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Peter Hope: Bramall Hall Sketches

 

by John France

I cannot quite recall the circumstances when I first discovered Bramall Hall manor house. I think my father took me in the Hillman Minx to visit some friends or relations at Cheadle Hulme. However, I can still remember seeing this wonderful building, from a distance – like something out of a picture book. My father told me that it was one of the great black-and-white houses in Cheshire. I never did manage to get inside the house or its gardens – although it has been on my list of things-to-do ever since. So it came as pleasant surprise to be introduced to Peter Hope’s fine suite the Bramall Hall Dances.

On first hearing these dances, the listener feels that they have entered a kind of time warp. I guess that a good ‘subtitle’ would be an echo of Parry’s ‘Hands across the Centuries’ Suite. The composer has written in the preface to the score that he developed these pieces by combining “elements of medieval and modern popular music”. But I believe the reality is more complex than this. What Peter Hope has done is to create what could be seen as a descriptive history of music that may well have been played in Bramall Hall at any time over the past 500 years. Yet this history is not literal: it is an interpretation that is perfectly at home in both the modern world and the renaissance.

It is perhaps unfortunate that most listeners will associate Hope’s compositions with so called ‘light music’. There are a number of pieces that fit this bill with the most important being the ubiquitous Ring of Kerry Suite. A considerable part of the composer’s musical life was as a musical arranger: for a number of years he did this task for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Over the years he has worked with a number of ‘big’ artists in producing hit albums – including Jose Carreras, Aled Jones and Kiri te Kanawa. Yet Peter Hope told me that recently, he made the decision to concentrate on more serious music and this has resulted in a number of fine pieces including a Bassoon Concertino, a Serenade for String Trio, Four Sketches for oboe, bassoon and piano and a large-scale cantata Along the Shore.

John Turner is not only a great recorder player, but he is also a huge inspiration to British composers and performers. Perhaps this is most keenly felt in the Manchester area. Turner contacted Peter Hope after hearing the composer’s Bassoon Concertino and suggested that he write something for a concert that he and Neil Smith, a classical guitarist, were to give at Bramall Hall in September 2001.  The outcome was the present suite of five dances. Its original scoring was originally for recorder and guitar. However, John Turner was at that time giving a series of recitals that combined baroque and contemporary pieces. He suggested to the composer that he adapt these Dances for harpsichord, cello and recorder. John Turner has played it in this form at a number of recitals.

I guess that the recorder has suffered a bad press over the years. It is often seen as an instrument that ‘anyone’ can learn to play. I remember ‘having a go’ myself when I was about ten years old – with near disastrous results. Many folk have memories of recorder bands at school that hacked their way through arrangements of British folk-tunes. I especially remember an excruciatingly bad performance of Greensleeves at my primary school! Yet all those negative thoughts have been cast away by the endeavours of people like John Turner. He has repristinated this instrument and has raised its performance to new heights. But what is so important is that he is not content just to play ‘early music’ which explicitly called for the recorder, but has gone to great lengths to commission works from a wide variety of living composers as well as discovering and playing their music. Examples of this achievement include major pieces by Stephen Dodgson, Francis Jackson, Arthur Butterworth and John McCabe.

Peter Hope himself wrote an excellent Recorder Concerto in 2003- no doubt based on the success of his Bramall Hall Dances. Hubert Culot on MusicWeb International has summed this work [the concerto] up well. He writes that it “perfectly lives up to its sub-title ‘Birthday Concerto’ … the music skips along with joyfulness and uninhibited lyricism …” He concludes by suggesting that “... the Hope [piece] is the real gem in this selection”. There is also a vocal work called A Herrick Garland which is scored for singer, recorder, harpsichord and cello which were written for the counter-tenor James Bowman. It is also worthy of the listener’s attention.

Bramall Hall Dances was published in 2003 by Forsyth Music Publishing Division, that great Manchester institution. The score suggests that the accompaniment may be played on the piano rather than the harpsichord, thus giving it a greater opportunity for performance. The guitar accompaniment is also provided, although there is no suggestion that this piece can become a trio!

The score is headed with the inscription, “To John Turner, for his encouragement and virtuosity”.

Bramall Hall Sketches are written in five largely contrasting movements. These are: – a Round Dance, a Pavane, an Ostinato, a Waltz and a Galop. The language of this music is not difficult, there being little to upset the listener by way of strange harmonies or contentious musical devices. The piece lasts for about 13 minutes.

Picture of Bramall Hall

The opening Round Dance typifies much of this music. Immediately the soloist and the accompanist are pitched into an ‘allegro’ that by and large propels itself by using, as the composer modestly suggested to me, “a little syncopation.” A study of the main theme reveals a clever juxtaposition of 9/8 compound time with three ‘off-beat’ crotchets followed by three quavers. It all adds up to ‘nine’ in spite of this clever musical sleight of hand. It creates a very baroque sound: in fact there is more of a medieval or Renaissance feel to this movement than much of the rest of the work. The harmonies and the ‘pop’ feel to the music make this something of a pastiche. The main theme is complemented by two sections that are a little less rhythmically complex but this always leads back to this circular ‘round’ dance. The definition of a round dance is one where typically the dancers literally move round in a circle – a ‘ring dance’.

The Pavane is the heart of this work. The listener will probably think in terms of music written by William Byrd and Giles Farnaby. But it must not be forgotten that both Ravel and Fauré have written fine ‘modern’ examples. And enthusiasts of English music will not forget the Pavane from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Job. Traditionally a Pavane was complemented by a quicker piece which was usually in triple time – in this case the opening Round Dance fulfils this role.

This movement is written in a relatively unusual 8/8 time. However this time-signature has the luxury of allowing considerable ornamentation to be noted precisely rather than using the conventional symbols for mordents and trills. Perhaps of all the Dances this is the one that would have been most at home in Bramall Hall over its entire history. There is little here that suggests ‘pop’ or ‘jazz.’ It is truly a timeless piece.

The Ostinato is probably the most exciting and vibrant of these dances. It is written in ‘common time’ but like the Round Dance the rhythm of the accompaniment is split into 3+3+2 with the two quavers giving it a quaint, lop-sided effect. The soloist plays a rapid four-bar semi-quaver passage immediately offset by a quaver passage of melodic fifths. The imbalance is quite disconcerting - but this is the defining character of the piece. There is a short, more relaxed episode after the second presentation of the Ostinato. Throughout the Dance there are four repeats of the ostinato figure with little variations, however there is a short, and possibly unexpected, coda after the fourth. An ‘ostinato’ is defined as “a persistent musical phrase or rhythm” and this definition is well applied in this movement.

The Waltz is a truly lovely little number. Perhaps this is the sort of music that is the most ‘crossover’ of the entire piece. We have a formal structure that was originally based on the classical ländler and which developed into the waltz which is largely a nineteenth century phenomenon. But the sound of this music is so ‘20th Century’ that it could be taken straight out of a television play. This is not a dancing waltz as such - it is reflective music. The soloist has a number of attractive long-breathed phrases that are imbalanced - quavers followed by one or two tied minims. But this does not upset the mood of the music. There is a modulation for the ‘middle eight’ which appears to be written in A-mixolydian! This section has a much more decorated part for the recorder. However the opening theme returns and the dance conclude with a long held note.

The work finishes with a good old fashioned Galop. One can easily imagine the landed gentry in Cheshire in the 1820s enjoying this dance at the end of a typically Georgian festivity.  Musically the Galop had a ‘hop’ at the end of each step – and this is vividly portrayed in the recorder part.  The composer suggests that this movement is played fast - in fact it is played a little faster than was traditional for the Galop: 132 bars per minute as opposed to 126. This dance is written in the traditional 2/4 time and rhythmically balances syncopation with straightforward runs of staccato semiquavers. There are two ‘trios’ in this movement which provide a relief from the frenetic activity of the main theme. The composer calls for the ‘sopranino’ recorder to be used for the last repetition of the main tune. This gives a brighter and more biting quality to the music. The works concludes with a short sharp coda.

This piece can be described as a fusion of early music and modern music. However, there is no sense that this ‘modern’ refers to anything that might have been composed by Peter Maxwell Davies or Pierre Boulez. In the nineteen-sixties there was a fad for the use of oboes, flutes and harpsichords in what was called ‘Baroque Pop’ – or even ‘Baroque ’n Roll’!  I guess that this was best heard in The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Yesterday and some arrangements by Phil Spector. However a number of groups developed this sound including Focus, Jethro Tull and psychedelic outfits like Dantalion’s Chariot. The Bramall Dances hardly fit into this category either. However there is another genre, which is perhaps not formally defined in dictionaries of music. This is what I have called ‘Suburban Sunday’ music. I coined this phrase after playing through a suite of piano pieces by Philip Lane – Leisure Lanes. One of the most attractive numbers in this suite was ‘Suburban Sunday’. This is, I guess, music that is designed to have a wider popular appeal than Bach or Beethoven or Mozart.  It uses basically classical forms, harmonies and melodies, but with a distinct ‘pop’ feel. There are often lots of major 7ths and 9ths, and plenty of interesting and usually subtle syncopations. The Bramall Dances falls into this bracket – but surely retaining much more of the naked vitality of the ‘old’ music - which makes these dances unique.

Unfortunately there appears to be very little in the way of reviews of this work. However, I understand that the performance of these dances at the eponymous venue was a considerable success.

Colin Scott-Sutherland remarked in the pages of MusicWeb International that these Dances of “Peter Hope, [were] a mixture of modern and mediaeval with a Prokofievian ostinato and final Galop”. This was in fact part of a review of the original edition of this piece for recorder and guitar that appeared on the Campion Cameo CD release Hatbox.

A certain Mr. Cook in the American Record Guide was more fulsome in his review of the Dutton Epoch CD with the version of Bramall Hall Dances for recorder harpsichord and cello. He noted that “everything here resonates of the song, the lyric [and] the delightfully phrased melody.” He felt that the Dances truly did ‘dance.’  Cook suggested that Peter Hope did not resort to the use of genuine English folk melodies; in fact he considered that the music did not sound particularly British.  He noted that this work consisted of “unabashed dances driven by a capering recorder with a dainty (but not baroque) harpsichord in the background”. His only criticism, with which I do not agree is that the “cello, here, is for depth, but is sometimes more recessed than I think was intended”.  However, he concludes, that “fact does not detract from the pleasure of this piece (which in [the first movement] threatens to launch into a  pop cadence that reveals just how much Hope knows the music of the 20th Century—all of it)”.  The balance of Mr Cook’s opinion is that in spite of the instrumentation this work is totally contemporary. (Cook, American Record Guide, May/June 2008, Vol. 71 Issue 3, p.127)

When I hear the Bramall Hall Dances I see the Hall itself in my mind’s eye and I cannot help feeling that this work would make a fine film score for a play or documentary set in that place.  The stylistic balance between the baroque and the modern is well made. The bottom line is this: the actors, who are enjoying this setting and this music in my dramatic fantasy, are dressed as we are in 2009 not as they would have been in the past. And that is as much as one can ask of a piece of music such as this.

John France

This Bramall Hall Dances are currently available in two versions:-

For recorder and guitar: Hatbox Campion Cameo 2020

For recorder, cello and harpsichord: Peter Hope: Songs and Chamber Music Dutton Epoch CDLX 7192

Photo of Bramall Hall from Historic House Association



 


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