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Songs and Pianoforte solos

Pamela Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Josephine Baldwin (Piano)
Katherine Weston (Cello)
Nicola Furst (flute)
Katherine Byron (harp)
No catalogue number but details should be available from Forsyths in Manchester, England or you may write for details c/o Plas Geler, Llandysul, Wales SA44 5AZ

My earliest introduction to the characteristic idiom of Peter Crossley-Holland's music was a cantata "The Sacred Dance", and a set of Carols, both dating from the early 1950s - which seemed to me to express an unfettered kind of spirituality in a free and transparent harmonic texture. That this was a personal and natural idiom became clear with the publication in the late '90s of a volume of Collected Songs (Forsyth - British Heritage series.)

Those whose interest was perhaps awakened, or appetite whetted, by John Turner's note of the composer in British Music Society News (No 70 June 1996 appended below), will welcome now the availability of this recording of sixteen songs and two substantial works for piano - the songs beautifully sung by the mezzo, Pamela Rudge with her supporting instrumentalists.

Peter Crossley-Holland, born in London in 1916, combined studies at the RCM in music, with a deep interest, pursued at Oxford and London Universities, in ethnomusicology. The horizons of his professional life, both in Manchester and London, (latterly on the staff of the BBC Third Programme) were broadened by experience in the realms of metaphysics - in Germany as Director of Music Research in Berlin, and as Professor at UCLA - and also by field trips to the East, including India and Tibet.

Living now in Wales, his music on this CD has a Celtic urge in which that essential spirituality of which I was early aware, is expressed, not only in the choice of words set, but equally clearly in the two works for solo piano, played here by Josephine Baldwin. It is therefore inevitable that all the music on the disc (with perhaps the exception of a cheerful setting of Hardy's "Weathers", showing something of the influence of his teacher John Ireland) is essentially meditative.

The songs are programmed in three sections punctuated by the two piano pieces - and it is appropriate that the earliest songs (those in the first group) were, as the programme note discloses 'those he made at the foot of the ancient turf-cut-chalk cross on Whiteleaf Hill (Bucks) during 1941/2'. The berceuse-like 'Evening is over the Land" (Binyon) and the rarefied mountain air harmonies of "The Nightingales" (Bridges) both penetrate, in spirit, beyond the physical, capturing the essence of that which lies behind the scene - the latter song, the nearest to a rhapsodic utterance, ending questioningly on a characteristic 6/4 chord, which, as with frequent passages in his music hung contemplatively over a dominant pedal point, heighten the feeling of the suspension of time itself.

His concern with word-setting (he is the father of a poet) is evident in the strange sounding 'peering of things across the half door' in Colum's "Cradle Song", and in the Nightingales' song "the voice of desire that haunts our dreams." Contrast is provided in the second group of songs whose ethno-folk-like melodies (Breton, Mandarin, Irish) are accompanied severally by other instruments - harp, flute, cello and recorder - a delicate tapestry of Celtic colours and patterns, culminating in "Fairy Workers" (McGill), a charming little 'jeu d'esprit' for voice, piano and a capricious sopranino recorder!

The final set contains music of considerable depth - taking words from Longfellow and Ibsen among others, and ending in an almost symphonic setting of Yeats' 'Into the Twilight', a poem originally entitled by the poet 'The Celtic Twilight', reflecting the "dream-heavy, passion-dimmed" mood of the poet, pursuing, with questing intellect, into the shadowy realms of Yeats' spiritual world. The final bars fading 'niente' into the aether are, in the composer's words 'an integral part of the performance'.

The longer of the two piano works is entitled 'The Distant Isle'. While the composer reveals that its inspiration was the Celtic tale of 'The Voyage of Bran' the tone-poetical experience of this delicate music suggests to me that 'distant' is not physical, but a kind of mystical 'time' element rather recalling Barrie's 'island that likes to be visited' - the idea not inappropriate, thinking of the experience of both Baran and Mary Rose of the strange suspension of time. Here again the feeling is heightened by the long slow swell of the music and the beckoning summons of the horn-like figures. Again this music fades quietly into a haze of mysterious light, the 'Land beneath the Waves'. With the same tonal centre the second much shorter 'Meditation' achieves its object by very similar means. This CD, with its attractively illustrated notes, provides but a tantalising glimpse into the creative world of a composer whose works include a Symphony, several symphonic poems, a violin Sonata, several choral works and songs. Can we now hope to hear some of these?

Colin Scott-Sutherland


NOTE: I very much regret that very shortly after this review was written I learned of Peter Crossley-Holland's sudden death. His passing is a great loss to British musicology - and to me, one in whose letters I had found a friend.


From a note by John Turner printed in the BMS Newsletter in 1996.

The name of the composer will be familiar to many players of the recorder, as four compositions for that instrument were published in quick succession by Universal Edition between 1958 and 1962 - A Little Suite, Irish Tunes, Albion, and Breton Tunes - and these works achieved considerable popularity at the time. Three of the four compositions take their cue from the folk music of the Celtic nations. Another (unpublished) recorder work from the same period is based on Chinese folk-tunes, and all these pieces, though on a very modest scale, point clearly to the composer's preoccupations, which found their full flowering in a distinguished academic career over the succeeding decades.

The publication of the last of these recorder works more or less coincided with the composer's career move from the BBC, where he had been successively producer and Music Organiser (Third Programme), in culmination of his increasing interest in and involvement with ethnomusicological research. From 1964 to 1966 he was Assistant Director of the Institute for Musical Research in Berlin, and, after teaching assignments in American Universities (Illinois and Hawaii), he was in 1969 appointed Professor of Music (Ethnomusicology) at UCLA (in fact he sat in Schoenberg's chair there), where he astonished and enthused generations of students with the wonders of traditional music and instruments from all over the world. During his years in Berlin and the States, original composition inevitably had to take a back seat (though he kept his muse alight by making arrangements of medieval and renaissance melodies for local choirs), but his contribution to ethnomusicology was immense, particularly his writings on, and field studies of, the musical traditions of Tibet, and his investigations into the musical artefacts of pre-Columbian America. On his retirement from the chair at UCLA he returned to the UK and settled in his beloved Wales where he now continues his researches on Celtic music and folklore (a lifelong passion), as well as resuming original composition. Reflecting his deep interests in nature and philosophy, some of these later compositions (which are in general on a larger scale than his earlier works) embrace the Golden Section and the related Fibonacci series as a principle of formal construction, though this is hardly obvious to the listener, other than on a purely instinctive basis. Recent works include a Symphony, three symphonic poems (The Golden Pathway was recorded by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in November 1995), and an extended work for solo tenor recorder (Invocation at Midsummer), which was included in the 80th birthday concert at Bangor.

Crossley-Holland's chosen instrument at Abbotsholme School was the piano (though whilst still a schoolboy he met Carl Dolmetsch at Abbotsholme, and this meeting later bore fruit when he composed Albion for Dolmetsch's family to play). When he went up to St. John's College, Oxford in 1933 it was to read not music but medicine (the result of parental pressure), but composition was an abiding preoccupation, and one of his earliest successes was the professional performance in Sheffield, the following year, of a Fantasy Quintet for piano and strings (George Linstead was the pianist). A Violin Sonata and Suite No. 1 for strings, both composed in 1938, won for Crossley-Holland, a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where he was taught by John Ireland, who had earlier given him private lessons, and for whom he retains a considerable affection (Ireland is the dedicatee of The Golden Pathway, and his Island Spell was included in the Bangor recital - complementing Crossley-Holland's own piano piece on a not dissimilar theme, The Distant Isle). Later he returned to Oxford to read for a B. Mus. degree, his graduating piece (an early indication of his interest in matters Celtic, an enthusiasm which he has passed on to his son, Kevin Crossley-Holland, the well-known poet, storyteller and librettist) being A Song of Saint Columba.

Other composers with whom Crossley-Holland had close contacts were Rubbra (whose company he found congenial and who later dedicated to him the Pezzo Ostinato for solo harp, influenced by Buddhist religious philosophy), Seiber (though his exercises in serialism did not strike a chord with Crossley-Holland), and Julius Harrison, whom the composer has to thank for his introduction to his wife Nicole, herself a distinguished French scholar.

Crossley-Holland's works of the 1940s and '50s, including his song-cycle Songs of Evening, the cantata The Sacred Dance, the piano piece The Distant Isle, and the Rounds of Nature were variously performed and broadcast (performers included Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker, Doris Gambell, Trevor Anthony, Gordon Clinton, Sir Adrian Boult, Rudolf Schwarz, Mansel Thomas, and Pears and Britten), and several works were published, including The Visions of St. Godric, some songs, and The Sacred Dance. But in common with other British composers who left these shores, physical absence from Britain went hand in hand with the disappearance of his music from both the airwaves and the concert hall.

Crossley-Holland's recent music and the works composed in the earlier part of his career reflect, beneath the often deceptive simplicity of the music, the composer's deep personal preoccupations with metaphysics, the natural world (with its principles of order, growth and renewal), and the human spirit. Any attempt to describe these in any more detail in this short note would inevitably sound perfunctory, and indeed it would be superfluous, as the composer himself has dealt at length with the sources of his inspiration in a lecture published in "Speaking of my Life" (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1979).

To celebrate Crossley-Holland's eightieth birthday, a volume of his songs was published by the Manchester publishers, Forsyth Brothers Limited in their British Heritage series.

© John Turner

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