Classical Editor: Rob
ENGLISH COMPOSERS FOR AMATEURS: No 1 - ALEC ROWLEY
by Philip L. Scowcroft
In a sense almost all composers write for amateurs: choirs, brass bands, examination candidates or whoever. For some of them, however, it seems to be virtually the be-all and end-all of their creative lives. Here we examine Alec Rowley, born in London on 13 March 1892, teacher, composer, organist, pianist, lecturer and writer, who studied at the RAM with Frederick Corder and where he won sundry scholarships and prizes. He was an organist at several London churches including, during the Second World War, St Margaret's, Westminster. As a pianist he often broadcast duets with Edgar Moy. In 1920, he was appointed to the staff of Trinity College, London, where he was elected a Fellow and remained until his death. He was elected a Fellow of the RAM in 1934. He published several books on music.
His compositions were not exclusively for amateurs: a few of them were performed at the Proms during the Second War (Three Idylls for piano and orchestra and Burlesque Quadrilles received their respective premieres at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 and 1943). At the Cheltenham Festival shortly afterwards two rather more ambitious works, but still eschewing modernity, the English Suite in 1949 and The Boyhood of Christ in 1954 were played by the Hallé Orchestra. From around 1930 the BBC regularly broadcast his music. He served on the Committee of Management of the Royal Philharmonic Society and played tennis to a good standard. He died on 11 January 1958, actually on the tennis court.
Rowley's orchestral music is clearly and concisely expressed - a hallmark of all his work. The major items are two piano concertos, both of them premiered in 1938, neither much longer than twenty minutes, an Oboe Concerto and a Rhapsody for viola and orchestra. There were besides a number of 'miniature concertos' with orchestra for piano, violin, cello and organ (the last entitled Concertino) which take between ten and fifteen minutes. I heard the one for piano fairly recently with its accompaniment transcribed for concert band, an attractive piece rather in the manner of Eric Coates with a touch more asperity in the harmonies and without Coates's brasher instrumentation. Also rather Coatesian were many of Rowley's lighter suites: Three Arcadian Pictures, The Boyhood of Christ already mentioned, the Christmas Suite, English Suite, Pastoral Suite, Folk Dance Suite, Nautical Suite (1927: this was popular with Doncaster schools orchestras during the 1940s) and Shepherd's Delight, all for strings; the English Dance Suite (whose opening Pastoral Dance is most attractive) and, for oboe and strings, Country Idylls. Perhaps a majority of Rowley's orchestral works were originally for strings - apart from the suites, I have found an Adagio in E flat (1937), a Fantaisie, specially composed for the London Women's String Orchestra (later the Riddick String Orchestra), an Andante Religioso and a Serenata (1953), a Legend for violin and strings and the Meditation for organ and strings.
Rowley was sparing in his scoring for wind instruments. Even his Overturette on French Nursery Tunes is scored for just six winds plus strings and the Devonshire Minuet of 1952 has only single woodwind, three brass and strings. The overture, Down Channel (1933) shows that Rowley, like many British composers, looked to the sea for inspiration. We shall see other examples elsewhere among his compositions. He wrote no orchestral symphony but his Sinfonietta includes three saxophones, guitar and harp as well as, for once, a reasonably full complement of more usual woodwind and brass. Rowley penned one ballet score, The Princess who Lost a Tune. Many of these items and others like Dream Fantasy, Trumpet March, In an Apple Orchard and Miniatures in Porcelain were suitable for amateur orchestras who no doubt welcomed them. But it was the prestigious BBC Symphony Orchestra who first programmed the Piano Concerto in D in 1938, the Suite in A, from Dibdin, in April 1942, under Sir Adrian Boult, and the Three Idylls. Rowley's chamber music is also suitable for amateurs. Cobbett's Dictionary praises him for writing chamber music for young people, who often find standard repertoire difficult. Even his String Quartet in E (1932), subtitled Pastoral, takes a mere 12 minutes to perform and there were numerous short suites or individual movements for piano trio - Four Contrasts, Pastel Portraits, Three Pieces (1938), The Puppet Show, trios on French and Irish tunes - or for string quartets (Phillis and Corydon and From Faerie) or for piano quartet (Water Colours). Young violinists doubtless enjoyed pieces like the Scherzetto or Bergerette (both 1950), a Legend, a Mazurka, a Pastoral Elegye, the Three Characteristic Pieces and the Four Contrasted Pieces. The Aubade, Farandole, Reverie and Scherzo were surely warmly welcomed by viola players, who never seem to have enough repertoire; oboists still play his Pavan and Dance; and there are two early (1930) trios for flute, oboe and piano, Three Pieces for recorder and piano and a late Nocturne for four B flat clarinets.
The amount of piano music is considerable, including two sonatas, two late sonatinas - nearly as long as the relatively brief sonatas - and various suites: Aquarium, (in eight movements), Chinese Suite, Country Sketches, A Christmas Carol (9 movements), The Festival of Pan, From the Fairy Hills, Georgian Suite, Three Impressions, Four Little Inventions, Six Impromptus (the first, Humoresque, arranged for violin, cello or flute), Three Novelettes, A Lantern Suite, Five Lyric Studies, Valse Arabesque, Three Concert Etudes, Five Lyric Pieces, Five Nocturnes, North Sea Fantasias (1916), Once Upon a Time (1910), People Near and Far (in six movements), Seven Preludes on all the Intervals, Three Spring Idylls, Three Noels, Seven Tunes from an Old Musical Box, Twilight Pieces and no fewer than Twenty-four Poetical Studies, Opus 41, and many individual movements. If we recall his broadcasts as a piano duettist we should not be surprised to see a quantity of music for two pianos: Figurines, Miniature Concerto in G, Prelude and Toccata and a Suite of 1952) and, for four hands on one piano. (Barcarolle in F minor, Four Bergerettes, Four Impressions, Humoresque, Nautical Toccata, Pastorale and the suite Three Centuries (Gavotte; Valse Triste; Blues) - a kind of piano equivalent of Coates's orchestral suite Four Centuries).
He edited much early English keyboard music. An organist himself, Rowley was equally prolific in this field. Many of his organ solos are brief and simple: chorale preludes, genre pieces, toccatas, marches and voluntaries suitable for the small organ and less experienced player. Sometimes he brought out more ambitious recital pieces, like the Heroic Suite of 1921, the Sonata in A minor and two symphonies in B minor and F major published late in his life, but we do not encounter these nowadays. Indeed I am not sure that other organists ever took up Rowley's music to any extent.
Rowley's solo song output was large. I have traced well over fifty and there must be dozens of others, exclusive of many arrangements of traditional tunes and of song-cycles like Birthdays, The Months, Three Mystical Songs, Pillicock Hill, Little Robin (twenty songs, like many of the others, designed for young voices), The Heart's Journey, The Lover Sings, Songs from the Poets, Songs of Gladness, Songs from a Cherry Orchard, Plum or Plain, Five Drinkwater Songs, and Wishes and Wanderings. These were popular at festivals in their time and made attractive listening.
It is the same story with his choral music which ranges from unison and two-part items including "musical plays" (one on the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and another on the Nativity entitled On Bethlehem Hill), to individual songs for mixed, male and female choirs and to song cycles and cantatas. The cantatas include By The Deep, a Nautical Fantasy (1928), the choral ballad, The Ogre (1925), The Seasons, Three Songs of Innocence, The Four Winds, Choral Dance Suite, The Garden and the Cross (1948), Three English Lyrics and Four Spring Idylls (all for female voices), Song in Maytime and Four Whimsical Rhymes, Three Canzonets (1928), Five Rondels, Five English Pastorals and Freedom's Hour, all for mixed voices, and, for male voices, Full Tide (1937) and the earlier and longer The Sailor's Garland (of whose seven songs, Sacramento, remains popular with male voice choirs). A majority of Rowley's choral songs were secular, but the list includes a number of carols and short anthems. As a whole, Rowley's choral pieces are not difficult to sing - perhaps the more sophisticated present-day choirs have outgrown them - and they have a melodic and harmonic vigour which made them popular choices for contest and concert in bygone years.
Alec Rowley's published books, like his compositions, are mostly short and to the point. They are primarily guides for the performer: Dos and Don'ts for Musicians: a Handbook for Teachers and Performers (1951); Extemporisation: a Treatise for Organists (1955); Four Hands, One Piano: a List of Works for Duet Players (1940); A Pocket Pronouncing Musical Dictionary, which ran to two editions (1944-5) and included the rudiments of music and some biographical dates; Practical Musicianship, a handbook for teachers and students (1941), and It's Time We Laughed, an inconsequential collection of consequences, mainly musical (1944). Recent experience has shown that Rowley's music is still useful for present day students; in any event we should salute his work in the field of musical education, viewed in its widest sense, and recognise that some of his compositions can continue to give pleasure to concert-goers.
© Philip L Scowcroft
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