For a decade and more Rubbra gave the title ‘Meditation’, with its religious connotations, to various works and passages within works, not all of them slow. The last, Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn
, Op 117, was one of two pieces from the 1960s for solo stringed instruments, the other being a set of variations for violin ‘on a Phrygian theme’. The viola work bases itself on the opening of a melody quoted in a volume of the History of Music in Sound
edited by Rubbra’s Oxford colleague Egon Wellesz, and was written for Maurice Loban, not the most prominent violist of the day but one warmly remembered by those who knew his playing well. The first performance was on 20 December 1962 in a morning recital on the BBC Home Service—scarcely a prestigious engagement. So obscure a setting for a new work by a major composer (an important contribution, indeed, to the less-than-copious modern repertoire for solo viola) epitomized the change coming over music in Britain—imagine a new piece by Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies or Goehr tucked away in a morning recital.
This is not quite a set of variations, as we soon hear in the opening seconds of what might otherwise be taken for the first variation, but here the meditations do have ‘a central theme’, referred to many times in the course of the piece, as are the ideas heard in that ‘Meditation I’. The music covers a well-contrasted range of moods including a medieval-sounding dance and, shortly before the end, an Elizabethan-sounding one, and closes with a quiet last look at the theme. Rubbra later recomposed Meditations for two violas, published as Op 117a, transforming it from a virtuoso piece to a substantial work of chamber music. This the first recording of the solo version of this work.
from notes by Leo Black © 2007