Although there has been huge development in the number of recordings of works from the British Musical Renaissance, this anthology mostly involves pieces post-dating the first performance of the Enigma Variations
. Honourable exceptions to this include symphonic or concerted works by George Macfarren, William Sterndale Bennett and the Irish Chopin, John Field. However, the one element that is largely missing from the catalogues – as well as recital rooms – is the music that was produced when Britain was supposedly a ‘Land without Music’. The CD under consideration presents a number of works from that period.
The conclusion is that virtually all of these pieces have a musical worth without necessarily being masterpieces. Mediocrity may be too harsh a description: essential listening may be too enthusiastic. It was an era that relied a little too heavily on Mendelssohn: it tended to inhibit the emergence of a truly native talent. Yet, the other side of the coin is that good workmanship and healthy imagination can be just as enjoyable as innovation.
The CD covers a number of genres that were popular in the nineteenth century, more particularly at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. That said, many of these pieces predate 1897. The recital includes hymns, motets, ballads, parlour songs and salon piano works.
It is with the liturgical genre that many people have problems with Victorian music. I can recall battling my way through a huge number of anthems in my parish church choir. They were usually taken from the Church Anthem Book or the big musty cupboard. Names like Gore Ouseley, Tertius Noble and John Stainer were perpetual favourites. Often they were sung in a manner that can only be described as ‘grind and scrape’: they gave a poor introduction to the music of the period. Then I recall in 1978 hearing an LP of music by John Stainer – sung by St John’s College Cambridge, I think. It was a revelation. Here was this High Victorian’s music presented in an intelligent and informed manner. The same attention to detail was given to these pieces as would have been applied to Tallis, Tye or Tomkins.
The present CD opens with the fine Jubilee hymn ‘O King of Kings’
with words by Bishop William Walsham How and a tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan: it is a great hymn and worthy of the composer. Raymond Walker on MusicWeb International worried about its ‘plodding tempo’ but I did not have problems with this and felt that it was just about right. I guess that if it was sung in a great cathedral it would naturally tend to drag a little anyway. It is good to hear one of the verses sung without the support of the organ.
I did enjoy the anthem by Sir John Goss. ‘If we believe that Jesus died’ was composed especially for the State Funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852. It is a particularly moving piece that surpasses much that was being written at this time. It is one of the masterpieces on this CD and is sung with feeling and conviction.
I am not so sure about Sir George C. Martin’s Short Festival Te Deum
. There is no faulting the strong vocal lines but I am a little less convinced by the organ accompaniment. However, there is a good solo baritone part. It is a big work that deserves to have the occasional ecclesiastical outing.
I was impressed with the setting of ‘Three fishers went sailing’ by the legendary John Hullah. Perhaps he is best remembered (where remembered at all) for his music to libretti by Charles Dickens. This song is beautifully sung by Phillida Bannister: she manages to uncover an almost ‘Elgarian’ Sea Picture
type of depth to the melody. I would like to hear a wee bit more of Sir John Pyke Hullah’s music. Sir Alexander Mackenzie has contributed a lovely, if a little dated, song ‘Dormi, Jesu’ (The Virgin’s Cradle Song) with piano and cello accompaniment.
I guess that Robert Pearsall’s ‘O who will o'er the downs so free?’ epitomises much music of the era: nothing particularly wrong with it, just a touch stodgy. Yet it is sung well with never hint of tongue-in-cheek! The five-part madrigal ‘Victoria’ by Philip Armes is a little bit of a revelation to me: it does not seem to be at all typical of music from this period. In fact, it nods back to a time when choral music was in a much higher standing, even if it is sung a little more lustily! One of the best pieces on this disc.
‘To Anthea’ by John Liptrop Hatton is a good example of a typical Victorian ballad and Michael Balfe’s ‘When I beheld the anchor weigh’d’ is a specimen of an opera aria. It is taken from the composer’s The Siege of Rochelle
. Both are well sung by Campbell Russell. They are children of their time.
I have long known that Albert, Prince Consort had composed music; however this is the first piece of his that I have heard. Albert was much involved in musical activities as promoter, performer and composer. The present song, ‘Does my brother think of me?’ makes a good introduction to his music – it is both an attractive and well-contrived song that is a privilege to hear. I hope that more of his music can be resurrected.
The Sir George Macfarren song ‘Pack, Clouds Away’ is a surprising little number complete with an almost jazzy clarinet obbligato. It would make a fine opening number to any recital, or more appropriately, a great encore.
The final three song numbers are typical of the period. Michael Balfe’s pathetic ‘The Sands of Dee’ is well suing by Katy Morrell, The only lady composer represented on this CD is Maude Valérie White with her pleasant Shelley setting ‘To Mary’. But, ‘Why Oh, Why’ did the producers pick Sir Henry Bishop’s warhorse ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ Was there nothing a little less bathetic that they could have dug up from the musical remains of the Victorian era? Its saving grace is that it is wonderfully sung by Phillida Bannister. Not a dry eye in the house!
The youngest composer represented here is the well-known Mancunian composer and pedagogue Walter Carroll. He died as late as 1955. As an aside, my father told me that Carroll knew my grandfather! Or was it the other way round? Two works are performed here – the four part song ‘The Stars’ and the Sonnet for five voices, ‘Nature’.
Musically these two works reminded me a little of Sir Hugh Roberton’s setting for the famous Orpheus Choir in Glasgow. They are workmanlike pieces rather than particularly inspired, although there are some felicitous touches, most especially in ‘The Stars’. Both sound grateful to sing.
I agree with Raymond Walker that the piano pieces are amongst the most important works on this CD. Sterndale Bennett’s Romance
, Brinley Richards’ Pastorale
and Walter Macfarren’s L'Amitié
have been rescued from the piano stool and given fine performances by John Talbot. Many people will recall the Star Folio
series of piano albums, mostly featuring very difficult pieces in the style of Liszt and Chopin. Amongst these largely forgotten works are a fair few by the Carmarthen-born composer Brinley Richards, including Warblings at Eve
and a fine Tarantella
. The Pastorale
is a truly lovely work that surely demands to be in the repertoire of all concert pianists. It transcends its origins in the parlour. If anyone has the sheet music for this I would love a copy.
Little need be added about William Sterndale Bennett: his music has been gently revived over the past 15 years or so and he is recovering his true stature as a British composer as opposed to the received wisdom that he is simply a sycophantic follower of Felix Mendelssohn. The work on this CD, the Romance is a truly delightful and moving piece. And finally, L’Amitié-Caprice
by Walter Macfarren, is a superb little discovery that is melodic and ‘gracious’ in equal measure.
I was very disappointed with the programme notes. Bearing in mind that many of the composers are largely unknown and that most of the works are beyond the normal reach of even the most enthusiastic supporter of British music, there is a distinct lack of information. In fact, dates of the works are typically omitted. I imagine 20 minutes on COPAC would have solved this problem: it would allow the listener to contextualise each piece within Victoria’s glorious reign. Furthermore, the texts of the song, motets and liturgical pieces would have been helpful: all are surely out of copyright.
Finally, I am grateful for the words of introduction to this CD by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent.
All enthusiasts of British music will demand to have this in their collection – assuming that they did not invest in it the first time round. It is, as I have mentioned above, a mixed bag. But any recital of music from any period or country would tend to have highs and lows. There is no suggestion that this is ‘The Best of …’ or an ‘Introduction to …’ the music of the Victorian period. It is a recital for entertainment and enjoyment rather than academic study.
Nick Barnard has also listened to this CD
As ever with British Music Society releases you can depend on
a disc of carefully compiled and thoughtfully researched music.
Quite whether the music here is as revelatory as some is more
open to debate. In fact, my abiding thought is, yet again, what
an extraordinary surge of musical creativity the English Musical
Renaissance was when compared with the blandness of much that
came before. This disc is in fact a recording of a concert given
on 15 November 1997 showcasing (for want of a better word) music
that was written during the reign of Queen Victoria. As a conspectus
of the style and type of British music (away from the Parry/Stanford
axis) it is a very useful document and I can imagine that attending
the concert was both fascinating and rewarding. Whether any
of the music here deserves preservation except for curiosity
or reference value is more open to question. In the midst of
the relatively well-known composers like Arthur Sullivan and
Alexander Mackenzie we get to hear music by John Hullah, John
Liptrop Hatton and Brinley Richards to name but three.
The concert was based on an idea by BMS stalwart Stan Meares
and it is a well structured programme. I enjoyed the mixture
of items from choral, to inspirational(?) songs to solo piano
items. Quite deliberately I am sure this recreates a kind of
concert-party atmosphere which the slightly dusty nature of
the music does little to disperse. John Talbot on piano is the
standout performer. The solo piano items are the most technically
demanding items on offer here and Talbot plays them each impeccably
and with as much musicianship as one could wish. It is quite
extraordinary however just how hard these composers found it
to throw off the shackles of 19th Century Germanic
models. Sterndale Bennett’s Romance No.2 Op.14 impresses
by its workmanship and easy-flowing melody while at the same
time being more Mendelssohnian than Mendelssohn in his most
Songs without Words mode. On that subject – is it just
me or is the opening phrase here of Mackenzie’s Dormi Jesu
(track 3) rather close to Mendelssohn’s O for
the wings of a dove! Likewise, you can imagine Walter Macfarren’s
L’Amitié – Caprice having composition professors
purring their approval for all the things it does ‘right’ without
ever troubling the concept of originality. Talbot is also the
accompanist for the solo items in the programme. Unfortunately,
given the number of items with words no texts are provided but
this disadvantage is countered by clear diction from all the
singers. The piano parts are uniformly dull providing little
more than a simple harmonic basis on which the melodies lie.
In the main the songs are in ballad form with a basic verse
structure allowing the recounting of an enlightening narrative
or text. In all honesty it could not be said that any of the
soloists have exceptional voices but they are all very well
attuned to the style required. Perhaps it does take a Benjamin
Luxon in his pomp to ‘sell’ this type of song. The choral items
are sung by the Midland Chorale. They are a hardworking and
enthusiastic amateur chorus who sing well but again lack that
last ounce of tonal refinement and technical address that would
help lift the mediocre material onto a higher plane. Sullivan’s
Jubilee Hymn – O King of Kings is a good example. It
was commissioned personally by Queen Victoria to be sung “throughout
the Empire” as part of her Jubilee. One wonders if she was hoping
for another Onward Christian Soldiers because if so she
didn’t get it. This is Sullivan at his most po-faced and least
original – I’m sure the Victorian establishment was delighted!
To take one further example – Michael Balfe (his dates are given
wrongly in the liner-notes) was a composer hugely feted by the
Victorian age. His statue was erected at the Theatre Royal Drury
Lane as one of 4 ‘immortals’ of theatre – the other three are
Shakespeare, Garrick and Keane. For sure his melodies are fluent
and easy on the ear, but an immortal I think not.
In fact it is the slightest spark of real compositional genius
that is conspicuously absent from this programme. Take Philip
Armes’ madrigal, Victoria written in 1897 for the Jubilee
it won (out of 34 other submissions) the Molyneux Prize and
the Madrigal Society’s Medal but a hundred years hence it sounds
drear and a pastiche in the worst way. Unfortunately it is this
item that shows up the limitations of the choir with Armes’
carefully (too carefully?) written polyphonic lines finding
out the singer’s weaknesses in terms of tuning and ensemble.
Bear in mind by that year Elgar had already produced the relatively
minor Songs from the Bavarian Highlands Op.27 and such
miniature gems for choir as The Snow and Fly, Singing
Bird Op.26, pieces which in their emerging personality go
way beyond anything on offer on this disc. The best known work
on the CD is Home! Sweet Home! by Sir Henry Bishop. This
is a classic case of a melody known to nearly everyone but few,
myself included, could name the composer. Yet in the context
of this programme it is fascinating how naturally this drawing-room
ballad evolves out of the musical language of the other more
self-conciously ‘serious’ works. They are all ploughing the
same musical/aesthetic furrow. To my mind that is the crux of
the problem facing composers in 19th century Britain.
They were struggling to produce work that served the dual purposes
of ‘moral rectitude’ on one hand whilst paying homage to Germanic
musical ideals on the other. It would take an outsider like
Elgar, driven by his own artistic creed and from outside the
establishment to break through this cultural glass ceiling.
Perhaps the ultimate example of the general mediocrity of the
music here is the fact that ‘talented amateur’ Prince Albert’s
Does my brother think of me? fits perfectly into the
programme! Almost every piece seems to be a dilution of something
else. So Macfarren’s Pack Clouds Away is blatantly influenced
by Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock; one of the
less successfully performed pieces to be honest – neither soprano
Katy Morrell or clarinetist Wilfred Goddard sounding completely
at ease. Conversely the two settings by Walter Carroll benefit
from having a deliberate simplicity that makes them grateful
to sing and pleasant to listen to. The largest piece in the
concert closes the CD, Sir George C. Martin’s Short Festival
Te Deum in A. This has historical interest as Martin, in
his role as organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wrote this for
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The occasion is recorded by
the painting reproduced on the CD’s cover and a vast and impressive
event it looks too. Performed on the steps of St Paul’s by a
military band, massed choirs and the ‘Great Paul’ bell of the
Cathedral you can imagine the pomp. Sadly, stripped of that
adrenalin-fuelled scenario again the music appears as frankly
dull. Sadly, the organ of Tettenhall College where this concert
was recorded, is simply not up to the job and the choir struggle
to project the work as well as they might. Don’t forget The
Dream of Gerontius was only three years away when Martin
did his dutiful best, chalk and cheese doesn’t even come close!
The recording of this concert is straightforwardly achieved.
The audience are immaculately quiet – barely a rustle or a cough
from beginning to end with applause after the final item reminding
one of its live nature. Very much a curiosity item then and
not a disc I would return to often except for reference purposes.
But as a disc to remind one of the blazing genius of Elgar and
the unique path he trod through 1890s British musical culture
see also review
by Ray Walker