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 Cyril Rootham - (1875 - 1938) by John France

See also Catalogue of Works


Cyril Rootham is one of many English Composers whose work is now largely forgotten. Only the diminishing number of people who heard performances before the last war will remember how distinctive this prolific composer was. Much of his time was spent in running the Cambridge University Musical Society, often to the detriment of performances of his own works. Other commitments found him deeply involved with educational and other practical music making activities. In fact overwork may have been one of the causes of a stroke which led to an early death at sixty-two, at a time when his creative powers were at their highest.

Dr Rootham did not join one of the many competing 'schools' of composition. Although there are elements of the folk-song revival and the Celtic Twilight in many of his works, he was not a person to be categorised. He avoids many of the clichés which were criticised by Constant Lambert in his book, 'Music Ho'

Many years ago Arthur Hutchings prophesied a great future for Cyril Rootham. In spite of a few recordings and broadcast performances over the last 25 years this has not happened. However at a time when much of the music written in the last (20th) century is being re-evaluated perhaps the time for discovering his music is fast approaching.


Musically, Rootham has quite a large catalogue. A number of critics regard his main contribution as choral music both with and without orchestra. It is possible to evaluate a number of pieces because of the valuable Richard Hickox recording made in the early nineteen-eighties.

Many commentators agree that Rootham's version of 'For the Fallen', which preceded Elgar's, is in many ways just as impressive as the elder master's and may even score higher marks for subtlety if not passion. The setting of Yeat's poem, 'The Stolen child' written in 1911 is a gem. Although influenced by modalism and the Celtic-Twilight this is an effective piece which is well written and provides an atmospheric setting of the words.

One of the most evocative musical descriptions of a city is given in his choral work -'City in the West'. This piece is dedicated to Arthur Warrel who was a Bristolian. The words are from a text by Rootham's son, Jasper. The work certainly deserves to be placed with Vaughan Williams' 'London Symphony and Dyson's 'In Honour of the City' as an invocation of a city.

Yet this is only a small portion of the Rootham catalogue. He produced a major opera, unheard in our generation, The Two Sisters. Much choral work remains to be re-discovered. Especially so is the massive 'Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity.' This work was produced at Cambridge in 1930 and is set for solo voices, chorus and full orchestra. Henry Colles, writing in the 1954 Groves says, "[Rootham] devoted the closest thought to the setting of the poem and to devising a musical form worthy of its massive proportions. The result was a noble work…"

He was not lacking in the composition of chamber music. A String Quintet in D was given in 1909. Three String Quartets followed. They are marked by qualities of "refined scholarship & charm." Perhaps the composer's best known Chamber work is the Septet. The Violin Sonata awaits a revival.

Rootham wrote two symphonies. The first in 1932 and the second shortly before his death in 1938. The First Symphony will be discussed in the next section of this article. However the Second Symphony has a somewhat curious history. It was sketched out during his last illness. He required assistance in these sketches from friends and pupils. It was left to Patrick Hadley to complete and orchestrate the work. It was giving a first hearing by the BBC on St Patrick's Day 1939. The broadcast coming from the Maida Vale Studios.

Colles notes that the piece bears the signs of a great physical and spiritual struggle, it is, he says, "the work of a man facing tragedy with a high courage and faith.


First Symphony

Rootham's First Symphony was written in 1932. It is a four movement work. Hutchings believes that the quintessential Rootham is present especially in the first two movements. "Vigorous and genial" is the overriding mood of this work. The piece was first performed at a 'Royal College of Music' Patron's Fund rehearsal. By all accounts this left much to be desired. It was performed by the BBC in 1938. It was released in 1979 by Lyrita Records, coupled with the Birds of Rhiannon by Joseph Holbrooke.

Adagio- Allegro Ritmico

It opens with a shimmer on woodwind followed by the main theme. Brass fanfares overlay an urgent message from the string theme. Rootham's ability to write a competent woodwind counterpoint is well in evidence as the movement progresses. One of the key features of all this composers writing is his use of brass. Both in vigorous contrapuntal writing and in the chorale style. Throughout much of this movement one is reminded of elements from Vaughan Williams 'Wasp' Overture and from some passages of the Fourth Symphony. There is a curious point of repose about two-thirds of the way through the movement.

A pianissimo roll on the timpani leads to a brass fanfare and marching effects from the side drum. The last chord comes as a slight surprise with a crescendo followed by a diminuendo.

Adagio molto (alla marcia)

The second movement is underpinned by the tread of a march. Whether it is pizzicato strings or timpani the regular beat is never far away. Sometimes the listener seems to supply it for themselves when not stated on one or more instruments. There are two unexpected brass fanfares in the slow movement. Somehow interrupting yet not destroying the spirit of the long romantic, if slightly unsettling, theme. Once again the use of woodwind 'descant' against the string tune is in evidence.

Scherzo allegro molto

The third movement is a classic scherzo - yet with features which make this movement quite unique. It opens with a characteristic 'dancing theme' owing something to the folk-song school. It comes complete with the pizzicato string underpinning. This movement has a much greater use of percussion - xylophone and glockenspiel included. The formal construction of this movement involves a slowing down of the pace every so often. The dance theme is abandoned for a kind of romantic, Baxian musing on strings. It is as if the composer is suffering quite distinctive mood swings - more than one would expect in a scherzo. Once again the listener is conscious of an effective use of brass - almost vocal in its part-writing. The woodwind is used to reiterate the 'dance' tune and some quite involved counterpoint is found in the closing pages. The movement ends quietly.

Allegro con spirito

The Symphony ends with a fine piece of 'folk-songy or school songy' writing as Hutchings describes it in his 1938 Musical Times article on the music of this composer. Brass fanfares introduce the movement which has 'film music' overtones in many places. The folksong-like 'big tune' is introduced on strings. The presence of modalism and harmonic parallelism is not far away. There are changes of moods - oboe tunes and echoes on the flutes. A moment of repose followed by a horn theme accompanied by strings and the harp. One is reminded of the last theme of the first movement of the later 6th Symphony of Ralph Vaughan William's. The music becomes increasingly dissonant and the brass and snare drum writing tend to increase the intensity. Once again we are presented with the 'Celtic Twilight' on the strings. Some "well-wooded backwater" of the composers mind. The 'happy' tune re-emerges complete with counter subjects. The pace slows down slightly and brass figurations lead to a relatively quiet and certainly not a triumphant finish.

Altogether a fascinating piece of music. Certainly better than many of the contemporary efforts. Not a major, world-shattering symphony in the sense of Elgar's 2nd or RVW's 4th but one which would raise the rafters were it performed at a BBC Promenade Concert.

© John France

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