'Music of PETER CROSSLEY-HOLLAND'
Songs and Pianoforte
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
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
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?
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
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
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