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Rutland Boughton: Reunion Variations for Orchestra

It is axiomatic to assert that a composer lives on in his music, but in the Reunion Variations for Orchestra Rutland Boughton added a characteristic twist to the old adage when he finished the work with a ‘Song-ending’ which sets a poem of his own invention and then expressly asked for the work not to be performed until after his death. See Ex. 1 for the theme as it appears at the end. The last of the three verses of the poem ends thus:

So pour your songs love-hearted
Throughout the stelline blue.
When you on earth make music
I shall be there with you.
My love to all my dear ones,
Wherever they may be;
Or on the earth yet singing,
Or in the air with me.

In a performance which I was privileged to conduct last November in Hitchin Town Hall, the soprano soloist, Sally Silver, sang this from the gallery above and behind the audience so that the song seemed to be sung by a disembodied spirit. The whole song had a strange, powerful and entrancing effect upon the audience.

There is another ending to the Variations. Ever the practical composer, Boughton composed a version for orchestra alone, in case a singer were not available. In this version (A), the theme appears at the beginning and there is an orchestral coda. Since this version had never been performed, I determined to give it its world première at our concert – and to give the ‘Song-ending’ version (B) its second performance ( - it had been premièred at a Memorial Concert in Aylesbury in 1967. Members of the audience were divided as to the relative merits of the two versions. It was generally agreed that the setting of the poem which ended version B was extraordinarily beautiful but it was also thought that version A made a very fine set of purely orchestral variations that would grace any orchestra’s programme.

The Variations are a superb set of pieces, each of them having a character of its own. Indeed, Boughton hinted that each was a characterisation of a member of his family, though did not say which variation applied to which person. Musically, they are very individual. Version A begins Andante sostenuto with the theme played mainly by the strings but with some deft wind highlighting and leads into Variation 1 - the variations are a continuous set – which is where version B starts. This variation is at the same tempo and has the theme initially in the bass then given to solo wind before returning to the bass. The whole set is wonderfully orchestrated and there are many felicitous touches, such as the ‘cello solo near the end of this variation. Now the music picks up speed and energy and the lower brass, timpani and harp appear for the first time. A slight reining in of the speed enables the convoluted contrapuntal lines of variation 3 to be heard to good effect and leads to the first climax of the piece. Though brief this is a full-blooded moment, with rich harmonies and horns to the fore – see Ex. 2. Variation 4, Allegretto leggiero, is a very pert little number with a prominent oboe solo - almost certainly a reference to Joyance - with harp accompaniment. Its 9/8 rhythm, faster speed and delicate diatonicism imbue it with an infectious ‘joie de vivre’, capped literally by some jauntily exuberant piccolo writing.. After a full orchestral climax in which the last five bars of the theme appear in augmentation, the music subsides and leads into Variation 5. This is a wonderfully bucolic variation, with solos for all the wind accompanied by much double stopped pizzicato slapping of thighs from the strings. The orchestration is to be treasured – quite virtuosic – and replete with short rhapsodic passages, such as that in Ex. 3 for Clarinet. The next Variation is the reflective heart of the work. Marked Poco adagio, it is written for harp and muted strings, later with cor anglais solo, and has a sweet nocturnal atmosphere. Gradually the music becomes more menacing as timpani, wind and then brass enter. Variation 7 has a solemn grandeur. Initially quiet, with the theme and lower strings, it gradually builds to a noble and powerful climax before a fade and an acceleration takes us into an energetic Variation 8. In some ways this is the most striking and original of all the variations. A clash of clarinets at the start is superimposed on rollicking horns, trombones and lower strings – see Ex. 4. Much use is made of the dactylic rhythm of Ex. 4 and novel use is made of a pair of Steel Bars in C and F and syncopated gong strokes, then piccolo, oboe and violin glissandi with much drumming. This certainly is a rumbustious variation. At the end it dissolves with champagne corks popping and, after a pause, Variation 9 begins, marked Allegro giojoso. This is gentle pastoral frolic in 6/8 with prominent flute solos, but not without interjections from the clarinet, strings and horn . After a concluding dominant pedal point, the two versions then part their ways.

The orchestral coda is a grand affair. Here the song re-appears in full on wind and brass with swathing swirls of violin figuration. After a noble and majestic climax it winds down to a sweet end, with two solo violins underpinned by the final two tonic chords on the harp. The Song-ending is beautiful. The entry of the voice is magical, enunciating clearly what has until now not been stated openly – this version, you will remember, starts with Variation 1, not the Theme. Initially, the accompaniment is by harp alone, the rest of the orchestra now quiet, as if in hushed attention. Gradually, the strings join in from time to time, but not until verse 2 is reached does the flute enter, trilling, and then the clarinets. From here on, the rest of the orchestra enlist in the singing, eventually leading to the final and most enticing climax of all, with busy semiquavers in the upper strings. The soloist, holding the word ‘bound’ on an E flat, underneath which a magical shift of keys takes place, then sings the words quoted at the top of this article in the keys of G flat and then A flat, whilst the harp ripples. Finally, the last quatrain is reached back in the tonic key and the music winds to its mystical close with a gentle trombone chord and harp harmonics to ease the work into silence.

A wonderful stillness greeted the end of performance and I could tell that Boughton’s music and his poem and Sally Silver’s wonderful singing and Hitchin Symphony Orchestra’s playing had all reached the hearts of the audience. Because we were given for this concert a substantial grant by Awards for All, audience and performer response was sought by means of a questionnaire. Amongst the many warm comments received, perhaps the nicest for me was one from a member of the orchestra who said that he had enjoyed the term’s rehearsals for this concert more than any in the 24 years he had been a member. One young singer in the audience was so entranced by the poem of the Song-ending that she immediately wanted to sing it herself. Warm tributes indeed.

Some 30 members of the Boughton family attended the concert, including two sons and a number of grandchildren. We were delighted that they could hear this unique piece. In either of its versions, it is a winner. Version A would make a splendid item in any orchestral concert: it is an impressive set of variations in the tradition of orchestral sets by Brahms, Elgar and others, whilst the Version B with Song-ending has such a marvellous aura. It was Boughton’s "last attempt to come to terms with the ‘metaphysical element that [had] rejoiced and confounded [him] throughout life’ " [Michael Hurd: "Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals", Clarendon Press, 1993]. Above all, the piece should be in the standard repertoire in either of its versions.

© Paul Adrian Rooke 2005


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