CB 85 Autumn
Track One: Signature tune: Nielsen: The Mist Is Lifting
Hullo, this is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. You have just heard the Danish Composer, Carl Nielsen’s short piece, scored for flute and harp, The Mist Is Lifting, from his incidental music to The Mother. Autumn and remembrance in music are the theme of this programme, and this wistful little piece appears to distil both remembrance, farawayness and fresh air in which remembrance seems most poignant. To me, it is an honorary Song of Autumn.
For us, inescapably, Autumn is a time to remember; not only because of the dead of the world’s never-ending wars, but because after harvest-time, we know what earth has contributed: decay settles over where our cereal, fruit and vegetable-crops, forage for life-stock and manure for fertiliser were gained: all around us, its reeks add to mists and valley-covering morning fogs, and the smoke of bonfires, though wayside fruits glisten brightly or are scattered about nut-trees.
Nature itself prepares for hard times about us; in reeling down leaves, its wildlife prepares for privation or hibernation where emigration has begun, on the land we have parcelled out, and on the unused land between boundaries. Already, we prepare for next year’s yields. If there are expectations of John Barleycorn’s and the orchards’ cheer, the farm-crops are vital as food; dairy-products and meat come of the soil, too. We have much for which to be thankful.
A time of cool winds, grey skies and undispersing wood-smoke, or of brisk, crisp, frosty air and royal colours; in all weathers, Autumn is a time of spooks, and not only of spooks in khaki. The countryside and everything and everyone in it are instinct with all who ever lived and died here. Those wayside fruits? Sloes, blackberries, crab-apples and elder-berries and beech- and hazel-nuts used to be poor man’s treats or the perquisites of WI Hedgerow Industries, Limited. In the home of a jam-,pickle- or wine-maker - there is a conserve or cordial glow to this time of laying in home-made food.
Gathering fruit in a wet, windy wooded lane or Crickley quarry has a peculiar Autumnal brilliancy about it. Afterwards. Autumn is generally regarded as a wild season for weather, the baring or evergreen trees still or tossed passively by a collision between temperatures and as if by the restlessness of conscious life.
Hallowe’en, All Saints, All-Souls, Bonfire Night, are a progression that is ticked off by those who await Advent and Christmas, not all of whom are children.
Elgar’s Piano Quintet is a late work, one of three chamber pieces begun towards the close of the Great War.
Having retreated from the world, he was living with his wife in a small cottage, Brinkwells, in Sussex, not far from Petworth. It was a time for the burning of the leaves for him: he spent hours wandering in the woods, learning carpentry and making bonfires, and improvizing and composing the only chamber music that he would publish, a Violin Sonata, a String Quartet and Piano Quintet, and, at the same time, his Cello Concerto: over all these works there is a deepening sense of unease, sadness and sensations too vivid to be borne. The spirit of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, and the chamber-music of Schumann and Brahms. His Wife, to whom he was devoted, was beginning to ail; he felt that he no longer shared his work with an interested public, and he looked to the future without any of the hopes of peace that many were beginning to feel. In the slow movement, the great Adagio, of the Piano Quintet, he found a reply to despair. It seems steeped in the season. In inspired apparent improvization amid controlled organic development; the piano decorates certainty and haunting moments in the strings, underlines or swells the melodic matter with rich expressiveness.
Track One: Elgar: Piano Quintet, Adagio.
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. Today’s programme is based round music and poetry of Autumn and Remembrance.
Autumn Scene, by Jack Brown, captures something of the air of Autumn, to me. Perhaps it is that it is music that was closer to the culture of my childhood than the Eighties would be to kids of today. Really, it is made by the simple arpeggios in woodwind from the opening and held notes in the strings, followed by the simple chords held against arpeggios, which form languorous harmonic sequences similar to those found in a composer like Delius, the flute-capped instrumentation providing what contrasts there are, the violins given the affecting moments; it reminds me of boating on the Avon in Bath, the slow onward movement on the currents revealing now and then some new deep tint and shade in the cold water and the trees’ overarching traceries of turning and falling leaves and ripened fruit. Autumn is a time for leisure, one may think, watching the unrowed progress of a fallen leaf.
Track Two: Jack Brown, Autumn Scene
Now, one of Tchaikovsky’s Twelve ‘Seasons’, a group of piano-pieces written to a commission from the St Petersburg journal Nuvellist, for publication month by month in the journal’s pages. To each of the pieces he gave an epigraph, that for the eighth being from Tolstoy: “The fall, falling on our poor orchard, the yellow leaves flying in the wind.” Its pensiveness is the stillness of contemplation - the orchard is seen from the window. Always intensely gregarious or as intensely misanthropic - as he himself put it - Tchaikovsky loved to escape Moscow to live the dacha-country-life while working, but isolation, the low chances of visitors who were pleasant company, perhaps, lend this music the truth of a well-understood loneliness. The style of interplay between right and left hand, canons, imitations and appogiatura, cause it to be akin to the outer sections of a Chopin Nocturne. Its mood remains not so much lighter as less untreatable with life. There is no middle section in terms of fresh contrast, but the long melody gives the illusion of it before a second statement and dying fall.
Track Three: October - Autumn Song, Number 10 0f Tchaikovsky’s Seasons.
A work for male voices, brass and percussion, Gustav Holst’s setting of the American poet Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem was written in 1914. Holst, a lifelong socialist and pacifist, had none of the pro-War hysteria of the British Establishment and people. Swedish by descent, and born and brought up in Cheltenham, his family name was von Holst; he was belatedly forced to drop the ‘von’!
In this work, he foresaw the breaking of hearts by the unremitting energy and stoicism that a long industrial War demands of the humans who work machines of death and destruction. A slow march, Dirge prefigures the music of Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age, and seems as if shattered by the turmoil and brutal cruelty of Mars, The Bringer of War. Beginning with voices only, trumpets hector, trombones - Holst’s own instrument - plod on more or less in harmony, hushed or loud as the text is followed; at times, the trombones are uppermost in dynamics, at others, just there in dryness, until silenced for a few bars shortly before the close as deepest feeling is disclosed; when they pick up again, as if the procession had been halted for a second by some casual, unforeseen obstacle, it is to die away quickly in the distance. It is a ghastly vision of a march such as fresh formations saw on roads behind the reserve trenches as old hands on rest came away. Holst was forty at the outbreak of War, and was old enough to see no armed service - though his friend Vaughan Williams, two years older, served as an ambulance-man, then an artillery officer. Eventually he found himself far from home organizing YM CA concerts for the troops in Salonika. The poem instances the funeral of two soldiers, a father and son killed in the same attack; the poet watches the passing of the procession to the new-made grave; the sabbath sun completed, the moon rises. The dead veterans have the dignified circumstance of their military funeral and the moon, the poet, the sight and sound of it all, and their heroism. It should be noted that the moon is traditionally a symbol of madness and object of hopeless wishes. The father and son killed together is proof of faith and national unity, or a prodigy affording the nation a symbol of national disaster. Is there a future where father and son die side-by-side in the same slaughter? Is it only defiance of humanity’s self-generated fate?
Track Four: Holst: A Dirge For Two Veterans
The Gloustershire poet-composer, Ivor Gurney, Ivor Beegy as he called himself to close friends, should be remembered. He returned from the Great War on a half-pension because though disturbed and suffering from possible shellshock in addition to the effects of gassing, he had had a spell of neurasthenia whilst a student, before serving for a year on the Western Front. That they had taken him on as a Private in spite of this and that he had exhibited no signs of strain on active service could be of no account. That he survived service may have been down to having a sympathetic officer: in one of his many poems about his War, he described how after seeing a favourite NCO mown down on a night-attack, he refused an order to advance under fire:
“But I weak, hungry, and willingOf line - to fight in the line,
only for the chance
only for the chance
laydown under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes
and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice, a finicking
"Do you think you could crawl
through there: there’s a hole.”
Darkness shot-at: I smiled, as
"I’m afraid not, sir.” There was no
hole no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death,
after tearing of clothes.”
His skin was more important to him than his uniform, but his uniform was up there, very likely with tea and tobacco.
His life after service was erratic but productive of poetry and music that took until long after his death in an asylum to collate, edit and publish. Most of his music remains unpublished and unplayed. For now, his songs are his chief glory.
October the Twenty-first is the anniversary of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, another Autumn celebration. Gurney’s The Night of Trafalgar is a pre-War ballad, a setting of a poem from Hardy’s Dynasts.
Gurney longed for popularity in a time when good and sometimes bad Art-songs sold well to amateurs as well as professionals in this country. Of course, it was not to be, though this strophic song has enough echoes of Stanford’s Drake’s Drum, amid its general Gurneyesque of melodic and harmonic vagaries, to seem a good try. Inspired by Stanford? A man who had grown up in Gloucester of the Eighteen Nineties and turn of the last century felt that he had the sea in his blood, and as a youngster, Gurney had turned up at the RCM in his blue reefer jacket and often wished to go to sea.
Track Five: Gurney: The Night of Trafalgar
November The Fifth, Firework Night, Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night to those who think it a good old traditional British custom to celebrate a King’s survival by burning a Catholic who has already been hanged, drawn and quartered - perhaps it is.In this country, Handel’s Music For The Royal Fireworks has always been popular, witness the large range of long-playing records once issued with the Water Music on one side and Fireworks Music on the other. A very responsible custom that; so long as Side B remained dry, we could have fun. It was all rather like British fireworks on a British November evening, in fact.The Music for The Royal Fireworks was written for our second Hanoverian Monarch, George The Second, a military man, he had very little time for music or professional musicians. Reputedly, he disliked violins and stringed instruments as a race. For him, brass, woodwind and percussion were music. The Royal Fireworks takes the form of a French Suite scored for a band that was found acceptable to His Majesty, heavy on brass and percussion, light on the strings.
Here is the brisk and brassy La Rejouissance.
Track Six: Handel: Music For The Royal Fireworks
Gerald Finzi (1901-56) was a minor composer who never wrote a less than considered or less than considerable note.
His music came from deep within him, and projects might take him years of quietness puntuated by flashes of inspiration to complete. This does not explain why he was known as Frenzy to his friends. He was perennially aware of lost time, his childhood and early youth having been punctuated by family tragedies and the Great War, in which his most admired teacher, Ernest Farrar, was killed and the artist whom he later idolized, Ivor Gurney, was maimed. in mind.
Finzi waited as his songs ripened: the piano-part was secondary, the scansion of the poem that he set most important; words were set syllable by syllable with at all times a natural stress, the tune arising having to be grateful to sing.
That he could do this to Hardy’s at the same time dense and loose-woven poetry is a wonder in itself. As it was, the concrete details and crack-jaw abstractedness in this verse, not to mention the thorough use of dislocated rhythm or enjambment never defeated him. What results isn’t modern, but it is new when you first hear it, and each time you listen, you find it remains, if not new, then still beautiful - and pure Hardy and Finzi.
From the Hardy Cycle, A Young Man’s Exhortation, a cycle that follows an idealist from youth to his lying peacefully in the grave under the yellowing trees, here is the sixth of ten songs, Shortening Days. The first fire since the Summer is lighted.
Track Seven: Finzi, From A Young Man’s Exhortation, Shortening Days
The air of the English Autumn is nowhere better described in music than in Finzi’s orchestral piece, The Fall of The Leaf, the full-score of which was left incomplete at his death, having been begun decades earlier. Recast more than once, it had been envisaged as a movement in a Symphony. It is of that order but in some way programmatic in sound: from the tremulous opening, in which flute - hollowly cold - and oboe warm as if more from the heart, it seems that The Fall of The Leaf is a fine title. The brassy climaxes, of which there are two, with surging strings are of life or the chill wind in which man’s mortality is felt so keenly and so often in the course of one’s years. The scoring is magnificent in its use of the tone-colours of flute and oboe in particular, consolatory, together, almost speaking as well as singing; the hesitant strings are yet passionate - the violins given brief chances for lyricism; in certain hollowed-out moments – heavy pizzicati in the lower strings, brief figures in high and then low woodwind and swelling, warning sounds from the horns, out of which comes violin-protest that is dashed by momentary metal percussion and downward scales, there are hints of the style of another composer, Sir Arthur Bliss, who was a friend and Finzi’s opposite in general temperament and personal confidence, an out-going, much-commissioned composer of large-scale works.
There is much use of brittle, clashing harmony, grinding appogiaturas as well as tiny motifs like birdcalls and with little support. The dissonance of the two climaxes is mastered by unisons as inflexible as the discords under them, and if the underlying song shape is regathered after the first, after the second, flute and oboe are reunited in a new theme and orchestral dying fall - the music of the very opening returning on low woodwind, clarinet and bassoon.
Let’s end with Finzi’s Orchestral Elegy, The Fall of The Leaf.
This was Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. I hope you enjoyed this programme and I’ll have your company again, soon.
Track Eight: Finzi: The Fall of The Leaf, Elegy for Orchestra