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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


THE MUSIC OF ALGERNON ASHTON (1859-1937)

By Rutland Boughton

The first part of the article appeared in 1906 in "Musical Opinion" and the second part in the "Musical Standard" of the following year.

The Chamber Music

To attempt a thorough examination of this branch of our composer's work.within the limits set by this article would be as if to place the universe under a microscope. Only a very broad kind of analysis can be attempted here. His chamber works include four sonatas for violin and piano, foyr for 'cello and piano, besides smaller pieces for similar combinations; also, two trios for piano, violin and 'cello, two piano quartets and two piano quintets.

But there may be others of which I am not cognisant. (1) These works contain the most important, - the greatest, noblest and most beautiful music he has written. (Of his orchestral works, symphonies, etc. I cannot speak, as they are in manuscript.) Here we will consider four works only.

First, the Violin Sonata in C minor (Op 86). The first movement is built on a broad theme, noble as a giant-crag and as hard in quality. And when I say "hard" it is in a spirit of admiration. There is plenty of effeminacy in modern music, plenty of tremulous gush, plenty of gloom that is morbid rather than natural and terrible. Far different is the greater part of Ashton's art. The vigour of manhood pervades it, clearness and health inform every expression of it, and the deep feeling which lies at its root is tempered in the expression by a reserve that is peculiarly English.

Mr Fuller-Maitland, in his book on "English Music in the Nineteenth Century", stands for nearly all that is healthy in modern tendencies; but, strangely enough, to Ashton he is scarcely just. He says:

His concerted chamber compositions show a great wealth of invention and a remarkable skill in structure: but it seems that only the severer moods of the great masters appeal to him very strongly, and he is content to follow or even to surpass them in intricacy, forgetting that they have in all cases been delightful to listen to as well as clever.

I doubt very much whether Ashton, when composing, concerns himself much with the moods of the 'great masters, severe or otherwise; his work is not a reflection of a single tendency in other composers, but a whole hearted, blazing expression of his own many tendencies. The chiefest of them is stern and strong, and therefore this predominates; but to say that his work is without charm seems very far from the mark. However, we will get to our violin sonata.

The second subject affords a relief to the general grim atmosphere. Like the majority of Ashton's second subjects, it is lost in the first: that is to say, its thematic quantity and its atmospheric quality are entirely subordinate to the emotional colour already given. There are bars of tenderness, of playfulness even. But manhood sounded the note; and, although womanhood and childhood have a place in Ashton’s emotions, it is a place quite inferior to the masculine element. This first movement is like his retirement from the world; his most intimate self communings. A quiet, tender theme is a announced and then lost or, rather, veiled in the sanctuary of the composer's soul. A friend of mine, playing through this movement, enquired where was the melody; and truly the violin part is not the most grateful. But then we have so strange an idea of melody. Is melody always to be obvious to be true? Is not the first subject of the C minor Symphony of Beethoven melody? Is the lyric everything in art? True the lyric is the soul of the art; without a lyrical impetus there can be no great artist. But just because it is the soul it is never obvious in the greatest art. Great artists do not carry their hearts on their sleeves nor their souls on their shoulders; but deep down in the light of their eyes it shines through. So, deep down beneath the shades of the demisemiquavers of Ashton's Lento, I see the glimmer of a delicate heart that will not give itself undesired and unsought. The Finale of this sonata is a movement to which one cannot easily find the key. Such .movements as these do much to account for Ashton's non-recognition. But because other movements of his have long remained enigmatic to me and then have quite suddenly yielded up their secrets, I am loath to put this one aside as a mere thing of notes.

The Piano Trio in A major (Op. 88) is a work for which I have no words of sufficient admiration. (2) As with nearly every work by this English master, one's first feeling is of disappointment. This mere diatonic unison for a first subject! What can it mean? How can it interest us in these days of well spiced harmony and of strange and reckless modulation This Ashton is altogether too simple and comfortable in his themes; too complex and uncomfortable in their development! That is the first impression the writer gained from this Trio; and it was put aside as uninteresting; But the work had left its mark. The memory of it seemed deeper than the actuality; and a more sympathetic, enquiring re-study of the work discovered something of it nobility and its loveliness. And what one would at first call thin, poor and unmeaning seems now calm, deep and convincing with the beauteous logic of genius. There is not a weak phrase nor a strained sound anywhere; and yet the effect is absolutely melodious and is harmonically rich. The five-bar subject of the Larghetto is practically built upon three notes; but from that subject the composer extracts a wealth of beauty, unconceivable until one has realized it, and he clothes it in all the colours of the rainbow. The Scherzo is one continuous delight. Here Ashton decides that his tunes shall be obvious, and accordingly he foots, it with the very peasant on the green. Nothing more rhythm ically buoyant and frankly humorous has fallen from his pen. The Finale is a triumph of brilliancy and of strength; it is also a triumph of magnificent technique subdued to great art purposes. The first theme itself has a distinct affinity with the principal subject of the first movement; the second theme is constructed on one of the most splendid rhythms it has ever been my joy to know; and in the course of development the composer' calls upon themes from the first allegro and the slow movement. I am very sorry for the musician who can know this movement ar:-td not be carried away by its impetuous vigour, not be lost to all consciousness but that of the composer. In this great, living work Ashton seems to me at his best. Each movement has its own distinct individuality, and yet the work is one great organism from which no movement, no page, no bar, could be detached without infinite loss. All Ashton's work possesses this organic wholeness; but in this Trio the fact is emphasized by the deliberate carrying over of themes to the finale, where they all blossom out afresh with new force, in new loveliness. (3) In many of his works there is a psychic relation of material' which I attribute to the unconscious unity of intuitive art; but in this work the relationship is consciously recognised by the composer. Wagner's dramatic principle of the leading motive has influenced even the purely musical forms of symphony and of chamber work. Sometimes the result has been interesting, sometimes forced and unnatural. The mere transference of theme from one movement to another will strike a false note unless there be some intimate psychic relation between them, - a relation of mood, atmosphere, feeling and essence. Ashton, in this Finale, does not merely carry forward his themes as if they were entries in a ledger: he does not merely transfer them to lend a superficial air of unity to the various limbs of the, work, for that unity is already evident, irrespective of thematic material. Nothing so cheap, so obvious! First, the slow movement subject creeps in at the tail end of another phrase and is developed afresh according to the new need; then is added an inverted form of the first theme of the Allegro; and then the composer reverts to material peculiar to the movement, - to the splendid rhythm already referred to; a phenomenal rhythm, stark and strong, a rhythm which passing through a vulgar mind would have become cheap and polka like, but which in its place her is as much nobler than the polka as the backwoodsman is nobler than the pirouetting dandy.

The slight analysis made above of a section of this Finale will perhaps suggest to the reader an effect of scrappiness. The fact that definite theme succeeds definite periods is one of the characteristics of Ashton's work: he never surrenders himself to that vague padding which is commonly called "development". His music is chockful of thought from first bar to last. And it is one of the mysteries of his genius that, notwithstanding this close succession of bloodful themes, he never loses his threads, never becomes irrelevant, never descends to patchwork. Of course, this packing of fibre makes an immense demand upon the listener and is another point which accounts for our disgraceful neglect of his compositions.

Of the three forms which art takes, the epic is the least obvious and must contain the maximum of sheer intellectual grip. The dramatic form flashes, flickers and fades with every movement of the action; it is informed by terrestrial as well as by spiritual life. The lyric is that concentration of feeling which carries all before it and may well be trusted to make its own logical shape. Arbitrary forms of song and of opera are always obviously false. But the epic is a work of cooler blood; both drama and lyric may - nay, must - be there and may bud forth in points of detail, but over all is the broad line of impersonal strength, external both to action and emotion, although necessarily sympathetic therewith. Now, in music drama and in lyrical song the musical phrase will assuredly rise, expand and fall with rapidity, according to the necessity of the emotion. But in symphonic forms we are face to face with an art which has its own laws, - laws essentially differing from those occasioned by the movement and passion of drama and of lyric. The symphonic form is a sort of musical analogy to the epic; in it the feeling may become sublimated to a lyrical rapture, and even the drama may intrude (only enough to prove the human sympathy of the epicist, not a step further). In the symphonic form, accordingly, we must confidently look for the great broad line which shall declare the nature of the art. Wagner's noble art is only to be spoken of with reverence, with thanks, but certain musicians, appreciating its power without having the faintest idea of its nature, have striven to introduce the short, vivid phrase of the music drama into the broad, spacious forms of the symphony and of its congeners. In vain may we look, in the majority of modern orchestral and chamber works, for that sky sweeping line which declares the epic genius. But it is ever present in Ashton's work: sometimes clear as a sky of summer blue, sometimes dull and dark like miles of winter cloud, sometimes lurid and broken as a stormy sunrise, sometimes radiant and spark'ling and o'erarched with rainbow, - but in some form or other is always there. Ashton's art is of the same kind as the Iliads, the Beethoven symphonies and the art of Watts; deep as they, noble as they, full as they, inevitable as they, with the same broad line as they.

Let us have a glimpse of his Quartet in C minor (Op. 90), for piano, violin, viola and cello. Is it possible to imagine a simpler theme than that with which the work opens. Is it possible to imagine a more remarkable change of atmosphere with a minimum of thematic change than that which occurs at the twenty-fifth bar? (Note, too, how the second subject is foreshadowed.).' Is it possible to imagine such wonderful results 'with less means? Is it possible to imagine a contrast which shall be at once more complete and more apposite than the second subject? And mark how natural is the succession of emotional thought, how freely it flows, how straightforward it is! And yet there is nothing obvious. Ashton seldom does what we expect him to do; but, when we understand what he has done, we feel how infinitely superior it is to our expectation. The obvious is true, indeed; but it is everybody's property and needs no art to emphasise it. The greatest artists take the obvious for granted and direct our attention to truth and to beauty, every bit as natural, which would otherwise escape our more superficial minds. What Turner does with landscape, Ashton does with melody.

The slow movement is based upon a theme as simple as a song of Mozart, - as childlike, as tender and as beautiful. It is developed to a length which only the most sympathetic performance can vindicate. But it is not for me to pronounce judgement upon the length of a work unless it contains soulless episodes: and such I do not find in this movement. The Intermezzo, which takes the place of a Scherzo, is humorously demure; and, as in nearly all Ashton's humorously inclined pieces, the playful expression is restrained and refined. On rare occasions our composer can be boisterous; but, as a rule, his humour suggests eye twinkles rather than practical jokes.

The Finale, is great, tough and brawny. The soft commencement suggests an immense power held in reserve. Here is a theme of such grip that even its 'p’ delivery suggests strength! As an instance of the peculiar psychic relation of the, various movements, note the modulation at the sixteenth bar: we are expecting C m inor, but the composer boldly plunges into F minor, - and this is' an exact parallel to the ninth bar of the first movement. It is not to be expected that this coincidence is a deliberate mannerism (Ashton is too full of resource to descend to such paltry methods), No, it is a tiny illustration of ,the fact that his musical thought only moves through channels relevant to itself. During the course of his music we meet with an infinity of theme, emotion, ,characterisation, figure, development and suggestive power; but, notwithstanding that infinity, One main thought, One great spiritual trend. What music this Finale is! How the giant rejoices in his strength! This is the music of elemental humanity, exulting in the open, naked to the sun, to the rains and to the snows; shouting, aloud to the heavens, glorifying itself and renewing its glory, - and thus the glory of its first great cause! And how tender the second subject! Even as true manhood will preserve a certain childlikeness, so here juxtaposed with that stalwart music) we have tones of infant surprise, - soft and loving wonder of the child as it accepts the miracles of life and asks no futile questions about them. Strength need not, should not, stay the capacity for wonder; and note how Ashton develops his child-music without allowing it to lose its first simplicity. While a living composer can deliver himself of noble music like this there is a marvellous hope for us. If the manhood of Britain were not sound, Ashton could never have been born among us. How much we need this art of his! How much we need a great strong art that shall pull us together and shall bid us be men, - open our eyes to the mystery of beauty, breathing into us the spirit of the child. For unless we be as little children the kingdom of the earth - no less than the kingdom of heaven will exist for us with locked doors! There is music and music to spare which may appeal to specialised musicians. There is music, alas! ,and music to spare, which has a degrading tendency upon men. But of modern music - instinct with all that is pure and noble, all that is loving and lovely - I know none so great as the music of Ashton. To charm, in the sense of to tickle the senses, is never his aim. And this attitude of his has brought upon him the charge of austerity. Austere? Why, the man is brimful of joviality and of tenderness. But he always tempers his seductive expressions with a sterner' spirit; so his joviality never becomes buffoonery nor his tenderness sentimentality. To the student who would wish to approach Ashton on his less stern side, I would urge him or her to seek the marvellous Op. 128, the Sonata in B flat for 'Cello and Piano.

The more modern music I study - German, English, French, Italian, Russian the more assured do I feel that in Algernon Ashton we possess the greatest living composer - not the greatest living musical creative artist - but the chief of them who worship and express themselves in pure tone. Perhaps this attitude may be made clearer by referring to Brahms and Wagner: the former was the greater musician, the latter the greater artist, the former lived in and for the art of tone, the latter lived a wider, deeper life and drew the art of tone unto him as he drew the drama, that his vast intuition might find adequate means of expression. The greatness of Brahms lay in the absolute expression of his own personality; the greatness of Wagner in his sympathy, in his capacity for unifying himself with the whole world's joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness. Brahms concentrated his musical thought upon himself. Wagner was a magnetic power, great enough to diffuse himself without loss through most of the phenomena of life. Brahms was like an oasis in the desert - a deep pool of beauty and refreshment which one reaches with delight, but which one has to reach with some toil Wagner was like a mighty river, springing from the veins of eternal life and rushing through the land of humanity, fertilising and enchanting it and pouring out its beauty at our very feet. There is a far journey to the music of Brahms; but the art of Wagner flows to our very thresholds. And so I say that though Brahms, in his depth and desert-setting, was the greater musician, Wagner, in the lavishness of his universal feeling, was the greater artist. Similarly, though I cannot regard Ashton as the greatest artist of our time, as a creator of tonal beauty he is unapproached by any living composer except Max Reger.

To give grounds for my faith, let us consider the chief constituents of tonal beauty and see how they are exemplified in Ashton's fourth sonata for piano and 'cello. This particular work is, chosen because it is the least austere of those of his compositions which are known to me, apart from his small piano pieces.

Beauty has two main elements, tenderness and strength and any high degree of beauty is impossible where these are not present in wedded sovereignty. Take the human face, first putting aside that superficial prettiness of features which is unsupported by tenderness or strength; we see gentle, loving faces, where the loose mouth and chin inform us that the underlying tenderness has no buttress and we refuse them as an approach to ideal beauty of physiognomy; no less do we refuse those faces all strength and vigour,. but wherefrom the eye promises no kindliness and the lip no caress. Strength without tenderness is cruelty and tenderness without strength imbecility and only from those faces where the two are joined in something approaching balance do we get our idea of facial beauty.

So, too, in pure music - in music un associated with any poetic idea whereby we may decide as to the truth of its emotional expression - in pure music we are forced to seek an ideal standard of value in the balance of the constituents of beauty, as distinct from prettiness. And from this position we reject the weak tenderness of Mendelsohn as we reject the face of the kindly-glancing imbecile and, on the other hand, as we reject the strong face of cruelty, so do we reject the music which delights in ugliness, discord and contortion. Of course, this standard is purely ideal; most great pieces of music will incline more or less in one or the other direction, and according. to the inclination of our own individualities shall we enjoy them; but we shall certainly find that in all the greatest art there is a very near approach to perfection of balance. A glance at Beethoven's C minor Symphony will prove the contention in musical art. The first subject in the first movement is strong without tenderness, the second both tender and strong; in the second movement, the theme is almost entirely tender, the episodical matter both strong and tender; the mysterious Scherzo is more difficult to divide, but, if anything so unearthly can he either, it is strong rather than tender; and while the finale is preponderately strong, there is scarcely a bar in which we do not feel the beat of Beethoven's great,' loving heart. The C minor Symphony, then, on the whole, inclines to the side of strength; but the inclination is so slight that it nearly approaches our ideal standard. Of course, this balance of itself does not constitute great art - there are many other points of necessity, physical, psychic and spiritual - but, face to face with absolute music we are unable to judge of form. or significance, and therefore the criterion of beauty is all that is left to us. Let us now, therefore, apply it to this Sonata of Ashton's.

First, let it be understood that Ashton's music is nearly always strong sometimes to the degree of ruggedness. Some of his music is like stretches of rock - as firm, noble and austere. As with Beethoven and most northern artists his inclination is on the side of sternness. However, in the first movement of this sonata he allows the tenderer side of artistic bi-sexuality a freer play. Both subjects incline to tenderness. There are rough episodes, and beneath the most loving eyeglance we feel the firm-set mouth; but, on the whole, this is continuously tender music. As ever with Ashton, the themes are not decked out with glittering novelty and harmony of gems; but also, as ever with him, there flows an undercurrent of value which haunts one afterwards (as many a face of quiet loveliness haunts one), and one returns to the music in the certain expectation of finding fresh, true and lovely thought. Here and there in this movement hovers a wistful smile, just a hint of the humour which, when occasion' serves, expands, in Ashton's music, to a typical English merriment - a curious combination of sobriety and jollity. Herein, however, this humour has little place and even its calmer expression is flickering.

The Lento is altogether a sterner movement - an excellent example of the real Ashton. Tenderness is present, wrapping the main thought as the oak-leaves wrap the tree, delicately trembling all about it with gentle beauty, but emphasising rather than hiding its strength. The two elements of beauty are present in the Finale of the C m inor; there is scarcely a bar where tenderness is not present and there is scarcely a bar wherein strength does not predominate.

In the Finale the balance is not continuous; it sways at one time towards one side, at another towards the other. All the same, it is there. The theme beginning at the bottom of page 28 is lovely in its gentle grace. And a curious humour pervades the movement - a sort of fantastic cocksureness that is perfectly delightful. The piece might almost be headed "Malvolio".

On the whole, this work, more than any other of Ashton's known to me, inclines to the tender side of the balance. But the big, strong, broad outlines and the reserve which Ashton so loves are ever present. He seems to pour out great musical thought as easily as the lark trills its delight in cloudland. If this is his scale for a sonata, I am wondering what his symphonies must be like. I wish one could get them. But they are never performed - not even a four-hand. arrangement published, sb far as I know. Indeed, it is, probable that the very greatness of Ashton's musical thought is' a hindrance to contemporary appreciation. It is not they who live on the mountainside that see the mountain.

One serious defect Ashton has. He lacks the virtue of Disobedience. It proves itself in the stereotyped Ashtonian form. But it proves itself still more seriously in the texture of his musical thought. He, like Brahms, is one of those artists who look out upon the world of humanity, are disgusted, horrified, or saddened, seeing that Art and Life are not one thing as they ought to be, but two. So, instead of using their art to get to humanity, and fighting the world for. the sake of art, they build up walls with their art-material to hide the world from them. Bach, Beethoven and Wagner fought the world, and their art bears witness to their struggle; its very texture proclaims their love for humanity, and tears the bodily forms of the art in its desire to get its spiritual thought expressed. Place on the other side Mendelssohn and Brahms - the one weak, the other strong - and we see how these (quite sincerely, of course) sought in their art a hermitage from the meanness, boredom, and unkindness of the world. And let it be noted that neither of them needed to disobey the traditions of their art, because the art itself, unassociated with the realities of life, encompassed the whole ,of their desires. Ashton is one with them, and suffers with them their defect - which is not necessarily the defect of their good qualities. To these last let us look in Ashton, and learn that music may have strength without hardness, tenderness without weakness, simplicity without superficiality, reserve without dullness, breadth without thinness, humour without vulgarity, richness without extravagance, and depth without pretence.

RUTLAND BOUGHTON

FOOTNOTE

The first part of the article appeared in 1906 in "Musical Opinion" and the second part in the "Musical Standard" of the following year.

1. The scores listed below may be ordered from The Ashton Society, 65 Wrottesley Road, London NW10 5UL.

2. A CD of the lovely Piano Trio, may be obtained from the Ashton Society.

3. Ashton was enchanted by the street-cries he heard about him and relates, in the Diary of 1882, how some of the main themes of the Piano Trio had their origin in the cries and snatches that came to him unbidden from the street vendors advertising their wares in and around Hamilton Terrace, St John's Wood, where he was living at the time.

4. It was Rutland Boughton who was to conduct the first performance of Ashton's symphony in G Major (the second of five symphonies) on 2nd September 1910, at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of that year, in Birmingham Town Hall.

ALGERNON ASHTON 1859 - 1937

The scores listed below may be ordered from the Ashton Society 65 Wrottesley Road, London NW10 5UL

PIANO QUINTETS

1. C Major Op.25

2. E Minor Op. 100

PIANO QUARTETS

1. F Minor Op. 34

2. C Minor Op. 90

PIANO TRIOS

1. E Major Op.77

2. A Major Op. 88

3. B Minor Op. 123

PIANO/CELLO SONATAS

1. F Major Op. 6

2. G Major Op. 75

3. G Minor Op. 115

4. B Major Op. 128

PIANO/ VIOLIN SONATAS

1. D Major Op. 3

2. E Major Op. 38

3. C Minor Op. 86

4. A Major' Op. 99

PIANO/VIOLA SONATAS

1. A Minor Op. 44

PIANO SONATAS

1. E Flat Minor Op. 101

2. G.Major Op. 150

3. B Major Op. 161

4. D. Minor Op. 164

5. F Sharp Minor Op. 168

6. A Minor Op. 170

7. C Sharp Minor Op. 172

8. F Major Op. 174

TWO-PIANO MUSIC

1. March & Tarantella Op.30

2. Serenade Op.40

3. Suite Op.50

4. Toccata Brillante Op. 144

ALGERNON ASHTON

"In vain may we look, in the majority of modem orchestral and chamber works, for that sky-sweeping line which declares the epic genius. But it is ever present in Ashton's work: sometimes clear as a sky of summer blue, sometimes dull and dark like miles of winter cloud, sometimes lurid and broken as a stormy sunrise, sometimes radiant and sparkling and o'erarched with rainbow - but in some form or other, it is always there ... what Turner does with landscape Ashton does with melody!"

Rutland Boughton

"The more modem music I study, the more assured do I feel that in Algernon Ashton we possess the greatest living composer - not the greatest living musical artist perhaps - but the chief of them who worship and express themselves in pure tone."

Rutland Boughton

"Ashton's music asks a great deal of listener and performer alike, and makes few concessions. to either - but those who can enjoy musical thought for its own sake, and appreciate the tonic qualities of such bracing virility will want to widen their knowledge of Ashton' s works."

Gerald Abraham

" one of the most shamefully ignored of English composers, with a long list of what, for me, are unqualified masterpieces to his credit "

Harold Truscott

"No other English composer has produced anything like the series of eight piano sonatas which Ashton left behind him ... when the first of these was written in 1878, English music had indeed come alive with a vengeance. ....."

Harold Truscott

Patrick Webb

The Ashton Society, 65 Wrottesley Road, London NW10 5UL

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