Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDS44281/6 - Bantock: Orchestral Music
The Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1903) by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDS44281/6
(Originally issued on CDA67250, CDA67395)
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2007
Total duration: 449 minutes 17 seconds

'Bantock's prodigious output as a composer … rested in the long grass for decades until Vernon Handley's Hyperion recordings revealed the many qualities of Bantock's orchestral music. At its best, in works such as A Hebridean Symphony and The Cyprian Goddess, there's a richness of sound that recalls the tone poems of Strauss blended with shades of Wagner' (Classic FM Magazine)

'What an achievement! Twenty-one late-romantic orchestral works in one box at mid-price or better. Bantock's lavish romanticism is superbly served by both artists and recording team. Discovery after discovery' (MusicWeb International)

'Le label Hyperion a la bonne idée de regrouper en un coffret ses enregistrements consacrés à une bonne partie de l’œuvre symphonique du compositeur anglais Granville Bantock. Grand ami du fantasque compositeur Havergal Brian, Bantock vit sa gloire restaurée grâce à cette série d’enregistrements couverts de prix et de récompenses à leur sortie en disques séparés' (ResMusica.com, France)

'E'n revanche, tous les amoureux de la démesure, des grands climax et des tonalités superposées devraient trouver un bonheur immédiat à l’écoute de ce coffret. Une référence' (Classiqueinfo-disque.com)

Orchestral Music
CD1
CD2
CD3
CD4
Beginning: Prelude  [10'40]
CD5
CD6
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It is rare that a series of recordings almost single-handedly changes the critical standing of a composer, yet Vernon Handley’s promotion of the music of Sir Granville Bantock, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as sympathetic partners, has been a revelation. Recorded by Hyperion between August 1990 and April 2003, this triumphant survey of almost all the principal orchestral works of Bantock has underlined the importance of the interpretation and performance of this music for its proper assessment.

Sir Granville Bantock’s orchestral music was written over a span of fifty years, a remarkable period, which not only saw two successive dramatic revolutions in musical style, but also the changes attendant on two world wars. Bantock set out as a confident Edwardian and when the First World War ended he was fifty, and the shadow of his Edwardian self still informs his later scores. At the time seen as a crippling limitation, we can now hear that this in no way compromises their impact on a post-modern audience nearly a century later.

Granville Ransome Bantock was the son of a distinguished surgeon and gynaecologist, and thus came from a comfortable Victorian family background. Born in 1868, Bantock’s youthful world was one of privilege, quality, servants—but also of 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 he started to study for the Indian Civil Service. It did not work out and he later changed to chemical engineering, but music constantly intervened and 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 resulted in student performances of his orchestral works, his overture The Fire Worshippers being played in an Academy concert in December 1890, later given by August Manns at Crystal Palace. Various other scores were heard 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 one-act opera Caedmar.

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, whose London office had only recently opened.

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 had to establish 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. Sidney Jones’s celebrated show A Gaiety Girl was the star production. Not only did this provide paid work, for a trip Bantock himself later calculated to have lasted 431 days, but it gave him a wealth of practical music-making and experience, and it also allowed him to see the world at an impressionable age. However, all too soon reality intruded: back in England on 5 December 1895 work was still hard to find. So it was back to 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 and Arthur Hinton are remembered at all today. The concert included three of Bantock’s recent works and saw the first performance of The Funeral from The Curse of Kehama, the earliest score recorded here (under its later title Processional). 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. 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 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 musical 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 Elgar may well have been shown the score).

Bantock still did not have a regular source of income. 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 new Midland Institute School of Music in Birmingham in 1900. Later, in 1907, Bantock succeeded Elgar as Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, going on to hold the appointment for twenty-seven years. Later he became associated with the 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.

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. This included a succession of large-scale orchestral, and vocal and orchestral scores on exotic subjects, such as the song cycle Sappho, six tone poems including The Witch of Atlas, Dante and Beatrice and Fifine at the Fair, all crowned by his enormous setting of the whole of Edward Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyám, which runs for 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. Viewed from a perspective of over fifty years this is no longer a bar to the proper appreciation of Bantock’s vivid and colourful art.

The Witch of Atlas, originally the fifth of Bantock’s series of six tone poems, was his commission for the 1902 Three Choirs Festival at Worcester. In it he turned to Shelley for his programme and paints a musical picture of another charismatic and seductive woman, whose portrait is evoked by an almost Mahlerian theme first presented at the beginning by a violin solo.

From the first Bantock was regarded by his young contemporaries as a musical leader—in modern parlance a ‘role model’. The critic Ernest Newman reported how: ‘Those of us who were then “young” and “modern” regarded Bantock as of much more importance than Elgar … Bantock was definitely “contemporary”. Indeed it was Elgar himself who referred to Bantock as “having the most fertile musical brain of our time”.’

Bantock’s first successes in the last years of Victoria’s reign were with orchestral works such as the Two Orchestral Scenes, completed in 1894 as part of an enormous cycle of twenty-four tone poems that he never finished, taken from Robert Southey’s epic poem The Curse of Kehama. Bantock later took the two most self-contained movements and published them as Two Orchestral Scenes, the first of which was the Processional (originally called The Funeral) heard here.

Bantock was a man given to enthusiasms, and while his early models were Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and later Richard Strauss, when Elgar’s Enigma Variations appeared he was quick to emulate Elgar with his Helena Variations (1899), written for his wife and anticipating his later orchestral idiom. Later that year he wrote the first of his series of six tone poems, Thalaba the Destroyer, still inhabiting that earlier orchestral sound world, and especially influenced by the music of Tchaikovsky who was then all the rage.

Bantock emerged as a significant composer in the early 1900s, with a reputation that turned on his vocal music, both solo and choral. As we have seen Bantock was given to vast musical epics which, envisioned in a moment, actually took years to complete. The second of these, conceived in the late 1890s, was an epic re-telling of the story of Christ, and Bantock’s Christus was actually completed, in a vast 700-page orchestral full score.

Christus was composed at much the same time as Elgar was working on The Apostles and The Kingdom. However, Bantock’s vision was much less practicable, and to make his music performable Bantock extracted several groups of numbers as short oratorios in their own right, including Christ in the Wilderness (1907). Although published in vocal score, this was not often performed. But from it came a favourite encore, often heard in orchestral and choral programmes until the 1930s, the soprano solo The Wilderness and the Solitary Place, actually first heard in 1903. Its character as an exotic dance is marked by tambourine and idiosyncratic scoring for wind and harps.

The difficulties of programming even such a short piece illuminate the practical problems of such revivals. The full score of the aria was published in 1908, but finding a copy was not easy. The original publisher no longer acknowledged having it. The Bantock family could not help, but just as I was wondering whether I was strong enough to cope with trying to reconcile the published vocal score with the manuscript full score of Christus, a copy was located in the Beecham Library at Sheffield University, and with written permission from Bantock’s grandson a photocopy was obtained, and new orchestral parts were commissioned.

Many of Bantock’s cycle of six tone poems were later revised, and among these were Dante and Beatrice, first heard in 1901 and revised in 1910, and The Witch of Atlas from 1902. Bantock did not provide a close programme for Dante and Beatrice, but the first version’s sequence of ‘Dante’, ‘Strife of Guelphs and Ghibelines’, ‘Beatrice’, ‘Dante’s Vision of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven’, ‘Dante’s Exile’ and ‘Death’ appears to have been maintained.

As a man of the popular theatre, Bantock had a dramatic feeling for the setting of words. He always seems to have visualized a stage image when producing vocal music, whether choral or solo, especially when the orchestra was involved. The remarkable orchestral song cycle Sappho is a case in point. To judge from the critics’ reviews, for most people this was the least expected rediscovery of Hyperion’s Bantock series.

These vocal works were big in personality and required big voices to project them. Bantock was a Wagnerian by temperament and technique, though creating a sound world that was increasingly his own, if very much of its time. Yet here is a major figure, whose music is an individual experience which once absorbed is unlikely to leave you. In the early 1900s Bantock developed a remarkable personal language fusing vocal line and accompaniment—usually orchestra—which he used to set quasi-philosophical texts often taken from Victorian English translations of middle-Eastern verse: Hafiz, Omar Khayyám and Browning’s imagined verses of the Persian historian Ferishtah. Sappho, too, was one of these.

The Greek poetess Sappho lived two-and-a-half thousand years ago, and her poetry survives only as a collection of brief fragments reassembled by scholars from the texts of grammarians and classical lexicographers. Bantock’s text is actually by his wife, and Helen Bantock has taken the fragments from what was then the recent English edition by H T Wharton and reassembled them to form a series of nine coherent poems, reordering the words and adding not a few of her own to make it all ‘poetic’. It all works remarkably well.

Bantock’s subject is love, or rather passion. As Joseph Addison remarked about Sappho, as long ago as 1711: ‘She felt the Passion in all its Warmth, and described it in all its Symptoms.’ The Bantocks were clearly writing from first hand, too, more interested in the power of this unreasoning emotion, than in the sex of the object of Sappho’s desire. The cycle really grips when Sappho is suffering owing to jealousy or loss. In the fifth song she sleeps and in a passionate troubled dream is tormented by longing. The beginning underlines the haunted atmosphere.

The moon has set, and the Pleiades;
It is midnight; time is going by,
And I sleep alone.

But the cycle must be heard as a sequence to appreciate the dramatic achievement of the Bantocks, and also to discover the more popular songs that he includes, such as the ‘Evening Song’ or the penultimate ‘Bridal Song’, which had been forgotten.

Including the orchestration, Sappho was written between about 1900 and 1907, and this was also the time Bantock was working on setting the complete Fitzgerald text of The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyám. Bantock’s enthusiasm for things eastern was not as superficial as one may be tempted to think, and he launched into learning Persian (Farsi) and certainly owned Arabic books all his life; they were even found beside his bed when he died.

Bantock’s most celebrated choral work is his setting of the eleventh-century Persian astronomer, mathematician and poet Omar Khayyám. Edward Fitzgerald’s English text was a notable literary phenomenon of Victoria’s reign. Yet it was a literary work which took some time to become established, and although published privately in 1859, Fitzgerald was not 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. The fifth edition consisted of 101 quatrains, and it was this that Bantock set.

In Omar Khayyám Bantock gives us three soloists—the Poet, the Beloved and the Philosopher—while his Straussian forces include two full string orchestras, disposed left and right of the conductor. The music is set in three parts, the first being heard at the Birmingham Festival of 1906, the same year as Elgar’s The Kingdom; parts two and three followed respectively at Cardiff in 1907 and Birmingham again in 1909. The first complete performance was in London, at Queen’s Hall, on 15 February 1910.

The overriding theme of The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyám is the transience of existence, and the insignificance of the individual. Bantock’s underlying message is certainly ‘Waste not your hour’—we come to those actual words at the end of part one. After the Prelude Bantock gives us a number of set pieces, and the most extended of these is the phantom ‘Camel Caravan’ towards the end of the first part. The beginning evokes the desert, with far-off horns heralding the distant procession which slowly comes across the horizon, the male chorus humming a Turkomani melody. Here it is interesting to hear the camel bells with their reiterated rhythm—an effect almost immediately purloined by Sir Henry Wood for his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. This is an epic vision in cinemascope.

Bantock’s most sumptuous orchestral music was written between 1908 and the First World War, and as always he responded most vividly to a detailed programme. At this time he wrote his two most colourful and detailed scores: Pierrot of the Minute and Fifine at the Fair.

Pierrot of the Minute, after a poem by Ernest Dowson, is described as a ‘comedy overture’. It was written and first performed in 1908. The programme is not something that could have been successful after 1914–18, for in it he tells the story of Pierrot who

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 piece ends with the awakening of Pierrot, his love-dream being but the illusion of a minute. Not surprisingly it was soon taken up as a ballet.

Even more vividly programmatic is Fifine at the Fair, possibly Bantock’s orchestral masterpiece, and perhaps his most familiar orchestral work because it was long in the repertoire of Sir Thomas Beecham. It was first heard at the Birmingham Festival of 1912. Subtitled ‘A Defence of Inconstancy’, it takes its story from a convoluted poem by Browning. In the Prologue, which Bantock calls ‘Amphibian’, he divides the strings into twenty-one parts to evoke the sea of life over which flutters the female butterfly which attracts the poet’s attention. There follows a picture of the Fair which quotes the tune ‘The Carnival of Venice’ and has much illustrative detail. Fifine the butterfly now appears, her seductive presence evoked by a solo clarinet which is contrasted with the melody for the poet’s wife, Elvire. Eventually Elvire leaves him and he thinks of her and in the Epilogue they are reconciled.

The Overture to a Greek Tragedy, first performed at Worcester in 1911, is painted on a broader orchestral canvas and with a broader attention to the story. Bantock, as we have seen, was a man of enthusiasms, and his love of Classical Greece, its literature and plays, is especially reflected in his later music, starting just before the First World War. He wrote a variety of orchestral tone poems based on (and usually named after) Classical plays, encompassing Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, or the Women’s Festival (in the Overture to a Greek Comedy), The Frogs and The Birds; Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and—one of Bantock’s last works—Euripides’ The Bacchantes. The Greek tragedy of the overture recorded here 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 the knowledge of the place where he will die, which will provide a talisman for future security.

During the First World War few British composers wrote symphonies and none of them was on a war theme as so many were between 1939 and 1945. A Hebridean Symphony announced a new Bantock enthusiasm: Scotland and the Hebridean folk songs collected by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser. Bantock came to know Kennedy-Fraser well. The symphony was in fact completed before the outbreak of the war, in 1913, but was first heard in Glasgow in 1916. Bantock subsumes into one continuous structure the elements of four movements, each based on a familiar Hebridean song, all of which are heard in the coda. Notable for its vivid use of the orchestra, especially the brass, the symphony is like nothing else of its time.

The Two Hebridean Sea Poems—Caristiona and The Sea Reivers—were originally written as separate works. Bantock set them together only for his revision of 1944, and recorded here are the first versions. In 1917 Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser published her second volume of Hebridean tunes to which Bantock contributed a high-flown and ecstatic introduction, and almost immediately he took a tune from it, ‘The Sea Reivers’, which he set for orchestra. It was originally intended as the scherzo for A Hebridean Symphony. The gentler Caristiona from the same collection dates from November 1920.

One work spans the First World War, Bantock’s literal setting of words from the King James Bible—The Song of Songs. If we look at Bantock’s diary for Tuesday 2 July 1912 we read: ‘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, and other portions.’ The Prelude was finished by 17 July. This was another ambitious Bantock project conceived in an afternoon but not to be completed for fifteen years. Nevertheless it is clear that The Song of Songs is not a post-First World War work at all; in concept and invention it comes at the end of that run of expansive creation that produced Bantock’s other Edwardian epics. Much of the composition of the work took place in 1915 and 1916; it was the ultimate orchestration that took so long, and although the Prelude and one scene were heard at Gloucester in 1922, the orchestration ran on until 7 October 1926, the complete work being given by the Hallé Orchestra on 10 March 1927.

Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ran through the orchestral Prelude at the end of one of Hyperion’s Bantock sessions, and it won everyone over; it was then recorded properly for the next volume of the Bantock series. Having had a good reception, the vocal music from The Song of Songs was then considered, and here there was another aid to assessment: Bantock’s own surviving off-air acetates of a BBC broadcast of 20 March 1936 of scene 2 (the Second Day). Bantock clearly regarded this as a quasi-stage work, for he actually gives instructions for the mise en scène and the phrase ‘Curtain Rises’ appears in the vocal score. After the extended orchestral Prelude, there are five scenes each with a choral interlude or interludes. The fourth is also preceded by an extended prelude largely given over to a slave girl’s dance in mock eastern style. The first four scenes have the same setting: ‘The Women’s Apartment in the Palace of the King. Lattice Windows at the back.’ The fifth scene is set ‘at the foot of a Watch Tower (L) among the vineyards of Lebanon. In the centre a large apple-tree in full Blossom. (Dawn).’

In matters of religion Bantock was very much a free spirit, and he responded to the fatalism of Omar Khayyám, the Sufism of Hafiz and the philosophy expressed by Browning in Ferishtah’s Fancies (not included in this set), in terms of a colourful sweep and a broad humanity. He came similarly to Biblical words and 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.

In the first vocal extract—the Second Day—the Shulamite, troubled by a dream, enters hurriedly from her sleeping chamber, and finding the apartment empty goes to the lattice window, which she throws wide open, revealing a starlit sky and the distant hills. This scene continues with the evocative orchestral music from the Third Day. The King has presented the Shulamite with extravagant gifts, depicted by Bantock at great length. We hear the end of this passage. Realizing his suit has failed he leaves, and the Shulamite reflects on her shepherd-lover and sees him in a vision.

By the time we reach the closing pages of this enormous work, in the Fifth Day, the music has been running for over two hours. The shepherd-lover now appears and here we have some of the most familiar Biblical words of all: ‘Many waters cannot quench love’ and ‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart’. They are usually set in a respectful ecclesiastical idiom, but Bantock forgets religion—he sets them as a glorious love-duet.

Early in the First World War Bantock completed his first extended work on a classical subject, The Great God Pan, a huge stage-work involving dance and mime, enormous choral and orchestral forces and four solo singing parts. Only the first part, ‘Pan in Arcady’, was ever finished or performed and the sketches for the more serious second part, ‘The Festival of Pan’, were recast as the Pagan Symphony, published and first performed in 1936.

Bantock completed the Pagan Symphony in piano score while in Canada, on 17 August 1923. However he was still working on The Song of Songs, and the orchestration was delayed, the orchestral full score actually being dated 3 September 1927 to 20 June 1928. Bantock prefaced his score with the familiar Latin tag ‘Et ego in Arcadia vixi’ (‘I too have lived in Arcady’) and looked to the Latin poet Horace’s second book of Odes for a programme. Again Bantock gives us a one-movement work, running for over thirty-five minutes, but one in which, after a slow introduction which presents the principal ideas, a fast movement is followed by a scherzo (called ‘Dance of Satyrs’), which looks back to ‘The Festival of Pan’, and then with a fanfare, which quickly evolves into a more stylized dance. The slow movement evokes in sensuous terms the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who would soon be the subject of his third symphony, finished in 1939. The finale is unexpectedly triumphant and confident, particularly for a work first heard in 1936. Possibly this golden Arcadian vision, a paean of praise for Aphrodite, did not find a sympathetic audience before the War, and it did not find a ready champion until long after.

In the late 1930s Bantock travelled to the Far East, representing Trinity College of Music on an examination tour. He had the time of his life at the College’s expense and wrote most of his symphony The Cyprian Goddess while sailing across the Pacific. It must be the only extended work by a British composer to be completed in Fiji (on 12 January 1939). First known as ‘Aphrodite in Cyprus’ Bantock styled it Symphony No 3.

Bantock looked again to the second book of Horace’s Odes for his imagery and a tag, this time concerning Venus. The music plays continuously, but consists of a variety of contrasted sections, and the feeling of a story or succession of images is striking. Bantock gives us no detailed programme, but from time to time he writes a classical quotation (in English translation) above the score, thus indicating the major milestones, and effectively marking four movements, each of several sections. The first five minutes of the music can thus be regarded as an extended prelude, setting the scene, in which recurring motifs are introduced.

The first quotation is from Theocritus: ‘Ay, but she too came, the sweetly smiling Cypris, craftily smiling she came, yet keeping her heavy anger’. Bantock marks the music liberamente and launches a long lyrical passage taken by violins in octaves; this rises to a climax, like waves breaking on a rock, and then falls quiet again. Now follows a quotation from the Smyrna Pastoral poet Bion: ‘Mild Goddess, in Cypris born—why art thou thus vexed with mortals and immortals?’. Bantock’s marking is animando, and the texture of repeated quavers in the strings reminds us of his friend Sibelius. This is sea-music in the tradition of his earlier Hebridean Symphony and leads to a passage of repeated fanfaring trumpets reminiscent of the climax of that work. Eventually the storm subsides and quiet music leads to a violin solo launching the third section.

As the solo violin plays above a hushed accompaniment of muted strings we have another quotation from Bion: ‘Great Cypris stood beside me while still I slumbered’. The tempo marking is lentamente; Bantock’s dream is of romance and the exotic as he soon presents a wide-spanning string tune and then contrasts it with oriental dances at first delicate, then much wilder. The opening cello and double-bass motif returns on clarinet and Bantock launches into glowing and triumphant orchestral love music and his fourth quotation, now from Bion’s pupil Moschus: ‘His prize is the kiss of Cypris, but if thou bringest Love, not the bare kiss, O stranger, but yet more shalt thou win’. The end is happy and affirmative, the material from the opening returns, no longer questioning but heroic and confident, and eventually with a quiet sunset epilogue Bantock’s vision fades from sight.

This may have been a strange work to have written at the turn of 1938/9, yet Bantock’s dream of Aphrodite and of a happier time is vivid and gripping, as Scheherazade-like he evokes an antique world. It is now almost a cliché to refer to the Freudian imagery of the sea, yet it is surely no accident that as the seventy-year-old composer’s thoughts are of love and his earlier life, he finds his most compelling metaphor in thrilling sea music. As his liner crosses the Pacific the final sunset glow is for the moment without any hint of the war or the horrors and deprivations so soon to come.

During the Second World War, with few royalties and no job, Bantock found himself financially hard-pressed. His saviour was Cyril Neil, one of the directors of the publisher Paxton, who commissioned various popular arrangements and a succession of mood-music pieces for issue on the Paxton series of 78rpm records. Among this music was A Celtic Symphony for strings and six harps, and the Two Heroic Ballads; these Ballads, dating from November 1944, again take tunes from the Kennedy-Fraser Hebridean songs, and present them colourfully orchestrated. Cuchullan’s Lament and Kishmul’s Galley were written each to fit on one side of a 12-inch 78, and were conducted by Bantock himself on the Paxton label.

A Celtic Symphony was completed on 16 September 1940 and also revisits the composer’s earlier enthusiasm for the Hebridean folk songs collected by Kennedy-Fraser. Numerically this is the composer’s fourth orchestral symphony, and he again writes it in one continuous movement. However, even more than its predecessors, there appear various sections that more or less approximate to a traditional symphony, and this was particularly apparent when it was first recorded on 78rpm discs.

After a slow introduction there follows a bold Allegro con fuoco in which the thrusting main theme is soon contrasted with a passionate lyrical tune, possibly of Bantock’s own making. The featured Hebridean song is ‘Sea-Longing’, which appears in the middle slow movement and via an expressive linking passage for solo cello leads to a scherzo-like episode, headed in the score ‘Port-a-Bial’ before the majestic final section where the theme from the slow introduction returns and is hymned by the wide-spaced strings and six harps.

Bantock’s musical vision was a richly decorated one, his orchestral palette one that had habitually used the largest forces, and knew how effective they could be. He lived out of his time and was so thoroughly rejected by a later generation of musicians, that whatever the wider musical public might have thought, his music was rarely heard, and the few performances he received were generally half-hearted. Even his centenary celebrations, in 1968, only generated some specialized interest. Yet over the years his aesthetic has come to be more widely accepted, and now, in a new century, a younger generation has been amazed to discover the varied riches that Bantock at his best can offer.

Lewis Foreman © 2007


Other albums in this series
'Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies' (CDA66450)
Bantock: Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies
'Bantock: Pagan Symphony' (CDA66630)
Bantock: Pagan Symphony
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy 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
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66810  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
'Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem' (CDA66899)
Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy 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
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)
Bantock: The Song of Songs
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67395  Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6  
Show: MP3 FLAC ALAC
   English   Français   Deutsch