Julius Harrison &
It is almost impossible
to discover what inspired a composer
to write a piece of music in a particular
style - especially when this style would
appear to be virtually unique in the
composer's catalogue. It has to be stated
at the outset that 'Bredon Hill -
a rhapsody for violin and orchestra'
is a 'retro' work. This work does not
easily fit into any categories of music
that may have been 'in the air' in the
early nineteen-forties. It certainly
is not modernist or avant-garde in any
way whatsoever. In fact the piece has
probably suffered a dearth of performances
simply because it was well out of kilter
with the prevailing post-war musical
Furthermore, this work
was not typical of the composer himself.
Brahms, Bach, Verdi and Bantock were
the composers who seemed to inspire
most of Julius Harrison's work: it was
rarely the folksong school or the 'back to the Tudors' enthusiasts.
But the other side
of the coin is important too. It would
be all too easy to condemn Bredon
Hill as 'pastoral' or 'bucolic'. A cynic could see a field
of cows, some leaning over the fence. At first hearing the obvious
inspiration appears to be Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark
Ascending. However an over-simplistic
equation of the two works would be wrong.
This work is not a succession of folk-inspired
tunes hung together with a few modal
scales and arpeggios for a rusticated
Julius Harrison was
born at Stourport in Worcestershire
on 26 March 1885. He was to die at Harpenden
on 5 April 1963. Grove's Dictionary
notes that he studied with Granville
Bantock at the Birmingham and Midland
Institute of Music. He studied conducting
and was soon deemed competent enough
to be sent to Paris by the Covent Garden
Syndicate to rehearse Wagner operas
with Nikisch and Weingartner. It is
as an opera conductor that he secured
his reputation. He spent time working
with the Beecham Opera Company and the
British National Opera Company. However
it was his appointment to the Hastings
Municipal Orchestra that allowed him
to exercise his authority: he was able
to raise the standards of this orchestra
to the same level as that at Bournemouth.
However, he slowly succumbed to deafness
and after the disbandment of the HMO
he was able to concentrate on composition.
His greatest works
are the Mass in C minor at which
he laboured for eleven years and the
Requiem (1948-1957). Geoffrey
Self notes that these huge works are
influenced by Wagner and Verdi and are
'conservative and contrapuntally complex
pieces'. They remain unheard in our
Julius Harrison became Director of Music at
Malvern College during the autumn of 1940. As already noted, he
had previously been Director of Music to the Hastings Corporation.
He had wrought splendid changes at the White Rock Pavilion in that
seaside town. Harrison had worked with some surprisingly great
artists including Rachmaninov, Beecham and Paderewski. He
encouraged the local Choral Union and regularly gave performances
Ninth Symphony. Sadly, some months
after the Second World War broke out,
the town corporation decided to disband
the orchestra. At that time Hastings,
as an English Channel resort, was literally
on the front-line.
The move back to the
Midlands and the college directorship
turned out to be successful for the
composer: he was able to recover thoughts
and memories of his younger days. Harrison
told the author Donald Brook that he
was "very much affected by the
beauty of our Worcestershire countryside,
and by its close association with some
of the great events in our national
history." He continued, "...to
me, as with many other Worcestershire
folk, this county seems to be the very
Heart of England, and there is a song
and a melody in each one of its lovely
hills, valleys, meadows and brooks."
The present work was, in many ways inspired
by this countryside. As a matter of
fact Julius Harrison could see Bredon
Hill from his bedroom window. Yet this
is not the full story.
There are three 'versions'
of the genesis of Bredon Hill.
The first is the simplest. Soon after
arriving at his new house in Pickersleigh
Road, Malvern he was filled with an
overwhelming desire to celebrate in
music some of the thoughts and emotions
behind A.E. Housman's great and tragic
poem, 'In summertime on Bredon'. No
doubt the composer had known this poem
for many years and it would often cross
his mind as he looked across to the
The second version is related by Lewis Foreman
in the sleeve notes for the premiere recording (see below for
details). Foreman relates that Julius and Dorothie, his wife, met
a local Malvern school mistress by the name of Winifred Burrows.
One day she took them to Bredon Hill by motor car with the aim of
seeing the sun setting in the West - over the Malverns.
This particular event moved Harrison
to write this work and quite naturally
the composer dedicated the new piece
to Miss Burrows.
A third possibility is also alluded to by
Foreman. During the war years Elizabeth Poston was Director of
European Music at the BBC. Poston was very much an all-round
musician: she was a composer, musicologist, arranger,
administrator and a performer. She played the piano - most notably
at the wartime National Gallery lunchtime concerts. She edited and
arranged carols and songs and wrote a large number of programme
notes for the Arts Council. But it is as a composer that she
should be best known. Poston composed a surprising amount of
incidental music for radio and TV which by nature tends to be
ephemeral. A moderate catalogue of works includes some two dozen
songs, many carols and part songs and even an operetta - The
Briery Bush. However it is her instrumental
music that urgently requires revaluation:
this includes a considerable Sonata
for Violin and Piano.
It was in her role
at the BBC that she corresponded with
Julius Harrison. Foreman admits that
it is now not possible to know if Poston
actually commissioned Bredon Hill
for performance by the BBC or whether
she simply became aware that Harrison
was working on the score. In either
case the work was taken up by the BBC
and was broadcast extensively.
However, whatever the motivation, the
fundamental inspiration was the Hill itself - this landmark
so beloved by poets and musicians, including
Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney and Ralph
Vaughan Williams. Of course, the landmark
was originally put onto the intellectual
map by A.E. Housman. Perversely there
is an interesting school of thought
that suggests that Housman was hardly
intimate with Bredon Hill and its surrounding
countryside! Most enthusiasts of British
music will know at least a couple of
settings of 'Summertime on Bredon'.
One need only think of the song cycle
On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan
Williams or Bredon Hill and other
Songs by George Butterworth.
Yet it would be wrong
to draw some kind of simplistic line
from poet to composer in this case.
For the poetry of Housman is not always
as it seems. On first reading many of
his poems appear to be taken up with
images of nature and brief descriptions
of places. However the bottom line of
so much of his poetry is that his images
must be seen as metaphors of passing
- of death. It is small wonder that
'The Shropshire Lad' gained much currency
during the slaughter of the Great War.
Housman created a place of the imagination - an idealised land,
somewhere 'out west' - a 'far country'.
It was a land of strong farm labourers
living a bucolic life - playing football,
roistering and seemingly indulging in
homo-erotic fantasies. In this unreal
'Land of Lost Content' the poet insisted
that happiness may once have held sway,
but the realities of life had caused
this sense of well-being to evaporate.
There is always bitter-sweetness and
a sense of what might have been in Housman's
Of course these poems
have been interpreted widely and in
contrasting ways by the many composers
who have set Housman's texts. Barbara
Docherty has analysed a number of settings.
Arthur Somervell, for example tended
towards 'unfocused geniality' that passed
over any long term pain. Butterworth
is better able to evoke the 'dreamy streams and the idyllic
the 'reality that was about to shatter it'. It is a fact that not all composers
have managed to define in their music
Housman's bottom line - which is a depressing
belief in a reasonable life constantly
subject to thoughts and intimations
of inevitable pain and loss and death.
Even a superficial hearing of Julius Harrison's Bredon
Hill does not reveal such depression
and black moods. There are no real musical
references to the tragedy that 'Summertime on Bredon' describes. The bride to be
is not laid low by illness. There is
no tragic outburst of the lover demanding
that the 'noisy bells be dumb'.
The most famous and
certainly most evocative words from
this poem are:-
Here of a
My love and
I would lie
And see the
Above us in
Appropriately it is
with this quotation that Julius Harrison
prefaced his score.
The starting point
for Harrison is quite simply the verse
quoted. It is a meditation on the 'coloured
counties'. The progress of the music
points up 'all the live murmur of a
summer's day' as well as the poignancy
of a sunset over the Malverns. It is
an idyllic world that seems to have
no major terrors or fears. It is the
'Western Playland' writ large. The lover
and his bride do get to the church and
they do seal their union - at least
Now, this is not to
say that the music does not have tensions
and stresses or to suggest that the
work is consistently banal. There are
definitely a number of reflective moments:
there are bars that show a certain wistfulness.
On occasion passion does dominate for
a few moments. But taken in the round
Bredon Hill is definitely more
happy than sad: it is positive rather
than negative and Janus-like it looks
both back into an idyllic past and forward
to what should have been a better
At this time the BBC
had a campaign to promote things 'British'.
Foreman notes that this was to present
an idealised, idyllic view of England.
This may have been especially aimed
at British citizens who were at that
time living abroad. Or maybe it was
supposed to remind the military and
the Home Front of one of the many reasons
why they were fighting the war? But,
without being cynical, the bottom line
was that it was better for the war effort
to present the green fields and the
purling streams and thatched cottages
rather than the slums of Manchester
or the mean streets of Glasgow or the
industrial pollution of West Yorkshire.
To further point up
this bucolic impression the BBC had
recorded a 'scripted' discussion between Harrison and Poston.
The BBC announcer prefaced this debate with the following glowing
plug - "[It is] one of the loveliest works of the year-indeed, I
would go as far to say - of our own
time...[it] was completed by the composer
with a view to its special appearance
in the Music of Britain [series]. It
is a fact remarkable in itself that
such music as this comes out of the
present time. That it does, is perhaps
the best witness to the eternal spirit
The 'on-air' discussion
with Poston ended with Julius Harrison
recalling how the work "grew out
of itself in my mind from all those
scenes I have known all my life. After
all we must not forget that this part
of Worcestershire speaks of England
at its oldest. It is the heart of Mercia,
the country of Piers Plowman, and is
the spirit of Elgar's music too."
The controversial authors
of 'The English Musical Renaissance 1840-1940' give nearly half a page of
text to Julius Harrison. They simplistically
state that Harrison based his piece
on Housman's poem and was redolent of
folksong. It leaves me wondering if
they had actually heard the work. Yet
their concluding words are apposite
to the genesis of this piece. They write:
- "But if the lark was once again
ascendant, the air it hovered in was
no longer clear. Recumbent lovers on
the English Down heard the dull drone
of the bomber fleets and witnessed the
dogfights of a struggle for national
And I think that this
presents the basic dichotomy presented
by this work. On the one hand it is
a pleasant and approachable rhapsody,
whereas on the other it is a deeply
thoughtful works that was specially
designed to raise thoughts of England's
green and pleasant land, along with
its sterling history in the mind of
listeners. Beside this some of Housman's
melancholy does rub off. Not all hearers
would be able to realise this dream:
not all would return to England 'after the war'.
The most obvious exemplar
of all 'pastoral' music, including Bredon
Hill was Ralph Vaughan Williams'
The Lark Ascending. This work
was first heard post-Great War in 1922
and is based on a poem of the same title
by George Meredith. Meredith's poem
begins with the words "He rises and
begins to round/He drops the silver
chain of sound."
However it is important
to note that this piece had in fact
been sketched out before the commencement
of hostilities, the work that is known
today is a revision made in 1920. This
is a pastoral composition. The
Lark is largely untroubled by the changes
and chances of life. The trenches of
the Western Front do not feature in
One of the fundamental questions about Julius
Hill is as to its status as an example
of the 'English Pastoral School'. Geoffrey
Self points out that Bredon Hill
is more akin to a concerto movement rather than a tone poem. He
regrets that the complete work never existed. Apparently Harrison
had considered writing such a concerto and had completed a number
of sketches ' according to his
wife he had carried "such a work in his head for a number of
It is inevitable that
a work inspired by one of the purple
passages from one of the best known
poems by Housman would lead to a 'pastoral'
work. In fact the general tenor of contemporary
critiques lies in this direction. But
was it a pastoral work? Would Constant
Lambert have thought of fields and gates
I have already noted
that one of the possible exemplars of
this work is The Lark Ascending.
However it necessary to avoid jumping
to conclusions based on certain similarities
and to ignore the differences.
can be quite difficult to define. Ted Perkins in a web
article has suggested three possible stylistic markers 1) Use of
folksong/modal inspired melody, 2) impressionistic techniques and
finally 3) a certain neo-classical colouring. Ironically he uses
Oboe Concerto rather than his Lark
Ascending as a fine example of this
style. Popular opinion would suggest
that any music that is gentle and reflective
would be labelled 'pastoral' yet Perkins
argues against this view.
On first consideration
Bredon Hill seems to fit the
criteria of 'pastoral'. All three criteria
are generally or momentarily present.
Yet there are deeper waters here.
Although on face value the work nods to Vaughan
Williams it is Beethoven's Romance for Violin
and Orchestra in F major that is
the true exemplar. This is not to suggest
that this is a classically inspired
work, yet it is important to emphasise
that I do not believe that it is in
any way a 'tone poem'. It is certainly
not a 'rhapsody' on folk tunes - original
or confection. The Beethoven Romances
were thought to have been composed between
1798 and 1802. It is difficult to know
which of the two were written first
although the Romance in G major
was published first in 1803 and the
F major in 1805. In a strange
parallel to Bredon Hill, it is
thought that the Romances may
have been intended as alternative slow
movements for the (presumably) unfinished
Violin Concerto in C major of
1790-1792. Yet these slow movements
are not in the 'traditional' ternary
form. They are in fact slow rondos with
Now there is little
mileage in suggesting that the G
major is a model for Bredon Hill
- it is too light-weight.
Yet it is a different matter when one
considers the F major. This is
a dramatic and quite impassioned work
that certainly goes beyond any banal
idea of a 'romance'. I do not suggest
that Harrison consciously used the score
of the Beethoven as a model. Yet one
cannot help feeling that his experiences
as a conductor at Hastings and elsewhere
would have made him familiar with Beethoven
in general and this Romance in
There is a similarity in mood and emotion in
these two works that bears comparison - although I feel
that the Beethoven has a little more
stress and tension in many of its pages.
Furthermore the formal basis of Harrison's
work is more akin to a slow rondo than
anything else. The F major Romance
was described to me by a musicologist as if the composer was
sitting by himself, having happy thoughts and sad thoughts and
hopes for the future. However the overall mood of both pieces of
music is the fear of loss - something is about
to disappear. It may be the calm before
the storm. Will the composer's hopes
be brought to nothing? Not if he and
the rest of humanity can pull together.
Three or four quiet
chords from the orchestra begin this
'slow movement'. But immediately the soloist makes his presence
felt. The violin begins its soaring song as it means to continue.
At first it is to the fore with a light but quite subtle
orchestral accompaniment. A sudden rise to the higher register
leads to one of a number of cadenzas - soon collapsing to a dead
stop. After the briefest of pauses the soloist begins his task of
contemplation on the key (rondo) theme. The support from the
orchestra begins to build up - there is much more dialogue here.
Yet the original mood is still apparent. A surge of passion leads
to the first climax which is perfectly understated. The violin is
always prominent with it reflections and commentary on the musical
material. This is definitely not a folk tune: it is timeless music
that cannot help bringing to mind Vaughan Williams - not in this case the Lark
Ascending but the last movement
of the Pastoral Symphony.
There is an unexpected burst of intensity from
the orchestra just before the half way point - but
the violin continues its song, it is
never put off. This soon begins to rise
to the main climax of the piece. This
positive, swelling music seems to me
to blow from a different place than
Bredon Hill - perhaps from the depth
of Harrison's heart? Some fine double-stopping
leads into another short cadenza followed
by a restatement of the main theme.
Quicker music follows for the woodwind and the
soloist - in fact contrapuntal themes seem to play with each other
for a few bars. However the pace slows before the composer
restates the glorious tune - first by the soloist
and then by the full orchestra. Now
the music calms down and becomes reflective
again. There is a restatement of the
main theme and a little cadenza. We
feel we are in the closing pages now.
The woodwind play a little pastoral
tune that is taken up by the strings.
We hear 'muffled horns' and the bells
of Bredon Hill playing in the orchestra
before the soloist closes the work with
a little phrase in the lower register.
The hill is left in peace.
The work is scored
for double woodwind, four horns, two
trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani
and string. It was published by Hawkes
in 1942. A reduction for violin and
piano was subsequently produced.
The first performance
was given in a BBC Studio concert on
29 August 1941 with Thomas Matthews
as the soloist, the composer conducting.
However it was widely performed throughout
the world, being broadcast on successive
nights in North America, Africa and
the Pacific. After the first flurry
of enthusiasm for this work the number
of performances seemed to decline rapidly.
As a piece it certainly did not fit
into the tastes and aspirations of post-war
'Tempo' described this
work as a "notable addition to the brief
list of short works for violin
and orchestra". The Musical Times was
more fulsome in its praise: - in an
anonymous review of the first broadcast
performance, the writer states that
Bredon Hill is "one of the
sweetest additions to music with our
own country's sap and surety in it.
No composer now more genially evokes
a testament of things felt and prized,
things true for all of us, about England". Fulsome praise indeed
- and yet praise
that would be laughed to scorn in current
lack of confidence in things English.
'Music and Letters'
suggests that the work "spills
over with but semi-controlled emotion..."
However, the reviewer goes on to suggest
that a little of Mr Reizenstein's (also
performed at the same concert) dryness
and objectivity could have been infused
into it [Bredon Hill]. He questions
whether Harrison has sufficient material
to expand into a twelve minute work
and suggests that interest and attention
could be lost. However 'EB's' comments
are not all negative. He recognises
that the writing for "both soloist and
orchestra is always luminous and to
the point". He even allows that a number
of poetic touches illuminate this work. But the proof is in the
pudding and in the last sentence - "It should
prove a well liked work."
In 1951 a performance
of Bredon Hill was broadcast from the Winter Gardens in
Malvern along with Arnold Cooke's Concerto for
Strings and Sir Edward Elgar's 1st
Symphony. However the reviewer in
The Times points out that "it was a far cry from this music
(Cooke) to the other contemporary work in the programme".
David Wise was the soloist along with
the LPO. The 'special correspondent'
continued enthusiastically, "...its
gentle, ruminative poetry showed scarcely
less than with the Elgar how the atmosphere
of a landscape can shape the contours
of a composer's thought." Perhaps
the reviewer had in mind the oft-told
tale of Elgar listening to what the
reeds in the River Severn told him.
But I am a little concerned that there
may be a sting in the tail. Surely the
'ruminative' noted above suggests a
ruminant which may suggest a cow leaning
over a gate?
In 1985 Kenneth Loveland
notes that the 100th anniversary
of the composer's birth attracted little
notice. However the present work was
appropriately performed at Hereford
Cathedral and appeared to be well received.
Loveland was impressed that Three Choirs
Town remembered Harrison and Bredon
Hill. The piece was apparently well
played by violinist Felix Kok. His final
comment recognises Harrison was no mean
composer and conductor.
Most recently Dutton
Epoch has released a CD of music dedicated
to Harrison's orchestral music. It remains
to be seen what the critical reception
of this recording will be. However this
author is generally impressed by the
attractiveness, the craftsmanship and
the integrity of all this music.
is an important work from a number of
points of view. Firstly it is a well
crafted rhapsody for violin and orchestra
that is enjoyable to listen to and grateful
to play. Secondly it is a fine example
of a work that is nominally in the 'English Pastoral' school of composition but
goes beyond the 'play it once, play it again, louder' critique of Constant
Lambert. But thirdly the work ranges
well beyond this limited genre to something
rising out of the deep springs of the
traditional classical and romantic music
of previous generations.
Lewis Foreman quotes
Gordon Bottomley on this work, "The
dew was so fresh and undimmed by footsteps.
Some of the harmonies came from further
off than Bredon: perhaps there had been
footsteps on them that did not show
on the dew."
Orchestral Music: Bredon Hill, Widdicombe
Fair, Troubadour Suite, Worcestershire
Suite, Prelude Music and Romance: A
Song of Adoration. Also Hubert Clifford:
Serenade for Strings.
Matthew Trussler (violin).
BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7174
Articles in Grove.
Donald Brook: Conductors Gallery
Rockcliff, London 1946
Barbara Docherty: English
Song and the German Lied 1904-34
Tempo, New Ser., No. 161/162
Lewis Foreman: Sleeve notes to Dutton
Epoch CDLX 7174.
Ted Perkins Pastoral
Style and the Oboe
Geoffrey Self: Julius Harrison and
the Importunate Muse London 1993
Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling:
The English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940
University of British Columbia Press.
2001 [2nd edition]
Notices from Tempo, Musical Times etc.
John France, 2007 Ó