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Severn Bridge Variations (1966): a joint effort

Typically, I could never have much enthusiasm for a single work by multiple composers. For one thing I would be concerned that the equilibrium of the parts would invariably be imbalanced thus jeopardising the integrity of the complete piece. Yet recently I listened to the Severn Bridge Variations and was pleasantly surprised. Indeed I would go as far as saying that this is a minor masterpiece. It manages to present a unified work that enhances each of the participants’ repertoire without any crass displays of one-upmanship.

Picture M Rogers Ó

The history of the piece is straightforward. In 1966 the work was commissioned by the West of England and the Wales regions of the BBC as a celebration of the opening of the new (then) Severn Bridge – connecting England with the Principality of Wales. Furthermore it was to have coincided with the first birthday of the BBC Training Orchestra. This was a short-lived enterprise showcasing an assembly of young post-graduate players typically aged between 18 and 24 years.

In order to prevent arguments, it was deemed appropriate to approach six composers who were at the peak of their careers. More importantly, three of them were English and three from Wales. The six who accepted the commission were Malcolm Arnold, Alun Hoddinott, Nicolas Maw, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams and Michael Tippett. They were given the task of each writing a variation on the fine old Welsh hymn tune ‘Braint’. This tune was published in the popular hymn book ‘Songs of Praise’ as No. 505. It is interesting to note that this is not a simple tune - in fact it has an asymmetrical melody with "a rising fifth upbeat and five ensuing phrases – of which the second and the fifth are identical." A real challenge.

Malcolm Arnold opens the work with a short presentation of the tune in unison. It is repeated before the composer decides to add some of his typically animated music, at times bordering on ‘swing’. Yet he decided that this was not the time and place for ‘naughty rhythms’ and reverts to a more subdued and introverted canon. The criticism of this opening movement appears to be that it is simply too short: it is over before it has begun.

The second variation is an epitome of Alun Hoddinott’s mid-1960s style. In many ways it is ‘nocturnal’ music – however there are flashes of sunlight in this intricate score. Occasionally water seems to be hinted at. Brass and percussion open the proceedings with a "chiming interplay of densely iridescent tone-clusters" between different sections of the orchestra. The composer leads the music to a considerable forte.

Nicolas Maw’s offering opens darkly, yet it suddenly explodes into a scherzo. Interestingly this section of the work appears to be an extension of the previous one rather than a contrast to it. Fragments of the hymn tune are thrown around by the orchestra. Bayan Northcott refers to "spectral scutterings and turbid surges of texture, occasionally yielding to moments of moonstruck calm." The last third is full of excitement and marks this out as perhaps the best of the entire work.

The variation by Daniel Jones is fundamentally different from the three preceding. It is great music – in fact, absolutely superb. The only snag is that it appears that Jones has inserted a part of the development from an imaginary Symphony in here: somehow it seems like a two minute extract from something much more massive. Yet it is impressive: the melody is well to the fore, there is a romantic string tune that contrasts with much that has gone before. However it is all over too soon: the listener is left aching for more of this music.

Grace Williams’ variation is much longer. She has a reasonable amount of time to marshal and develop her thoughts. This is rhapsodic music, yet it manages to be the most sympathetic to the ‘given’ hymn tune. Really, this is a chorale prelude that also manages to include a march-like episode for good measure. Much of her score is meditative and reflective: often it is truly beautiful. Yet the more assertive parts of this variation nod towards her liking for ‘brass band on the promenade’ sonorities and sweeping string tunes recalling her Sea Sketches.

The final variation was by Michael Tippett. Northcott notes that maybe this short five minute piece is significant in the history of the composer’s musical development. It uses techniques first explored in King Priam and which were later to come to the fore in the Triple Concerto. It is a technique called ‘heterophonic doubling.’ Quite simply this is a method where two or more musical voices elaborate the same melody simultaneously. It can be as a result of improvisations or in this case more rigorously controlled. Tippett wrote fanfares and passages employing a myriad of tuned percussion to create a finale with unusual but ultimately satisfying sonorities

The Severn Bridge Variations were first performed by the BBC Training Orchestra at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea on 11 January 1967. It was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The work appears to have been forgotten until it was revived at the 1976 Proms. Critically it was barely noticed in the musical press; however the ‘special correspondent’ of The Times was complimentary. He wrote that "… as a total composition it surpassed expectation by producing a contrast rather than a conflict of styles. However, whilst noting that Michael Tippett’s contribution seemed to draw the threads of the other composers’ styles together more successfully than could have been hoped for …" he felt that a work "designed to celebrate a great occasion should surely have achieved a more declamatory climax."

The work was released on NME Theme and Variations. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Jac Van Steen. Reviews by Simon Jenner and Peter Grahame Woolf

John France



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