MUSIC BY FRANCIS ROUTH
Bretagne op.68 (1998)
Angels of Albion Op.64 (1995)
Celebration* op.45 (1984)
Jeffrey Jacob (piano)*
Redcliffe Recordings RR018
FRANCIS ROUTH (1927-)
Francis Routh was born on 15 January 1927 in Kidderminster, the second in a family of three. When in 1930 his father became headmaster of a grammar school in Guisborough, on the edge of the Cleveland hills, the family moved to North East Yorkshire. His early years there were happy, and were followed by his being sent to boarding school in the West country between the age of 8-18, in accordance with the convention of that time.
Music was inherited from his mother’s side. She had trained as a pianist at the Academy in Weimar 1907-1909, though later she was forced to abandon piano playing, mainly through illness;. she suffered poliomyelitis, with lasting side-effects. But the idealism and dedication to music of those pre-1914 years never left her, and she passed them on to her children. And so it was from her that Francis received his first piano lessons at an early age; and these continued, unusually, as part of the regular tuition at his preparatory boarding school until the age of 13. Thereafter the demands of a more traditional public school classical education increasingly competed for his time. After three years national service in the Royal Navy, 1945-48, he became an undergraduate of King’s College, Cambridge, where he read Classics. But his years at King’s, 1948-51, were marked by unabated musical activity. Cambridge offered the widest opportunity for musical discovery and enrichment, on a scale previously unimagined. Now he was able to pursue fully and freely what earlier he had barely glimpsed. It so happened that 1950 was Bach’s bicentenary, and the music performed that year, under Boris Ord in King’s College Chapel, could hardly have been a more inspiring musical education for the young Routh. At Christmas, The Christmas Oratorio - the following April, the St Matthew Passion - in the summer, Magnificat; all of which he was able to observe being studied, prepared, rehearsed and performed. Other aspects of music were also opened up to him. He presented concerts and recitals of many sorts, thus exploring many styles and traditions new and old. Fresh standards were revealed, whether of early music - Cambridge was the seed-bed of the early music movement, later to become a worldwide cult - or contemporary music -he witnessed the performance of new music by Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Constant Lambert. Routh also developed his piano playing, and studied the chief works of the classical repertory - Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin. He found numerous opportunities for piano playing at Cambridge, both as soloist and in chamber music. But Cambridge, the home of choral music, could not offer a piano teacher; so he made fortnightly visits to London for lessons with Wesley Roberts at the Royal Academy of Music.
So much music prepared Routh for his gradus ad Parnassum. There was never any question that his work as a composer was to be of central importance. After Cambridge therefore he concentrated his studies primarily on composition; first at the Academy under William Alwyn, late privately under the Hungarian composer Matyas Seiber. The first works to achieve success and professional performance were songs A Woman Young and Old and Four Shakespeare Songs, which were the result of a concert tour by the celebrated lieder singer Ilse Wolf. Thus, with his earliest pieces, Routh established the rule by which his work was to be measured. His best work are considered to be the result of collaboration with performers with whom he had a close artistic rapport
This certainly has been the case with the piano works, which form a large part of his output: ten pieces so far for solo piano, and two concerted works, Piano Concerto I and Poème Fantastique, each a study in characteristic vivace style, the second more poetic than the first, with an impressionistic virtuosity. The instrument is also part of his orchestral ensemble, of which prime examples are the strangely beautiful Concert Aria Spring Night, Scenes for Orchestra I, II, and the life-giving Symphony I. In the wonderfully vital and vibrant Concertos for Ensemble, which were intended as pieces in Divertimento style for the Redcliffe Ensemble in the 1980s, the piano acts as the focal instrument, rather like the 18th century continuo. The piano has always been the basis of his composition. Not only does he compose at the piano, but the instrument has been the source of many virtuoso works. Fresh musical ideas, and the working out of new structures and large-scale schemes, have often found their first outlet in a work for piano. He has been inspired by many artists, including, in the 1980s, Jeffrey Jacob and, in the 1990s, Lora Dimitrova.
Bretagne op.68 (1998) Scenes for Piano IV
I Theme Andante
This is a sequence of musical impressions, and the movements form a suite, alternating slow and fast. Some are short, uncomplicated, rhythmically symmetrical (II, IV), and separated by a slower one (III), whose melodic line suggests the wider perspective and serenity of the undulating coastline.
The slow movement of the suite is V Sillon de Talbert, whose decorated melody is a long, lyrical exposé of the tonal progressions of the theme. It is constructed like an embellished Bach chorale, starting with a quiet introduction, suggesting an organ, as a background to the leisurely unfolding sweep of melody, matching in its broad outline the panoramic contours of the sea, dramatic in the evening light, which faces the Sillon de Talbert - a narrow strip of land jutting out into the sea.
The three concluding movements evoke the colour and brilliance of Breton life and folklore. The procession of VI, Cortège folklorique, which includes dancers and jugglers, is led by the musicians, with raucous bombarde and biniou, who grow louder as the procession approaches, and die away as it passes into the distance.
A short Adagio follows. The Château du Guildo is today a ruin from the mediaeval past, facing an estuary over which it once stood guard against the marauding English. On the other side of the estuary the "Sounding Stones" resonate with an awesome sound against the wind and the waves. The evening light combines to give a sombre impression. The concluding movement, Jour de Fête, is a joyous impression of a folk festival, complete with the revels of a fairground.
SCENES FOR PIANO III Op.64 Angels of Albion
I Prelude Allegro energico
II Aubade Allegretto
III To the Evening Star Slow
Thou fair hair’d angel of the evening,
IV Night Music Largo
V Berceuse Andante
The title of these musical impressions is from William Blake, and is one of conflict; the conflict between the forces of nature, between the nations of the world, between good and evil, light and dark, peace and war. At the sun's rising, in Blake’s words,
Clothed in robes of blood and gold
there sounds a trumpet-fanfare, assertive and inexorable; with the gentle light of dawn humanity responds with dance and song; after the scherzando of the Aubade, the serenity and peace of evening covers the world with its silver dew, with violence threatening to erupt below the surface, before giving way in turn to the dark forces of night, to which the concluding Berceuse is humanity’s response and solace.
There was an episode in the First World War, at Christmas 1914, when the opposing soldiers suddenly laid aside their weapons, came out of their trenches and sang carols in no-mans-land. For a moment the fighting stopped, and singing took the place of conflict. After a while it stopped, the opposing armies returned to their holes in the ground, and the killing went on. Siegfried Sassoon commemorates this event:
If, in this story, it was the singing which gave way to conflict, the threefold Berceuse begins and ends with the singing. The interlude in between is a funeral march in which the trumpet-calls of the Prelude are transformed into violent outbursts, and the martial drumbeat of the ground bass. The theme of the Aubade, dance-like at its first appearance, now forms the climax to the interlude. Then, as "horror drifted away" the singing rises up from it, like flutes, representing the soaring flight of birds, the symbol of the soul of humanity. Their final song is a long, slow descent, over two octaves, dying away at the end.
These Scenes for Piano, Bretagne -Angels of Albion, share the same tonal centre (B) and use the same mode of extended tonality. This is the whole-tone scale with the addition of the perfect fourth:
The use made of this mode differs in each piece. In Bretagne the theme stated at the outset originates from the juxtaposition of two chords formed directly from the mode:
The movements which follow are variations on the two chords, whose tonal relationship is the source of the melodic and harmonic material.
The movements of Angels of Albion on the other hand are linked not by two chords but by a common melodic pattern. The tritone B-F is a prevalent feature of the mode; also the tierce B-D sharp, from which is formed the left hand foundation for the opening bars of three of the movements, I Prelude, III To the Evening Star, V Berceuse.
Elegy is a transcription for piano of one of the movements of the Serenade for String Trio (1972). In that context, with the different requirements of three stringed instruments, the lack of a central development was deliberate. The procedure was consonant with the in memoriam nature of the piece. The potential that lay stored up within the stark ostinato material, with its deceptive simplicity, could be brought out more fully using the tonal resources of the piano - a percussion instrument - and the continual, subtle use of the pedal. In place of organic growth, the music derives its impetus from a single recurring refrain, and from a single, repeated harmonic pattern, set impressionistically within shifting and changing surroundings, after the manner of Chopin’s Berceuse. The piano allows for a fuller texture, the addition of auxiliary notes as part of the melody, and the filling out of certain harmonic implications, unrealised in the original trio version.
The creative impulse underlying Elegy is personal - an in memoriam piece inspired by the long-remembered, untimely death twelve years earlier, in August 1960, of the composer’s son Benjamin from rheumatoid arthritis at the age of ten months. The piano version was composed between 5 November 1985 and 19 January 1986, and first played by Jeffrey Jacob at a concert in the Prague Conservatoire, on 20 May 1986. Since this was about two years after the completion of Celebration, it owes something to the larger work; but since the original material dates from 1972, its basic sonority is simpler.
Celebration was begun on 28 November 1983 and completed on 27 January 1984. It was commissioned by, and dedicated to the American pianist Jeffrey Jacob, who first performed it on a European tour during September - October 1984. The actual first performance was a private one at the composer’s home in Chiswick on 15 September that year. In subsequent years Jacob has performed the work with great success many times in Europe, the most notable performances were given in Munich and Warsaw, as well as in the United States and South America.
It is an extrovert showpiece, in contrast to the Elegy, which is introvert. The celebration of the title is in the sheer exuberance of keyboard virtuosity. A feeling of exhilaration underlies the whole composition process, as the piece reveals piano textures and sonorities, varieties of touch, with or without pedals; now impressionistic, atmospheric; now vigorous, percussive; now light scale-passages; now full resonant chords.
The music is based on a 7-note mode (the whole-tone scale with the addition of the perfect fourth) and the overlapping of two tetrachords , always with the major tonality to the fore, which lends a certain brightness to the sonority, evident as much in the opening bars, with their detached, Petrushka - derived, secco quality, as in the lyrical middle section. Secco passages, without the pedals, abound, such as the fanfare-like opening; also certain clavier-like sections recalling the 18th century, for which a Mozartian clarity is everything, and in which the sustaining pedal would be quite out of place. Elsewhere, however, the sustaining of the harmonics is part of the musical idea itself, particularly in the case of full chords.
The first section, Allegro, is built round two ideas, and the music moves with a certain degree of controlled freedom, combined with rhythmic articulation. These features build up an inexorable momentum, becoming gradually more rhythmically taut and harmonically abundant as the section approaches the culminating climactic chords, which ring out with a resonance which is grand, majestic and brilliant, covering the whole range of the keyboard. Two transitional bars arise out of this total resonance, and lead to the cantabile middle section, Andante. This itself is in three parts, the second of which develops chordally and rhythmically before the return of the cantabile melody in varied form.
The third section, Vivace, resumes the rhythm and metre of the opening, but with tonal variations. The work ends with a flourish.
Contributor David Wright
© 2002 Redcliffe Recordings