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Priaulx Rainier

Extract from Contemporary British Music by Francis Routh (Macdonald  1972) - with Permission


Priaulx Rainier was born in 1903 in South Africa, and spent her childhood in a remote region of Natal. Her first indelible musical impressions were the indigenous sounds of African life-children, birds, animals; primal sounds, heard as if from a great distance. She came to London to study at the Royal Academy, and has stayed ever since. She began to compose comparatively late, and was under Nadia Boulanger just before the outbreak of war in 1939; it is from this year that her first important work, though not her first work, dates - the First String Quartet. Over the next period of about twenty years her output consisted mainly of chamber music and songs, in which she pursued her characteristic idiom: simple melodic and rhythmic patterns used repetitively and cumulatively, with frequent use of unison and octaves; an absence of counterpoint, and a harmony built on an individual use of triadic tonality, not simply diatonic. The rhythmic style of the String Quartet is extended in the Sinfonia da Camera, which Walter Goehr performed in 1947, and which belongs within the same 'Morley College' genre as Tippett's works for string orchestra, or Seiber's Besardo Suite.

Her songs are short, and directly effective; two of them, Ubunzima and Dance of the Rain, are for voice and guitar. Ubunzima, written in 1948, is a setting of a Bantu poem; Dance of the Rain (1947), adapted by the Afrikaans poet Uyo Krige, evokes memories of the Zulus and the rhythm of Africa. The material is largely pentatonic, with sharply defined verbal rhythm. The later Cycle for Declamation (1953) is also a study in verbal rhythm, for solo voice.

The Barbaric Dance Suite (1949) for piano similarly uses percussive piano texture; its basis was the sound of African marimbas-discs played with hammers, with dried gourds underneath acting as resonators. The Five keyboard pieces (1951) are more abstract.

Rainier has been closely associated with the singer Peter Pears. He commissioned Cycle for Declamation (1953) as well as The Bee Oracles (1970); he also gave the first performance of the Requiem (1956) at the Aldeburgh Festival that year. This remarkable twenty-minute piece is a setting, for tenor and unaccompanied choir, of a text by David Gascoyne, whose qualities of intense vision, coupled with a chilling, declamatory rhetoric, are matched in every nuance by the composer. The work is prefaced by two quotations, which give its clue. One, from Pierre Jean Jouve, reads: 'Grant that we may first taste thee on the day of our death, which is a great day of peace for souls at one; the world full of joy, the sons of men reconciled.'

The Requiem falls into four sections, and these are shared between soloists, semi-chorus and full chorus. The text was specially designed for a choral setting, with alternate sections for choir and soloist. The choral writing is homophonic, not polyphonic, and stark in its rhythmic strength. The solo part is partly integrated, in concertante style, partly providing structural links with passages of dramatic recitative. The work has a strange grandeur, and stands among the distinctive pieces of unaccompanied choral music of the contemporary period, and without any of the traditional English influences.

In the unfolding of Rainier's style, it represents the end of a period; in it she uses the triad for the last time to any great extent. From this point onwards her work changes, and by the late 5o's a development of style took place. In response to the trend of the time, her works became much more abstract, though their idiom is still tonal, not serial; and also in the 6o's she wrote several large orchestral works. The change can be detected in two chamber works for the oboe, written for Janet Craxton; the Pastoral Triptych (1960) for solo oboe, and the oboe quartet Quanta (1962).

An absence of thematic material was nothing new to Rainier; her music had from the start been athematic. Now the rhythmic patterns became more sophisticated, the tonality more chromatic, based on semitones more than on triads, and the texture more varied. The title Quanta, which was given to the piece only after it was finished, and the composer realized that it could have no conclusion, derives from quantum theory in physics, and indicates the structure of the work-and indeed of other works from now on. Energy exists in space, independent of matter; particles bunch together, and fly off; so the work has no orthodox form, and it springs from one initial impulse. Interchanging textures alternate, and build up to a long slow section; a final 'spinning' texture leaves the work quite unresolved.

The first of the large orchestral works was first heard the previous year, 1961. Phalaphala is built on interlocking orchestral rhythms and textures, much as Cycle for Declamation had been a study in verbal rhythm. The material of both works has a certain primitive quality.

The occasion of Phalaphala was Boult's tenth anniversary with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1960), and the programme of the work, therefore, is one of celebration. It is based on the ceremonial horn used when the African chief summons the tribe.

Two major orchestral works followed: the Cello Concerto (1964) and the orchestral suite Aequora Lunae (1967). The Cello Concerto was written for a 1964 Promenade Concert, and fulfilled a long-standing wish to write for the instrument. Rainier had a sister cellist, and also a cousin who played in public at the age of eight; she was thus very acquainted in early life with the sound of the instrument.

Her scheme for solving the problem of enabling the solo instrument's expressive but not penetrating quality to be heard against a background of orchestral tone was to avoid the conjunction of soloist and orchestra, except when the textures, instrumentation, colour and disposition were such that the cello could penetrate or interplay with the orchestral groups in juxtaposition without strain, and without reducing the proper volume of the orchestral dynamics.

Nevertheless, the concerto contains certain contradictions. In many ways, the traditional conception of a solo concerto is irreconcilable with an abstract idiom. Though, at least visually, the score contains a prominent solo line, it is not a virtuoso concerto in the traditional sense. The solo part is difficult, but the unsuspecting soloist who expects the satisfying rewards of a showpiece concerto, like the Dvorak or the Elgar, will be disappointed.

Rainier's concerto is in two movements, Dialogue and Canto; and though the cello writing is more cantabile and legato than in other works of this period, the overall mood is sombre, elegiac and slow-moving. In the first movement, as the title implies, unfinished cello phrases are taken over by the orchestra, and vice versa. The middle section of the movement is slower. In the Canto movement, the scoring is much lighter and the material quite different; it is more in the nature of a free rhapsodic solo with orchestral interjections and comments. The work ends with a Cadence and Epilogue, where the pace quickens. The Cadence takes the place of a formal Cadenza. Here the instruments interplay, solo wind or strings and solo cello, in lighter, gayer, florid passages, all on an equal footing. This brief section resolves into the Epilogue, which is reminiscent of the Canto, but here the orchestral voices are reduced to the slightest sounds between the long-drawn phrases of the solo instrument, which bring the movement to a pianissimo close.

The solo cello, with its power of rhetoric, dominates the concerto as a whole. Though the orchestra is never merely accompanying the solo instrument, after the introduction there are no long tuttis; but it plays its important part in the work in comment, in opposition, and finally in acquiescence to the final statement of the solo part. Groups of instruments are characteristic of the work, but the percussion is used primarily to sharpen sounds at moments of tension, and as a means of extending resonances, not as a body in itself.

But her largest work of this period is the orchestral suite Aequora Lunae. Rainier worked at St. Ives in Cornwall, and she not only knew Barbara Hepworth, to whom Aequora Lunae is dedicated, but shared something of her abstract aesthetic. It is by no means far-fetched to compare what Rainier expresses in terms of abstract musical sounds with what Hepworth expresses in abstract sculpture.

Rainier finds St. Ives an excellent environment for work; and she first made the acquaintance of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson when she stayed one summer, using a fisherman's loft as a studio. She was the only musician in this community of artists, though Tippett was also associated with her, and Barbara Hepworth, in the arrangements for the St. Ives Festival in Coronation year (1953). The years leading up to this were taken up in preparatory work for it, and so Rainier composed little during this period (1951-53).

But the spirit of the place infected her; how could it do otherwise? The form of land and sea; space; the identity of the human with the natural; the purity of life, unfiltered by city-living. The basis of her work was profoundly affected through this contact with Hepworth and Nicholson. She concentrated on essentials of technique, and eliminated all unnecessary parts of a work; she attempted in a composition not to capture the whole of an experience, but to state just enough to 'open the doors of experience' for the listener; she sought a purity of aim, and the avoidance of everything banal and obvious. 'The music and rhythm of lines created by light and shadow, and by the boundaries where form and space meet'1 were interpreted in sculpture by Barbara Hepworth- and in music by Rainier.

The musical content in Ben Nicholson's work is even more explicit than in Hepworth's; Hodin compares his still lifes with the construction of fugues-subject, counter-subject, episodes and so on. To quote Nicholson's own words: 'the kind of painting which I find exciting is... both musical and architectural, where the architectural construction is used to express the musical relationship between form, tone and colour.'

This was the background for Rainier's later abstract works. Aequora Lunae is a continuous piece in seven sections, each one descriptive of one of the moon's seas. The abstract patterns of this uninhabited world give rise to small particles of sound, which in turn generate further patterns, or molecules. Rhythm is the pulsating energy which surrounds all matter, only waiting to be released; different particles move at different speeds, and set up varying degrees of rhythmic patterns. In a sense, as is the case with a serial style, such abstraction can only produce static music; each particle is a thing in itself, as it reacts on its surrounding matter, before giving way to the next. So it inevitably follows that this score lacks the overall drive of a dynamic continuity which comes from contrapuntal writing, or from thematic development. In place of themes, Rainier substitutes textures; in place of the melody that thematic composition implies, she gives correspondingly greater importance to rhythm.

The seas chosen as titles for the seven parts form a metaphysical Cycle of Fertility, which could be described in a figurative way as follows:

Mare Imbrium: Rain - the contribution, the beginning.
Mare Fecunditatis: Fertility - the potential in all existence.
Mare Serenitatis: Tranquillity - the calm before movement.
Mare Crisium: Crises - releasing of activity.
Mare Nubium: Clouds - the vapours transcending and forming.
Oceanus Procellarum: Tempest - chaotic disturbances.
Lacus Somnorum: Dreams - the sea sleeps in lakes and moves in sleep.

The orchestra is often divided into two parts: one half of the string body attached to the brass and hard-sounding percussion, the other to the woodwind and dulcet percussion. This division creates acoustical opportunities. Dense chord clusters move as composite sounds with frequent changes of colour through their transfer from one instrumental group to another. The opposition of dark and light-coloured instrumental tone plays a large part in the structures of the work.

A special feature is the number of solos for wind instruments. These form linear movements between chord clusters, and sometimes are the link between parts, either as conclusions or introductions. The percussion is enlarged with three steel plates, high, low and medium, and a set of antique cymbals, tuned to specific pitches. Each of the parts has its distinctive orchestration.

After these large-scale instrumental works, Rainier returned to vocal composition, for the first time since the Requiem, with The Bee Oracles (1969). This setting of Edith Sitwell's poem 'The Bee-Keeper', commissioned by Peter Pears, was first sung publicly at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1970. The scoring is for tenor soloist, with flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord. The choice of text is usually the first and strongest guide to a vocal composition; this, like that of the Requiem, is a powerful structure, rich in mystical imagery.

The poem is a recognition and an affirmation of the mystery and hope of all creation. In the music are embodied two rhythms, one represented by the instrumental writing, forming particular rhythms linking and unlinking, always moving towards and in support of the second and fundamental rhythm, represented by the vocal line. The syllabic repetitions upon which the vocal line is based create a pulsation, flooding in and out of the instrumental textures. This continuous interplay, such as is found in Rainier's earlier works, produces a structure perpetually forming and re-forming; a kind of 'honeycomb' in sound.

The introduction to the 'Hymn of Being' is used as an incantation in the form of a chant, which recurs in shortened versions between the verses, each of which is a paean to the elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Sun and Thunder.

This was the song that came from the small span

0f thin gold bodies shaped by the holy Dark...


String Quartet (1939)

Oboe Quartet: Quanta (1962)

String Trio (1966) 16'25

Ploërmel for winds and percussion

Redcliffe Recordings RR007 (rec. 1991)

Requiem (1956) 23'

Redcliffe Recordings RRO1l (Recorded 1996)

Full details of the works are given at these locations

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