(Photo by AJS)
Track One: Elegy For Strings, Elgar
Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme is of music with an Autumnal air. The script was written and researched by Mike Burrows.
Our opening piece was Elegy for String Orchestra, by Elgar. This brief piece was written in the summer of 1909, two years after the First Symphony had been completed. It was commissioned by Alfred Littleton of Novello’s, Elgar’s publisher, in memory of the late Warden of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. It is a proof that brief need not mean insubstantial. Its beautifully worked textures are a masterpiece of scoring, its softly dissonant harmonies - much use of baroque overlapping phrases and seconds-based clashes - and canny interplay of treble, alto and bass instruments creating an illusion of broad yet haunting melody; it sings, but no matter how it stays in the memory, remains unhummable; its mood, likewise, is deeply sad but strangely consoling. It has something of the Celtic, specifically Welsh about it, a magical reticence and yet plangency whose sensibility is stoical but quick with magic.
Autumn. No sooner is the harvest gathered, than the work on next year’s yield begins. It is a nexus of fulfilment, loss and hopes for the future. This blend of satisfaction and discontent, of curious interplay between present and past, harvest at the full and sad decadence, is the human condition, also the mainspring of all we feel and do.
Here is a short piano-piece, Minnen (Memories), which closes the Second Book of Flowers from Froso, by the Swedish composer, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942). It is a meditation on the past Summer. Peterson-Berger had a house in the wilds of Jamtland in Northern Sweden, to which he escaped if possible every Summer from his life as a composer and music-critic in Stockholm. Famed for the forthright (and crushing) opinions that he passed on other composers - Stenhammar, Sibelius and Nielsen included - he betrayed a very different spirit in the Flowers From Froso, music for the amateur pianist that in every way lives up to the excellent example of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. Character-pieces of the period married simple tunes to aquarelle-light touches of modal or chromatic harmony, and maintain their spell of poetic evocativeness of place and feeling. Peterson-Berger would return most reluctantly by the Autumn to the wars that he himself provoked... Hence, perhaps, the end-of-school-holidays-feeling to be detected in Minnen, Memories!
Track Two: Minnen, Flowers From Froso, Peterson-Berger
Harvest-time is celebrated the world over, and music is to the fore in the form of songs and dances. Here is a Dance of The Harvesters by the Finn, Leevi Madetoja. A pupil of Sibelius, he became a fine composer in his own right, more indebted to his master in style than were many of his contemporaries, he wrote three symphonies, many orchestral suites and two national operas. The Dance of The Harvesters comes from music written for a film, The Struggle For The Homestead and reissued as the last movement of a suite, Rustic Scenes, Op77. Its style is marginally neo-baroque, perky and unpretentious, rhythmically generated, with important parts for high woodwind and deep-toned strings, the bass stepping out angularly. Its mistily oscillating secondary material is perhaps what may appear most characteristic of Sibelius. Madetoja was a good dancer and in youth something of a gymnast - as a boy, he appeared in a circus tumbling-act with his brother, his short career in the big top coming to include snake-charming, and ended abruptly by a fall from the tightrope!
Track Three: The Dance of The Harvesters, Rustic Scenes, Madetoja
Now, Moonshine In Autumn, a traditional tune from China.
A time of produce is a time of country markets. Autumn is the year’s time of wealth, if it but knew it.
The American composer, Peggy Stuart-Coolidge wrote the music for the world’s first ballet on ice. Later, she was the first American composer to whose work the Soviet Union devoted a whole gala-concert. Her music is often pictorial in intention, colourfully orchestral, with broad contrasts, opposing solemn song- or hymn-like themes with pungently irreverent song and dance - the effects are straightforward, the tunes square-cut and harmonies either affecting or briskly astringent. There is a sense of jump-cuts, of filmic episodes, lyricism alternating with what approaches slapstick or hoedown. Stuart-Coolidge worked for a time with Ferde Grofé, whose fame as a musical illustrator has remained greater than hers. Let’s hear New England Autumn - Country Fair. New England always seems to begin in a hymn.
Track Five: New England Autumn, Country Fair, Stuart-Coolidge
In similar vein, here’s a short vision of Halloween, courtesy of Charles Williams and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra! Witches’ Ride!
Track Six: Witches Ride, Williams
Autumn brings ghosts and spirits and a feeling of the uncanny, perhaps in its storms and stillness that we know is not still while the ferment of decay goes on.
Henry Cowell was one of a group of early experimenters in modernist music - Ives, Varese, Becker, Ruggles and he were mutually supportive in their own spheres of musical expression - a kind of American Mighty Handful, although the association was looser than that of Russia’s 19th Century group, Moguchaya Kuchka. Here is Cowells’ Banshee, a miniature from his Irish Suite for piano-strings and small orchestra. The atmospherics are achieved by use of harmonics and the powerful resonance built up by playing the strings of the piano with one’s hands.
Track Seven: Banshee, Irish Suite, Cowell
From that to the ghost story in which the ghosts appear flesh and blood until the crisis to which they bring a mortal, when their malevolence becomes belatedly clear. The music for the feature-film, Haunted, in which a ghost-hunter is played for a fool by the ghosts of incestuous grown-up siblings who torment their former nurse, was supplied by Debbie Wiseman. Here is an arrangement by the composer, in which the uncanny and lyrical elements of the score are presented in one movement. The tritone-based uncanniness at the outset is perhaps more impressive than the love-theme associated with the ghost of Christina Merriel. In it, chill is established by violin harmonics and trills, some use of the piano’s strings, the keys employed in an abridged and deformed arpeggio, bass chords and tone-clusters played orthodoxly.
Track Eight: Haunted, Debbie Wiseman
Now, from Halloween, we perhaps reach All Saints and All Souls. a short choral-piece by the Swede, Fredrik Sixten, born in 1962, who has been much involved in the modernization of Swedish church-music. Here is his setting of a poem by Erik Blomberg, Be Not Afraid of The Dark.
Track Nine: Be Not Afraid of The Dark, Sixten
That Igor Stravinsky studied with Rimsky-Korsakov is plain to hear in his short symphonic poem, Fireworks, a piece written while still a student. The thematic terseness, whole-tone atmosphere, bright and acerbiccontrasts in scoring got by economical means come straight out of the old master’s late operas. Something of the Dukas of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is heard in droopingly strange harmony and refined, limpid, violins-led orchestration of a short passage near the opening, the nearest the work comes to lyricism. There’s a foretaste of the rhythmical momentum of musique mechanique in this functional, not to say, perfunctory exhibition of bursts of colour and clamour.
Track Ten: Fireworks, Stravinsky
“He dreamed of the wandering Somerset lanes, the ashtrees and beeches of the Mendips, the plane-trees of Wells and Bath... The straggly willows of the levels... Beech, hawthorn and elder-hedges... The pasture and arable fields open to grey-white clouds and golden sun in brisk, cold skies... Or fogs and desolation on the living landscape, cattle, sheep and horses... Garths filled with fruit, apples, pears, plums... Wayside berries and nuts provided by chance - for the tramp or middle-class conserve- or wine-maker.
He, he was the richest man in the world, but he had been that, he knew now, all his life.”
We began with an Elegy and, to end, here is another in all but name: Herbert Howells’s early Suite for Orchestra, The B’s - written swiftly in the Autumn of 1914, and inspired and dedicated to his student-friends pictured within, one of whom was Bartholemew - Ivor Bertie (pronounced Bartie) Gurney. Howells and Gurney were old friends by the time that they won places at the RCM, coming from the same county, Gloucestershire - Howells from Lydney and Gurney from Gloucester - and sharing the same teachers. Gurney was just two years older and some inches the taller, and his friendship with Howells was bedevilled by Howells’ early success, which he tended to put down to Howells’ technique and talent for pragmatic ingratiation... That Howells understood Gurney well can be felt in Lament: Batholemew, a proud, lonesome pastoral for an awkward character of great inner beauty - and bravely faced conflict. Professor Stanford told Howells once, “Depend upon it, some day, that boy will be mad.” It took the War to End All Wars for Bartholemew to fulfil their composition-teacher’s prophecy. At the going down of the sun, we will remember them. We play this in tribute to those whom we cannot forget and whose sacrifice we celebrate every November. This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme (researched and written by Mike Burrows) was of music with an Autumn air. We hope that you enjoyed it and will listen in again soon! Goodbye!
Track Eleven: Lament, Bartholemew, Howells