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Montague PHILLIPS (1885-1969)
Charles II Overture Op. 60 (1936) [9:20]
Hillside Melody Op. 40 (1925? revised 1946) [6:24]
Hampton Court Op. 76 (1954) [6:56]
Phantasy for violin and orchestra Op. 16 (1912 revised 1947) [11:46]
Festival Overture (In Praise of My Country) Op. 71 (1944) [9:32]
In Old Verona: A Serenade for Strings (1950) [4:44]
In May Time Op. 38 (1923/4) [13:12]
Empire March Op. 68 (1942) [5:08]
Matthew Trusler (violin)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland
rec. Colosseum Town Hall, Watford, 3-5 August 2005.
world premiere recordings except Op. 76
Montague Phillips Orchestral Music - Volume 2
DUTTON CDLX 7158 [67:39]
see also Montague Phillips Orchestral Music Volume 1

This is not the forum to discuss the life and times of Montague Phillips. There is a fine article on Musicweb by Philip Scowcroft which touches on these topics. I presume that with the greater interest in his music someone will be inspired or invited to write the standard biography. It is the kind of little volume that would, once upon a time, have been produced by Thames Publishing. In the meantime I offer this discussion on the second volume of orchestral works which has recently appeared on the Dutton CD label.

This issue is of great interest for a number of reasons. Firstly it largely completes the cycle of orchestral works from Phillips’ pen. There are a few lacunae, such as the Boadicea Overture, but by and large everything of importance is present and correct. A little more will be said about the two piano concertos at the end of this essay).

Another reason this release interests is the broad spectrum of music presented – from a miniature character sketch called In Old Verona to what is in effect a miniature violin concerto; from an orchestration of one of Phillips’ piano suites to two of the best concert overtures in the repertoire. Volume One explored the remains of the Symphony and the complete Sinfonia.

I plan to consider these works in loosely, but not quite, chronological order.

 

Phantasy for violin and orchestra Op.16

The earliest work on this CD is the Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra Op.16 which was written in 1912. In some ways it is quite hard to imagine that this work was actually played at a Promenade Concert – not because of the quality of the music, which is superb – but simply because of our association of this composer with ‘light music.’ However this work is no lightweight or trivial piece.

Sometime in 1906 William Walter Cobbett announced his first Chamber Music Prize in the Musical Times. This called for relatively short pieces of music that reflected the string writing and form of the ‘fantasies’ of Jacobean and Elizabethan music. Of course we know that over the years this competition produced a large number of works by famous and not so famous composers. It is easy to think of fine examples by the Five Bs: Bax, Bowen, Bridge, Britten and Bush for starters.

I think that the programme notes are slightly disingenuous in their description of the Phantasy. Lewis Foreman states that this music reflects a pre-war innocence- which it most certainly does – but he further notes that it lacks ‘any reflection of the angst and crisis of the times.’ In those strange years before the Great War society seemed to be oblivious to the coming conflagration. It was as if people were deliberately ignoring the terror that was about to be unleashed. But in another sense there was an ‘end of term’ feel about the times. The old order was about to crash down and people were perhaps subliminally aware of this. It was the innocence that stopped them going mad. However note that the innocence of Montague Phillips’ Phantasy is always balanced by a feeling of impending change – nostalgia for an era that was passing. Angst was probably not a requirement at this stage.

The piece opens rather darkly – in fact it is quite unlike most of the composer’s output. Suddenly the solo violin arrives with a heart-easing cadenza – quite a contrast to the first few bars. The orchestra asserts itself before giving way to another short cadenza. This leads to a slow romantic theme that is certainly the heart of the work. Without doubt there is a definite nod in the direction of Elgar. Yet through this intensity there are moments of repose and even a few bars of relaxation. The composer gives the soloist some stunningly beautiful figurations to play whilst the orchestra concentrates on the main event.

The music changes pace and becomes a little faster although the romantic theme keeps trying to reassert itself. Soon there is an intense fast section that hits a big climax complete with timpani and full brass chorus. Out of this comes a lovely song for the violinist. It has to be said that the instrumental writing is impressive and reveals an understanding of the violin and its capabilities. It is certainly not an easy solo part.

Soon there are some unusual modulations - at least for Montague Phillips - as the soloist muses on past themes. The tension eases off and the gorgeous scalar figurations mentioned above make their final appearance. Soon we are into the last reflections. The violin reprises the romantic theme – this time as a ‘high’ melody. One last outburst from the orchestra leads to lovely harmonies supporting the soloist’s last thoughts on the heart-easing tune. The work closes with due peace and repose.

This Phantasy gives us a major insight into the serious side of the composer. It lets us see what may have been the direction of his career if he had concentrated on concert music and had rejected the path of songs for the salon.

The work was first performed at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert on 16 October 1917. The soloist was Arthur Beckwith, with the composer conducting the New Queen’s Orchestra.

In May Time Op.38

In my review of Volume 1 of Montague Phillips’ orchestral works I recalled how I had been introduced to his music through his songs – in particular Through a Lattice Window and Sea Echoes. Since those far off days I have kept an eye open for more of Phillips’ works, especially those written for piano. Unfortunately they seem to be a little bit scarce in the second-hand music shops. However I have been lucky enough to peruse the Three Country Pictures, the Village Sketches and the Dance Revels. Now the beauty of these works is that they are playable by the so called ‘gifted amateur.’ As I recall, they are not great works of art, but are attractive pieces that are skilfully written and lie well under the hands. The ‘suite’ format was pretty well widespread in the first half of the 20th century. We need only think of Felix Swinstead, Thomas Dunhill and of course, that master of the form, Eric Coates.

In May Time is a good example of this particular genre. It was originally composed for the piano and was orchestrated by the composer in the mid-1920s. Lewis Foreman points out that the original score was written for very young piano students – and I am sure he is correct. However the transcription has a subtlety about it that belies this innocent genesis. There are four attractive movements entitled: On a May Morning, Daffodil Time, Spring Blossoms and May-time Revels. The first performance appears to have been given by Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in that town on 4 May 1924. An appropriate date indeed!

One criticism, perhaps, of this suite is that the four movements suffer from sameness. It lacks an obvious slow movement.

The starting point appears to be the dances from the composer’s opera, The Rebel Maid. Perhaps there is also a nod or two in the direction of Sir Arthur Sullivan and Merrie England by Edward German.

There is no need to read any kind of programme into any of these pieces – except to recall that Montague Phillips lived in Esher, which in those days were closer to the countryside than is the case in 2005. The composer always responded to the rural environment and this work is no exception. It is a charming portrayal of the mood of an English spring day.

The work opens with an attractive dance-like movement - On a May Morning - that contrasts the strings and woodwind in the principal tune. The middle section is completely different – will o’ the wisp woodwind figurations that compete with a romantic tune on the violins. Soon the opening material returns with great gusto. There are a few allusions to the big tune before the movement closes with a short coda.

Daffodil Time is perhaps the slow movement: ’graceful’ would be the operative word here. In spite of the fact that this is a bit more reflective than the other three, it is still hard to suppress images of the happiness and the hope of spring.

Spring Blossoms is the cutest movement. There are pretty tunes and counter-melodies aplenty. The middle section is an attractive theme which is played over and over again – always supported by woodwind fluttering above the melody. Perhaps the first butterflies are on the wing? Spring Blossoms ends quietly.

May-Time Revels probably owes most to the Rebel Maid. It is a good going dance from start to finish – complete with percussion and fine brass playing. There is a short reflective middle section that dances its way to the restatement of opening the ‘Allegro con Spirito’ material.

Hillside Melody Op.40

The Hillside Melody is a fine example a ‘light’ tone poem. One cannot help feeling that this score could have been written for, or perhaps fitted round a film score. In particular I can imagine one of the British Transport Film group’s offerings about the Home Counties. It is not too fanciful to see musical images of places like Leith Hill and the Surrey hills. The score exudes country things – perhaps sports or maybe just a ramble in the woods. Here a Green Line bus arrives from the city and perchance a horse and rider are making their way along a rather secret bridleway. Or maybe two lovers are walking arm in arm over Box Hill. It is easy to say that Phillips was influenced by Percy Grainger in some of his music: and of course Fred. Delius is never too far away. But this work was not written for the highbrow concert hall – it was composed for smaller ensembles playing music at the end of the pier or perhaps the bandstand.

Yet although the pictures invoked are quite definitely South of England there is an Irish touch in this music. A friend of mine remarked that she could hear allusions to the Londonderry Air in some passages of this work. However it does not pay to get too engrossed in trying to unpick references and sources in a piece like this. It is sufficient to note that it is a satisfying work that conjures up a number of happy images in the mind’s eye. Who can ask for much more than this?

In Old Verona

In my younger days the piano stool at home was full of pieces of music that had descriptive titles – often referring to romantic-sounding places. I am not quite sure if many of them actually fulfilled the expectation of their various titles – but often they were pleasant to play and enjoyable to listen to. It gave a little bit of warm inspiration when outside the freezing fog was curling round the corner of the gasometer. In Old Verona is a good example of one of these pieces – albeit conceived for the orchestra. It is actually an attractive ‘serenade for strings’ that had the soubriquet attached by the composer for its publication in 1950. Now I am not sure if ‘Verona’ immediately springs to mind with this particular dance tune. There is little here to remind me of the glorious Ponte Pietra, Juliet’s Balcony or the Roman amphitheatre. But that is not the point. The work is actually an accomplished essay in writing for strings that is effective and way beyond the limited scope of a salon piece.

The short movement opens with a good tune supported by a pizzicato base. It is quite a stately dance. However the mood does change in the central section. Things become a little more passionate – perhaps reflecting the Shakespearian connection? There is quite a nice rounded climax, before the music sinks back to the opening measures. It finishes quietly with a violin solo.

This is exactly the kind of music that does a sterling service for ‘light music.’ Here is nothing complicated or profound: it is not even a tone poem. What it does reveal is a composer who was able to provide a well crafted, tuneful and enjoyable miniature.

Charles II Overture Op.60

The listener does not need to be a historian to enjoy what is probably one of Montague Phillips’ masterpieces – the Charles II Overture. However an understanding of some of this great king’s achievements will certainly add to the perception of this work.

For one thing the King had a reputation as a fun-loving monarch who presented a complete contrast to the dour and quite oppressive atmosphere of Cromwell and his Commonwealth. It was the age that we can perhaps refer to as ‘Merry Olde England’. The king enjoyed the sporting life, in particular horse racing. But it was not just entertainment that inspired him. He was a great patron of the arts and sciences. He launched a major rebuilding of that bastion of pageantry, Windsor Castle and laid the foundations of the Greenwich Observatory. He was patron for the Chelsea Hospital, founded for war veterans who even today wear their distinctive uniforms. He founded the Royal Society. But perhaps most significantly for the architectural skyline was his support of Sir Christopher Wren’s design and building of St Paul’s Cathedral. Of course there was the down-side to his reign – he had to face the immense problems caused by the plague and the Great Fire of London.

And there was the romance too. Throughout his reign he had a string of ‘lady friends’ the most famous of these being Nell Gwynne. He was the father of some 13 illegitimate children, all of whom he supported financially.

All of this activity is well described in this overture –except perhaps his fecundity! I accept that in many ways it is like a film score. Not so much the costume dramas that the BBC would make nowadays – but more the nineteen-fifties. It is not too difficult to imagine the images flicking past in an early example of glorious ‘Technicolor.’

The works starts immediately with a vigorous upbeat opening – it could almost be described as swashbuckling. There is definitely something of the sea about it. Soon there are some pseudo fanfares suggesting the approach of the Royal Party. However this mood dies away quickly and is replaced by what may be regarded as the heart of the overture. With music that is totally worthy of Sir Edward Elgar the mood becomes romantic. This section perhaps alludes to a secret meeting between Charles and Nell Gwynne at ‘The Dove’ public house in Hammersmith? Or maybe it is a view of Windsor Castle across the Great Park? Who knows? But this romantic string theme quite takes hold of the work. There is something about this music that reminds me of Percy Whitlock’s Organ Symphony, although I doubt any cross-influence; it must have been the music that was in the air at this time. Both works were composed in 1936. The romantic mood subsides a bit only to be replaced by a short passage for ‘string quartet.’ After some harp arpeggios the music gets back into the swing again. A rather good fugato for strings leads into music of pageantry. After another lull the bustle and ceremonial begins for the last time. With music that William Walton would have been proud to have composed, the overture reprises the opening material and a last restatement of the romantic theme. The build up to the impressive coda is made all the more impressive by the effective brass writing. The work concludes with the listener totally engulfed with joi de vivre. Long Live the King!

Listeners to the first Dutton CD will have already been introduced to the slightly later work, the Revelry Overture. Lewis Foreman was of the opinion that this was one of the finest pieces of its kind in the repertoire. I agree with him; however I do feel that this present work has the edge. It is impossible to say why – both are fine examples of their genre.

 

Hampton Court Overture Op.76

Apparently Charles II occasionally visited Hampton Court, in spite of a preference to his newly enlarged Windsor Castle – so perhaps it is appropriate to couple Montague Phillips’ eponymous overture on this present CD? However the mood of this work is not actually to do with Royalty or the Restoration. It is much more a celebration of the holiday mood. In particular, the exodus of Londoners ‘up the Thames’ to this well known house and gardens. The composer has written about this work as follows: - "[I wish] to portray the summer scene at Hampton Court, the gaiety of the holidaymaking crowds by the river, and all the pageantry and beauty of the Palace and its gardens."

The work opens with a tune full of energy: percussion and brass are well to the fore. This is really ebullient music. Fanfares lead into a more relaxed statement of the theme on the woodwind. Soon the opening music returns. A little catchy rhythm leads into a slightly more ‘ceremonial’ tune before the meditative material is given a first airing. It must be said that this tune is reminiscent of Sir Edward Elgar without being a direct crib. I can imagine a boy and girl walking hand in hand by the riverside or perhaps sitting in some sunny corner of the gardens. The mood soon changes to one of playfulness. Lots of fun – perhaps children playing chases in the maze? Soon the music builds to a restatement of the main theme. Yet soon there is to be a change of mood as the music moves into the closing pages. Soon the playfulness is put to one side and the ceremonial theme re-establishes itself. Perhaps here we have a reflection of royalty and Charles II himself. I understand that if it had not been for the Restoration, Oliver Cromwell was about to sell the Royal Parks for ‘real estate’. So we have a lot to give thanks for the next time we enjoy a day at Hampton Court.

This overture is the latest work represented on this disc. In fact according to the brief works list available on Musicweb, it is the last major work. It is dated 6 April 1954. The first performance was given in May of the following year with Gilbert Vintner conducting the BBC Midland Orchestra.

 

Empire March Op.68

The Empire March is not a pastiche of William Walton’s Crown Imperial or Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance or Imperial Marches, yet there is definitely a nod in this direction. The work was first given at a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on the 15 August 1942 and was conducted by Sir Henry Wood.

The march opens with a rousing first theme. This is characterised by clarity of material and a certain incisiveness of part-writing that is perhaps unusual in ‘concert marches’. However we soon arrive at the inevitable big tune which is actually quite gorgeous and moving. There is a hymn-like quality about it without the implied religion. After a few mock fanfares the opening theme re-establishes itself - but with some variation. The inevitable build-up begins leading to the reprise of the ‘trio’ theme. This time it is played ‘ff’ with full organ accompaniment. After a final flourish the march ends in triumph.

Of course Britain no longer has an Empire – perhaps even in 1942 the philosophy of Empire was nearly evacuated of meaning. Yet the war was at its nadir – and the Commonwealth of Nations and the Allies were fighting to retain the freedoms associated with all that was great about Britain’s achievements. In those dark days victory was not yet guaranteed.

This march is as good as many that have been composed over the years. If it had been written by Elgar or Walton it would have been a ‘favourite’ with the musical public. We are lucky to have it included on this CD.

 

Festival Overture (In Praise Of My Country) Op.71

It is perhaps quite difficult to imagine the music of Montague Phillips being played at the Proms. Now this is not to make a subjective or even derogatory comment. But it seems that a composer, whom we associate with songs and the operetta The Rebel Maid, would not be in the same league as Walton, Vaughan Williams and other ‘heavy’ composers. Yet Phillips had a series of three works commissioned for the Promenade Concerts. We have considered the first of these works. The Empire March above. The second commission was the Sinfonietta which was released on the CDLX 7140. But the last of the three is the ‘In Praise of my Country’. The title of this work is no longer politically correct, but in any case it was written in 1944 when the war was beginning to go the way of the Allies. It received its first performance on 26 June 1944, just a few days after the successful Normandy Landings; the work had been completed by the end of May of the same year. This work is quite simply a wonderful tribute to Great Britain in wartime. It reflects on two key areas of the nation’s life – the effort required to win the war and the beauty of the nation that so many people were fighting and working to protect. It is curious that at the end of 1952 the work’s name was changed to the Festival March. However in this CD both titles are attached – so we can take our choice.

The work is fundamentally in ternary form with a slow middle section being surrounded by fast energetic material. There is actually a quiet opening which soon builds into a brisk exposition that is quite definitely ‘full of beans’. It is ‘construction’ music. If this was a film score we would be witnessing men and women building things – planes or ships or pre-fabs. It is ‘winning the war’ music. Much of this first section could never be classified as ‘light music’ – even if it is not at the cutting edge of avant-garde. The composer makes effective use of brass and percussion including the xylophone, which adds considerable colour. If I were honest I would say that the opening three minutes nod to Walton – but that is no criticism. It is perhaps not quite as acerbic as the music the Oldham composer would have written.

Soon things calm down and after some musings a gorgeous pastoral tune for the oboe appears. Yet I am not sure if this is an English melody – however it is what the composer will do with the material that counts most. The theme is soon taken up by the orchestra and developed in a fetching manner. The mood changes once again – there are some string tremolos before the ‘work’ music re-establishes itself – this time with a lumbering base that reminds me of the scherzo of RVW’s Fifth Symphony. There is a little deliberation in the orchestra – as if it is trying to form an opinion, yet soon the inevitable build-up begins. There is a brassy choral followed by a reprise of the oboe melody. This time it is represented with soaring strings with brass comments. Soon the work comes to a triumphant and glorious close. The war may not yet be won – but there is a feeling that all will be well. This is a great and uplifting work that perhaps only suffers for being a child of its time.

Conclusion

This CD allows us another chance to explore the music of Montague Phillips. It enables us to try to make a balanced judgement on his status as a composer.

In my essay on the first volume of CDs I noted a number of characteristics of his music. These included the fact that the music was definitely tuneful; that it was well constructed and composed; and perhaps most pertinently, that it is thoroughly enjoyable.

From an emotional point of view most of Phillips’ works engender a sense of well-being and perhaps even self indulgence. Innocence is maybe the best adjective to describe the prevailing mood of most (but certainly not all) of these works.

The disc allows us to consider the dichotomy between what is commonly called ‘light music’ and ‘high-brow.’ Montague Phillips once said that he composed works for the ‘great majority of people who lie between the ultra high-brows and the irredeemable low-brows and who can appreciate music that is melodious and well written but not too advanced’.

Beside the inevitable In May Time suite and the ‘popular’ overtures there is the Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra. As I noted above this is a serious work – composed for the concert hall rather than the end of the pier. Further, this CD allows us to evaluate two works composed for the Promenade Concerts in the 1940s. In particular the Festival Overture demands our attention as a significant work.

So although I would still characterize Montague Phillips works as certainly not being high-brow and usually having that innocent quality, I would encourage listeners to consider the composer as one capable of writing in a number of styles and moods.

I was talking to a well known musicologist a few weeks ago and he told me some heartening news. Apparently a record company is due to release both of Montague Phillips’ piano concertos. This will be a major event in British Music. I have never heard these pieces and I doubt many people alive today have. This release will give a fine opportunity to hear two major concert works by a composer normally regarded as a ‘light music’ practitioner. Furthermore it will mean that the vast majority of Montague Phillips’ orchestral music will be readily available to listeners. This is a situation that could hardly have been imagined a year or so ago.

John France

Montague Phillips Orchestral Music Volume 1

 

 



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