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Benjamin Dale-- a reassessment. Part One. by Christopher Foreman

It is a source of much surprise that no one in the British Music Society has as yet gone extensively into print in the cause of Benjamin Dale, all the more so as his contemporaries in that great triumvirate of brilliant composers who studied with Frederick Corder at the RAM in the first six years of the 20th century have seen their profiles rise dramatically in recent years. So much more of Bax’s music is generally known and available since Colin Scott-Sutherland’s pioneering study appeared in 1973, followed by Lewis Foreman’s exhaustive biography in 1983. And York Bowen’s star is still inexorably rising. When Monica Watson’s centenary biography appeared in 1984 there was practically nothing in print and nothing available on record, whereas now over thirty CDs of his music have been issued. Composers far more obscure and abstruse have received exhaustive coverage in these pages. Yet Dale is a composer who deeply impresses, pleasantly surprises and amazes listeners at once, whether they are trained musicians or ordinary music lovers. He communicates well, yet there are paradoxes and mysteries that need to be explained.
There can be few composers in musical history who have established a reputation with such a slender list of works as his. For many years the reputation of Borodin rested on 21 works, and the gradual discovery of more early material in the later 20th century has fleshed out the picture without changing his standing. Duparc’s reputation rests on the canon of 14 mature songs and a symphonic poem which is hardly ever performed. And Julius Reubke, dead at the age of 24, has earned immortality solely through his two sonatas, principally the organ Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Dale is famously said, admittedly with a personal bias in favour of his gifted student, by Frederick Corder, to have written “fewer and better works than any English composer of his generation”. Much of this can be attributed to his ultra-fastidious sense of self criticism, though there were other factors, as I shall discuss. His canon consists of a piano sonata, three viola works, a violin sonata and a Ballade, two choral works and an orchestral tone poem, the last still not printed or on CD yet. In addition to these nine works ranging in length from nine minutes (viola sextet) to 42 minutes (piano sonata) we have four smaller instrumental pieces, one of which is a substantial piece of over eight minutes, two published songs, and five tiny Christmas Carols, practically unknown. (In addition there are four student orchestral pieces which in all probability have not been performed for a hundred years).That there are some other pieces in existence, I will demonstrate.
It should be easy to get an overview of such a modest output, yet still, incredibly, some of these works are hardly known. My own extended review of Lorraine McAslan’s first recording of the violin sonata in 2006 was possibly the first time it had received substantial criticism since the superficial reviews when the work was premiered in 1922. And I am not aware that anyone has yet followed me into print concerning “The Flowing Tide”, which as far as we know has only been performed live once, in 1943, and not broadcast for nearly 60 years after that, in 2002 and again more recently. Commentators have focussed on his best known works, the piano sonata and the viola Romance with maybe a mention of “Before the Paling of the Stars”. But we cannot evaluate Dale’s achievement until we get a full picture of his output. Dale is in need of a champion. With the huge growth of interest and appreciation of the music of his two contemporaries mentioned, and so many other British composers of the same vintage, I feel the time is now ripe for a comprehensive resume of Dale research as it stands, with some facts, and hopefully some insights, which have not found their way into print before.
 
The background.
 
Charles James Dale was born in Staffordshire in 1842 but moved to Denby Vale in Derbyshire very early. There is a pedigree of the Dale family of Derbyshire in the British Library. Denby was well-known for its potteries and the folk of that area had got together to form a collective industry in the manner of Josiah Wedgwood’s example. CJ Dale moved to North London at the age of 18 where he became the owner of a metal container factory in New Southgate and a successful businessman. He was an entirely self-taught amateur musician who originated in the 1870s the Finsbury Choral Association, which he conducted. His productions won such a reputation that leading composers of the day like Sir Arthur Sullivan, Barnby and Stanford were glad to come and conduct performances of their oratorios and cantatas prepared by him. He also founded, as a hobby, the Metropolitan College of Music, Holloway, of which he was the Principal, and served as organist of Holly Park Methodist Church, Crouch Hill until 1905. The Musical Times recorded his death in 1912, saying that all who came into contact with him were impressed by his ingratiating and refined manner, and his clear headedness. By his wife, Frances Ann Hallett, he had seven children, of whom six survived infancy. The eldest two sons eventually followed their father into business but both died rather young. One of the two surviving girls stood out for her artistic needlework. It is with the two younger boys that our interest lies. Benjamin James, born in Crouch Hill on 17th July 1885, was the youngest of the seven children. His brother Henry, Benjamin’s senior by ten years, was educated at the Leys School Cambridge and Trinity College Cambridge (1894) and went on to achieve fame and the highest honours in the scientific profession. Sir Henry Hallett Dale, OM, GBE, FRS (1875-1968), was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936, jointly with his colleague Otto Loewi, for his study of acetylcholine as an agent in the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. Also the originator of Dale’s Principle, Director of the National Institute for Medical Research, President of the Royal Society 1940-45, chair of the board of the Wellcome trust 1938-60, he served on government advisory committees, was the recipient of many awards and fellowships, twenty honorary degrees, and was praised on his eightieth birthday for his grasp of a range of scientific fields, the clarity of his ideas which made his papers a pleasure to read, and his approachability. He acted as a leader, helping to guide the cause of scientific work in Great Britain. I mention this, because apart from the remarkable physical resemblance between the two brothers, it will be seen they shared personal qualities, achieving the very highest in their professions, earning honours in their later years, and being regarded with the greatest respect by their professional peers. Both brothers were busy and memorable lecturers, with a wide range of interests and consummate knowledge of their chosen subjects, both were approachable, clear headed and of sound judgement. There is a plaque outside Sir Henry’s house in Mount Vernon, Hampstead, commemorating him. That Benjamin did not quite achieve this lasting eminence is due mostly to the fact that he died much younger, at the age of 58. Henry was supportive of his younger brother, was present at many RAM Club dinners, and in 1953 proposed the health of the club, with memories of his brother, paying tribute to his high musical ideals and brilliant attainments. He wrote an account of his brother’s life in 1964.
The family resided in the brand new leafy suburb of Crouch End, in Haslemere Road, in a house named Denby, later numbered as No. 32. Benjamin would, at the age of three or four, find his way to the piano at every opportunity and pick out tunes for himself. He had piano lessons with the local tame piano teacher and could soon play any piece she gave him at once, better than she could. He also learnt the organ, and took harmony lessons from Josiah Booth (1852-1929), the well known organist of Park Chapel Congregational Church just down the hill from their home, and author of “Everybody’s Guide to Music” (1893). By 1898, Booth had to throw in his hand with young Dale, saying he had taught Dale all that he knew, and he needed another teacher. His ordinary education was at Oakfield Preparatory School and then at Stationers Company’s School, Hornsey. This was not, according to an account by his great niece Penelope Mary Dale (1976) in the RAM library, as good a school as it was made out to be, and Dale did not get on with his master there. It could be said his education was perhaps a little inadequate. He obviously attempted to compensate for this later by his own ever continuous studies. At the local kindergarten school he had found a playmate in a young lad by the name of Edwin Yorke Bowen, who was living nearby. They both went to Holly Park Methodist Church, where Benjamin later assisted his father as organist. Bowen’s family soon moved away to Forest Hill, South London, and Bowen was surprised and delighted to meet up again with his childhood friend at the RAM in 1900. This was later recalled by York Bowen, as he became known, in an article in “The Choir”, a Methodist magazine, in September 1960. In the early 1960s, the old Holly Park Church was demolished and a smaller more serviceable building is now on the site. Methodism failed to keep Dale for long, though as a teenager he played the organ at Wesley’s Chapel, City Road, and the editor of “The Choir” claimed he went back to Holly Park for special occasions.
By now, Dale had made his first attempts at composition. Some of them, at least, have been preserved, the very earliest little piano pieces, two minuets, a song “The Jabberwock”, hymn tunes, and a 52-bar organ fugue in A minor which begins conventionally in academic style, yet soon gets extremely busy with continuous semiquaver movement and very difficult 3rds in the manuals. This juvenile attempt is not really a satisfactory piece of music. The early church music (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, 1898), as one would expect, is conventional and Victorian in style. In some older sources, e.g. Grove’s Dictionary, 1927 edition, Dale is credited as having written a student Symphony in F. The only traces I can find are a very obviously immature work from 1899, where the opening Andante Pastorale and Scherzo are comparatively brief, with a considerably longer and slightly later Finale. There is also a much longer Adagio found together with this work, but the movements do not seem to add up to a unified whole. The very earliest compositions are in a blue hard back folder labelled “Finished Compositions, MS.”, in suitably youthful handwriting, now held at the RAM.
But Dale was advancing fast, and his second surviving orchestral work, an Overture in C minor, inspired by Macaulay’s “Horatius”, is dated 19th January 1900. CJ Dale, who must have watched over his son’s efforts with paternal pride, obviously pulled some strings, and a performance of this Overture took place at the Portman Rooms, Baker Street, on 10th May 1900, at the 23rd concert of the North London orchestral society. The Musical Times reviewed this occasion thus:” The work is, of course, not entirely devoid of signs of youthful inexperience; but for one so young, the thematic material, its development and the orchestral score are alike remarkable. He must be encouraged to go on. This is all the more remarkable as we understand the youthful composer has never received a lesson in orchestration in his life!...” His brother Henry attempted to get him a place at Henry’s old school in Cambridge, but as it turned out, Dale was allowed to leave school early at the age of 15, to study at the Royal Academy of Music, then situated in Tenterden Street, behind Oxford Street.
 
The RAM years.
 
Dale entered the RAM on the same day as Bax in September 1900. His professors were Corder for harmony and composition, Herbert Lake and Evelyn Howard-Jones for piano, and Edwin Lemare, later HW Richards (1865-1956, Warden of the RAM to 1933) for organ. Much has been written about Corder and his teaching methods, so I will not recapitulate them here. This eccentric, somewhat undisciplined passionate Wagnerian and admirer of Russian music had however little time for Brahms and was unable to appreciate Debussy. After Wagner his favourite composer seems to have been Dvorak. He passed on his enthusiasms to his students, who discovered and assimilated Richard Strauss and Debussy for themselves. Lessons often overran, with the result that there was a queue of students outside his door. It was once claimed by a so-called expert on British music in 1979 that Bax was the only one of Corder’s pupils with any real talent! This amazing statement is enough to make the blood of any British music enthusiast boil over, and can be seen as nonsense when one considers that Corder taught, among many others, Bantock, Bell, Holbrooke, Holland, Farjeon, Paul Corder, Swinstead, Montague Phillips, Hubert Bath and Eric Coates, besides Dale and Bowen. It has been said that Bax might have benefitted from a more disciplined teacher. WH Bell was the only one of Corder’s pupils who also studied with Stanford, but Dale had studied Stanford’s “Practical Composition” treatise, as he refers to it in his own 1940 harmony textbook.
Bowen later recalled that the gift of composition grew rapidly with Dale, and Bowen was the chosen one to watch the growth of anything new and to advise if asked. Bowen and Dale remained close friends until Dale’s death, and shared the same musical tastes. Both became ardent Wagnerians and attended every Wagner performance they could at Covent Garden, often walking the streets together long afterwards. Dale later told Guy Jonson he had to hear “Die Meistersinger” at least once a year or he would die! Both Dale and Bowen became intoxicated with the new sounds of Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ravel. (Bowen performed the six year old “Jeux d’eau” of Ravel at an RAM Club dinner in July 1907, where the composer was so novel and unknown he was spelt Ravall!) Dale was already developing a hypercritical sense. If he did not think he had reached a certain level of quality he would ruthlessly consign MSS to the wastepaper bin. Bowen more than once was responsible for the preservation of pages of manuscript he considered too good to lose.
The Musical Times tells us that the first movement of an organ sonata in D minor by Dale was performed by the composer at an RAM concert on 10th February 1902. By now he was being watched, and was said to be “on the right road, and that what he has to say is well expressed, with a commendable absence of make believe”! On 24th November 1902 the first movement of a piano trio, also in D minor, said to be “cleverly written” was performed at St James’ Hall. The organ sonata survives complete in three movements, whereas only the first movement of the piano trio, Allegro Impetuoso, seems to have been written. Two more Overtures appeared, one in A major entitled “The Tempest” performed at Queen’s Hall on 19th December 1902, and a Concert Overture in G minor, performed at the Queen’s Hall before a large audience on 24th June 1904, and also a Concertstuck in G minor for organ and orchestra performed at Queen’s Hall on 26th June 1903, said to be effectively laid out and well scored, where Dale played the solo part “with notable skill”. This organ Concertstuck, or Fantasia, was revived for a Patrons Fund concert in 1905, and once more at the Proms on 25th September 1912, where Frederick Kiddle played the solo part and Sir Henry Wood conducted. Though the Musical Times was dismissive on that occasion, saying it belonged to the composer’s student days, “and is correspondingly immature in thought”, Sir Henry Wood in his autobiography “My Life of Music”(1938) remembered it as a really fine work. It has probably not been performed since. Another work of interest to us would be the Prelude (Fantasia) and Fugue in C minor for organ (1902), entered under the alias “Bill Bailey” for the Battison Haynes prize, which he did not win, but which contains in the Prelude themes later used in the finale of the piano sonata and in all three movements of the viola suite. The romantic nature of these themes surely shows the influence of Dale’s organ teacher, Lemare. At this stage, unfortunately, I am unable to give a detailed account of these early overtures and the Concertstuck, as I have not examined the bound MS scores in the RAM library for some years. I got the instinctive feeling on glancing through them that there is definitely much worthwhile music here, and that even though the composer ceased to regard them as representative in his later years, they are the essential missing links in tracing Dale’s rapid development from a promising composer of tolerable Victorian church and organ music to the astounding maturity and mastery shown in the piano sonata. Clearly these pieces must be examined closely next.
The Academy was noted for the adventurous and progressive repertoire performed in its concerts. One of Elgar’s new “Sea Pictures” was performed at a concert in 1902, and the “Tempest” concert also featured the first performance in England of Martucci’s piano concerto in B flat minor. The recent piano works of Glazunov were played in RAM concerts, and Dale played Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on BACH in February 1905. He was often at the organ in operatic performances at the RAM, and continued to return for organ accompaniment after he had left.
Dale won the Charles Mortimer Prize in May 1902, the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship in November 1902, the Charles Lucas Medal in 1903, and the RAM Club Prize in March 1905 for a setting of some words by Campbell, “Tell me, ye Bards” for male chorus. One of the adjudicators was Edward German. He ended his student career with the Dove Prize for general excellence in 1905.
Much work was obviously done in these early years when Dale rapidly matured as a composer in the RAM crucible, forming his distinctive ultra-romantic style. But there was time for lighter activities. Once or twice Dale joined Bax and his brother Clifford and their friends on the lawn at Ivybank, Bax’s Hampstead home, for cricket. Dale and Bowen had great amusement playing on their “famous hand instruments”—cupping their hands and blowing through them, and Bowen wrote a waltz for two hands, played on a Thames river steamer during a picnic arranged by the RAM, where the piano part was played by Corder and the MS suffered by immersion. Bowen once demonstrated this hand instrument to Professor Guy Jonson. Apparently it was not very good, yet the point is these boyish pranks were remembered affectionately many years later.
 
The Piano Sonata.
 
Undoubtedly the climax of the RAM years was the composition of the Piano Sonata in D minor, Opus 1. This is often said to have been started in 1902, it being a not uncommon compositional task to write the first movement of a piano sonata. What began as a student exercise, turned instead into a work of genius, or as Bowen said “the most remarkable sonata for piano that perhaps anyone had done at such an age and period of musical history. This work I saw grow almost page by page…”
The first thing that strikes one on looking at this work is its length, 62 pages, or 316 bars plus 926 bars, occupying 42 minutes in performance, and the huge piano writing and corresponding difficulty. The writing, however taxing and resourceful, is also highly pianistic, as Dale was no mean pianist himself, and he had the virtuoso York Bowen at his elbow, a pianist with unusually developed technical powers and coordination. Dale, though he would not, according to Guy Jonson, be considered as a pianist nowadays, was proficient enough to do some accompanying at the Wigmore Hall, and he possessed large hands, with, as one pupil tells me, beautiful long fingers, and large chords were no problem for him. The first three pages are a stern test for any pianist, with quaver triplets against groups of swirling semiquavers, complicated left hand figuration, leaps, contrary motion octaves, and chordal work.
Next, one will be struck by the highly charged romantic language. Dale had indeed advanced with amazing speed in his later teens and had absorbed much from the exciting world around him. The influence of Wagner and Strauss is felt in the first movement, with some undulating right hand passages being positively Tristanesque. Later in the work Elgar and Tchaikovsky are felt. We must remember that besides the standard Romantic piano repertoire of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Grieg, Dale and Bowen would have known the piano music of lesser known composers not performed much now, such as Anton Rubinstein, Raff, Liapunov, Blumenfeld, Arensky, Glazunov, Moszkowski, Dohnanyi and Paderewski.
Corder, in his 1918 Musical Times article on this work, followed by Edwin Evans, Cobbett’s Cyclopaedia, Norman Demuth and Grove’s Dictionary, gives 1902 as the date, and Sir Henry Dale followed by Penelope Mary Dale states 1901, however, the MS of the first movement, in the British Library, is clearly dated October 24th 1904, and this movement was first performed by York Bowen at a chamber concert in Queen’s Hall on 22nd February 1905. The whole work was finished in July 1905, and was first performed complete in the Bechstein Hall on 14th November 1905 by York Bowen, the dedicatee.
Besides being of unprecedented complexity and virtuosity for a British piano sonata, the work is unusual in its design, enough so to confuse an early German reviewer. The first movement is in spacious sonata form, generous in its thematic material. The remaining three movements are in effect a continuous set of variations, the Theme and first four variations constituting the slow movement, variations 5 to 7 the Scherzo, after which comes a transition section leading to a Finale in which the variation Theme is still present in various guises alongside new material. This original form owes something, as several commentators have noted, to Tchaikovsky’s great Piano Trio in A minor, which Dale undoubtedly knew. A line can also be drawn back to Schumann’s Symphonic Studies.
The first movement, Allegro Deciso, begins boldly, confidently with thrusting upward figures. There is a subsidiary theme in the 1st subject section, announced in C major, with striking harmony and of bold ceremonial character, which is worked in conjunction with the opening theme until the commencement of the real 2nd subject at the bottom of the third page. Even in the ardent, turbulent first three pages, there is room for lyricism, but it is in this 2nd subject, in F major, that we get a most memorable lyrical melody. The way this is extended and developed until the end of the exposition, in an ingenious yet completely logical and unforced manner, is one of the great achievements of this sonata. Immediately after this first surging gushing tidal wave of a climax, Dale does something which becomes a hallmark of his style, by reacting, giving us something in total contrast, namely an agitated jagged passage in strict tempo, with jerky offbeat stabbing chords in unpredictable places, almost as an antidote to what had gone before. But it is also a hallmark of this amazing and wonderful movement that the moods and textures are forever kaleidoscopically changing, and we get the widest possible variety in the extended development section, nearly seven pages long. Virtually all of the material is derived in some way from the exposition matter, but in magical transformations. One memorable moment, entirely characteristic, as we shall see, is when a commanding emphatic dotted figure is transformed at a single stroke into a teasing little waltz theme, then repeated a semitone lower with a dainty, telling counter figure, sweetly dissonant. This humorous deflation of pomp is typical of him. A whole world, Dale’s student whirl of an existence, is conjured up in this movement: ambition, passion, defiance, hopes, doubts, fears, academic toil, feverish excitement and reminiscences of an enchanting Academy ball are all there in a heady mix, the epitome of youth. Restlessly modulating, ever onward the development flows until a mighty sequential build up leads to a spacious climactic contrary motion set of chords that recall to some a passage in Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration”, followed by a virtuoso flourish. These rapid ascending flourishes were a characteristic feature of Bowen’s pianistic style. Those who heard him play tell me that they were accomplished in a slightly unusual manner, Bowen sitting virtually side saddle at the keyboard. The mighty writing as we are hurled into the recapitulation with its canonic imitation is one of the three supreme climaxes in this movement, the others being the end of the exposition and the end of the whole movement. The recap is freely varied and slightly condensed, and at the end we have another example of Dale reaching an incredibly sweet poignant tender moment, evoking a Straussian solo violin passage, with ever more undulating curves, before again Dale snaps his fingers with devastating suddenness and hurls us into the whirlwind of a Coda with its lightning and treacherous figurations, furiously mounting via offbeat irregular sforzandos to a heaven storming final outburst. It was an inspired afterthought on Dale’s part to hammer out the first theme in massive parallel chords as a parting shot.
It should be remembered, that though Dale is generous with his invention and has his diversions, this movement does hold together as a symphonic movement for piano, and any interpreter must be conscious of the fact. There is capriciousness, but also underlying logic. Vivian Langrish (1894-1980), a brilliant Tobias Matthay pupil, and a distinguished interpreter of this work, was aware of this fact, and imparted it to his pupils. He was for a while in the 1920s a neighbour and friend of Dale. The Langrishes lived at 24 Elsworthy Road NW3, Dale resided at No. 28.
There are passages of such heroic defiance, especially in the first movement, that I am reminded of Macaulay’s “Horatius” again, three men holding a bridge against an army. Such superhuman heroics would naturally appeal to a teenage boy.
 
What could possibly follow this? Dale gives us, for the next half hour, something almost in a different world. If the first movement represents youth, then the variations transcend it, giving us eventually a vision of the passing nature of all earthly things, including youth, beauty, life itself. The mysterious visionary variation Theme, in remote G sharp minor, announced pianissimo in misty left hand octaves, has three elements, that simple 8-bar theme, the start of which maybe recalls Bach’s Canzona in D minor BWV 588, which as an organ student, Dale would have known, followed by the most haunting phrase of the work, a descending figure, violin solo against harp, with flat 7th and a telling descending 5th in triplet shape. The third element is a bizarre inverted pedal point with some unexpected harmonies in irregular rhythm, a real twist in the tail. It seems possible there was a programme behind this conception, never fully revealed by Dale. I always imagine the Theme to be Fate, quiet, yet absolutely implacable. Do what one will, and the rest of the sonata is virtually an obsession with this Theme, and transform it as you will, in every conceivable guise, every mood possible, the sonata is always destined to end, tragically, with this very Theme, eventually in the home key of D minor.
The variations do not follow the structure of the Theme literally, as early Beethoven does, they being free variations, rather character pieces based on aspects of the Theme. Corder cites Dvorak, Glazunov and Elgar, as well as Tchaikovsky, as precursors here. Particularly relevant, I feel, are Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, only six years old when Dale was writing. Variation 1, in remarkable 3 part counterpoint, starts off strictly, with two upper parts over the Theme. It is in the passage substituted for the sting in the tail at the end that we find an overt example of a chord that calls for our close attention. I sensed its significance in this work at once, even as a teenager, and this was backed up when I met people who knew Dale. The chord of the augmented 11th can be spelled out, from the root—D, A, F sharp, B sharp, G sharp, with the G sharp as the augmented, or raised 11th. There was, so Guy Jonson tells me, some friendly debate between Dale and Bowen as to who was the first to introduce this chord into his music. Investigations are still ongoing here, but it is likely that the first British composer to use this chord was Delius, although Dale would not have known Delius’ music at this period, Delius only becoming known in this country with the performance of “Appalachia” in 1907. The first page of Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” (1901) is saturated with this chord, a whole new universe of sound, beyond where Wagner had gone. Debussy uses it in the first of his “Chansons de Bilitis” (1897-8), curiously first in his piano music only in “D’un cahier d’esquisses” (1903, published 1904). This chord had appeared three or four times in the first movement, most prominently as one of the chords under the brass fanfare before the recap of the 2nd subject, but it reveals its full colours in the variations. In these slow variations, we have entered a new harmonic world, Wagner and Strauss are left behind, and with the parallel 5ths and flat 7th of the Theme and Variation 1, and now the augmented 11th with its alluring perfumed sensuality, we can detect the embryonic stirrings of the English pastoral style.
This is further confirmed in Variation 2, in the Romantic key of Paradise, of perfect fulfilment, B major, the key of the ending of Liszt’s Sonata and 2nd Ballade, of “Tristan”, of Franck’s Cantabile and 2nd Choral. In this rapturous vision of Pre-Raphaelite idealised youthful love, the Theme is surrounded by a delicate haze of caressing gentle semiquaver sextuplet figures, and as Dale told Guy Jonson, is intended to be impressionistic in its effect. As Bax tells us in “Farewell, my Youth”, “I don’t suppose there was any student who didn’t love, sentimentalize over, or lust after someone else in the place”. The augmented 11th occurs five times in two pages, most tellingly at the end in the harmonisation of the haunting phrase. Two points can be made here. In the fair copy of the MS, in the RAM library, Dale put “sehr innig” over this passage. This is not in the printed score. There are a few other such markings, which show his love affair with all things German had begun. Secondly, Dale’s fastidious ear for sonority is seen when the augmented 11th appears for the last time, in the same position as the previous bar, but with the subtle addition of a G natural for the left hand thumb.
I am not alone in seeing Variation 3 as a female dancer, and a coquettish one at that. A perfect miniature, with mastery of texture, deft imitations and rubato. Variation 4 I see as Dale’s “Nimrod”, another B major variation, expressing perfect fulfilment, or a dream of fulfilment, with its majestic chordal grandeur. This manages to be both public music, yet inward and personal too. It, too, features in its final cadence a highly individual use of the augmented 11th chord on the subdominant, with syncopations in 5/4 time.
The haunting triplet 5th of the Theme is hammered out at the start of the whiplash Variation 5, the start of the three Scherzo variations, featuring some very tricky finger work. Dale’s impish sense of humour is now in evidence, as he transforms the most haunting phrase of the work from the Theme into a rumbustious rollicking eccentric dance in dotted 6/8 rhythms with off-beat bass chords, marked by Dale “lustig” (not in the published score), and featuring sudden surprising key changes and abrupt dynamic changes. Cast in ternary form, the variation ends with two chords suddenly fff—Haydn’s surprise technique, innocent boyish fun.
Variation 6 is quintessentially Dale, a subtle mix of emotions, starting innocently as a carefree delicious dainty Mazurka, another version of the haunting phrase (“fresh as a daisy”, says Corder), but unexpectedly tinged with pathos as the music swings momentarily into the mediant key. The central section, starting as a slightly sentimental dance memory, gains in passion and urgency till we reach a yearning climax of quite unexpected orchestral breadth and depth, which just as suddenly melts away via a magical whole tone scale into the recap of the first section as though nothing had happened. This is a variation of enormous charm, which I have on authority from Margaret Hubicki, a pupil of Dale, was a word much used by Dale, a quality of great value to him, yet it is so much more. This variation ends with a two octave leap in the melody after an exquisite penultimate chord. The variations are miraculously finished pieces, and are admired by all who encounter them. It is possible to take two or three out of context to perform separately.
As for Variation 7, there is quite simply nothing like it. A bizarre flight of fancy, a fascinating red herring in the structure as a whole, it has no precedent in piano literature, being four pages of non-stop prestissimo semiquaver chords, the hands always alternating. Variation 2 of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Beethoven at his most cryptic and quirky, is the closest I can find. Maybe this is a satire on pianists who habitually play left hand before right. The harmonies are wildly unorthodox, yet peculiarly logical. Building up to a furious climax it then suddenly drops down pp with another whole tone scale, and features augmented chords in the recap. There is more than a touch of the supernatural about this, a ghostly nocturnal chase, maybe. The abrupt ending is no less amazing. With a reminiscence of the very opening of the whole sonata, the ONLY time the 1st movement material is heard in the variations (“what is this unholy row about?” says Corder), Dale pulls off an outrageous stupendous feat of dazzling cleverness and blends this trumpet-like reminiscence into a strange, capricious and wonderful harmonisation of the variation Theme, whereby we learn that the Theme is derived from the 5th to 9th notes of the opening theme of the first movement!
Now follows the transition section to the Finale, and free from all constraints Dale’s imagination soars. After some meltingly beautiful luscious passages with unmistakeable romantic connotations (this whole section is decidedly operatic, an extended love scene in fact), two new themes are briefly announced, firstly a broad noble theme in B major, akin to Variation 4. Colin Scott-Sutherland has pointed out this curiously foreshadows a theme in Elgar’s violin concerto of six years later, and was quoted by Bax in his violin concerto. Growing in passion it leads into the second new theme, a restless yearning passionate theme of two bars, heard three times in rising sequences, the third extended by neurotic Tristanesque repetitions rising to the supreme central climax of the work, a glorious C major version of the Theme, the tide at full flood. After this has subsided, we pass briefly through dark B minor before accelerating into the Finale. From now on the momentum is unstoppable.
The overall structure of the Finale, Molto Allegro, is ternary, the outer sections starting with the first three notes of the Theme in D major, allargando, with massive chords exploiting pianistic range and sonority, soon followed, after some festive passagework, by two new subjects, the last to be introduced in the work, firstly a jubilant strongly rhythmic theme in huge chords, producing a roof-raising feeling of exuberance, then a dotted motif, continually shifting key, moving onwards ever more urgently as the two themes work together culminating in an electrifying build up which catapults us into the central section.
This massive central section of nearly 200 bars (compare—the outer sections are only 80 bars each) can be broadly divided into three sections, firstly a hefty development of the new jubilant chordal subject, producing some exciting chordal effects, then we reach a bizarre and frolicsome section, and finally a last outpouring of pure lyricism. I always feel in this Finale that we are hurtling onwards with ever increasing urgency towards some unspeakable catastrophe. In the Finale the two new themes introduced in the transition section are each heard once more but the noble Elgarian theme which one might have hoped would carry the day, is deflated, mocked and sent sky high, by being transformed into a deliberately silly jaunty little tune, with cheeky offbeat accompaniments, subjected to strange harmonies, unexpected juxtapositions of chords, by flitting giddily from one key to another, and bizarre “wrong note” turns in the melody. Some of this sounds innocent, but beneath the surface of this fun and games section, there may be detected a whiff of waspish gleeful malice, or even more than a touch of desperation. Melting into the lyrical section, our unease is confirmed when we get a new rhythmical transformation of the variation Theme in the last appearance of B major, a heart-rending gushing outpouring, which soon arrives at the second new theme from the transition, the restless yearning theme, and it is this theme which carries the day, again being heard three times in rising sequence, the third building to a huge orchestral climax, but instead of a gushing wave of triumph we are hurled straight into the recap. This is concise and devastating, leading to a gargantuan climax, possibly the biggest climax of the work, analogous to the climax near the end of the Liszt Sonata, a chord of the dominant 7th on B flat traversing the whole range of the keyboard in rapid figuration with held pedal. The catastrophe has arrived.
After a long pause, with a thrill of horror we realise we are in D minor for the first time since the end of the first movement, and that grim steady sepulchral tread in the bass is our variation Theme, with amazing harmony and counterpoint over it, featuring outstandingly daring advanced use of triple appoggiaturas, and building incessantly to a final peak where a new note comes into the music, a virtual scream of pain, grief and despair. From here, it is one perpetual descent to the end, with poignant fragments of the Theme, and a display of meaningfully expressive harmonies that sets the seal on this work. The descent recalls in its manner the end of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, not quite with the gnawing bitterness of Tchaikovsky, or the melodramatic egocentricity of the ending of Scriabin’s 1st piano sonata (1892), also written at the age of 20, which ends with a doom-laden funeral march. Instead Dale sinks slowly, gently, very sadly and inevitably, with two last appearances of the augmented 11th chord, into an enchanted sleep, but there is no mistaking the funereal rhythm heard twice in the last line—this is a very final sleep. And so ends in darkest tragedy one of the supreme peaks of English piano music. After all the excitement, we end quietly, as does the Weltschmerz-laden piano sonata of Dale’s exact contemporary Alban Berg, which however was written later, in 1907-8. Brahms, Dale and Berg each produced outstanding piano sonatas as their Opus ones, Dale’s being by far the longest, and still unfortunately the least known.
There are two stories associated with this sonata. At the last moment Dale decided to enter the Variations for a prize set up by the greatly gifted though undisciplined piano virtuoso and Leschetitzky pupil Mark Hambourg (1879-1960), who was to pay 20 guineas to the winner and undertake to perform the winning piece at his first London recital of the season. Dale was awarded the prize by a panel of adjudicators which included Coleridge-Taylor, and paragraphs in the press emerged reporting that Hambourg had found a new genius. Hambourg did not let Dale hear him play the Variations till the morning of the recital, which took place on 19th June 1906 at Queen’s Hall, when Dale discovered that Hambourg intended to add flourishes and variants of his own. Dale sought out his brother to tell him how angry and powerless he felt at the vulgarisation of his first important work. Hambourg’s playing had a tumultuous reception, but Dale refused to join Hambourg on the platform, having gone straight home, and he returned the prize cheque, saying he was not selling his work with rights for modification. Hambourg’s autobiography “From Piano to Forte” (1931) states “one composer wrote at such colossal length, that his work to be at all manageable …had to be cut. This he could not tolerate at all”.
It was largely this work that prompted Corder and Tobias Matthay to form the Society of British Composers to do what Belaieff had done for Russian composers, founding the Charles Avison Edition, a publishing cooperative, named after the independent minded 18th century pioneer of the subscription concert. The first batch of works published in this enterprise in 1906 also included Bowen’s polished Miniature Suite, Paul Corder’s Nine Preludes, Swinstead’s Prelude in D and Bax’s Celtic Songs. Soon after, Dale’s viola suite and Bowen’s great Polonaise in F sharp joined the collection. The publications were printed and sold through Breitkopf and Hartel, later Cary & Co, then taken over by Novello.
Dale’s reputation was established with this sonata, which was reviewed by Cyril Scott and Josef Holbrooke amongst others. The sonata was soon taken up by the 16 year old Myra Hess who played it at an RAM invitation concert at Queen’s Hall on 19th November 1906, when it was reviewed by the Musical Times: “Miss Hess proved that the Variations as left by the composer are quite satisfactory from a constructive point of view, and are sufficiently brilliant, not to say exacting, to satisfy the majority of professional pianists.” Her rendering was found, however, to be somewhat lacking in dramatic force and significance. Other interpreters included Irene Scharrer, Winifred Christie, Vivian Langrish, Egerton Tidmarsh, Isabel Gray, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Eric Brough, Guy Jonson, who last played it in 1938, Frank Merrick, John Tobin and Effie Kalisz. By the 1920s its style was beginning to date, and reviewers were not favourable to the work. The last pianist of distinction to tackle it before the revival began in the 1980s was Moura Lympany, who performed it with much success at the Prague Festival in 1946 and broadcast it in 1955. Mrs Dale told me that Horowitz had tackled it, but this cannot be verified.
Apparently Dale later told a pupil, Stuart Elliott, there were too many notes in the work. This should not be taken seriously, as great composers are not always the best judges of their work. There were even more notes in the earliest version, as pencil marks in the fair copy MS testify. Some early reviewers thought the work was too long, and I am told that even Myra Hess, who later introduced the work to America, made a cut in the Finale. It is probable that the sonata was not really suited to her style of playing. I cannot protest too strongly that although some of Dale’s expression marks are perhaps a little over-fastidious, and with the greatest of respect should not always be taken absolutely literally (for example, not every fff is that huge—climaxes need to be pinpointed), this work, in common with Dale’s other large scale pieces, is simply as long as it has to be, and there is not a redundant note in it anywhere. It is unthinkable and unacceptable to make cuts anywhere at all.
It was Professor Guy Jonson who told me that originally there were twice as many variations. Corder told Dale that the public would get musical indigestion, and a heart-rending decision had to be made as to which variations to jettison. The present version is the definitive one, and the decision made was the right one. But the whereabouts of the “extra” variations is unknown. They are not with Dale’s MSS at the RAM, nor are they in the British Library. If they ever turned up it would be a major discovery, assuming they are still in existence.
 
Though maybe not the work of a 17 year old, but a 19 year old, this sonata is still an amazing feat for a boy who only reached his 20th birthday in the month of its completion. The words of Schumann concerning Brahms spring to mind, “who like Athene would spring fully armed from Zeus’ head”.
There must be many people who have come to Dale through this work, as I did when 18, and have been bowled over by it, in my case pacing the back streets after dark (as Dale and Bowen did after hearing Wagner), with the music burning its way through my head, identifying with it obsessively, and in my case resolving to find out everything I could about the man who could make such music, and resolving to get to know his other works.
Pardon such emotionalism, but it is impossible to stand back from this music in cold analytical terms, and I am informed by Margaret Hubicki that Dale would not want us to stand back from it. “Music is life” said Harry Farjeon in Dale’s RAM Magazine obituary, “and so he felt it to be—the flowing tide of beauty inevitably rising to some inexpressible attainment of spiritual feeling—that was the current of his life…” Or as Clifford Bax put it in “Inland Far” (1925), “Years may have outmoded its manner, but in my lay judgement, it is so vibrant with the Arcadian romanticism of early youth, that it may well last as long as “Endymion”. Indeed, if anyone who is now 18 were to ask how we at the same age felt towards life, I should willingly let that sonata stand for my answer!” It is an achievement of no mean order to have encapsulated a whole world of experience and emotion in a single work and produced something that in spite of changing fashions, people can still identify with today. Through this sonata Dale has joined the immortals.
Norman Demuth, in “Musical Trends in the Twentieth Century” (1952), says of this sonata “this work may truly be said to rank with the Liszt piano sonata for resource and design” and goes on to describe it as a work in the grand manner: “the music has character; it also has stamina, but it is overwhelming”. With which I can only agree. But then Demuth makes two claims with which I emphatically disagree: “Dale did not rise to these heights a second time…his output was not remarkable, and, more disarming, his style did not advance as he grew older”. I shall in the next part of my survey of Dale attempt to disprove these assertions once and for all.




Benjamin Dale—a reassessment. Part Two.
 
The viola years, 1906-1914.
 
Between 1906 and 1911, Benjamin Dale wrote three major compositions for viola. Each has its own distinctive character, the three works being as different in form and conception as it is possible to be, yet they are all entirely characteristic of their composer. Two movements of the Suite were orchestrated by Dale, the revision of the Finale only being completed in January 1914, so as the years to 1914 are dominated by these works, that may explain the title of this section of our narrative.
The great virtuoso Lionel Tertis was the direct catalyst for the first and third of these works, the Suite and Sextet, and likewise he premiered the Phantasy. Tertis had been appointed professor of viola at the RAM in 1900 and set out to encourage his colleagues at the RAM to write new compositions for the instrument he did more than anyone else to champion, as the published repertoire was very limited at that time. The very first work written specially for him, according to John White’s “Lionel Tertis: the first great virtuoso of the viola” (Boydell Press 2007) seems to have been the concerto by JB McEwen (performed May 1901). Pieces by Wolstenholme and WH Reed followed, and in a recital at the Aeolian Hall (New Bond Street) on 19th May 1905 by Tertis and York Bowen, six new works were introduced, Cantilena and Arab Love Song by WH Bell, two pieces by Harry Farjeon, a Nocturne in D flat by McEwen, and most importantly the 1st Sonata, in C minor, Op.18 by York Bowen. On 11th December 1905 Tertis and Bowen gave the premieres of WH Bell’s Sonata in E minor and Bowen’s Romance in D flat at the Bechstein Hall (this became the Wigmore Hall in 1917). Bowen’s 2nd viola Sonata, in F, Op.22 followed hot on the heels of the first, being first played at an RA[M] Musical Union meeting in the concert room of the old RAM on 3rd February 1906, before its official first performance on 26th February 1906 at the Aeolian Hall by Tertis and Bowen. It is fascinating to see what an amazing amount of composition and performing York Bowen was doing at this period. Dale must have listened to his friend’s new compositions, such as the Polonaise in F sharp (April 1906), and Bowen was playing Dale’s compositions as soon as they were written. How they must have inspired each other on to yet greater heights in a way somewhat anticipating Vaughan Williams and Holst’s musical friendship.
Dale was still a student at the RAM in 1906. We find him playing three pieces by Schumann on the organ in an RAM concert on 12th February 1906 and accompanying the opera class in Acts 1 and 2 of Verdi’s “Falstaff” on 29th March. But his best energies were concentrated in writing a work for Tertis which, it turned out, would surpass in quality those existing works mentioned and set the seal on him as the up and coming man to be watched. It is a most happy case of the right person being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by all the right people. What emerged was Dale’s most outgoing work, the Suite in D major, Op.2, a piece of unprecedented virtuosity for the viola, and a piece which encapsulates the sheer joy of youth in those untroubled years of the heyday of Edwardian opulence before the dark clouds of impending conflict made themselves felt. Bax tells us in “Farewell, my Youth” that he could have shouted for joy in his consciousness of youth and did so frequently in his music, fixing twenty two as the golden number in the count of man’s years. Dale’s Suite is one extended very musical shout of joy. The first two movements, the first originally titled Fantasy-Prelude in the MS., and the second, the Romance, are dated Exmouth August 1906. Dale often used to go down to Exmouth to go sailing with Bowen and the whole work has a healthy virile outdoors feel to it. The first two movements were premiered by Tertis and Bowen at the Aeolian Hall on 30th October 1906, the Musical Times saying these “proved so musical in essence as to create a desire to hear the remaining numbers of the work”. In the event, there was only one more movement, but that was quite sufficient! The whole work was first performed soon after, in 1907, in Broadwood’s Rooms.
Possibly the sunny nature of the work and some freedom of form in the first movement made Dale use the title Suite rather than the more serious Sonata, but this is a big substantial three movement work, some 33 minutes in length, each movement taking approximately 11 minutes. Not for one moment does Dale’s grip or confidence waver. Already on the crest of a wave after the premiere of his piano Sonata in November 1905, and now with impending publication of that work, by the time he completed this Suite, the Hambourg performance in June 1906, even though something of a travesty, had made his name celebrated. All this must have fuelled his inspiration. Dale had already completely recovered from the angst-ridden tragic end of the piano Sonata. There is hardly a dark moment in the Suite. Right from the beginning, where a bold theme is announced in piano octaves as a sort of fanfare, the mood is set. This theme is a very strong memorable one, rhythmically varied and arresting. The viola enters in the subdominant, G, but manages, via a flourish of ten semiquavers, to end in A flat, instantly followed by the other side of the coin, a meno mosso lyrical passage which somehow reaches the dominant of G flat, seems poised for a mighty Wagnerian climax but eases instead and at the last moment neatly side steps harmonically to the dominant of G and via some surprise colourful chords of the 9th and an extended Lisztian flourish in the piano, moves into a subsidiary theme, Allegretto espressivo in G. This description may seem dry and inadequate, but this whole passage is worth looking at, for it is so beautifully written. Dale sets up a mood, contrasts it, and constantly teases players and listeners by building up expectations then giving us something different, not only by shifts of key and harmony, but with syncopations, and the odd bar of 5/4, 7/4 or 3/2 in a basically 4/4 movement helps this process. It is obvious that Dale is enjoying himself hugely throughout.
Here I must draw attention to a highly characteristic and significant motif which first appears in the 4th bar, a decorative curve whereby Dale approaches a principal note, here D, by a semitone below, followed by a tone above, thus C sharp-E-D. More often than not this is in the rhythm of quaver-crotchet-quaver. This melodic fingerprint is so characteristic as to be almost a sub-conscious leitmotif, and is as much a feature of his early style as is the chord of the augmented 11th. This motif is prominent in the Nocturne from Bowen’s Miniature Suite (1904), the first movement of which is dedicated to BJD, as he was known to his friends, is faintly discernible in Bowen’s Polonaise in F sharp and Caprice No. 2 Op. 13 (also dedicated to Dale) and much more prominent in the “Reverie d’Amour” Op.20/2 (1908). It had featured strongly in Dale’s piano Sonata, for example the fist three notes of the yearning theme announced in the transition to the finale. Here in Dale’s suite, whole passages are saturated with it. I will henceforth refer to this as the BJD curve. It can express romantic yearning and here in the early music it is an expression of well-being, of being at ease with the world, akin to a flourish of one’s hat or a twirl of one’s cane. (It takes on a completely new meaning when used in such a poignant place as the end of the first movement of the violin Sonata).
The solo viola part has plenty of opportunities to display glorious singing lines and passagework, both elegant and more forceful. The piano part requires great technical skill, being relentlessly athletic and busy, but even in the biggest passages it is always expertly conceived for the piano and the whole movement has a sort of feline dexterity and ease about it. The overall mood is most genial, the rhythms are often positively balletic, but within the prescribed mood every possible nuance is explored in the most good-humoured way, even where it turns more forceful and symphonic. Singularly, the tranquillo espressivo second subject is not only in the tonic, D, and the exposition ends in the tonic, but the first six notes are a languid transformation of the first six notes of the first subject, treated with rich harmonies and textures, nonchalant syncopations, clothed in most attractive indulgent sentiment. In the development Dale uses another six rhythmic transformations of the first six notes in ever more bizarre and gleefully ingenious ways, like a conjuror drawing rabbits out of a hat, notably at quasi campanella, a hemiola effect with dotted figures where instead of 3 x 4 quavers we get 4 x 3, crossing the bar lines. The music sparkles ever more brilliantly with rapier wit till we approach a huge symphonic climax with repetitive insistent Wagnerian rhythms, use of the extreme ends of the keyboard and two 7th chords a tritone apart. This leads to a recap of the subsidiary subject. The final statement of that first theme is left to the last five lines of the movement, approached by another barnstorming climax, thundered out in assertive triumphant brilliance.
Dale nods in the direction of cyclic form in that one lyrical viola passage in the second subject anticipates the theme of the second movement, the Romance, and in this Romance the viola starts with a fragment of the opening theme of the Suite with a surprise G sharp. The introduction is most unusual with the piano playing, Lento, quasi fantasia, a thick chord of the 1st inversion of D in the lower part of the keyboard, repeated in throbbing pulsating syncopated rhythms, a drum effect, a suggestion of a cortege, maybe the one slightly more sombre moment of the work. This moves via augmented chords, an appearance of the augmented 11th and a triple appoggiatura to D flat and the main theme. The Romance was for long Dale’s most famous single movement, known to viola players even when the rest of his music was out of fashion or unknown. It was a favourite in the repertory of Tertis, was often played separately and was held to be the gem of the work, though wonderful as it is, I maintain the other two movements are equally wonderful. It is the best of several examples of Dale’s gift of long drawn out melody, here extended for 38 bars, with a first strain of 11 bars, a second of 20 bars and a 7 bar codetta. Maybe Lewis Foreman is correct when he speaks of the example of Mackenzie’s “Benedictus” (for violin and piano, Op. 37/3), which in turn owes something to Raff’s Cavatina. There is a certain similarity of mood and harmonic structure at first, but it soon becomes obvious that Dale far outdoes the Mackenzie in sophistication and depth. Tobias Matthay proclaimed this as the greatest slow movement since Beethoven and while this may be a slight case of promotional overkill, Dale’s intent not being that of Beethoven, this being a Suite, not a Symphony or a Sonata, and the sentiment being closer to the world of Max Bruch, the sophistication and polished treatment of his melody and the variety of accompanying textures, interacting with the solo part, is worthy of Elgar or even Brahms. The more measured Edwin Evans wrote in Cobbett’s Cyclopaedia of Chamber Music, “it breathes the very spirit of romantic poetry, and is one of the most polished examples of pure lyric form in chamber music since the classics”. The opening is so effortless and natural, it is one of those pieces that were just waiting to be written, yet Dale was the man who tapped into the ether and penned that music. Every note is perfectly judged in its place, almost Mozartian, the melody unfolds spaciously, with ease, perfectly placed harmonies, and spun out through logical growth to its climax. The codetta, the third strain, is accompanied by a portion of the second strain, with a hint of F major over D flat, features a cliff-hanger pause on A flat in the solo part, and is capped by the augmented 11th chord, here expressing ecstatic fulfilment, and another favourite, the dominant 13th with an augmented 8ve (an appoggiatura). No less remarkable is the central section which starts by further developing themes heard already, accelerating to an animato section which starts with a singular cyclic anticipation of the Finale theme with its repeated notes, leading via a rapid whole tone flourish to an exhilarating joyful, sparkling, playful section which becomes ever more extravagant and crescendos via a chain of augmented 11th chords and BJD curves to an appassionato climax of Tchaikovskian symphonic grandeur. It is characteristic of Dale that when we think a climax is reached, there is an even bigger one just further on, here leading into the recap of the thunderous chords of the opening, now starting in A major. Dr Stuart Elliott told me he once heard Dale himself play this with Tertis, the pianist Solomon getting out of the way. Dale nearly brought the roof down with those opening chords, such was the power of his emotional involvement. This slightly modified bridge passage leads to a repeat of the main Romance theme, with the subtle change that the initial strain is now accompanied by the piano not in straight chords, as at first, but in counterpoint with the melody’s second strain. The only further modification is at the very end, which briefly alludes to the repeated chords of the opening, now pacified and piano in D flat.
The Finale is simply an astounding tour de force of virtuosity, a landmark in the history of viola music, unprecedented certainly in English music. I am convinced again Dale had some sort of a programme in mind here as this is very visual music, It seems to suggest a carnival procession where one can easily imagine troupes of jugglers, acrobats, dancers and clowns appearing in turn accompanied by a band of fifes and drums. Dale relishes his role of Master of Ceremonies. The movement is in Sonata-arch form where the second subject is recapped before the first. The D minor start with its snappy quasi military rhythms is brisk and taut and the tension does not sag. The music is razor sharp, quick witted, with quickfire interplay between the two instruments, the keyboard range is used generously and as for the viola, it is taken to stratospheric heights. Again we note the use of the hemiola effect, 4 x 3 instead of 3 x 4. The exuberantly romantic second subject, in E flat, is hardly less remarkable than the Romance as an example of Dale’s ability to spin out a long continuously evolving melody. Written in 2/4 time, Allegro, the harmonic pulse is such that there is practically one beat to a bar in this section; the second subject area is 164 bars long and it falls mostly into groups of 4 bars, so it could have been written as 41 bars of 4/4 time, this being still very expansive and an example of Dale maintaining continuous interest through a long paragraph. It is accompanied at the start by a flourish of Bowenesque side-saddle arpeggios and ends dolcissimo pianississimo. The development starts with the piano continuing the end of the languid melody and transforming it into a march-like figure, starting lontano, but building to a feroce fortississimo, whereupon a new striking trumpet-like figure joins the fray, all the more striking for having the first four notes syncopated. This eventually builds over a pedal A to a turbulent tumultuous climax of volcanic power, with a chain of viola trills and a dotted rushing piano figure recalling the grand climax of the piano Sonata’s Finale, followed by a thunderous piano tutti, which however soon fades to the other extreme, a heart on sleeve tender romantic outpouring for viola where time is suspended, melting to a recap of the second subject in a warm G flat major, recomposed and shortened by 30 bars to build up into a recap of the first subject, which in turn is modified to lead to a scintillating Presto coda in D major, much of which is pianissimo, till the trumpet syncopated figure joins the ever more dizzy capering and the last page is a manic sprint for the finishing post, the robust end alluding to the opening of the whole Suite. Bowen is noted for his exuberant finales—witness the Romp from his 2nd Suite, and the finales of the oboe and 2nd violin sonatas, but here Dale outdoes his brilliant friend at his own game in an unsurpassed and probably unsurpassable exhibition. Such exuberance of youthful spirits and instrumental and compositional virtuosity were not seen again in British music until the advent of the young William Walton and the young Benjamin Britten. Within the deliberately more limited emotional range of this Suite, Dale has produced a entirely worthy successor to the piano Sonata, and according to Edwin Evans shows greater originality of invention and a developed sense of humour. I may say I consider this work to be of greater musical significance than the considerably better known Suite for viola by Vaughan Williams.
It is easy to see why the Suite is still not as well-known as it should be. It requires two super-virtuosos with big colourful personalities to do it justice. Dale was writing for probably the greatest viola virtuoso in the world at that time, and probably the most brilliant young pianist in the country in the shape of his friend Bowen, so the sky was the limit for him; however, few can follow Dale to these dizzy heights even today. It was always a rarity to perform the complete Suite—Dr Elliott told me he never heard the first movement done; more disturbingly it appears even the Romance was occasionally shortened, and we find a critic in 1946 saying it was “perhaps a trifle long even in this abbreviated version”. It would be good to think audience stamina has improved since those days and that we are ready to receive the complete work, for, again, I believe Dale is never too long and his architecture is fitting for the nature and content of his music.
The Suite, with its extrovert concert-piece character, cries out for orchestration, and Dale orchestrated the Romance and Finale at Tertis’ request, the Romance being dated November 1909, both movements being first performed at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert on 18th May 1911, where Artur Nikisch conducted, Tertis being irritated at Nikisch’s condescending attitude to British music. Further performances took place at Amsterdam in 1911 and The Hague in 1912 under Mengelberg. The orchestration is for 60 strings, triple woodwind, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta and 2 harps. After one rehearsal the conductor, Hans Richter, said “I suppose the next addition they will find necessary for accompanying the poor dear viola will be a battery of exploding air balloons!” Other conductors who performed it were Damrosch in New York, Boult, who gave it at his first Queen’s Hall concert in February 1918, and Barbirolli who did it in 1957, the last known performance. Tertis always was the soloist. The original version with piano was published in 1913 in the Avison edition.
It was probably on 9th March 1905 at the third Patrons’ Fund concert at the RCM that Dale first met Balfour Gardiner, where Dale’s Concertstuck and Gardiner’s Suite in A were performed. By the end of 1905 Dale and WH Bell were firm friends of Gardiner, and in November 1906 Dale and Bax first visited Gardiner’s new Kensington home. He often was to be found here, where he met other composers, such as Cyril Scott and the other members of the “Frankfurt gang”.
After the completion of the Suite, Dale went to Frankfurt in late 1906, not to study, but to see and hear things, this being not unusual for comfortably off young musicians—Bax and Paul Corder were doing similar things in Dresden at exactly the same time. At possibly this period he is known to have met Vincent d’Indy, not so much for formal lessons as for an exchange of ideas. Dale’s next piece, “Night Fancies”, Impromptu for piano, Op.3, though it incorporates a chimes motif similar to the Westminster chimes, was written in Frankfurt am Main, the MS in the British Library being dated February 14th 1907. The title Impromptu is slightly misleading, it being nothing like the Impromptus of Chopin, Liszt and Faure with their light filigree finger work and carefree sparkling nature. Romance, Nocturne or Reverie may have been more apt. It shares with the viola Romance the key of D flat and ternary form. It is rare to find two pieces by Dale so close in nature. “Night Fancies” is slightly more intimate in tone, more intricate, very sophisticated in its phrase structure, and coincidentally there are 38 bars again from the start to the pause on the chord of the subdominant on page 4. Again it features the use of the augmented 11th chord, the BJD curve and appoggiaturas, and more use of changing time signatures, with odd bars of 5/8 and 3/8 inserted in the basic 4/8, giving flexibility to the line, though not so frequently changing as in the works of Cyril Scott. There are many expression marks, rubato indications, and a use of soft thick chords in the lower part of the piano, a texture pioneered by Debussy in “D’un cahier d’esquisses” (1904) and later in “La terasse des audiences du clair de lune” (1912). Likewise, the central section is an episode of fantasy and caprice, but here with much more advanced harmonies than the Suite. This is one of Dale’s bizarre quirky flights of fancy, like Variation 7 of the piano Sonata, a frolic with avant garde harmonies, which starts with a pentatonic passage with the pedal held down, accelerates via a glissando to an Allegretto Vivace in 12/16 time where it gambols and cavorts in dotted rhythm, with strange twists of melody (not all pianists agree about the notes here—is this Dale’s spiky mischievous sense of fun or misprints?—both actually, and the intelligent player must sort these out!), off-beat accompanying chords, demi-semiquaver rushes, and chords of the 13th arranged so 4ths predominate at the top, with a touch of the grotesque in places. These startling touches must have raised a few eyebrows at the time, and are still puzzling at first now. They are more akin to the humorous or satirical passages of Strauss’ tone poems than the expressionism of the Second Viennese School. This juxtaposition of two highly contrasting, seemingly incongruous moods is entirely typical of Dale. The manner of this central section was taken up by Walton O’Donnell in “Before the Dawn”, No. 2 of Two Lyric Poems for piano (1914). There are small changes and minor highlighting of some harmonies in the recap, and the chimes recur at the end with sumptuous sonorities. This piece is rich in pianistic colour. It was published by Ricordi in 1909, dedicated to the critic Edwin Evans, and was reviewed in Musical Times as a “highly poetic and interesting piece, musically and technically intricate…great things may be expected of this gifted young composer when he has attained greater artistic maturity”. The influence of Puccini has been felt by one musician and this is quite possible—though Bax says “Tchaikovsky and German music was all we youngsters knew in those days”, this is not entirely accurate, as Dale played the organ in an RAM performance of Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz” Act 2 in July 1903.
Probably dating from this early period, by its style, is a fragment of a piano work originally entitled “A set of pianoforte pieces (Introduction, sequence of short pieces and Finale)”, later crossed out and called Fantasy. This starts very confidently in E flat, with vigorous strongly marked rhythms, surging upward octave passages, highly charged Straussian schwung, exultant BJD curves, harmonic side-stepping and impulsive lyricism. Then after 28 bars there is a further page of sketches of passages in the same vein—and then it peters out. This tantalising unperformable fragment would have been a major contribution to the piano literature.
We come now to the first and possibly greatest enigma of Dale’s career. Between “Night Fancies”, written when he was still only 21, and the Phantasy of 1910, a period of 3 years, Dale only completed one little Christmas Carol, which could have been tossed off in half an hour or considerably less. There is a potent cocktail of reasons why, between the late 1920s and 1938, his output should have dried up, as we shall see, but there does not seem any obvious reason why it should have done so between 1907 and 1910. Here we have a healthy young man in his early twenties, surrounded by supportive family and friends, comfortably off, with at least two outstanding compositions to his credit, rightly acclaimed. The world should have been his oyster, and the works should have come pouring out with youthful ardour. Yet we get silence instead. So what was Dale doing during this time? We can give the outward events of his life, namely that he was elected an ARAM in March 1907, took his FRCO diploma in 1908, orchestrated the Romance in 1909, and was appointed Professor of Harmony and Composition at the RAM in 1909, where he served on the RAM Club committee and was secretary of the RAM Musical Union. Between 1907 and 1909 he was asked to accompany on the organ opera performances at the RAM, composers including Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Offenbach, Schubert, Wagner, Humperdinck and Mackenzie. On 22nd February 1909 he was at the organ in the first public appearance of Beecham’s Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall in Berlioz’s Te Deum (Delius’s “Sea Drift” was also played).
Though not going so far as to suggest there was an element of the manic-depressive in him, there is no doubt that Dale was a temperamental, highly sensitive and highly strung artist, as can be seen in early portraits of him, one capable of the extremes of emotion, from the breathless theatrical energy of the Suite to the aching sadness of Variation 1 and the end of the piano Sonata. He may have experienced a reaction after the “highs” of 1905-06. Or he may have withdrawn in a manner similar to Brahms at the same age, realising the burden of the hopes pinned to him, and feeling a need, as did Brahms, to immerse himself in the study of counterpoint and various schools of composition. This is the most likely explanation. Margaret Hubicki corroborates Bowen in stating undoubtedly much composition ended up in the wastepaper basket.
In 1910, Walter Wilson Cobbett (1847-1937), retired businessman and keen amateur violinist with a passion for chamber music, commissioned, in conjunction with the Worshipful Company of Musicians, 11 Phantasies (his preferred spelling) from younger British composers, Dale among them, the others including Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Bowen, McEwen, Dunhill, Tovey and Friskin. His Phantasies were all to be in one movement in several sections, the modern counterpart of the viol fantasies which flourished to circa 1670. The same principle is seen in the Toccatas of Buxtehude and Bach, the Fantasies of Schubert and the cyclic works of Liszt, to say nothing of contemporary works such as Glazunov’s violin Concerto (1904) or Schoenberg’s 1st Chamber Symphony (1906), so the idea was not so new! Cobbett’s huge influence on chamber music, extending to composers as diverse as Dorothy Howell and even the young Benjamin Britten, through his competitions and his Cyclopaedia of Chamber Music, deserves him a book to himself. Dale’s contribution was his Phantasy in D minor-major, Op.4 for viola and piano. All early authorities, including Grove 1954 and 1980, Edwin Evans and Cobbett’s Cyclopaedia give the date of this as 1911. It was when examining the MSS at the RAM in 1985 that I found the date on the MS first draft as May 26th 1910, moreover the first performance, according to the RAM Magazine, was at the RAM Club and Musical Union meeting on 14th December 1910 by Tertis and Bowen. It was originally called Ballade, as sketches at the RAM show, and there was some indecision over the ending, which was originally a loud flourish of D minor chords. The first draft has directions in Italian, English and German which do not appear in the published version, and metronome marks. They show Dale had trouble with what I term the first Trio, with many crossings out. The final version still has directions in German which were not published and a two page cancellation in blue crayon at the climax. It is possible Dale started the Ballade before the commission came and changed the title, while the nature of the work, telling a saga, remained. It shows greater concision, which gives a feel of greater maturity noted by Edwin Evans, yet still, at 19 minutes, it is one of the longest of the Cobbett Phantasies, if not the longest (they were not meant to exceed 12 minutes!).
The form is clear upon examination:
Introduction (first performance advertised as “Introduction in the style of a folksong”), Lento, divided into two sections, 21 bars to page 2/system 2/bar 1, and then the folksong theme, 21 bars.
1st movement proper, Allegro, 52 bars to 8/3/4.
2nd movement, Andante espressivo, 87 bars to 14/1/2.
3rd movement, Allegro molto [subdivided into Scherzo, 53 bars; Trio 1, 17/2/2, 55 bars; Trio 2, 20/2/2, 47 bars; Scherzo recap, 22/4/2, 25 bars; final whirl, 24/2/3, 65 bars].
Bridge, Andante, 27/3/4, 15 bars; and folksong theme return & Coda, 38 bars.
The 3-note figure, x, right at the start, much used, curiously anticipates a very significant figure in the famous song of Peter Warlock, “The Fox” (1930), and also pops up in “Hell’s Pavement” from Paul Corder’s “Sea Songs” (1919), which also uses Dale’s dotted rhythm. Paul Corder, as a member of Dale’s circle at the RAM, would definitely have known the Phantasy. The first page is marked pesante, with a new dark, more than slightly menacing manner. The D minor tonic is approached from B flat minor; the double dotted figure is grim, funereal, with bass tremolos, sudden blow ups, harsh even, with the tritone prominent, and features unusual juxtapositions of chords, mostly in the lower keyboard. The viola only enters with the folksong, a fine melody, showing an appreciation of this style, with obligatory flattened 7th. The ending plays with major-minor alternations.
The first Allegro is in a rumbustious 6/8 time, the first 3 notes a transformation of x. It features more unusual juxtapositions of chords, a distinctive cadence being remarked upon by Ernest Walker being one found in the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’ “Salome”. This same cadence is later used to defiant effect at the end of Bowen’s great G sharp minor Prelude from Op. 102. Walker found this section a little too short for balance, but I believe balance is not the issue here, and this is a deliberate ploy to throw the emphasis onto the second, much longer Allegro.
The Andante is in that lovely lyrical style familiar to lovers of Dale’s music, with rapturous romantic curves, graceful figures and imitations in the accompaniment, sensitive harmonies and plentiful examples of BJD curves, and passionate peaks, with two examples of the augmented 11th. The spirit of the love music episodes from “Die Meistersinger” hovers over this.
The 3rd movement I have subdivided, the changes being quite audible. Evans calls this the most characteristic section, and it has an outdoors folksy feel, with use of dotted rhythms, sforzandos on the second and fourth beats of the bar and much staccato writing. But there is room for more graceful passages, suggesting a lively dance. The change of time signature is much more frequent, with much use of 5/4 time. As in the Introduction, Dale makes much use of two chords a third apart in alternation. Although the piano writing is pared down from that of the Suite, it is still considerably demanding, needing quick wits and some athleticism to get round it. The 1st Trio starts fortissimo feroce and transforms the folksong theme. There is a touch of the Tarantella in the piano writing, with a dark, driven feel in this section, the jagged figures and staccato dashes recalling the manner of Liszt. As we approach a bold furious climax, the music suddenly deflates in a characteristic manner to Trio 2, a sunny transformation of the 3-note figure x into a gentle lilting dance, full of Bavarian charm. This finds time to hark back to the Andante music, before becoming more decorated, till it nearly turns into a yodelling song! The recap of the scherzo is brief. The final whirl combines elements of the first Allegro, the Andante and the Bavarian Trio in a heady mix of emotions, in a way that recalls the Finale of the piano Sonata, hurtling towards a fateful catastrophe. When this arrives via a whole-tone passage for viola and jagged stabbing augmented chords for piano, it is sudden and devastating and recalls the demise of a Wagnerian hero.
The bridge to the final statement of the narrator in the shape of the folksong is concise, and after a final allusion to the 3-note x figure, the Andante music takes over, symbolising the triumph of romantic love, and it wells up into a radiant soaring peak before gently subsiding to a sunset ending in D major.
This work mixes the strong influence of Wagner with a sideways glance at Vaughan Williams and shows not only more concision but a clever use of cyclic thematic transformation. Harry Farjeon claimed it was “only one degree less beautiful than the Suite”, but it is idle to compare such different works. Ernest Walker said of the second Allegro “the glittering cleverness of certain portions of it seems a little hard and unsympathetic”, but it is in such passages as the Introduction, and the two Allegros that Dale is extending his emotional range. The Phantasy is a beautiful and entirely successful piece that deserves to be heard more frequently. One memorable performance of it must have been on 10th February 1916 when Tertis played it at the Aeolian Hall with Artur Rubinstein, along with Bowen’s 1st Sonata. The Musical Times said “such fine artists presented these British works in the most favourable light”.
In 1911 Tertis asked Dale to provide a short piece for 6 violas for a lecture-recital on the rise of the viola he was to give at the Aeolian Hall. Though there are 19th century viola 4tets by GA Schmitt, Guido Papini, and Max Weinzerl and a 5tet by Anton Wranitzky, Dale’s piece is the first ever for 6 violas. He would have known Bowen’s viola 4tet Op. 41 No. 1 (1907) as well as Corder’s “Elegy in memoriam Victor Harris” for 24 violins and organ (1910). Dale finished this piece, “Introduction and Andante”, a short piece for 6 violas, Op. 5, at 10.30 pm on May 29th 1911, at Crouch Hill, so the MS at the RAM tells us. It is known as the viola Sextet. It was first performed by Tertis, with five of his pupils, Dorothy Jones, Phyllis Mitchell, Eric Coates, Raymond Jeremy and James T. Lockyer on 19th June in an amazing lecture-recital that also saw the first performances of the Fantasy by Cyril Scott, Bowen’s Poem for viola, harp and organ and a song with viola obbligato, as well as a piece by Josef Holbrooke. Dale, Scott and Bowen all featured as pianists.
Dale produced here a work of still greater concentration. Again we have a stark contrast between the D minor Allegro and the A flat section, which in spite of the title, is marked Lento espress. in the score! We might note Dale’s early fondness for the key of D minor—the key of the organ Sonata, the piano Trio, the Marche Funebre (1901), the piano Sonata, the start of the Suite Finale, and the Phantasy. This is a trait he shares with early Schoenberg. Dale would not have relished this comparison for he detested Schoenberg’s music, yet both grew out of the Austro-German tradition, exclusively so in Schoenberg’s case, while Dale was enrichened by Russian and French influences. The sextet might be described as Dale’s “Transfigured Night”. But whereas with Schoenberg the most memorable music is in the dark tortured music of the first two thirds, Dale stresses the resolution of conflict and stress into a radiant, serene and uplifting movement of refined beauty which is totally convincing.
The plan is an Introduction, 24 bars, followed by a main movement of 158 bars as follows: 1st section 35 bars, subsidiary bridge passage 24 bars, central section 42 bars, 1st section recap 27 bars, Coda 30 bars. The opening is certainly gripping, electric in its tension, two violas providing the harmony in a tremolo figure while a 6-note figure is heard, pizzicato, in five different rhythmic versions before speedily erupting to a climax on a diminished chord. Three bars of anguished questioning follow before the re-statement is even more intense in B flat minor. This section ends with a recitative passage for the 1st viola, swung by a pivot into A major, succinctly, and the tension is at once dispelled. The main section is in A flat major, a warm expressive melody, tender and hesitant at first, before being heard over pulsating triplets, conversing between the parts as they take up the melody in turn and imitate each other. Counterpoint and cumulative repetition are used to build to a largamente peak, with an expansive feel to it. Dale stays in one key longer than usual. The close of this section is a variation of the initial Allegro motif, which stresses the transformed nature of the material. The second section energises the mood, and modulates, introducing a new irregular triplet figure. It too contains perceptible developments of the initial Allegro figure, besides a ravishing duet in canon for 1st and 5th violas in D flat before harmonies of caressing sweetness, BJD curves and a sudden switch from D flat to C major for the broad central section. Here the rich melody, given out by 2nd and 3rd violas in octaves, shows how deeply Dale drunk at the fount of Bayreuth. The flavour of “Die Meistersinger” is strong, and elaborate arabesques are woven round this melody. It is heard in a variety of keys, always reaching upwards, and extended via double 3rds, till it joins with the subsidiary irregular triplet theme in ever mounting fervour and with cumulative Wagnerian repetition to a recap fortississimo and very passionate. The Coda uses the Introduction motif, now arco, and pacified, and the central theme, again in double octaves, with magical excursions to E major and E minor. The last four bars consist of four chords, a prime example of Dale’s feeling for the power of harmony, perfectly placed, with the focal point on the penultimate chord before the resolution to A flat major.
The whole work is of a serene, noble and elevated character. Harry Farjeon, writing in 1943 said “It is years since I heard the Sextet; I considered it (I remember) his finest work”. It is in the language of rich ripe late romanticism, epitomising the glorious high summer of the pre-First World War era, and has been rightly applauded by discerning musicians. Edwin Evans called it “a striking display of musicianship of the highest order”. As for Corder, he typically went into hyperbole in a letter about it to the Musical Times written on 3rd September 1917: “ a work of remarkable beauty, power and originality…the six instruments all have highly independent parts, they imitate the sounds of other instruments, they do things that one would have thought impossible for any viola-player, and the effect of the whole is of an almost Beethovenish majesty and grandeur and a melodic sweep such as none other of the present generation of string-writers seems able to approach”.
The 6th viola’s C string is tuned down to B flat throughout, and he is instructed before the last page to tune down to G(!) to reach the bass A flat of the last bar. The instruments weave around each other constantly, the part-writing being beautifully thought out, and all six parts have leading melodies at some point. Pizzicato, tremolos, sul ponticello effects, and harmonics are used.
The Sextet had a dozen performances before 1917 and the Society of British Composers was to publish it, but Dale’s 1913 revision of it, then the war, intervened. It has amazingly never been published. Corder speaks of a fine gramophone recording which had been made of it, but the first modern recording only was made in 2008. It was performed at Tertis’s 96th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall on 29th December 1972 with Bowen’s viola 4tet, where it was favourably reviewed, and at Mrs Coolidge’s festival at Berkeley, Massachusetts.
In short, it is a remarkably fine piece that occupies a special place even in Dale’s output, and deserves to be much better known. Altogether, Dale’s music for viola is not only historically important, but an extremely fine body of work by any standard, that has lately started to gain a higher profile with the recent CD of the complete viola works.
 
All this time Dale had been a church musician as well, and had had a regular organist’s position at a local church, St Luke’s, Hillmarton Road, Holloway, since his student days. Here there was a 3-manual organ and once a month he would give a recital after evensong, these often consisting of transcriptions played from piano score. One evening he played the 1st movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and the Angel Scene from “Hansel and Gretel”. Two stories have come down concerning his choirmaster days. I once heard, through a third party, of an old man who remembered Dale making faces at the young ladies in the choir, to make them laugh. As for the reverse side of Dale, Penelope Mary Dale tells of an occasion when the choir displeased him and he started to kick the composition pedals hard, audibly muttering “fools!”
Back in 1904 he had written 6 hymn tunes and an arrangement for the 1904 Methodist Hymn Book (his father and York Bowen each wrote a hymn for this); they are pleasant acceptable tunes, however only one retained a place in the 1933 edition, and sadly none remain in the 1983 edition. In November 1906 as a supplement to the Musical Times, a Carol, “In Bethlehem, that noble place” appeared, an attractive 4-part setting with plenty of character and a lively staccato turn for the words “Be we merry”, and each verse ending on the dominant chord. Only after the last verse there is an Alleluia with flat 7th. In December 1908 Dale produced another Carol, “The Holy Birth”, specified as being for unaccompanied 4-part choir. This sets the words of “O little town of Bethlehem”, and takes the flat 7th idea further by modulating to that key, only getting out just in time for the end. Flat 7ths were obviously all the rage in hymn writing, as in Ireland’s “My song is love unknown”. In 1912 there appeared a third Carol, “The Shepherds and the Mother”. This is considerably more elaborate, being for SATTB unaccompanied, and perhaps surprisingly is dedicated to that choir of St Luke’s. It was published by Stainer & Bell in 1912. Dale only sets the first 3 verses of Coleridge’s poem (John Francis Barnett had set 7 of them), in a gentle, lilting pastoral F major 9/8 time with some beautiful part writing, sensitive harmonies and use of the flat 7th, all features we would expect from him. The mood is placid and content, and there is no doubt Dale understood the medium of choral writing well. All the parts split at some point and in one passage we have 7-part writing, where the sopranos and tenors double each other up and the alto and basses move in contrary motion to them. The end of verse 3 is modified and Dale adds a 7-bar Alleluia on the end.
The Sextet was the last major work written in Crouch Hill. Dale’s father died on 16th June 1912 after a serious operation. At the same time the vicar of St Luke’s moved to St Stephen’s, Ealing, and took Dale with him as organist. Dale moved out of the family home, and we find him living at 6 Amherst Road, Ealing. This is where he wrote the work that ends this golden period in his career, “Before the Paling of the Stars”, a Christmas Hymn, Op.7 (in the vocal score, in the British Library, and in the sketches at the RAM this is “A Hymn of the Nativity”). The vocal score was finished at Ealing in October 1912, published by Novello in 1912 and scheduled to be performed at one of Balfour Gardiner’s famous concerts of British music the next year. There were some concerns as to whether the full score and parts would be ready in time, so Dale probably left this till a performance was secured. The first performance took place in the Queen’s Hall on 11th February 1913 in the first concert of Gardiner’s second series, with the Oriana Madrigal Choir of 60 voices and the New Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott, the programme also including Parry’s 5th Symphony and the first London performance of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, with the composers conducting, some Holst, Grainger, and a selection of Elizabethan madrigals. Dale must have been stimulated by this excellent choir and the more generous rehearsal time than was customary. For a while this was Dale’s most popular work. What may have been the next performance took place in the Duke’s Hall, RAM on 21st December 1913 with the Oriana Madrigal Society and Scott, the Fantasias on Carols by Vaughan Williams and Holst also being performed and Dale supplying the organ accompaniment. WG Whittaker performed it in Newcastle in the 1st World War, and it was done at the Hereford Festival in 1921 and at the RAM in 1922, both conducted by the composer. Sir Henry Wood refers to it in his autobiography as a “choral gem”.
It sets Christina Rossetti’s 1864 poem for chorus (Evans says no more than 80 voices) without soloists, and orchestra. The poem has three verses, so it lends itself to ternary design. The orchestration is evocative right from the opening cor anglais solo in B flat minor. This opening could only have been written by someone who had absorbed the third act of “Tristan and Isolde” deeply into his system. A haunting unbarred passage leads to “gently flowing” in D flat major, the overall key. We are mostly in a lilting 3/8 time with very occasional bars of 4 or 5. There are many instructions to hold back, broaden, or linger; in fact I have counted at least 33 of these in a 15 minute piece! This easy-going rubato allows us to enjoy many beautiful moments and sets a mood of rapt contemplation. The vocal lines, beginning so innocently and simply, are very singable. The paragraphs are long, with a wonderful natural flow and sustained interest. The dynamics do not rise above forte, but make no mistake about it, this is an emotional, very passionate piece, with only the restrained dynamics keeping the lid on. Dale’s part-writing is fastidious, all the parts sub-dividing eventually, so the writing is in up to 6 or 7 parts. The basses are taken down to bottom D flat and the sopranos up to top B flat. There are orchestral interludes between the verses and a major one in the middle of the second verse. A discernible whiff of the influence of Delius is felt. The words “priest and king lay fast asleep” are set most evocatively, with melisma on “fast”, to such gently throbbing descending semiquavers, with the loving detail of woodwind flourishes written on a third stave. There is an echo of this phrase after the broad central climax. The third verse is pure magic, prepared for by an orchestral interlude which suddenly swings to C flat major! dolcissimo with a rapid harp flourish. Dale goes out of his way to avoid a vulgar triumphal blazing climax with peals of bells; instead we get a subtle intensification of the first verse material with chromatically enhanced harmonies and extensions of phrases. Who can forget the word “Jesus” held for three long bars pianississimo, with a catch of the breath, and then “on his mother’s breast”, dynamics pregnant with expressive rises and sudden drops and an interrupted cadence on “breast”, virtually unaccompanied? This is a moment of hushed wonder, while the orchestral interludes are increasingly voluptuous, so much so that they could be said to be positively erotic in their intensity. The choir sings “let us kneel” in sudden unison, ppp, “with reverence”, then the final climax builds over a pedal bass, ecstatically reaching ever upwards, only for the vision to fade and characteristically linger over the words “of glory”. Here Dale produces his most purple chord in the purple key of D flat, with just one extra note added that blushingly almost takes us from classical music 1912 and shows us the cocktail jazz of the 1940s! It is worth noting that at the end of verse 1 at the words “born a stranger”, Dale ends in warm D flat, yet at the very end, to the words “to hail the King of glory”, he returns to the haunting B flat minor of the introduction.
This work shows how musical taste has evolved in the past 30 years. To a 1980 teenager this might have seemed slightly sugary and sentimental, while a projected performance at the RAM in 1985 was abandoned, as no doubt the students would not have “got” it; it would have been labelled in student slang “slushy” or passed by with indifference. A performance by the Highgate Choral Society in November 2000 showed how effective it can be, and the writer of these lines has taught it to and performed it with a choir of 27 voices with organ accompaniment, the writing and the natural charm impressing the vocal connoisseurs. Sentimentality implies something tawdry, mawkish, second rate and insincere. But there was never a more serious sincere composer than Dale, whose sentiment, rather than sentimentality, is natural and straight from the heart. He shows an astonishing sensitivity and empathy with mother and babe, with many eye-watering moments, and has, I believe, caught the timeless hushed magic of the story of the holy birth in the cold stable, with the starry night sky outside. Such an outpouring of love and tenderness will endear him to many. The time is ripe for a wider appreciation of this work. Surprisingly, even scandalously, it has not been recorded yet!
 
 
 
 
 
 
Christopher Foreman, January 2011.

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