Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony by John France

Victor Hely-Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony is one of six works I always listen to at Christmastime. The others include RVW's Hodie, Finzi's In Terra Pax, JSB's Christmas Oratorio and Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born. Fortunately 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 wireless.

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" which I 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 section 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 before reprising Adeste Fideles.' 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.

The Guardian[1] 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[2] 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[3] in a review of a recently released record[4] 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 7 64131   A more recent version appeared on Naxos 8.557099 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 Horner at MusicWeb International has pointed out, the EMI recording does have fine couplings with RVW's Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Roger Quilter's Children's Overture and Ernest Tomlinson's Suite of English Folk Dances.

John France

See also:
John Hely-Hutchinson's biographical article
Philip Scowcroft's article on Hely-Hutchinson
A review of a songs CD including some VHH examples

[1] The Manchester Guardian, 28 September 1929, page 20.

[2] The Times, 19 December 1930, page 10

[3] The Times, 27 November 1951, page 6

[4] Paxton LPT 1002 mono Metropole Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dolf van der Linden