More British Byways
* Thomas Dunhill: Symphony in a-minor, op. 48
* Richard Arnell: Lord Byron - A Symphonic Portrait
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7195 Total time: 78:10
Summary for the Busy Executive: A gentleman and a scoundrel.
Perhaps only singers and lovers of British song today remember Thomas
Dunhill, a Stanford pupil. Janet Baker practically made a party piece
out of his beautiful "The Cloths of Heaven," from the cycle The Wind
among the Reeds. Occasionally, some of his light music gets played --
the Guildford Suite and the Chiddingfold Suite, for example. This is
my first encounter with something more substantial.
Dunhill began the symphony in 1913 and completed it three years later.
What began as an ode to his first wife (he dedicated the symphony to
her) became touched by the Great War. Thus, despite its skill and
consistent idiom, it comes across as a spiritually schizophrenic piece.
Dunhill's language is conservative, even for its time (he's a contemporary
of Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Holst), taking from Parry and Stanford.
Listening to this symphony, you might doubt that even Elgar had lived.
It is decidedly minor work in its outlook, the accomplishment of a
gentleman. We expect some sort of ambition from a symphony, or at least
Beethoven has so trained us. The Twentieth Century changed our expectations,
because the music changed, but, even so, the older ideas of what a
symphony should do never really died out, and Dunhill never subscribed
to the newer ideals in the first place. This symphony remains absolutely
untouched by Modernism or even, as with Elgar's mature works, Modern
I find the symphony at a slightly lower level than a Parry or Stanford
symphony, although it's a respectable example of its kind. Still,
most of the ideas are essentially those of a light-music kind, a bit
Olde-Englishe-y and twee (like the Edward German Merrie England), and
the symphonic elaboration seems to me to inflate these ideas past the
bursting point. The slow movement stands as a notable exception to this.
For me, it looks ahead to the first two symphonies of Bax. Dunhill
apparently wrote it during the Battle of the Marne, in which at least
one of his friends got killed. Still, it's not really war music, as
one might reasonably argue for Elgar's cello concerto. One senses a
conventional reserve as well as, I must say, a lack of vision. We miss,
for lack of a better word, empathy or understanding of the scale of the
slaughter, as we get even in other non-combatant composers of the time.
In any case, should we judge it at all in the context of its time?
Probably not. On its own, it's a very fine piece of work, though
not a powerful one.
The Arnell, less ambitious and much shorter, rises to a far higher level
of interest. Indeed, this Dutton series of British music with, I assume,
Lewis Foreman as its guiding spirit, has stood out for its daring and
its determination to rescue composers from neglect. If nothing else,
it has given us a better picture of Arnell and focused attention on
his considerable achievement as a symphonist. In the Fifties, after a
brilliant start, Arnell was eclipsed, as so many other English composers
were, not by the Atonal Apocalypse, but by Britten and Tippett. Furthermore,
his main champion, Beecham, died without any other star conductor taking
Lord Byron lies somewhere between tone poem and suite. It appeared
during the composer's most fecund period, the Fifties. Arnell's musical
language seems to come from both John Ireland and William Walton.
He has a highly Romantic and passionate sensibility. He writes with
considerable wit and, in his large works, a huge musical embrace, sometimes
to the detriment of structure, but his invention is so prodigious and
of such high quality, one tends to forgive a momentary loss of focus.
Of course, Lord Byron stakes no claim to symphonic lucidity, although
it shows a surprising amount of dramatic coherence and incisive psychology.
Indeed, it made me wonder about Arnell's operas. The "portrait" consists
of eight movements: "Prelude," "Newstead," "Augusta," "Success and
Disgrace," "Voyage," "Serenade," "Battles," and "Epilogue." We go from
one movement to the next sans break. Very little of it concerns the
outward career of the poet, so spectacular to his contemporaries. Here,
Byron's inner life fascinates Arnell. From the very first movement,
Arnell takes us into Byron's inner world, limning especially that trace
of sadness even in the poet's high spirits. "Newstead," a sketch of
Bryon's riotous bouts, basically peters out. We sense that Byron may
be a rake, but an unhappy one. "Augusta," the sister seen through Byron's
eyes, is gentle, elegant, and more than a little sentimental. Arnell
leaves the question of their incest essentially unasked. "Success and
Disgrace" recounts Byron's fabulous rise and fall in England, and it's
one of the two shortest movements in the work. Again, Arnell concerns
himself less with externals. The war in Greece ("Battles") gets similar
short shrift, although it's more historically justified. Byron died,
after all, before he actually got to fight. The "Epilogue" begins in
the dumps and rises quickly to a kind of glory. A poet's glory counts
Martin Yates and his Royal Scots do well by the Dunhill and make you
want to hear more Arnell. I hope Foreman and Dutton get to continue.
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