Gordon Crosse’s Elegy (1959-60): 50th Anniversary of the Prom Premiere
by John France
Gordon Crosse’s Elegy received its Proms premiere on 9 September 1965. This work was composed in 1959, originally for a large wind orchestra. The composer has told me that it was never performed in this form. The following year Crosse arranged it for a chamber orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone and strings. It was this version which was heard at the Promenade Concert. The performance was by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Norman Del Mar. Other works at this Prom included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the soloist Joseph Suk and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 both conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.
The first performance of Crosse’s Elegy had been given at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24 April 1962. The event was a ‘Halle-cum-Associated Rediffusion-cum-Society for the Promotion of New Music public rehearsal. Maurice Handford also conducted Charles McMullen’s Variations for orchestra which has disappeared from view. Crosse’s Elegy was deemed (J.H. Elliot, Manchester Guardian, 25 April 1962) to be ‘modernistic in idiom … [but] contrives to avoid the appearance of constraint.’ The Elegy is ‘a shapely work with a large measure of spontaneity of expression and feeling.’ The reviewer felt that in the work’s ‘later stages ... [it appears] to become involved and fussy rather than direct in the statement of ideas.’ After the event there was a discussion chaired by the composer Francis Chagrin at which the principal speaker was Peter Maxwell Davies. Crosse has told me that the Elegy was performed ‘two or three’ times between the Prom concert and the 1980 recording.
The composer in his programme note for the Promenade concert has explained that the Elegy is in one movement ‘that forms an arch of increasing and decreasing tension …’ It is divided into three sections. The main melodic, rhythmic and harmonic material is contained in the slow opening theme for flute. The first six notes are then inverted with all twelve notes of the chromatic scale creating the series. The middle section increases the tension and the pace of the music. Significant use is made of contrapuntal devices such as canon, both simple and mensural - where following voices imitate the leader by some ‘rhythmic proportion’ rather than just melodically. The final section reprises music from the opening of the Elegy but in a more ‘fragmentary’ or ‘pointillistic’ style. Crosse concludes his programme note by pointing out that the ‘descent of the [formal] arch is broken by a short cadenza for woodwind against a held string chord.’ It is a poignant moment.
The work was written in memory of the composer’s aunt Margaret Tilbury who died in 1951 after suffering with MS. Crosse recalled her as a ‘saintly’ presence throughout his childhood. The score was published by Oxford University Press in 1968.
Crosse has subsequently composed three successors to this Elegy: No. 2 in memory of Benjamin Britten, No. 3 in memory of his father and No. 4 in memory of the Nightingale.
Anthony Payne, in Music and Musicians (November 1965) notes the composer’s ‘fine ear for instrumental sound’ and suggests that it ‘is obviously a piece which has been really felt and heard [by Crosse] right through.’ There was a criticism of the central climax which ‘needed to be more interesting, if the work was to have a hard core of meaning – unless this is to mistake the composer’s intentions.’ The paragraph was headed ‘soft-centred elegy’ which in many ways is appropriate.
In his important essay on Crosse’s music, John C.G. Waterhouse writes: ‘The Elegy for small orchestra, op 1, is a warmly expressive piece, whose sustained, smoothly polyphonic opening paragraph at once establishes the calm, contemplative tone that was to prevail in most of his music of the next three years. The soft, sonorous texture reminds one of his admiration for Dallapiccola, whom he has often named as the older-generation composer with whom he feels the greatest sympathy.’ (Musical Times May 1965).
The most recent discussion of Gordon Crosse’s Elegy was published in a new book from Cambridge University Press: British Musical Modernism: The Manchester Group and their Contemporaries, (Rupprecht, Philip, June 2015). In a section entitled ‘In the Serial Workshop’ the author gives a detailed study of this work. He begins by noting the ‘compact and contrapuntally vigorous’ nature of the Elegy, which in his opinion ‘offers one of the stricter essays in adhering to a ‘Classical’ serial technique. He further explains that the basis of the series is a tone row found in the liner-notes written by Robert Craft for the ‘Complete Works of Webern’ LP issue. The programme note that Crosse wrote for the Manchester premiere indicates that ‘the pointillistic orchestration of much Webern-inspired music has been avoided in favour of longer, contrapuntal ‘singing lines’… more suitable to the elegiac character of the music’. (Typed programme note). Rupprecht continues his study of this work with a detailed and musically illustrated description of the Elegy’s progress. He concludes by noting Crosse’s certain awareness of contemporary scores by Peter Maxwell Davies such as the First Taverner Fantasia which ‘does not pursue the outrageous, psychologically fraught atmosphere of Davies's British-themed works of the later 1960s’. (It is a work I have not heard) and St Michael Sonata for 17 winds. Crosse was well versed in ‘contemporary avant-garde accents’ but does not allow his music to become less ‘personal’. (Accessed Google Books 7 June 2015).
The Elegy (1960) was released (1980) on the Oxford University Press record label (OUP203) by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon. Other works on this LP include Crosse’s Symphony No. 1, op.13a and Dreamsongs, op.43.
Paul Griffiths, reviewing the LP for The Times suggests that the Elegy has an ‘English serialism of appealing period charm …’ which seems to me a little bit of an understatement of the work’s appeal. It would be akin to suggesting that Elgar’s Sospiro had ‘period charm’ as opposed to something of more universal value.
The ‘brooding atmosphere and occasional flourishes of the … Elegy … which have remained important in his music’ is noted by A.W. in The Gramophone (March 1981).
The most extensive, if somewhat overblown, review of the Elegy was by Bayan Northcott in the June 1981 edition of Tempo. He begins by suggesting that the work’s ‘crepuscular counterpoint’ … remains a little impersonal compared with the serene luminosity that imbues the slow movements of the Concerto da camera of only three years later.’ He continues by suggesting that the work can be ‘turned this way and that for its contrasting perspectives and reflections.’ Faceting like a diamond, indeed. After some discussion of the serial methods and rhythmic devices used by Crosse he concludes by writing: ‘Another complication is foreshadowed by the felicitously-placed woodwind cadenza of birdsong-like figuration just before the end of the Elegy: Crosse's Brittenesque affection for shiny vernacular ‘sonores trouvées’ - often enough objective correlatives of the source-intervals of the work in progress, but sometimes style-disorientating too.’ Quite what Northcott actually means here, I am not sure, I think he is suggesting that Crosse is not tied into serialism to such an extent that he is unable to write music he know his listeners will enjoy and easily assimilate. For me, the ‘nocturnal’ cadenza of this work is its most magical part.
Listening to this piece fifty years after the Prom performance discloses a piece of music that, in spite of its serial nature, is approachable, moving and has the nature of a ‘genuine elegy’.
With many thanks to Gordon Crosse for his support in writing this essay.