Track 1: Twelve Little Pieces For Violin and Piano, Preambule, Parry
Hullo. This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, on British music was written and researched by Mike Burrows. You have just heard The Preambule - To Gwen (Allegro) from Sir Hubert Parry’s Dvorak-tinged collection of Twelve Short Pieces For Violin And Piano of 1894. Gwen was the younger of the forty-six years-old composer’s daughters.If calculated to please her, it must surely have succeeded! - If it is a species of portrait, its hummable, out-of-doorsish but slightly distrait melody with odd asides shows Gwen in a very appealing light.
Now for an orchestral work of some topicality, thanks to recent events in a Leicester short-stay car-park....
The Shropshire-born composer, Edward German is remembered, if at all, for the faded comedy of light operas such as Merrie England and Tom Jones, but as an ambitious young man was highly successful in the field of Art-music - symphonies, overtures and orchestral music of a freshness and complexity admired by many colleagues, including Elgar. Influenced by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and other non-Germanized continental lights, his style is one of contrasts, sombre fervency and lyrical grace, fleetness and strenuous, often sequential argument, seized-on triplets or other groupings of notes that sway backwards and forwards in the grip of drama, hushed passages and cymbal-capped points of tension. The orchestration is bold but subtle in doublings. Here is the Shakespearian Overture, Richard The Third.
The fugal part of the development was subject to one of the Wagnerist George Bernard Shaw’s sillier shafts as a music-critic for the newspapers; he affected to think that the fugal entries could have no other dramatic meaning than that numbers of little Richards were leaping up from trapdoors to chase one-another around the stage. In fact, this colourful and cogent Overture on the subject of Richard of York, brother of a king, magnate of the North, wicked usurper-uncle and last Plantagenet king, is more accomplished than the satire of German’s critic, to be seen as a character--study and curtain-raiser rather than a summary of the play.
Track 2: Overture: Richard The Third, German
Charles Wilfred Orr, born in Cheltenham, in 1893, the son of an Indian Army Captain of means, was educated until the age of fifteen at Cheltenham College, where the study of music was regarded as strictly extra-curricular. After service in the Artists’ Rifles that saw him invalided out of the army with eczema before he could be posted to France, he cast around for a career until correspondence with Delius decided him on the profession of music. He studied at the Guildhall School and seemed set on a life in London when ill-health enforced a return to Gloucestershire. He moved to Painswick, where he lived a quiet life removed from metropolitan rivalries until his death in 1976. His metier was song-writing, and every song has about it the quality of having been chosen out of personal necessity to express in musical terms the meaning found in the verses, the voice male, the piano unfolding strong but richly lyrical patterns in accompaniment and commentary. Through Delius, Orr had met Peter Warlock, and the influence of Warlock - as of Warlock’s hero, Delius - on his work is clear. Chromaticism sighs under melodies shaped sensibly to the words set. Rhythms rock gently throughout the more reflective examples, but monotony is avoided in matchless subtlety. Here’s Orr’s setting of the Rossetti sonnet, a haunting evocation of Summer in the long grass, Silent Noon. Written in 1921, it is very different from the famous, more numinous version by Vaughan Williams - soft, but not decadent, sensitive but fresh, sensuous but not cloyingly sensual. Orr scoffed that the Vaughan Williams resembled too much a voluntary: one suspects that Warlock - instrumental in getting Orr’s song published - would have loved this haut-en-bas opinion on what Vaughan Williams himself would have thought love-music and nothing to do with church! And perhaps Orr knew how to be on the right side of his friend’s satirical, anti--pastoral, anti-ecclesiastical streak.
Track 3: Silent Noon, CW Orr
Three songs in contrasting moods by Gloucestershire’s finest song-writer, now. Whilst a War-invalid in Edinburgh, Ivor Gurney, twenty-eight years old <actually twenty-seven,ed> fell in love with a nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond. For a time he dreamed that he had found a soul-mate in this well--spoken, middle-class Edinburgh girl - she was actually a little older than he was - who showed interest in his abilities, as who wouldn’t! He asked his sister to have his cap-badge gilded as a keepsake for her, and joked to a friend that Annie had money, something that he hadn’t known at first... The romance fizzled out after he was discharged and posted to the shrammingly bleak depot at Seaton Delavel, on the Northeast coast, to prepare for a return to active service. He was convinced that he wasn’t well, suffering from palpitations that he tried to steel himself against. His father was sick with cancer of the stomach, and there seems to have been a séance held at which Gurney was present and perceived the spirit of Beethoven: -was this a practical joke got up against him by mates who found him unworldly? However unmaliciously the prank might have been intended, it would have destroyed his self-image as a scholar and artist capable of mucking in with the best. What had his fellow-soldiers ever thought of him during his time with them, the men whom he had loved and those of them whom he mourned? As to the true circumstances of the seance, during which Beethoven had favoured him, no-one will ever know. (To add to the complexes arising, he came out of this strange meeting convinced that he was in telepathic communication with his father). At any rate, just as all the cares of the world and soon-return to the Front were weighing on his shoulders, Miss Drummond ended an affair whose seriousness she may not entirely have realized, although Gurney was never less than forthright in relationships, ideation or cherished hopes. Four songs were written for this cool muse. One of these, perhaps setting own words, is the beautiful, fey and verbally a little gauche Song of Silence. Nothing more sweet and poignant has ever come of a hospital crush.
Track 4: Song of Silence, Gurney
Our second song by Gurney is the irresistible Walking Song, setting words by his friend, the poet from Minsterworth, FW Harvey, in delightful, throwaway manner fixing his love of his home-county and of the wooded hills outside Cheltenham, extolling Cranham ways, rather than the City! Only the British can be so mildly riotous, and Gurney so wittily humorous? As Principal at the RCM, Parry, whose music we heard at the outset of this programme, is said to have seen Gurney the entrance-candidate’s submitted manuscripts and been reminded of the hand of Schubert; seeing Gurney for the first time, he exclaimed, “Good God, it IS Schubert!” Here’s Walking Song, by Ivor Gurney.
Track 5: Walking Song , Gurney
For our third song by Gurney, here is Dreams of The Sea (words by WH Davies). In this smouldering, passionate piece, the lad who as a boy had lived not far from the exotic bustle of Commercial Road and port of Gloucester, expresses a love that never left him. As a student in London, that lad wore habitually a reefer-jacket. All his life, he admired sea-goers, explorers, wanderers over the oceans; his poetry shows what a gift he had for capturing the sea in all its moods - it matched him passion for passion and its salt depth and power as well as sight and sound entranced him (Baudelaire at Honfleur would’ve been one with him here) as invitation to a voyage. If you have stood by the sea on a day of irresolute feeling that you projected onto the waves, you will sense every eidetic image in the intent vocal line and its various, yet mesmerizing harmonic and rhythmical piano-accompaniment.
Track 6: Dreams of The Sea, Gurney
Another graduate of the Royal College, For many years, Gustav Holst worked as music-teacher at the St Paul’s School For Girls in London, a perfect haven, this job, for a composer. Amongst his most famous works were two sets of pieces for string orchestra, the St Paul’s Suite and Brook Green Suite, for performance by his pupils. The second movement of the St Paul’s Suite, Ostinato, is highly characteristic of his technically brilliant but touchingly direct invention in these miniatures, as light as air, playful and wistful. Perhaps he had the liveliness, hopes and unwitting poetry of the young girls in his charge in mind: here, such qualities seem to be expressed in the flutter of textures, breathless harmonics and artlessness of the nursery rhyme-like melody.
Track 7: St Paul’s Suite, Ostinato, Holst
The opening flourishes - and a recurring motif of - Edward Gregson’s Symphonic Study for Brass Band, The Plantagenets owe something to the music for the wizard in Holst’s The Perfect Fool. Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Symphony may be another ghost summoned up by play made with duple and triple rhythm. Other moments later may remind of the dark chants and chomaticism of Ireland’s orchestral piece Legend. To seek to express in musical material of adequate worth something of the character of England’s and Wales’ longest-reigning Royal dynasty in a single movement is a young man’s job, and Gregson was in his twenties when he wrote The Plantagenets. A striding, all--purpose ‘swashbuckling’ theme is of its time - the 1970s - and less imposing, but soon broken up by cornet and trumpet fanfares and more lyrical strains based on ‘Holst’, slowed elements of the theme and ‘Ireland’. The Holst flourish brings in a Waltonian fugato - reaching the gallop! - and the reprise. The close is curt, the bold bass-drum beats peremptory. This composer has rightly made a name for himself as a gifted and effective writer of brass-band music.
Track 8: The Plantagenets, Gregson.
To end our quodlibet, a work from the close of Sir Edward German’s composing life: written for the Royal Academy of Music’s centenary in 1922 - the year in which Ivor Gurney was certified and removed to a mental hospital - the Tone-picture for Orchestra, The Willow Song is a kind of developing fantasia on the old traditional song “A Poor Soul Sat Sighing’. It represents something of a reaction against German’s ‘popular manner’, while retaining to the full his skills in orchestration, with varied use of woodwind and strings, including harp, and strong but controlled use of brass. The falling fifth contained in the tune’s opening phrase becomes like a fate-motif. The overall sound is recognizably German’s in the combination of instruments from different sections, particularly from strings and woodwind, and a sighing or soothing quality distantly Tchaikovskian but now more reminiscent of Elgar. The Willow-song occurs in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello - Desdemona, the slandered young wife of the jealous moor sings it artlessly in her chamber shortly before he confronts and strangles her for her supposed infidelity. As the fantasia dies away into a time more remote than Tchaikovsky or German’s hey-day, one wonders if this beautiful miniature is an obvious celebratory tribute to the college that he had attended as a young student. Its muted colours, intense atmosphere of grief and scarcely sublimated hurt are representative of a composer at the height of his powers, one who has won through to real vision and constructive skill, building on the objective donnée of a folk-song by an unknown author... No bitterness, just hurt. “To tell the truth, I’m afraid to write anymore, they would only laugh at me...” “I die a disappointed man because my serious works have not been recognised...”
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Our programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you liked it and will join us again.
Track Nine: The Willow Song, German