Friday, 31 July 2009

The most glorious of English symphonies

The opening week of the BBC Proms featured an evening of British music, including Elgar’s 2nd symphony, Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata and the Symphony in G Minor by E J Moeran. ‘Moeran is still one of the least known and understood British composers,’ according to Geoffrey Self, author of The Music of E J Moeran. Yet the symphony is described by Lewis Foreman in his biography of Bax, Moeran’s contemporary, as ‘one of the most glorious of English symphonies.’ Here, in an edited extract from his book, Geoffrey Self outlines the difficult birth of this superb work:

By the middle years of Moeran’s life, Kerry had become as necessary to him as Norfolk had been in his early years. He delighted in the Irish scene, the Irish people and Irish life. The disguise of the poet William Sharp as ‘Fiona McLoed’ or that of Bax as ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ may today encourage amused, if tolerant, smiles; yet with Moeran, at least, we might well feel, with Aloys Fleischmann, that he became Irish. Certainly, he was accepted as such, as Bax makes clear:

The people of Kenmare adored him. One of them remarked to me: ‘If ever there was a move to elect a mayor of this town Jack Moeran would be everybody’s first choice’. His popularity was immense, even, it must be admitted, sometimes to the point of embarrassment.

A work to bridge both English and Irish cultures was the Symphony in G Minor. The work had a chequered history: commissioned in 1924 by Hamilton Harty and almost completed, it was withdrawn as the composer was unhappy with it. He resumed work on it in 1934 and with Harty’s encouragement was occupied with it for another two and a half years. Harty received news of its progress from time to time; Robert Nichols, a poet and friend of Moeran, had spoken to him of it, and in March 1935 Harty wrote to the composer:

He spoke of your Symphony as being partly completed. This was good news, and I am looking forward to seeing…the score lying between us as we discuss various points of interpretation! Good luck to your pen and may this summer bring you the necessary inspiration and lucky moods for work so that the Symphony may be finished.

According to the pencilled note on the autograph score, the Symphony was finally completed ‘on Jan. 24th 1937, 2.45 p.m. Valentia Island’. Its composition had spanned some twelve years and two environments – those of Norfolk and of Kerry.

In the event, the work did not receive its first performance under Harty – that honour fell to Leslie Heward, who conducted it at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in January 1938. Why not Harty? The misunderstanding and handling of this episode provide some insight into Moeran’s clumsiness in dealing with fellow professionals.

In September 1937 Moeran had written to Harty to explain that because of the latter’s recent illness, his publisher and the BBC had arranged for Heward to conduct the first performance. Nevertheless he hoped that Harty would accept the dedication. ‘May I write your name at the head of the score?’ he asked, before mentioning the work progressing on his violin concerto. Clearly Harty misunderstood, and thought he was being offered the concerto instead. We do not have his reply but it must have been fairly salty as Moeran’s next letter has the air of affronted innocence. ‘It is a terrible disappointment to me that you do not feel inclined to accept the dedication. I have no wish to dedicate it to anyone else, so it must stand without one.’

In the end though, Moeran had his way, and the dedication to Harty stands. Heward, however, not only gave the first performance but also made the first recording. Acquainted with Heward since the early 1920s, Moeran had come to share the almost universal view that the modest, cloth-capped conductor was the finest British conductor of his day. He heard a number of performances of his Symphony and never made any secret of the fact that he considered Heward to be its finest interpreter.

The Music of E J Moeran by Geoffrey Self, with a Preface by the late Vernon Handley, is published by Toccata Press and distributed worldwide by Boydell & Brewer.

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