This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. Let’s begin with a nocturne of great beauty written for tenor solo, solo viola, semi-chorus and orchestra, by Sir George Dyson, Night Hath No Wings, a conflation of verses by Robert Herrick and Isaac Williams. It forms the third movement of a massive “Cycle of Poems” written for performance at the Three Choirs Festival: Quo Vadis, or in English, Whither goest thou? The austere timbre of the viola sets the tone for what follows: an arioso not far removed in melodic or harmonic style from those of the Seventeenth Century of Herrick - incidentally, Isaac Williams was a Victorian and follower of the Oxford Movement. Dyson sets the words with modest aptness, but smouldering intensity in which voice, viola and strings vie in pathos, woodwind - flute and clarinet - introducing a kind of sickroom closeness. Pizzicati punctuate.
Night hath no wings for him that cannot sleep;
And time seems then not to fly, but creep;
Slowly her chariot drives as if that she
Had broke her wheel...
In the hour of my distress,
When temptations me oppress...
When God knows I’m tossed about
Either with despair or doubt,
Yet before the glass be out,
Sweet spirit, comfort me...
Consolation comes slowly and unsurely with Isaac Williams’ smoother, longer-lined verse:
Unto the east we turn with watchful eyes
Where opens the white haze of silvery lawn
And the still trees stand in the streak of dawn...
The sub-chorus sing, first soothingly, then, after further protest from the soloist, with pizzicato tread of strings...With a restatement of Herrick’s verse beginning, In The hour of my distress, comfort is perhaps felt at the close, with its repetitions of the words comfort me, and a dying fall. Written for the cancelled Three Choirs Festival of 1939, Quo Vadis was performed in full only in 1949.
Track One: Quo Vadis, Night Hath No Wings, Dyson
Next, an improvization by the clarinettist, Richard Stolzmann and the percussion-group, Nexus. Eternal Triangle Beckons.
Track Two: Eternal Triangle Beckons, Stolzmann/Nexus
Now, a group of orchestral songs by the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, all performed by Kirsten Flagstad, and the London Symphony Orchestra, under Oivin Fjelstad. These are marvellously idiomatic renderings.
First off, Since Then I have Questioned No Further, a setting of a poem by Runeberg, dates from early in its composer’s career, and was praised for its folkishly lyrical quality by no less a figure than Johannes Brahms, when performed at a soiree in Vienna. In his maturity, Sibelius orchestrated the song in customary neutral tones of effectiveness.
Why is Spring so fleeting,
Why does Summer never last
Thus did I used to wonder
And ask many a person in vain...
Track Three: Since Then I have Questioned No Further, Sibelius
But My Bird Is Nowhere To Be Seen is a song from Sibelius’ maturity, around the time of his Second Symphony, and instinct with pity and sadness that gnaws at the heart of mankind whatever the season. The poem is again by Runeberg. A girl longs for her lover, who does not return with Spring, the swan, the lark, the curlew...
Track Four: But My Bird Is Nowhere To Be Seen, Sibelius
The last of our Sibelius songs today is To The Night, a setting of AV Forsman-Koskiemies from the period of Since Then I have Questioned No Further. The spirit of the singer hastens to meet comforting night.
Track Five: To The Night, Sibelius
Now, a work for trumpet solo and string orchestra by the Armenian-Scottish American composer, Alan Hovhaness. The great crisis in his career - rejection by his teachers at Tanglewood Music School after the award of a scholarship - was two years behind him when he set to work on this piece. It portrays a heroic priest, the eponymous Khrimian Hairig, who led his people through many persecutions. The trumpet intones as the voice of this man, the strings’ block-chordal responses growing in fervour and canonic contrapuntal independence. Armenian semitones spice modal forms of chant. There are moments of holy calm as at the beginning. The fullest statement of the melodic material is reserved until the close, and broadens in typical idealistic statement, the trumpet like a golden crown. The piece is subdivided into three sections: The Chalice of Holiness; Wings of Compassion and The Triumph of Faith. Khrimian Hairig, by Alan Hovhaness.
Track 6: Khrimian Hairig, Alan Hovhaness
Our last work today is the Clarinet Concerto by Howard Blake. Blake, a Londoner born in 1938, studied as a pianist and composer at the Royal Academy of Music, his lessons in composition given by the Belfast-born pianist-composer, Howard Ferguson. His catalogue of works is massive, running into over nine hundred opus numbers: but he has worked intensively as an accompanist and conductor, this secondary hectic career involving much travel and exposure to many styles of music ranging from pop, through jazz, to modern art-music. A brilliant pasticheur, he has written much music in a tonal idiom recognizably influenced by that of his own teacher, Ferguson, Gerald Finzi, Hindemith, Delius and Peter Warlock. You will know him by his music for the film, The Snowman.
It is fair to say that this much-commissioned composer has an ability to create music that is sometimes described as ‘accessible’. The idiom is approachable and recognizably of a tradition.
It’s not revolutionary in style, and for many decades, this was to say that music was dull or fake: in the days when a culture of ‘lightning war’ seems to have been the anti-aesthetic believed on by all fashionable terrible infants and BBC Controllers. .
Blake’s Concerto is structurally akin to that by Gerald Finzi (who was himself under-appreciated by movers and shakers in his life-time), and covers much the same emotional range, beginning with a flourish - though one provided by the soloist rather than strings. The first movement, Invocation: Recitativo-Moderato, Molto Deciso, opens in near-blues, which are supplanted by a mediaeval chant-sounding first subject coloured by the clarinet. Brusque onward movement is held back by the tug of doubt or sadness, complex canonic or imitational textures or semitonal sighs. The scoring is harsh, with many misalliances in instruments’ weaker registers; the sense of driven-ness not to be put away as the flourish and chant are developed against an ever-changing background of counterpoint. The semitonal sighs are heard most affectingly in a moment notable for high violin harmonics and held notes in the horns. The inexhaustible energy and variety in the music builds to baroque or Finzi-like use of high strings with bass accompaniment, leading to a stalking climax, jabbing Dies Irae unisons punctuating the chant-theme. The opening flourish - and clarinet - enter, and a slow fading chord coloured by horns ends the movement.
Track Five: Invocation: Recitativo-Allegro Deciso .
The Second Movement, Recitativo - Lento Serioso, is possibly haunted by Ravel’s piano-piece, Le Ghibet, another emotionally complex inspiration. It begins with the flourish that began the first, but soon, the matter is proved to be a development of the high violin harmonics figure in amongst the imaginative thematic transformations later on. Again, the horns are involved. The clarinet and violins with cautionary matter from other parts of the orchestra build to a brief climax - underpinned by an upward scale - and a lowish consolatory sound is made by horn and warbling clarinet and other woodwind in exchanges of the melodic line. Tension comes in on the high strings, stridency bringing back the swaying semitones on misallied woodwind - oboe noticeable - and brass. Again, the music seeks to expand, and the oboe has its moment, answered by the clarinet. The upward scale is heard from underneath. Again, there is consolation, and the strings lead the warmer but quietly peremptory winding-down.
Track Six: Ceremony: Recitativo-Lento Serioso
The Finale is a Round Dance, marked Vivace. An impish variation on the solo flourish leads to a jog-trot similar to the chant of the first movement. Woodwind have a counter-melody that is flat in curve, more blues-like or jazzy and so modern in sound. It may remind one of the spikier inspirations of Malcolm Arnold. The clarinet soon dominates it, as does the opening matter. The semitonal swaying from the first two movements is heard with pizzicato accompaniment and what become roulades in the solo-part. The chant-like theme is still there. A crescendo grows with chuckling outbursts from woodwind and a more haunting air in the clarinet’s restricted figures. The opening music of the rondo returns - barer, more gaunt. Time is passing, even the clarinet is audibly flagging - or a final effort is inspired by the counter-melody, scotched at last by horn and rounded off by woodwind, strings and brass - the clarinet in at the very last.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM , and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s Programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope that you enjoyed it and will join us again soon. Goodbye!
Track Seven: Round Dance: Vivace