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Douglas STEELE (1910-1999)
Autumn Sequence - The Music of Douglas Steele and his circle
CD1
Douglas STEELE Four piano pieces (1986) [8.39] (Slow Air; In the Style of a Sarabande, Envoi; Musical Box)
Arnold COOKE Five songs of William Blake for baritone, recorder and piano (1987) [11.08]
Douglas STEELE Three short songs (1972) [4.25] (Rats; Lullaby for Children in a Bed; The Fox)
Pieces for recorder and piano (2001) [8.57]: Lament by Philip COWLIN; Scherzetto by Martin BUSSEY; Elegy by Stephen HOUGH; Pupazzetto by Emma HANCOCK
Douglas STEELE Songs (1938-78) [8.01] (Thrice toss these Oaken Ashes in the Air; Blow, blow thou Winter Wind; Under the Greenwood Tree; The Land of Lost Content)
Douglas STEELE Organ pieces (1945-81) [15.35] (On Gibbons' Angel's Song; Arioso; On Norman Cocker's Ryburn; Three Pieces on Hymn-Tunes; On Liebster Immanuel; On a Fragment from Lyra Davidica)
CD2

Douglas STEELE Autumn Sequence for speaker, soloists, chorus and instrumental ensemble (1969) [26.16]
Carlisle Cathedral Youth Choir/David Gibbs
Carlisle Cathedral Choristers/Jeremy Suter
Dalston Handbell Ringers
Stephen Hough (piano); Richard Baker (speaker); John Turner (recorder and bell); John Powell (baritone); Vanessa Williamson (mezzo); Michael Hancock (tenor, tambourine, piano); Peter Lawson (piano); Susan Bettaney (piano); Jeremy Suter (organ)
Chetham’s Lower School Choir/Peter Hatfield
rec. Whiteley Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, 27 December 2002, 29 April 2003; Carlisle Cathedral, 5-6 May 2004
CAMPION CAMEO 2040/41 [57:30 + 26:16]


 

I must declare a personal interest here. When I went to Manchester in 1965 to study music on the joint course (Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music as it then was), I had a room in Woolton Hall, Fallowfield. My principal practical study was the organ and across the road stood the Parish church of Holy Innocents, Fallowfield. With the recklessness (and cheek) of youth I knocked at the Rectory door and asked the then vicar Tom Kennaugh if I might do my practice on the church organ. He agreed if I in turn would assist the Director of Music at the Church, a man called Douglas Steele, by playing occasionally for services on Sunday, and taking weekly choir practice. I was also paid the princely salary of £2 per week. I met Douglas and sat in on some services while he showed me the musical and liturgical ropes before taking up the post and dating the vicar’s daughter who remains a very close friend to this day. Douglas actually wanted to retire completely from playing and so it was only a matter of time before I took over completely, but he happily played for me during University vacations, our roles therefore reversed. Douglas was an eccentric bachelor, with a history of mental breakdowns but he possessed an impish sense of humour and was hugely gifted as a teacher and musician, a fine organist - in particular as an exceptionally talented improviser - in short a thoroughly likeable man from whom I learned a great deal. Before the war he studied conducting in Salzburg under Bruno Walter and Nicolai Malko, followed by a considerable period as Beecham’s secretary, librarian and general factotum. His post-war career was in teaching, at Chetham’s School and (when I knew him) at Stockport Grammar School, for whose pupils Autumn Sequence (CD2) was composed. This pair of discs has been compiled as a worthy tribute, some of its performers being pupils or friends. John Turner’s note conveys the warmth and affection with which he was held in Manchester and its surrounding areas from Carlisle to Stockport, and belatedly I wish to add my penny’s worth for I lost touch when I moved abroad and then stayed down south. From listening to this disc I regret that I did.

His music is highly enjoyable, steeped in the English tradition, usually in miniature pastoral format, filled with charm, wistful tunes, clever settings, never over-sentimental and occasionally (especially his organ music and playing) full of grandeur. The first disc also includes a suite of four movements for recorder and piano each of which is contributed by four composers who either knew him as a friend, colleague or pupil. The second CD is devoted to his Autumn Sequence, an inventive composition written for his Stockport school choir. How they must have enjoyed singing it, and one can only wish and hope that other schools will take it up. The instrumentation is based around the piano but also includes colourful sounds from handbells to organ. The Three Mariners, with the recorder expertly played by John Turner, is the catchy scherzo of the work but what follows is pure Gershwin in The Cock-Fight, so enjoyable indeed that both were given an immediate re-hearing by this reviewer. Apparently Douglas would improvise between the movements, which I can well imagine would have caused unbridled chaos and mirth; these CDs will become an eloquent memory of the man and his music. All the performers sound as if they are having fun and enjoying themselves, which Douglas, in his ever so modest way, would have loved. The last chord, sung beautifully by the children’s choir, is ‘FAREWELL’ - farewell indeed Douglas, there are many of us with the fondest recollections of you.

Christopher Fifield



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