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Walter LEIGH (1905-1942) Jolly Roger (or The Admiral’s Daughter): A New Musical Burlesque (1933)
Sir Roderick Venom - Neilson Taylor (tenor); Sir William Rowlocks - Alan Dudley (tenor); Jolly Roger - Vernon Midgley (tenor); Bold Ben Blister - Leslie Fyson (bass); The Bloody Pirate - Gordon Faith (baritone); Amelia - Marietta Midgley (soprano); Miss Flora Pott - Helen Landis (mezzo); Prudence Wary - Patricia Whitmore (alto)
The Ambrosian Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra/Ashley Lawrence
rec. 21 December 1972, BBC broadcast. Mono LYRITAREAM 2116 MONO [61:28 + 75:32]
My introduction to Walter Leigh was the overture to the present ‘burlesque.’ It was included on a wonderful LP of ‘More Lyrita Lollipops’ (SRCS. 99) released in 1979. This album also included music by Hamilton Harty, William Alwyn, Michael Balfe, Arnold Bax and Elgar. I still have my vinyl copy of the release. In 1985 an album dedicated to Leigh’s music was issued by Lyrita (SRCS.126) – this included the Concertino for harpsichord and string orchestra, Music for String Orchestra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Suite and the Overture and Dance from the incidental music to Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Fortunately, all the above named works have been re-released on CD (reviewreview). There was another disc produced in 1995 of Leigh’s piano music and songs (Tremula 101-2). I guess that if you blinked, you would have missed it: it is now deleted. In 2005 Dutton Epoch issued a fine conspectus of the composer’s ‘complete’ chamber music, now available as a download (review).
Before any of this industry occurred the BBC had produced a broadcast of Walter Leigh’s Jolly Roger or ‘The Admiral’s Daughter’. It went on the air on 21 December 1972. Glancing at the BBC Radio Times shows that the burlesque had actually been broadcast in various incarnations over the years, including ‘selected scenes’ on the nascent television network (using the Baird Process) as early as 1933.
This is not the place to analyse Walter Leigh’s music. However it is important to note that there were two sides to his musical character – his ‘art’ or ‘serious’ music and his attraction towards writing for the stage, film and radio. At the time of his death in 1942 The Times could report that the general public will best recall him for his ‘intimate revues’ and his two operas –The Pride of the Regiment and the present Jolly Roger. Another major achievement was his score for The Song of Ceylon, which received an award for ‘best film’ at the 1935 International Film Festival in Brussels.
Leigh suffers from the lack of a detailed biography: any understanding of the composer’s life, works and standing have to be pieced together from a variety of sources. It is to be hoped that a biography will be forthcoming.
The first thing to remind the listener of is that burlesque’s title Jolly Roger relates to a person, not a flag, as some enthusiasts of Treasure Island and other piratical endeavours would intuit. The action is set in Jamaica in the year of our Lord 1690. Nevertheless, the tale includes all the traditional apparatus of pirate stories, including the skull and crossbones, buccaneers and rum.
The three acts are set on the private landing stage of Government House, aboard the pirate ship and the terrace of Government House, respectively. The plot involves the evil Sir Roderick Venom who was Governor of Jamaica, and was party to piratical activities in his jurisdiction. He causes an innocent planter, Jolly Roger, to be arrested, accused of piracy and sentenced to a flogging. Fortunately, his plans are disrupted by the arrival of Admiral Sir William Rowlocks and his beautiful daughter Amelia. Along with their companions they resolve to rid Jamaica of the wicked pirates. Predictably, the love interest is amply satisfied by the ultimate marriage of Roger and Amelia.
The libretto was by Scobie Mackenzie and V.C. Clinton-Baddeley (1900-1970). The first performance was on 13 February 1933 at the Opera House in Manchester and it subsequently played at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.
Musically, Jolly Roger could be described as Sir Arthur Sullivan meets Paul Hindemith. This is not as perverse as it may at first seem. What Walter Leigh has achieved is the combination of Sullivan’s sparkle, wit and charm with his own ‘creative gift’ derived from study with the German composer. Certainly, the score is well-contrived, distinctive and has ‘a deftness and allure’ denied many then contemporary works in the same genre. Paul Conway notes the similarity between Leigh and Richard Rodney Bennett as composers who could approach film and light music with ‘the same seriousness … they brought to their concert works’.
The liner-notes are highly detailed. After the usual track, cast and character listings, there is a good synopsis of the three acts. Paul Conway has provided an excellent essay on the composer, his works and the genesis and reception of Jolly Roger.
I enjoyed this performance immensely - it is such fun. Two questions suggest themselves to me. Is Jolly Roger worth reviving as a stage production in 2015? I am not convinced: it is very much a work of its time, in spite of the undisputable quality of its music. Even the present recording is somewhat ephemeral: listen for the realistic seagull sounds.
On the other hand, I would recommend this set to all enthusiasts of light opera. As the contemporary Play Pictorial put it, ‘Mr Leigh’s music [is] tuneful and scholarly … [and] has caught something of Sullivan’s spirit and mingled it with his own creative gift …’ It is this that makes Jolly Roger such a success and deserves our attention more than eighty years after its premiere.
Another review ...
Quaint is the best word to describe this piece. Quintessentially English too would not be too far off the mark either. I would guess that for many people including myself, the Concertino for harpsichord and strings - probably in the Neville Dilkes recording (EMI CDM 5 67431 2 (2001)) - was their introduction to the attractive musical world of Walter Leigh. That gently pastoral/neo-classical work does not really prepare one for the whimsy that is Jolly Roger. In essence this is a throw-back to the genre of British comic opera/operetta that flourished with Gilbert & Sullivan and survived well beyond the invasion of the Broadway musical finding its last great flowering with Ivor Novello's great sentimental creations. In its own time this was a considerable commercial and artistic success. It ran to 199 performances which in the age of 30 year runs of Phantom of the Opera may seem short but at the time was a substantial sequence of performances.
Jolly Roger is superficially very much in this Sullivan/Novello tradition with a wafer-thin plot, stock characters from star-crossed lovers to rascally villains and comic turns. With a seemingly straight face the libretto of Jolly Roger comes up with a series of end-of-the-pier, saucy-seaside-postcard lines such as "I've promised the ladies a private tour of my poop deck" and "she has touched my pipe and blown mute notes to sound." Indeed much of the pleasure in listening to this piece and the performance captured here is the period charm of both. In one way, this can be considered a period piece twice over. The work dates from 1933 and this BBC radio recording, preserved in excellent condition by the increasingly impressive Itter archive, dates from 1972. So in fact the performance is nearer in date to the work's composition than we are to the recording listening in 2015. A heavier touch or any sense of post-modern irony would bring the work crashing down. However, the excellent and idiomatic cast - who I suspect had a ball recording this - pitch their performances to perfection. What a delight to hear extended performances from the brother and sister team of Vernon and Marietta Midgley as the young lovers. They both possessed exactly the right kind of light lyrical soprano and tenor voices for this repertoire. To perform these roles with exactly the right degree of artless simplicity backed up by solid vocal technique and real musical finesse is much harder than it might sound. The Midgleys are both masters of their considerable craft and the delicately fluttering emotional heart of the work is carried in their safe hands. They are backed up by a strong cast of characterful singer-actors - I particularly liked the older voices of Alan Dudley as Admiral Sir William Rowlocks and his secret love Miss Flora Pott sung by Patricia Whitmore. Part of Leigh's skill and indeed that of the performers here is to make their burgeoning love both comic and touching.
The out and out comedy role is assigned to Jolly Roger's (Vernon Midgley) mate, Bold Ben Blister, 'as yer might say'. Which turns out to be Ben's (Leslie Fyson's) catch-phrase, 'as yer might say' if you was so inclined. In the original performance this was the star role performed by George Robey whose picture adorns the CD cover in all his heavy-theatrically made-up glory. The Ambrosian Singers and the BBC Concert Orchestra enter into the spirit of the occasion with much gusto if not the refinement with which we would usually associate those groups. Credit too to conductor Ashley Lawrence who keeps the musical pot bubbling along with verve and wit.
Superficially Leigh pays homage to just about every well-known composer of British stage music up to that time from Handel to Sullivan, German and the previously mentioned Novello. The referencing is subtle and again affectionate so it does not stop the listener enjoying the work in its own right. As a BBC radio production the sound-effects are laid on with a none too subtle trowel from crashing waves and squawking gulls to hearty townsfolk and marauding pirates cartoonish splashes whenever the plank is walked. The inclusion of all the dialogue makes this both a valuable document but also consigns it to the shelf of occasional listening. The excellent Lyrita production/restoration somewhat compounds this by not individually tracking the dialogue and songs. The choice has been made to track scenes with the result that the often very attractive songs come after a minute or two of extended dialogue that I expect will pall after a few repetitions. Particularly since the dialogue is replete with endless "buckle my swashes" and "Aaaar Capt'n" and every other seafaring and Mummersetshire cliché known to man.
The discs carry a warning that the opening of the second disc / Act II is marred by ten seconds of tape damage. Yes, this is audible but the problem is short and limited and all it does is to point up the remarkable quality - again - of these off-air recordings preserved by Richard Itter. There is some tape and/or carrier wave hiss but the overall quality is very good indeed. Given the idiomatic character of the performance and the nature of the work I cannot imagine this ever being seriously challenged as a performance or recording. For those who know Leigh from his more serious music and are aware of his training with Paul Hindemith this work comes as something of a surprise but the sheer craftsmanship of his work does not. Also, Leigh scores over composers such as Novello through his ability to mix passages of real lyrical beauty with energetic choruses and entertaining point and comedy songs. I would rate the finest of Novello's songs as the equal of any of the Viennese operetta masters. However his works struggle to impress as complete dramatic arcs with emotional variety and range being a problem. Leigh's nearest comparison is probably Coward in Bitter Sweet mode - although Coward leans more towards the popular song side of the operetta divide.
One interesting socio-historical curio is thrown up. We often speak of earlier times as being more innocent - but perhaps ignorant is a more appropriate term on occasion. One very enjoyable and effective comedy song here is the Spanish-tinged Dick the **** [CD 2 track 5]. This is sung by Roger and Ben to persuade the pirates that they should join their crew as they are themselves the famous Portuguese Pete and Dick the [crucially rhymes with may-go in the lyric and he comes from Spain]. An innocent term or an ignorant one? ... certainly not one that would ever have any kind of common usage today but could appear in this lightest of light comedies in the early 1930s. The predictable happily-ever-after/general rejoicing ending does involve all the pirates being led off to execution - no 'Penzanzian' revelations here but that apart this obeys just about all the rules of this type of light operetta.
Even allowing for the presence of all the dialogue, this instantly becomes the most extended piece of Leigh's work in the catalogue and for any of his admirers will be a compulsory purchase alongside the other Lyrita disc of his orchestral music (reviewreviewreview) and single discs of his piano music and chamber works (review; review). The Lyrita/Itter/BBC archive is already proving to be an immensely valuable presence in the catalogue. As previously, Paul Conway provides excellent, interesting and informative notes. The recording was made in mono sound but is very good. As mentioned, the original BBC production did not try to be subtle. This is an audio cartoon but that is wholly in tune with the nature of the work. Much of the characterisation struggles to reach two dimensions let alone three. In some ways this might be the least 'important' release so far from the Itter Broadcast Collection but I for one am very pleased to have encountered this entertaining work in such a convincing performance.
Three cheers for Jolly Roger and all who sail in him 'as yer might say'.