An Imperishable Heritage: British Choral Music from Parry to Dyson
A Study of selected works
Author: Stephen Town
Publisher: Ashgate Press
327 pages hard bound
ISBN: 9780754605362 (hardback)
ISBN: 9781409448792 (e-book)
This is a handsome and substantial book, beautifully presented. If the title reads like a slightly intractable doctorial thesis then that is probably not that far off the mark. The author is the professor of music at Missouri State University and I think it fair to say that the target readership for this is in the main Academic. To that end Town makes no apology for the fact that this is a highly specialised and detailed book dealing with the niche of specific choral works within the niche of music of the English Musical Renaissance within the overall niche of Classical Music. Personally, this is a field in which I am very interested and what a delight to encounter a book so lovingly presented which will never be featuring on any bestseller list simply by dint of its extreme speciality.
What this is not is an overview or survey of British Choral Music since 1850. Instead, Town has chosen in the course of the book’s eleven chapters, to focus on a dozen specific works that he feels are representative of their composer’s finest work, show those composer’s working practices to best effect and also have never benefited from any detailed analysis or discussion in print previously. Central to his choices are the fact that Town has in every instance examined in great detail the original manuscripts and sketches of the works in question. The choice of just twelve works means a debate will rage about works omitted before a page is turned. So not only is there nothing by Elgar, Howells, Delius, Walton, or Britten to name but a few but also the Vaughan Williams works examined are surprising ones; Flos Campi and An Oxford Elegy but not Sancta Civitas or Dona Nobis Pacem. This is because a) this is a personal choice and b) Town is being true to the remit outlined above; would much have been added to the sum of our knowledge by revisiting well-known and oft-studied works by Elgar or Britten?
The book has proved to be a dense and quite demanding read. Certainly the style of the writing and the way it addresses the music discussed presumes of the reader a reasonable level of technical musical comprehension. Although Town finds and highlights linkages between the works each chapter is written as a self-contained entity and indeed has the feel of the written up notes of a lecture. Town has a template he uses which again has an academic air to the structure. Simply put this is a historical/personal context of the composer, their work and the age in which they lived. Then a focusing in on the work in question, the literary sources and often a very detailed description of the actual manuscript itself and what evidence for revision and amendments it shows. Then the actual music is analysed with generous use of musical excerpts usually from the vocal score but also using fascinating photographic reproductions of key pages of the manuscripts – this is the section that demands greatest technical competence on behalf of the reader especially for those works not available through recordings. Finally Town writes a brief conclusion, revisiting the central thrust of the argument contained in the chapter. The section is completed by detailed footnotes and for some of the chapters separate appendices – nine of the twelve chapters are so appended. Curiously I found much of the most interesting information was contained in these supplementary sections.
Town’s strengths are the breadth and rigour of his research and his ability to collate into a coherent text information obtained from a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. You have the sense that unlike some writers he has acknowledged the work of earlier texts but he is not willing to regurgitate their views and interpretations. Wherever possible he has referenced original sources, manuscripts or letters, and reached his own conclusions. Where the secondary sources have produced conflicting opinions he outlines the differing points of view and offers his own. Of particular interest is the way Town shows how certain interpretations of the composer’s personality and work have been taken up and repeated over the years thereby becoming a standardised view which through repetition becomes received fact. By his choice of format, for these very specific works this does provide the reader with as good a ‘one-stop-shop’ as it would be possible to imagine. The downside is that this academic rigour and near forensic approach does result in a text that is a rather dry narrative.
I do not intend to describe in detail the works studied here but in every chapter Town illuminates and informs way beyond the remit of the usual umbrella studies of the individual composers and their works. The music is not presented in strict chronological order but there is a general flow from earlier to later. Hence the first three chapters focus on works by Parry and Stanford. In many ways these are some of the most interesting yet hardest chapters for the lay-reader to ingest. Most interesting because the chosen works languish unknown and unrecorded and even the vocal scores are all but impossible to source. Hardest because without the crutch of scores or recordings you fall back on the written musical analysis. What does become clear is the significance and stature of these works and their place in their respective composer’s outputs. Certainly, it does make one wish to be able to hear these works to judge for one’s self. Indeed in passing I offered up several quiet prayers of thanks to the likes of Chandos, Dutton and Hyperion for their work preserving the rarer British Choral works.
A common thread through the works – which in the main draw on more than one literary source – is just how well and carefully the respective authors chose and edited the texts for their musical ends. At first sight it seems nearly perverse to chose as the two Vaughan Williams works one – Flos Campi – which is choral but uses the chorus wordlessly and the other – An Oxford Elegy – where the bulk of the narrative is carried by a speaker. On further consideration these are in fact canny choices. The preservation of a huge amount of original manuscripts and personal documents allows the researcher to trace back Vaughan Williams’ working practices and sources of inspiration. This is the kind of area where Town’s book is at its strongest. The description of Vaughan Williams’ chaotic compositional style – with ideas thrown upon the page at the instant of conception makes for a vivid impression of the white heat of inspiration. Compare this to Rubbra’s meticulous presentation of a score ‘clean’ and clear enough to be used by his publisher as the published version or Finzi’s laborious – dare one say occasionally laboured – efforts at crafting a work over potentially many years. But this is not to say Vaughan Williams was not just as careful. Town reproduces the complete texts of the two Matthew Arnold poems – The Scholar-Gipsy and Thyrsis and shows how cunningly the composer conflated and filleted the two poems to give the text a quite different slant from the one the poet conceived. The deeper one gets into the book the more one appreciates the subtle linkages Town perceives and highlights between the various composers and their works. I had forgotten – if I ever knew! – that Finzi fulfilled for Vaughan Williams the dual role of colleague/critic (in much the same way as Holst had done until his early death) and also was regarded by Vaughan Williams as his natural musical successor. With Finzi’s own untimely death this mantle passed to Rubbra. And so the connections come thick and fast; Town details an early Vaughan Williams work Harnham Down – an orchestral work from 1907 prefaced with lines from the self-same Scholar Gipsy which not only appears to have provided some musical motifs for the later Oxford Elegy but in turn inspired Finzi when writing his own Intimations of Immortality. The significance of this work is made all the more interesting by the fact it is not mentioned – or even listed – by Michael Kennedy in his 1992 revision of his classic The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I assume it is in the appended catalogue of works. The inclusion of Dyson’s Quo Vadis and Nebuchadnezzar prompted me to listen again to two works – the latter especially – which has rather underwhelmed me on superficial acquaintance. Once more Towns is very good at charting the position and significance of the music in their author’s output. So again he found links between Quo Vadis to the all but forgotten Noble Numbers by Walford Davies and by lavishing such care and attention on what might be perceived as ‘lesser’ works forces the reader to reconsider their – hastily simplistic – dismissal of these substantial pieces. Which is rather what I think Town intended all along. Walford Davies is the source of the only ‘error’ I spotted in the text; footnote 38 on page 286 refers to Dyson when I’m sure it should be Davies.
This is a beautifully produced book – all credit to the small independent publishers Ashgate for the care that has gone into its production; the text is beautifully clear At around the £70.00 mark it is far from cheap (there is a Kindle edition available for about £12.00 less – but part of the delight of this kind of book is its tangible weight in your hand to my mind!) but conversely I cannot imagine the works discussed ever benefiting from such attention again so this automatically and by default becomes a key reference work. Which rather neatly brings me back to my opening assertion that this is a book more likely to appear on the library shelf than the coffee table. Without a shadow of a doubt my appreciation of all the music discussed here is increased and indeed some transformed and for that I am forever in the debt of Stephen Town.
My appreciation of the music discussed is increased and transformed and for that I am forever in the debt of Stephen Town.