Intro: The Yellow River Concerto, Movt 2, Ode To The Yellow River, Yin Chengzong, Chu Wanhua, Sheng Lihong and Liu Zhuang
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. We have just heard the second movement of the Yellow River Concerto, a collaboration between four Chinese composers, Yin Chengzong, Chu Wanhua, Sheng Lihong and Liu Zhuang, which represents a condensation of a cantata setting poems written during the 1939 Japanese invasion of China. The second movement, Ode To The Yellow River, portrays a mighty river and also expresses patriotic awareness of the Chinese people’s massive achievement of maintaining millennia of civilization on its fertile but dangerous banks.
The style of this committee-concerto intentionally owes much to film-composers’ imitation of Rachmaninoff. Ideology demanded a Western populist manner that accommodated distinctive characteristics of Chinese folk-melody whilst at the same time symbolizing cosmopolitanism and urbanization of Chinese society.
Todays programme consists of music inspired by rivers. We begin with a short piece by Claude Debussy, from his Petite Suite for two pianos, which was colourfully orchestrated by his pupil and assistant, Henri Busser. En Bateau is an evocation of boating on the Seine in the late Eighteen Eighties.
As was the Thames at about this time, the Seine was a place where vogues in costume and conveyance presented a colourful sight. There were regattas and parties celebrated by painters of the day, even as the less-resorted stretches were polluted by dye-mills, chemical-works, factories, foundaries, and tons of goods of all kinds were transported in and out of Paris and other population-centres. Debussy’s music is an instrumental melodie, lazy and sensuous in manner, slow-moving in deep Summer greens and browns, with a hint, perhaps of the pipes of Pan about it. The middle of the piece rouses itself to some genteel amusement, skylarking or affectionate banter. The river was a playground those who knew it were haunted by when older. The orchestration is faithful to the spirit of the original, flute and clarinet prominent in imitation of dancing ripples and haunting refrains of birdsong, the strings sonorous but not heavy. The river was pushed out on, saw an outing, and carries home the party at dusk - unless they have the sense - or time - to camp and enjoy a night by or on the river.
Track One: En Bateau - Debussy
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme consists of music inspired by rivers.
Next, a song that was made famous by a bass-baritone who made three thousand recordings and sold twenty-five million discs in a career that spanned some six decades. Old Father Thames was written in 1933 by Ray Wallace and Betsy O’Hogan, and sung and recorded most famously, perhaps, by the great Peter Dawson. Such is his diction that the text is as near-indelible as the music. At a dark time in the memory of a generation now almost no longer with us, this song did much to maintain a sense of national identity: it is not sentimental, any old father who behaved like the Thames might be justifiably accused of egregious parenting; yet this is an affectionate and likeable song and good enough to be regarded as a classic.
Track Two: Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along, O’Hogan
Ronald Binge wrote nothing finer than his short orchestral piece, The Watermill. Its style has something of Debussy about the use of strings and woodwind, while the benignant atmosphere of this quiet hymn to a way of life has something Beethovenian in its generosity of melody and diatonic harmony. This is not the tragic, romantic mill of Schubert, but a modern reanimation of a vision of nature that belongs to the 18th Century Augustan Enlightenment. Birdsong is caught by flute and clarinet, the dappled shade of trees and rich movement of air and water in the middle of the small orchestra. Even the turning of the wheel (it seems a wheel of time) is suggested, by a slow, creaking ostinato in the depths of the strings. The oboe has the melody much of the time, and has uncomplaining warmth and pathos; the melody is finely varied, flowing; all seems to be moulded by it in its subtle but simple-seeming development. If this is a piece of light music, it is also an outstanding miniature.
Track Three: The Watermill, Binge
Rivers have witnessed scenes of desperation or recklessness; every riverbank, every bridge of any height has fleetingly supported its suicide or accident-victim. Ophelia, teasingly led on and then roundly rejected by Prince Hamlet, goes mad and slips out into the countryside about Elsinore Castle, gathering flowers including those of a name that hints at something more than her having been led on. Trusting the strength of a branch, she leans too far out over the waters of a brook, the branch gives and she falls in. Singing vain little songs, she floats with the current until the weight of her clothes pulls her down.
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) wrote a short tone-poem on this subject, taking its title from a line in the play: There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. In it, Ophelia’s reedy singing voice, distracted breathing and thought-processes are captured by solo oboe, the branch-shaded, glassy waters depicted in the strings - the moment in which she falls - is vivid, a soft splash and sunlit eddying in the violins that is rapidly - delusorily - soothed. The oboe sings or chatters on, but the pull of the depths is there. Gradually, the ower strings grow in weight; the music takes on the nature of a funeral procession by night, a solemn lament - grief held in but to be felt; the voice of the young girl has been extinguished without a struggle by murky waters that seemed to comfort her in their lap.
Track Four: There Is A Willow Grows Aslant A Brook, Frank Bridge
Like life, good stories and music, rivers have a beginning, middle and end. From spring to estuary, from hill-stream freshet to lazy breadth purling between silted banks on the alluvial plain, the river maintains distinct districts of life in symbiosis with vegetation and air - and with us. It is no coincidence that most people readily see the life of the river as an image of time and stages in human life. Our sense of flow and development might not be as it is were man not so closely attuned to the nature and apparent moods of moving water. We use a phrase like I’m reflecting on to mean I am thinking about, and in similarly banal manner, we talk of things coming on-stream. Music, movement and language have fluency! Now, the sound of gospel-singers, the London Adventist Chorale in the spiritual, Deep River.
Track Five: Deep River, Trad
Now for a haunting song by John Jeffreys, who was born in 1927. It is a setting of a Great War poem by the underrated poet, Wilfred Gibson, now best-known as a friend and legatee of Rupert Brooke, but, in his youth, highly regarded as an author. The Otterburn is a river in Northumberland - Gibson’s home country - and Otterburn is an elegy to a nameless Northumbrian soldier killed in Flanders. It is written for tenor and piano, in an idiom strongly influenced by the folk-song-like, faintly bluesy, modal-chromatic manner popular among composers between the Wars. The slow tread of the verses is decorated here and there with ripples in the piano part, but presses on, the undemonstrative vocal part syllable-by-syllable with natural stresses, matching the terseness of the poem. That folk are formed as well as sustained by the rivers they live by seems to be the words’ philosophy; one is reminded of Elgar’s deathbed request that his ashes be scattered on the bank of the Severn. Here, the Otterburn in flood, in Summer and in spate fills the dreams of the dead soldier who lies in Flanders mud and will not return.
Otterburn had to be reconstructed along with ninety-nine other of Jeffreys’ songs when he destroyed much of his work in a fit of despair. It was published in 1983.
Track Six: Otterburn, John Jeffreys
The Housatonic At Stockbridge is an orchestral piece, one of the triptych, First Orchestral Set - Three Places in New England by Charles Ives. It grew out of a song setting a rural poem that is filled with detail of an Autumn morning and apostrophizes the river as ‘Contented river! In thy dreamy realm...’ but asks later if the river is discontented still... Ives himself remembered the genesis of the piece as a misty morning walk that he had taken by the Housatonic with his wife the Summer after they had got married. From across the water, they had heard a church choir singing. The sight of the river, elmtrees and countryside about had been as memorable.
Ives’ style is unique. He believed that a composer should stretch the muscles of the listener’s ears. Quickly, the strangely detached sounds of a hymn in strings and woodwind, then brass - wisps of violin tremolos denoting mist - are joined by broad discords of a detached piano’s own key. Interestingly, one hears the oboe with some distinctness - as in There Is A Willow Grows Aslant a Brook! The celesta sounds later, still more detachedly; the climax is reached seemingly arbitrarily as if, on impulse, the morning sought to reach over the stolidly kept-to verses of the hymn, whose response is to sing more loudly and try to climb higher. At the height of this, there is sudden hush. Where the music was in this scene was Ives’ question: the river, the elm-trees, the wind, the mist or the choir. The answer may be in all or none of them. In this world, it is not only poetry that seeks the condition of music. He returned to this piece more than once to add to both the orchestra and the degree of dissonance worked in throughout.
Track Seven: The Housatonic At Stockbridge, Charles Ives
Now two works from nearly the beginning and nearly end of a composer’s career. First is an arrangement for piano of a Japanese folksong, Fukagawa or Deep River. A very different deep river from the one that we heard earlier, it is played here on the harp.
Track Eight: Fukagawa, Japanese folksong, arranged by Edmund Rubbra
The second piece by our composer is a short song for soprano and harp. It comes from a group of five, The Jade Mountain, setting poems from the T’ang Period and translated by an American. It is called A Song of The Southern River:
“Since I married the merchant of Ch’u’t’ang
He has failed each day to keep his word...
Had I thought how regular the tide is,
I might rather have chosen a river-boy.”
Our composer is Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), whose musical and philosophical interests took him far and wide. Here, his style is admirably terse and attractive.
Given constant motion by the harp, A Song Of The Southern River is a fluid, lively piece, ironical under the accompaniment’s surface darting impulsiveness, until a slowing for the words a river-boy. The brief close is the harp’s, and returns to the former briskness.
The soprano part is difficult to bring off with the deftness and sustained tone necessary.
Track Nine: A Song Of The Southern River, Edmund Rubbra
Lastly, the song that ends Vaughan Williams’ cycle of settings of A.E Housman, Wenlock Edge, for tenor, piano and string quartet. Clun. Here, Housman’s words, famous for their bitter irony, generate a heart-easing generosity and warmth in Vaughan Williams’ response that resound long after the song’s hushed end. This is where the rivers of the country for easy livers bear one:
“‘Tis a long way further than Knighton,
A quieter place than Clun,
Where doomsday may thunder and lighten
And little t’will matter to one...”
Peace, perfect peace! There exists an orchestrated version, but let’s hear the original, accompanied by piano and string quartet.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s script was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope that you have enjoyed our river journey and that we shall have your company again soon. Cheers!
Track Ten: Clun, from Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams