A Repeat from 2011: Autumn 2
This is Classical Break, on SomerValley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s script was researched andwritten by Mike Burrows, and our subject is Autumn in music.
Let’s begin with the folksong, John Barleycorn, an encapsulation of the agrarian farm-year and a link with fertility rites of the past. John Barleycorn is the soul of ale. The brewing of ales and wines is no longer, if ever it was, an activity confined to Autumn, but my dad didn’t know that. For the labourer, barley was for bread as well as for beer, but good ale took one pleasantly beyond a full stomach. Often, water was added after brewing to ensure that it didn’t take anyone too far - small beer felled no-one.
Track One: John Barley-corn, trad
The song, Høstkvall - Autumn Evening - by Jean Sibelius, invokes falling night and the entrancing unrest of coastal Autumn as felt by the traveller. It is thrilled by the powerful grimness of Autumnal images: sunset, the screams of gulls and birds of prey, rain, forest and surging wind and sea, screams of pain heard in the forest, gathering darkness. The poem ends in the question, Does our traveller’s soul feel in harmony with the song raised by starless night? Does grief die like a soft note beneath Autumn’s mighty threnody? The orchestration by the composer lacks a part for flute, or indeed any instrument that would detract from a glowing sombreness of sound that favours deep--toned bassoon, trombones, tuba and double--basses; and utilizes oboe and clarinet and higher strings as additional inhuman voices. A feature of the percussion section is the dry rattle of side-drum - rain, or the sea on shingle? The very key of the music is dark and rich - D-Flat Minor. This dramatic scena dates from 1904, coming between the heroic Second Symphony and ‘classical’ Third. Its style is quintessential Sibelius, not Wagner, a massive, lyrical climax building from motifs but suggesting vast dimensions beyond mere duration, an absolute, tragic force of suffering and dignity, opening with what sounds like a cry of anguish. Knife-edge suspensions resolved with the slowness of the cries of birds or the conflicting power of hypersensitive hysteria and stoicism recurred ever more strongly in the Finn’s imagistic music, long pedal notes an earth-deep foundation to whatever takes place above them. The beauty is uncanny, the after-echoes are strange but right. On another occasion, Sibelius wrote of learning assiduously from the cries of migrating cranes. Autumn Evening is sung here by Kirsten Flagstad, accompanied by the L-SO, conducted by Øivin Fjelstad.
Track Two: Høstkvall, Sibelius
Autumn is a time for reflection; every harvest has its aftermath and tares, and the leaves fly like so many billets or lost souls. Here is a song by Benjamin Britten, a setting of Paul Verlaine - Chanson D’Automne - for tenor and small orchestra. It was written as the concluding number of a cycle of four by a fourteen year-old who had just begun to study music-composition with that modernist and majority of one, Frank Bridge. The cycle was edited by Colin Matthews, the composer entrusted with the task of preparing a number of Britten’s juvenilia for posthumous publication. A French, specifically Debussyan quality to the harmony - and spare but not austere scoring - and moreover the elegance of the word-setting, owe much to Bridge’s exacting standards, but impress more with every hearing as the achievement of a young boy. The pre-echoes of the Serenade For Tenor, Horn and Strings, are as striking as the influence of Debussy - or Chausson - and of a highly-regarded teacher. This warmly romantic piece on the fall of the leaf, a French Melodie in all but name, had to wait eighty years for performance.
Track Three: Chanson D’Autonne, Britten
Now, one of Finzi’s Five Bagatelles, for clarinet and piano. Opus Twenty--three: Forlana. The forlana is a Sixteenth Century dance-form in triple or compound-duple time, characterized by dotted rhythms, and this one strolls with a certain dry wistfulness.
Track Four: Forlana, Finzi
Hallowe’en, a night of witches, ghoulies, ghosties and things that go bump in the night: we once had more cause to fear this than now that it is a commercial fancy-dress function and opportunity for flat tricks and sticky treats. Hallowe’en has outlasted plagues, broken hearts, magic and superstition, gibbets, witch-burnings and inaccessible places of suicide and murder - the burial of sacrifices to consecrate graveyards, or pinning-down of dead evil under the cross-roads.
Robert Burns’ satirical poem, Tam O’Shanter tells of a drunken man forced to flee witches in the dead of night - he escapes over a stream, but his mare loses her tail. A humorous overture by Sir Malcolm Arnold portrays the story in delightful orchestral detail and considerable dour Scotch-snappiness. Arnold, whose career began as a trumpeter in the LSO, brought the impishness of his comic film-scores into the concert-hall. Tipsy flute and strings and then low woodwind invoke bagpipes-music, the brass threatening, a passage of some eeriness on tremolo strings as woodwind startledly rub their eyes. A tam-tam clash - and reprise of the opening theme leads to another clash, an upward scale on the brass...: yes, it is a witches’ sabbath taking place in the churchyard, during which the drunken trombone has plenty of opportunity to make a fool of itself with the witches - one attracts Tam, her cutty-sark being too small for her... The pursuit is as unclear and calls for intermittent piccolo and a whip as well as the mixture as before - much marking time on the surface - an effect like running in a nightmare - a series of typical upward-scale brass crescendos and reprise of bagpipes dissonant with brass snarls, a bell, string ostinati, the irrepressible piccolo all stirred in before the farce ends in brief hymn-like sounds on flute and clarinet, the melting away of the causes of panic and a pay-off chord. Trick or treat? You decide.
Track Five: Tam O Shanter, Arnold
On Bonfire Night we see - if we choose - the momentary rushes, spurtles and reports of fireworks - rockets, air-bombs, catherine wheels, roman candles, fountains, bangers, crackers against the slow-motion real Autumn pyrotechnics of billions of light-years of universe. In continuity, good and evil remain real on our planet, but politics seem flippant in the life of the universe. The guy sags silhouetted in flames of a religious fire lit centuries ago. There are actually still those who, for a sense of their Englishness, depend on this barbaric tradition of burning in effigy a failed Seventeenth Century terrorist - if that was what the original Guy, Guido Fawkes, was. For the rest of us, sculptures of light that fade to after-image in the cold sky, and the thick reek of gunpowder have nothing to do with celebration of religious persecution, a weak king and scotched Plot, if we can help it.
Debussy’s Preludes, Book Two, contain music of the utmost refinement under adventurously poetic titles. Like most other serious musicians, he distanced himself from the provision of onamatopeia alone; music was always a matter more of feeling than of painting. All the same, in the mysterious resonance of lulls in the bass and sudden, florid bursts and flourishes in the treble, a similitude between music and intensities of light on a dark sky defies absolute music, that is, music written without a programme or the intention of bringing images to mind. The point is that the resources of music are handled with exquisitely fluent harmonic and pianistic skill and taste. Feux D’Artifice, Fireworks.
Track Six: Feux D’Artifice, Debussy
As a contrast in treatment of the falling of leaves, let’s hear a piece by the Belgian harpist, Alphonse Hasselmans (1845-1912), Feuilles D’Automne. This modest, expressive little work has an almost balletic quality in the gentle hispanified style so popular in the second half of the 19th Century.
Track Seven: Feuilles D’Automne, Hasselmans
If only Autumn were simply a matter of gathering or of sweeping away. It is the time for another kind of reckoning as it passes in mists, rain and bonfires and first frosts. It is a time of ghosts in the leaf-strewn shadows, Halloween, All Hallows and All Souls. Autumn brings, too, remembrance of those on all sides killed in War since 1914. Every November, the poppies of Summer bedew the many cold monuments that were dedicated to them long ago with the dark red of blood-sacrifice, a peculiar image of peace. Once, sacrifices to deities of fertility thanked and propitiated the earth before crops were again planted, and Rome communed with the spirits of dead warriors by pouring blood into a trench.
Cyril Rootham (1875-1938), a well-regarded academic musician and composer, is now famous, if at all, for being first to set the Great War poem, For The Fallen, by Laurence Binyon. As he was writing his work, Elgar was drawn by the poet’s friends into setting what have become immortal verses. Elgar hesitated, knowing that if he did so, it would squash Rootham’s best efforts, but permitted himself to be persuaded to go ahead. His version is overwhelming, a miniature cantata in itself within the cycle, Spirit Of England, and as he feared, it did outdo Rootham, whose version fell by the wayside. However, Rootham is not to be despised; his lesser conception of what is in the words still achieves all that one looks for in a setting: a sombre, forceful orchestral accompaniment, a sonorous choir, no vocal soloists; smouldering Vaughan Williams-style chant and fanfaring from the brass, like the strings almost a choir in their own right; some imaginative detailing in the woodwind, and percussion including a snare-drum to go with fife-noises: plus something less looked-for, a sudden eruption of songs - including the Garryowen - that had been popular in the BEF on the outbreak of war, which last occurs during the second section of a tripartite structure. Here is this second section of Rootham’s For The Fallen: They Went With Songs To The Battle.
Track Eight: For The Fallen, They Went With Songs, Rootham
Something slightly less daunting in prospect than going off to war is to be young and starting the school-year, or, to be less partisan - to be older and a teacher who feels personal responsibility for the welfare and education of the eternal foe. For those on both sides who have not already fallen during the Autumn campaign, we programme a school song. It was written by Richard Adinsell (1904-1977) for the fictitious Brookfield School for Boys, and the 1930s film adaptation of James Hilton’s idealistic bestseller Goodbye Mister Chips, which starred Robert Donat and Greer Garson. An institution that passed most schools by but that still afflicts some in the private sector, the school song, usually composed by Old Boys, is given its apotheosis complete with effulgent orchestration in addition to choir. Unmediated by modish cynicism, it may just work on the hardened child as on the nostalgic adult... As for Mister Chipping - the teacher who learned to be lovable and teach from experience and by example, in defiance of the exam-standards of snobs - may now be too exotic a figure to be believed in...
Track Nine: School Song from Goodbye Mister Chips, Richard Adinsell
Lastly, a piece for piano, by an amateur who wishes to remain anonymous. It wasn’t me, sir,it was Mike Burrows... Some apologies have to be made for the sound-quality, as it was recorded in the performer’s front room and with a dictaphone. It is called Leckhampton after the hill just outside Cheltenham, and is intended to evoke a brisk walk with brisk thoughts on a bright Autumn afternoon, in leafmeal-scented air, to stand by the famous rock-formation The Devil’s Chimney and look out on his home-town. Autumn is a time for home and deep feelings for all that is and all that has passed - all we have gathered against Winter. Leckhampton was made up as it was played and as the mood took ten fingers. It was considered for as long as it took to play. There is some of the appearance of a fugue, but Mike has no classical training; his piece has spontaneity, love of Autumn, the Cotswolds and music.
Everyone has moments like this; everyone has a harvest each year, everyone drinks Autumn air as though it were new wine or beer, stands on the sea-shore at some stormy time as it grows dark and there is darkness within as black as any stormy night. Everyone watches falling leaves with a sense of transience and mortality. Everyone has ghosts that people the mist out of the corner of an eye; there are always witches and terrorists (perhaps politicians see these most clearly, but are happy to apprise us of their presence).
One goes to school to believe one’s teachers, even go to war as well as live long and at peace. There are intimations ripe for music. Thing is, to act on them!
This was Classical Break on Somer Vallwy FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. We hope you have enjoyed our Autumn miscellany, researched and written by Mike Burrows, and will join us again, soon.
Track Ten: Leckhampton, Mike Burrows