ALGERNON ASHTON - ENGLAND'S FORGOTTEN COMPOSER
by Patrick Webb
It is always something of an occasion when a forgotten composer is discovered and a hidden vein of music brought to light - and an especially joyous occasion when that composer is English, and the vein of music brought to light is "full of beautiful melody". Algernon Ashton has been described as "one of the best-kept secrets in British music" and "one of the most shamefully ignored of English composers with a long list of unqualified masterpieces to his credit". Writing in 1906, Rutland Boughton felt that he "seems to pour out great musical thought as easily as the lark trills its delight in cloudland". How wonderful, then, that Toccata Classics has begun, for the first time ever, to record the music.
Ashton was born in Durham on 9 December 1859. His father, whose twelfth child he was, was the leading tenor at Lincoln Cathedral, with a voice that was widely admired. When Ashton was three years of age, his father died quite unexpectedly, leaving his widow in very straightened circumstances with four surviving children to care for. The composer's mother, Diana, decided at once to move her son and two surviving daughters to Germany since the eldest, also named Diana, was already studying music at the Conservatoire in Leipzig, where the family was to settle. On their arrival they were at once befriended by Clara Schumann and invited to her regular musical soirees where they met the leading composers of the day, including Moscheles, Rubinstein, Dvořak and Brahms, the last two taking particular interest in the precociously gifted youngster, who began to study music with Iwan Knorr at the tender age of seven, entering the Conservatoire, where he was to excel, at fifteen. From 1875 he studied with Reinecke, Jadassohn and Richter and, after his graduation, with Raff and Knorr (again) in Frankfurt. He did not return to the United Kingdom until 1881 when he settled in Westminster, where he was to stay for the remainder of his life.
It might be imagined that, stemming from such a rich Teutonic tilth, Ashton's music would be Brahmsian and Germanic; in fact, it is Ashtonian and English to the ear. His highly personal style has been described as "a vibrantly melodic style of freely moving lines, usually of single notes, with chords reinforcing the texture at quite unexpected points, phrases which overlap each other, the whole demanding extreme concentration and the clearest part-writing in a texture tremendously difficult and exciting in its clarity of thought and sound". The English-to-the-ear phenomenon is difficult to explain, as it seems to predate Ashton's return to his native land.
We are luckily afforded a glimpse of the young composer in 1882, when he is mentioned in the journals of the artist Henry Holiday:
This spring saw the beginning of another longstanding friendship. I met one evening at Sir Norman Lockyer's a very young composer and pianist. He played a march of his own composition which struck me as being a work unusual breadth and dignity.
Lockyer introduced us; his name was Algernon Ashton, and he had recently arrived in England after having lived in Germany since he was four years old. He played other works, all fresh and original, and, giving him my card, I made him promise to come and see us.It happened that my wife and daughter had, only a few days before, at Henry Holmes's, heard a Trio practised in an adjoining room, which they described to me as being full of beautiful melody. I had forgotten the composer's name, but on comparing notes, we found it was the young man I had met. He came to see us with his sister Madeline, on April 2nd, and we have always held him to be in the front rank among composers. His music is generally above ordinary popular taste, and some of it is, in my opinion is needlessly difficult both for players and hearers, but the beauty of most of it is so genuine, that its failure to achieve general recognition is discreditable to those who ought to have promoted its performance.
The Trio "practised in an adjoining room" and being "full of beautiful melody" was the Second Piano Trio, Op. 88, published in 1883. Ashton's diary describes the composition of the Trio and the joy that he took in the street-cries still to be heard in the area in which he lived: his address at the time was 44 Hamilton Gardens, St John's Wood. He describes, in particular, the flower-sellers, the vendors of brushes and brooms and the song of an old lady "selling little lambs as toys", all of which found their way into the Trio, which was to receive its first performance in the studio of Sir Edward Burne-Jones on 31 January 1884.
At a later date he was to write to The Musical Standard as follows:Judging by some correspondence which has been going on the columns of The Daily Express regarding the famous cry: "Lavender! Buy my Sweet Lavender!" it seems to be thought that the cry is a revival, and that the lavender-sellers have only lately re-appeared in the London streets, but nothing is further from the truth. I have lived in the Metropolis for just a quarter of a century (of which twenty-three years have been spent in this present house), and not a single year has passed without having heard and admired the touching "Sweet Lavender" cry. Indeed twenty years ago I composed a piano piece [an Elegy from Op. 28] based upon this beautiful melody. I am, Sir, very faithfully yours, Algernon Ashton.
Rutland Boughton, a life-long devotee of Ashton's music, wrote of the Second Piano Trio in 1904:this is a work for which I have no words of sufficient admiration. There is no weak phrase nor strained sound anywhere, and yet the effect is absolutely melodious and harmonically rich. The five-bar subject of the Larghetto is practically built upon three notes; but from that subject the composer extracts a wealth of beauty, unconceivable until one has realised it, and he clothes it in all the colours of the rainbow. The Scherzo is one continuous delight. Here Ashton decides that his tunes shall be obvious, and accordingly he foots it with the very peasant on the green. Nothing more rhythmically buoyant and frankly humorous has fallen from his pen. The Finale is a triumph of brilliancy and of strength; it is also a triumph of magnificent technique subdued to great art purposes. The first theme itself has a distinct affinity with the principal subject of the first movement; the second theme is constructed on one of the most splendid rhythms it has ever been my joy to know; and in the course of development the composer has called upon themes from the first allegro and the slow movement. I am very sorry for the musician who can know this movement and not be carried away by its impetuous vigour, not be lost to all consciousness but that of the composer. In this great living work Ashton seems to me at his best.
(For the record, Toccata Classics is planning a recording of all three Piano Trios. In the meantime, a demo-CD of the above may be obtained from Patrick Webb, 65 Wrottesley Rd, London, NW10 5UL.)
In 1885 Ashton was to join Parry and Stanford on the staff of the Royal College of Music. He had been appointed Professor of Pianoforte there; among his students were Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Hurlstone who were concurrently studying composition with Stanford. He was also active as a concert pianist, undertaking frequent concert tours to the continent. In 1913 he transferred to the London College of Music where he remained as Professor of Pianoforte until his retirement. Yet throughout this period his commitment remained, above all, to composition.
Basil Hogarth, the writer, reports on a visit that he made to the composer in 1924, that there were some three hundred and fifty completed works in the composer's house, over two hundred being in print, and one hundred and fifty in manuscript; these included what Ashton believed to be his most important works, namely the five Symphonies, the Symphonic Suite, the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and his most recent String Quartet. Mention is also made of a further thirteen String Quartets, a Septet for Piano and Strings, a String Quintet, a String Sextet, a Septet for Piano, Strings and Wind, an Octet, a Nonet for Strings and Wind, and a number of works for various combinations of piano and strings. Ashton was still composing vigorously at the time of Hogarth's visit, and the 24 String Quartets in all the major and minor keys were already underway. Hogarth concludes his article:the time is certain to come when Ashton will receive his full share of acclaim; in the meantime let us ask him to compose more of his fine music and, dare I whisper it, may we expect, in the near future, a Cello Concerto which will be acclaimed as one of the few masterpieces for that instrument!
Of the 350 works mentioned above, it has to be assumed that the larger part was to perish in 1940, when incendiary bombs fell on 22 Carlton Terrace, St John's Wood, where the composer's widow, Ethel, then lived.
The published chamber music survives, thankfully, and is safe with Toccata Classics who are committed to its eventual recording on CD. In addition to the seventeen Sonatas (eight for piano), there follows a list of the surviving Piano Trios, Piano Quartets and Piano Quintets - with fragments of contemporary commentary appended here and there.
Piano Trio No. 1 in E major, Op. 77: "In a class by itself. No praise is too high for this noble work" (Hogarth)
Piano Trio No. 2 in A major, Op. 88: see Boughton excerpt above
Piano Trio No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 123: "Best introduction to Ashton's work. Not easier to play to be sure, but easier to grasp at a first hearing. Both the opening allegro fastaso and the finale glow with as much fire as anything of Ashton's that I know. Instead of a scherzo the Trio has a movement entitled Intermezzo, a brilliant and extremely attractive allegro molto vivace opened by eight bars of rapid pizzicato for both stringed instruments, and answered by silvery washes of piano colour" (Gerald Abraham)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in F minor, Op. 34: "A work of such mighty import as to be indescribable in the short space of this article. It is a work that, in years to come, will stand out in the forefront of chamber music" (Hogarth)
Piano Quartet No. 2 in C minor Op. 90 "Ashton's musical thought moves only through channels relevant to itself. During the course of this music we meet with an infinity of theme, emotion, characterisation, figure, development, and suggestive power, but notwithstanding that infinity, One main thought, one great spiritual trend. What music this is! How the giant rejoices in his strength! This is the music of elemental humanity exulting in the open, naked to the sun, to the rains and to the snows, shouting aloud to the heavens, glorifying itself and renewing its glory and thus the glory of the first great cause. While a living composer can deliver himself of noble music like this there is a marvellous hope for us" (Boughton).
Piano Quintet No. 1 in C major, Op. 25 "A major work showing extreme ingenuity in construction" (Hogarth)
Piano Quintet No. 2 in E minor. Op. 100: "A symphonic work of the very first order: a masterpiece which will live" (Hogarth); "would need repeated hearing before much of the highly involved texture could be clearly grasped by the average listener [....] a work of the greatest interest containing quasi-orchestral writing" (Abraham)
It is splendid news that Toccata Classics is to record Ashton's music at last! Volume 1 of his Cello and Piano, now available, contains the first two of his wonderful Cello Sonatas played by Evva Mizerska and Emma Abbate. As always with Ashton, the writing for both instrumentalists is equally virtuosic, but what strikes the ear is the glorious and ever-evolving melodic invention. As the Third and Fourth Sonatas will follow, I can do no better than to conclude this feature with a (condensed) extract from Rutland Boughton's 1907 Musical Standard article in which Ashton's Cello Sonata No. 4 in B major, Op. 128, is discussed:
In vain may we look, in the majority of modern orchestral and chamber works, for that sky-sweeping line which declares the epic genius. But it is ever present in Ashton's work: sometimes clear as a sky of summer blue, sometimes dull and dark like miles of winter cloud, sometimes lurid and broken as a stormy sunrise, sometimes radiant and sparkling and overarched with rainbow - but in some form or other is always there. Ashton's art is the same kind as the Illiads, the Beethoven symphonies and the art of Watts and Turner; as deep as they, as noble as they, as inevitable as they. What Turner does with landscape, Ashton does with melody.
To give grounds for my faith let us consider the chief constituents of tonal beauty and see how they are exemplified in Ashton's Fourth Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 128. Beauty has two main elements, tenderness and strength, and any high degree of beauty is impossible where these are not present in wedded sovereignty. Let it be understood that Ashton's music is nearly always strong; sometimes to the degree of ruggedness. Some of his music is like stretches of rock - as firm, noble and austere. As with Beethoven and most northern artists his inclination is on the side of sternness. However, in the first movement of this Sonata he allows the tender side of his nature a freer play. Both subjects incline to tenderness.
As ever with Ashton, the themes are not decked out with glittering novelty and harmony of gems; but also, as ever with him, there flows an undercurrent of value which haunts one afterwards -and one returns to the music in the certain expectation of finding fresh, true and lovely thought. Here and there in this movement hovers a wistful smile, a hint of the humour which, when occasion serves, expands in Ashton's music to a typical English merriment - a curious combination of severity and jollity.
The Lento is altogether a sterner movement -an excellent example of the real Ashton. Tenderness is present, wrapping the main thought as the Oak-leaves wrap the tree, delicately trembling all about with gentle beauty, but emphasising rather than hiding its strength. In the Finale the balance is not continuous; it sways at one time towards one side, at another toward the other. All the same, it is there. A theme beginning at the bottom of page 28 is lovely in its gentle grace. And a curious humour pervades the movement - a sort of cocksureness that is perfectly delightful. The piece might almost be headed "Malvolio".
On the whole, this work, more than any other of Ashton's known to me, inclines to the tender side of the balance. But the strong broad outlines and the reserve which Ashton so loves are ever-present. He seems to pour out great musical thought as easily as the lark trills its delight in cloudland. If this is the scale for a sonata, I am wondering what his symphonies must be like. I wish one could hear them. But they are never performed. Indeed it is probable that the very greatness of Ashton's musical thought is a hindrance to contemporary appreciation. It is not they who live on the mountainside that see the mountain.