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Julius Harrison's Cornish Holiday Sketches for string orchestra
by John France

In 2006 Dutton Epoch released a major retrospective of music by Julius Harrison (CDLX7174). This included his masterpiece, the rhapsody for violin and orchestra, Bredon Hill (1941) (also on Lyrita) as well as the Worcestershire (1918) and Troubadour (1944) Suites. In fact, there are only two original full or string orchestral works that do not appear to have been recorded – Autumn Landscape and Cornish Holiday Sketches. The Monthly Musical Record (Volume 69, 1939) notes that both these works ‘make fine additions to the string orchestral repertory’. It suggests that the Sketches is a [surprisingly] ‘jolly composition’.

It is always difficult to talk about music that one has not heard, however I want to indulge in a little promotion of the latter of these two desiderata. The author Geoffrey Self has given a good account of this work in his detailed biography of Julius Harrison. (Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse, Scolar Press, 1993). It is also possible to gain an impression from a variety of published sources as to how this piece was received.

The Sketches were composed whilst the composer was having an enjoyable holiday at the hamlet of Paul in Cornwall. It has a commanding setting on the hills above the idyllic fishing village of Mousehole.
Cornish Holiday Sketches is effectively a theme followed by a set of twelve variations and a finale. The subject of the variations is largely personal, but includes brief impressions of ‘Kynance Surf’, ‘The Lady Angela’, ‘The Camp Fire at Night and a ‘Grey Day Reverie’. There are portraits of the composer’s children and one of their motor-car. The work lasts for some fourteen minutes and is scored for strings: it carries the dedication: ‘To the Five whose deeds and misdeeds are recorded herein’. A note at the conclusion of the score states ‘J.H. Sept. 19th 1935.’ Cornish Holiday Sketches was published in 1938 by Hawkes, priced 6/-.

The composer has provided a programme note for this work which is reprinted in Self’s book:-

The theme for these sketches originated on a tin whistle (no other instrument being available) during a holiday spent in the Land’s End district in August 1935. What follows represents various episodes in this holiday, together with a few personal allusions and nicknames that call for no explanation. But it should be added that ‘Roland’ is (was) an elderly Morris Coupé, that the ‘Cardinal’s Procession’ refers to a dramatized version of the ‘Jackdaw of Rheims’ – most admirably performed in full moonlight at the Minack Open Air Theatre on the cliffs at Porthcurno – and the ‘Mousehole Hornpipe’ starts with a characteristic three-chord rhythm for no other reason than that life always seems to run delightfully backwards in this quaint and lovely corner…’

Self has described this piece as a forerunner of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The Sketches are defined by considerable variety in the string writing. It was seemingly a ‘clever and witty’ work that makes tongue-in-cheek references to ‘pedantic’ musical structures such as canons and retrograde versions of themes. Self concludes his description of this work by suggesting that although the tin whistle theme is ‘not particularly gripping, the ingenuity of its treatment is always impressive’.

The Musical Times (January 1936) notes that the 1935/36 season at Hastings opened on October 19 with a concert at the White Rock Pavilion. Julius Harrison conducted the Hastings and St. Leonards Municipal Orchestra in performances of Scarlatti’s ‘Good Humoured Ladies’ Suite, Saint-Saëns’s G minor Piano Concerto (with Eileen Joyce) and his own Cornish Holiday Sketches’. The concert gave ‘promise of a high standard of performance during the busy season now in progress under Mr. Harrison’s direction.’

In 1937 the Sketches were heard on radio. W.R. Anderson in ‘Wireless Notes’ (Musical Times June 1937) commented that these were ‘tasty variations most welcome in the string repertoire, with their tincture or Dohnányian finesse.’

Two reviews appeared after publication of the score in 1938. F.B. writing in the Musical Times (January 1939) regarded it ‘a pleasure to read the score’. Holiday Sketches balances an ‘extremely simple’ theme with variations ‘that are fairly difficult- well within professional standard but slightly above average amateur skill.’ Tempo, after a brief overview of the work suggests that ‘the string writing is effective without being difficult, and the work is well contrasted in mood and colour.’

Performances of Cornish Holiday Sketches had been noted at the Hallé Concerts in Manchester (conducted by Harrison), at Bournemouth (Richard Austin), Birmingham (Johan Hock) and at Hastings with the composer on the rostrum.

Without indulging in too much ‘special pleading’, it would be great if some concert promoter or CD proprietor would take it up: it sounds as if this is a real ‘holiday’ treat.

John France

Further reading

Julius Harrison & Bredon Hill by John France

Some British Composer-Conductors by Phil Scowcroft

Note: Such a pity that in all the Great War events and broadcasts to date there has been no sign of Harrison's own Great War-inspired Requiem of Archangels. RB