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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

A SIXTIETH GARLAND OF BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC COMPOSERS

For this "diamond" instalment we resume our survey of what may be reckoned as the "Big Six" of British 20th Century composers. Elgar has been dealt with in detail. We move to SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT (1905-98), one whose output is overwhelmingly serious but even he may be reckoned as a purvey or light music: two examples of the light, or lightish, concert suite, the Suite For the Birthday of Prince Charles (1948) and, written for the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, the Shires Suite (1965-70), plus the arrangements of Negro spirituals he made for his oratorio A Child of Our Time and later extracted as a concert item.

Tippett would perhaps be surprised to find himself in a survey of this kind. Perhaps even EDWARD BENJAMIN BRITTEN later LORD BRITTEN OF ALDEBURGH (1913-76) would be similarly taken aback, but he was a very complete musician, pianist and conductor as well as composer and very prolific. For many he is the greatest British composer of the 20th Century. Among his lighter pieces we may point most obviously to the two Suites after Rossini, Soirees Musicales (1936) and Matinees Musicales (1941), originally intended for the ballet. Some, at any rate of his folk song arrangements would sit comfortably in a programme of British light music, as would his cabaret songs to words by W.H. Auden, composed over virtually the whole of his adult composing life (eg. Tell Me the Truth About Love and Funeral Blues). Much of his incidental music for stage (eg for J.B. Priestley's Johnson Over Jordan) and film (eg for Love From a Stranger and the celebrated documentary Night Mail) may be reckoned as light music and a case could be made for the suite of Spanish dances, Mont Juic, assembled with Lennox Berkeley, for any of the movements of the early Simple Symphony for strings and for at least some of the ballet score The Prince of the Pagodas. I recall that the English Opera Group's publishing for three performances of Paul Bunyan in Doncaster in 1976 described it as a "musical". The Doncaster theatre going public did not swallow it, though, and no-one came, but the tunes are certainly good. Oddly, Britten, unlike Holst, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Bliss or Elgar, wrote nothing for military or brass band.

Talking of Holst, GUSTAV THEODORE VON HOLST (1874-1934) used , as did his great friend and contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams, English folk song in the service of light music, although both composers had other musical influences besides folk song. Examples found in his two suites for the National Championships in 1928 (his daughter Imogen said that he preferred writing for brass rather than military bands because he found the sound to be mellower and more flexible, but he composed only that one piece for the brass medium (other hands supplied arrangements of the military band suites for brass). To these suites, we may add the St. Paul's and Brook Green suites for string orchestra, intended originally for the talented girl pupils of St. Paul's School, Hammersmith, where Holst taught, and p[perhaps the ballet music, from his opera The Perfect Fool (1921), the Golden Goose ballet for chorus and orchestra and the Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and the rousing Marching Song). He also arranged for strings the middle movements (Nocturne) from the Moorside Suite; and one or two of his handful of pieces, for solo piano may be reckoned as light music.

Delius, baptised Fritz Albert Theodor but generally known as FREDERICK DELIUS (1862-1934) was born in Bradford but drew musical inspiration generally from places far from Bradford. Few, if any of his sensitive native-inspired poems really rank as light music and few of his songs, despite the tunefulness of many of them, regarded as ballads. However he did make a number of contributions to the light music repertoire, mostly early in date: the Florida Suite of 1887 ("La Calinda" from this was later incorporated into Delius' opera Koanga and in an orchestral arrangement became a standby of light orchestras), Sleigh Ride (1888) and the March Caprice (1889), perhaps also the Air and Dance (1915) for strings, the Intermezzo and Serenade from the incidental music for Hassan (1920), the Caprice and Elegy for cello and orchestra (1925) and some keyboard miniatures.

We come finally in this Garland to RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, another who is regarded as one of the greatest British composers of the 20th Century. Dotted between his choral music, symphonies, concertos and so on are many examples of light music. Like Holst, he drew on English folk and traditional melody in the cause of light music. His first work to receive a major performance, the Serenade in A Minor (1897, played at Bournemouth in 1901) probably falls within the "light" category as so several other of his suites, the Charterhouse Suite, based on an early piano miniatures (1923), the Suite de Ballet for flute and piano (1913/20), The Running Set, based on traditional dance tunes (1933) and the music for his 1923 ballet Old King Cole (Job, also a ballet, more or less, is more serious).

On many occasions VW was asked many times to write incidental music, for stage radio and screen and at times this was re-worked, by him or others, into a suite, perhaps a single movement for the concert hall, as happened must notably with the music for a production in Cambridge of Aristophanes' The Wasps (1909, concert suite 1912), whose overture is one of the finest of British Overtures. The Prelude on an Old Carol Tune (1950) was based on music for a BBC radio adaptation of Hardy's novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'. The incidental music he provided for five Shakespeare plays at Stratford in 1953 was not adapted for the concert room.

He came to films during World War II, after people like Herbert Bath, Bliss and Walton had flexed their muscles in the studios. Once started, the roll-call of his films is quite impressive: 49th Parallel (1941), with its expansive Prelude, Coastal Command (1942), which yielded a seven movement concert suite, The People's Land (1943), Flemish Farm (1943), which also was turned into a seven piece suite, Stricken Peninsular (1945), The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947: not adapted for the concert hall but records of the music, presumably from the sound-track, were released), Scott of the Antarctic (1948, adapted as the Sinfonia Antarctica), Dim Little Island (1949), Bitter Springs (1950) and The England of Elizabeth (1957, which finished, posthumously as, Three Portraits and Two Shakespearean Sketches).

V.W. quite quickly followed Holst into writing for military band, his output in that direction coming mainly in 1923-4: a March, Sea Songs, the crisp Toccata Marziale, written for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 and, best known of all, the English Folk Song Suite, quickly adapted for orchestra and brass band by Gordon Jacob. Apart from the brass band version of Sea Songs, he was not to write for brass band until the 1950s when he composed Three Welsh Hymn Tunes (1955, for the Salvation Army) and, adopted the test piece for the National Championships of 1957 and including parts for two B Flat baritone saxes, the Variations for Brass Band.

One can go on.

Not many of Vaughan William's songs, are reckonable as ballads, but the lyric, the time and the general feel of Linden Lea, first performed in 1902, surely makes it such. Arrangements of Greensleeves have been legion in light music programmes down the years but there is none finer than Vaughan Williams Fantasia therein, arguably his most heard single movement. He had the gift of touching the hearts of many with his quintessentially British music and it is scarcely surprising that he provided so much for British (and perhaps other) light orchestras.

© Phil Scowcroft 1999

 

 

 

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount

DONCASTER

S YORKS DN2 5PJ

Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

E-mail enquiries (but NOT orders) can be directed to Rob Barnett at rob.barnett1@btinternet.com


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