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A typical Hyperion record if we may say so—six attractive and shamefully neglected English early-to-mid-20th-century works by five composers whose names are not as familiar as they should be. As far as we can trace, none of these pieces has been commercially recorded before, although Peacock Pie was available many decades ago on a now rare Boosey & Hawkes 78rpm disc available only from the publisher. ('Peacock Pie' is the title of one of Walter de la Mare's 'books of rhymes'.)
The friendly and genial mood of this disc makes it virtually another one of our 'British Light Music Classics' CDs.
In fact the genre elicited a striking variety of treatment. This music is remarkably consistent in approach across the five composers represented here and the more than thirty-year span of their composition – broadly neo-classical, using clear-cut forms and neo-Baroque patterning in fast movements, the piano writing often in octaves, with a limpid romanticism when slow. In the hands of Armstrong Gibbs and Robin Milford the slow movements are but a step away from the sound of their contemporary Gerald Finzi, and many of these pieces exhibit the influence of that other characteristically British genre of its time – ‘light’ music. They do not encompass the various modernistic trends apparent on each side of the Second World War, yet are very much of their day.
The earliest piece in our programme is by Cyril Rootham. His Miniature Suite was written in 1921 and issued by Goodwin & Tabb; it was published in this version for strings and piano by Curwen in 1925.
Rootham, who was born in Bristol, is generally associated with Cambridge, first going up to St John’s in 1894. Like his future composition teacher Stanford, he went to Cambridge ostensibly to read Classics, but became more and more involved in music and did not leave until 1901. Later the same year he returned to St John’s as organist and Musical Director and remained there until his death in 1938.
As a composer, Rootham had his first big opportunity at the 1908 Bristol Festival (where his father had been conductor from 1878 until 1896 and was long an influential figure) with his dramatic cantata Andromeda, to a text by Charles Kingsley. A variety of short choral and orchestral works were crowned by his setting of Milton’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity – a Carnegie Competition winner in 1928 – and his Symphony in C minor in 1932. A choral second symphony was written literally on his deathbed and completed by Patrick Hadley. Rootham is probably best remembered as the composer who pipped Elgar to the post in setting Binyon’s For the Fallen during the First World War. Fortunately, both composers’ settings were completed and have come down to us.
1920 was the time when Rootham was preoccupied with his folksong opera The Two Sisters, and the first and last movements of this suite reflects this interest with their quasi-folksong themes. The limpid opening Allegretto really invents an idiom which Gerald Finzi would later make his own, the gently rising theme held across the bar, at first on piano later reinforced by strings softly stealing in. The ‘Lento assai’ slow movement continues the mood established by the first, a triplet now giving the evocative line its pastoral character, the flowing phrases treated imitatively but sung out by strings together to give emotional power to climaxes. The gently rhythmic ‘Allegro moderato e leggiero’ is characterised by its 5/4 time signature, while the ‘Molto vivace’ finale contains what may be elements of a real folksong, the swinging 3/4 time constantly threatening to turn into a waltz, before a brief reflective Lento for strings alone presages the rush to the end. The Miniature Suite was written very much in the example and influence of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite and is dedicated ‘to my Sister Mabel’, then the music mistress at Clifton High School in Bristol, for whose pupils it was presumably first intended.
Armstrong Gibbs wrote a number of works for piano and strings (optionally quartet or string orchestra with an ad libitum double bass part). Peacock Pie, dating from 1933, is the best-known of these, while the wartime Concertino of 1942 is one of the last. (Others included the dance fantasy The Enchanted Wood of 1919 and a miniature Dance Suite some thirty years later.) We tend to remember Gibbs as a composer of songs – setting his beloved Walter de la Mare – and for the once-popular slow waltz, Dusk. He was a prolific and versatile composer, his opus numbers reaching 136, with many shorter works outside the numbered canon.
Gibbs was born and died in the Essex countryside near Chelmsford. After a public school (Winchester) and Cambridge (Trinity) education, during which he read history but spent much time on music, he became a schoolmaster. In fact Gibbs had also studied music at Cambridge, staying on for two extra years and taking a second degree. His teachers were Charles Wood and Edward J Dent; he studied with the latter for a total of five years. He also went to Cyril Rootham, then organist of St John’s, for organ tuition. However, he had to earn a living and on coming down he went to teach at his former preparatory school, The Wick, near Brighton. When in 1919 he was asked to organise a special event to celebrate the retirement of the headmaster, and given a budget of £100, he chose to commission a children’s play with music to be written by himself. Gibbs’s chosen author was Walter de la Mare who, although they were then unacquainted, approved of Gibbs’s early settings of some of his poems, and produced the manuscript of the children’s play, Crossings, in a couple of months. Gibbs wrote the music for a chamber ensemble of flute, string quartet and piano, with various vocal numbers, and opted to play the piano himself. Gibbs’s early career was crowned by a performance of an orchestral suite of his Crossings music at the 1920 Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. By then he was at the Royal College of Music, where he won the Arthur Sullivan Composition Prize and had two string quartets performed. Soon afterwards he was taken on by the RCM in a teaching post which provided a financial underpinning for his career which lasted until the Second World War carried his old world away in 1939.
Gibbs found his métier as a festival adjudicator in 1923, becoming in 1937 the vice-president of the Association of British Music Festivals. His life thus revolved around the demands of amateur music-making the length and breadth of the country. His daughter remembers his life then as ‘frantically going from festival to festival, and then shut up in the study, writing’.
Gibbs’s early musical career was centred on the stage, and this certainly made his name. After Crossings came his music for the Marlowe Society’s production of Webster’s The White Devil at Cambridge in 1920 and Maeterlinck’s The Betrothal at London’s Gaiety Theatre in 1921. The latter was the sequel to the enormously popular post-war hit The Blue Bird, and it ran for 121 performances. More a succès d’estime was Gibbs’s music for the Cambridge Greek Play in 1921, the Oresteia. Four years later his comic opera Blue Peter was selected for publication by the Carnegie panel, though Vaughan Williams in his assessment wrote ‘I w[oul]d mark this A+ if it were not for the orchestration which is v[ery] bad’. Fortunately Vaughan Williams’s assessment of Gibbs’s orchestration does not extend to the rest of his music, nor to his writing for strings, which is based on a ready familiarity built on long experience. But it was Gibbs’s music for Clifford Bax’s musical comedy Midsummer Madness which reached the wider public. The production enjoyed a run of several months at Hammersmith in 1923 and was so well-received that the young Eugene Goossens conducted musical extracts on popular records of the day.
While we may feel Gibbs’s music as espousing the conservative mainstream of his youth, in fact, in its day, his early works must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Later, despite his veneration of his mentor Vaughan Williams, his hero-worship did not allow him to emulate the turbulence of that master’s Fourth Symphony. Gibbs’s music is particularly focused on his large output of songs, which run like a lyrical thread through his composing life. Many of them are settings of his favourite de la Mare, Gibbs choosing more than three dozen of his poems. De la Mare also provided the subject matter – such as ‘Peacock Pie’ or ‘The Enchanted Wood’ – for some of Gibbs’s instrumental works. And again, de la Mare was also one of the sources quarried by Gibbs for various popular choral music aimed at the local choral society market, though it was a popularity which did not long survive the Second World War. Yet in his colourful and characteristic choral ballads – very much developing the approach of Stanford in such works as The Highwayman (words by Alfred Noyes) or La Belle Dame Sans Merci (Keats) – he found a memorable narrative style of choral writing with colourful and vigorous treatment of the orchestra which even today has lost none of its attractiveness.
Gibbs’s early music was for string quartet with or without other instruments, and throughout his life this string texture was evolved to provide string orchestra music for schools and amateur orchestras. In the 1920s some of his most popular short works were written for string quartet with piano or other instruments, including using the piano quintet to accompany some of his most popular songs and the quartet as a pit orchestra for his incidental music to the Marlowe Society’s production of The White Devil.
The Second World War was a great divide in Gibbs’s life. His house was requisitioned for war work and during the conflict he and his wife moved to the Lake District and his peacetime sources of income consequently dried up. Worst of all, in November 1943, their son David was killed in action. Although they would return to Essex and to Danbury, the world could never be the same again. Yet Gibbs remained a countryman all his life, and to that extent he was isolated from the professional cut-and-thrust in which he could participate only if he lived in a musical centre such as London. But his lifelong work with local amateur groups left him passionate in his championship of the regional and decentralisation, and this is reflected in much of his music. He said: “London must stop imagining that it is the only real centre of music in Britain … it is not competent to dictate the musical needs of the rest of the country, and … it is in no way superior.”
So many British composers from the earlier part of the twentieth century have found the simple children’s verse of Walter de la Mare an inspiration for music, notably in the period immediately after the nightmare of 1914/18. De la Mare’s archetypal collection, Peacock Pie: a book of rhymes, from which Gibbs takes his title, first appeared in 1913. Each of the three movements of Gibbs’s work takes its title and mood from the de la Mare poem standing at the head of the music. Thus the first movement, ‘The Huntsmen’:
Three jolly gentlemen,
In coats of red,
Rode their horses
Up to bed.
The contrast from the brilliance of ‘The Huntsmen’ to ‘The Sunken Garden’ is achieved by using muted strings throughout, with a pianissimo piano part consisting almost entirely of a soft low E in the left hand playing across the bar.
Speak not – whisper not;
Here bloweth thyme and bergamot
This time the words come from de la Mare’s 1918 collection, Motley and Other Poems.
For the third movement ‘The Ride-by-Nights’ we are back with Peacock Pie in Gibbs’s favourite galloping 6/8 time.
Up on their brooms their Witches stream,
Crooked and black in the crescent’s gleam;
One foot high, and one foot low,
Bearded, cloaked, and cowled, they go.
There is, however, nothing spooky or fearsome about these witches; they are strictly of the nursery, and a nursery remembered through nostalgic adult eyes.
Nearly ten years on, the Concertino for piano and string orchestra, Op 103, adopts a similar approach but on a larger and more formal scale. Written at Windermere in September and October 1942, it was published in 1944, and its composition predates the death of Gibbs’s son. Played by the popular French actress and pianist Yvonne Arnaud, a British resident during the war, to whom it is dedicated, its elegiac tone in the first two movements proclaims its more serious intent. The first movement carries the weight of the piece, and its sombre tone is belied by the skittish opening piano theme played as a simple octave. The long renewing lyrical string line is given unexpected passion and meaning as the piano responds with a fully harmonised version. The music has three elements: powerful and lyrical romantic music for piano and orchestra; simple reflective interludes; and the carefree opening piano theme which is less and less in evidence, as if symbolising the change from the previous carefree life. But it is the simple reflective interludes (as at around 2’ 30) that bring a sudden lump to the throat, and it is with one of these that the movement ends in a mood of almost unbearable apprehension. In its quiet country way, this is passionate, and ultimately tormented, music.
The slow movement is little more than a brief lyrical interlude, its elegiac tone heralded by the opening sixteen-bar piano solo, immediately reinforced by the strings. The piano sings out the tune, its interplay with the strings creating a remarkably passionate moment. Gibbs has the ability to create a mood, a world, with the merest whisper of string or piano tone, as at the close of this movement. The mood is still elegiac, as if the composer is looking out at the Lake District countryside already showing signs of the approach of winter, beautiful but quite different to his home in Essex, and sensing (or perhaps dreading) a more imminent personal sorrow.
The finale, a headlong dancing 6/8, is a light-hearted foil to what has gone before. There is certainly no angst in this outgoing music, perhaps intended to indicate that life is very much business as usual and one way or another we will all come through. With its catchy themes Gibbs clearly intends to send the audience away whistling (why don’t people whistle any more?) the tunes.
Madeleine Dring, thirty-four years Gibbs’s junior, also tried to make her career in the theatre and arrived at a personal compromise in what was regarded as light music, and on occasion she was compared by some to Gershwin. Actress and entertainer, she was born at Hornsey and died at Streatham, so was very much a Londoner, unlike Gibbs and others in our programme who were countrymen. Dring attended the Royal College of Music where her teachers were Howells, Gordon Jacob and a by now elderly Vaughan Williams.
Dring’s some two dozen scores for BBC radio, the theatre and latterly television, meant that her music was widely heard even when the name of its composer was not familiar. Dring’s music came to a wider audience after her death with Thames Publishing’s edition of her songs and the resulting popularity of her Five Betjeman Songs written the year before she died. However, Dring was not accorded the recognition of an entry in Grove’s Dictionary of Music before the second edition of The New Grove in 2001.
Dring produced a succession of lighter orchestral and instrumental works, often incorporating Latin-American rhythms, in such works as the Fantastic Variations on Lilliburlero for two pianos of 1948, and a succession of popular dance pieces such as the Caribbean Dance of 1959 and the Dance Suite of 1961.
The Festival Scherzo was Dring’s response to the celebrations for the Festival of Britain in 1951. This four-and-a-half minute jeu d’esprit is characterised by the piano’s opening theme which consists of an upward arpeggio followed by a returning downward scale ending on a ‘wrong note’ and driven by a relentless 12/8, and with constant chromatic changes and popular elements such as the Cockney swagger of the second subject, perhaps reflecting similar pieces by Poulenc or Ibert. The opening section – more than half the piece – ends with the piano crunching out dissonant chords in an exuberant mood before the reflective middle section, soon followed by a brief cadenza, marked as such, and the return of the opening theme.
Gordon Jacob enjoyed a long career which stretched from the First World War to the early 1980s, during which time he wrote an enormous amount of music including concertos for almost every conceivable instrument, including the harmonica and the accordion. Jacob served in the First World War in which his brother Anstey was killed, an event which thereafter cast an immense shadow over his life. Jacob himself was taken prisoner, and on his release became a student and later a professor at the Royal College of Music, continuing to teach there for over forty years, a notable authority on orchestration, writing four books widely used by students in their day. His own use of the orchestra was clean and telling rather than rich and luxurious, and many of his concertos were scored just for strings. His large-scale works other than the concertos, though most were commissioned and performed, were never really accepted into the regular repertoire. They include two symphonies, the first of which was written as a memorial to his brother.
Jacob’s music includes a variety of early songs, choral works, chamber music, a long succession of orchestral works – which largely made his name – the ballet Uncle Remus (1934), and a succession of pieces for wind band written in his last years when his other orchestral music was out of favour and little performed. In the 1920s he first made a reputation with his arrangements of the music of William Byrd for band, and with his Viola Concerto in 1925 (1926 Proms). He returned to the Proms with the overture Clogher Head in 1928, the Passacaglia on a Well-Known Theme in 1935, and in 1937 with Variations on an Original Theme; for the ten years from 1947 he appeared almost every year, but was then completely dropped by the BBC. His orchestrations of the band music of Holst and Vaughan Williams, starting with Vaughan Williams’s Folk Song Suite in 1924, were very widely played.
Jacob first wrote for piano and strings when in 1927 he produced a concerto which was played by the Australian composer and pianist Arthur Benjamin. Twenty-seven years later in the Concertino for piano and strings, Jacob finds a more hard-edged sound-world than his contemporaries in our programme, and despite the small scale of his movements creates a notably personal world.
The three-minute miniature first movement is derived almost entirely from the catchy one-bar falling motif we hear at the outset, which recurs again and again. This generates the lyrical slow theme which follows, briefly given telling emotion as a high violin solo. The music is given an almost Gallic elegance and wit by the constant chromatic changes and the dry insouciance of the presentation.
The following slow movement is notable for the chiselled lines of the piano writing, at first just a single line in either hand but given sudden warmth by the unexpected arpeggiated accompaniment. Towards the end the music increases in tempo as the piano has a miniature cadenza before the reflective close.
The finale rolls scherzo and finale into one with a skittish neo-classical movement in which the piano writing is notably clean, eschewing warm harmonies or classical piano figurations, but consisting of a rhythmic piano line in two parts, occasionally harmonised in fourths and octaves. This gives a dry and objective sound-world, brief and to the point, in which all is over and done in under three minutes.
Robin Milford’s Concertino in E was written in 1955 and first performed in 1958, the last year of his life. Milford had been born in Oxford in 1903. He was the eldest son of the celebrated Sir Humphrey Milford, later publisher to the Oxford University Press. This was very much a middle class upbringing, Milford (and his brother) going to Rugby and later to the Royal College of Music (where his teachers were Vaughan Williams and Holst). To no composer more than Milford were the tablets of the English Musical Renaissance, as exemplified by Holst and Vaughan Williams in 1920, specifically handed down, and he remained a lifelong disciple of Vaughan Williams, whom he survived by only a year.
By the age of thirty Milford had established himself with a large and varied catalogue of works. The young composer earned his living working for a firm making piano rolls, a technology that did not long survive the crash of 1929. In 1928 his Double Fugue for orchestra won one of the last Carnegie Composition prizes while his dramatic oratorio A Prophet in the Land, composed in 1929 and heard at the Gloucester Three Choirs in 1931, immediately pre-dates the blaze of Belshazzar’s Feast the same year, and is only remembered, if at all, as being the first modern work to ask for a recorder in the orchestration. Later in the 1930s the BBC broadcast a Concerto Grosso and a violin concerto.
The great tragedy in Milford’s life, from which he never really recovered, came in 1941 when his six-year-old son Barnaby was killed in an accident. Milford continued to compose, works including the Elegiac Meditation for viola and strings, the music now seeming to have a darker and more wistful tone. This was followed by what is perhaps his best-known orchestral work, Fishing by Moonlight for piano and strings (1952, published in 1958), to which this Concertino is a companion piece.
The Concertino dates from 1955 and is in three movements: a genial ‘Allegro moderato’, a characteristic Romanza (‘Poco adagio’), and an effervescent Rondo (‘Vivace’) finale, the theme given out in running octaves interrupted towards the end by a ‘Poco adagio’ interlude which provides a characteristic reflective moment before the rush to the throw-away end. It is in the Romanza that we find one of Milford’s most characteristic moments, a delightful tune in 12/8 first announced by the piano and then sung by the strings. Yet below its quiet surface there lurks a passionate vision, the fifth bar being marked ‘appassionato’ as the piano right-hand octaves rise above the stave. Later the movement rises to a warmly sonorous climax with the return of the opening theme, now richly harmonised.
Lewis Foreman © 2002