Apart from the operetta, Merrie England, little
is heard of German's music today. Recordings of German's music have
been thin on the ground except perhaps for his Nell Gwyn and
Henry VIII dances heard on the BBC up to the sixties and released
by Weldon on an early LP and later transferred to CD. Over the last
decade a growing catalogue of CD issues has been led by the ever-adventurous
Marco Polo label. The Orchestral Works Vol. 1 has been available since
the mid-1990s but is found 'on the shelf' and the Marco Polo catalogue
is not readily found. Even so, this CD is a welcome adjunct to anyone
studying British music around the turn of the Century.
Edward German, a product of the Royal Academy
of Music in the early 1880s managed to find the right musical ingredients
to conjure up a romanticised view of Elizabethan England in Nell
Gwyn, Merrie England and Tom Jones, and it is for these works
that he is best remembered. Although he concentrated on writing theatre
music there is a wider output of compositions which new recordings are
now bringing to light.
He wrote much incidental music for Shakespearean plays
as musical director for the Globe Theatre, London in the 1890s. The
first of these works was the incidental music to Richard III
(1889). The overture on this disc is not particularly inspired because
although the sinister figure of King Richard is well portrayed an overture
needs to convey more than the dramatic tension surrounding one character.
Powerful and tempestuous as it is the piece is more of a prologue, and
does not progress to balance the weight of the main dark theme with
contrasting material in melody or tempi. However, the disc should not
be judged on this heavy opening track since more interesting material
The charming Diversions reveal German's
latent skills with inventive content. The variations are tuneful and
well structured with good orchestral colour. (Try tk.2) The end of the
third diversion has elements with more than a passing likeness to the
second theme of the Pastoral Dance from Nell Gwyn [tk.2 4'56"
in] and a style which Coates made some later use of. These six Diversions
have much appeal as well-constructed variations and make enjoyable listening.
The Seasons is classed by German as a
'symphonic poem' rather than a 'tone poem'. Despite an appropriate Spring
beginning, the lively and frothy mood tends to cloud over. The
title is not indicative of the style of composition one expects and
the scoring is unlike the sort of thing we might expect from a Liszt,
Delius, Debussy or Vaughan Williams where the music provides vivid impressions.
Summer initially carries inventive birdsong with a rural
taste of warm days and cut grass yet develops into something heavy and
powerful. Unexpectedly, a page or two of the score carries a recognisable
theme and orchestration, which is way ahead of its time. Bernard Herrman
wrote the music for Hitchcock's North by NorthWest 40 years later
yet we hear that Edward German got there first [tk.4 from 5'03"]. Autumn
is sombre and moody and ends with a fading dirge. Here the notes suggest
that the music is tightly structured with strains of the Summer dance
and a reference to Spring neatly bound into the structure. However,
on two listenings this is not clear portrayed to me. Winter
has fiery and majestic opening which settles down into a solemn flowing
melody, not unlike the main theme used for the Diversions. An
element of contrast is provided through a dance rhythm (a Christmas
dance?) which bounces along to bring us to a conclusion of the suite.
The style of some of the movements and weight of orchestration leads
one to think that this is more the work of a Russian composer than one
closely in harmony with the dreamy idyllic landscape of Britain.
The music is well played in ideal conditions: the acoustics
and recording balance are superb. Penny's handling of the Diversions
is a particular delight. There is a strong on-going relationship between
Andrew Penny and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. They have worked
together over a period of years with Naxos/Marco Polo and make an excellent
partnership. Here they extract a lot of detail from the music and the
excellent acoustics no doubt help.
D R Hulme's notes are extremely detailed and usefully
make mention of George Bernard Shaw's opinions they always make interesting
reading. Yet the notes lead one to ask questions when Grove's dictionary
is not in easy reach. Who were German's tutors and what was his original
training (presumably piano/organ) which got him as far as the Royal
Academy of Music?
I am not convinced, as suggested, that for German to
turn his back on opera or choral writing gave him the opportunity to
focus more on orchestral ambitions, for his main professional orchestral
output during his career was not substantial. It is more likely the
rumour had got around that choral and opera writing was not lucrative.
As Sullivan found out to his cost, a commission for festival choral
writing was a lot of hard work for little return, and then there was
the added burden of a choir to train. When German was aged 29 he had
witnessed the opening of the new Royal English Opera with a modern grand
opera, Ivanhoe (by Sullivan) which ran for a staggering 155 performances
yet was nearly forgotten a decade later.
German was invited to write commissions for some of
the major festivals, Leeds and Norwich. He was not a prolific composer
and although his theatre works were well received there were great gaps
of inactivity due we are told to an insecurity over his musical standing.
Elgar at times suffered from similar personal reservations. The skilful
composition of Diversions was written late in his career (when
57) and should have been a trigger to stimulate him further; but this
sadly wasn't the case.
Raymond J Walker
More of German may be sampled on Marco Polo and Pearl.
His Symphony No. 2 'Norwich' , a movement of his Symphony
No.1, and his Welsh Rhapsody can be heard on 8.223726; The Gypsy Suite,
Berceuse from The Conqueror, with Merrie England and Nell Gwyn Dances
while a disc of piano pieces are found on 8.223370.
Pearl have an early transcriptions of the Gypsy Suite,
March Rhapsody, Nell Gwyn Dances, Symphony No.1 3rd movement
(cond. by German), together with a bunch of songs.
Merrie England (complete operetta) is still available
on EMI's Classics For Pleasure CFPD 4710 at bargain price.
See also EDWARD
GERMAN: Serious or Light? by Philip Scowcroft