REMEMBERING HAROLD CRAXTON
Mention the name of Harold Craxton to an English musician and it will probably
"ring a bell". His name has entered subliminally into most British households
where even a little music is played as the "other" editor of what everybody
thinks of as the "Tovey edition" of the Beethoven Sonatas, published by the
Associated Board in 1931 and still going strong.
Musicians with long memories know more. Craxton was for many years a revered
teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, pursued an active career as both solo
pianist and accompanist (Nellie Melba, Clara Butt, John McCormack and Lionel
Tertis are just some of the distinguished musicians he worked with) and published
a certain amount of music. "A Shepherdess in Porcelain" was often set as
an exam piece and will be fondly remembered by older pianists (the melody
seems to "stick" better than most such pieces) and a song, "Come you, Mary",
as recorded by Lauritz Melchior, brought him in the odd cheque from the United
As a pianist with a particular interest in British piano music I already
knew several of his works when I came into contact with Craxton's youngest
son Michael and his daughter Jane, who now runs her grandfather's old home
as a rehearsal studio. I also found that I was, as it were, a great-pupil
of Craxton's, since one of my most valued teachers, Alexander Kelly, had
been a pupil and protégé of Craxton.
As a composer, Craxton in later years seems to have done little to convince
even his own family that he took himself very seriously and one of Michael's
principal doubts, when it was proposed that a CD of his music might be a
worthy tribute to him on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, was whether
there was enough to fill a disc. As we examined the scores still held by
the Craxton Studios it became evident that there was. Further manuscript
material came to light after the programme had been chosen and even while
it was being recorded (his papers had remained in a state of some confusion).
I am glad to say that the programme as it stands remains a good introduction
to his work, but some interesting pieces have now emerged and it is to be
hoped that resources can be found for a second disc. An expert recording
team came down to tape the programme in the Craxton Studios, where the composer's
old Bluthner is still in fine working order. In addition to the piano pieces
we were joined by two excellent young singers, the soprano Caroline Goodwin
and the baritone James McOran Campbell, and Alison Moncrieff Kelly, Alexander
Kelly's younger daughter who is now a cellist and was delighted to pay tribute
to her father's mentor.
So who was Harold Craxton and what value has his music for us today? Born
on 30 April 1885 Thomas Harold Hunt Craxton was the son of a publican, and
essentially a self-made man. His early musical instruction was typically
provincial but he made a first public appearance at the age of five and took
the Trinity College Grade One piano examination when he was seven. Some surviving
manuscripts, while undated, are in such a childish hand as to suggest he
was composing by his early teens at least. He next went to the Tobias Matthay
Pianoforte School where he studied with Cuthbert Whitemore and Matthay himself.
Following this he rapidly established himself as an accompanist and for an
intense period toured the world in the train of the likes of Madame Albani
and Dame Nellie Melba. During some concerts
for troops he met a violinist called Essie Faulkner and married her in about
1915. It was a highly successful marriage, ending
only with Craxton's death in 1971 (Essie died in 1977).
As well as providing him with six children Essie seems to have had
a naturally hospitable disposition and the Craxtons always found space under
their roof for many of the current students and protégés. Ronald
Kinloch Anderson, Alexander Kelly, Alan Richardson and Denis Matthews were
notable beneficiaries and I am assured that there were rarely fewer than
twenty people at the dinner table. Fortunately their houses, both pre- and
post-war, were large. Craxton died on 30 March 1885.
Craxton's work as a pianist did not stop with his new family commitments;
he continued to collaborate with some of the greatest soloists of the day
and to give piano recitals which were notable for the inclusion of much early
music in his own transcriptions. This activity petered out with old age but
he never entirely retired from the platform. However, after his marriage
his concert-giving was more home-based and teaching became central to his
life. He taught briefly at the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School from 1914
and in 1919 took up a professorship at the Royal Academy of Music which was
to last till 1961; to the end of his life he continued to receive pupils
at his studio.
As a composer his first publication was Three Pieces for Pianoforte, op.1
(Bosworth 1911) and his last a group of easy pieces brought out by Curwen
in 1961. His activity falls into a number of quite clear phases. Up till
about 1917 he wrote fairly copiously in a romantic vein close to that of
fellow-Matthay pupils such as Bowen and Swinstead. While not usually virtuosic
this music is clearly intended for concert use. Not much of it was published.
The Woodland Lullaby (J. Williams 1917) is one of the best and is
most effectively laid out for the piano, while the simplicity of A Shepherdess
in Porcelain, from the same year, points the way to his next phase.
During this period he was also fairly prolific as a song-writer, publishing
12 songs between 1914 and 1919 (several others remain in manuscript). Dame
Nellie Melba does not seem to have deigned to sing any of them, but Dame
Clara Butt, her husband Kennerley Rumford, Carrie Tubb and John McCormack
all did (the latter recorded Mavis). Most are in the vein of the popular
ballads of their day, outrageously so in the case of Oh! To see the Cabin
Smoke (Dame Clara must have loved it), though their melodies are always
fresh and well-constructed. Others, notably Hearts in Love with its
delicate alternation of major and minor, Shepherd Love and the dignified
R. L. Stevenson setting A Requiem belong to the same world as contemporary
works by Quilter. After a short hiatus two further songs (the last to be
published) appeared, The Snowdrop (Cramer 1924) and Beloved, I
am lonely (Boosey 1926), respectively Quilter- and ballad-like. The
Shakespeare songs will be dealt with shortly; meanwhile Craxton's work was
moving in a different direction.
In 1920 he edited and arranged five pieces by Purcell, thus signalling his
interest in early music. During the '20s and '30s a whole series of volumes
were brought out, making many of the pieces available for the first time.
Most of it was British but the Craxton-Moffatt Collection of Old Keyboard
Music ranged widely. Even today, alternative editions of the Praeludium in
D minor by Carbonelli or Signora Auretti's Dance by Hasse would not
be easy to find. By modern standards they are unacceptable but their sins
are not too heinous (a bit of thickening and a shortage of ornaments) and
they did sterling work in their day. Though mostly for piano solo, a few
also had a solo instrument, and Craxton had the parts for the cello and viola
pieces edited respectively by Sheridan Russell and Watson Forbes. He does
not seem to have trusted himself to write for an instrument other than his
own, though a small amount of unpublished violin music exists.
This interest in early music clearly taught Craxton the virtue of simplicity,
and the bulk of his music from then on consisted of teaching material. The
principal exceptions were the 8 Preludes (J. Williams 1955) and a
number of very free transcriptions made in the early '30s: The Plaint
of Love (a piece with a very special meaning for him), Siciliano and
Rigadon, Meditation, and Bourrée Humoresque. In
their quiet way these have both originality and integrity. No one else has
quite written "old meets new" music in the same way (the nearest parallel
might be Vaughan Williams's Hymn-Tune Prelude on Gibbons's 'Song 13'
which, significantly, was published in 1930). To these might be added at
least two of the cello pieces; Farnaby's Maske is brought into the
world of Elgarian romanticism and the Arne Sonata assumes a character independent
of its original.
Craxton's love of the Elizabethan world surely prompted his return to
song-writing in 1944. Previously he had been content to set texts by conventional
ballad-mongers (the Bible and R. L. Stevenson excepted). The four Shakespeare
songs evidently cost him a lot of trouble since each exists in several variant
versions, with dedications to a number of celebrated singers, including Isobel
Baillie and Roy Henderson. In 1944 they must have seemed old-fashioned (there
are no harmonic procedures to which Stanford would have objected fifty years
earlier) but in 2001 this need not worry us and they have an unassuming rightness
which should make them among the more durable settings of these words.
Craxton's dedicatees are worth a mention, for a study of the names at the
head of his scores, published and unpublished, provides a picture-gallery
of the many people who populated his life. A good number of the names are
female, and some of his lady-pupils were very attractive indeed. The success
of his marriage depended at times on Essie's worldly wisdom and tolerance.
She was no doubt flattered to be the dedicatee of the evocatively poetic
Two Pastoral Preludes and it is to be hoped she was not given to rummaging
through her husband's manuscripts, for she would have found that the first
was originally inscribed to another woman, the actress Jean Forbes-Robertson.
The first of the Two Mazurkas, dedicated to an unidentified "C", achieves
a poignantly personal effect by the way in which it is wrapped punningly
around the note C.
The picture we have, then, is of a composer with considerable early ambitions
who never fully developed yet who never entirely lost his inspiration either.
A study of the manuscripts both amplifies and explains this. From the beginning
it is clear that composition was not always going to come easily to him.
One score of a piece entitled Little Robin Goodfellow - Scherzetto,
probably the definitive one, is dated 22.06.1915, rev. 01.1917. Even this
"definitive" version is full of pencilled changes, mostly too faint and confused
for a present-day editor to take them into account. There are a further nine
versions or fragments. The piece was written out sometimes in three-four,
sometimes in three-eight (and sometimes just called Valse), many variants
have different secondary material altogether, details of figuration but also
the basic harmonic structure are changed again and again. His one attempt
at an extended piece apparently belongs to the same period and covers pages
of sketches. It seems that something on the lines of a ballade or even a
one-movement sonata was intended, but it is too fragmentary to tell. Evidently
Craxton realised he was not up to writing a piece of any size, or which needed
This wrestling with composition went on right through his life. A brief piece
called A Quiet Tune, probably dating from the 1930s and intended as
an elementary teaching piece, exists in five versions. They all begin the
same; different continuations are tried, as are different endings. Yet one
is never led to feel "this time he's got it", and in view of the blandness
of the beginning one wonders why he went on trying. From about the same period,
no fewer than eight attempts exist for a piece entitled "Hear the mermaids
softly singing", many of them crossed out and bearing such startling
differences that it sometimes seems a different piece.
So now we find the image of a composer who, though publishing little, was
obsessed with composition, struggling again and again with often flimsy material.
But what we don't have, in most cases, is the preliminary material for those
pieces which came out successfully and were published. Did they cost him
the same effort or did they come right more easily? For much of the published
music, no autographs survive (the fair copies presumably remained with the
publishers, to be pulped unceremoniously in due course). But in a few cases
some evidence remains. Tahitian Dance (founded upon Native Rhythms)
was published in 1931 and at the foot of the score it is dated Tahiti
1914. On the strength of the autographs some mystification has gone on here.
We have an undated version, with a totally different middle section to the
published score, entitled Kaffir Dance. A rather more worked out version,
with this same middle section, is called "African Dance (founded on a
native rhythm and tune)" and dated August 1917. Then, on the smaller
MS paper Craxton was using by the 1930s, we have a pencilled sketch of what
was to become the final middle section and lastly an untitled, undated MS
not far different from the published copy. If any expert on ethnic music
hears this disc and can tell me whether the rhythms are African or Tahitian
I should be glad to hear from him!
Another case is the song "Beloved, I am lonely". Only a popular ballad,
perhaps, but anyone who wants a lesson in how to make such a melody grow
naturally should compare it with the several MS versions where the same basic
tune takes different and unconvincing turns and a satisfactory conclusion
is never found. But here we lack the final step to the version as published.
The study of these MSS has been both fascinating and a little saddening.
Who, on looking at the slender catalogue of short and mostly simple pieces,
would imagine that so much effort, and probably frustration, went into it?
So is there any point in remembering this music? I think all of us involved
in the project felt that there is. The Woodland Lullaby is worth
consideration by anyone looking for a romantic British genre piece to slip
into a programme. The 2 Mazurkas have, respectively, poignancy and
charm. The Plaint of Love and the other free transcriptions are, as
has been said, unique in their way while those parts of the Tahitian
Dance which date from 1917 show that Craxton did not always turn his
back on modernity. Hearts in Love is a very touching little song and
the Shakespeare settings merit publication. Craxton's attraction to birdsong,
however far from Messiaen, is an endearing feature. There is a charming
Blackbird and Thrush Minuet in manuscript and the Two Pastoral
Preludes have a lot of atmosphere. Frank Bridge, in Heart's Ease
and The Hedgerow, had travelled more radically down a similar path
a few years earlier, but Craxton's pieces recognisably inhabit the same world.
It is companionable music; he was a companionable man, noted for an impish
humour preserved in his four skits on Three Blind Mice (discovered
too late for the recording) in the styles of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Haydn,
© Christopher Howell
See also CD review by Rob Barnett
CATALOGUE OF WORKS
A more detailed catalogue of all known musical works can be seen at the Craxton
Studios. The following gives the titles of all published pieces (in order
of publication date; composition dates are not known in most cases). A few
of the more important MS works are also listed.
Pianoforte: original pieces
3 Pieces, op.1 (1911); Gavotte in E flat (1917); A Shepherdess
in Porcelain (1917); Woodland Lullaby (1917); Timothy's Pieces
(1921) (2 pieces); Tuneful Topics (1925) (5 pieces); Here and
There (1930) (4 pieces); Two Little Studies (1930); Two Soudanese
Pieces (1930); December and May (1931) (4 pieces); Springtime
(1931) (3 pieces); Tahitian Dance (1931); Two Pastoral Preludes
(1931); The Happy Hunter (1932); The Plaint of Love (from
a lute book c.1535, freely transcribed) (1935); Siciliano and Rigadon
(c.1735, freely transcribed) (1935; 2-piano version 1950); Aeroplanes
and Trains (1936) (2 pieces); Two Mazurkas (1937); Meditation
(Vita in ligno moritur) (from a lute book c.1530, freely arranged)
(1938); Bourrée Humoresque (founded on an 18th Century
tune) (1938); Five Impromptus, designed as studies for hand (or wrist)
touch (1939); Seven Pieces (1947); An Album Leaf (1955); Eight
Preludes (1955); Two Studies (1959); Six Pieces (1961);
Three Album Leaves on the initials E. F. (MS: 1911); Little Robin
Goodfellow - Scherzetto (MS: 1917); Pianoforte: transcriptions;
Purcell: Five Pieces (1920); Bull: The King's Hunt (1923);
Weelkes: Galliard (1923); Anon (16th Century): Alman
(1924); Boyce: Tempo di Gavotta (1926); Bach: Largo from
Clavier Concerto in F minor (1927); The Craxton-Moffatt Collection of Old
Keyboard Music (23 pieces; 1928-1937); Schubert: Nacht und Träume
(1928); Eccles: A Trumpet Tune (1928); Couperin: The Gossip
(1931); Easy Elizabethans (1933) (10 pieces, including 2 by Byrd
and 4 by Farnaby); Airs and Graces from the Early 18th Century
(1935) (10 pieces); Two Pieces (1936) (by Anon. and Matheson);
The Fiddler at the Feast (1936) (7 tunes from Playford's Dancing
Master); Anon: Minuet and Rigadoon (1936); Dance Tunes of Other
Days (1937) (7 pieces); Arne: Gavotte from Sonata no.5 (1945);
Two 18th Century Minuets (1959).
Violin and Pianoforte; Romance in B minor, op.2 (MS: 1909);
Viola and Pianoforte: transcription; Boyce: Tempo di Gavotta
Violoncello and Pianoforte: transcriptions; Arne: Sonata in B flat
(1931); G. Farnaby: A Maske (1931); R. Johnson: Two Almans
(1931); Bach: Largo from Clavier Concerto in F minor (1932).
String Quartet and Pianoforte: transcription; Matthew Dubourg's Jig
and Sarabande (arr. with Alfred Moffatt) (1938).
Oboe and Pianoforte: transcriptions; Three Elizabethan Pieces
from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (1944).
Voice and Pianoforte; Come you, Mary! (Norman Gale) (1914);
March on! Canada! (L. A. Lefevre) (1914); Mavis (L. A. Lefevre)
(1914); A Requiem (R. L. Stevenson) (1914); Bless thou the Lord,
O my Soul (Psalm 104) (1915; also orchestrated); Hearts in Love
(Edward Oxenford) (1915); Oh! To see the Cabin Smoke (P. J. O'Reilly)
(1915); Timothy (Norman Gale) (1915); Shepherd Love (Helen
Taylor) (1916); Sorrow no more (Fred G. Bowles) (1916); The Country
Faith (Norman Gale) (1917); Bless my Brooms (Janet Begbie) (1919);
The Snowdrop (Norman Gale) (1924); Beloved, I am lonely (May
Aldington) (1926); Two Songs from Shakespeare (O Mistress Mine; It
was a Lover and his Lass) (MS: 1944); Two Songs from Shakespeare (Come
away death; Sigh no more, ladies) (MS: 1944)
Enquiries: Craxton Studios, 14 Kidderpore Ave, London NW3 7SU. Orders
for the CD can be placed now with the Craxton Studios for £12.00 per
CD price incl of post/packing. Launch on 12 May 2001 Review: News 90