> A visit to Flamborough Head with William Baines [JF]: Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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"How Quiet and Calm it Will be at Flamboro' today."

A visit to Flamborough Head with William Baines

 

 

It was really a kind of pilgrimage. I set off from outside William Baines' one time residence in Albemarle Road, York with the intention of retracing his steps to Flamborough Head near Bridlington. It must begin as it will end, with a quotation from his diary dated 25th February 1918, 'How quiet and calm it will be at Flamboro' today amongst the caves- what joy to picture.'

It was with that thought in mind that I joined the traffic heading out of the medieval city.

It was a slow start to the journey; traffic is much heavier than the days before the First World War when the composer had cycled a route similar to that which I was about to take. Baines used his bicycle and I took the car, not because I balked at pedalling some 45 miles - it is just that the roads are so busy that I would feel in constant peril for my life perched on a 'sit up and beg'.

So the Fiat reached the outskirts of York - the ring road crosses under the Bridlington Road at Grimston Bar. Soon the countryside beckons and I am motoring through the attractive one-sided village of Gate Helmsley. I wondered if Baines had called in at the inn here for a light refreshment. Before reaching Stamford Bridge Baines would have cycled under the York to Beverley railway line, however this was axed in the 1960s and only the viaduct over the Derwent is left intact.

Stamford Bridge itself supposedly inspired a piano piece that was never composed. He wrote in his diary for June 15th 1918, '…thought of two new names for pieces: 'At Dawn on the Wolds' and 'Hedge Bottom one June Morn'. This second title had apparently come from seeing roses and creepers in a hedge bottom near the village.

I bought a few provisions at Stamford Bridge and headed out towards Garrowby Hill. How glad I was not to have brought my bicycle as I approached this steep climb. This is a long slow drag up onto the Wolds. Lord Halifax's house is always screened by the trees - but I know that he has one of the best views in Yorkshire. The Fiat sailed up the hill whereas Baines would have pushed his bicycle for nearly a mile. Then it is the open road - on top of the world - Fridaythorpe, Wetwang and Garston on the Wolds. I wondered if William had ever visited the marvellously tiled church here? It is a short drive to Driffield and then the last lap to Bridlington. After Burton Agnes with its stunning hall and the village of Carnaby, the sea is in view. It is not long before the Fiat and William Baines would have been on the sea front.

View of Flamboro' Head from the Promenade at Bridlington

Why should we consider making a pilgrimage to one of the haunts of William Baines? What is there about his music that requires a trip to Flamboro' Head? Hopefully some answers to these questions will emerge below.

A few brief notes about the composer's life and works will not be out of place here.

William Baines aged 18

William Baines was born at Horbury in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 26th March 1899. His father was a chapel organist and a cinema pianist. The young Baines was encouraged to learn the piano. When he was eleven years old he had formal lessons in piano and in harmony and counterpoint at the Yorkshire Training College of Music in Leeds. He was advised in his musical studies by Frederick Dawson. Baines was soon to apply this knowledge in the composition of chants, hymn tunes and piano pieces. He was to become largely self-taught in his orchestration skills by perusal of scores and attendance at symphony concerts.

When William was 18 years old the family moved to York. Baines senior and junior both had employment as cinema pianists. 1917 was a momentous year for the composer; he gave his first public piano recital at which a number of his own works were heard and he wrote his excellent and undervalued symphony. It was not to be heard until 1991.

In 1918 Baines was conscripted. He had a weak constitution and was really in no fit state to be an active combatant. However at that time the Germans were mounting 'one last push' and all able and less than able-bodied men were being pressed into service. Baines military career was to be short-lived. Within a fortnight of his call up, he had septic poisoning and was hospitalised. By the time of his recovery, the war was over. He was never to be fully restored to health.

He continued to compose and give piano recitals until a few months before his death. His only major excursion was to Bournemouth at the invitation of Sir Dan Godfrey in 1921. There he gave a performance of his piano work Tides. It was only nine days after Bax's Tintagel had been played in the same Pavilion.

Baines was to die from tuberculosis on 6th November 1922. He was aged 23.

William Baines wrote about a 150 works in a number of genres, including a symphony, a piano concerto and chamber works. However it is his piano compositions that are perhaps his most successful and enduring achievements. He worked better as a miniaturist rather than on larger canvases. Many of his piano pieces could be described as impressionistic, ranging through a variety of moods and styles. It is not fair to try to attach influences to Baines, but it must be said that the works of Scriabin were seminal. Add to this the unique but underrated achievement of Cyril Scott and we have some idea of how Baines approached the timbres of the piano. He was able to fuse the style of the Russian with that of English Pastoralism and Romanticism. His music covered a range of emotion and styles; his harmonies could be rich or sparse. Grove’s Dictionary (2001/02) points out that perhaps the key to Baines style is his Seven Preludes composed in 1919. It is here that many of the aspects of his style are apparent - 'from virtuoso brilliance to rhapsodic contemplation, and from a lush Romanticism to sparse textures and acrid harmonies.' Frederick Dawson, Baines' music adviser, once wrote that the young composer had "an inexhaustible fancy and the enviable gift of translating into terms of sound his love of Nature and his joy in the beautiful"

Much of his music was imbued with his love of nature, especially the countryside of East Riding and the seascapes of Flamboro' Head. At one time the convalescing Baines chose to spend time close to his beloved landscape in spite of being offered a shooting cottage in the Hebrides by Lord Howard de Walden.

But it is to Flamboro Head that we turn our footsteps and our attention. Now, although everyone living in Yorkshire will know where this great natural feature is and what it looks like, it will help to give a brief, if somewhat prosaic description. It is a large chalk promontory, a part of the Yorkshire Wolds, reaching for some five miles into the North Sea. The entire Head is surrounded by cliffs, some 360 feet above sea level. The top is mainly arable farmland but has also been colonised by caravans, chalets and bungalows. There are two lighthouses - old and new, a fog horn station, coastguard station and golf course. The whole area is covered by a network of well-marked footpaths - one of which follows the cliff tops. The cliffs are honeycombed with sea caves and the occasional stack. Erosion is a constant problem.

Selwicks Bay from the Lighthouse

From the cliffs it is possible to see down the coast towards Bridlington and Withernsea. The beam from the lighthouse at Spurn Point can be seen on a clear night. To the north are the Bempton Cliffs with its wonderful sea-bird colonies and the coastline as far as Scarborough and Filey. The hills of the North Yorkshire Moors and the Wolds are clearly visible. There are two 'landings'- North and South. Both allow the fisherman, life-boatman and tourist down to the sea. There is an ancient earthwork, Danes Dyke running across the Head form north to south.

This is the paradise that William Baines found so attractive and inspiring.

Of course it is possible to see Flamboro' Head from Bridlington, and how glorious and spectacular it looks. Baines must have walked long the beach and the promenade on many occasions. In fact a number of his diary entries refer to seeing the Head from afar. On July 18th 1920 Baines wrote, Flamboro' is wonderfully happy in its sadness. Earlier he had written, I had a long walk and a loiter on the sands, filling my lungs with fresh air. The silver sheen on the water was lovely. This evening Auntie and I went on the Parade and listened to the orchestra - did not enjoy it much -but amused ourselves watching the people. Flamboro' lighthouse looks very fine at night time, flashing alternately red and white - and the ships and vessels at sea just carry one light…It is all so sad at night…October 6th 1919

One evening he went for a cruise out of Bridlington Harbour on board The Frenchman, 'Beneath a curling sky the water was a lovely dark greeny green. As the waves overlapped one another they appeared to be like running velvet…so soft and smooth. The light was a bluey grey but a slanting sun kissed a strip of sea into a golden pathway of light. The immensity of the ocean is wonderful, inexhaustable. The great white Flamboro' cliffs stood fingering out in the distance. Nature's great immovable symbols. Silent and dim…not a soul to be seen. It must be lovely to be a seagull flying in those cathedral like caves and glorious caverns.' As we sailed into the harbour, the gulls were flying out to sea…out into the lonely grey which always seems to cloak our beloved Flamboro' at night time. August 11th 1921

Certainly this nocturnal aspect of the scenery appealed to Baines,

The sea is so restless…grim clouds hover about…through the night air the shaft of light comes from the lighthouse at Flamboro'. April 3rd 1920.

I set off from Brett Street, his aunt's residence, in Bridlington and headed out towards Sewerby and Flamborough. I passed the Hall with its gardens, the pub overlooking the sea and the church. Soon I motored through the village of Marton and crossed over Danes Dyke. The village of Flamborough is a crossroads - from here roads set out to the North and South Landing, the lighthouse and to the village of Bempton. I headed past Ocean View Farm and soon saw the old lighthouse and then the new. There is a car park here now along with an excellent cafeteria serving magnificent full English breakfasts. I parked the car and began to explore. It was a sunny day with clear blue skies. The sea mirrored the colours of the sky; it was warm. I imagined Baines arriving here on his bicycle hiding it in a hedge bottom or perhaps behind a cottage wall.

I imagine he may have headed round Selwicks Bay and past the remains of the two sea stacks Adam and Eve. Only Eve is standing today. The path winds up through the brambles towards Cradle Head; Stottle Bank Nook is clear-cut into the cliffs. After about a mile the path emerges above the North Landing.

North Landing looking north.

Here we find Baines sitting in the sun:-

I have come out here to my beloved Flamboro' this morning on my bike. The weather is perfectly gorgeous. I am sat writing on the top of the cliffs, sat on an old very well initialled wooden bench overlooking the North Landing. The lovely bay is before me and the white cliffs are at their best in the sun.

Really I am enjoying it. The sea is at full play, and the sheep are grazing here and there on the green cliff tops. A low breeze blows through the grass, and flocks of birds go by. The peace is getting into my soul. October 7th 1919

Of course we have no way of knowing what William Baines was writing - most probably his diary.

There is one main work that was inspired by Flamboro' Head - Tides - which consists of two pieces, The Lone Wreck and Goodnight to Flamboro'. However a number of other works seem to be related to this part of the coastline - the slow movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor is subtitled Sea Caves. The first piece from the Suite Silverpoints is entitled Labyrinth ( A Deep Sea Cave) Other compositions suggest a sense of mood rather than a descriptive tone poem; Twilight Pieces for Piano, Still Day, Glancing Sunlight and Drift Light. The evocatively named In the Tide Rip and Amid the Balmy Whispers of a July Night show further infatuation with the sea. And then there was the setting of Rossetti's poem By the Sea from the Five Songs

Why does the sea moan evermore?

Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,

It frets against the boundary shore;

All earth's full rivers cannot fill

The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.

Sheer miracles of loveliness

Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:

Anemones, salt, passionless,

Blow flower-like; just enough alive

To blow and multiply and thrive.

Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,

Encrusted live things argus-eyed,

All fair alike, yet all unlike,

Are born without a pang, and die

Without a pang, and so pass by. Christina Rossetti

Of course in this Georgian period it was common for piano pieces to be given evocative titles. Very often the printed music bore no audible relation to the striking title and cover picture of the sheet. Yet with Baines we feel that although the titles may have been devised to appeal to the publisher and the amateur market, there was a considerable emotional and intellectual depth behind them.

There is something about the Lone Wreck that defies description. On the one hand it is an extremely simple piece - an Eb pedal construction, arpeggios with a tune 'floating above' yet on the other hand it is a complex piece that explores some thoughts that are perhaps to 'deep for words.' The 'tune' is given simply and then with decoration. In some ways it is truly economical yet it sometimes feels as if it encompasses an entire world of sound and timbre. The score is prefixed with the words,

'In the hidden beach the deep sea rolls around the lonely wreck;

Where the albatross with winds outspread-

White like the beaten foam,

Flies o'er and about the silent masts

All hung with seaweeds-

(and now toned with sungold)

Now I accept that there are probably very few albatrosses flying in the North Sea skies. However it is not difficult to get the picture as one looks down from the cliffs into hidden inlets and bays. There are many shipwrecks off the coast of Bridlington.

Stack at Breil Nook

William Baines has recorded the genesis of the second piece in his diary entry for July 1st 1920,

Tonight I have written a lovely 'mind's eye impression'. I got the idea from Colin Hunter's 'Goodnight to Skye'- only I have written mine to my beloved Flamboro' - instead of Skye - and I call this piece 'Goodnight to Flamboro' The waves persistently roll on the rocks and in the caves… a beautiful ecstatic sorrow surrounds everything about…only the sea can give that feeling. The last chords are a dream.

At the time he was trying to convalesce from his illness at his Aunts in Bridlington. The score is inscribed with a quotation from Edward Dowden: "Cry, Sea! it is thy hour; thou art alone."

The piece is constructed round an insistent semiquaver pedal figuration - surely this is suggesting the murmur of the waves as they roll into the base of the cliffs, and swirl around the stacks and sea-caves. The music reaches a climax only to settle into darker hues. Pedalling is supremely important in this piece - a shimmering effect is created in the left hand throughout most of this piece. To this listener's ear there are hints of John Ireland's music in these pages. These two miniature tone poems or sea pictures are fine works especially as the composer was only 21 years of age. They exhibit a complete command of pianoforte technique and compositional skill. They are neither too long nor too short; just perfectly balanced. Two of the finest miniatures in the English piano repertoire.

As I came away turned for the last time from the high cliffs of Flamboro' Head I saw a cormorant sitting on a half submerged rock and thought of that wonderful but forgotten tone picture for piano by Greville Cooke Cormorant Crag. Like William Baines his star has set, yet perhaps one day someone like Roger Carpenter who is Baines' biographer and champion or Eric Parkin who has well recorded a number of his pieces, will do something to rectify this deficiency.

As for Baines, it is to be hoped that his piano works will continue to attract a dedicated following, on CD if not in the recital room or radio. And certainly there is a gap in the market for his youthful symphony.

I tried to imagine how Baines felt as he turned his back on Flamboro' for the last time. Perhaps he did not realise it was farewell. I have no doubt that it was not far from his thoughts as he entered his death agony, Earlier in his life he had written in his diary,

'Oh it is windy today…I was playing my Goodnight to Flamboro' this afternoon -and what with the tremendous wind-smoke-and rattling windows - it was realistic indeed! I could imagine myself in the tall cold dripping caves (shivering of course!) listening to the rumbling sea…and feel the serene silence which causes a wonderful atmosphere (above the noise!) about such places. So rugged and wild - the great banking waves tearing mountain high. What a scene - the lonely seagulls the only sign of God!'

One hopes and prays that God allowed William Baines' last thought to be 'How quiet and calm it will be at Flamboro today amongst the caves -what joy to picture.'

John France

See also

GOODNIGHT TO FLAMBORO': Piano Music of BAINES and GOOSSENS
William BAINES (1890-1922) Pictures of Light (1920?); Glancing Sunlight (1920?); Island of the Fay (1920?); Concert Study (Exaltation) (1919?); Idyll (Nocturne) (1919); Elves (1919?); Paradise Gardens (1920); Tides (1920)
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962) Nature Poems (1919)
Alan Cuckston (piano)
rec Leeds, 12 April 1990
SWINSTY FEW 119CDr [65.03] reviewed by Rob Barnett


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