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
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
I plan to consider
these works in loosely, but not quite,
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.
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
One criticism, perhaps,
of this suite is that the four movements
suffer from sameness. It lacks an obvious
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
(In Praise Of My Country)
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Phillips Orchestral Music Volume 1