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Cyril ROOTHAM (1875-1938)
The Stolen Child for chorus and orchestra (William Butler Yeats) (1911) [6:49]
Miniature Suite for piano and string orchestra (1921) [10:34]
City in the West for chorus and orchestra (Jasper Rootham) (1936) [10:52]
The Psalm of Adonis for orchestra (1931) [8:31]
For the Fallen for chorus and orchestra (Laurence Binyon) (1915) [18:53]
Alan Fearon, piano (Miniature Suite)
Sinfonia Chorus; BBC Northern Singers
Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox
rec. 2-4 October 1986, All Saints Quayside, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. DDD

The EMI Classics label as part of their ‘British Composers’ series have re-issued a disc of music by Cyril Rootham that was originally released in 1987. It comprises five scores, three of which are for chorus and orchestra together with two for orchestra alone.

The feature work is undoubtedly the moving choral setting of Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen; a work that preceded Elgar’s setting of the same text A.

Considering the high quality of his music Rootham is one of the lesser known lights among the esteemed cohort who studied at the Royal College of Music at the turn of the twentieth century. Bristol-born Rootham was from 1894-97 a sizar at St John’s College, Cambridge and later studied at the RCM under Sir Walter Parratt, Marmaduke Barton, Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford; of whom he wrote, "…he was a great figure in British music when this country needed such men.B

As well as composing Rootham was also an organist, teacher and conductor. An influential figure for many years in the musical life of Cambridge, in 1901 he was appointed organist at St John's Cambridge holding the post until his death. Later between 1913 and 1924 he was a lecturer at the University. From 1912 until his death he served as conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society.

Rootham’s father Dan Rootham was a singing teacher who numbered amongst his pupils the eminent Dame Eva Turner and Dame Clara Butt. In view of this pedigree it is not surprising that Rootham is often at his finest when composing for the voice. I have seen a Rootham works-list that contains around hundred and twenty scores; including two symphonies. His love of the human voice and the focal point of his oeuvre is unmistakable - a dozen of his scores are for chorus and orchestra; some forty for unaccompanied chorus and there are over thirty songs plus an opera The Two Sisters (1918-21). It is difficult to place the music of Rootham in a particular category, although he was influenced by the mainstream Austro-German Brahms/Schumann tradition and also by British folk-song and Celtic mythology.

The opening work is Rootham’s 1911 setting of The Stolen Child for mixed chorus and orchestra from an early 1886 text by William Butler Yeats. It is dedicated to Rootham’s wife and their son Jasper. The Stolen Child is a hauntingly beautiful score, reflecting the captivating atmosphere of the Irish twilight world. Here it is sensitively performed.

Scored for piano and string orchestra the Miniature Suite was composed in 1921 for the Clifton High School for girls in Bristol where Rootham’s sister Mary organised the music. It seems that the four movement score proved too difficult for the abilities of the girls. The score opens with an appealing Allegretto given a light, confident and carefree interpretation that conveys a strong feel of folksong. In this performance the proud Lento assai is conveyed with hearty and vibrant playing followed by a brief Allegro moderato e leggiero that bursts with vivacity and joie de vivre. Marked Molto vivace the exhilarating and skilfully crafted final movement reminded me of a characteristic Percy Grainger folk music setting. Pianist Alan Fearon’s valuable contribution could hardly be bettered and is splendidly persuasive throughout.

The City in the West for chorus and orchestra, setting a text by Rootham’s son Jasper, was composed in 1936 as a depiction of the composer’s beloved city of Bristol. Premiered in 1937 at the Colston Hall, Bristol the score was again performed in 1939 in Oxford and then not heard again until revived by Richard Hickox in 1984 at Hexham Abbey. Hickox directs his impressive choral and orchestral forces with considerable vigour that aptly communicates this beguiling and approachable setting. City in the West deserves to be better known. At times it reminded me of the hymns To the Dawn and To Vena by Gustav Holst from his third group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.

Rootham originally set the Theocritus ode The Psalm of Adonis for mezzo-soprano and piano to be sung in Greek. It was written for Rootham’s cousin Hélène Rootham a friend and teacher of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. It was in 1931 that Rootham prepared this impressive orchestral version. Hickox’s well paced interpretation reveals a myriad delightful nature sounds; the woodwind being especially evocative of birdsong. The beautiful orchestral textures are radiant, fresh and shimmering. Although maintaining an individual voice I was on occasions reminded of the sound-world of Vaughan Williams and Holst; both fellow students of Rootham at the RCM.

The feature work is unquestionably For the Fallen. The text suitably reflected the Nation’s anxieties and distress following the outbreak of the Great War. Elgar in 1916-17 also set of For the Fallen the third of three Binyon poems used in his cantata The Spirit of England, Op.80. Rootham set the poem For the Fallen across three movements. In the opening movement ‘With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children one feels a strong sense desolation and lamentation. A martial character towards the conclusion adds to the warlike quality of the writing. The central movement ‘They went with songs to the battle, they were young is noticeably brisk and seems to reflect the poignant eagerness of those hordes of young men marching to join up in response to Lord Kitchener’s recruiting poster "Your Country Needs You." In the opening section of the final movement ‘They mingle not with their laughing comrades again’ the intelligent blending of the voices and orchestra provides a noble soulfulness. In the final section that concludes the score the exalted soaring voices are deeply expressive in this awe-inspiring music. On occasions the clarity of the recording does not do full justice to the massed voices of the Sinfonia Chorus and BBC Northern Singers.

It is good to have this EMI Classics Rootham disc back in the catalogues. A quick google has revealed that with the exception of some organ scores currently the only other Rootham works available in the catalogues seem to be:

Rootham Symphony No. 1 in C minor from the LPO under Vernon Handley on Lyrita SRCD269 (c/w Granville Bantock Overture to a Greek Tragedy, Josef Holbrooke The Birds of Rhiannon).

Rootham Miniature Suite played by Martin Roscoe (piano) and the Guildhall Strings/Robert Salter. This disc of works for piano and strings is titled Peacock Pie and was recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London in 2001 on Hyperion CDA 67316 (c/w Gordon Jacob Concertino; Cecil Armstrong Gibbs Concertino & Peacock Pie; Robin Milford Concertino and Madeleine Dring Festival Scherzo).

Owing to the high quality of these Rootham scores, especially the fascinating choral works, it started me thinking about other choral works from the highly talented group of composers that Rootham would have known from his days at the RCM. A large proportion of these scores are neglected and surely deserve reassessment. I know that Stanford and Parry still have numerous choral works from their vast oeuvre that require recording and there will be many discoveries to be made from the talented past RCM students who were among Rootham’s cohort: Charles Wood, Thomas Dunhill, Henry Walford Davies, W.H. Bell, Gordon Jacob, Hamish MacCunn, James Friskin, Arthur Somervell, Arthur Benjamin, Cecil Forsyth and Haydn Wood not forgetting more from Rootham himself.

I was generally pleased with the sound quality on display on this disc from the EMI engineers. The accompanying booklet contains two interesting and informative essays by musicologist Percy Young and by Jasper Rootham. Sadly the presentation is let down by the relatively short playing time and annoyingly no texts are provided. Let’s hope that this all-Rootham disc serves as a trailblazer for similar offerings of unfamiliar scores from British composers.

Michael Cookson

see also review by Rob Barnett

A The Spirit of England: Elgar: The Spirit of England, Op.80 (1916-17); Frederick Septimus Kelly: Elegy for StringsIn Memoriam Rupert Brooke’ (1915); Ivor Gurney: War Elegy (1920); Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: The Chivalry of the Sea (1916); Lilian Elkington: Out of the Mist, tone poem (1921). BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/David Lloyd-Jones; Susan Gritton (soprano); Andrew Kennedy (tenor) & Ian Farrington (organ) on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7172.
B An obituary of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford written by Cyril Rootham from the Royal College of Music Magazine, 20 February 1924.


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