A Carol Symphony
by John France
Hely-Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony
is one of six works
I always listen to at Christmastime. The others include RVW's
, Finzi's In Terra Pax
, JSB's Christmas
and Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born
recordings of Hely-Hutchinson's work have rarely been unobtainable
over the years since it was first heard in 1929. However, it is
a work that is infrequently given in the concert hall or on the
Hely-Hutchinson is relatively little-known as a composer, professor
and administrator. He merits only a handful of lines in Grove
and has not yet been provided with a biography. So, a few notes
on his lifetime's achievement will be helpful.
Christian Victor Noel Hope Hely-Hutchinson was born in Cape Town,
South Africa on 26
December 1901, the youngest son
of the last Governor and Commander-in- Chief of Cape Colony, the
Right Honourable Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson. He was educated at
Eton and also studied at the Royal College of Music with Donald
Tovey. He went up to Balliol in 1920. The following year he left
Oxford before completing his degree: he had been offered a lectureship
at the South African College of Music.' After three years in this
post Hely-Hutchinson returned to London and joined the staff of
the BBC in 1926. Later, he moved to the Corporation's Midland
Region before taking up a professorship of music at Birmingham
University, where he succeeded Granville Bantock. In 1944 Hely-Hutchinson
became Director of Music of the BBC where he remained until his
death in 1947. His works, apart from A Carol Symphony,
include a Piano Quintet, a Violin Sonata, the orchestral Variations,
Intermezzo, Scherzo and Finale
(1927) and a number of settings
of Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs
. Grove's Dictionary suggests
that he was an effective administrator rather than an important
composer. It notes that few of his works are heard today. Fortunately
Dutton recordings recently released his Rhapsody
for Piano and Orchestra "The Young Idea"
commented on in my 'blog' in April 2008.
A Carol Symphony
is really more a sequence of 'preludes'
rather than movements in a classical or traditional sense. Some
critics have worried about its internal cohesion, but typically
most have been impressed by the unity of the work considering
the small number of carols that the composer used.
Each movement is based on a single carol, with allusions to others,
although the scherzo and the finale do have additional material.
The entire work was designed to be played without a break;' although
there are short pauses between the movements in the recordings.
The first movement 'allegro energico' makes an impressive presentation
of Adeste Fideles
, largely in the style of a Bach Chorale
Prelude. It is a strong opening and never lacks interest. The
scherzo explores God Rest ye merry gentlemen
in a manner
not dissimilar to the Russian School of Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev.
One reviewer noted that 'Mr Hely-Hutchinson goes far towards beating
the 'Invincible Band' in their own bandstand, so to speak'.' The
'andante quasi lento e cantabile' is truly lovely, although it
has been suggested that the composer 'spreads mere picturesque-ness
a little too thinly'. Yet, the use of the orchestra here is masterly.
It is not 'effect for effect's sake', but a good use of colour
and balance. The outer sections are based on the Coventry Carol
with the 'trio' section making use of The First Nowell.
Perhaps the introduction to The First Nowell
is the most memorable part of the entire Symphony, with its enigmatic
harp theme leading to the presentation of the tune. To this listener
at any rate, it is musically suggestive of a 'cold and frosty
night.' The last movement is another 'allegro energico' which
makes clever use of Here we come a-wassailing
.' The composer makes fine use of various
contrapuntal devices to explore these two melodies. It has been
compared to some final movements of Stanford's symphonies and
with some justification. However, like the elder composer's works,
there is nothing pedantic about this finale, in spite of its textbook
use of a variety of musical devices.
reviewer was impressed at the first performance
of A Carol Symphony
at a Promenade Concert on 27 September
1929. He noted that the work 'pleased the audience immensely '
and surely not only because he uses wonderfully persuasive traditional
tunes in it.' He continues by suggesting that the 'work is extremely
well turned out' although 'the treatment is scarcely more original
than the thematic material, but the composer gives the impression
of knowing exactly what he wants and getting it without any effort
' However there is a slight sting in the tail. He laments the
fact that 'one sighed now and again for a little sympathy with
modern thought but was consoled by the reflection that in two
hundred years or so it will not matter that this work sounds about
twenty years old today'.
The reviewer of The Times
noted that the Amateur Orchestra
of London had furthered their 'commendable policy' of championing
works that are outside the usual repertoire.' On Monday 15 December
1930 A Carol Symphony
was presented at the Kingsway Hall
in London. The reviewer stated that 'any competently written work
employing carol tunes must make a strong appeal, especially at
this time of year, and whether such a work is called a fantasia
or a symphony or a suite ought not to affect one's enjoyment of
the music.' However, he felt that this distinction was perhaps
more problematic than a first glance would have suggested. He
continues: 'it has often been demonstrated that folk-tunes do
not readily lend themselves to symphonic development' and he believed
that Hely-Hutchinson had stretched 'their capacities to the utmost
by making his symphony in cyclic form.' Furthermore, the reviewer
then suggested how the composer ought to have written the work.
He should have allowed one carol or wassail song to 'suggest another,
and let that suggest a counterpoint and so on.'' The problem seems
to be that Hely-Hutchinson gave the impression of 'stopping at
the end of each bit of tune to think what he could do next with
it.'' The fundamental issue seems to be that the texture and the
scoring of the work are perfectly appropriate ' it is the thematic
treatment that lets the work down.
Yet, some years later, The Times
in a review of a recently released
of the Symphony suggested that this was 'not only a work brimming
over with gaiety but refutes the accepted and not unjustifiable
generalization that folk tunes are recalcitrant to symphonic development'.'
The reviewer is suitably impressed with the way that the composer
has taken 'the half dozen best known and most hardly worked carols
and symphonizes them by dissolving them in ostinato figures, of
which the chief is a cross between Bach's Wachet Auf
and an English country dance tune'.
This work is currently available on two CDs. The first is a reissue
of a recording made by Barry Rose and the Pro Arte Orchestra made
in Guilford Cathedral in September 1966.' EMI Classics CDM
A more recent version appeared on Naxos
in 2002 with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted
by Gavin Sutherland. This is also available as an MP3 download.
Both recordings are impressive, although the later one has the
edge on sound quality. On the other side of the coin, as Neil
at MusicWeb International has pointed out, the EMI
recording does have fine couplings with RVW's Fantasia on Christmas
, Roger Quilter's Children's Overture
Tomlinson's Suite of English Folk Dances
article on Hely-Hutchinson
review of a songs CD including some VHH examples