Thursday, 23 April 2009

Whom the Gods Love

George Butterworth (1885-1916) is probably best known for his orchestral miniatures The Banks of Green Willow and A Shropshire Lad, which turn up on most anthologies of British music, and a handful of songs - mainly settings of Housman. His compositions stem largely from the five years leading up to the war: he destroyed a number of early works before joining the army and some - including a string quartet and a violin sonata - remained unpublished and have since been lost. Excluding some folksong arrangements there are 18 surviving songs, and yet, according to the late Trevor Hold

Butterworth's in quite different ratio to his slender output and his importance as a songwriter lies in the entirely new conception of what English art-song could be. He wanted to shed the claustrophobic clutter of so much late romantic song and replace it with a new directness of expression and simplicity.

Like Vaughan Williams and Grainger he found his model in folksong, of which he was an avid collector. Hold continued:

Here he found lyrical ease and melodic directness as well as the forgotten tonal world of modal music, which would replace what, to him, were the exhausted resources of late 19th century musical language.

Later this month Toccata Press will publish a paperback edition of Whom the Gods Love, Michael Barlow's acclaimed study of Butterworth's short life and surviving works. The sincerity and musical value of these works will, according to Barlow, "assure him of a place in the history of English music."
By way of introduction to this brief but important book, we reproduce the Foreword by Vernon Handley, who died last year:

Art criticism has always been at pains to keep artists firmly in categories: great, important, influential, minor. The exercise has its uses, especially for students of art history - but the more music one hears, the less useful the two extremes in this list seem to matter. As a performing artist, my mind during preparation for a concert is frequently invaded by music I am not about to perform; when I am resting, I am beset by such music. The invasion is not made by exclusively 'great' music; indeed, the interesting thing about it is that so much of it is by unfamiliar or 'minor' composers.

In the last twenty years I have conducted regularly in Scandinavia and Australia, taking care to play a good deal of the music of those regions, the works of lesser composers as well as those of the established masters. The experience I described above holds good: some of the lesser works and composers will not leave me alone. This pleasant itch is the good furtune of many who know the music of George Butterworth, and it yields to no lasting remedy.

The death of young artists in the First World War has been well documented, and it might be called the 'if only' factor exhaustively explored. Michael Barlow's study does something more valuable. It dwells on the positive and vigorous aspects of Butterworth's character, aspects not obviously suggested by the character and inspiration of his works. I say 'obviously' because many who comment on art glibly transfer the prevailing atmosphere in an artist's works to the artist as a person. Delius the young mountain-walker and older irascible is lost in the last cadence of the first cuckoo, as is the self-pity of Beethoven in the initial gesture of the Fifth Symphony. But is the message that the reflective idyll is weak and the obvious optimism strong? The former is accepted with more damage to the composer than the latter. Michael Barlow will give pause for thought to those who have seen Butterworth as merely a gentle dreamer.

It is as well to remember that in only a few years Butterworth's handful of works will have lasted as long as many of those accepted as masterpieces when he was born. He appeals to 'the more thinking among mankind'. To all those who are susceptible, his works leave a clear picture of the strength of his vision and inspiration. The character emerging in this book is an absorbing and almost formidable young man, and his emergence establishes a balance between the man and his music. I welcome the itch, and I know I am not alone.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Richard Hickox: The Service of Thanksgiving

Posted by Bruce Phillips, editor-at-large for the Boydell Press:

Orchestral conductors typically live to a ripe old age (think Stokowski dead at 95, Boult at 94, Toscanini at 90, Monteux at 89, Klemperer at 88) and conductors in their 80s today are, like judges, ten a penny (Mackerras, Boulez, Colin Davis, Maazel). It was therefore a particularly cruel blow of fate that deprived us of two of our foremost conductors within the space of a year: Vernon Handley in September 2008, two months short of his 78th birthday, and Richard Hickox, struck down in his 60th year by a heart attack in Swansea in the course of recording Holst’s Choral Symphony for the record label that has become inextricably associated with him, Chandos.

Handley’s memorial event is not till the 1st of May in Worcester Cathedral. The Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Richard Sidney Hickox was held in St Paul’s Cathedral on 12th March and is probably the most elaborate memorial ever to have been dedicated to a conductor, reflecting the love and esteem in which he was held by an astonishingly wide spectrum of British musical life—singers, orchestral musicians, other conductors, recording executives, festival directors and so on.

A virtually full cathedral, including Hickox’s family, heard works by English composers played by an amalgam of the orchestras and choruses with which Hickox held long term positions: City of London Sinfonia, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, the LSO Chorus and the St Endellion Festival Chorus marking the festival in Betjeman’s favourite village in Cornwall with which Hickox was closely associated in recent years.

The congregation was treated to Delius (Walk to the Paradise Garden) and Vaughan Williams (the Tallis Fantasia) conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; the Passacaglia from Britten’s Peter Grimes and Malcolm Arnold’s third Cornish Dance conducted by Edward Gardner (who had stood in for Hickox for the recent English National Opera production of Vaughan Williams’ one-act opera Riders to the Sea); the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Mass in C conducted by Sir Colin Davis; and an extract from Mendelssohn’s Elijah conducted by Paul Daniel and featuring Bryn Terfel; and the Largo from Bach’s Double Violin Concerto played by Simon Standage and Andrew Watkinson. The St Paul’s choir sang anthems by Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Tavener, there were readings by Dame Janet Baker (‘O may I join the choir invisible’ by George Eliot), the actor Robert Hardy (‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’), Hickox’s doctor Christopher Hewetson (the passage from Revelation set by Vaughan Williams in Sancta Civitas). The address was given by the tenor Philip Langridge and covered the whole of Hickox’s career, not excluding his passion for Manchester United. As the service ended to the strains of the St Paul’s organist Simon Johnson playing the allegro maestoso from Elgar’s Organ Sonata we were left to reflect on the huge gap left by this energetic, hard working champion of British music (there will be more of this in Worcester in May). No one is indispensable, but…

My own most recent memory is of the truly overwhelming, masterly performance of Vaughan Willams’ Pilgrim’s Progress in the semi-staged production at Sadler’s Wells last year, but I treasure many of Hickox’s 300 or so recordings, not least the three CDs of John Ireland’s choral and orchestral works he made for Chandos (featuring the then young and not yet famous Bryn Terfel) back in the early 1980s.

Boydell authors and advisers were well represented at St Paul’s. I sat next to Lewis Foreman (Bax) who had nobly saved me a place at the front of the long queue to get into the cathedral) and we spotted Diana McVeagh (Elgar and Finzi) sitting in the front row with the Elgar Society committee. The conductor David Lloyd-Jones, who was the original link with John Lucas and the Beecham biography, was there, as was Sir Nicholas Kenyon, now the director of the Barbican Centre, who had also pointed us towards Lucas when he was extricating himself from the publishers who had inherited the contract from John Murray. I’ll report on the Vernon Handley service in due course.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Aldeburgh Country

Later this month the Boydell Press will, in association with Aldeburgh Music, publish a rather special volume, the New Aldeburgh Anthology compiled by Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie. Taking its inspiration from Ronald Blythe’s classic Aldeburgh Anthology of the 1970s, this new publication brings the story of Aldeburgh and the Suffolk coast up to date just at the point when its identity might seem diluted by the accelerating pace of change.

Britten and Pears' Aldeburgh Festival lies at the heart of the book. Their legacy is re-examined by musicians such as Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Roger Vignoles, and music writers James Fenton, Paul Kildea, Peter Dickinson and Rupert Christiansen. Poets Andrew Motion, Blake Morrison, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lavinia Greenlaw and other writers have all been inspired by the bright yet haunting atmosphere of the Suffolk coast; Maggi Hambling and Alison Wilding are sculptors who have left their mark on the landscape; while artists as varied as Sidney Nolan and John Piper, Arthur Boyd and Louise Wilson have all derived rich inspiration from it.

Here, to give a taste of the delights this book will offer, is a short extract from Ronald Blythe’s new preface:

This wonderful book could not have – in their wildest hopes for the future – been imagined by the three young men who, just after the war, determined to cease wandering and to settle for a music festival on the Suffolk coast. Neither they nor Aldeburgh itself could have foreseen what would flow from this decision, nor would they have given any thought to it. For them the excitement was in the present. The very austerity of both the time and the place suited what they had to do. In 1948 the shingle was still littered with concrete blocks and barbed wire, the vast river of herring was vanishing, the industrial enterprises of the Garrett brothers were failing and the local accommodation for Festival audiences verged on the severe. There is no more accurate account of those early days than Imogen Holst’s Diary.

And yet, what happened! The historic severity of this coast inspired a distinctive type of creativity which can now, via these vivid contributions, be seen not as a ‘school’ but as something which does not exist elsewhere. Thus this second Aldeburgh Anthology has the dual quality of being both an absorbing read and an important addition to our understanding of the arts – and music in particular – during the late twentieth century. They have thrived in a sharp climate. But then they always have, as anyone can see when they look up at the medieval oak and flint churches or into the stern couplets of George Crabbe. One of the most engaging things about these many writers, musicians, artists and photographers is the way in which Aldeburgh has ‘got them’. Although they show every kind of response to it, the little town and its surrounding countryside seem to hold them in its grip. Just as they did its genius-interpreter Benjamin Britten. I would meet him on the marshes in the cold afternoons, not very wrapped up, walking lightly, the wind tearing at him, the sea sullen and Aldeburgh itself white in the near distance. It was etiquette not to see him, to walk on. To be ‘working’, as he was working at that moment. Many of these contributors are in their various way working walkers in that unique territory.

To give the necessary balance to so many gifted incomers, the New Aldeburgh Anthology allows Suffolk to speak for itself and in all kinds of voices. Local historians and fishermen, natives and ‘foreigners’ all put their oar in, so to speak, adding to the vigour of the selection. Almost everything said and done is cinematic to some degree, the East Coast weather dominating music, writing, painting, sailing, thought. All this atmosphere blows through the book and is present even where it isn’t mentioned. It makes for clear statements. What should not astonish the reader, but which nevertheless does, is the variety of the contents. If nothing else, they remind the reader of the broad vision of ‘Aldeburgh’ from its early days to the present, and how it has always striven to include every talent.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology will be available from booksellers worldwide, not just in Suffolk, and a special limited edition may be purchased direct from the publisher.

Note on pronunciation: Aldeburgh is pronounced in a similar way to Edinburgh, so Ald’boro rather than Alder-burg.