Norman O'NEILL (1875-1934)
String Quartet in C major (before 1893? and 1909) [18.48]
Piano Trio in one movement, Op.32 (1909) [8.53]*
Piano Quintet in E minor (1904) [28.32]*
Theme and Variations for piano trio, Op.1 (1895) [13.07]*
Bridge Quartet (Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins); Michael Schofield (viola); Lucy Wilding (cello)); Michael Dussek (piano)*
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 22-23 February 2012
EM RECORDS EMR CD005 [73.22]
Norman O’Neill is known nowadays, if indeed he is remembered at all, for the incidental music he wrote for a number of plays performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London from 1909 onwards. These include Barrie’s Marie Rose and Maeterlinck’s The blue bird. At the time of his death following a traffic accident he was apparently intending to migrate to Hollywood to take up a career as a film composer. He was one of the ‘Frankfurt School’ which also included Percy Grainger, Balfour Gardiner, Roger Quilter and Cyril Scott. His music belongs very much to the world of that somewhat disparate group. These works, which have been revived thanks to an initiative by the English Music Festival, belong to the earliest period of his career and all are world première recordings.
The String Quartet is derived from manuscripts of various movements in the Royal College of Music and this appears to be its first performance in this form. The other works were given in London at the time of their composition and appear to have been totally forgotten since, although a published score of the Piano Trio in one movement is available from the invaluable ISMLP website.
Beginning therefore with this Piano Trio and listening to this performance with the score, one notes firstly the extremely original way in which the single movement is constructed, with Allegro and Andante passages contrasted throughout the relatively brief length of the work. The piano part demands almost concerto-like virtuosity, and Michael Dussek in a booklet notes points out the unmistakable influences of Debussy and Fauré. These give the piece a positively Cyril Scott-like feel. The playing is faultless, and one’s only very minor cavil may be that the admittedly unrealistic demands for a crescendo from fff by the string players in the final bars are not quite as forceful as the composer clearly wanted.
This piece was written at the time O’Neill was working on his incidental music for Maeterlinck’s The blue bird and there is a strong sense of drama here that clearly was to stand him in good stead in his later years. Hitchcock apparently wanted to use his music for Marie Rose for his film Rebecca in 1939 - after the composer’s death - but the orchestral score could not be traced at that date although the composer had recorded some excerpts in 1929. At one time these were available on a Dutton compilation issued in 2006 (mentioned here). Hitchcock turned instead to Bernard Herrmann, thus beginning his long association with that composer. Apparently the manuscript of the full score is held in the National Library of Australia. It would merit revival; Tolkien in his essay On fairy stories remarks with some disapproval upon the “painful” effectiveness of the final scene in the theatre. It was the same passage that also enthralled Hitchcock.
Lacking a score for comparison in the other works on this disc, one can only observe that the performers give a magnificent rendition of the pieces although they are less evidently dramatic and it does not seem that O’Neill’s musical language was fully developed at that time of their composition. In view of the antipathy expressed by the ‘Frankfurt School’ to German romanticism and in particular the music of Beethoven, it is strange to find a strictly classical approach to both form and harmony here. Although Michael Schofield in his booklet note detects a Russian influence in the Piano Quintet this is not overwhelmingly evident.
The earlier String Quartet - the first two movements of which appear to pre-date O’Neill’s studies in Frankfurt - is even more obviously modelled on classical models. There are already strong hints of other influences in the use of cyclical themes which recur from movement to movement and in the modal style of these themes themselves. The final Scherzo however was not written until 1909 and may have been intended to be performed separately, despite the fact that the score was preserved together with the first two movements and re-numbered simply ‘III’ to become a third movement for the much earlier pieces. The opening theme of the first movement is recognisably English in feel. Indeed one recognises some affinities with the contemporaneous very early works of Vaughan Williams which have recently been revived: O’Neill seeming to anticipate the folksong revival here. The simplicity of the writing in the first two movements contrasts rather strangely with the later Scherzo which breathes a much more sophisticated atmosphere and shows evidence that O’Neill was acquainted with the string quartets of both Debussy and Ravel, written in 1893 and 1903 respectively.
The earliest piece here which O’Neill heard performed - both in Frankfurt and later in London - is the set of variations for piano trio based on the traditional song Sweet Polly Oliver the text of which is quoted in the booklet. These notes suggest that the variations are intended to illustrate various sections of the song. This certainly seems to be the case, thus making the work a rare example of chamber programme music from the nineteenth century. One can see why Grainger liked the piece; indeed the third variation breathes a positively Graingerian atmosphere although it predates Grainger’s pieces in the same jaunty style.
All these pieces are welcome discoveries, and the performances do the music full justice. They make one anxious to hear more of the work of O’Neill, whom Grainger described as “our dear friend-genius”. Unfortunately none of his other music appears to be currently available on CD, although some broadcast tracks including The blue bird are to be found on the internet. Hopefully this CD will generate further interest in a composer whose gifts were clearly very far from negligible.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Welcome discoveries and the performances do the music full justice.