> BENJAMIN DALE’S "THE FLOWING TIDE" Classical Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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BENJAMIN DALE’S "THE FLOWING TIDE"

BROADCAST, BBC RADIO 3, THURSDAY 25 APRIL 2002

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Once in a while something crops up in the world of classical music radio broadcasting that is so significant and unusual that we spend days eagerly anticipating it, clearing our schedule so as not to miss a note, tape recorder at the ready, and it is remembered for long after as a milestone.

This broadcast, almost certainly the first, on 25 April 2002 at 8.50 in the evening, of this major British orchestral masterpiece, was such an event. One is reminded of Chabrier bursting into tears on hearing "Tristan" at Bayreuth – "I’ve been waiting twenty years to hear that open A on the cello." Whilst we may not have quite broken into convulsive sobs, in a way this was even more of an adventure into the great unknown. Chabrier had studied the score of "Tristan", whereas photo-facsimile copies of "The Flowing Tide" are so rare, to lay hands on one must be like finding the Holy Grail. Moreover, not only have I waited for twenty years to hear it, but the musical world has had to wait for nearly sixty years since what was probably the only performance, until now, in 1943.

It was in a pencilled sketchbook, now in the RAM, that the first three bars of "The Flowing Tide" were noted down on 8 January 1924, in Brussels, at the Café des Trois Suisses. This notebook has a number of miscellaneous sketches, some of which, only a few bars long, some for string quintet, may relate to "The Flowing Tide" – "finale in C", 12 January, "development of 1st movement", 12 January, and other passages with the place where conceived, e.g. Baltic 2 January 1924, Tivoli, Copenhagen, North Sea. It is clear a major symphonic work was forming in his mind. They seem to have been conceived alongside the sight-reading pieces he was writing for the Associated Board! This recalls Franck writing his great organ Chorals in tandem with the sixty-three pieces for harmonium! How the inspirational and the everyday go hand in hand. This would have been the third major work, in a period of renewed compositional activity after Dale had recovered from his experience at Ruhleben camp in World War I. He was in his late 30s, in his vigorous prime, and things seemed bright. It was entirely fitting that he should have wanted to write a work expressing his life-long love of the sea. He often used to go down to Exmouth to go sailing with York Bowen, and the viola Romance was written there. He had in 1919 and 1920 gone on an examining tour to Australia and New Zealand, which involved a sea voyage around the world.

However, he failed to make progress with this piece, and after two carols for chorus and the 1926 violin Ballade nothing was written for over ten years until 1938. The reasons for this creative silence are no doubt many, deep and complex like the man himself, and I will enlarge on them in a later article. It was in 1938 that Henry Wood, a close friend and at one time a near neighbour, on going through Dale’s MSS found the sketches, took to them and requested that the work was to be completed for his 50th anniversary as a conductor that coming season. Had it been completed in time, it would have been performed at the famous concert where Vaughan Williams’ "Serenade to Music" first saw the light of day, with Rachmaninov playing his 2nd Concerto, and would surely have became better known. But, though this request, as well as his happy second marriage to Margit Kaspar, gave Dale the urge of spirit he needed to compose, his administrative responsibilities as Warden of the RAM and then the upheaval of the war delayed the process. The BBC asked him to finish the work for the 1943 season. According to Harry Farjeon and Norman Demuth, two colleagues at the RAM, it was written with all the old youthful enthusiasm, and week by week he informed Farjeon of the diminishing tally of pages still to be scored. Mrs Dale told me in 1986 that the piece would have been longer had he not been pressurised to complete it. Much work went into checking the MS set of parts, often at night. The first rehearsal, conducted by Dale himself, as Sir Henry Wood was ill, took place on 30 July 1943. It was after this 2-hour rehearsal that Dale complained of tiredness in the artist’s room at the Royal Albert Hall and collapsed, dying before reaching hospital. One pupil told me that it was possible that, perfectionist as he was, his knowledge that there were errors in the score and still amendments to be made after all the effort, increased the strain on him and helped precipitate that fatal heart attack. We must remember that this work was never intended to be his swan song. Not only would it have been revised had he lived, but it may have been the prelude to a new creative surge which, I like to think, might have included a fully fledged symphony, or some autobiographical tone poems in the manner of Josef Suk.

The first and only performance took place on 6 August 1943 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. Feruccio Bonavia in the Musical Times referred to the thoughtfulness, modesty and good sense of the older generation of British composers, and said that it suggested a delicate composition for the solo instruments, as if a Chopin prelude had suddenly found its way into the orchestra - an antidote to the noisy brass band effects of Chavez’s "Sinfonia India". Farjeon expressed the hope that it would be heard again soon. However deeply unfashionable as his style was in the early 1940s, the score was allowed to gather dust on library shelves. It does the RAM no credit that they did nothing to arrange another performance, and made access to the score deliberately difficult, although in 1986 they had eight copies of the score, mostly locked away in an MS room where it could not be borrowed or copied.

There are also 79 pages of short score in pencil, though how this relates to the finished product it is not yet possible to state, and some pages were probably lost in a burglary at Mrs Dale’s flat in 1984. The score is headed by a quote from Act 4 Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar".

"There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

William McNaught, in his programme note of 1943, describes it as being 28 minutes in length (in our 2002 performance, recorded in 1998, it is 31 minutes long), and divided into five episodes, though continuous, often without definition of the moment of change. The scoring is for triple woodwind, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 3 timpani, side drum, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, celesta, 2 harps and strings.

Such is a concise résumé of the facts about this "symphonic piece", as it was originally titled in the short score. Now I can only give subjective impressions about the score at this early stage of acquaintance, after having heard the tape only a handful of times. I only glanced at the score in the RAM library in the 1980s, enough to recognise that undulating figure in the strings in compound time at the start, and to note that it ends in glorious C major fortissimo.

So what direction was Dale moving in during 1924, only to be thwarted for over fourteen years? Is it indeed a chamber composition for solo instruments, or is it the large design in orchestral expression with increased range of dynamic colour and intensity of feeling that the programme note leads one to expect? What expectation that description arouses. It is as if his contemporaries sensed something big and special was being created around them.

There are two outstanding qualities in the score that strike one at once, the first being the grasp of large-scale form. I have said before that Dale is principally a large-scale composer, needing a spacious canvas to express his deepest thoughts. Although three works (the two sonatas and the viola suite) are longer than "The Flowing Tide", these are multi-movement works with sonata form and variation form, however free, to hold them together. "The Flowing Tide" is his longest continuous movement, and is a gigantic symphonic fantasy (that word is so important in Dale), though it is possible to hear the first 5 minutes or so as a 1st subject area, followed by a quite audible bridge passage to a 2nd lyrical group which lasts approximately 7 minutes. Both sections end with a descent to a growling contra-bassoon. It is easy to mark the start of the 5th and final section too, with a sudden characteristic snap into a decisive tempo mirroring the manner of the 3rd, scherzando section, 7˝ minutes from the end. What is less easy to hear at first is the move from the 3rd to the 4th section.

It appears at first that there is much thematic material, but on listening more closely we discover that much is derived from four or five themes. Though there is recap of material, Dale never repeats himself literally. There is constant development of themes and variations either melodically or in the orchestra. This is a densely argued and truly symphonic score, and Dale achieves wonderful continuity, and seamless flow, living up to the work’s perfectly apt title. The first section impresses at once with its nobility and breadth, with long paragraphs effortlessly spun out, the material superficially carefree, approachable, benign in mood, but with so many subtle hints in orchestration and harmony that this is a large-scale piece with much more to come. Phrases overlap, with interspersions, extensions and modulations, unfolding in a complex sophisticated way, but always logically. Melodically it holds the attention throughout, and it is in the broader still and slower 2nd section that we have our most memorable haunting theme, first heard on the oboe, starting with a descending 5th. All this is developed at length. The scherzando section continues to develop material from the 1st two sections, alongside new elements – a jaunty dance with mischievous syncopations, and touches of darkness, mystery and suspense. What becomes more striking as the piece progresses is the amount of counterpoint used, most noticeably in the final section. This was foreshadowed in the last moment of the violin sonata but taken further here. We get a sense of arrival less than two minutes before the end as the tempo races on, culminating in an amazing orgiastic ending, with three sharp chords before the crescendo to a rousing fortissimo end.

The second outstanding quality is the colourful handling of the orchestra. This is more of a joyful discovery, as I have only heard Dale’s orchestration once before, in that fine performance under Ronald Corp of "Before the Paling of the Stars" at Highgate in November 2000. In fact the two choral works and the orchestral version of the viola Romance and Finale, are the only large-scale examples of Dale’s orchestral writing since his student days, though he had been orchestrating two Wolf songs and three Debussy Preludes between 1938 and 1940, possibly as warming up exercises. The feeling for colour is evident in the larger combinations as well as the solo instrumental passages. We experience rippling mellow clarinet flourishes, a melancholy bass clarinet solo, flutes capering over side-drum, bassoon and flutes over a string pedal, various pairs of woodwind, cello solo, and tremolo strings both agitated and hushed. But there is growing strength in the 1st section, to a virile tutti with vigorous horn calls on the way, majestic passages for brass choir, muted trumpets, the bullish swagger of the trombones near the end, dissonant chords for massed strings and spiky woodwind effects. One unforgettable passage is in the 2nd section where the unison violins take up that warm melody over a gently throbbing woodwind accompaniment in cross-rhythm, with a perfectly placed cymbal crash. One can feel the breeze gathering, the swell of the waves lapping the boat and almost hear the seagulls overhead in this evocative music. Dale creates mystical fantastic effects in the scherzando sections using his generous percussion section, so we get trills on high violins over a side-drum roll, giving a sense of whirling into infinity, as well as passages using the other-worldly celesta, amongst many other incidental details, and we will all no doubt find our own favourite corners to savour.

The one major influence felt is that of Elgar, especially in the opening section in its assumed 9/8 time forward sweep. The swooping tremolos at one stage recall a passage in Ravel’s Quartet, and there is a memorable passage in the 2nd section where the orchestra rises in a crescendo to a sudden pause followed by an explosion that is almost Mahlerian.

So, how does "The Flowing Tide" relate in terms of quality to the rest of the Dale canon? At this early stage, I can state with confidence that it is at the very least of the calibre of the three viola works and "Before the Paling of the Stars". As I write, the conviction grows that this work is indeed the equal of the twin peaks of Dale’s output, the two mature sonatas. Its broadcast is an event of major importance in British music. This is Dale in the high summer of his creative life, with a new maturity and breadth; Dale the master magician who entertains, intrigues, inspires and charms us by turn, with his rich palette of colour and harmony, and all the fantasy of old. This, with the viola suite, is Dale at his most outgoing and confident (these are the only two works in the mature canon that end loudly). It is true C major music at the start and finish, with a whole universe in between. It is indeed the tide taken at the flood, supremely exhilarating affirmative music, a celebratory paean to nature at her most expansive.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed to relish the experience and one could not wish for a more experienced and sympathetic conductor than Vernon Handley. Now we hope that other orchestras and conductors may take it up, and in time it should become as well known as the major orchestral works of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius. A recording is urgently needed, and it would be good to have a published score available. Now how about tackling the three early overtures and the Fantasia for organ and orchestra?

Let Harry Farjeon, in his obituary of Dale in the RAM magazine, have the last word "Music is Life. And so he felt it to be. The flowing tide of beauty inevitably rising to some inexpressible attainment of spiritual feeling – that was the current of his life and we could offer our friend no better tribute than the promise that it shall also be ours."

Christopher Foreman

May 2002


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