|MUSIC BY ALAN BUSH
RR008 (rec 1994)
|Piers Lane piano
Clio Gould violin
Sophia Rahman piano
Philip Langridge tenor
Lionel Friend piano
NORTHERN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
Directed and led by Nicholas Ward
notes © 1994,1998 Redcliffe Recordings
Relinquishment Op.11 (1928) for piano Allegretto espressivo e
Nocturne Op.46 (1957) for piano Molto moderato
Lyric Interlude Op.26 (1944) for violin with piano accompaniment
In one movement
Voices of the Prophets Op.41 (1953). Cantata for tenor and piano
1 From the 65th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah
2 From Against the scholastic philosophy by John Milton
3 From the preface to Milton by William Blake
4 From My song is for all men by Peter Blackmore
English Suite Op.28 (1946) for string orchestra
Fantasia Andante con moto
Soliloquy on a sailor's song Andante tranquillo
notes © 1994 Redcliffe Recordings
Alan Bush was born on 22 December 1900 in London, the youngest of three boys in a typically Victorian middle-class family. His childhood was happy, if his health was delicate. At the age of four he asked for, and received as a birthday present his first piano lesson - from which point there began his pianistic career, which has continued ever since. His education, largely for health reasons, began with private tutors and governesses; thereafter between 1912 - 1917 he attended Sir Roger Cholmeley's Grammar School in Highgate; but his great joy came when he discovered the local public library, where he could "swim fascinated among the book-islands", and indulge his fast-growing enthusiasm for philosophy and politics.
From about the age of 15, in addition to piano-playing, he began to compose short pieces. Indeed his musical activity developed to such an extent that he determined to devote his life to music. In 1918 he entered the Royal Academy of Music, to study composition (with Frederick Corder), piano (with Tobias Matthay) and organ (with Reginald Steggall). Four years there were followed by private composition study with John Ireland, 1922 - 27, from which, until Ireland's death in 1962, there sprang a long and close friendship and high mutual esteem. Bush also continued his piano playing at this time in private study with Moiseiwitsch and (in 1928) Schnabel. In 1925 he was appointed to teach composition at the Academy, a position which he held for no fewer than 53 years until his retirement in 1978. His musicianship was broadly based. He sought rational answers to contemporary problems; he realised the importance of national traditions; he was conversant with the ecclesiastical modes, as with folk-song; he made a historical survey of methods of teaching composition, in order to decide on one of his own; he wrote a text-book on Palestrina.
While all this was going on Bush also pursued his philosophical and political ideas. In 1924 he joined the Independent Labour Party, and became an active participant in the London Labour Choral Union, which under Rutland Boughton had sought to promote Socialism through musical activity. Five years later he succeeded Boughton as its conductor. Then in 1929 he entered the Humboldt University in Berlin to read Philosophy - to discover, as he put it, "more about the world, more about politics"; musicology was a second study. In those years of the Weimar Republic, before the accession of Hitler to power, Berlin was the focal point of contemporary musical events in Europe. Hindemith taught at the Hochschule, Schoenberg at the State Academy, while Klemperer was musical director at the Krolloper. Bush had certainly picked a moment and a place of exceptional importance; nor was his presence in Berlin solely that of an observer. It so happened that those years coincided with his peak as a solo pianist. He had already performed Relinquishment at the Bechstein Hall on 6 November 1928; his repertoire was wide-ranging, and included the works of the two chief composers of the British piano school of that time, John Ireland and Frank Bridge. He played many pieces by his teacher, and also gave the first Berlin performance of the Bridge Sonata (1924), a landmark work of British music, on 29 January 1931.
The theorist and philosopher in Bush found much food for thought in the Berlin of that time. Hindemith and Schoenberg were each propounding their theories, which were, as Bush saw, incompatible. They could not both be right. Yet he was concerned to discover more than theories. He wanted music to be universally accessible, and he came into contact with German composers of the working-class movement, such as Hanns Eisler. In the event it was the Marxist world-view which provided Bush with the creative impulse for his work as a composer; particularly in the case of his four operas, which form the central part of his output. Each deals in its own way with struggle against oppression.
The two piano pieces Relinquishment and Nocturne, separated by almost thirty years, represent contrasting aspects of his piano music. The earlier work was written immediately after the years of study with John Ireland, to whom Bush owed much in the craft of piano composition. At that time he was facing the implications raised by the abandonment on the pan of some 20th century composers of the unified musical language. His solution in this piece was a language based on the tonality which results from combining a key (A flat major) with a mode (mixolydian). The music displays contrasting features: the scale of A flat is coloured by the flattened leading-note (G flat); the counterpoint of the opening, with its strict, rather mechanical 3-part features, is subtly contrasted with the chordal texture of the middle section, in which the full resonance of the instrument is brought into use; the opening modal melody, given out by the right hand, is chromatically contradicted by the left hand part; the linear style of the first 35 bars is in sharp contrast to the rhythmic quintuplet ostinatos which come later and are based on the shape of the opening melody. The piece as a whole, calling as it does for no small virtuoso technique, is a statement of musical certainty and aesthetic conviction at a time when European composers were tending to face in the opposite direction, and there was no longer a general acceptance of aesthetic values. The title Relinquishment is derived from the feeling expressed of deep regret that a particular course of action had to be consciously abandoned.
With Nocturne we enter a different world of thirty years on. It is somewhat impressionistic, harmonically more static than Relinquishment, and in structure less taut. Counterpoint is lacking; tremolando textures, with articulated sextuplets and spread chords suggestive of the surge of the sea, form the background to this sombre tone-picture, which represents the introspective nostalgia of a long voyage.
The piece was first played at a Macnaghten Concert in the Arts Council Drawing Room on 21 March 1958, when Edna Iles played it as a 3-movement work, Variations, Nocturne and Finale, Op.46. Bush thereafter withdrew the first and third movements, which he later scored as a Piano Concerto, Variations, Nocturne and Finale on an English sea-song, Op.60. Only this Nocturne was allowed to stand as a solo piece for piano.
For the Lyric Interlude, Op.26, Bush reduces the role of the piano to that of an accompanying instrument. The chief interest lies in the solo violin. It was composed for Max Rostal, who was a leading violinist of his generation, with a strong, exceptional commitment to British composers. Many passages in this work were the result of Rostal's editing, and the rapport thus established resulted in Bush writing a Violin Concerto for him a few years later. The Lyric Interlude was first played by Rostal, with the composer playing the piano, on 6 January 1945.
The four sections are played without a break. The tonality, which is A major/mixolydian, allows for the G major in the two inner sections. The strength of the violin melody in the opening section, Moderato con mob, lies in the unexpected modulation, and overlapping tonal centres, of the sequences; also in the contrast between the falling minor third, implying weakness and tension, and the falling perfect forth, implying strength and resolution. The melody opens out into a triple metre, with accompaniment in two bar phrases, and at a slightly slower tempo. The music follows an unbroken melodic arch, reaching a high point, which is followed by a long descent over a 6-bar phrase on a pedal E.
The next section, Andantino, sets off an insistently repeated E, and a rhythmic ostinato, with an accompaniment in triads whose roots are a minor third apart. This is followed by a long passage, un pochissimo piu animato, which builds with variation technique and canon to an impassioned climax for the violin, followed by a gradual descent and reprise of the Andantino theme, closing onto E major.
The scherzo follows, Allegretto vivace. Quick, light, staccato phrases for the violin, one-in-a-bar. Once again intervals of the third and fourth alternate. The pace slows down for a more sustained passage, like a Trio, before the scherzo theme reappears. The concluding section, come primo, is a repeat of the first, and this is followed by a recall of the scherzo theme in shortened form, reverting to the A tonality, like a coda.
Voices of the Prophets was commissioned for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1953, Coronation year; but it was never performed there. The premiere was given by Peter Pears and Noel Mewton-Wood on 22 March 1953 in London, in the Recital Room of the Royal Festival Hall. It followed Bush's first opera, Wat Tyler (1948 - 51), which earned him some notoriety, and an Arts Council prize - but not a production. That took place in Leipzig, also in 1953.
The texts chosen by Bush for this cantata speak for themselves. As for the piano part, this is very far from being accompanimental. There is an exuberance and a boldness in the piano writing that strongly recalls another song-cycle written just two years earlier for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten - Michael Tippett's The Heart's Assurance.
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people; and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
Isaiah 65, 17-22
So at length the spirit of man will reach out, and will reach out far and wide, till it fills the whole world and the space far beyond with the expansion of its divine greatness. Then at last most of the chances and changes of the world will be so quickly perceived that to him who holds this stronghold of wisdom hardly anything can happen in his life which is unforeseen or fortuitous. He will indeed seem to be one whose rule and dominion the stars obey, to whose command earth and sea harken, and whom winds and tempests serve; to whom, lastly, Mother Nature herself has surrendered, as if indeed some god had abdicated the throne of the world and entrusted its rights, laws and administration to him as governor. So at length the spirit of man will reach out till it fills the whole world with its divine greatness.
hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court and the University, who would if they could fore ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Believe Christ and His Apostles, that there is a class of men whose sole delight is in destroying.
Over the years I hear strong voices rise from the springtime of our living . . . I hear strong voices calling me brother from the rough horsehair tents of Mongolia . . . In Korea the rivers and mountains leap with the cry of their welcome . . . My heart sings in the lilt of the tear-twisted caress from the far lands of China . . . I gather like greeting from the red roughened hands of the steelmen of Sheffield . My smile is the smile of the miner descending the coalpits of Rhondda . . . I am by the side of the stevedores heaving bales in the shipyards of Antwerp . . I reach around earth to embrace the Australian docker. For his handclasp assures me victory over subtly plotted deception . . . These are my strength, my force their varied conceivings, my calm that in them my living may never decay.
Scientists, craftsmen, teachers, painters, poets, philosophers . . . come! We shall work till our power invested together create a new world . . . Till there be no longer famine in India . . . Till the Yangtse flood no more . . Till we plant gardens in Gobi . . Till we gather each year the harvest of the Sahara ... Till our force, bright as the atom, blasts the evil oppression which cripples all creation .
And so I rest the little blond German child gently against me . . .I trace the years with him . . .1 rest the little black African boy gently against me . . . He and the German boy trace the years with me . . . I rest the little Kamchatchuan child gently against me . . . I rest the little Georgian child gently against me. . . She and the little Japanese boy trace the years with me . . . Let our love hold them till, bright as the atom, together their power blasts the evil oppression which cripples all our creation . . . Till man cover the earth with his glory as the waters cover the sea.
In the English Suite for String Orchestra Bush asserts his roots in more senses than one. The use of the string orchestra is peculiarly English, and this work is in direct line with similar compositions by Elgar, Holst, Bridge and Vaughan Williams. Each movement uses a different folk-tune. The opening Fantasia is based on a plainsong theme of the Tudor composer John Taverner, Gloria tibi Trinitas, from the Mass of that name (1530). This proved to be one of the favourite threads running through English music of the l6th/ 17th centuries, until the time of Purcell, and served as the basis round which composers wove elaborate structures and Fantasias. It has been used in the 20th century by such composers as Peter Maxwell Davies and Francis Routh. Bush allows the festal, cumulative nature of the theme full rein, and alternates a solo octet, with which the work opens, with a climactic structure for the full orchestra.
In the slow movement, short sections of the tune separate built-up chords, which progressively increase in texture and dynamics before dying away at the close.
The Passacaglia theme is a long one, 16 bars in two-bar phrases The tune is "The Cutty Wren", and was to be used a few years later in the opera Wat Tyler, where it was associated with Wat Tyler himself. The music builds uninterruptedly for ten variations, after which metrical and harmonic subtleties take over. The theme is changed into three-bar units; chords are paired whose roots are a third apart (a familiar Bush device); the pace slackens, and solo instruments lighten the texture. At the 13th variation the metre changes again, this time into four-bar units, and the full orchestra takes over. A quickening of pace after the 14th variation leads to the molto marcato ed energico of the conclusion, for which the original metre is resumed, but the theme is halved in duration from 16 bars to 8. Such methods recall Purcell's style of variations over a ground bass.
notes © 1994,1998 Redcliffe Recordings
Bush, Alan: In my eighth decade (London 1980)
Orga, Ates: Alan Bush (Composer 35, Spring 1970)
Stevenson, Ronald (ed.): Time Remembered (Bravura Publications, 1981)
GRAMOPHONE Review of this disc April 1995
This collection, arriving in good time for Alan Bush's ninety-fifth birthday in December, nearly doubles the amount of his music currently available on CD ('nearly' because the only other disc of his work, an Altarus CD devoted to his keyboard pieces, also includes the beautiful Nocturne). I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it will be a shame and a disgrace if the year passes without a recording of at least one of Bush's major orchestral works, preferably one of the operas and a representative selection of his choral music. His conservative style and his anything but conservative political views (a lifelong and unrepentant Marxist, all of his four operas had their premieres in the unlamented so-called German Democratic Republic) are the reasons usually put forward for this continued neglect. The only argument needed to rebut them is that he is a very good composer indeed, better by far than some who have in recent years been recorded much more extensively. From that point of view this CD has been admirably compiled, it contains characteristic works of real substance that give an appetite-whetting glimpse of the stature of his symphonies, concertos and dramatic works. Even a comparative miniature like the Nocturne, a gentle and delicate piece, has nevertheless a largeness of scale that is typical of Bush, while Voices of the Prophets (a set of four songs written for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten) is filled with gestures of such bold expansiveness that they tax both singer and pianist to the utmost. They are memorable in their melodiousness, their strong grand lines and their obviously sincere expression of a confident secular faith; their neglect is (apart from their sheer difficulty for the performers) inexplicable.
In a way, Bush's political radicalism and his musical conservatism are linked. In his manner and his occasional writings, even his appearance, he seems much more like a reforming patrician Whig than a proletarian revolutionary (John Amis once remarked, memorably and not jokingly, that he "could see Alan as a bishop"). His deeper roots, some of them audibly shared with his admirer Michael Tippett, are heard in the English Suite, which meditates on the beauty and vigour of two folk tunes and a plainchant melody with a mastery of resourceful counterpoint that links him to the recent tradition of English string writing but also the great age of polyphony. Relinquishment, no less characteristically, generates a beautiful lyricism from learned, even rather austere part-writing. Within a very brief space the Lyric Interlude demonstrates more of Bush's range, from a tough seriousness to delicate fantasy.
The performances are good throughout, those of the solo piano pieces especially, the recordings are excellent, though that of Voices of the Prophets, made at a public concert, is a little recessed. If you've ever assumed, because of his political stance, that Bush's music is austerely grey or in any way toes the party line, this admirable record will change your mind.
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