Thursday, 17 October 2013

19 & 20 October

CB  Autumn 3

Track One:  The Too-Short Time, Finzi  

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. 

Today’s programme is of music that depicts or suggests Autumn.  We’ve just heard Gerald Finzi’s song The Too-Short Time – Nine leaves a minute/Swim down shakily”, a setting for baritone and piano of a Hardy poem that laments the passing of Dame Summer; the last lines run:


Saw you how Dame Summer drest?

Of all God taght her she bethought her!

Alas, not much!  And yet the best

She could, within the too-short time

Granted her prime.”


From the prelude, an angular, Britten-like impression of the falling of the leaves – the ever-scrupulous Finzi timed his onomatopoeia to match those nine leaves a minute – a halting processional gropes for hymn-like certainty and diatonic harmony, the piano providing strong chords and a building spinning motion as though weaving the vision of Dame Summer’s clothes before the qualifiedly affirmative close.  From 1949, this song predated Finzi’s discovery that he had leukaemia by less than two years.  It joined other Hardy-settings uncollected at his early death to form the Cycle, Before And After Summer.

Let’s stay with Finzi and Hardy, two inspired Autumnists.  Seeing the Winter in Autumn, Shortening Days – The first fire since the Summer is lit – is a song, the sixth, from another posthumous Hardy-cycle, A Young Man’s Exhortation.  Finzi toiled long and hard on his works, assembling them number by number, gathering groups of songs from many stages in his career.  Shortening Days was actually written in 1928, considerable number of years before The Too-Short Time.  The two songs are yet recognizably related in verbally-generated melody, harmonies and procedures. 

At its outset, spare in accompaniment and melodic line, Shortening Days seems an almost mystical treatment of prosaic observation heightened by its place in a poem :  until, at the window, the eye finds “Like shockheaded urchins, spiny-haired,

Stand pollard willows, their leaves just bared.”

Then,  “coming with pondering pace”, peasant sturdiness appears to rescue one from brown study with the sight of the cider-maker –


“And behind him on wheels, in readiness,

His mill, and tubs, and vat and press.”

Autumn has seen harvests of cereals and fruits, and so is, in addition, a time of brewing!

Track Two:  Shortening Days, Finzi

Harvest-home.  Autumn bares the trees and countryside of much colour, and birds have no time for leisurely song,  but with luck, Summer has left us with the means to over-Winter where we are, and we gather and prepare food for hoard.  Originating in a number – The Heavens Are Telling -  from Haydn’s Oratorio, The Creation, here is the harvest-home hymn from the Norwich Tune-book of 1844, The Last Full Wain Has Come, sung and played by The West Gallery Music Association of Hampshire, who specialize in the performance of Georgian church music, their choir accompanied by stringed and wind instruments that would have been familiar in Thomas Hardy’s  childhood and in his father’s heyday, before the organ replaced gallery-musicians in country churches.

Track 3:  The Last Full Wain Has Come, Tune by Joseph Haydn

(The following number was sadly  omitted on grounds of time

Let’s hear a partsong by Sibelius.  Autumn Evening is a strophic setting for mixed voices of a poem by the Swedish poet, Rydberg.  One of a group of partsongs that date from student-days, Autumn Evening begins in a world that lies in its bleak grave of Autumn, harried, withered, dead,  the blossoms of Summer passed and the forest silent - but looks up into the stars, from whence eternal home smiles upon the soul.


“Thus dream I in the Autumn evening, and see

How the leaves fall down from the birch,

A naked shore stands reflected in the deep bay,

And over the moon a silver cloud is sailing.”    

Autumn has its bleak side, matched here in the severity of chorale-like strains, dotted rhythms and some awkward rather than adventurous writing in the parts, but the twenty-three year-old composer has the measure of the poem’s sentiments.  If the setting is less flexible and imaginative than Sibelius’ later treatments of Finnish  verse, this may partly be due to the Germanic nature of the Swedish language, its totally different system of stresses – Finnish stresses first syllables – its  heavy consonants and less rich store of vowel-sounds, all of which lend themselves naturally to a Germanic  melody with little irregularity of metre, in which rhythmical variety is introduced with dotted notes.    

Track 4:  Autumn Evening, Sibelius

The Autumn and Winter are seasons for hunting.  Here is The Royal Hunt At Windsor, a Grand Sonata for solo harpsichord, by HB Schroeder, from the late 18th Century.

Track 5:  The Royal Hunt At Windsor, Schroeder

A more characteristic work of Sibelius, now, the tone-poem, The Bard.  This extraordinary piece was written in the shadow of a possible throat cancer, in 1913, and at a time of international unrest and anxiety.  To contrast it with the early tone-poems is certainly to hear the change that had crept over his music.  Like his Fourth Symphony of 1911, drama is developed from the most slender of material, so that climaxes are reached with a startling edge and are representative of a  personal symbolism rather  than more conventional gestures.  In this instance, beginning with an evocation of a poet who accompanies himself on the Finnish zither (Kantele) in simple, rippled chords over an accompaniment by bare orchestral textures, mostly held notes on bassoon and oboe and imitations and promptings of the harp in the strings, a second section within the one-movement piece evokes wind in trees (the harp and lower strings have the power to do this owing to the former expressive compression) and the trombone provides a climax with a harmonically unresolving fanfare of three notes drawn from the rippled chords (and akin to the bassoon’s notes of  introduction at the very opening), to be followed by a warmer, placid close of quietness and stoical fulfilment.  An example of extreme concision  sombrely scored, The Bard, it should be remembered, was produced in the year of the riot-greeted Rite of Spring.  There was, as Sibelius himself said of his Fourth Symphony, “Nothing of the circus about it.”  His Autumnal bard has all the power of the natural world at his finger-tips, and the ability to cause the least modernistic processes to appear ahead of their time.  A mysterious musical wisdom  permeates a work that seems static, easily followed on the surface, yet economically strange at its height, and straightforwardly (but somehow rightly) conventional at the close.  The work is associated with lines about an old poet who dies after performing his last verses.

Track 6:  The Bard, Sibelius 

From a bard to a bird.  A drinking-song, Of All The Birds, from a collection of popular music made in the early 17th Century by Thomas Ravenscroft.  Of all the birds, the owl ‘is the fairest in her degree,               
                 For all day long she sits in a tree,

                And when the night comes, away flies she.”

A song for drinkers, mocking drinkers.  It ends,          

                “Synament, and ginger, nutmeg and cloves

              And that gave thee thy jolly red nose.”

Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves are all febrifuges, tonics, warmers; like cider, wines and spirits, in hot punches of the same, much in demand to this day, when temperatures cool and the nights draw in.

Track 7:  Of All The Birds, Ravenscroft

From the composer Armstrong Gibbs’s LivelySuite for string orchestra and piano, Peacock Pie (in tribute to the book of children’s verse by Walter de la Mare,  here is the drily Brahmsian finale, The Fly-by-nights. 

The Fly-by-nights are, of course, witches!     

Track 8:  The Fly-by-nights, Armstrong Gibbs

In Night-scene, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, returned to Norway from adventures that took him around the world and made and lost him his fortune, confronts the emptiness of his achievements  on the fire-blackened heath near  his home.  Harsh chill is in the alternation of woodwind and brass chords and tiredly eddying strings.  He speaks defiantly – if he can.   In grim insistence, the voices of threadballs, withered leaves flying before the wind, sighs of air, dewdrops and broken straws in turn taunt him with all he might have been – he has stepped on the throat of his own song.  Wind-effects on flute and high violins, drumrolls, brass snarls:  organ-tones add uncanniness to the chants of inanimate things that, with significance to Peer’s state, have become the sternest of critics.  Near the close, he hears the voice of his mother, Aase, whom he comforted as she lay dying by describing how he drove her in a sledge to Soria Moria – a castle in Spain, or heaven:  now she shrieks that he tipped her into the snow.  Our ghosts, come old age and the heath of Autumn, may be found harder to bear.  Have we truly lived at all?

Track 9:  Night Scene, Grieg

Now, if the cold has seeped into your bones, sit by a fire and warm yourself.  Here is a lighthearted treatment of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,  the story of Ichabod Crane, schoolmaster, and his ghostly nemesis.  The Headless Horseman was written by Edgar Stillman Kelley, a little-known pianist and composer from New England – his ancestors were among the early settlers of America, arriving in about 1630, and founded his home town, Sparta, in Wisconsin. He could trace descent back to the governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, a voyager on the Mayflower!  A little older than Edward Macdowall, and also primarily a pianist, Kelley was trained in Germany, as were most American composers of national reputation in his day. 

His piece describes the dead Hessian’s pursuit of the would-be ladies’-man-schoolmaster one eerie Hallowe’en ...   Schumann is turned to semi-comic account, the first theme imitating the gait of Crane’s lolloping nag.  Crane’s amorous feelings are gradually swallowed alive as he rides home alone after having been told the legend in vivid terms by one of his boys.  In the pursuit, the poor nag does her best to flee! 

All ends in the dutifully frowning minor!

Track 10:  The Headless Horseman, Stillman Kelley

(The Following section was left out on grounds of space and time:

“Remember, remember the 5th of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot!”

Here is a poem commemorating a Bonfire-night party, written by Mike Burrows.


                     (Guy Fawkes Party At Tanybwlch Hall)

            Fireworks were never the same again.  There

            In the wood, standing in groups, the chill night

            Warmed by thick clothes, friendships - and embers

            And smoking in the incinerator -

            Some played with sparklers; all watched for the

            Of first banged colours to print threads on sight

            From volcano, or a rocket’s whooshed white

            Popped in stars.  This galaxy made me stare.


            For forms - wool hats, scarves, coats - the
                                                                   warden’s hand

            And ‘tached smile touched off such spells, or
                                                                checked spuds

            In glowing ash.  And the girl at my side

            Deepened, lit little, kissing.  Sombre land

            Lay silent, its true stars high-spaced - no duds -

            In bursts of aeons:  a lover’s thrilled pride.    


            Never the same, that powder-reek rejoiced

            In.  So it is my memory.  Rainbow-fire,

            Spittering glints, thick smoke billowing from pyre

            Of a tiny soul whose burnt body, hoist

            With its reason for being, I found by moist

            Autumn garlic next day, charred where, entire,

            I shook my head and went on:  the lost spire

            Of a roman candle scorched, lit, still voiced.


            To the beach and town - or college - simply

            A student in love.  Or a ghost years off,

            Picturing the next year as on each year,

            Self hoist by what I did not want to be.

            Sparks brilliant for others - smoke’s sharp cough

            Makes them smile, and aeons will shine them clear. 


Copyright, Mike Burrows, October 16th, 2013

(FX Sounds of fireworks, bonfire and murmurs of spectators under).


As our time of Remembrance of the World Wars draws near, and in memory of all the fallen – in particular of Thomas Newby Singleton, a Leading Stoker killed on the destroyer HMS Shark when it was sunk during the Battle of Jutland – here is the powerful song that ends Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s set of sea-songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra, Songs of The Fleet,of 1910.  Farewell is surely a powerful homage to “the dead who died for me,” - those who “themselves they could not save”, the men who have perished in service of the world’s navies.  The brass fanfaring at the close quotes fittingly a phrase of the refrain of Sailing At Dawn, an earlier song in the set – “Lead the line!”    

Track 11:  Farewell, Stanford

For our last piece today, Grieg’s Lyric Piece, one of the Opus 43 set, Solitary Traveller.  Grieg was a major traveller in music in the second half of the 19th Century, touring Europe  as pianist and conductor, and spreading the word for Norwegian art-music; if anyone knew the burden of resigned
as necessary travel, it was he.  If not at home, he missed it; if at home, there was the call of the South!  He often Wintered away from his country.

Between him and his piano there existed an enviable closeness in which he confided as Schumann had confided before him.  In Solitary Traveller, something of the sincerity and affection of the relationship is revealed.  It is a quiet pianism of unadorned expressiveness and memorability.

This was Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s script was researched and written by Mike Burrows.  We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon.  Goodbye!

Track 12: Solitary Traveller