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Hyperion Records

CDH55461 - Wallace: Symphonic Poems
On the Coast of Fife at Aberdour by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840)
(Originally issued on CDA66848)

Recording details: December 1995
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: January 2014
DISCID: 0C111C12
Total duration: 72 minutes 51 seconds


'Hyperion have once again triumphed in rescuing some inexplicably neglected Scottish music … it is simply unbelievable that the symphonic poems presented here have had to wait till now to be recorded … once again Martyn Brabbins procures superbly assured and crafted performances from the BBCSSO, and the recorded sound too is of the highest quality' (Gramophone)

'Ideal for lovers of late-Romantic music' (BBC Music Magazine)

Symphonic Poems
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I  
Lento  [4'12]
Misurato  [4'52]
Andante con moto  [5'21]
Vivace  [6'20]
Allegro  [0'56]
Largo sostenuto  [4'46]
Vivace  [3'00]
Andante  [3'04]
Con fuoco  [2'04]
Meno allegro  [5'46]

William Wallace was a classical scholar, a doctor and eye surgeon, a poet and dramatist, a writer on music and musicians, and the man described by Shaw as 'a young Scotch composer with a very tender and sympathetic talent'. His orchestral compositions rank amongst them the earliest attempts at the genre of the symphonic poem to be made in the British Isles, his choice of subjects for these being at least as wide-ranging as his own interests and achievements.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This album presents the first commercial recordings of any of Wallace’s compositions—an astonishing fact made all the more significant when it is realized that these fine symphonic poems are among the first attempts at the genre made in the British Isles. Their subjects are no less adventurous than their composer: William Wallace (Scottish hero, freedom-fighter; beheaded and dismembered by the English); François Villon (rebel poet, tortured; escaped the gallows by inches; early death a mystery); Beatrice (heroine of purity, pulsing in the rose of Dante’s heaven); and Sister Helen (villainess, murdering by sorcery; insane with jealous and frustrated love).

This is a remarkable late medieval case-book from the pen of Dr William Wallace. All four characters are straining at the bounds of human possibility; and yet these studies of human nature at its extremities are deeply felt and profoundly sympathetic. As a doctor and clinician it was Wallace’s business to observe and record with detachment; as an artist the same was to be done with feeling. It is the balanced truthfulness of Wallace’s own humanity that allows us to feel with and for his subjects without a hint of pedantry on the one hand, or any gross sentimentality on the other. These are musical portraits of power and integrity.

But William Wallace, MD, MCh, Captain RAMC, was remarkable in his own right. He was a classical scholar, a doctor and eye surgeon, a poet and dramatist, a painter, a writer on music and musicians, and a composer. He was efficient—he became inspector of ophthalmic units in Eastern Command in the Great War; observant—he used his skills as a painter to make careful depictions of eye disorders; scholarly—he published a paper on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Greek ligatures; polemical—his books on music are splendidly provocative; and selfless—in the last two-and-a-half years of his war service he was not off duty for a single day.

William Wallace was born in 1860 and, like Hamish MacCunn (see Hyperion CDA66815), was a son of Greenock. His father, James Wallace, was a distinguished surgeon who may have had to examine his own son when the latter graduated MB and MCh in 1885 at Glasgow University. William went on to study ophthalmology at Glasgow in 1888, about which time he published words and music of a Carmen Glasguense in honour of the university, the bold cover design of a student with mortar-board, books and symbolic Hebrew letter Shin being his own.

But for Wallace the ear was to prove stronger than the eye and he finally settled on music, studying at the Royal Academy of Music, though only for two terms, and thereafter teaching himself. He was one of the six rebels, including his younger contemporary Bantock (also the son of a Scottish-based surgeon), who challenged the conservatism of the music schools of the time. With Bantock Wallace published The New Quarterly Musical Review, frequently editing it with Anderton when Bantock was away. In a letter of 1904 Wallace asks that the Royal College of Music jury give ‘a chance to even the most bizarre and so-called eccentric compositions that are sent in’; with respect to controversies at the Leeds Festival he intends to ‘march in the direction of the guns’! In 1964 Neville Cardus described Wallace as ‘a composer who was one of the first in the progressive movement of seventy years ago’, and some years later, praising The Passing of Beatrice and Villon, recalled Wallace’s Freebooter Songs, ‘one of which, called “Son of Mine”, I sang myself on smoky Saturday nights for a guinea a time’. It is a pleasing thought that such a progressive composer as Wallace was capable of writing words and music (not to mention designing the cover) for songs which were to achieve such popularity.

The Wallace household must have been a fascinating one, for he married the distinguished Scottish sculptress Ottilie Helen McLaren, daughter of Lord McLaren. Wallace dedicated his A Suite in the Olden Style for piano to her. She was a pupil of Rodin and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, though in 1928 she was unable to enter so William promptly produced a painting, ‘Waterloo Drum’, of a corner of their own house in London and submitted it to ensure the family was represented. It was accepted and duly hung on the line.

The 1914–1918 war saw Wallace working more or less continuously in the Royal Army Medical Corp, from which he retired in 1919 with the rank of captain. By the end of the war he was fifty-eight years of age, had taken only three weeks of leave and had reported on 19,000 cases over four years, many of which he had personally attended. He must have been completely drained. In his later years he became professor of harmony and composition at the Royal Academy of Music (and professorial chief of the library) when his fellow Scot and composer John Blackwood McEwen was Principal.

Wallace’s major works include the fine Creation Symphony (first performed at one of Bantock’s New Brighton concerts in 1899 and recorded on Hyperion CDA66987), the lovely Pelléas et Mélisande Suite of 1903, and a bitingly satirical choral ballad, The Massacre of the Macphersons, which makes a ridiculous combination of snippets from Wagner’s Ring and traditional Scottish themes. There are two further symphonic poems and a number of other pieces, all worthy of attention. Wallace is much more radical than Mackenzie or MacCunn, particularly in his freer development of structure. He also published several books on music theory and history. These include wide-ranging and challenging works analyzing the nature and development of the musical faculty in humankind; and studies of great insight into Wagner and Liszt, whose influence on his own music is clear. He died in 1940.

23 August 1905 was the 600th anniversary of the death of the great Scottish patriot and freedom fighter William Wallace. His story has been the inspiration of innumerable poems, novels, songs and orchestral works, and in the film Braveheart has joined the long list of epic romances of the silver screen.

Robert Burns was no less affected by the legend than others. His verses set to the old Scotch marching tune of Hey Tutti Tatti open famously with the words, ‘Scots wha’ hae wi’ Wallace bled …’. That tune has led Scottish troops, both regular and mercenary, to battle in every corner of the globe; it led Joan of Arc to the gates of Orléans and beyond; it has established itself as one of the world’s most powerful musical and poetic icons; but its association with William Wallace is entirely due to Burns who recognized its appropriateness to a theme dear to his heart.

For Wallace’s namesake, the composer William Wallace, the anniversary was an opportunity of national importance, not to be missed. He rose to the occasion with Sir William Wallace, a work of powerful celebration, first performed under Sir Henry Wood on 19 September at the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts.

It is probably deliberate on the composer’s part that there remains something unsaid at the end of the piece. In 1905 there was little sign of a Scottish National movement, and any reference to Wallace’s final end would have been less that celebratory anyway—Wallace was the architect of his nation’s freedom but, like Moses, he did not live to enter into his promised land. By his own people he was betrayed into the hands of the English who executed and dismembered him, displaying his mutilated parts and making up in thoroughness what they lacked in chivalry.

But the significance of the date and the coincidence of the name could not be denied. The music is splendidly direct, as befits the celebration of a great military hero. The main theme is derived from ‘Scots wha’ hae’; but the tune only emerges overtly at the end, Wallace himself pointing out that this was a reversal of the usual form. There is no programme to the work, which falls into four sections, but the brooding opening has pre-echoes of the main theme, and it seems as though the awareness of a national identity is slowly emerging, mirrored musically by the use of pentatonic motifs.

Villon was the last to be composed of the six symphonic poems. It was first performed by the New Symphony Orchestra in March 1909 and was published by Schott in 1910. François Villon (1431–1463), murderer, whore-monger, great poet and, with Rabelais, hero of the last of medieval consciousness; whose irreverence is so full of humanity that it has never required forgiveness, and whose mischievous joys are so mixed with eternal sorrows that it is impossible not to feel the deepest affection for him: ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ (‘But where are the snows of yesteryear?’)

Wallace, a caustic yet sympathetic observer of humanity, has created here a brilliant psychological, but deeply affecting portrait, based on carefully chosen and beautifully ordered quotations from Villon’s Grand Testament which are printed in the score. Himself a remarkable scholar, he has perfectly judged the self-pitying pleading of the opening: ‘Ung pouvre petit escollier qui fut nommé Françoys Villon’. We know we are being manipulated by the twists of these musical gestures, including their occasionally ironic largesse; and with jaunty interpolations, Wallace hints at the mischief to come: ‘Au moins sera de moy memoire tel qu’il est d’ung bon folastre’. The bassoon leads us off to the pub and the brothel (‘Où s’en va tout? Or escoute: Tout aux tavernes et aux filles’) but the consequences of this momentarily riotous behaviour are only disappointment and poverty again. The opening penurious phrase returns, this time more reflectively as Wallace draws us towards Villon’s immortal lines on mortality from the Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis: ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ At first the Ballade asks what has become of the great courtesans of the past, Flora and Thaïs, and the Queen of Burgundy who threw her discarded lovers, often students, into the Seine. Wallace evokes the nostalgic grandeur with richly orchestrated lyricism, and briefly we relive those days of beauty and passion, gaining from stately crotchet motion to expansive sensual folds of quavers. But the Ballade ends with France’s virgin martyr, Joan of Arc, as vulnerable to time as the rest of them: ‘Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine?’ demands Villon.

Here Wallace performs a magical transformation. The material of lust, the flowing sensual folds of quavers, becomes simple medieval prayer for the Ballade que Villon feit à la requeste de sa mère pour prier Nôtre Dame. There is no mockery here. Wallace can be genuine, as could Villon in his reverence for the supreme virgin. It is this moving prayer which will briefly haunt the end of the work, but just now it has done its filial duty and we are off into the streets of Paris again and the chatter of its women: ‘Il n’est bon bec que de Paris’. But is is Wallace who cuts short the gossip with the grandest section of all, reserved for that moment when Villon applies all his regrets at the passing of time, not to other, but to himself:

Je plaings le temps de ma jeunesse,
Ouquel j’ay plus qu’autre galle,
Il ne s’en a pied alle,
N’a cheval; las! et comment donc?
Et ne m’a laisse quelque don.

Wallace celebrates the glorious folly of Villon’s expenditure of his youth with music rich and generous. But, as with Villon, so it must be with this work. There is a quixotic heart to it. There follows, quite unprepared, a little medieval dance for pipe and tabor. It is perfectly scored, its appealing simplicity as pleading and poverty-stricken as Villon, now stripped to the bone. The story of rags and riches is left only with echoes. The clock of the Sorbonne strikes the angelus:

Je ouyz la cloche de Sorbonne,
Qui toujours a neuf heures sonne
Le salut que l’Ange predit.

The prayer to the virgin is reduced to a brief line of penitence: ‘Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine?’ There is no answer: only a hushed whisper from the bass clarinet and a wisp of a padded stick on a tamtam, scarcely audible, so that we do not even know when precisely is the moment of death.

The Passing of Beatrice, dating from 1892, was Wallace’s first symphonic poem and is one of the first British works in the genre. Shaw described Wallace as ‘a young Scotch composer with a very tender and sympathetic talent’, and then proposed that this work would benefit from being cut down by nine-tenths, comparing it unfavourably with the Prelude to Lohengrin. On such fatuous comparisons many a young composer had been crucified. Fortunately the work has survived, but only just. In any case, The Passing of Beatrice is as much influenced by Liszt, whose Dante Symphony it could be considered as completing in that it takes us from Purgatory to Paradise. Wallace was himself to show Wagner’s own degree of indebtedness to Liszt in his fascinating Liszt, Wagner and the Princess (London, 1927; p. 94). He headed his score with the following note:

This Symphonic Poem is based upon an episode which Dante does not describe. He and Beatrice are taken up into the Empyrean. Paradise opens before them,
‘In fashion then as of a snow-white rose
Displayed itself to me the saintly host,
Whom Christ in his own blood had made his bride.’
Dante is lost in wonderment at the vision, and in turning to question Beatrice, finds that she is no longer by his side, but has passed away from him to take her place within the rose of Paradise. The music is designed to illustrate the passing, or transition, of Beatrice from earthly to immortal form.

Wallace’s score is intensely romantic in idiom, combining both the purity and sensual imagery of Dante’s vision, in which the angels are likened to bees bearing the honey (symbolic of Christ) from a white rose made up of the souls of the blessed. It is to the third circle of petals in this rose that Beatrice is translated. With its lush harmonies and rich orchestration balanced by thoughtfulness and restraint, Wallace’s music is something more than sweet. The strings, with violins divided and half of them muted, set a tone of hushed reverence, and their opening ascending motif provides the rhythmic basis for most of the work. This motif goes through a process of transformation: a hymn, an intense chromatic passage for woodwind of deep personal feeling, which rises to a passionate and ecstatic expression of love, and finally a calm and ethereal peace.

The beauty of the opening is wonderfully restrained, reaching towards the acclamation of the brass, più vivo, suggestive of the power of Divine Wisdom, which is a central aspect of Beatrice’s own enlightenment and which grows in radiance as the full orchestra joins in. The process is repeated, meno mosso, in varied and extended form. The structure parallels Dante’s, as he and Beatrice are admitted stage by stage to greater enlightenment. The visionary conclusion matches the beauty of Dante’s experience on seeing Beatrice in the rose:

Not from the centre of the sea so far
Unto the region of the highest thunder,
As was my ken from hers; and yet the form
Came through that medium down, unmix’d and pure.

Sister Helen represents the opposite approach to love from that of Beatrice—that of implacable revenge motivated by betrayal and jealousy. This, the third and perhaps the most intense of Wallace’s symphonic poems, is based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti’s poem is in ballad idiom, but coloured with pre-Raphaelite colours:

‘Why did you melt your waxen man,
Sister Helen?
To-day is the third since you began.’
‘The time was long, yet the time ran,
Little brother.’
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Three days to-day, between Hell and Heaven!

The opening Largo sostenuto depicts her brooding jealousy and, in the woodwind, the flame of the waxen image of her betrayer. Recollection of her former love, expressed with great feeling, only wells up to the dotted rhythm of the first fortissimo, cruelly anticipating her ultimate triumph.

The Vivace, Scottish in idiom, describes with lilting innocence the little brother whom she has sent to the window to see if a horseman approaches. And soon, indeed, we hear the approach, leading to a climax at her refusal, meno allegro:

‘But he calls for ever on your name
Sister Helen,
And says that he melts before a flame.’
‘My heart for his pleasure fared the same,
Little brother.’
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Fire at the heart, between Hell and Heaven!

The Andante describes the tokens and pleas of her former lover, forming a kind of slow movement, musically isolated, as it should be, from the perverse emotions of Sister Helen which break out again at the Con fuoco. Others ride to her to beg her to break the spell, but to no avail. The extreme melodrama of the subject might have tempted a lesser composer into a work of unremitting gloom, but Sister Helen’s own memories of true love return in varied form, and it is typical of Wallace’s rounded view of his characters that he allows her a true memory of beauty—something not granted her in the poem.

But the end is indeed inevitable, and the final stanza is brought to its awful fruition with intense power as her dead lover’s ghost is doomed to wander as hers will be until the Last Judgement:

‘Ah! what white thing at the door has cross’d
Ah! what it this that sighs in the frost?’
‘A soul that’s lost as mine is lost,
Little brother!’
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!

John Purser © 1996

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