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Hyperion Records

CDA67395 - Bantock: The Song of Songs
The Song of Songs: The Shulamite Maiden (detail) by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: April 2003
Watford Colosseum, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2003
Total duration: 77 minutes 18 seconds

'Handley and his orchestra perform with absolute conviction, and it is difficult to a imagine a more impassioned case being made for it. Hyperion offers superb notes by Lewis Foreman and complete texts. The rich, warm recording is an added plus, with its natural perspective and soundstage. For those who enjoy exploring the byways of Romanticism, this is highly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

The Song of Songs
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor) Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6   Download currently discounted
[untitled]  [4'00]
[untitled]  [2'20]
[untitled]  [5'31]
[untitled]  [6'07]

This disc marks the sixth issue in Hyperion's trail-blazing belief in the robust romanticism and musical energies of Bantock. This is music of power and immediacy, inspiration and technical invention that have an often epic dimension.

Bantock came from an affluent background and began training as a chemical engineer, but there was no stopping his musical talent. The Wilderness and the Solitary Place is part of one of no fewer than ten segments of a massive Festival Symphony based on the life of Christ, a score completed in 1901 that runs to over 700 pages. The settings from The Song of Songs, constructed as a drama, were perhaps too epic to have frequent performances, and we have world premiere recordings on this present release.

All the works on this disc offer perfect examples of that heady brew of eroticism and religion that boiled over in the early 1900s, once again expertly championed by Vernon Handley and the RPO.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Bantock came to his maturity as a composer in the decade before the First World War, and the music in this programme was all conceived and sketched between 1899 and 1915, though in one or two cases completion in full score and performance came a little later. It was all first performed between 1903 and 1927, and although Bantock was not one of the principal composers of the Three Choirs Festivals at this time, all of these scores were associated with the festivals at Worcester, Gloucester or Hereford for their first performances.

Granville Ransome Bantock was the son of a distinguished surgeon and gynaecologist, and thus came from a well-appointed Victorian family background. Born in 1868 Bantock grew up in an atmosphere of privilege, comfort, servants and parental control. As with many other young composers from nineteenth-century middle-class families Bantock was intended for one of the secure professions, and to satisfy his father Bantock started to study for the Indian Civil Service, later changing to chemical engineering; but at the age of twenty-one he became a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and was soon awarded the Macfarren scholarship for composition.

Bantock had huge energy and a vivid imagination and his student output was enormous and overwhelmingly ambitious. His energy and persistence achieved student performances of his orchestral works from the outset: his overture The Fire Worshippers was played in an Academy concert in December 1890, and later given by August Manns at the 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 rather Wagnerian one-act opera Caedmar, the opera later appearing twice at the Olympic Theatre and also in a concert performance at the 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 well-off 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 directing musical comedies, culminating in the offer of a conducting appointment with one of the celebrated George Edwarde 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 taking over a provincial tour of Stanford’s Irish comic opera Shamus O’Brien in Blackpool and then taking it round Ireland, doubling as acting manager and conductor when the drunken manager was dismissed.

Despairing of ever making an impact with his music, Bantock promoted an orchestral concert at Queen’s Hall on 15 December 1896. This included 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 today. The concert included three of Bantock’s recent works, and he prefaced the programme with a strongly worded manifesto, and while he was not rewarded with a good house he stimulated a wide critical coverage that 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 new music, and British music in particular.

Bantock was married in 1898 to Helena von Schweitzer, 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 in an all-Elgar programme. Three weeks before it had been Stanford visiting, the previous week Parry and the week after Frederick Corder—the leading British composers of the day all conducting programmes of their own works. This was building professional contacts in a big way, though Bantock still did not have a regular source of income. Yet it was as a teacher and educationalist that he was soon to make his living, and his reputation at New Brighton, coupled with Elgar’s recommendation, led to his appointment as the first Principal of the Midland School of Music in Birmingham in 1900. In 1907 Bantock succeeded Elgar as Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, and went on to hold the appointment for twenty-seven years. Bantock later became associated with Trinity College of Music in London, and in the 1930s he undertook several world examination tours for them, incidentally also conducting his own music along the way.

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-choral and orchestral scores on exotic subjects, such a the song cycle Sappho, and tone poems including The Witch of Atlas and Fifine at the Fair, all crowned by his enormous setting of the whole of FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyám, running just under three hours. At this time there were those who rated him above Elgar. Later there came other big choral works including his settings of The Song of Songs and Pilgrim’s Progress and orchestral music such as the Hebridean and Pagan symphonies. He wrote music to the end, though latterly in an idiom by then increasingly regarded by commentators as out of date. But viewed from the perspective of fifty years after his death, this is no longer a bar to the proper appreciation of Bantock as a significant name in the British music of his time, and the composer of so much gorgeous music.

Bantock’s orchestral Overture to a Greek Tragedy dates from 1911 and presumably after the success of Pierrot of the Minute at the previous festival at Worcester he was again commissioned. (In fact Bantock had also had new works at the intervening festivals at Hereford and Gloucester.) It was published by F E C Leuckart of Leipzig the following year as Ouverture zu Einem Griechischen Trauerspiel für Orchester (and in much smaller letters Overture to a Greek Tragedy “Oedipus at Colonus”). The score is dedicated to Sibelius, who had earlier stayed in Bantock’s house and had dedicated his Third Symphony to him.

Bantock was a man of enthusiasms, and once embarked on a classical phase he wrote a variety of orchestral works given the title of classical plays but in reality orchestral tone poems on them. This activity extended across the second half of his life and included Aristophanes’ Overture to a Greek Comedy (Thesmophoriazeusae, The Women’s Festival), The Frogs and The Birds, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and, one of Bantock’s last works, Euripides’ The Bacchanales. The Greek tragedy of Bantock’s score was Oedipus at Colonus, chronologically the third of Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Earlier, in the more familiar part of this cycle, the king had unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, had put out his own eyes in remorse and, after a long interlude, been exiled. In Oedipus at Colonus the blind and exiled Oedipus, now an old man, looked after by his younger daughter Antigone, is troubled by the scheming of his feuding sons and his former subjects. Oedipus dies having denounced his detractors and handed on to Theseus alone the knowledge of the place where he will die, which will provide a talisman for future security.

The music opens with a 5/4 fanfare-like idea, part baleful part heroic, and this ‘fate’ motif reappears towards the end recast in a heroic sun-set mould. Fast music quickly follows and is immediately elaborated, as if Bantock is almost looking back over the story so far, and eventually it leads to Antigone’s music, first heard on the magical combination of solo violin and four horns, which Bantock cannot resist elaborating as languorously as any of his love themes. Bantock catches the play’s blend of harshness and serenity with a fast middle section, presumably reflecting the chorus’s evocation of battle (‘Who would not wish to be / There when the enemy / Turns to give battle … / That were a sight to see’). The wide-spanning dying fall of the long closing section, as romantic as anything Bantock wrote, is very much an Edwardian vision of Oedipus’s final speech to Theseus, and the Messenger recounting Oedipus’s passing.

Bantock was given to vast musical epics which, conceived in a moment, actually took years to complete on paper. We have parts of two of these in this programme. Bantock’s first such epic had been his cycle of twenty-four tone poems based on Southey’s poetic epic The Curse of Kehama, of which six were actually completed. Conceived in the early 1890s, composition dragged on to 1901, and two of them were published in full score, but the cycle as a whole ran into the sand. In the late 1890s Bantock then conceived an epic re-telling of the story of Christ in his Christus, which was completed in a vast 700-page orchestral full score. This he described as a ‘Festival Symphony in 10 parts’. After an extended Prelude, the sections were ‘Nazareth’, ‘The Wilderness’, ‘The Woman of Samaria’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘The Mount of Olives’, ‘The Paschal Eve’, ‘Gethsemane’, ‘The Judgement’, ‘Calvary’, and ‘Epilogue’, the last consisting of a vast chorus ‘Arise, Shine’ and dated 21 August 1901. The whole consisted of twenty-four numbers of which The Wilderness and the Solitary Place is No 6. In this scheme Bantock is clearly anticipating Elgar’s oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, but although Bantock can produce brilliantly coloured episodes and massive imposing choruses he does not have Elgar’s wide-spanning dramatic immediacy nor his depth of Biblical scholarship. In 1900 Bantock published (with Breitkopf & Härtel) a much cut-down version in vocal score as Christus, a festival symphony in five parts, and later he extracted two short oratorios—Christ in the Wilderness in 1907, and Gethsemane in 1910, which had some shorted-lived following at the time. The aria recorded here appeared in Christ in the Wilderness and was heard in the complete work at that year’s Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. But in fact, as a separate concert encore it had already been heard at Hereford in 1903. With its feeling of an exotic dance marked by tambourine, and idiosyncratic scoring for wind and harps, it continued to be heard occasionally as a concert encore until it was forgotten after the Second World War.

Pierrot of the Minute became one of Bantock’s most popular works in his lifetime. The full title as printed on the published full score is ‘The Pierrot of the Minute: a comedy overture to a dramatic phantasy of Ernest Dowson’. It was presumably written for the Worcester Three Choirs of 1908, for the short score is dated 2 August 1908 and the full score only a week later. The first performance was on 9 September. It was soon published by Breitkopf & Härtel, Bantock dedicating it to his friend Otto Kling, Breitkopf’s London manager. Breitkopf was a very efficient publisher and by the end of 1909 eleven foreign performances had been noted. It was said to be the most popular new British work at the time after Elgar’s First Symphony.

Bantock gives us this programme:

Pierrot enters a glade in the park of the Petit Trianon at twilight, led thither in obedience to a mysterious message, which bids him come to sleep one night within these precincts if he would encounter Love. Half whimsical, half fearful, he wonders why he, so careless, thoughtless, and gay, should now be filled with wistful longing; and in the fast-falling darkness he lies down on a couch of fern, and falls asleep. A Moon-maiden descends the steps of the Temple of Love, and, bending over the sleeper, kisses him. He awakes and throws himself at her feet in rapt devotion, though she warns him that the kisses of the Moon are of a fatal sweetness, and that
"Whoso seeks her she gathers like a flower
He gives a life, and only gains an hour."
But Pierrot, reckless, demands the pure and perfect bliss, though life be the price to pay. With gay laughter and sprightly jest they learn together the lore of Love; but daybreak approaches, the birds awaken, and the Moon-maiden must leave him. Together they gaze at the coming dawn; then Pierrot, sinking back on his couch, falls softly asleep once more, and the Moon-maiden vanishes.
The Prelude ends with the awakening of Pierrot, his love-dream being but the illusion of a minute.

In matters of religion Bantock was very much an independent spirit, and he responded to the fatalism of Omar Khayyám, the Sufism of Hafiz and the neo-Christian philosophy expressed by Browning’s imaginary Persian sage in Ferishtah’s Fancies, in terms of a colourful sweep and a broad humanity. Similarly when he came to Biblical words his response to them was very much in terms of incidental colour and the epic drama of the story. Here we have examples of both.

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, and the completed manuscript vocal score is dated 1915. On Tuesday 2 July Bantock wrote in his diary: ‘Arranged “The Song of Songs” as a libretto for a Lyrical Drama for music in 5 scenes. Wrote the first 79 bars of the prelude, & sketched the themes for the King, & other portions.’

Bantock had clearly invented his scheme and all the motifs for the various characters at the outset, and it was evidently so vivid for him he had encapsulated it all in the orchestral Prelude, the short score of which is dated 17 July 1912. However the complete work would not be completed in full score until 10 December 1926.

From the order in which Bantock completed the various sections of this epic, it is clear he was least caught by the extended scenes of the King’s failure to win the Shulamite which form the Third and Fourth ‘Days’. Before them came the outer ‘Days’, strong in love interest; the vocal score of the Second Day is dated 14 July 1915 and that of the Fifth Day, 3 September 1915, both love duets, the Fifth Day referring back to the themes of the earlier one.

The Prelude and the First Day, in which the King first sings the praises of the Shulamite, were first heard at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1922, and published separately. It was the demands of a commitment to a firm and prestigious performance date that gave Bantock the impetus to set the rest of the music in full score at Birmingham during 1926: the Fifth Day was completed first, on 20 August; the Third and Fourth Days are dated 16 October and 10 December respectively. The huge vocal score was published complete in time for the first performance by Hallé forces conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty 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 now in a condensed version running for an hour and twenty-five minutes, Elsie Suddaby now taking the role of the Shulamite. Later, in 1935 and 1936, Adrian Boult and Bantock himself conducted extracts, when Laelia Finnberg was a very successful Shulamite, 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.

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, words we normally associate with chaste ecclesiastic settings, treating them as a passionate love story, and giving them a luxuriant and exotic, indeed erotic, setting. Bantock allots the words to three main characters, the Shulamite (soprano), her Shepherd lover (tenor), and the King—King Solomon (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 mainly in the form of exotic dances.

Bantock sets the words from ‘The Song of Songs’ (indeed, most of it) 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’. But 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 a later evening, 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.

Here we present the whole of the Second Day and the love duet that constitutes the greater part of the Fifth Day. In this performance they have been linked with an extended orchestral passage from the Third Day. In the Third Day the King has arrived in great pomp, treated in detail by Bantock, and crowned by a massive chorus, and has made a passionate suit to the object of his affections and ‘various offerings and costly presents are brought by slaves and laid at the feet of the Shulamite. She rejects one after another the proffered gifts’. We join the music at the tail end of this (vocal score page 157: ‘Imperioso’), as with wistful feelings on both sides, and a distant reminiscence of the Shulamite’s music from the Second Day, ‘The King, realising that his suit has failed, gives a signal for all his followers to retire, and the Shulamite is left alone with her female attendants, surrounded by the neglected offerings’. Soon, to familiar music, ‘The Shulamite reflects upon her absent shepherd-lover,’ ‘and sees him in a vision on the mountainside’.

Before our final extract, in the Fourth Day the Shulamite has been depicted pining, alone with her attendants who try to distract her with a succession of dances, and the King returns with one final attempt to woo her and sings of her beauty, before we reach the Fifth Day and the scene moves outside for the first time. The Watchman announces the entrance of the Shulamite with her Shepherd lover and they sing such well-known words as ‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart’, ‘Many waters cannot quench love’ and ‘For love is strong as death’, given in a high-flown romantic style. Bantock vividly realises a colourful scene that was as immediate and realistic for him as had been the exotic desert landscape in Omar Khayyám, and the love-lorn world of Sappho.

Lewis Foreman © 2003

Other albums in this series
'Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies' (CDA66450)
Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies
Buy by post £10.50 CDA66450 
'Bantock: Pagan Symphony' (CDA66630)
Bantock: Pagan Symphony
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66630  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
'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: Thalaba the Destroyer & other orchestral works' (CDA67250)
Bantock: Thalaba the Destroyer & other orchestral works
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67250  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
'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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