city you are leaving,
That you afar may feel us near.

Donald Mitchell in the Musical Times (February 1955) noted that the Choral Dances ‘gain much from being detached from the distraction of the stage (i.e. the ballet!). In their concert guise it is possible to concentrate exclusively on the freshness of their invention, their beauty of sound and the aptness of their musical imagery.’
To the listener nowadays, when all argument about the opera’s worth seems largely irrelevant these choral dances seem like a perfect fusion of music from the two Elizabethan eras. 
There is a full performance of these Dances on YouTube performed by the Hart House Chorus. 
With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960): Cantata: The Skeleton in Armour Part 2

Modern Opinion
In Michael Hurd’s 1962 study of Rutland Boughton, he was less than complimentary to The Skeleton in Armour. He insists that it was ‘an accomplished exercise in high-flown twaddle.’ He continues by pointing out that ‘it is worth labouring the weakness of the text (presumably he does not like Longfellow) if only to point the enormous distance in taste Boughton eventually travelled.’ The music, Hurd feels, is ‘a mixture of Mendelssohn and Gounod [that] underlines the bathos of the words with a precision that might be mistaken for mockery were it not for the composer’s youth and inexperience.’
In Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festival (1993) Hurd expands his views on The Skeleton in Armour. He suggests that Boughton’s choral music for voice and orchestra must be considered in the context of the large number of choral festivals and competitions that ‘played so vital part in English musical life before the First World War.’  Hurd reflects that these ‘occasions… [were] not primarily the breeding grounds of great art’. He concedes now that this is an ‘interesting work’ and that it ‘has moments of real power and charm.’ He feels that ‘Boughton is at his best when tackling the poem’s grimmer aspects...’ On the other hand Hurd believes that ‘the love element reduces him to teashop sentimentality.’  Finally, he concludes that it ‘is a bold, ambitious work, orchestrated with real aplomb, and an impressive achievement for a 20 year old.’
In his thesis A Survey of New Trends in English Musical Life 1910-1914, (1981) Richard Charles Hall writes that The Skeleton in Armour and The Invincible Armada…were competently-written, run-of-the-mill festival cantatas, simplistic narrative tests provided with vivid settings, in no way out of the ordinary and certainly not representative of the composer's mature style.’

The Skeleton in Armour is an early piece by Rutland Boughton which predates his Glastonbury operas and major orchestral works. This is quite definitely a Wagnerian work in its use of chromaticism and ‘leitmotivs’, although Hurd (1962) as noted above does raise Gounod and Mendelssohn as exemplars for the musical style.
It is doubtful that present day (2015) concert-goers or listeners will ever hear this work. As a composition it is likely to be near the back of the queue for any contemporary recording project or full-blown concert performance.  However, I think that it would be an ideal candidate for a ‘chamber’ recital with a small ‘scratch’ choir and pianist. Certainly the short notice of this work in The Self-Advertisement of Rutland Boughton (1911) declares that although it is scored with orchestral accompaniment, ‘the work will be effective with an accompaniment of strings and piano only, or even of piano solo.  (My italics). It further notes that ‘a fairly good pianist will be necessary, as the vocal score contains a real pianistic transcription of the orchestral part’.  My study of the score suggests that this work is worthy of being regarded as being more effective than merely an ephemeral ‘Morecambe Festival’ work.

Appendix 1
Other settings of Henry W. Longfellow’s ‘The Skeleton on Armour’ include:
Arthur Foote: The Skeleton in Armour: ballad for chorus and orchestra, op.28 c.1892
Joseph Holbrooke: The Viking: tone poem for orchestra, op.32 (1899). This work was originally called The Skeleton in Armour and was occasionally known as The Corsair.
George Elbridge Whiting: The Tale of the Viking: a Dramatic cantata for 3 solo voices, chorus and orchestra, 1881

Brief Bibliography:
Hurd, Michael, Immortal Hour, The Life and Period of Rutland Boughton, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1962)
Hurd, Michael, Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993)
Files of various contemporary newspapers and journals

With thank to the Rutland Boughton Trust where this essay was first published during December 2017

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960): Cantata: The Skeleton in Armour Part 1

The Text
The idea for the poem ‘The Skeleton in Armour’ was ‘suggested’ to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) whilst out riding on the beach at Newport, Rhode Island. The initial stimulus was the finding of a skeleton wearing a brass breastplate and belt at Fall River, Massachusetts, c.1832. There was much debate as to the provenance of the remains, with protagonists proposing, Native American, Phoenician, Carthaginian or Egyptian origin. Other antiquarians were convinced that it was an early colonist or possibly even an elaborate fraud. Another proposal was that the ‘long-buried exile’ was of Scandinavian descent. It was this latter theory that exercised Longfellow’s imagination. The poet was aware of the debate around the Old Wind-Mill or Round Tower at Newport and the hypothesis that it was of Danish origin. Longfellow was inspired by Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864) who majored on the Viking colonisation of the Americas.  It is hard to know whether the poet believed the theory of the Norse ancestry of the skeleton or whether it was just an apt poetic conceit. 
The remains of the ‘Viking’ were destroyed in a major fire in 1843, so no subsequent tests were possible to prove or deny its origins.  

The poem ‘The Skeleton in Armour’ was first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine (January 1841) and subsequently in Ballads and other Poems (1841).
The burden of the poem is that the ‘ghost’ of the skeleton appears and begins to tell his story to the passing stranger. [cf. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem known to Longfellow].  The spectre declares that he was a Viking who had fallen in love with the daughter of King Hildebrand. However, the king thwarted his suit. The ‘Viking’, aroused to passion, kidnapped the girl and set sail, with her father and his retinue in pursuit. To avoid a sea battle, which he would have lost, the Viking rammed the king’s ship killing all on board. After a journey of some three weeks they made landfall at Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. The poet imagines that the ‘round tower’ was built for the lady’s bower. Alas, the princess dies and was interred in her tower. The Viking, being distraught arrayed himself in his armour and ‘fell upon his sword.’ 

Genesis of the Cantata
Rutland Boughton was twenty years old when he put the finishing touches to his symphonic poem for chorus and orchestra, The Skeleton in Armour. Other choral works at this time were the cantatas Sir Galahad (1898) and The Invisible Armada (1901).  Orchestral music of this period included the tone poem A Summer Night (1899, rev.1903) and Symphonic Suite: The Chilterns, (1900).  This former work had impressed Granville Bantock when it was first heard at a Halfords Concerts Society event in 1902. It has subsequently been recorded on the Dutton Epoch record label (CDLX7262). The Chilterns, symphonic suite, remains a tantalising desideratum. In 1898 Boughton had completed a Piano Concerto in A flat and a tone poem Lucifer. Both works were withdrawn and subsequently destroyed (Hurd, 1993).
The Skeleton in Armour was originally conceived as a ballad for baritone and orchestra and was completed in February 1898. Hurd (1993) states that it was rescored for SATB later that year: the final page of the vocal score is dated ‘Aylesbury, Nov- Dec. 1898’. The work was further revised in 1903. The score was duly published by Novello & Sons in 1909, priced 2/- (10p). Interestingly, this work is contemporary with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s once ubiquitous Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. 

Premiere and Reviews
The premiere of The Skeleton in Armour was on 16 March 1909 at the Queen’s Hall with the Edward Mason Choir and the New Symphony Orchestra. Mason was born in 1878/9 and had studied at the Royal College of Music. His early career included, teaching at Eton and playing cello in the Grimson Quartet (other members were Frank Bridge (viola) Ernest Tomlinson (violin) and the leader Jessie Grimson (violin).  Mason’s choir, with more than a hundred singers, was formed 1907 and gave its first concert the following year. The concerts continued until 1914.
One of the aims of Mason’s choir was to perform little-known works by English composers. Stephen Lloyd in his study of H. Balfour Gardiner, (Cambridge University Press, 1984, 2005) has noted that over thirty British composers were represented over this six year period. Edward Mason was killed in France (9 May 1915) whilst serving as a second-lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Regiment.

The Rutland Boughton Trust possesses a short typed memorandum quoting a number of reviews. The Morning Post (17 March 1909) noted that Boughton’s Skeleton:
‘…is frankly lyrical in character, and it is invariably grateful for the voices. The composer’s methods are clear, straightforward, and tuneful, and there is no doubt that the excellence of the writing for the voices, the sufficiency of contrast, and the generally attractive character of the work will win for it widespread popularity among choral societies whose technical attainments are legitimate.’ 
There were two calls for the composer to acknowledge the applause. Other works included in this concert were Edgar L. Bainton’s The Blessed Damozel and Arthur Goodhart’s (the memorandum notes the composer was John O’Keefe; in fact, he was the author from whom the libretto was derived) Spanish Armada
The New Music Review (Volume 8, 1908-9) states that Mr. Boughton:
‘…has the dramatic spirit, and as the poem affords ample opportunity for effective musical treatment he has been successful in composing music which is not only melodious, but eminently graphic in its descriptive power. He is evidently a master of choral effects, and his work may be safely recommended to choral societies as well worthy of performance’.

The Musical Times (April 1909) reported that:
‘[The] novelty was the ' Symphonic poem' for chorus and orchestra, The Skeleton in Armour, by Rutland Boughton…. In his highly descriptive setting of Longfellow's grim poem, Mr. Boughton displays considerable power to write effectively for chorus and orchestra. He indulges in many strange devices, but they always have interest and application to the situation. Some of the climaxes are very dramatic, and prove that he can feel strongly in terms of music. The performance was a fair one, but the lack of balance of choral and orchestral tone was sometimes conspicuous.’ 
The same edition of this journal further reports on the published score:-
‘The first aim of Mr. Rutland Boughton's choral writing is to provide interest in every part, the occasions being few when the lower voices form merely an accompaniment. The continuous flow of the part-writing disguises the rigid stanza-form of the narrative, and with its frequent modulations eliminates all monotony. The serious mood of the music, rightly excludes a 'tuneful' style, but effective themes or figures often occur in association with various shades of feeling in the poem. They appear chiefly in the orchestral part, while the skilfully woven choral part-writing continues its course simultaneously. Choralists will find that the apparent chromatic difficulties of their parts are smoothed over by the flow and eminently vocal nature of the writing.’

At the time of the premiere there was some doubt as to whether The Skeleton was an early or a late work. The Musical Standard (20 March 1909) wonders if it was brand new or had been rewritten.  ‘JHGB’ writes that this work has ‘an interesting and masterly character.’ In fact, he insists that the composer has so far not written ‘anything that runs along so well…so pleasingly, the onward trend of the music and its rhythmic buoyancy.’  The audience were ‘never bored’ and ‘every orchestral and choral effect “came off”’.  The choir and orchestra clearly enjoyed performing this work and seemed ‘inspired under Mr. Mason’s direction.’  The music was ‘…unaffectedly or non-artificially British in tone.’

Finally, the composer’s friend George Bernard Shaw once wrote ‘I loathe your music. It isn’t music at all. It is all skeletons in armour, rangle, jangle, bangle, with nothing but old bones inside... For heaven’s sake get a professorship at the RAM. You will get paid for misleading the young and you won’t have any time to compose.’ (Letter, Shaw/Boughton, 2 January, 1912)  I think we can take this as ‘friendly banter’ with just a grain of truth.  
To be continued...
With thank to the Rutland Boughton Trust where this essay was first published during December 2017

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Organ Party: Volume 3: Kevin Bowyer plays the organ at Glasgow University, Memorial Chapel

Organ enthusiasts can sometimes be a wee bit snobbish. Sometimes they sniff at certain types and genres of music when played. For myself, I do not warm to transcriptions of orchestral and choral works. Others will insist on hearing only high-brow pieces and wonder why there are people who do not like (appreciate, understand or enjoy) Messiaen. Or maybe it is ‘Back to Bach’ where nothing else has any value. But then some folk have a sneaking admiration when the concert organist makes the cathedral ‘pipe rack’ sound like a cinema organ. Certain ‘novelties’ succeed in bringing the house down, even at a ‘serious’ concert.
The present CD represents 15 composers from various backgrounds and musical aesthetic. It runs a gamut from ‘In Memoriam of Messiaen’ to ‘I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts.’ There is humour, depth, fun and profundity. And this is as it should be: it is a potpourri with something for everybody.

The opening number, unsurprisingly, is a call to attention - a ‘Fanfare’. Written by American composer Ronald Arnatt, it is a splendid ‘opener’ that displays the Glasgow University, Memorial Chapel organ ‘tuba’ stops to dramatic effect.

I must confess to disliking the melody Amazing Grace: don’t ask why, I just do. However, I got into the ‘groove’ with Mons Takle’s swinging set of variations on this tune. Bowyer points out that it is not what one would expect. It fair dances along. Not a Royal Scots Dragon Guard and their bagpipes in sight. Stunning.

Equally fun is Ernest Bucalossi’s The Grasshopper’s Dance. It has been arranged for countless instruments and ensembles. I know it in its piano incarnation. The present arrangement for organ makes use of reed stops and mixtures: this effectively catches the insect’s buzzing – if that is what grasshoppers do. A fun piece, written in 1905.  

The Flourish and Reflection for a Wedding was written for composer Henry Campbell’s daughter’s wedding. The opening ‘flourish’ has memories of Whitlock Plymouth Suite. The reflective middle section exploits two traditional melodies: ‘The Londonderry Air’ and ‘The Bonnie Lass o’ Ballochmyle.’ These represent the bridegroom and the bride. The work regains momentum with a reprise of the ‘toccata’. It is an effective piece that could be used at any festival or event.

Marco Lo Muscio is an Italian composer and organist. His homage to the French master is striking. It is written as a ‘Diptych’ with a ‘Messiaenic’ slow movement that evokes mystical matters and is followed by a paean of praise. If one did not know, the listener may imagine that Kevin Bowyer had found a ‘lost work’ by Messiaen. Pastiche and parody all rolled into one, and none the worse for that.

Not sure about The Naughty Boy by Paul Fisher. Speech and music mixed up in this Monty-Python-esque burlesque exploring the theme ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a naughty boy.’ Lots of allusions to other music including Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, Christmas carols, ragtime and blues. Just did not work for me.

I enjoyed the Handel-inspired Little Stanmore Suite. Most people will think of Stanmore as being at the end of the Jubilee Line. However, near Canon’s Park, the first station heading back to The Smoke, there is the church of St Lawrence Whitchurch, where Handel once played. Bowyer assures us that only one rank of open diapasons from Handel’s day survives.  The Little Stanmore Suite is quite short with each movement lasting around a minute. It is a well-contrived work that owes nothing to Handel’s music but a lot to his life and times. Movements have amusing titles such as ‘James Bridges’ Knees Up’, referring to the Duke of Chandos, Handel’s employer, ‘Ach, mein wig hast blown off’, and ‘The Blacksmith’s Donkey: with tail between legs.’ This latter refers to the well-known Harmonious Blacksmith.

And then comes ‘I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts’. It was originally composed by a committee of composers, given the pseudonym Fred Hetherington. Kevin Bowyer takes this reasonably seriously. He swings it a bit, yes, but also turns it into a regular ‘tuba tune.’ Great fun. Not sure how this would go down as a recessional voluntary after the Kirk’s morning service, though.

Peter Warlock’s witty, satirical take on music issued in his Four Cod Pieces are not as well- known as they should be. The third, ‘Beethoven’s Binge’ and the fourth number, ‘The Old Codger’ poke fun at Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor respectively. They are ‘music hall ballet’ and as such must be taken with a pinch of salt. Jazz and ragtime feature in these pages.  It is surprising how little- known these satires are.

Festive Flutes by American composer Everett Titcomb is a lovely little number. Written as a diminutive scherzo, emphasising the flute register, this work weaves it subtle magic quietly in the form of a toccata. It is my favourite piece on this disc.

The Prelude and Fugue (1986) by Fredrik Sixten was composed as a homage to the great French organist and composer, Maurice Durufle. After a slow introduction, the Prelude develops as a quiet scherzo, with echoes of the dedicatee.  This is haunting music. The [Double] Fugue is impressive and after some effective working out brings the piece to a triumphant conclusion.

Ernest Tomlinson was one of the best-known composers of light music. His Little Serenade has been ‘dished up’ in a variety of arrangements. The piece began life as a part of the score of a radio musical play, The Story of Cinderella. Interestingly, the ‘book’ for this musical was written by Roy Plomley of Desert Island Disc fame. It was first performed in 1955.  The ‘Serenade’ is featured early in the tale, when Prince Charming first sets eyes on Cinderella. It is at the moment when she is unaware of his princely rank.  The ‘song’ develops into a ‘love duet.’  This is a ‘delicately winning’ (The Gramophone March 2000) little number that bears many hearings. This organ arrangement by Tomlinson is delightful.

Charles Procter is a name that seems to sit at the back of the mind. Try and name a piece of music by him and I guess most of us will get stuck. I only recall his name as a contributor to the series of graded piano pieces, Five by Ten. These were published by Lengnick in 1952 and are, I believe, still in print. The five volumes were edited by Alec Rowley and had works specifically commissioned from composers as diverse as Edmund Rubbra, Madeleine Dring, Bernard Stevens Malcolm Arnold, Julius Harrison, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, William Alwyn, Franz Reizenstein and Charles Proctor. Many are little masterpieces.
The Lord Warden’s Rondo alludes to the Warden of the Cinque Ports. This office has been held by many famous people, including Winston Churchill (1941-65) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1978-2002). The present warden is Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL who was appointed in 2004. His official residence is Walmer Castle, near Deal.  The five Cinque Ports are Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich.
Proctor’s ‘take’ on the situation is to provide a quiet, restrained little meditation rather than a flamboyant processional or march. String stops are to the fore, with the general dynamics of pianissimo. There are some effective key changes. This would be an ideal piece to play before Evensong.

Rona’s Day, by Patricia Cornish is another little number composed for a wedding at Glasgow University Memorial Chapel. It is a gentle, piece that builds to a restrained climax.

An Oxford Elegy will remind many listeners of RVWs beautiful setting of Matthew Arnold’s poetry for speaker (John Westbrook, preferably) and cathedral choir. Frikki Walker’s, (organist of St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow), eponymous piece has nothing to do with Scholar Gypsy’s or Thyrsis. It began life as an advertising ‘jingle’ and was latterly used at a choral seminar at Chichester, when Walker needed to fill in a few awkward moments of silence at Matins. The resulting improvisation was recorded and subsequently noted down and the score published. It is a lovely meditative little piece that is much more valuable than a ‘gap-filler.’

Kevin Bowyer’s pithy programme note for the final number, Swing Low, says it all: ‘Another Tikle piece, currently my favourite for encores. It roars and brings the house down.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself – a fitting conclusion to a remarkably enjoyable CD.

Like all good organ CDs Organ Party III gives a brief history of this splendid organ. It was originally commissioned in 1927 by Henry Willis and Sons and restored by Harrison and Harrison in 2005. It was a gift to Glasgow University form Joseph Paton Maclay, Lord Maclay in memory of his two sons who were killed during the Great War. A full specification of this 3-manual instrument is given.  There are biographical notes on the present soloist, who is the current incumbent at the Memorial Chapel.
The liner notes are succinct, giving sufficient information to gain an understanding of these eclectic pieces. For enjoyment, no information is needed: just ears that are open to a wide variety of musical styles.

The advertising blurb on the Priory Record website states that this ‘third outing in this outrageous series features the organ that Kevin Bowyer knows best as its organist.’ I have not heard the first and second volumes.
Bowyer explains that the university hosts many kinds of events from weddings to festivals and that he is asked to play music drawn from right across the board – ‘I am proud to have no scruples…some would say no taste!’

This is disingenuous: all the pieces on this CD are of interest, some are deeper in intent than the word ‘party’ implies. All are done in ‘the best possible taste’. It is good to come across a musician who, as they say in parts of the North Country, has no ‘side’ on him. As stated above, playing music ranging from ‘In Memoriam of Messiaen’ to ‘I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts’ show imagination and fun. Which is a large part of what musical performance should be about and is often forgotten by some po-faced concertgoers.

Track Listing:
Ronald ARNATT (b.1930) Fanfare
Mons Leidvin TAKLE (b.1942) Amazing Grace
Ernest BUCALOSSI (1859-1933) The Grasshoppers Dance
Henry CAMPBELL (b.1949) Flourish and Reflection for a Wedding
Marco Lo MUSCIO (b.1971) In Memoriam of Messiaen
Paul FISHER (b.1943) The Naughty Boy
Martin STACEY (b.1975) Little Stanmore Suite    
Fred HEATHERTON (Pseudonym) I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Two Cod Pieces, No. 3: Beethoven's Binge, No. 4: The Old Codger
Everett TITCOMB (1884-1968) Festive Flutes
Fredrick SIXTEN (b.1962) Prelude et Fugue
Ernest TOMLINSON (1924 -2015) Little Serenade
Charles PROCTER (1906 -1996) The Lord Warden's Rondo
Patricia CORNISH (b.1954) Rona's Day
Frikki WALKER (b.1963) An Oxford Elegy
Mons Leidvin TAKLE Swing Low
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
Rec. 14-15 January 2016 Glasgow University, Memorial Chapel, Glasgow.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.  

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Adam Pounds: London Cantata

Despite this music being performed by a Cambridgeshire-based choir and orchestra, all these pieces have London as their focal point, although occasionally this is a little tenuous as will be seen.  The programme is an interesting balance of old favourites and modern works which explore several genres: an orchestral overture, accompanied and unaccompanied choral anthems and motets and the premiere recording of a large-scale cantata.

The opening track delivers Adam Pounds’ Festival Overture, which was commissioned in 1987 by the London Borough of Waltham Forest with funding from the Greater London Arts to celebrate the Waltham Forest Arts Festival. Details of Pounds can be found on his excellent webpage.
Adam Pounds told me that he wanted to write a work that would echo the ‘urban environment and that would fuse several styles together.’ This is reflected in the use of West Indian mores such as the roto-toms, which have been used to great effect in the past by groups as diverse as Pink Floyd and Van Halen. It is hard to typify a style to this eclectic music, save to suggest that the listener may think: “Malcolm Arnold!”. There is also a touch of ‘Cheltenham’ about this work, which, in my opinion is a good thing. It is a vibrant, happy overture that is effective on a first hearing, but grows in stature the more often it is heard.

A succession of choral works follows: including Henry Purcell’s Funeral Sentences: ‘Man that is born of women’, ‘In the midst of life’ and ‘Thou Knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts’. The texts are taken from the Book of Common Prayer. Purcell wrote this music for the funeral of Queen Mary which took place in Westminster Abbey on 5 March 1694. Interestingly, ‘Thou Knowest Lord’ was later performed at Purcell’s own funeral in the same year.  These Sentences are hauntingly beautiful and, whatever the listener’s personal beliefs (or none) provide considerable food for thought.
Little need be said about Handel’s ‘And the glory of the Lord’ extracted from Messiah. This oratorio was composed in 1741 at the composer’s Brook Street address in London.  I wonder what GFH would have made of the wonderful music written and played by his next-door neighbour in time, the great Jimi Hendrix (1942-70)?
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s ‘My Soul there is a country’, is a setting of an optimistic text by Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. It is selected from Parry’s late Songs of Farewell: it is one of a relatively few ‘perfect’ pieces of choral music.  Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Beati quorum via (Blessed are those that are undefiled) is equally beautiful. It is the third of his Three Motets, op.38 dating from 1905, although they were written earlier. Like many of Stanford’s anthems and part-songs, these motets are perfectly fashioned. ‘Beati quorum via’ is thoughtful and meditative in its mood.  I understand that the London connection with Parry n’ Stanford is quite simply that they lived and worked in the Capital for several years, at the Royal College of Music. Remember that Parry was a Bournemouth/Gloucestershire man and Stanford was born in Dublin.
Elgar’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ is always welcome in any choral recital. It was composed in 1886 and revised several years later.
A ‘new’ anthem, ‘If ye love me’ by Adam Pounds concludes the anthems and motets section of this CD. I am not sure when it was composed, but it is based on a text from St John’s Gospel (John 14:15–17). It is probably best known in a setting by Thomas Tallis.  Pounds’ version has the depth of Tallis coupled to a more piquant harmonic vocabulary. It is a timeless piece.

I rely on the composer’s programme notes for details of the expansive London Cantata. The work was specifically composed for the ‘combined forces of the Academy of Great St. Mary’s and the Stapleford Choral Society. It is scored for a normal sized orchestra, baritone solo and standard four-part chorus and was composed during 2016-2017. It received its premiere at Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge on 23 September 2017. Other works performed at this concert included Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, Pounds’ Festival Overture and a double horn concerto by Antonio Rosetti.
The uplifting opening section of the London Cantata has overtones of William Walton and George Dyson. Both these composers set the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s most enduring poem, ‘In Honour of the City of London’. This is a powerful and dynamic paean. After the celebratory Dunbar setting, Pounds changes the mood of the work. He writes: ‘George Eliot’s ‘In a London Drawing Room’…really explains the idea behind the work in that we scratch the polished veneer of the great city and we find a vast array of lifestyle, history, opulence and poverty.’
There follows a restrained setting of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.’ This is performed by the baritone soloist and chorus.
In the middle of the Cantata, Pounds has provided an orchestral interlude. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main theme is based on the world-famous Westminster Chimes (now (2018) temporarily silenced during ongoing structural repairs to the Elizabeth Tower). Yet there is a strong Cambridge connection: the chimes that we (and Vierne, Coates et al) know and love were composed in 1793 for Great St Mary’s Church. It is a small world. This is a lovely little interlude that could easily gain traction as a miniature in its own right. The orchestration is charming.
Anyone who has explored London Docklands will have been struck by the atmosphere of Shadwell. Despite three decades of gentrification along the Thames, there is still a feeling of ‘slippery’ time. There has been considerable debate about the background and inspiration of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Shadwell Stair.’ This is not the forum to discuss this, however, Pounds’ music expresses the ghostliness of Owen as he explores this part of London whether alive of dead.  The poem is well sung by the baritone soloist.
Then a vibrant setting of Amy Levy’s poem ‘A March Day in London’ follows. Initially reflecting a ‘mad march day’ there are some quieter moments when the choir reflects on ‘the gas-lamps gleam’ and ‘the ruby lights of the hansoms flicker’
The London Cantata concludes with a reprise of the ‘William Dunbar’ music, bringing the entire works to a satisfying and impressive conclusion. 

It is no criticism of the present performers to suggest that both of Adam Pounds’ major works require a full professional studio recording. The London Cantata is a remarkable piece that seems eternal in its aesthetic style. Pounds has not been afraid to utilise Walton/Dyson-esque choral idioms matched to something a little more modernist in scope. 

NB. I reviewed this music on a pre-production CD which is not currently available to the public. However, I have listened to ‘streaming’ extracts of this release and I am satisfied that this reflects my comments below.

Track Listing:
Adam POUNDS (b.1954) Festival Overture (1987)
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) Funeral Sentences: Man that is born of a woman; In the midst of life; Thou Knowest Lord (1694)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) ‘And the glory of the Lord’ from Messiah (1741)
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) My Soul, There is a country (1916-18)
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Beati quorum via (pub. 1905)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Ave Verum (1887)
Adam POUNDS If ye love me (?)
Adam POUNDS London Cantata (premiere live recording) (2016-17)
Stapleford Choral Society, The Academy of Great St Mary’s/Adam Pounds
Rec. Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, 23 September 2017 (Cantata); St Andrew’s Church, Stapleford and Ss Peter and Paul, Chingford.
DOWNLOAD [53:53]

Monday, 5 March 2018

Ernest Tomlinson: Kielder Water

One of Ernest Tomlinson’s most delightful miniatures is Kielder Water. Despite its short duration, this is a musical tone poem of the first order. 
In 1983 Ernest Tomlinson received a commission to compose a piece of music to commemorate the opening of Kielder Dam in Northumberland. This massive engineering project had created a reservoir nearly six miles long by two miles wide. Although initial proposals for the project had been made in the late 1960s, work did not commence until 1975. The project was completed in 1981 and was flooded the following year. The Kielder Reservoir was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh on 26 May 1982.
The progress of work on the reservoir was filmed and made into a documentary. The company, CinePhoto Productions approached Ernest Tomlinson asking for ‘a suitable accompanying score.’ The present tone-poem is the main theme of the film.  I have been unable to discover anything else about this film.

Tomlinson’s Kielder Water, presents an idyllic view of this stretch of water. Quite understandably, it is musically devoid of any angst generated by the considerable criticism generated by the project. Nor does it allude to the loss of several farms, houses, a school and the track-bed of a disused railway.  
The sweeping strings present a picture of a summers day's boating or rambling on or by the Water: people making use of the project’s recreational facilities. It is a perfect piece of nature music creating lasting impressions of water, forest and hills.

I understand that there is only a single recording of this work available: Marco Polo, British Light Music Series: Ernest Tomlinson 8.223413. This is available on download or from second-hand record dealers. It has also been uploaded to YouTube.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Under a Celtic Sky: Choral Music on Regent

I enjoyed this CD despite minor reservations about its raison d’être. The CD advertising blurb states that this ‘recording features sacred and secular choral music from many areas of the British Isles traditionally regarded as having Celtic roots.’  In addition, several works by English composers ‘writing on a variety of Celtic and other folk themes are included.’
The CD producers posit that an imaginative way of evoking national identity is to listen to the musical language that has been used in that nation over the centuries, in both its religious and its social settings.’
One or two anomalies do creep in. Do we regard the Unionist, Charles Villiers Stanford born in Dublin, as a ‘Celtic’ composer or as a British one? And what about Cornwall and the Isle of Man? They are not included composer-wise.  

Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘The blue bird’ is one of my desert islands discs. It is a perfect fusion of music and words and is given an ideal performance here. As an aside, other works that, for me, fall into this ‘perfect’ category include Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’, Frederick Delius’ ‘On Craig Ddu’, John Ireland’s atmospheric ‘The Hills’ and Olivier Messiaen’s ‘O Sacrum Convivium.’ Others will disagree!  Stanford is also represented by two masterly anthems: ‘For lo, I raise up’, which sets a difficult apocalyptic text by the Prophet Habakkuk and the restrained ‘Beati quorum via’ taken from Psalm 119.

English-born Parry’s ubiquitous setting of Welshman Henry Vaughan’s inspiring ‘My Soul, there is a Country’ is given yet another outing. It is well sung here.
I did wonder if yet another recording of John Rutter’s popular ‘A Gaelic Blessing’ was a wise choice. Are there no other settings sourced from Gaelic texts or tunes that could have been included? I love Rutter’s piece, but there are more than 20 versions in the current catalogues.
Nearly as popular, is Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Hymn of St Columba’, composed in 1962 as part of the 1400 celebrations of the Celtic Saint’s arrival at Iona. This is a short but complex piece that majors on the Day of Judgement.
Paul Stopford’s ‘Do not be afraid’, based on a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, ‘offers reassurance in our troubled times.’ It is effective and quite simply lovely.  But I wondered what the Celtic connection is? It is quite simply English-born Stopford’s seven-year tenure as Director of Music at the beautiful St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast…

The main novelty on this disc for me are the Four Welsh Folksongs, op.39 by Welsh composer William Mathias. They were composed in 1968 (not 1983 as stated in the liner notes: this is when they were published) and dedicated to the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir. As would be rightly expected, they are sung in Welsh with an English translation provided in the insert. They are thoroughly enjoyable numbers that present a song in praise of holly, a meditation on homecoming of a prodigal son or daughter and a quarrel between a lazy wife and her feckless husband.
William Mathias is also represented by his anthem ‘As truly as God is our Father’ (1987) which is a remarkable setting of a prayer by Mother Julian of Norwich.

Other Welsh composers featured in this CD include Geraint Lewis’s peaceful anthem ‘The Souls of the Righteous’. This is a sustained meditation on the ‘peace which passeth all understanding’ and is the reward of the ‘faithful’, is truly gorgeous.
Paul Mealor’s ‘Ubi Caritas’ was heard by millions of people who tuned into the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011. This is a lovely setting of the Antiphon from the Washing of the Feet at the Mass of the Last Supper. Subtle techniques make this a subtle synthesis of ‘harmonic suspensions of a Morten Lauridsen or Eric Whitacre’ and plainsong.

Cornwall is represented by a single number: ‘I love my love’ which is a traditional song arranged by the English-born, Latvian/Swedish/German ancestry composer Gustav Holst. They were originally part of his Six Choral Folksongs. Were there no native Cornish composers from whom an anthem could be found? (George Lloyd, David Willcocks or Derek Holman). The other Holst work here is his setting of ‘Swansea Town’ from his Six Hampshire Folksongs
The Scottish selection of ‘Afton Water’, to a text by Robert Burns arranged by David Willcocks hardly seems to reflect the Celtic element of Scotland. With one or two exceptions the text of this song is written in standard English by a poet who hardly regarded himself as a Celt.
The final song on this CD is fairly and squarely in the Welsh camp.  The maudlin ‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’ or ‘David Of White Rock’ arranged by Robert Court.

The Cantemus Choir based in Cardiff ensures that the Welsh nation is well-represented here by some fine music, all of which is well-sung under the direction of Huw Williams. And do not forget the excellent contribution from organist, Peter King. The liner notes include a good introduction to the music, give the texts and translations, and the biographies of the performers.  Dates for all the pieces are not included: I have given them in the track-listing where provided.

This is an imaginative CD that explores music from the four corners of the United Kingdom. Whether the Celtic connection proposed by the advertising is fully achieved is a matter of opinion (as noted above). There are some beautiful anthems and delightful folk songs here, several of which are premiere performances.

Track Listings:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) For lo, I raise up, op.145 (1914)
Geraint LEWIS (b.1958) The souls of the righteous (1992)
Charles Villiers STANFORD Beati quorum via (pub. 1905)
Paul MEALOR (b.1975) Ubi caritas (2011)
John RUTTER (b.1945) A Gaelic blessing
Philip W J STOPFORD (b.1977) Do not be afraid    
William MATHIAS (1934-92) As truly as God is our Father (1987)
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) My soul, there is a country (1916/18)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) A hymn of St Columba (1962)
Charles Villiers STANFORD The blue bird (1910)
William MATHIAS Four Welsh folk songs (1983): Y Gelynnen (The Holly Bush); Robin Ddiog (Lazy Robin); Hobed o hilion (The Wistful Wanderer); Dadl dau (A Quarrel for Two)
Cornish trad, arr. Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) I love my love]
Scottish trad, arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Afton Water
English trad, arr. Gustav HOLST Swansea Town
Welsh trad, arr. Robert COURT (b.1954) Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of White Rock)
Cantemus Chamber Choir/Huw Williams, Peter King (organ)
Rec. The Chapel of Keble College, Oxford 7-8 January 2017 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Bruce Montgomery: Overture to a Fairy Tale.

As children we have fairy tales read to us (at least we used to do). Get a bit older, and we may start to read them for ourselves. My copies of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang were never far from me as youngster. Then we put them aside as ‘childish things’. If we are blessed, a day comes, sooner or later, when we pick these books up again, and approach them as an adult. If we are exceptionally lucky we can still capture the wonder and the magic that first revealed itself so many years ago. 
Musically, we need only think of Tchaikovsky’ Nutcracker ballet, Prokofiev’ Cinderella, Ravel’s Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose Suite), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Nielsen’s Aladdin to realise that this magic moves on into adulthood. In England, Elgar was enthralled the magic of the nursery stories, with his captivating Wand of Youth Suites and the aptly named Nursery Suite dedicated to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Turning now to Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale. David Whittle (2007) notes that the ‘circumstances of its composition are unclear’ but he feels that it was unlikely to have been a commission, due to the work having been completed some two years before its premiere.
Whittle further suggests that the Overture is an important work, as it is one of only three completed scores for full orchestra, that were not ‘linked to his film work.’ The others were the Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby.

The orchestral score of Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale was completed on 23 February 1946, although the piano ‘reduction’ had been written a year or so earlier. Currently, the composer was living in the nearby fishing village of Brixham.  Although Whittle’s book states that the score was published by Oxford University Press in 1944 (?) I was unable to find any reference to it in the catalogues at the British Library, COPAC or WorldCat.

I do not know if there is any particular ‘fairy’ story underlying Bruce Montgomery’s Overture to a Fairy Tale.  I doubt that there is. In fact, I think it is a little bit like creating a set of variations without a theme. Here we find a succession of magical melodies, delightful instrumentation and a typically imaginative overall structure. Whatever the story, we are invited to dream and recapture our youth.
The listener will be impressed by the tone of this score. It has been criticised as owing much to Elgar (Wand of Youth?), especially in the opening bars. Yet the profusion of tunes - there are four major themes in the eight-minute duration - does seem to owe much to the idiom of light music in vogue in the immediate post war years. It is not quite the soundscape of Montgomery’s scores for the Carry On or the Doctor films, but the idiom is beginning to emerge.

The premiere of the Overture was given on 28 February 1948 at the Torquay Pavilion by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Goss. The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo (1 March 1948) reported that Kyla Greenbaum, ‘one of the younger generation of distinguished pianists, delighted the audience…yesterday afternoon, when she was the guest celebrity at the fortnightly celebrity concert.’ She chose to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor. The critic thought that this ‘was a happy [choice] and her perfect technique, coupled with a fine reading by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, left little to be desired.’ Greenbaum also played some solos including Chopin’s Ballade in F minor, and the Schubert-Liszt arrangement of Soiree de Vienne no.6 in A, which was a ‘notable contrast to the preceding work.’
There were several orchestral works featured, including the now largely forgotten arrangement by Reginald Jacques of Handel’s Gavotte from the opera Amadigi di Gaula and the Minuet from Berenice. A relatively rare Russian work was the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, op.31 by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Alas, the critic said little about Montgomery’s Overture which opened the afternoon’s concert, save that the composer was ‘receiving increasing recognition.’
The Western Times (5 March 1948) was slightly more fulsome in its praise: it suggested that Overture to a Fairy Tale was ‘a well-constructed work in the style of Elgar…’

In 2003 ASV Record Company issued a performance of Montgomery’s Overture on the third volume of a series of British Light Overtures (CD WHL 2140). This disc also included music by Matthew Curtis, Carey Blyton, Montague Phillips, John Fox, Adam Saunders, Roger Quilter, Philip Lane, James Langley and Matthew Taylor.   It is available on Amazon as a ‘second hand’ CD. There is currently no YouTube file for the Overture to a Fairy Tale.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Ashgate 2007)

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Stanford Two pieces from Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 for organ (1908)

At an excellent organ recital recently (21 February 2018) given by Tiffany Vong at the Glasgow University Memorial Chapel, three pieces stood out (for me). Firstly, there was a gorgeous ‘Sicilienne’, originally for violin and piano, by Maria Theresia von Paradis about which more in a subsequent post. Then there were two numbers from Charles Villiers Stanford’s popular Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908). The ethos of her programmes was ‘Old Wine in New Bottles.’ This was the first in a series of recitals that promised to explore a wide variety of transcriptions, reworkings and arrangements of music by other composers. The recital also included a Concerto by Johann Gottfried Walther based on Vivaldi, J.S. Bach’s Fugue on a theme of Corelli, BWV 579 and a transcription of Edward Elgar’s Prelude ‘In Memoriam’ from the cantata ‘For the Fallen.’

Tiffany Vong chose to play the Prelude No.1 on Song 34 by Orlando Gibbons and followed this with the following Postlude No.2 on Song 22.
The venerable (and oft quoted) John F. Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford, London, 1921) summed up the Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908) in one short sentence: ‘These are a further convenient little set of short organ pieces.’ Very true and succinct, but I think it needs a little more comment. This second volume was published in 1908 following the first instalment in the previous year. They are printed as alternative ‘Preludes’ and ‘Postludes’.

The first, a Prelude, is based on Orlando Gibbons’ Song 34 sometimes known as ‘The Angels’ Song’. This hymn tune is often used to set Charles Wesley’s words ‘Forth in thy name O Lord I go.’ In this attractive, restrained ‘andante tranquillo’, Stanford presents the tune in the pedal part with the manuals providing a gently contrapuntal accompaniment. It makes an ideal Evensong voluntary.
The second piece played by Tiffany Yong was a ‘Postlude’ utilising fragments of Gibbon’s Song 22. The tune often accompanies ‘Lead Us, O Father, In the Paths of Peace’ by William Henry Burleigh. This is a short, powerful voluntary. Here the composer develops these melodic fragments in both manuals and pedal which results in ‘rich polyphonic texture.’ This G major ‘allegro; ends with a strong coda,  which well displayed the instrument’s ‘full organ’ capability.

The other four pieces in Stanford’s Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 are also worthy of attention. The ‘Lento’ is (I understand) an original tune, which appears in various guises: it is, for me,  the loveliest of the set. Postlude 4, an ‘allegro moderato’, features yet another hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons (Song 24), with intricate parts on the manuals and considerable vivacity. The Trio, (No.5) is the most chromatic of these pieces and involves regular changes of manual. The final number, which is the best-known of both sets of Preludes and Postludes is a vigorous piece in 6/4 time opening in D minor.

The Glasgow University Memorial Chapel three-manual organ was originally commissioned in 1927 by Henry Willis and Sons, and was restored by Harrison and Harrison in 2005. It was a gift to Glasgow University from Joseph Paton Maclay, Lord Maclay, in memory of his two sons who were killed during the Great War.  

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) Mater Ora Filium

Arnold Bax did not compose a great deal of music for unaccompanied chorus, yet the few works he did write are invariably well produced and effective for both singers and audiences alike. A brief study of Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue reveals six works that could be classified as being for unaccompanied chorus.

The earliest of these is the present ‘Mater Ora Filium’ (Mother pray for thy Son) from 1921. The following year saw the desolate ‘This Worldes Joie’ written to a 14th century text. The short ‘carol’ entitled ‘The Boar’s Head’ was composed in 1923 for, and dedicated to, the Blackpool Festival Committee.  Out of interest, this event was won by the Warrington Male Choral Union –still going strong under a different name. The same year saw the straightforward working of ‘I sing of a maiden.’
Nearly twenty years elapsed until the 1942 settings of Five Greek Folksongs – which Bax himself regarded as being based on ‘...very quaint and rather barbaric tunes…’
Virtually the last composed work by Arnold Bax was the part-song What is it like to be young and fair?’  This was a setting of words by the composer’s brother Clifford. It was performed as part of the Garland for the Queen as an event at the Coronation Celebrations during 1953.

Bax contributed little music for use in the church: there is a Magnificat, and a Nunc Dimitis. The present work could be given happily at a Christmastide recital or a choral concert in one of our great cathedrals. This is not to suggest that Bax was anti-Christian, yet he certainly did not relate to the ritual and ceremonial of the Roman or Anglican Churches. In fact, he had had a non-conformist childhood.  It is better to suggest that Bax’s piety was found in other directions than conventional religion.  It could be that his spiritual temperament was more in tune with the Celtic Twilight as exemplified by W.B. Yeats.

Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes a personal reminiscence by Charles Kennedy Scott – ‘His [Bax’s] unaccompanied motet for double choir, ‘Mater Ora Filium’ came later when I had the satisfaction of performing it with the Oriana [Choir] at Messrs Murdoch’s concert of recent works of Arnold [Bax] at [the] Queens Hall in November 1922. I have no doubt that this and Arnold’s other motets can be associated with what Arnold heard the Oriana do at the Balfour concerts ten years earlier…’

Yet despite Kennedy Scott claiming his choir to be the stimulation for ‘Mater Ora Filium’, the immediate inspiration for this work was found at a performance by the Tudor Singers of the William Byrd’s Five Part Mass. Bax heard this work at one of Harriet Cohen’s soirees at Wyndham Place. This great liturgical setting made a huge impression on Bax; he thought it more significant than the music of J.S. Bach himself. Bax was attracted by this ‘spiritual, ornate and emotionally austere’ music.

It could be argued agued that ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is imbued with the spirit of the Elizabethan age, yet it would be unfair to suggest any kind of pastiche or archaism.  The work is a fine example of Bax’s contrapuntal technique – although use of this ‘technical’ word is in danger of giving the impression that this work has an academic nature. ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is scored for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. Even a superficial hearing reveals extremely difficult part writing that makes strong demands on the singers. There is timelessness about this setting that seems to make influences and musical allusions unnecessary. It is a truly lovely anthem of devotion to Our Lady and her Son.
Interestingly, a similarity of theme has been identified between the ‘Alleluias’ of ‘Mater Ora Filium’ and the tone poems Nympholet and November Woods.
It was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Choir conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.

There are several recordings of this motet available. Graham Parlett (Arnold Bax Website, Discography, February 2017) has listed a baker’s dozen of recordings. I recommend The Carice Singers conducted by George Parris on NAXOS 8.573695.  

With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes. 

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Some thoughts about Bruce Montgomery: Composer and Detective Novelist

It was on the P&O liner Oriana that I discovered Bruce Montgomery. In fact, it was quite a coincidence, with three strands coming together at once. Let me explain. The cruise's first ‘leg’ was the long but relaxing journey from Southampton to Barcelona. I spent most of the time eating, reading, swimming in the Riviera pool and listening to a carefully chosen play list of ‘classical’ music on my iPod. An apparently annoying habit I developed was whistling the ‘hornpipe’ as I walked round the promenade deck. But not just any ‘hornpipe’ – it was the catchy version used in that great comedy classic (at least I think so) Carry on Cruising. I could talk for hours about this film. There are so many ‘classic’ lines – 'I’ve been up to the sharp end, I‘ve been to the blunt end…'  'Italy has nothing to offer me I cannot get here (the bar!) – break out the Chianti…' etc. etc.

I had been reading an article about detective novels in general and so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries in particular. One of the texts mentioned was a book called The Moving Toyshop by a writer called Edmund Crispin. This was part of my holiday reading. And last, but not least, I included several classical music CDs in my listening plan – including a certain Concertino for String Orchestra.  It was not part of my plan to make connections – but I did. I soon realised that all three of the above indulgences were written or composed by a remarkable, if somewhat melancholic, man called Bruce Montgomery.

I imagine that relatively few folk will have heard of Bruce Montgomery, yet there will be hardly a person in the United Kingdom who is not acquainted with at least half a dozen of his film scores. I have already alluded to Carry on Cruising – add to this Constable, Nurse, Regardless, Sergeant and Teacher. I can only presume that everybody must respond to a least one of these classic excursions into British comedy. But Montgomery did not just compose music for the Carry On films: he provided scores for the equally enjoyable Doctor movies starring the redoubtable Dirk Bogarde, Leslie Phillips and James Robertson Justice.  How often do we look for the composer’s name in the credits of a film? I guess rarely.

Bruce Montgomery was born in Chesham Bois in 1921.  He had a good education both locally and at St John’s College, Oxford.  He studied modern languages and subsequently filled the vacant post of organ scholar there – the incumbent had gone off to fight Hitler.
Montgomery was inspired to write his first detective novel after reading a book by one of the mid-century doyens of that genre, John Dickson Carr.  He was motivated to write The Case of the Gilded Fly in an unbelievably short time, and it was equally speedily published by Victor Gollanz in 1944. It was the first foray of the detective/don Gervase Fen into the criminal complexities of Oxford. Fen, a professor of English Language, was to feature in most of Montgomery’s subsequent crime writings. The detective novels were all written using the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin. 
Clearly, Gervase Fen may have had a profound influence on Colin Dexter and his ‘scholarly policeman’ Inspector Endeavour Morse.

Concurrently with his writing, Montgomery was keen to follow a musical career.  His early works were small scale piano pieces or anthems.  His masterpiece, apparently, is An Oxford Requiem which was commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951.  I have not heard this work. The Times reviewer believed that this ‘is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date; it confirms the suspicion that he is a composer with something of real significance to say.’ According to contemporary reviews, a recording of this work may well be long overdue.

Bruce Montgomery was not a major ‘concert hall’ composer. He had only some twenty-four works published – most of which was choral or vocal music.  However, two key works stand out for me – the above-mentioned Concertino (a modest title) and the Overture to a Fairy Tale. In addition, there are the attractive Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby – both re-workings of film scores. But the critical thing is, that these four works would be a feather in the cap of any composer – both great and small.  They are interesting, well-wrought and full of character.

When Bruce Montgomery turned his hand to the lucrative business of film music, his compositional career really took off. In total, he provided the score for some forty odd films of greater or lesser importance. Perhaps his greatest achievement was in producing both the music and the screenplay for Raising the Wind – a comical story about music students. David Whittle in his study of the composer, tells the tale that Kenneth Williams and Leslie Phillips were coached on how to conduct Rossini’s William Tell Overture.  Furthermore, Montgomery himself had a cameo role in this film on the podium.
Alas, Montgomery had a propensity to fail to meet the strict deadlines that the film producers imposed. This came to a head when the music for Carry on Cruising had to be completed by Eric Rogers.
The years after ‘Carry on Cruising’ marked a decline in Montgomery’s health and fortunes. Poor health and alcoholism led to long stays in clinics, little work and financial insecurity. He spent the last fifteen years of his life contributing reviews to the Times, editing collections of Science Fiction stories and writing his ninth and last novel, The Glimpses of the Moon. Bruce Montgomery died on 15 September 1978.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Ashgate 2007)

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile – Coronation March.

Most listeners associate British ‘concert marches’ with composers such as Edward Elgar and his Pomp and Circumstances 1-5[6] William Walton’s two Coronation offerings, Crown Imperial and the Orb and Sceptre and Eric Coates ubiquitous The Dambusters. Another good source of marches is film music: I recently watched The Yangtse Incident starring Richard Todd which featured a splendid score by the largely forgotten composer Leighton Lucas. This must be one of the most impressive marches written: restrained and deeply moving, yet full of hope. Still on nautical matters, Alan Rawsthorne produced a fine example for the 1953 film The Cruel Sea.
North of the Border, the prolific composer Cedric Thorpe Davie wrote his stirring Royal Mile: Coronation March in 1952 in preparation for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2 June 1953. Clearly, it has not had such a high profile as Walton’s efforts and has been almost forgotten, save for a single recording.

The work was premiered at a Coronation Concert at the Dundee Caird Hall on 8 April 1953. This event also featured Eileen Joyce as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, an arrangement of Handel’s Royal Firework Music made by Hamilton Harty, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Johann Strauss II’s Tales from Vienna Woods.  Karl Rankl conducted the Scottish National Orchestra in all these works except for Thorpe Davie’s March, which was conducted by the composer.
The Dundee Courier reported that an audience of some 2700 ‘a Dundee record’ attended the concert. This large audience ‘imparted a gala atmosphere to the concert, which brought out the best from the orchestra.’ As for Thorpe Davie’s march, Royal Mile this work gave a ‘thrilling start’ to the proceedings. The work was ‘full of the spirit of pageantry and nationalistic fervour’: the work ‘under Mr Davie’s workmanlike baton, was given a sound performance.’  Interestingly, Eileen Joyce, who had recently cancelled a concert in Dundee due to illness, played the Grieg concerto ‘with unusual passionate intensity, so much so that a large portion of the audience burst into applause at the end of the first movement.’ Whether this ‘breach of orthodox musical manners’ was a good thing, the reviewer felt the it was a ‘reflection of the emotional grip achieved [by Joyce].’

Ian Lace, reviewing John Wilson and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s CD The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: Scottish Orchestral Music (MusicWeb International, February 2000) explained that ‘…Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-83) was prolific; his output included music for radio, theatre and 24 films. He is represented on this disc by his Royal Mile – Coronation March, composed in 1952 in anticipation of the celebrations of the Coronation of Elizabeth II the following year. The work inevitably has a strong Scottish character.

Colin Scott-Sutherland also reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (March 2000) wrote: ‘…it is some time since we heard the luscious music of Cedric Thorpe Davie's 'Royal Mile' march, to the strains of which the Royal party, on a coronation visit to the capital [Edinburgh] in 1952 left St Giles - and whose great central melody (the tune Molly Stewart) was, said Edward Greenfield in the Guardian like 'Walton in a kilt', a tune that brings back for me fond memories of 'The Highland Fair' at the Edinburgh Festival of that year.’
Alas I was unable to confirm this citation in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, however it is a wholly appropriate comment.  

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile – Coronation March can he heard on The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: Scottish Orchestral Music WHL 2123 This CD has been deleted, and I guess will only be available second hand. Other works on this exciting disc Iain Hamilton’s Scottish Dances, Buxton Orr’s Celtic Suite, Hamish MacCunn’s Highland Memories and his ubiquitous Land of the Mountain and the Flood, and Muir Mathieson’s lovely Suite: From the Highlands