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CLASSICAL  February 2008

CLASSICAL February 2008

Subject:

2 Edwardian Symphonists

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 13 Feb 2008 11:42:07 -0800

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text/plain

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Bainton & Boughton
Symphonies

*  Bainton: Symphony No. 3 in c minor
*  Boughton: Symphony No. 1 "Oliver Cromwell"*

Roderick Williams (baritone)*
BBC Concert Orchestra/ Vernon Handley.
Dutton CDLX 7185  Total time: 79:26

Summary for the Busy Executive: Good performances of interesting, if not
knock-your-socks-off repertoire.

The number of Twentieth-Century British composers who keep coming up
through the cracks astonishes me.  You have, of course, the Mighty Five
-- Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett -- and a very
deep bench.  You can't really call most of the also-rans the second
string, based on quality alone.  Not even Elgar wrote a choral work any
better than Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens.  Robert Simpson and Malcolm
Arnold have nothing to apologize for as symphonists.  And then you find
treasures among the really obscure: Arnold Cooke, Franz Reizenstein,
Matyas Seiber, Elizabeth Lutyens, John Hawkins, John Foulds, John Gardner,
Richard Arnell, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Nicola LeFanu, and even Madeline
Dring.

A pupil of Stanford, Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) began as a composing
prodigy, becoming a professor of composition at twenty-one.  I knew his
choral music, written in an expert Edwardian style, much like the slightly
older Edward Bairstow, with a keen sense of vocal color and the ability
to write long musical paragraphs, not always easy to do in choral music.
I had no idea he wrote instrumental music or music outside the church,
but it doesn't really surprise me, since the choral music tends to move
symphonically.  The Third Symphony, begun in 1952, doesn't sound all
that much different from Stanford.  Where those like Holst and Vaughan
Williams felt the need to get away from Stanford in order to find their
own voices and in the process became two prominent shapers of British
Modernism, Bainton pretty much accepted Stanford's post-Brahms idiom.
A few dissonances that might have upset his teacher get through in this
symphony, but the musical bones are pure Nineteenth Century.

Nevertheless, you would make a mistake dismissing Bainton as merely
derivative.  He has stuff of his own to say, but he can express himself
in a received language.  The third symphony sings with adult psychology
and presents unusual architectural features as well.

The first movement begins with what sounds like the standard classical
slow introduction followed by an allegro.  As it proceeds, however, one
realizes that these two things in reality comprise sort of a "first
subject" group.  Yet, the drama is what's really interesting.  The slow
part drags the music into a funk when it appears, while the quick part
tries to rouse itself.  About half-way through the movement, a serene
pentatonic tune appears.  Indeed, it emerges at various points throughout
the entire symphony like a gold thread in a tapestry.  Here, it serves
as a fulcrum between the previous Sturm und Drang and a scherzo, which,
by the way, incorporates the tune as part of its material.  Thus, the
composer splits the movement in half, and you wonder why.  The scherzo
comes across as more sardonic than jolly.  Emotionally, it connects more
to the first half of the movement than to the transition.

The second movement is a Brahmsian allegretto, but without the pastoral
qualities of Brahms in that genre.  It's uneasy in its tone, and the
brief appearance of the pentatonic tune does little to dispel the gloom.

Bainton had written the first two movements and had started the third
when his wife died.  Too depressed to go on, he laid the work aside for
a long time.  Eventually, friends and family kept badgering him to finish,
and one friend actually announced in a journal that Bainton would have
the symphony ready for performance.  This got the composer going again.

The slow third movement, my favorite in the symphony, became a threnody
to the composer's wife.  Terrifically understated, the main theme shares
certain musical topoi with the funeral march without necessarily becoming
one, although it temporarily morphs in and out.  Regret and private (not
public) grief more than anything else, dominate the movement, as if the
composer ruminated on the loss of a beautiful life.  Bainton works so
quietly here that any rise in dynamic becomes significant all out of
proportion to its actual volume.  About three minutes before the end,
the pentatonic theme slips in, and the music radiantly transforms so
that movement ends with great tenderness.

The third movement begins pentatonically, with affinities to Bax in
the Twenties, and indeed seems to subject earlier ideas to a pentatonic
template, as if to calm the emotional disturbances the composer has
raised.  It certainly solves the problem of what to do after the slow
movement.  It's no cheat.  Bainton has found a musical metaphor for
resolution, in the symphony's own terms, no small accomplishment.

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960), an altogether more flamboyant personality
than Bainton, also studied with Stanford, but he mainly took Stanford's
opera route.  He established a festival at Glastonbury in the early part
of the Twentieth Century, modeled after Bayreuth and based largely on
Boughton's cycle of operas on the Arthurian legends, at a time when
English opera was in a fairly parlous state.  Indeed, one could argue
that opera didn't become really viable in England until the Forties,
after the war.  Nevertheless, Boughton attracted significant support,
including Elgar, Beecham, Holst, and Shaw, who wrote rave pieces praising
the composer as the English Wagner.  Ironically, the composer's greatest
operatic success, Bethlehem (1915), caused the festival's collapse.
Boughton put on a London production it in support of the General Strike
of the Twenties, with Jesus born in a miner's shack and Herod as a
plutocrat.  It became a hit and so frightened away the necessary money
to continue Glastonbury.  The composer's reputation went into eclipse
thereafter (his sympathies toward Communism didn't help), although he
continued to compose in all genres.  He continued to have his champions,
notably Holst and Vaughan Williams.  The latter remarked in 1949 that
"In any other country, such a work as The Immortal Hour would have been
in the repertoire years ago."

Fired by Shaw, I sought out The Immortal Hour, Bethlehem, and a bunch
of chamber works.  Only Bethlehem really stuck with me.  Something rather
old-fashioned about Boughton's sensibility -- a bit like Granville Bantock
and the minor writers of the Celtic Twilight -- kept me away.

Inspired by Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, Boughton's
First Symphony (1905) shows the effects of post-Wagnerian thought on
the symphony.  Under Boughton, the symphony becomes a dramatic vehicle,
though without a specific program, in five movements: a character study;
Cromwell's letter to his wife, after the Battle of Dunbar; march of the
Puritans; death scene.  Boughton goes through the motions in the first
movement of sonata-allegro, but it's really more of a series of riffs
mainly on a "motto-theme" representing Cromwell himself.  Boughton breaks
up the theme and goes to town on the pieces.  One thought suggests another
and there is, as well, some padding, although not too much.  Boughton's
motto has such a distinctive shape that it can pull the music together
when the composer needs to get back on track, and fortunately he knows
when.  Filled with lovely, individual chromatic harmonies, the slow
second movement proceeds, again, more with dramatic than with musical
logic.  At times, it reminded me of a Korngold score for Warner Brothers.
That is, I could imagine a scene it would accompany and can see Brenda
Marshall on the screen.  The Cromwell motto appears at least twice,
variously transformed.  For me, its best feature is its imaginative
scoring, particularly toward the end, when violin and cello soloists
duet against flutes and strings.  As far as I care, Boughton could have
left out the third movement, the Puritan march, altogether.  He seems
on automatic here.  One gets nothing of the invention and depth of Elgar's
"Pomp and Circumstance" marches, for example, from roughly the same
period.

Nevertheless, what I think of as Boughton at his most authentic follows in
the last movement, a setting of Cromwell's last prayer.  In some ways, it
suffers from late-Romantic notions of melody -- what Vaughan Williams called
"village curate improvising" -- and it tends to sprawl.  Boughton tries to
inject structure into it with several fugato passages, but the counterpoint
is a bit jejeune.  Still, Boughton brings off wonderful passages for the
baritone soloist, getting to the meat of Cromwell's words.  However, the
frame for the baritone strikes me as too conventional and not at all felt.
Ironically, the "conventional gentleman" Bainton gives you something
stronger than the rebel Boughton.

Both scores receive a strong reading from Vernon Handley.  Roderick
Williams sings poetically in the Boughton, with gorgeous, long phrases
and with insight into the text.  They make the best case for both
composers.  If I'm less enchanted with the Boughton, that may well
be my fault.

Dutton has produced a wonderful series dedicated to neglected British
music -- Bowen, Bainton, Arnell, Alan Bush, Cyril Scott, and so on.  I
also enjoy the cover art, based on British transport posters.  All in
all, a project that shows a lot of care.

Steve Schwartz

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