notes © 1992,1998 Redcliffe Recordings
|RR 007 MUSIC BY PRIAULX
String Quartet (1939)
This recording has been made possible with financial assistance from the Worshipful Company of Musicians
Priaulx Rainier was born on 3 February 1903 at Howick, Natal, South Africa. Her mother was English, her father of Hugeunot origin. Her childhood was spent in the remote vastness of Natal, on she borders of Zululand. She was unusually aware of the natural sounds around her; and of the traditional music of the natives, their festive processions, their endless beating of drums.
In 1913 the family moved to Cape Town, and Priaulx began to study the violin. There was never any doubt that she was to become a musician, and in 1920 she went to London on a scholarship to study the violin at the Royal Academy. It was not until some years later; followings return visit to South Africa, that she felt the first impulse to compose; but in the meantime she obtained her first engagement, as a teacher and violinist at the Badminton School, Bristol. She developed great skill as a teacher; which was to make her much in demand later in life; and playing the violin in a string quartet also proved particularly beneficial.
It was not until more than ten years later, in 1937, that the first of her acknowledged compositions was published: Three Greek Epigrams for voice and piano. The String Quartet followed two years later. Then shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, and following her experience as a teacher, she was appointed to teach composition at the Royal Academy. Until her retirement from that position in 1961 it was to prove an anchor of security during a very difficult period; for she not only found insufficient time and incentive for composition, but performances of her music were few and far between.
She was sustained in her determination to become a composer by the support of friends and colleagues, and by her acquaintance with other musicians. In the early years of the war; classical concerts in London were restricted; contemporary music found only limited outlet in one of the small coteries that gathered round individual musicians. One such focussed round Michael Tippett at Morley College which thereby became a centre of considerable activity. Here Priaulx became acquainted with Tippett himself, as well as with the conductor Walter Goehr; the critic and administrator William Glock, the composer and teacher Matyas Seiber; the concert promoter Gerald Cooper; the singer Peter Pears, and many others. She was especially at home in the company of writers (David Gascoyne, Arthur Waley), artists (Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson), and dancers (Pola Nirenska).
But the task of developing her musical sensitivity and of transforming the recollected sounds of Africa, which were the raw material of her art, into a mature, personal style, proved arduous and lonely. If practical recognition was slow, her friends helped in what ways they could. The String Quartet was given a private performance in 1940; thereafter it was not performed publicly until 1944, when Cooper put it into one of his Wigmore Hall series of concerts. Tippett asked her for a piece for string orchestra, to be played at Morley College, and this resulted in Sinfonia da Camera (1947), which unfortunately did not prove so successful or characteristic apiece as the String Quartet. Glock asked her to be the coach for chamber music groups at a summer school he organised, first at Bryanston School in Dorset, later at Dartington Hall in Devon.
Among her many friends Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson occupied a special category. Their ideas about space-construction and geometric forms of abstract art found a receptive listener in Priaulx as she herself forged her own style; moreover Hepworth's belief in the reality of the world of ideas, and of the new vistas opened up by abstract scientific thought, struck forcibly home with the composer; who went so far as to buy a studio in St Ives, where Hepworth and Nicholson lived. There was, however, a primitivism at the heart of Rainier's music which called for particularly personal expression, and which was at variance with the tradition of Western classical music. As long as she used notes of determinate pitch it was necessary for her to come to terms with tonality; for pitched notes imply tonality if not necessarily a key The risk she ran was that her use of chromaticism might become uncontrolled, chaotic.
One can see the bringing together of the African folk-source of Rainier's music and atonal European idiom in her piano piece Barbaric Dance Suite (1949). Indeed this work shows more than a passing resemblance to Bart6k's Allegro Barbaro, which was also a bringing together of folk music within a classical context. In Rainier's case, the juxtaposition of primitive rhythms with irregular metres was the result of her being influenced by Stravinsky. Yet in her search for an idiom which would combine the folk and peasant music of her native South Africa with the art music of her adopted country she could hardly avoid being influenced by Batt6k's String Quartets, particularly the middle ones. Like Bart6k she also enjoyed the sheer invention of string sonorities, and many textures and sonorities of her String Quartet can be traced to Bart6k's Fifth Quartet (1934).
Working on her own in those early years of the 1930s, she was self-taught. The String Quartet was her earliest large-scale work. The material of the first movement has two aspects which interact. Robust, whole-bar triads, whose tonality is predominantly minor and whose roots are adjacent, a tone or semitone apart, establish at the outset the sombre character of the music (molto serioso). Each chord-sequence evolves enharmonically as it moves into a remote tonal region. Thus the E flat of the opening C minor tonality becomes the D sharp of the G sharp tonality on which the sequence ends.
The counter-weight to the full, homophonic chords are unison quaver melodies, round which the development of the movement is built. These melodies are also constructed in two halves, with the interval of the tritone as a pivot. The tonal ambiguity of this interval, poised as it is midway between the fourth and fifth degree of the diatonic scale, yet sharing the characteristics of neither; gives the composer a freedom to move in any direction, unfettered by conventional modulation.
These two aspects of the material - full, long-note chords, and unison short-note melodies - give the music a consistency and homogeneity which carry it relentlessly forward from first note to last.
The scherzo, muted throughout, changes the quaver melodies of the first movement into whole-beat melodies round which are woven quick rhythmic patterns, light and delicate, in compound metre, and with plentiful use of pedal-points. These patterns progress harmonically in triads as before, and modulate enharmonically, such as E flat/D sharp, and A flat/G sharp, based on an F tonality. The whole movement is short, and after a brief recollection of the opening few bars the music simply evaporates.
The unison quaver melodies of the opening movement appear again in the slow movement, where they are given free rein as the main idea; in octaves as before, they lead to a different tonal area each time, at a leisurely speed (tranquillo), and with the restful character enhanced by their being coloured by the tierce, or fourth overtone of the harmonic series. Whereas in the earlier movement the scales acted as a counter-weight to the chords, here they gradually increase in intensity until they reach their culminating point in a sequence of pedal points (C sharp, G sharp) before gradually reducing in tension and dynamic, and coming to rest on C.
In the brilliant rondo finale the triads of the first movement are modified to become open chords of two notes, at the interval of the fifth or twelfth. Short, broken phrases, set against a jagged ostinato accompaniment, derived from the scale-patterns of the first movement, begin and end with chordal outbursts. The episodes separating the various statements of this main idea are in total contrast: quiet, eerie chords, senza vibrato; quick, tonally vague scales at the twelfth, sul ponticello.
In referring back to Rainier's Three Greek Epigrams as a source of stylistic ideas, one can detect ways in which the String Quartet develops ideas first revealed in the earlier songs: in the first song the harmony makes much use of the interval of the tritone; in the second song the melody is in two halves, with the tritone acting as a pivot; in the third song, a climax is marked by a pedal-point. In all these ways the String Quartet consolidates earlier achievement.
Yet Rainier's style was constantly developing, changing. She never once repeated herself. In 1956 she composed a work, Requiem, in which she used the triad for the last time to any great extent. Thereafter her style altered; her use of rhythm became more sophisticated, her melodic phrases more fragmentary, her use of tonality more distant. All these changes were partly the result of the avant garde trends of the time; they were also largely a response to the ideas of the artist Ben Nicholson, whose freedom of outlook was similar to that of a physicist following the exposition of the Quantum Theory by Planck. The dissolution of the materialistic world-view, and the prevalence of highly abstract, speculative concepts, released in the artist, as much as in the scientist, a sense that he was dealing with pure elements, unfettered by representational limitations. Though the technique of the composer is quite distinct from that of the sculptor or painter - music moves in time, for instance; moreover the tonal nature of musical material makes its own unique demands - nevertheless Priaulx Rainier was most responsive to such ideas as Ben Nicholson propounded.
The Oboe Quartet Quanta was pivotal in this process of change. It was written for Janet Craxton and her London Oboe Quartet (as were most oboe quartets by British composers at this time), and commissioned by William Glock - by this time the Head of Music at the BBC. He initiated a series of "Invitation Concerts" specifically for the introduction of new compositions, and Rainier was asked to contribute one. It so happened that this invitation came at a particularly radical moment of her career so the resulting work, Quanta, proved to be a key work.
The title derives from the Quantum Theory in physics, whereby energy exists in space, independent of matter. Rainier's idea was that energy particles which gradually congregate together; only to burst out again violently can be given musical expression. Clusters of sound can be built up, later broken into fragments. Played continuously, the work falls into two sections; the first quick, energetic, the second gentle.
The tonality which is secondary, is static, broadly centred round D/D flat, and the repetitive figurations are typical of many other composers at this time. This was the period when the tide of serialism was at its flood in Europe and America, and it could hardly be expected that Rainier should remain impervious to such a universal trend. She makes much use of dissonant intervals, such as the minor ninth, minor second, major seventh, augmented second. The music is non-directional, inspire of the melodic continuity of phrase. Tonality that is static can have no direction; Rainier relies instead on the sharply characterised nature of each tone-cluster; as it exploits dissonance to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the speed of its assembly and dissolution, and its remoteness or closeness to the base-note D/D flat, The music is tonally abstract in that it avoids all suggestion of conventional progression. It is not serial.
There is an exploratory, experimental aspect to Quanta. That is its essence. The sound-source of the ideas is different from the traditional or African sources that Rainier had previously used. The treatment of them is also different. This process is carried one step further in the String Trio, written some four years later for the same string players as played in the London Oboe Quartet. Like Quanta, the String Trio also falls broadly into two sections, played without a break. The first contains quick-moving music, the second is slow, but there is none of the melodic continuity found in Quanta, and the phrases are even shorter; sharp little splinters of sound, just two notes for the most part. The lines vary and become more drawn out only as the work dies away to its close.
The piece is an exploration of the possibilities inherent in the interval of the minor ninth (E-F), which is treated with an infinite number of permutations, Thus the characteristically dissonant sonority arises from the clash of semitones rather than whole tones. Subtle variations of harmony, rhythm and texture are built round a regular pulse, even if this is heavily disguised by the use of irregular metres, which veer between 11,12, 7 or 9 units. The tonality is anything but explicit, coming as it does from the secondary end of the tonal spectrum. The challenge for the listener, hearing such music for the first time, is to identify in the rhythm that regularity of beat without which irregular metres are ineffective, and to hear in the tonality that norm against which dissonance needs to be offset. For the directional coherence of traditional music, Rainier here substitutes a sequence of tone-clusters, built largely in semitones, with momentary flashes of sound, suggestive, variable, and tonally remote from each other; like stars in the night sky.
Performances of Rainier's music - particularly of her works since 1960 - have been infrequent. They are difficult both for performer and listener; moreover several premieres were inadequate, making subsequent performances even more unlikely than they would have been in any case. Ploërmel is a case in point, and its first performance at a BBC Promenade Concert in 1973 did it scant justice. It has only been the great increase over recent years of interest in, and activity by, wind orchestras - of which Timothy Reynish has been the prime mover - that has made it possible to hear this complex work adequately performed.
Rainier loved travelling. It gave her release from the pressures of composing, freedom from the constraints of urban and professional life; it fed her delight in, and responsiveness to, the sights and sounds of nature and wildlife. She visited the United States, and re-visited South Africa; but she was chiefly drawn to Europe, and in particular to France, where she would go in the company of Michael Tippett, the writer Elizabeth Sprigge, or her sister Nella, who moved to London after 1960. She had favourite places, one being Menerbes in the South, close to Avignon and another Plöermel in the North West, not far from the mouth of the river Loire. Here, on a visit in 1972, she was attracted by the sound of church bells in the early morning, and also by the effect of the first light of the sun shining through stained glass windows.
So it was that in fulfilling a commission for that year; she decided to use her impressions as the basis of a colour-piece. Dispensing with the strings of the orchestra, she focuses instead on the percussion. As well as the timpani, her battery includes tubular bells, hand-bells, antique cymbals, high and low gongs, xylophone and marimba - the latter a link with South African folk music, which she uses here in the nature of a continuo instrument, round which other instruments work out their patterns.
Plöermel falls into eleven sections of alternating quick and slow music, played continuously. It is a thing of contrasts rather than drama.
The five slow sections (even numbered) are all quite short, of 6-9 bars in length, and are introduced by slow 2-part chords, at the tenth, for a trombone and a tuba in the low register. This acts as a motto, or signature, throughout the work. The six quick sections (odd numbered) form the greater part of the work, and are made up of tone-clusters using the full resources of the different groups of the orchestra, woodwind, brass and percussion. Once again the tonality is static, and the colour of each cluster is established by the repetition of the little motifs that make it up, as well as by the rhythmic articulation of chords. There are also short ostinato solos for woodwind, usually at a fairly low dynamic level, a notable example being that for the Cor Anglais at the beginning and end of the ninth section. But this is not so much a Concerto for Orchestra, showing off the solo potential of the various instruments, as a Tone Poem, in which each instrument contributes to the total impression. The most prevalent interval in the overall sonority is the major seventh; but there is much less variation of metre than there is in the String Trio, which gives the music a sense of greater repose and stability than was the case in the earlier work. Rhythmic excitement is foreign to its conception.
notes © 1992,1998 Redcliffe Recordings
On Priaulx Rainier
Baxter, Timothy Profile: Priaulx Rainier (Composer 76/77 Summer/Winter 1982)
Opie, June: Come and listen to the Stars singing - Priaulx Rainier: a pictorial biography (London 1988)
Routh, Francis: Priaulx Rainier (in Contemporary British Music) (London 1972)
Schott & Co: List of published works (London 1983)
On Barbara Hepworth & Ben Nicholson
Hodin, J.P.: The dilemma of being modern (London 1956)
GRAMOPHONE Review of this Disc November 1992
Priaulx Rainier (1903-86) isn't so much a 'neglected' composer as one who didn't have much luck. She was a late developer, for a start. So were her close contemporaries Michael Tippett and Elisabeth Lutyens, but she had neither the former's deep rootedness in the past to ease a path to moderately frequent performance, nor the latter's adherence to what eventually became an orthodox 'ism'. Her style is highly individual, at the outset owing a little (but only a little) to Bartok and to her brief period of study with Nadia Boulanger, but adhering to no school and with roots in a culture that few of her early listeners would have recognized (she was born and spent her childhood on the borders of Natal and Zululand). The presence of Africa in her music is mysterious. Never a simple matter of quoting from ethnic sources, it seems to have been concerned with memories of light and colour as well as of sounds (Rainier said she felt more at home with visual artists than with musicians), but it was as much her background, and her language needed as much to come to terms with it, as the musical experiences of those brought up with Europe and European music all around them. Her musical maturity, the culmination of that difficult process, coincided with the outbreak of war and an imperative need to make a living from an occupation (teaching) which for a long while made it hard for her to expand a very short catalogue of works. A vicious circle of unfamiliarity of style breeding infrequent performance and vice versa built up (and those performances her music did receive were sometimes uncomprehending, even barely competent) which was only partially broken during the last two decades of her life.
What she could achieve despite all that is triumphantly demonstrated by the biggest work in this collection, Ploermel, for an ensemble of wind and percussion. It is an exuberantly vivid, passionate evocation of the bells and stained glass windows of a church in Brittany, its pealing clangour infused with a chorale element which crystallizes in a series of solemn interludes of refrains. As pointers to its sound-world my notes have "Varese" written rather hesitantly in the margin near the top of the page, "late Tippett" more confidently near the centre, even towards the end a query "Maxwell Davies?". There's no question of influence, more of affinity, and besides, Rainier's preoccupation with quite complex rhythms (which is where the Tippett kinship comes in) is combined with an absorbed exploration of often very basic tonal pulls, the tensions set up by semitonal and other clashes. Here and in the String Trio and Quanta such harmonic tensions are used with remarkable skill as a propulsive and unifying force.
Her music doesn't lack lyricism. Indeed a strong, sometimes angular lyricism is at its centre (all the more strong, all the more central for being stripped to the bone), most obviously in the very early (for a late developer) String Quartet. For an Op. 2 and a first major work this is astonishing in its assurance, in its precise imagining of what are often highly original textures. For example one of the first movement's two main ideas is a sequence of slow chords (the other is a wreathing pattern of unison or canonic quavers). Why does that sequence sound so grippingly strange each time it recurs? They are the very commonest chords you can think of, yet by their ordering and juxtaposition (in fact by a subtle process of building expectation and contradiction) Rainier seems almost to have re-invented them. A composer who can do that (and she does things no less striking in each of these works, the generation of energy from the interplay of very short fragments in the Trio, the eloquently spare lines of Quanta) is a creator of real consequence; this collection is a major re-discovery.
The performances are excellent, likewise the recording (though you will have to turn up the volume control for Ploermel). Imperatively needed next are recordings of some of Rainier's major orchestral and vocal works from the 1960s and 1970s, but the present disc has been shrewdly devised, while concentrating on chamber music, to give that synoptic view of her style which is so necessary to appreciate her stature, but which was so grievously lacking during her lifetime.
GRAMOPHONE reviews are available on-line
THE WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF MUSICIANS
The Worshipful Company of Musicians came into existence in 1500 under an Act of Common Council sought by certain minstrels of the City; nevertheless evidence exists of musicians in official employment in the City of London as early as the first decades of the 14th century. Throughout its subsequent history the Company has endeavoured to further the interests of the Musicians of London and to promote their welfare. A Charter was granted to the Company by King George VI in 1951.
Today, through extensive charitable trusts, including the Priaulx Rainier Memorial Fund, the Company's activities now extend far beyond the boundaries of the City of London. Principally connected with Education and training, the Company's grants extend to recognised Schools of Music, the Services, opera, jazz, and to the promotion of recitals, particularly by young artists. A continuing expansion of interests affords valuable opportunities to many individuals and organisations. The Company's motto "Preserve Harmony" is not without significance for the present day.
The Company was a major beneficiary under the Will of Priaulx Rainier, who died in 1986. She was the first woman to hold the Company's most prestigious award, the John Clementi Collard Fellowship, in 1952, and was the first Lady Liveryman of the Company being "clothed" with the Livery in October 1983.
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