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  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Julius Harrison & Bredon Hill

 

 

 

It is almost impossible to discover what inspired a composer to write a piece of music in a particular style - especially when this style would appear to be virtually unique in the composer’s catalogue. It has to be stated at the outset that ‘Bredon Hill – a rhapsody for violin and orchestra,’ is a ‘retro’ work. This work does not easily fit into any categories of music that may have been ‘in the air’ in the early nineteen-forties. It certainly is not modernist or avant-garde in any way whatsoever. In fact the piece has probably suffered a dearth of performances simply because it was well out of kilter with the prevailing post-war musical aesthetic.

Furthermore, this work was not typical of the composer himself. Brahms, Bach, Verdi and Bantock were the composers who seemed to inspire most of Julius Harrison’s work: it was rarely the folksong school or the ‘back to the Tudors’ enthusiasts.

But the other side of the coin is important too. It would be all too easy to condemn Bredon Hill as ‘pastoral’ or ‘bucolic.’ A cynic could see a field of cows, some leaning over the fence. At first hearing the obvious inspiration appears to be Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. However an over-simplistic equation of the two works would be wrong. This work is not a succession of folk-inspired tunes hung together with a few modal scales and arpeggios for a rusticated soloist.

Julius Harrison was born at Stourport in Worcestershire on 26 March 1885. He was to die at Harpenden on 5 April 1963. Grove’s Dictionary notes that he studied with Granville Bantock at the Birmingham and Midland Institute of Music. He studied conducting and was soon deemed competent enough to be sent to Paris by the Covent Garden Syndicate to rehearse Wagner operas with Nikisch and Weingartner. It is as an opera conductor that he secured his reputation. He spent time working with the Beecham Opera Company and the British National Opera Company. However it was his appointment to the Hastings Municipal Orchestra that allowed him to exercise his authority: he was able to raise the standards of this orchestra to the same level as that at Bournemouth. However, he slowly succumbed to deafness and after the disbandment of the HMO he was able to concentrate on composition.

His greatest works are the Mass in C minor at which he laboured for eleven years and the Requiem (1948-1957). Geoffrey Self notes that these huge works are influenced by Wagner and Verdi and are ‘conservative and contrapuntally complex pieces’. They remain unheard in our generation.

Julius Harrison became Director of Music at Malvern College during the autumn of 1940. As already noted, he had previously been Director of Music to the Hastings Corporation. He had wrought splendid changes at the White Rock Pavilion in that seaside town. Harrison had worked with some surprisingly great artists including Rachmaninov, Beecham and Paderewski. He encouraged the local Choral Union and regularly gave performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sadly, some months after the Second World War broke out, the town corporation decided to disband the orchestra. At that time Hastings, as an English Channel resort, was literally on the front-line.

The move back to the Midlands and the college directorship turned out to be successful for the composer: he was able to recover thoughts and memories of his younger days. Harrison told the author Donald Brook that he was "very much affected by the beauty of our Worcestershire countryside, and by its close association with some of the great events in our national history." He continued, "…to me, as with many other Worcestershire folk, this county seems to be the very Heart of England, and there is a song and a melody in each one of its lovely hills, valleys, meadows and brooks." The present work was, in many ways inspired by this countryside. As a matter of fact Julius Harrison could see Bredon Hill from his bedroom window. Yet this is not the full story.

There are three ‘versions’ of the genesis of Bredon Hill. The first is the simplest. Soon after arriving at his new house in Pickersleigh Road, Malvern he was filled with an overwhelming desire to celebrate in music some of the thoughts and emotions behind A.E. Housman’s great and tragic poem, ‘In summertime on Bredon.’ No doubt the composer had known this poem for many years and it would often cross his mind as he looked across to the hill.

The second version is related by Lewis Foreman in the sleeve notes for the premiere recording (see below for details). Foreman relates that Julius and Dorothie, his wife, met a local Malvern school mistress by the name of Winifred Burrows. One day she took them to Bredon Hill by motor car with the aim of seeing the sun setting in the West – over the Malverns. This particular event moved Harrison to write this work and quite naturally the composer dedicated the new piece to Miss Burrows.

A third possibility is also alluded to by Foreman. During the war years Elizabeth Poston was Director of European Music at the BBC. Poston was very much an all-round musician: she was a composer, musicologist, arranger, administrator and a performer. She played the piano - most notably at the wartime National Gallery lunchtime concerts. She edited and arranged carols and songs and wrote a large number of programme notes for the Arts Council. But it is as a composer that she should be best known. Poston composed a surprising amount of incidental music for radio and TV which by nature tends to be ephemeral. A moderate catalogue of works includes some two dozen songs, many carols and part songs and even an operetta – The Briery Bush. However it is her instrumental music that urgently requires revaluation: this includes a considerable Sonata for Violin and Piano.

It was in her role at the BBC that she corresponded with Julius Harrison. Foreman admits that it is now not possible to know if Poston actually commissioned Bredon Hill for performance by the BBC or whether she simply became aware that Harrison was working on the score. In either case the work was taken up by the BBC and was broadcast extensively.

However, whatever the motivation, the fundamental inspiration was the Hill itself – this landmark so beloved by poets and musicians, including Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Of course, the landmark was originally put onto the intellectual map by A.E. Housman. Perversely there is an interesting school of thought that suggests that Housman was hardly intimate with Bredon Hill and its surrounding countryside! Most enthusiasts of British music will know at least a couple of settings of 'Summertime on Bredon'. One need only think of the song cycle On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams or Bredon Hill and other Songs by George Butterworth.

Yet it would be wrong to draw some kind of simplistic line from poet to composer in this case. For the poetry of Housman is not always as it seems. On first reading many of his poems appear to be taken up with images of nature and brief descriptions of places. However the bottom line of so much of his poetry is that his images must be seen as metaphors of passing - of death. It is small wonder that ‘The Shropshire Lad’ gained much currency during the slaughter of the Great War.

Housman created a place of the imagination – an idealised land, somewhere ‘out west’ – a ‘far country.’ It was a land of strong farm labourers living a bucolic life –playing football, roistering and seemingly indulging in homo-erotic fantasies. In this unreal ‘Land of Lost Content’ the poet insisted that happiness may once have held sway, but the realities of life had caused this sense of well-being to evaporate. There is always bitter-sweetness and a sense of what might have been in Housman’s poetry.

Of course these poems have been interpreted widely and in contrasting ways by the many composers who have set Housman’s texts. Barbara Docherty has analysed a number of settings. Arthur Somervell, for example tended towards ‘unfocused geniality’ that passed over any long term pain. Butterworth is better able to evoke the ‘dreamy streams and the idyllic summers’ and the ‘reality that was about to shatter it.’ It is a fact that not all composers have managed to define in their music Housman’s bottom line - which is a depressing belief in a reasonable life constantly subject to thoughts and intimations of inevitable pain and loss and death.

Even a superficial hearing of Julius Harrison’s Bredon Hill does not reveal such depression and black moods. There are no real musical references to the tragedy that ‘Summertime on Bredon’ describes. The bride to be is not laid low by illness. There is no tragic outburst of the lover demanding that the ‘noisy bells be dumb.’

The most famous and certainly most evocative words from this poem are:-

Here of a Sunday morning

My love and I would lie

And see the coloured counties

Above us in the sky.

Appropriately it is with this quotation that Julius Harrison prefaced his score.

The starting point for Harrison is quite simply the verse quoted. It is a meditation on the ‘coloured counties’. The progress of the music points up ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day’ as well as the poignancy of a sunset over the Malverns. It is an idyllic world that seems to have no major terrors or fears. It is the ‘Western Playland’ writ large. The lover and his bride do get to the church and they do seal their union - at least in theory.

Now, this is not to say that the music does not have tensions and stresses or to suggest that the work is consistently banal. There are definitely a number of reflective moments: there are bars that show a certain wistfulness. On occasion passion does dominate for a few moments. But taken in the round Bredon Hill is definitely more happy than sad: it is positive rather than negative and Janus-like it looks both back into an idyllic past and forward to what should have been a better future.

At this time the BBC had a campaign to promote things ‘British.’ Foreman notes that this was to present an idealised, idyllic view of England. This may have been especially aimed at British citizens who were at that time living abroad. Or maybe it was supposed to remind the military and the Home Front of one of the many reasons why they were fighting the war? But, without being cynical, the bottom line was that it was better for the war effort to present the green fields and the purling streams and thatched cottages rather than the slums of Manchester or the mean streets of Glasgow or the industrial pollution of West Yorkshire.

To further point up this bucolic impression the BBC had recorded a ‘scripted’ discussion between Harrison and Poston. The BBC announcer prefaced this debate with the following glowing plug – "[It is] one of the loveliest works of the year-indeed, I would go as far to say – of our own time…[it] was completed by the composer with a view to its special appearance in the Music of Britain [series]…It is a fact remarkable in itself that such music as this comes out of the present time. That it does, is perhaps the best witness to the eternal spirit of England."

The ‘on-air’ discussion with Poston ended with Julius Harrison recalling how the work "grew out of itself in my mind from all those scenes I have known all my life. After all we must not forget that this part of Worcestershire speaks of England at its oldest. It is the heart of Mercia, the country of Piers Plowman, and is the spirit of Elgar’s music too."

The controversial authors of ‘The English Musical Renaissance 1840-1940’ give nearly half a page of text to Julius Harrison. They simplistically state that Harrison based his piece on Housman’s poem and was redolent of folksong. It leaves me wondering if they had actually heard the work. Yet their concluding words are apposite to the genesis of this piece. They write: - "But if the lark was once again ascendant, the air it hovered in was no longer clear. Recumbent lovers on the English Down heard the dull drone of the bomber fleets and witnessed the dogfights of a struggle for national survival." [p.200]

And I think that this presents the basic dichotomy presented by this work. On the one hand it is a pleasant and approachable rhapsody, whereas on the other it is a deeply thoughtful works that was specially designed to raise thoughts of England’s green and pleasant land, along with its sterling history in the mind of listeners. Beside this some of Housman’s melancholy does rub off. Not all hearers would be able to realise this dream: not all would return to England ‘after the war’.

The most obvious exemplar of all ‘pastoral’ music, including Bredon Hill was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. This work was first heard post-Great War in 1922 and is based on a poem of the same title by George Meredith. Meredith’s poem begins with the words ‘He rises and begins to round/He drops the silver chain of sound."

However it is important to note that this piece had in fact been sketched out before the commencement of hostilities, the work that is known today is a revision made in 1920. This is a pastoral composition. The Lark is largely untroubled by the changes and chances of life. The trenches of the Western Front do not feature in this landscape.

One of the fundamental questions about Julius Harrison’s Bredon Hill is as to its status as an example of the ‘English Pastoral School.’ Geoffrey Self points out that Bredon Hill is more akin to a concerto movement rather than a tone poem. He regrets that the complete work never existed. Apparently Harrison had considered writing such a concerto and had completed a number of sketches – according to his wife he had carried ‘such a work in his head for a number of years’.

It is inevitable that a work inspired by one of the purple passages from one of the best known poems by Housman would lead to a ‘pastoral’ work. In fact the general tenor of contemporary critiques lies in this direction. But was it a pastoral work? Would Constant Lambert have thought of fields and gates and cows?

I have already noted that one of the possible exemplars of this work is The Lark Ascending. However it necessary to avoid jumping to conclusions based on certain similarities and to ignore the differences.

English Pastoral can be quite difficult to define. Ted Perkins in a web article has suggested three possible stylistic markers 1) Use of folksong/modal inspired melody, 2) impressionistic techniques and finally 3) a certain neo-classical colouring. Ironically he uses Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto rather than his Lark Ascending as a fine example of this style. Popular opinion would suggest that any music that is gentle and reflective would be labelled ‘pastoral’ yet Perkins argues against this view.

On first consideration Bredon Hill seems to fit the criteria of ‘pastoral.’ All three criteria are generally or momentarily present. Yet there are deeper waters here.

Although on face value the work nods to Vaughan Williams it is Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F major that is the true exemplar. This is not to suggest that this is a classically inspired work, yet it is important to emphasise that I do not believe that it is in any way a ‘tone poem’. It is certainly not a ‘rhapsody’ on folk tunes – original or confection. The Beethoven Romances were thought to have been composed between 1798 and 1802. It is difficult to know which of the two were written first although the Romance in G major was published first in 1803 and the F major in 1805. In a strange parallel to Bredon Hill, it is thought that the Romances may have been intended as alternative slow movements for the (presumably) unfinished Violin Concerto in C major of 1790-1792. Yet these slow movements are not in the ‘traditional’ ternary form. They are in fact slow rondos with two episodes.

Now there is little mileage in suggesting that the G major is a model for Bredon Hill - it is too light-weight. Yet it is a different matter when one considers the F major. This is a dramatic and quite impassioned work that certainly goes beyond any banal idea of a ‘romance.’ I do not suggest that Harrison consciously used the score of the Beethoven as a model. Yet one cannot help feeling that his experiences as a conductor at Hastings and elsewhere would have made him familiar with Beethoven in general and this Romance in particular.

There is a similarity in mood and emotion in these two works that bears comparison – although I feel that the Beethoven has a little more stress and tension in many of its pages. Furthermore the formal basis of Harrison’s work is more akin to a slow rondo than anything else. The F major Romance was described to me by a musicologist as if the composer was sitting by himself, having happy thoughts and sad thoughts and hopes for the future. However the overall mood of both pieces of music is the fear of loss – something is about to disappear. It may be the calm before the storm. Will the composer’s hopes be brought to nothing? Not if he and the rest of humanity can pull together.

Three or four quiet chords from the orchestra begin this ‘slow movement.’ But immediately the soloist makes his presence felt. The violin begins its soaring song as it means to continue. At first it is to the fore with a light but quite subtle orchestral accompaniment. A sudden rise to the higher register leads to one of a number of cadenzas - soon collapsing to a dead stop. After the briefest of pauses the soloist begins his task of contemplation on the key (rondo) theme. The support from the orchestra begins to build up – there is much more dialogue here. Yet the original mood is still apparent. A surge of passion leads to the first climax which is perfectly understated. The violin is always prominent with it reflections and commentary on the musical material. This is definitely not a folk tune: it is timeless music that cannot help bringing to mind Vaughan Williams – not in this case the Lark Ascending but the last movement of the Pastoral Symphony.

There is an unexpected burst of intensity from the orchestra just before the half way point – but the violin continues its song, it is never put off. This soon begins to rise to the main climax of the piece. This positive, swelling music seems to me to blow from a different place than Bredon Hill - perhaps from the depth of Harrison’s heart? Some fine double-stopping leads into another short cadenza followed by a restatement of the main theme.

Quicker music follows for the woodwind and the soloist – in fact contrapuntal themes seem to play with each other for a few bars. However the pace slows before the composer restates the glorious tune – first by the soloist and then by the full orchestra. Now the music calms down and becomes reflective again. There is a restatement of the main theme and a little cadenza. We feel we are in the closing pages now. The woodwind play a little pastoral tune that is taken up by the strings. We hear ‘muffled horns’ and the bells of Bredon Hill playing in the orchestra before the soloist closes the work with a little phrase in the lower register. The hill is left in peace.

The work is scored for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and string. It was published by Hawkes in 1942. A reduction for violin and piano was subsequently produced.

The first performance was given in a BBC Studio concert on 29 August 1941 with Thomas Matthews as the soloist, the composer conducting. However it was widely performed throughout the world, being broadcast on successive nights in North America, Africa and the Pacific. After the first flurry of enthusiasm for this work the number of performances seemed to decline rapidly. As a piece it certainly did not fit into the tastes and aspirations of post-war music.

‘Tempo’ described this work as a ‘notable addition to the brief list of short works for violin and orchestra. The Musical Times was more fulsome in its praise: - in an anonymous review of the first broadcast performance, the writer states that Bredon Hill is "one of the sweetest additions to music with our own country’s sap and surety in it. No composer now more genially evokes a testament of things felt and prized, things true for all of us, about England. Fulsome praise indeed – and yet praise that would be laughed to scorn in current lack of confidence in things English.

‘Music and Letters’ suggests that the work "spills over with but semi-controlled emotion…" However, the reviewer goes on to suggest that a little of Mr Reizenstein’s (also performed at the same concert) dryness and objectivity could have been infused into it [Bredon Hill]. He questions whether Harrison has sufficient material to expand into a twelve minute work and suggests that interest and attention could be lost. However ‘EB’s’ comments are not all negative. He recognises that the writing for ‘both soloist and orchestra is always luminous and to the point. He even allows that a number of poetic touches illuminate this work. But the proof is in the pudding and in the last sentence – "It should prove a well liked work."

In 1951 a performance of Bredon Hill was broadcast from the Winter Gardens in Malvern along with Arnold Cooke’s Concerto for Strings and Sir Edward Elgar’s 1st Symphony. However the reviewer in The Times points out that ‘it was a far cry from this music (Cooke) to the other contemporary work in the programme.’ David Wise was the soloist along with the LPO. The ‘special correspondent’ continued enthusiastically, "…its gentle, ruminative poetry showed scarcely less than with the Elgar how the atmosphere of a landscape can shape the contours of a composer’s thought." Perhaps the reviewer had in mind the oft-told tale of Elgar listening to what the reeds in the River Severn told him. But I am a little concerned that there may be a sting in the tail. Surely the ‘ruminative’ noted above suggests a ruminant which may suggest a cow leaning over a gate?

In 1985 Kenneth Loveland notes that the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth attracted little notice. However the present work was appropriately performed at Hereford Cathedral and appeared to be well received. Loveland was impressed that Three Choirs Town remembered Harrison and Bredon Hill. The piece was apparently well played by violinist Felix Kok. His final comment recognises Harrison was no mean composer and conductor.

Most recently Dutton Epoch has released a CD of music dedicated to Harrison’s orchestral music. It remains to be seen what the critical reception of this recording will be. However this author is generally impressed by the attractiveness, the craftsmanship and the integrity of all this music.

Bredon Hill is an important work from a number of points of view. Firstly it is a well crafted rhapsody for violin and orchestra that is enjoyable to listen to and grateful to play. Secondly it is a fine example of a work that is nominally in the ‘English Pastoral’ school of composition but goes beyond the ‘play it once, play it again, louder’ critique of Constant Lambert. But thirdly the work ranges well beyond this limited genre to something rising out of the deep springs of the traditional classical and romantic music of previous generations.

Lewis Foreman quotes Gordon Bottomley on this work, "The dew was so fresh and undimmed by footsteps. Some of the harmonies came from further off than Bredon: perhaps there had been footsteps on them that did not show on the dew."

Discography

Julius Harrison

Orchestral Music: Bredon Hill, Widdicombe Fair, Troubadour Suite, Worcestershire Suite, Prelude Music and Romance: A Song of Adoration. Also Hubert Clifford: Serenade for Strings.

Matthew Trussler (violin).

BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7174

Select Bibliography

Articles in Grove.

Donald Brook: Conductors Gallery Rockcliff, London 1946

Barbara Docherty: English Song and the German Lied 1904-34 Tempo, New Ser., No. 161/162 1987 pp.75-83.

Lewis Foreman: Sleeve notes to Dutton Epoch CDLX 7174.

Ted Perkins Pastoral Style and the Oboe

Geoffrey Self: Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse London 1993

Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling: The English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940 University of British Columbia Press. 2001 [2nd edition]

Notices from Tempo, Musical Times etc.

John France, 2007 Ó

 



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