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Hyperion Records

CDA66630 - Bantock: Pagan Symphony
The Sacred Wood dear to the Arts and Muses (detail) (1884-9) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
Recording details: August 1992
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1992
Total duration: 79 minutes 32 seconds

'Stunning recording and utterly convincing performances' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)

'The performances are stunning, the recordings most sumptuous' (Gramophone)

Pagan Symphony
The Fair: Vivace  [4'44]
Elvire's theme  [9'04]
Kishmul's Galley  [4'26]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Despite his obvious talent for music it was only with the greatest difficulty that Granville Bantock persuaded his father to allow him to study at the Royal Academy of Music. His father had a point: the career of a musician in Victorian England was by no means certain, and certainly not a suitable profession for the son of an eminent London surgeon. But the young Bantock, already a prolific composer, had his way. He entered the Royal Academy in September 1889 and began to study under the direction of Sir Frederick Corder (1852–1932), a composer of progressive sympathies who was also to number Holbrooke and Bax among his pupils. On leaving the Academy in 1893 Bantock endured various musical hack jobs, of which conducting proved to be the most important. For a while he directed musical comedies for the impresario George Edwardes. This experience led to an appointment as Musical Director of The Tower, New Brighton, where from 1897 to 1900 he proceeded to astonish Merseyside holiday-makers with concerts that included not only the major classics (they were accustomed to a diet of foot-tapping marches and waltzes), but also the music of contemporary British and Continental composers. In 1900 he turned his attention to musical education, becoming Principal of the Birmingham and Midland Institute of Music, and in 1908 Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University in succession to Sir Edward Elgar. In both capacities, as in everything he did, Bantock made a lively and indelible impression.

As might be expected of a man of exceptionally wide culture, boundless curiosity, and unlimited energy, Bantock was a composer of works that were not only on the largest scale, but also heroic and exotic in theme. He was much influenced by Liszt and Wagner and it is significant that his most successful works were those that depended either upon words or were illustrative of some poetic or dramatic programme. Typical are the six tone poems he composed between 1900 and 1902, of which Fifine at the Fair is third in order of composition. Almost all his orchestral works, whether or not they are actually labelled ‘tone poems’, have a strong programmatic underlay: this was an age when composers revelled in the descriptive powers of music and had no economic inhibitions about the size of orchestras. Not for nothing was he a friend and admirer of Richard Strauss. Unlike Strauss, however, the themes that inspired Bantock were often exotic: tales of the Orient, tales of Celtic and Classical mythology—tales, in short, to compensate for life in prosaic, materialistic Britain.

The Pagan Symphony is a case in point. Here Bantock’s dream is of classical antiquity. According to his daughter, Myrrha, he began work on the symphony in 1923. The published orchestral score, however, firmly attaches the date 3 September 1927 (and the place, Paris) to the first bar, and 20 June 1928 to the last, some 1,046 bars later. It may well be that the initial sketches were made at the earlier date, but it is clear that the final details and orchestration belong to 1927/28. As with the Hebridean Symphony (1913) and the Celtic Symphony (1940), the Pagan Symphony is cast in one continuous movement which falls into a number of sections which provide the element of contrast that is characteristic of the separate movements of traditional symphonic form.

As a classical scholar Bantock was able to preface his symphony with a suitable Latin motto: ‘Et ego in Arcadia vixit’ (‘I too lived in Arcadia’). But although he provided several pointers to the general ‘meaning’ of the work, he remained silent about the fine detail. One programme note, presumably by Bantock (or at least sanctioned by him), makes reference to the second book of Horace’s Odes and the opening of Ode XIX:

Bacchus I have seen on far-off rocks—if posterity will believe me—teaching his songs divine to the listening Nymphs and to the goat-footed Satyrs with their pointed ears.

The note continues:

The music may be described as a vision of the past, when the Greek god Dionysus (Bacchus) was worshipped as the bestower of happiness and plenty, the lover of truth and beauty, the victor over the powers of evil.
Immortal Aphrodite of the broidered throne appears for a brief moment as the goddess of Love, to remind the world of her supreme power and glorious beauty.

Beyond this, interpretation must be left to the imagination of the listener—always bearing in mind that music, however descriptive, also develops according to its own laws and therefore without any precise reference to any ‘programme’ that may be on offer.

The elements that are actually signposted in the score provide sufficient clue to the work’s overall structure and meaning. It begins with a slow introduction (Tranquillo molto lento sostenuto) which sets out the thematic material for the entire work in an evocation of pastoral calm and classical nobility. This leads to a more positive section (Allegro con spirito), the equivalent of the normal symphonic first movement. The third section, a scherzo, is described by the composer as a ‘Dance of Satyrs’. The fourth section, labelled Fanfare, quickly evolves into an antique dance (Allegretto con moto). This is followed by a sensuous evocation of the goddess Aphrodite (Molto lento, sostenuto e rubato), inscribed by the composer with a line from a poem by Sappho: ‘Poiliothron athanat Aphrodita’ (‘Immortal Aphrodite on your elaborate throne’). The finale (Allegro moto e con fuoco) brings about a triumphant musical summing-up of everything that has gone before. Each section grows naturally out of its predecessor; and though they explore a variety of changing moods, each section is a marvellous evocation of the Arcadian vision that Bantock has ascribed to it.

More important is the fact that every scrap of what may at first seem a plethora of thematic material grows organically out of a limited number of ideas that are in themselves quite simple. To appreciate this it is necessary to become acquainted with five themes that open the introductory section. The first is an innocuous downward modal scale presented in the strings, divided and muted. Scales, ascending and descending, plainly stated or disguised by additional motivic figuration, form an important part of Bantock’s thematic argument. Next comes a short flute motif, part fanfare, part birdsong. This, in a variety of manifestations, is perhaps the most important thematic element in the symphony, its interlocking fourths and fifths informing nearly every other motif. The brief horn-call that follows also plays its part—usually in the more triumphant passages of the Symphony. It is followed by a sinuous melody for cellos and bassoons, related to the flute motif. Out of it grows the fifth and final motif: a yearning melody for solo violin.

It is not the intrinsic quality of these themes that matters but what Bantock does with them. The entire Symphony is a masterly demonstration of the Lisztian art of thematic transformation. Moreover, the dramatic and pictorial moods that each transformation conjures up are extremely potent. The music engages the imagination and emotions as thoroughly as it may satisfy the intellect. The limpid beauty of the dance section: flutes in thirds describing a primitive but hypnotic melody (derived from the horn-calls of the introduction) that floats above a gentle thrumming of harp and pizzicato strings. The wonderfully grotesque yet good-humoured ‘Dance of Satyrs’: a fugal texture derived from the flute motif and ingeniously scored, in a maze of interlocking, imitative phrases, for woodwind and brass, and culminating in a thunderous climax for percussion. This is music of the highest imagination and it is a matter for astonishment that the work has been largely neglected since Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in 1936.

The tone poem Fifine at the Fair, however, became one of Bantock’s more frequently performed works. There is some uncertainty as to the actual date of composition. Most authorities give it as 1901, but the published score clearly states August–November, 1911. It seems likely that Bantock undertook a radical revision of an earlier work—even dropping the description ‘tone poem’ in favour of ‘Orchestral Drama’, tone poems having passed their heyday by 1911. He intended the work to be performed by the Royal Philharmonic Society who had asked for something for their 1912 season. Unfortunately the Society found itself unable to meet the fee he demanded, and the first performance therefore took place on 2 October 1912 at the Birmingham Festival in an ambitious concert that included Strauss’s Don Quixote and the first performance of Walford Davies’s Song of St Francis. A Philharmonic Society performance eventually took place on 26 December 1917 under the direction of Mr Thomas Beecham. Indeed, the work became something of a favourite with Beecham—though when he recorded it for HMV in 1949 he introduced several cuts which, though minor, disturbed its formal balance. The present recording is therefore the first that accounts for every note.

Bantock took as his starting point a poem by Robert Browning (1821–89) which critics of the time (the 1870s) considered, not without reason, to be almost unreadable. Dimly, however, buried beneath inordinate length, tortuous syntax and endless digressions, the determined reader may discern a story line in which the narrator is first pictured afloat on the ‘sea of life’, comfortable and secure but disturbed by the presence of a butterfly, symbol of freedom and adventure. That adventure is described in the main body of the poem: the scene, a fairground; the adventure, a dancer, Fifine, with whom the narrator becomes infatuated. He forgets his wife Elvire, and scorns the predictable comforts of domestic life, but is gradually forced to realize their true value as it becomes clear that the wayward Fifine can offer no lasting happiness. Elvire forgives her errant spouse who, as Browning points out in verse 129, has learned his lesson.

In musical terms Bantock follows Browning’s ground plan faithfully, though without his obscurity and prolixity. The Prologue, labelled (as in Browning’s poem) ‘Amphibian’, suggests, by means of a string section divided into twenty-one parts, a suitably watery ambience. It begins in virtual silence and only gradually takes on thematic definition with the emergence of a gently articulated motif (a rise and fall over a semitone) that will later blossom as the expression of Elvire’s steadfast love. Above the undulating background there hovers a fluttering ‘butterfly’ motif in the upper strings which prefigures the temptation that Fifine herself will pose. Passages for solo viola, in the manner of a recitative, suggest the narrator’s restless yearning for something other than the womb-like security in which he is immersed.

Having set out the basis of the dramatic argument and underpinned it with hints of the conflicting Fifine and Elvire themes, Bantock, like Browning, embarks upon the story itself. This is set against the turbulent background of a Fair—literally a ‘Carnival of Venice’, as brief references to that famous tune make clear. The hearty thump of a showman’s drum is heard (a moment uncannily reminiscent of Petrushka, though it seems unlikely that Bantock attended the Paris premiere in June 1911 immediately before commencing his own composition) and is followed by an itinerant fiddler’s trivial tune (to be played, Bantock directs, in the ‘first position’) and the sound of a penny whistle. The carnival, which may be thought of as a symbol of the bustling world itself, proceeds apace until interrupted by the appearance of Fifine in the form of a wayward clarinet solo as prelude to her seductive dance (Allegretto grazioso e capriccioso). Over a sinuous melody in the cellos the clarinet weaves teasing arabesques described by a bemused Musical Times critic (November 1911) as Fifine’s ‘saltatory seductions’—a phrase which may needlessly have over-excited his readers. Little by little the music becomes more passionate as the narrator grows more and more infatuated. The love scene is interrupted by an elaborate clarinet cadenza so demanding and flirtatious as to unnerve the narrator and remind him of the dependability of his wife’s love. It is her theme that now overwhelms him in a passage of great warmth and beauty for strings and horns. Further references are made to Fifine and the Fair, but all ends in disaster. There now begins the final section of the work (Lento con malinconia—an Epilogue growing out of a broken-backed version of Elvire’s theme, presented fugally by the cellos. Gradually the music takes heart and comes to a triumphant expression of Elvire’s love. But if the transgressor is forgiven, an unexpectedly plangent penultimate chord suggest a lingering regret for what has been lost. Not for nothing did Bantock, unlike Browning, subtitle his work ‘A Defence of Inconstancy’!

Throughout his career Bantock was fascinated by Celtic mythology. The publication of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's collections of Songs of the Hebrides focused his interest and provided thematic fuel for its musical expression. The two-act opera The Seal Woman (1924), the Hebridean Symphony (1913), and the Celtic Symphony (1940) are the most powerful and sustained expressions of this fruitful obsession. But there are lesser examples, and the Heroic Ballads, completed on 19 and 24 November 1944, respectively, are two of them. Both are built on songs from the Kennedy-Fraser collections. ‘Cuchullan’s Lament for his Son’ is to be found in Volume 2 (1917), as noted down by Kenneth Macleod from the singer Duncan Maclellan; and ‘Kishmul’s Galley’ in Volume 1 (1909), as collected by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser from the singing of Mary Macdonald on the island of Mingulay, Outer Hebrides.

Bantock’s treatment of both songs is exemplary. Not only does he respect the integrity of the original air but he allows it to develop symphonically in a dazzling display of orchestral wizardry. Cuchullan’s Lament is cast as an heroic threnody—the main theme announced by a solo trumpet. Cuchullan (or Cuchullin, Cuchulain, one of Ireland’s great mythic heroes) had the misfortune to slay his own son, not recognizing him. In the original song, as in Bantock’s miniature tone poem, he keeps a death watch over the stricken youth:

Woe is me! my son a-keening!
Loud o’er the moor my wail-cry,
Clanging thy shield and flame-keen sword,
Who lieth asleep in cold death.

Equally evocative is Kishmul’s Galley, whose melody Bantock had already used to marvellous effect in the Hebridean Symphony:

High from the Ben-a-Hayich
On a day of days
Seaward I gazed,
Watching Kishmul’s galley sailing.

Again the melody, heard first on the horns, provides thematic material for the entire movement, which grows organically in a wild, sea-tossed vision of ancient heroes and heroic splendour.

Michael Hurd © 1992

Other albums in this series
'Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies' (CDA66450)
Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies
'Bantock: The Cyprian Goddess & other orchestral works' (CDA66810)
Bantock: The Cyprian Goddess & other orchestral works
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'Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem' (CDA66899)
Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem
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'Bantock: Thalaba the Destroyer & other orchestral works' (CDA67250)
Bantock: Thalaba the Destroyer & other orchestral works
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67250  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
'Bantock: The Song of Songs' (CDA67395)
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'Bantock: Orchestral Music' (CDS44281/6)
Bantock: Orchestral Music
MP3 £30.00FLAC £30.00ALAC £30.00Buy by post £33.00 CDS44281/6  6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
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