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Constance Warren and her Heather Hill for string orchestra
by John France

Constance Warren’s Heather Hill (c.1930) for string orchestra was one of my discoveries of 2021. This is an immensely satisfying piece that shows great promise and technical aplomb. Sadly, there is little critical commentary of her life and achievement and I was unable to find any contemporary reviews of the premiere of this work.

A few words about the composer. I am grateful to Michael Jones and Lewis Foreman for much of the biographical information given here. Constance Jessie Warren was born on 12 August 1905, at 26 Oakwood Road, Sparkhill, Yardley, near Birmingham. (WebTree). Her father, Benjamin Warren (1878-1974), was an artist, teaching at the Birmingham Central College of Art and Design, and her mother, Jessie, née Bridgens, was a professional pianist. The 1911 census shows her as being also a teacher and a professor of music. After piano lessons from her mother, Constance achieved her LRAM, aged only eighteen years. She then studied with Maria Levinskaya in London, later winning the Josephine Troup Composition Scholarship. This enabled her to study at the Royal Academy of Music (R.A.M.) with York Bowen and Benjamin Dale, while continuing piano studies with the young Clifford Curzon.

During this time, she wrote several works, including a Nocturne for orchestra which was taken up by Henry Wood. Equally successful was her String Quartet in B minor, premiered (in full) by the Griller Quartet on 1 December 1931 (Musical Times, January 1932, p.65). On 18 March 1931, a single movement had been performed at the R.A.M., also by the Griller Quartet. Sadly, on her return to Birmingham to further her career as a freelance teacher, she gave up all composing. During the 1930s, Warren gave many piano recitals, sometimes playing two-piano duets with her mother. In 1942, she joined the faculty at the Birmingham School of Music, now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Warren was later appointed Head of Keyboard Studies there. She retired from this post in 1970 but retained her private pupils until her death. She died from heart failure on 16 October 1984 at Mosley, in Birmingham.

Her few published compositions comprise Two Pieces for flute and piano and Three Little Pieces for piano. There is an autograph copy of her Fantasy for viola and piano deposited in the Bernard Shore Collection at the Royal College of Music. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire holds several other pieces in manuscript in their Warren Collection.

One piece not included in the archive is the Lament for cello. It was premiered at the Duke’s Hall, R.A.M. on 1 December 1930. The unsigned critic described it as “simple and tuneful: wisely so because it is therefore likely to find favour with a publisher for sale to teachers.” The Era (10 December 1930, p.5). It was never published. In 1985, the pianist Michael Jones, typeset her Ballade for cello and piano. It was heard for the first time in recent years during a Memorial Concert in the Recital Hall, at the Birmingham School of Music on 12 May 1985.

Stylistically, in a review published in The Era (25 February 1931, p.9) of a concert given at the R.A.M., the critic wrote that Warren “may write quite nicely for piano when she ceases to worship Debussy.” No mention of what the work was, but an interesting comment indeed.
Lewis Foreman (Liner Notes CPO 555457-2) explains that all Warren’s compositions date from when she was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, suggesting that Heather Hill was completed between 1929 and 1932.

In digression, there is a tantalising review in the Birmingham Daily Post (18 April 1940, p.10) of a Max Mossel Club Concert given the previous evening. Three unfamiliar compositions were given: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, a Concerto for cello and strings by C.P.E. Bach, and “a new [my italics] string quintet in B minor by a member, Constance Warren.” The critic thought that: “it is a work without very pronounced individuality of style, but more than competently – in fact excellently – written and full of rich sonority. In the first two movements Miss Warren keeps her music going too easily perhaps, using repetitions of phrase, either note for note or by sequence, but this rather mechanical device all but disappears from the quietly beautiful slow movement onwards.”

It remains to be discovered if this quintet was a late offering that defies Foreman’s contention that Warren ceased composing when she left the R.A.M. in 1932. Or was it a forgotten essay from her student days? Interestingly, it is in the same key as her 1931 String Quartet. It may be a revision for quintet or even a misprint in the newspaper.

The title Heather Hill is elusive, with the listener having to make up their mind as to whether this miniature tone poem evokes a Lake District or a Scottish landscape. That said, I detect little of a Celtic mood in this music. It could be nearer to home for Warren, on the Malvern Hills, perhaps? Until more details of her life and travels become available, listeners may well wish to imagine any heather-clad eminence of their knowledge.

Structurally, Heather Hill is composed in a straightforward ternary form (ABA). It is scored for strings with a strong and rich texture. This presents a good balance between rich harmonies and some “open” passages for solo instruments. The work commences with a deeply pensive lento theme which is recapitulated at the conclusion. The middle section, Più mosso, brings a little more movement, rising to a short climax, but even here the music never ceases to be contemplative. Stylistically, Heather Hill reflects a pastoral vein, with nothing modernist or experimental. It is quite possible that an innocent listener may imagine that it was a fugitive piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams or Gerald Finzi. There is a depth and sadness in this music that is remarkable for a 25-year-old.

During 2016, Philip Ellis and the West Forest Sinfonia presented a programme of pieces by English composers performed at Hardwick Hall, the Abbey School, Reading. The critic in the Henley Standard (18 April 2016) noted that Warren’s Heather Hill, “is full of sumptuous string writing, reminiscent of Delius. The orchestra here produced ravishing sounds with a particularly magical ending. In the words of [the] conductor…: “What a loss we don’t hear more of Constance Warren.” Other works played at this remarkable concert included Frank Bridge’s Valse Intermezzo in E minor, Kenneth Leighton’s ravishing Suite Veri, op 9, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Adam Carse’s Two Sketches and finally Gustav Holst’s A Moorside Suite.

Constance Warren’s Heather Hill was issued on the CPO label on the third volume of British Music for strings: Douglas Bostock conducts the West German Chamber Orchestra Pforzheim. Other music on this remarkable CD includes Ethel Smyth’s Suite for strings, op.1a, Susan Spain-Dunk’s Suite in B minor for string orchestra and her Lament, and finally Cringlemire Garden, op.39, by Ruth Gipps. So far (03/01/2022), there are no reviews of this disc in the music media. Heather Hill has been uploaded to YouTube.

More investigation needs to be done to bring Constance Warren to the attention of British music enthusiasts. Further biographical details ought to be established; some of her former pupils may be able to add to her story. If the scores of the Nocturne and the String Quartet can be edited, then they would be welcome, either on CD or in the concert hall. The English Music Festival may choose to explore some of her music. Duncan Honeybourne has already issued her Idyll in G flat, for solo piano. (Grand Piano GP 789). Certainly, the Ballade for cello and piano, and the Three Flute Pieces would undoubtedly make an interesting contribution to any recital. One would imagine that a sympathetic violist would wish to explore the holograph of the Fantasy for viola and piano.

With thanks to Michael Jones for permission to use the photograph of Constance Warren.

John France
January 2022



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