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Some Random Jottings about Montague Phillips’ "Dance Revels."

Any new release of music by Montague Phillips is more than welcome (i). It is especially so when this is a work that is not in the catalogues (ii) and, from my point of view at least, is a first ‘lifetime’ opportunity to hear the entire piece.

I have written elsewhere in these pages about the dichotomy at the heart of Montague Phillips’ musical compositions. His most famous work is probably the Rebel Maid, an operetta that had a great vogue in the middle of the twentieth century. Some songs were popular and have remained in the ‘soirée recital’ for many years. Yet Phillips composed a wide variety of music. For example, there is a fine Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra in the spirit of the Cobbett Chamber Music Competition. Enthusiasts of the romantic piano concerto eagerly await a well known CD company releasing Phillips’ two essays in this form. Dutton CDs have published a wide conspectus of his music, ranging from the two surviving movements of his Symphony in C minor through to the Four Dances from the Rebel Maid. Between these two we encounter some fine overtures, marches and tone poems. Perhaps the most substantial work currently available is the Sinfonietta in C Op.70. Yet Phillips is by and large regarded as a ‘light’ music composer. And to many people this is thought of in a pejorative sense. It is true that after his marriage to the soprano Clara Butterworth he tended to concentrate on songs for her to sing - he wrote over a hundred. However, there were still some serious works to come from his pen.

Philip Scowcroft notes that Phillips’ orchestral work shows an ambivalence between light and serious music. The composer eschewed the use of jazz idioms or even syncopation to any extent. In this he did not follow the path of his near contemporary Eric Coates. Montague Phillips was of the view that there "was a place for light music for the great majority of people who lie between the ‘ultra highbrows’ and the ‘irredeemable lowbrows’ and can appreciate music which is melodious and well written but not too advanced." It is into this category that the Dance Revels falls. This work is quite simply attractive ‘end of the pier’ music that captivates but does not necessarily climb Parnassus. It is extremely well written and displays a fine understanding of orchestration.

A Mazurka can be defined as a Polish Folk Dance from the Warsaw region: it is written in triple time. However the form itself is a later definition of an ancient dance. In the nineteenth century Chopin developed the Mazurka into an art form, which is often ‘seductive and sultry.’ Of course, it is in this incarnation that most people relate to this particular dance.

Montague Phillips’ contribution is what might be described as an ‘English Mazurka. It owes more to Edward German than to Frederic Chopin.

The dance opens with a lively classic theme that, typically of Phillips, has no syncopation. The second ‘subject’ certainly has something of Arthur Sullivan about it. Each section of this Mazurka is well balanced: this is quite definitely a unified composition. Soon the movement develops with an attractive woodwind cadenza before continuing with a slightly less frenetic version of the principal melody. After a short episode there is a final statement of the ‘mazurka’ theme with the brass well to the fore.

Interestingly mazurkas can express many different emotions and shades of mood. And this is in spite of the rather predictable musical structure. Montague Phillips manages to bring a sort of ‘Home Counties’ feel to this music that truly belies its Polish origins.

The second movement is a Minuet. This opens with a delicate tune on the strings. This is not the four square music that we may associate with this dance. Yet the next theme is heavier and gives greater stability. There is a magical reprise of the opening music before an enchanting flute solo followed by a delicious figure for French horn prepares us for the closing pages. Phillips cleverly integrates the lighter opening theme with the stately music before bringing the dance to a quiet close. The Minuet reflects the classic balance between nobility of purpose and grace of orchestration,

The last movement, the Valse, is by the far the most successful. The opening bars comprise a little woodwind cadenza quickly leading into the main waltz theme initially played on the woodwind. Soon the strings join in. There is a little swirling string figure before the pace becomes more relaxed. The violins take up the main tune and progressively become more romantic in its tone. There is a delightful counter melody that throws snippets of the main theme around the orchestra. Chirruping oboes and flutes lead to a glorious romantic presentation of the main tune on low strings. This is pure ‘happy days’ type of music. Yet suddenly there is a change. The music becomes a little bit hard edged. The tension builds up, brass takes the lead and then as expected we hear the last reprise of the waltz theme in all its splendour.

It is a well written waltz with incisive instrumentation that exploits especially the woodwind section. Whether it could be classified as an ‘English Waltz’ is a matter of debate.

Dance Revels may not be the most vital piece to be released on CD this year. But it is good that ‘light music’ is so well established that Naxos can consider anthologising this on their latest CD. There are a number of other character pieces by the composer that deserve to be presented to the public – perhaps The Village Sketches and the Three Country Pictures could be considered? And of course there are the two outer movements of the Symphony!

All of Montague Phillips’ works are well written, beautifully scored and have a wealth of attractive tunes. It is great that most of his orchestral works are on CD (or about to appear).

John France

(i) NAXOS | 8570332 | CD | 747313033270
British Light Miniatures Vintage TV and Radio Classics
Andrew Vinter (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul Murphy, Gavin Sutherland (conductors)

(ii) Dutton Vocalion CDEA 6061
The Queen's Hall Light Orchestra
[Valse only] [review]

see also SERIOUS OR LIGHT The Experience of Montague Phillips by Philip L. Scowcroft


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