Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


If James MacMillan is currently regarded as the foremost British Catholic composer of his generation, Anthony Milner, who died last year on September 22nd at the age of 77, could also have claimed that title. He was born in Bristol on May 13th 1925 and went to Douai School in Berkshire, where he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, studying piano with Herbert Fryer and theory with R.O. Morris, whose formidable discipline influenced Milner’s own rigorous counterpoint. He also studied composition privately with Matyas Seiber.

Milner’s career began in 1947, when he was appointed tutor in music theory and history at Morley College, London. He had already met Morley's music director, Michael Tippett, who was one of the greatest influences on Milner's early development and whose style can be detected in early works, for example in the syncopations of the opening movement of the Oboe Quartet op4 (1953).

From 1948 to 1964 Milner was Tutor in Music History and Theory at Morley College, London. He was a highly regarded teacher, lecturing mainly on twentieth-century British music; an interest in sacred and liturgical music led to his appointment as Composer-in-Residence at the Summer School of Liturgical Music at Loyola University, New Orleans, in 1965 and 1966. In the summer of 1976 he gave a post-graduate course on twentieth-century music at the University of Western Ontario, and in the summer of 1981 another course on the music of Purcell and Britten.

He was Lecturer in Music at King's College, London, from 1965 until 1971, the year he moved to Goldsmiths College as Senior Lecture, becoming Principal Lecturer there in 1974. In 1980 he was appointed Principal Lecturer at the Royal College of Music where he had taught part-time since 1961. Milner retired from this position in 1989.

From 1954 to 1965 he was director and harpsichordist of the London Cantata Ensemble, specialising in the performance of baroque chamber music. They gave the first broadcasts of many of Buxtehude's solo cantatas, as well as the premieres of Milner’s own works. In recognition of his work for Catholic liturgical music, in 1985 Pope Paul II appointed Anthony Milner a Knight of St. Gregory.

His brilliant Opus One, Salutatio Angelica (1948), was a Finzi-like cantata for chorus, woodwind and strings in praise of the Virgin Mary and made a strong impact at its premiere in 1950. Its rhythmic vitality, lyricism and fastidious craftsmanship proclaimed the arrival of a cultured, unmistakably English voice.

Further vocal works such as an a cappella Mass op3 (1952) and a cantata, The City of Desolation op7 (1955), confirmed that initial impression. Hugh Wood, writing in the Pelican Books symposium European Music in the Twentieth Century, was particularly appreciative of Milner’s choral writing: "Working in a strongly conservative idiom, but with wide and humane musical interests, Milner has succeeded in bringing an enlightened and refreshing breath of life to the English choral tradition."

His Variations for Orchestra was first performed in the 1959 Cheltenham Festival conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The 15th Century Advent hymn ‘Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen’ provides almost all the work’s material: the notes of the tune’s two phrases provide a basic melodic pattern which is used in its inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion forms, although the piece is neither atonal nor serial. The variations are arranged in groups to form a quasi-symphonic structure, a device used by George Lloyd in his First (1932) and Twelfth (1989) Symphonies. Variations 1-5 make up a sonata-form first movement characterised by stark contrasts of mood, including a march and a berceuse. Variations 6-10 form a slow movement which culminates in a powerful climax, and variations 11-15 constitute a finale which begins exuberantly, slows down for an ‘intrada’ passage, before the return of the Advent hymn tune. A brief coda revisits the very opening of the work. The initial impetus for the piece was provided by the devotion known as the Rosary, whose 15 so-called ‘mysteries’ consist of meditations on events in the lives of Christ and His Mother. Thus the three sections of the work represent the Joyful, the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries. This is the first time Milner had demonstrated his grasp of large-scale purely orchestral writing and shows the composer’s technical skills at their finest.

He followed this up with an impressive large-scale dramatic oratorio ‘The Water and the Fire’ op16 (1961), a commission from the Three Choirs Festival. Here the formal mastery shown in the Variations is in evidence, distinguishing it from earlier cantatas such as ‘The City of Desolation’ and Saint Francis op8 (1956).

His brief cantata Roman Spring (1969) is a beautifully evocative setting of Latin poems on the themes of spring, the renewal of love and the transitory nature of life. The work marked a significant change in direction for Milner's music, which became more and more expressively dramatic, unlike the Chamber Symphony of 1968, for example, whose cool spikily expressionist style is articulated by an ensemble of modest proportions (it was written for 25 instruments and is characterised by pungent rhythms and idiomatic solo woodwind writing).

In 1971, he completed one of his greatest achievements, a powerful and gripping Symphony No 1, which was premiered that year by the BBCSO under Sir John Pritchard. The symphony is written in seven continuous sections and the drama of the work takes the form of the conflict and ultimate resolution of two contrasting themes which are both heard twice in the opening section. Though a tonal work, its challenging musical language is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century.

Symphony 2 (1978) is scored for soloists, choir and orchestra and has a passacaglia as its central movement. The mood of this gloriously dynamic and beautiful symphony-cantata is set by a quotation from Virgil - "These are the tears of things". The texts are selected from Gerard Manley Hopkins, St Francis and the Bible. The writing for tenor voice is remarkably Brittenesque and one can easily imagine Peter Pears singing the part – taking into account the date it was written, perhaps the symphony can be seen an unconscious tribute to Britten (who died in December 1976). It was commissioned by the BBC for the Liverpool Festival of Sacred Music and first performed on 13 July 1978 at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool by Jane Manning and John Elwes (soloists) the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Meredith Davies.

Symphony 3 (1988) was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Royal College of Music. It is an abstract work concerned with music and structure, and without extra-musical programmes. The central slow movement has six variations on a theme which extends over a two-octave compass. This work received its world premiere at the Royal College of Music by the RCM Orchestra, conducted by Lionel Friend, on 26th November 1987. It is dedicated to all the composer's students there, past and present.

By the first performance of his Third Symphony, Milner was fighting the onset of multiple sclerosis diagnosed in his 40s, a condition he faced with fierce determination. His oboe concerto was composed laboriously and painfully during his increasing illness, yet the work is one of its composer’s most lyrical and uplifting works. It was commissioned by the Philharmonia for its principal oboist John Anderson and completed in 1994, receiving its premiere in a Radio 3 broadcast on 13 December 1995 with the dedicatee as soloist with Barry Wordsworth conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. The warmth and lyricism of all three movements, especially the central slow movement in the composer’s favourite variation form, is quietly moving. It was his last work; he spent the last two years of his life in Spain and died there on 22 September 2002.

Anthony Milner’s style was always essentially tonal yet he constantly strove to find new ways of expressing himself within that tradition. Consequently, his music has a freshness about it that marks him out from many other composers who bowed to prevailing fashions. Contrapuntal rigour and the influence of plainsong characterise most of his works. Their rhythmic zest and polished structures make for a satisfying body of work deserving of more frequent performance in both concert hall and recording studio.

The CD of the Symphony no 1 and Variations for Orchestra op14 makes an excellent introduction to the music to Anthony Milner (Claudio Records CC4317-2). The performances do full justice to both works. The only small irritation is that there are only two tracks on the disc, one for each work. Since the composer has taken such care to invest each of the fifteen variations with its own special character, the inability to access them individually is particularly regrettable.

© Paul Conway 2003



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