Elisabeth Lutyens: En Voyage – suite for orchestra.
Much has been written about the relative unapproachability of Elisabeth Lutyens’ music. I have often told the story of how hearing a performance of her O saisons, O châteaux! (1946) put me off her work for nearly thirty years. I felt that it was the most appalling piece I had heard up to that time. However, a few years ago I got a surprise: I bought a DVD of British Transport Films. One of these attractive pieces of ephemera from the nineteen-fifties was an advertising ‘featurette’ for the Midlands entitled The Heart of England (1954). It was not until watching the film and being impressed with the ‘score’ that I wound back the disc and discovered that the music was by ‘Twelve-Tone Lizzie’. All artists have to make a living: Lutyens used the medium of films to augment her income. Yet, whilst watching this ‘bucolic’ film, it was hard not to imagine that the ‘lady doth protest too much’ with her condemnation of the ‘cow-pat’ school of music. Any of that happy band of ‘clod-hoppers’ would have been delighted to have penned this attractive and picturesque commentary on one of many beautiful haunts in England.
Elisabeth Lutyens tended to repudiate her ‘light music’. Nevertheless, there are over a hundred film scores, many of which feature ‘traditional and approachable’ music rather than dodecaphonic explorations. Furthermore, there are sundry examples of ‘light music’ dotted throughout her catalogue.
In 2007, Lyrita Records gave listeners a surprise. They released an excellent sampler of ‘bon-bons’ with the John Masefield-inspired title of A Box of Delights. This featured works by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Granville Bantock, Phyllis Tate and Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Amongst these delicious gems was short suite called En Voyage by Elisabeth Lutyens.
Composition and Content
The years 1943/5 called forth a number of disparate works from Lutyens’ pen, however the style of much of that period’s production was, in her terms ‘tonal’. There were the film scores for Jungle Mariners and Bustle for WAAFs. She wrote a suite entitled Proud City in honour of London, which had ‘come through’ the Blitz. Art music included the Petite Suite and the Divertissement for percussion and strings. Lutyens also completed the important Chamber Concerto III for bassoon, strings and percussion – which is a serial work.
En Voyage was composed in 1944 as an orchestral suite; however, it appeared to languish before the composer ‘re-discovered’ it. Some years later, it metamorphosed into a Divertissement for double wind quintet. Meirion and Susie Harries in their A Pilgrim Soul: the Life and Work of Elisabeth Lutyens (1989) have suggested that ‘Liz was pleased with it [En voyage] or at least felt that it was serviceable’.
The work was meant to be a musical picture of a journey from London to Paris via Dieppe. In those days, there was no tunnel and all passengers had to cross the English Channel on board one of the many ferries. There are four short movements in this suite – ‘Overture: Golden Arrow’, ‘Channel Crossing’, ‘Yvette: la Dieppoise’ and ‘Paris Soir: City Lights’. According to Harries and Harries (1989) Lutyens proposed a fifth movement which would have been entitled ‘Flanders Fields’. However, this would have implied ‘a devious route between London and Paris’. This ‘sentimental’ section was never composed.
The first movement, ‘Overture: Golden Arrow’ has a softly dissonant introduction, which suggests the train beginning its journey from Platform 2 at London’s Victoria Station. However, this is not developed. Soon, a largely ‘mock-Tudor’ mood is introduced. Lutyens makes clever use of woodwind tone-colour in this section. This part of the movement is certainly not a description of the train journey but reflects more on the rural aspect of the countryside through which the Golden Arrow is speeding. Pleasant ‘songs and snatches’ topple over each other: delightful ‘pastoral’ flute and oboe melodies are characteristically supported by strings. Then the composer recalls the subtitle of this ‘Overture’ – there is a short section that nearly approaches ‘rhythm on the rails’ before a recapitulation of the ‘landscape’ themes. The movement closes with a reference to the opening ‘train noise’ passage and, after a short codetta, Lutyens brings the train to a halt at Dover Maritime Station buffer stops.
The ‘Channel Crossing’ is hardly a major seascape in musical terms: this is not Debussy’s La Mer or Frank Bridge’s The Sea. It actually represents a rather ‘calm and prosperous’ voyage across La Manche: maybe there is the odd ‘squall.’ The music begins with a few bars of softly dissonant, brassy music. This is followed by a rumble in the bass. Then a catchy melody, almost nautical in character, takes over in the strings leading to a short climax before the music subsides. A bassoon is heard muttering a short phrase in the depths. Lutyens presents a lovely string tune, however the brass is always threatening in the background. There follows an interlude with another ‘jaunty’ melody, before the movement nearly comes to a complete halt. There is then a recapitulation of foregoing themes including the ‘jazzy’ opening and the carefree sailor’s tune.
I am not sure what is being depicted with ‘Yvette: la Dieppoise’. This is the most rustic movement in the suite – complete with pipe, drum and tambourine. There is a succession of attractive tunes for a variety of woodwind instruments, and then a reflective moment before the main dance theme is recapitulated. This is quite serious music, however the sense of wistfulness soon returns and the movement concludes in the same mood as it began. It certainly seems to conjure up an era long before the Golden Arrow began running the London to Paris cross-channel service. Dieppe was subject of considerable military activity during the Second World War including the ill-fated attack by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division who suffered many casualties and failed to gain all their objectives. Undoubtedly, Yvette is a ‘type’ of a lady who had enjoyed happier times.
The last movement is the most impressive: certainly, it is the most dramatic. After a romantic opening, worthy of a contemporary film-score, the music moves up a gear to reflect the Café life of Paris. However, the mood is sometimes challenged by more profound phrases in the brass section. This is not all about ‘gaïté’ and ‘joie de vivre’. At the mid-point of the movement, Lutyens lets down her hair. This is the Paris of Jacques Offenbach – complete with ‘can-can’ dancers. Even so, there is still time for the lovers to stroll down the Champs Elysées. The movement concludes with a reflective glance back across the years to less-frivolous history.
The score of En Voyage was published circa 1965 by Mills Music, London. This was a photocopy of the composer’s manuscript.
Performance and Reception
En Voyage was first heard at the BBC’s Light Music Festival Concerts on 2 July 1960. This was one of a series of five weekly concerts given at the Royal Festival Hall between 4 June and 2 July. It was played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky. Lutyens’ suite featured in an ‘all-British’ night alongside works performed by the Max Jaffa Trio, Owen Brannigan and Osian Ellis. Lutyens was not pleased with the BBC for including music that she felt was untypical of her output. At this time the Corporation was consistently rejecting her ‘serious’ chamber music as being ‘unacceptable for broadcasting’. To a certain extent, one can have sympathy for the composer. Other music given first performances during the Festival included Sidney Torch’s Duel for Drummers, John Gardner’s Suite of Five Rhythms, Peter Yorke’s Suite for Brass Band and Brian Boydell’s Shielmartin Suite.
I feel that Harries and Harries (1989) are a little unfair in their evaluation of En Voyage. They begin by suggesting that this is ‘red-herring music’: it is ‘traditional pictorial music slightly on the skew’. The reasons that they advance for this ‘skew’ are in my opinion features of the work that add to its charm. For example, they suggest that the music is ‘constantly missing beats, or allowing ‘the bottom to drop out of the harmony’. They consider that the work is both ‘poignant and unsatisfactory’ and accuse it ‘of building towards grand climaxes which never arrive, always hitting the nail slightly off-centre and driving it in at an angle.’ Surely, these idiosyncrasies make this a first-rate piece of ‘light music’ and not one that simply utilises a number of tried and tested clichés.
There has been little critical comment about En Voyage: I was unable to find any reviews in contemporary newspapers or journals.
However, there have been a number of favourable remarks made about the Lyrita recording. Andrew Achenbach wrote in The Gramophone for August 2007 that ‘En voyage [was] a tuneful and deftly scored four-movement suite ...’ Jonathan Woolf writing for MusicWeb International noted that ‘Lutyens summons up some evocative nature painting for a Channel squall vibrant gaiety as the train approaches the bright lights of Paris and a generous winding down.’ Rob Barnett, reviewing the same CD has given a more detailed account. He suggests that the first movement ‘Overture’ is reminiscent of Ronald Binge’s Elizabethan Serenade – ‘a sort of mock Tudor’ that is also found in Vaughan Williams' The England of Elizabeth. He records a number of allusions in the second movement, ‘Channel Crossing’: some of this music has ‘jazzy disruption[s] whilst there is the ‘stamping terpsichore’ of Constant Lambert ...’ Finally, his description of the final movement is interesting. He suggests that ‘Paris Soir’ has a surprisingly desolate beginning. However, this soon develops into a ‘carousel of Parisian street-life.’ He concludes by noting that in the last part of this movement, ‘Lutyens suddenly forgets the Parisian locale and comes away with a sighingly lovely and yearning grandeur looking out across the Seine’.
Perhaps this last gesture echoes the fact that the Second World War was moving into its final stage. Paris was not liberated until August 1944 so this ‘epilogue’ could be a vision of hope or a reflection on the sadness of days passed.
Bibliography and Discography
Meirion Harries, Susie Harries, A Pilgrim Soul: the Life and Work of Elisabeth Lutyens, Joseph, 1989
Box of Delights - British Light Music Gems LYRITA SRCD.214