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John Bevan Baker (1926-1994)

Songs of Courtship & other works

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Recording details: October 2004
Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: September 2006
Total duration: 66 minutes 6 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover by Steve Austin.

This album affords the listener a unique opportunity to explore fascinating and uncharted waters of twentieth-century British music. The majority of works date from the 1980s and early 90s, and were written during the time the composer spent in Fortrose, on the Black Isle in northern Scotland.


'You'll struggle to find Baker's name in reference books, but his brand of beautifully crafted 'community music', much of it reminiscent of Britten at his best, is certainly worth knowing' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Virkelig god musik I en venlig, imødekommende stil' (High Fidelity, Denmark)» More
Songs of Courtship
Songs of Courtship were set to music by Bevan Baker in 1992 for the Black Isle Singers. The poems, written by Mao Shih in the 7th century BC, were translated from the Ancient Chinese in 1946 by Arthur Waley. The composer loved them and maintained that they had “a simple directness which could have been written yesterday”. He wrote them as a contrasting, companion piece to the Brahms Lieberslieder Waltzern in a programme first performed by the Black Isle Singers in May 1992 in Fortrose Academy. The courtship songs, richly imaginative, vary greatly in metre and in their treatment of the enigmatic oriental lyrics, some being lightfooted, some more robust, always rhythmically challenging. The “Wedding Song” is a triumphant, rejoicing finale.

Duo was written for Douglas Boyd and William Conway, and was first performed in London in November 1981.

The main outline of the work consists of two lively, rhythmic sections set between three slow rhapsodic ones. The whole piece is centred around the note “A” and wanders off in various directions, always returning to it again. The opening section is free and leads into an Allegro scherzando. Next comes an oboe solo with “quasi guitarra” plucked chords underneath on the ‘cello, who then takes over with a solo cadenza. This leads into a gutsy Allegro vivace, followed by the final section, which dissolves gradually, becoming ever more calm and remote.

Suite for piano
The composer wrote: This suite could well be subtitled “Children’s Games”, as each of the five short movements is a thumbnail sketch of my own young family at play. An opening March (Rachel) which stumbles out of step at times, is followed by Jig (Kate), a lively twirling dance with inevitable falls and bumps. The third movement Intermezzo (Sarah) is a more restful game for two, in which the two voices, though usually in different keys, complement each other with only one moment of real discord. After Berceuse (Janet), the regular bedtime story ritual, the suite ends with Finale (Peter), an extrovert clownlike dance.

Spring was written as a birthday present for Sarah Bevan Baker, the composer’s eldest daughter. The inspiration for the piece was a poem of the same name by Thomas Nashe:

Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year’s pleasant king
Then blooms each thing, them maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing—
Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

The short piece is in Sonata-Rondo form. The themes develop from the bird-calls in the poem, the cuckoo being clearly audible at the end. The piece is free and light in spirit with the markings allegretto, delicatissimo, a piacere. Rather freely.

The name Triptych describes a set of three panels, each painted with a distinct subject, but hinged together and capable of being folded. The use of the title here implies three musical movements of varied character which are played without a break. They are based on the same two thematic ideas, which are ornamented, truncated, reversed and varied in many ways. The first section is a vigorous and rhythmic allegro energico which opens with the important chromatic four-note motif which is used throughout the piece in various forms. This gives way to a dreamy central section, based on a simple melodic elaboration of the second theme, rich in melody and colour. This is followed by an allegro vivace which sparkles and drives to a thrilling climax with the inverted opening four-note motif bringing the piece to a close.

Triptych was written for William Conway. It was first performed in 1980 by William Conway and Ian Gaukroger in Fortrose Academy, for the Black Isle Arts Society.

A Song for Kate
A Song for Kate was written in 1988 in celebration of the birth of Kate, the composer’s first grandchild. Malcolm Layfield, who played in its first private performance, subsequently suggested to Bevan Baker to expand the idea to embrace the seven ages of man as in Jaques’ speech in “As You Like It”. Berceuse thus became the first movement of the Ages of Man to be publicly performed by the Goldberg Ensemble in Manchester, in September 1990. “The infant in Berceuse is not “mewling and puking”, but falling peacefully asleep… The whole work is light and tuneful in style, and though perhaps no more profound than Jaques’ cynical speech, presents a more hopeful, positive view of life.”

Eclogue was commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble in 1994. Sadly the composer died before finishing the piece. Although it had almost been completed, the family is deeply grateful to Nigel Osborne for his skilful help in preparing the work for performance; first played by the Hebrides Ensemble in Glasgow in February 1995.

Nigel Osborne writes: “Eclogue is a work of breadth, depth and implication far beyond its modest scale. It is in a sense an evocative rhapsody, where contrasting ideas and textures follow each other in a spontaneous way, as if by accident the composer had let spill into the score a random handful of snapshots from his musical album.”

There are short character studies, sudden ecstatic dialogues, strong climaxes and a strange impressionistic half-light which glows silently in some space beyond the notes and the page.

At the same time, it is a severe work, most of the material is generated from the opening oboe melody. The apparently free-floating sequence of musical textures is in fact a systematic study of solos, duets, trios and quartets, moving through heterophony, canon, homophony, and a general counterpoint. It is a work where everything is essential in every way. In a musical world of “isms” and fashionable manner, it is a piece which concerns itself with the integrity of the musical idea and the authenticity of invention. Although the spirit of the work may have a British “pastoral” resonance, its landscapes have less to do with Constable than with Cézanne.

It is, in its small way, a major work, and a moving final statement of a composerof enormous talent and musicianship who chose the path of modesty and truth.

Nigel Osborne continues: “I was honoured to be asked to cast an eye over the final drafts of this piece. As far as I could see, it was more or less ready and complete. The small amount of reconstruction I essayed toward the end of the work is drawn directly from sketches and other compositional material.”

Rorate caeli desuper
This is a setting of the poem by the 15th century Scottish poet William Dunbar, which Bevan Baker wrote in memory of his mother.

“I must have read Dunbar as a young man living in England. My mother was a Scot and my thoughts were always turning north… As soon as I read it, it made an impact on me. Someone once talked about the effect of certain poems which you sit and read alone and when you finish you wonder where on earth the orchestra and choir you’ve been hearing came from! That’s how Dunbar’s lines struck me.”

Originally the composer set the poem for choir and organ in 1979 while living in Glasgow, but it was never performed. Re-appraising it 9 years later, and usually critical of his own work, it still had his approval. In its new setting for choir, organ, strings, trumpet and tubular bells—which gives it a mediaeval flavour—the Black Isle Singers performed it in 1988. The piece opens with a Latin chant taken up by ‘cello and bass; the cantata builds to a climax of resounding vocal and instrumental power. Sudden changes of tempi and rhythm, flourishes on the organ and trumpet, slashing string chords and peals of tubular bells, along with demanding vocal leaps match the colourful text of Dunbar. It has none of the modern (German or Dickensian) attributes of Christmas. It breathes rather the intoxication of universal spring, and summons all nature to salute “the cleir sone quhome no clud devouris”. It is strongly reminiscent of the composer’s feelings for all of creation.

Signum Classics © 2006

It is a great privilege to have this opportunity to pen a few words about John Bevan Baker and his work. He himself once said “some composers blaze trails, others go along behind clearing the path and trying to encourage that direction: I’m one of those composers.”

One can understand his feelings, but I would like, gently, to disagree. Bevan Baker’s creative peak came at a time when composers at the borders of tonality and beyond, writing for specialist professional performers, were perceived as the only trail-blazers, and received most of the critical attention.

Less publicised, but equally, and perhaps even, sub specie aeternitatis, more importantly, there are composers who make new music within and for the wider professional and amateur world in places sometimes far from those cities where professional orchestras and opera houses flourish.

In this respect, Bevan Baker’s work for his Black Isle school, chorus and festival were as pioneering and ground-breaking as anyone’s. I suspect that a production of a new opera (The Seer) in Dingwall, by a person who loves the area, on a subject familiar to all Highland Scots and very relevant to us all today, could affect more people deeply and have more musical and human resonance than one performed in the more anonymous surroundings of a metropolis, despite the latter being copiously reviewed in the national newspapers.

This is beautifully crafted, transparently honest music, of great warmth and melodic fecundity, and I am delighted it is receiving wider attention.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies © 2006

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