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Hyperion Records

CDA67250 - Bantock: Thalaba the Destroyer & other orchestral works
A View of the Nile above Aswan by Edward Lear (1812-1888)
Sotheby’s Picture Library

Recording details: February 2001
Walthamstow Assembly Halls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 2001
DISCID: EC120011
Total duration: 75 minutes 39 seconds


'Another exemplary addition to Handley's absorbing Bantock series … Hearty thanks to all involved in this enterprising labour of love' (Gramophone)

'The heady soundscapes and chromatic opulence all make for a good wallow … gorgeous from start to finish' (The Guardian)

'His orchestration is fabulously colourful, his melodies strong and memorable, and his sense of drama would make Hollywood composers envious … Caristiona is hauntingly beautiful, Omar Khayyam is full of exotic allure (with real camel bells), and Thalaba may be hokum, but of the best quality. Stunning performances' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Another fine addition to the Bantock discography' (Fanfare, USA)

Thalaba the Destroyer & other orchestral works

Hyperion's mini-series of Granville Bantock's orchestral music has won innumerable plaudits from press and public alike since the 'Hebridean' and 'Celtic' symphonies appeared on CDA66450 in 1991. This fifth CD will add weight to the growing feeling that the rich and romantic music of this composer should be heard more often than it is. All six of the pieces on this disc are first recordings. The major work is 'Thalaba the Destroyer', based on a poem by Victorian Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. This is the work's first performance since 1901—and only its fourth performance ever.

As before, all six works are dashingly conducted by Vernon Handley and resplendently recorded by Tony Faulkner.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
No matter how brilliant they were, in the early 1890s how did a newly graduated composition student from London’s Royal Academy of Music keep body and soul together while trying to develop a career in music? This was a problem that faced composers as varied as the impecunious Elgar, the son of a music shop keeper, and Holbrooke, the son of a music hall artist. Elgar – who did not attend any music college – did it by teaching violin and by relying on his wife’s investments until, in his mid-forties, he had achieved musical recognition. In Holbrooke’s case it was by playing the piano in venues that varied from music hall to Queen’s Hall, and, one must add, on occasions not eating.

Granville Bantock was the son of a distinguished surgeon and gynaecologist. As with many other young composers from nineteenth-century middle-class families his parents opposed his attempts to become a musician and, to satisfy his father, Bantock started to study for a secure middle-class profession, in his case successively chemical engineering and the Indian Civil Service, but at the age of twenty-one he became a student at the Royal Academy of Music, and was soon awarded the Macfarren Scholarship for composition.

Bantock’s student output was enormous and overwhelmingly ambitious. His energy and persistence achieved student performances of orchestral works from the first, his overture The Fire Worshippers being played in an Academy concert in December 1890, and later given by August Manns at Crystal Palace in November 1893. Various works were played at RAM concerts including a Suite de ballet and Wulstan, a scena for baritone and orchestra. In July 1892 he enjoyed a concert entirely of his own music ending with his opera Caedmar, the opera later appearing twice at the Olympic Theatre and also in a concert performance at Crystal Palace.

Bantock also achieved publication from an early date, one suspects with parental financial support, as not only piano pieces and songs but extended works such as his Symphonic Overture Saul (published in 1894), The Fire Worshippers (1892), the operas Caedmar (1892) and The Pearl of Iran (1894), and the ballet suite Rameses II (1894) were published by the likes of Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig.

For all his wealthy family, Bantock faced an uphill task on leaving the Academy, when, not being equipped to make a living as an instrumentalist or a virtuoso, he faced establishing a musical career. In his case the solution lay in conducting musical comedies, culminating in the offer of a conducting appointment with one of the celebrated George Edwardes companies on a world tour, with Sydney Jones’s A Gaiety Girl as the star show. Not only did this provide paid work, for a trip Bantock himself later calculated to have lasted 431 days, and a wealth of practical music-making and experience, it also allowed him to see the world at an impressionable age. But back in England on 5 December 1895, work was still hard to find, and Bantock continued conducting light music and theatre shows including a provincial tour of Stanford’s Irish comic opera Shamus O’Brien.

Despairing of ever making an impact with his music, Bantock promoted an orchestral concert at Queen’s Hall on 15 December 1896, including music by five of his contemporaries at the RAM – William Wallace, Arthur Hinton, Stanley Hawley, Reginald Steggall and Erskine Allon. Of these only William Wallace is remembered at all today. The concert included three of Bantock’s recent works including the first performance of The Funeral, from The Curse of Kehama. Bantock prefaced the programme with a strongly worded manifesto, and while he was not rewarded with a good house, he stimulated a large critical coverage which went a long way towards putting him on the musical map.

Eventually Bantock obtained an appointment as Musical Director of the Tower Orchestra, New Brighton, then a fashionable resort across the Mersey from Liverpool. In terms of census statistics, in the 1890s Liverpool was Britain’s most active musical city after London. Like Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth, Bantock soon expanded his modest resort orchestra and its repertoire, and made New Brighton a noted centre for the new music and British music in particular.

Bantock was married in 1898 to Helena von Schweizer, and the newly-weds had Edward and Alice Elgar (not yet Sir and Lady) to stay in the summer of 1899, for Elgar to conduct a very early performance of the ‘Enigma’ Variations on 16 July. But in the ’nineties perhaps Bantock’s principal enthusiasm was for Tchaikovsky as can be seen from his first orchestral tone poem Thalaba the Destroyer which, in fact, is dated the day after Elgar’s performance, so he may well have been shown the score.

Bantock still did not have a regular source of income and it was as a teacher and educationalist that he was soon to make his living, when his reputation at New Brighton coupled with Elgar’s recommendation led to his appointment as Principal of the Midland School of Music in Birmingham in 1900. In 1907 Bantock succeeded Elgar as Peyton Professor of Music in the University of Birmingham, and went on to hold the appointment for 27 years. Bantock was noted for his liberal views, and is reputed to have been the first British academic to have attended a faculty meeting dressed in corduroys! Later he became associated with Trinity College of Music in London, and in the 1930s he undertook several world examination tours, incidentally also conducting his own music along the way. He was knighted in 1930.

Bantock evolved his mature style at the turn of the century, and his most successful music was largely written in the first decade of the twentieth century. He became established as a leading name by a succession of large-scale orchestral, and choral and orchestral scores on exotic subjects, such as the song-cycle Sappho, tone poems including The Witch of Atlas, Fifine at the Fair and The Pierrot of the Minute, all crowned by his enormous setting of the whole of Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyám, running just under three hours. Later there came other big choral works including his two-and-a-half-hour setting of The Song of Songs and orchestral music such as the Hebridean and Pagan symphonies. He wrote to the end, though latterly in an idiom then regarded by commentators as increasingly out of date. But viewed from over fifty years later, this is no longer a bar to the proper appreciation of Bantock.

Processional is the earliest music by Bantock yet to have been revived during the recent re-examination of his music. Possibly dating from 1893, it really constitutes Bantock launching himself on his first large-scale project – a cycle of 24 poems (described on the printed piano score of the first part as ‘Eine Symphonie in 24 Abtheilungen’) founded on Robert Southey’s poetic epic The Curse of Kehama set in a mythological Indian setting, and first published in 1810. Southey, the least known of the Lake Poets, wrote the first biography of Nelson and became Poet Laureate in 1813.

Bantock’s music was first published in piano score by Breitkopf & Härtel in August 1894 under the title The Funeral, and this title gives us the clue to Bantock’s programme from the first part of Southey’s epic poetic cycle. Bantock is reputed to have completed fourteen of Southey’s twenty-four scenes, but only a quarter of his cycle seems to survive, and only two movements, this and the fourteenth, Jaga-Naut, later reappeared and were revised and published in 1912 as Two Orchestral Scenes. After it was first performed in Bantock’s orchestral concert at Queen’s Hall on 15 December 1896, it was heard again by the Worcestershire Philharmonic in May 1900, conducted by none other than Elgar, who was in the middle of writing Gerontius! The two were played together in their un-revised version by Halford in Birmingham in 1902 and by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth in March 1903, Godfrey later giving the revised version of The Funeral – now called Processional – in March 1912, soon after it was published by Breitkopf.

In this work Bantock makes one of his first of many evocations of the east, here an Indian setting where he evokes the torchlight procession of the body of Arvalan, the Rajah Kehama’s son, replete (in Southey’s words) with ‘horn, and trump, and tambour; / Incessant as the roar / Of streams which down the wintry mountain pour’. Bantock asks for a large orchestra and has his violins divided into three sections rather than the usual two.

After the massive, forcefully insistent music of the march, a contrasted melody represents the wives and followers of the deceased who are forced to commit suttee and be burned alive with the corpse:

At once on every side
the circling torches drop
At once of every side
the fragrant oil is pour’d
At once on every side
the rapid flames rush up.
Then hand in hand the victim band
Roll in the dance around the funeral pyre;
… The tambours and trumpets sound;
And clap of hand, and shouts, and cries,
From all the multitude arise
… Till one by one whirl’d in they fall
And the devouring flames have swallow’d all.

Bantock sets it all – as does Southey – as a colourful and exotic spectacle, vividly evoked, but without any thought for the ultimate horror of the scene.

Bantock wrote a sequence of six orchestral tone poems, first produced at the turn of the century and revised some ten years later. The first of these is Thalaba the Destroyer, the only one not to have been reworked by its composer. Its revival here is at the particular instigation of our conductor Vernon Handley, using performing materials specially prepared by Rodney Newton.

Again it is after a long narrative poem by Southey, the manuscript dated 17 July 1899. Thalaba the Destroyer reflects Bantock’s then enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky, who provided him with an expressive language to tell an exotic tale. While at New Brighton, Bantock developed a special interest in Tchaikovsky, and gave several all-Tchaikovsky programmes. The avid public response to Tchaikovsky in general and to the Pathétique Symphony in particular in the 1890s meant that anything with a Russian flavour was likely to find a following. Bantock first conducted the Pathétique on 17 June 1898 and on 11 September that year gave an all-Tchaikovsky concert at which the symphony was repeated. Later in May 1899 he performed the Fourth and on 6 August 1899 he repeated the Pathétique and also included Francesca da Rimini. He carried on programming Tchaikovsky until his last concert at New Brighton on 26 August 1900 which consisted of Hamlet, 1812 and the B flat minor Piano Concerto with Holbrooke as soloist.

Thalaba’s first performance seems to have been at Queen’s Hall during that year’s London Music Festival on 4 May 1900, conducted by Henry Wood. It is billed as the ‘first London performance’ but an earlier one has not been traced. Bantock included it in a programme of British music that he conducted at Antwerp on 27 February 1901 (‘Thalaba le destructeur’) and conducted it again at Liverpool on 8 March 1902.

Bantock prefaced the score with a very long and very detailed programme which the music follows closely. At various points he also writes verses from Southey’s poem to remind us where we are. Southey’s poem derives from Arabic sources and tells of a quest in which the hero, in an exotic and fantastic setting, overcomes all maner of obstacles and challenges. It was first published in 1801. The following is a very abbreviated summary.

Thalaba is the sole survivor of his family and thus has the duty of avenging his father, Hodeirah, who has been killed by the demon Okba. The music opens with brooding trombones and tuba evoking the powers of evil. In the score Bantock quotes from Southey:

In the Domdaniel caverns,
Under the Roots of the Ocean,
Met the masters of the Spell

Already however, we hear motifs which will become the first and second subjects proper – representing his childhood love Oneiza (pizzicato lower strings) and Thalaba (a running figure in the violins). Horns, low in their register, have a dotted idea which we might call the ‘destiny’ motif and then a lyrical melody which depicts Thalaba’s mother Zeinab. This will reappear at the end when she exhorts her son to take his vengeance. The Thalaba theme now emerges and with the destiny theme leads to the second subject proper, the falling oboe theme evoking Oneiza. Soon muted strings, ‘Poco lento’, introduce a new motif in even crochets evoking the fatal languor which overtakes Thalaba, a precursor of the ‘Kayf’ episode in the Prelude to Omar Khayyám. Regaining his will to power, Thalaba persuades Oneiza to marry him – Bantock evokes the pomp and pageantry of the wedding feast and Oneiza’s music is elaborated into an extended love theme. However, before the wedding night Azrael, the angel of death, intervenes at a climax of demonic brass playing fff. The grieving Thalaba is desolate, evoked by a quiet passage of entwining pianissimo strings over pulsing timpani, Bantock writing music which again foreshadows the desert music in Omar. This is treated at length but Thalaba’s theme returns and he pulls himself together with crisply articulated staccato trumpets which develop the languor motif into a call to action, as he renews his Mighty Quest.

At the climax of the epic Thalaba briefly meets Laila, the daughter of Okba, who is inadvertently slain by her father as he strikes at Thalaba. In the cave of Domdaniel his sword raised to kill Okba, Thalaba pardons him and instead smashes the idol Eblis which destroys all as it falls, including Thalaba himself, who is welcomed by the wraith of Oneiza to ‘eternal bliss’. At the end, with a succession of strenuous chords and a downward-rushing crescendo, the theme of evil is lost for ever br while Oneiza’s theme, in Bantock’s words, ‘rises pure and clear in the last ecstasy of faith and love’.

Bantock’s enthusiasm for things eastern was not as superficial as one may be tempted to think from his early interest. He launched into learning Persian and certainly owned Arabic books all his life. They were even found at his bedside when he died.

Bantock’s most celebrated choral work is his setting of the Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyám in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation. In fact Omar Khayyám was unknown before Fitzgerald found the manuscript in an oriental volume in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The popularity of Fitzgerald’s translation of the eleventh-century Persian astronomer, mathematician and poet is a notable literary phenomenon of Victoria’s reign, but it took some time to become established. Published privately in 1859, it was quickly remaindered, and not reviewed until 1870, nor Fitzgerald publicly identified as the translator until 1875. Yet by the turn of the century it was probably the most popular English poetry of its day.

Initially Fitzgerald translated 75 quatrains, but he went on adding to it, and the fifth edition, of 101 quatrains, was published posthumously in 1889. It was the latter that Bantock set. He was thus working with a popular work of his day, including some of the best known words in the English language.

In setting it, Bantock also had to consider another issue. In 1896 the composer Liza Lehmann had a big success with her selective setting which she called In a Persian Garden, for four soloists and piano. This was well established by the time Bantock came to the words, and it meant that a version that amateurs could sing on a domestic scale was already a popular favourite. Bantock in his complex and expansive approach produced something that, even in individual numbers, few amateurs could attempt, and it only briefly caught on with local choral societies.

The music is in three parts, first produced separately in 1906, 1907 and 1909. The first part was written for the Birmingham Festival in 1906, the same year as Elgar’s The Kingdom, parts two and three following at Cardiff in 1907 and Birmingham again in 1909. The first complete performance was in London, at Queen’s Hall, on 15 February 1910.

In his orchestral preludes to such works as the Sappho songs and The Song of Songs, Bantock writes an orchestral paraphrase of what is to come, laying out the principal themes. In the prelude to Omar Khayyám he is more concise and merely sets the scene for what is to follow, before the sun rises across the desert and ‘strikes the Sultan’s turret with a shaft of light’. So here we have an evocation of the desert at night. The horn’s evocative distant horn call at the outset representing the Muezzin’s call to prayer (‘Allahu Akbar!’).

The strings are divided into two separate orchestras, and here quiet string music calls for one orchestra with mutes on, while the right-hand orchestra plays naturale. An increase of tempo and a new theme sings of love tinged with regret. The quiet of the night returns as we hear again the Muezzin’s call, very distant on muted horn. Cellos and bass clarinet now sing what Bantock called the ‘Kayf’ theme – Ernest Newman quotes Sir Richard Burton to explain: ‘… silent and still, listening to the monotonous melody of the east – the soft night-breeze wandering through starlit skies and tuften trees, with a voice of melancholy meaning … The savouring of animal existence; the passing enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor; the dreamy tranquillity …’. Strings sustain the notes A-E-A while trumpets and horns sound far off – the trumpet reminding us of the Sultan’s palace, an idea later used to evoke swaggering ceremonial, pomp and power. We end with the silence before the dawn, as night imperceptibly lightens. The upper strings maintain a high A, the note Bantock associates with the stillness of the desert, and it also opens the vision of ‘The Camel Caravan’ that follows.

There are a number of set pieces in this work, and Bantock produces several miniature tone pictures, usually involving the chorus, and the most extended of these comes towards the end of part one. It is the phantom camel caravan, the music starting with a suggestion of the empty desert, and distant horns heralding the procession which slowly comes across the horizon, the male chorus humming a Turkomani melody, which grows louder as they approach.

Bantock makes a feature of using authentic camel bells, their endlessly reiterated rhythm evoking the lumbering movement of the camels across the sand. At the time of Omar’s early performances this was an effect almost immediately taken up by Sir Henry Wood in his orchestration of Pictures from an Exhibition. Throughout, the camel bells mark the procession of the caravan. For the BBC’s revival in 1979 the conductor, the late Norman del Mar, obtained authentic camel bells from Tunisia. These were of value not least for being in the right key. For the present recording they have been kindly loaned by Mr del Mar’s son, Jonathan.

The over-riding theme of The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyám is the transience of existence, and no sooner has the caravan faded into the distance than the chorus underline the need to live life while it is here, in Quatrain 48:

A moment’s halt – a momentary taste
Of BEING from the well amid the waste –
And Lo! The phantom caravan has reached
The NOTHING it set out from – Oh, make haste!

Bantock’s vision closes as the Turkomani melody is echoed in the orchestra.

As we have seen, Bantock wrote several extended choral works, but The Song of Songs is unique in its composer’s output in that it was conceived before the First World War – according to his diary it was started on 2 July 1912 – but was not completed in full score until 7 October 1926. However, the Prelude recorded here was written almost immediately (in short score) and is dated 17 July 1912, and the manuscript vocal score is dated 1915. The Prelude and the First Act (or ‘First Day’ as the score would have it) were heard at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1922.

This is a setting of verses from ‘The Song of Songs’ taken from the Authorized Version of The Bible. Bantock personalises and dramatises these familiar words, treating them as a passionate love story, and giving it a luxuriant and exotic, indeed erotic, setting which when heard complete probably runs for around two-and-a-half hours. Bantock allots the words to three main characters, the Shulamite (soprano), her shepherd lover (tenor), and the king (bass-baritone) whose suit she rejects. Each ‘Day’ is punctuated by massive choral settings of the psalms, creating contrast from the overheated exchanges of the protagonists, and at key points there are set-piece orchestral interludes in the form of exotic dances.

The complete work was first heard when conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty at a Hallé concert on 10 March 1927, with Dorothy Silk taking the role of the Shulamite and Frank Mullings her shepherd lover. Soon the BBC announced a broadcast performance, but when it took place, on Sunday 11 December 1927, with Dorothy Silk repeating the title role, although it ran for two hours, the Radio Times announced that ‘owing to the length of the work it has been found necessary to omit the orchestral Prelude and the First Scene’. Other performances followed, but the length was clearly a problem. When it was broadcast on 1 January 1932 it was in a condensed version running an hour and 25 minutes, and Elsie Suddaby now took the role of the Shulamite. Later, in 1935 and 1936, Adrian Boult and Bantock himself conducted extracts, and in 1937 Bantock conducted the Prelude as a separate concert work in a programme of his own music, but that seems to have been the last time it was heard until now.

Bantock sets words from The Song of Songs verbatim, and in the manuscript vocal score he calls it a ‘dramatic rhapsody’, but on the printed vocal score merely uses the form of words ‘set to music for 6 solo voices, chorus and orchestra’. Yet the score includes stage instructions and Bantock clearly envisaged it visually. He specifies the same set for the first four acts or scenes (the ‘First Day’, ‘Second Day’ etc) covering the span from noon on the first day to evening on the second, where we are in the ‘women’s apartment in the palace of the king. Lattice windows at the back’ which when opened reveal a starlit sky and the distant hills. In the Fifth Day, we are at dawn at the foot of a watchtower among the vineyards of Lebanon with a large apple tree in full flower centre stage. It is these scenes, centred on the passionate but loyal figure of the Shulamite, that are evoked in this extended prelude, in form and treatment strikingly similar to his earlier prelude to an extended work with a passionate woman at its centre, in that case Sappho.

Marjory Kennedy-Fraser published her first volume of Hebridean songs in 1907 and Bantock was hooked almost from the start. He was particularly involved in the compilation of her second volume which was published in 1917, and to which he contributes a high-flown and ecstatic introduction describing a visit to the islands in summer. Bantock used these tunes in various works, notably his Hebridean Symphony first performed in 1916, and his chamber opera The Seal Woman first seen in Birmingham in 1923.

Caristiona is a setting for small orchestra of the song of the same name from Kennedy-Fraser’s second volume. Caristiona is noted as collected by Frances Tolmie with words collected by Kenneth Macleod, and Bantock prefaces his score with Macleod’s summary of the story.

The Lady of Clanranald sat on the shore of Moydart watching the setting sun, and as she watched, she saw with the keen eye of a mother’s love and a mother’s pain, two ships sailing through the Western Sea. From the one, though sailing seaward, came the sounds of harping and of song, and of a bride’s laugh that was sweeter than both – while from the mast-top waved the Clanranald badge, a spray of purple heather, fresh with the bloom of the hillside. From the other ship, though sailing homeward, came the sound of the croon and the keening for the dead – the bride of yesterday – the one-no-more of tonight – while from the mast-top drooped and withered a spray of purple heather.
Behind the Bens of Rûm the sun had set, but the Lady of Clanranald sat on the shore of Moydart, wailing a mother’s wound to the night and the sea.
O Caristiona – answer my cry –
No answer tonight – the wound! The wound!
But only the night-hag answered, and the far-away keening of the western sea.

Bantock’s manuscript is dated ‘Birmingham 28 November 1920’, but was later revised and re-orchestrated in January 1944, with Bantock’s orchestral setting of The Sea Reivers, as Two Hebridean Sea Poems in response to Sir Henry Wood’s invitation for a work for the 1944 Proms. Here we play the original version for a small orchestra of double wind, four horns, trumpet, harp, percussion and strings.

Lewis Foreman © 2001

Other albums in this series
'Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies' (CDA66450)
Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies
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'Bantock: Pagan Symphony' (CDA66630)
Bantock: Pagan Symphony
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'Bantock: The Cyprian Goddess & other orchestral works' (CDA66810)
Bantock: The Cyprian Goddess & other orchestral works
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66810  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
'Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem' (CDA66899)
Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66899  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
'Bantock: The Song of Songs' (CDA67395)
Bantock: The Song of Songs
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67395  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6   Download currently discounted
'Bantock: Orchestral Music' (CDS44281/6)
Bantock: Orchestral Music
Buy by post £33.00 CDS44281/6  6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
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