Friday, 17 May 2013


CB  English Music

 

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme consists of English music, an orchestral march, a song-cycle, a slow movement for the organ and War Elegy for orchestra.

 

We begin with the Funeral March from Edward Elgar’s incidental music for WB Yeats’ and George Moore’s verse-play, Diamuid and Grania, a Tristram-and-Iseult-style love-story based on Irish legend, and staged in 19O1.  The work appears under Elgar’s title, Grania and Diamid. 

 

Where the rest of the score is almost bardic in slenderness, in the March, its leading-motives are built up into a symphonic work of grandeur and deliberate austerity.  Yeats described it as “Wonderful in its heroic melancholy.”  “Elgar,” Moore said, “must have seen the primeval forest as he wrote, and the tribe moving among the falling leaves.”

 

In this march in the aeolian mode, economy of means, including sequences, creates an impression of gravity and control that are hard to fault in any detail.


The hero, Diamuid has been killed during a boar-hunt.  The horns and trumpets above reedy oboe and plodding strings and tympani make a dry tread of the march in which soft or edged violins and violas suggest both mist and the keening that accompanied Irish funerary rites.  The trio comes not a moment
too soon at an expression of heavy, brass-laden grief.  Calling for muted brass, this trio is like a sung answer to the march but gradually, the tension increases; a broader set of sequences bring in another climax in which clarinet adds a warmer and more pathetic touch of its own.  The march returns to meet the pre-ordained climax of the piece - an impasse in which the brass are at full strength; the trio-repeat is curtailed, the dying fall comes in open fifths in a bare string texture:  and it seems that the scene - and grief itself - has dissolved into the air in futility.

 

Track One:  Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid, Elgar

 

This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme is of British orchestral and vocal music. 

 

A fine strong piece of work,” Ivor Gurney said of Vaughan Williams’ Song-cycle, Wenlock Edge, possibly the best-known settings of poems from the collection, A Shropshire Lad, by AE Housman. 
 
 
Wenlock Edge (1909) was one of the first fruits of VaughanWilliams studies with Ravel: this can be heard in pointilliste scoring of the accompaniment by piano and string quartet.  His activity in folksong collecting, arranging and digesting, and tastes in Tudor and 17th Century music are also clearly to be heard.     

 

Here, we have something of a find:  the first recording of Wenlock Edge, from 1917, sung by the singer who had given the cycle’s first performance:  the tenor, Gervaise Elwes (1866-921).  The pianist on the records,

 

FB Kiddle, had accompanied Elwes on that occasion.  The string quartet, here, is the London String Quartet, whose members included the great Albert Sammons on first violin.  In the accompaniment, one hears heavy pedalling and free rhythmical touches in the piano and strings, use of the long--drawn bow and portamento - slides between one note and the next.

 

From the onomatopoeic outset on strings and piano, the first song, On Wenlock Edge, grips the imagination.  Some actors are said to sing when they speak.  The central solidity of Elwes’ tone is impressive - his diction absolutely clear as though he speaks when he sings, his vowels correct, consonants crisp, even dutifully rolling Rs. Notice the abrupt, held-in phrasing, absolutely taut and yet magical.  Where strong feeling is called-for, he pounces with absolute security and intense specificness.  One should not doubt that this is the wind on the wooded Edge, that this is the lad’s voice, and that the thoughts that hurt though brought to the Edge and contending with the wind are thousands of years old.  The tree of man was never quiet.  Vaughan Williams sets these words with outstanding care and truth to their meaning.  The song is a development of both the initial material and an idea, a conceit or extended metaphor.  The detailing under the singer’s line - sighs, flourishes, semitonal swaying, pedal--notes is minute, tremblingly vivid and essential, the piano and strings subsidiary but telling.

 

The rapt, arpeggiated opening of From Far From Eve is matched by his staunch tone - every accent is firm, but poignant - urgency is there; this is not a song for somnambulism.  There are no wide interval drops or rises in the melody, which is almost a chant.  This throws attention onto the harmony and from this standpoint, common chords will seldom sound so strange as in this short song, a real thought of the clef of the universes, to hear the voice of 1917 in 2011!  As a fellow human being in a vastly changed world, one almost wishes to take that proffered hand.   

 

Is My Team Ploughing is a ballad dialogue in alternate verses divided between a dead man and his friend.  The dead man has his fourline melos, to which the friend’s is a rejoinder.  Elwes fines away his voice for the ghost and sounds increasingly harried - and convicted - as the worldly but now troubled friend.  The mounting tension between questioner and guilty party is breathless long before the living has indirectly to confess that he is sleeping with the dead man’s sweetheart.  “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart.  Never ask me whose!”

 

Often, this song is criticized for a melodramatic ending at odds with the style of the rest, but here, not only is Elwes more operatic than is customary now, but his performance has been planned and built up so intelligently that the extra intensity is justified, almost unbearable, the outcry of life to the unbiddable dead.  Is pity or anger uppermost?  Note the violence of emotion here.  The phrase  Never ask me whose’ is broken and purged of all but guilt, yet the strings are hawklike, gripping with a taloned repeat of the introductory bars-refrain, tension dying only as the exhausted body relaxes and sleeps.  Here, a man is caught between desire and loyalty, unable, out of pity and fear, to word outright his actions in life to a ghost.  Has he found a better bed, lying ‘as lads would choose’, than his dead friend?

When he heard this powerful setting, all Housman noted was the omission of two of his verses near the beginning - Vaughan Williams had left them out as not poetry.  Enraged, the poet sat bolt upright in his chair, red-faced, his eyebrows and moustache bristling.  

 

The third song of the cycle, “Oh, When I Was In Love With You” receives a good performance here - a short strophic song of eight lines, mocking and not unsmiling.  The carelessness of tone is to be regarded as ironical.  No-one ever gets over being in love...

 

“In Summertime On Bredon” is beautiful  in tissues of chiming piano and see-sawing strings:  the lovers on the hill hear churchbells from far and wide and dally where they are - they’ll come to church in time.   Comes the fatal verse:  the frosty sounds of the accompaniment, violins and piano, bring the verse of the girl’s rising up early and going to church alone.  Where before, it dallied, Elwes’s voice is slow, pausing, shocked, pitying, blanched, the tolling of deep cello and piano, the passing bell, the high strings the intense glare of snow as the girl goes to her grave.  The lad does not attend the funeral.  The final verse reaches the pitch of On Wenlock Edge and Is My Team Ploughing but is not overplayed - hearing the bells from the hillside - as they rise to an intolerable clamour - the lad exclaims that he will come to church himself. 

 

The return to the peace of the opening for the repetition “I will come” is pitiable indeed.  To be leaving such a beautiful world!

 

“Clun” is more leisurely than nowadays, with pronounced portamento and more rubato in the vocal line than we are perhaps used to:  the voice is carried along by the “waterwheel” motion of the music, but the placid harmonic richness underneath it will not permit total passivity - and yet the peace promised is such that we are happy to go to “the quieter place than Clun.”  The postlude rises warmly into distance of a magnificent breadth and depth - a far horizon to comfort all the hurts and ironies of what we call fate or the human condition.  Between us and it is another horizon - that which stands between us and the performance--practices of ninety-four years ago, between us and another world...    

We apologize for the sound quality of this item.  Elwes and his accompanists stood or sat in front of a large horn in a small studio - Elwes the closest - as wax was styled with the soundwaves they produced.  There were no patches, only retakes of complete sides of records; music had to be timed to fit neatly these sides. 

 

Track Two:  Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams

 

Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76) was the grandson of Charles Wesley.  Trained up as a chorister from an early age, he grew into a fine executant on the organ and impatient choir-master.  Fortunate to coincide with the rapid development of organ-design - in which he had a hand - he was unfortunate in becoming a church-musician and coinciding with a repressive period in Cathedral administration.  His career ended in a lack-lustre eleven-year tenure of the post of organist and choir-master at Gloucester Cathedral, and he died in harness.  

 

The Andante in F is his most famous instrumental work of his prime.  Something of his genius for improvization is found here.  Nothing of the age in which he lived can be heard, save the Romantic imagination and, possibly, the simple phrase and counter-phrase that serves as a refrain.  The movement as a whole resembles a hymn with side-lights - the imagination of the organist as he dreams up the figurations, decorations and contrapuntal transformations that would do justice to church-music in a no-time between verses!  So far from being cocked a snook at, the hymn undergoes attentions and stages of transfiguration that any hymn would give its eye-teeth to experience, culminating in a transformation worthy of Bach, whereat, the sober but passionate dreaming ends.  Pace his initials, S S Wesley was not one of many and didn’t sink in vain.    

 

Track Three:  Andante in F, SS Wesley

 

The Gloucestershire composer Ivor Gurney’s orchestral music is thought to consist of three works - a coronation march, a Gloucestershire Rhapsody and a symphonic movement...

Not long ago, what may be the symphonic movement mentioned in letters after the War, and is later described as an Elegy, was edited and recorded - a kind of march and trio For the Fallen.  It lasts for about ten minutes - a tragic marche funebre with a trio as long-drawn out as it is intensely moving. 

 

The piece is Elgarian in style, but not Elgar.  It is worthy of Elgar, but Gurney’s detachment from his material is less cool and unlike Elgar, he served as a soldier.  It is a sad testament to war-service; brave, halting, bearing the strokes of fate and willing itself on.  The amazed heart cries out on God, as Gurney himself wrote in one of his poems.  This is an Elegy from the ranks. The symphonic movement is mentioned in his letters in June of 1919.  “Symphonic movement sketched up to the return, and as I think, in its final form.”  In November, 1920,  five days before the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, he mentions the Elegy: “There is a hard and futile grind there...”   Had he come to intend it for use at that ceremony? God knows, one wishes that it might have been so used – or that it might have accompanied later services of Remembrance.  With Gurney’s memories, it was impossible to write another Grania and Diamuid.  The Elegy mimicks the overall structure of this masterpiece, but something less objective, something more terrible, haunts it.  It is full of strange harmonies and insistencies, a rhythmic kick and stubborn triplet fanfares halting all along, and ends in total exhaustion and defeat. 

 

Straightforward martial measures were not to be expected; the determination to stick it out takes over.  The climax that one fears seems turned away-from at last, too painful - as if Gurney’s mind could not bear the sheer physical strain of his miseries and grief for his fallen comrades, which is where the exhaustion truly came in.  It might be seen as a kind of expressionism.

 

Yes, it begins in Elgar.  The theme of the march is like a rhythmically displaced version of that of Grania and Diarmid, scored similarly, but climbing to the near-hysterical foreboding of real terror and heartbreak.  It remains controlled, almost laconic.

 

The trio is true heartbreak.  It seems a memory of the Wesley Andante in F that we have heard.  On clarinet and violins, like remembered, not to be returned-to, happiness, perhaps the very soul of the organ-pupil at Gloucester as he marched towards or away from the front lines, blooms with all the fragility of ideas of home in the mind of a doomed man...  Spiritually, the influence is transcended, but irresistible to recognize...  It is the difference between immeasurable inspiration and an already powerful sentiment.  Here, the reminiscence of a ghost of Gloucester Cathedral’s organ-loft and choir is made the more beautiful for its context.  In the army, Gurney had been looked on by even the regimental sergeant-major with awe and friendly, kidding amusement for his musicality and untidiness.  “That man, Sergeant...”- “He’s a musician, sir.”  “He backed me up once, I shall never forget it.” 


After unease has entered and pervaded the dream, and the brass have come to be party to a, swelling, noble protest, bell-like over the heads of dreamers, the ineluctable march returns; reaches its point of not going on and implodes, struggling to the last.  As in the Elgar, the trio simply dissolves from what it was to what might have been and then to nothingness..  It is as if Gurney, a keen attender of regimental reunions, is seen standing alone by the Memorial after dignitaries, guard of honour with flags, military band and a crowd of onlookers have left the Sunday street, their wreath-tributes placed.  He stands bareheaded in the rain.   He’d escaped; having ‘wangled’ a ‘blighty one’ he had missed the worst of Paschendaele and lived.  Haunted, all ends in bare fifths and drum-taps, coldly shining woodwind; the timbres of flute and clarinet capturing the ghost-voice of a bugle.

 

After the war, the advocacy of a Gervase Elwes might have made some difference to his career as composer and poet but one swallow would not have made a summer for an artist as (rightly) ambitious  as Gurney.  In any case, Elwes was killed under a train in 1921, the year before Gurney’s patience and the thread of his reason finally snapped under the strain of what he thought his obscurity.

 

Elgar, Vaughan Williams performed by Gervase Elwes, in his time a famous Gerontius, and SS Wesley:  our programme culminates in Gurney, who was inspired by all of them.

 

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and this is Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows.  We hope you enjoyed it and will join us again, soon.  Goodbye!

 

Track Four:  War Elegy, Ivor Gurney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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