My involvement with Alan Rawsthorne's music began in childhood, and has remained something of great value to me. When the 78s of Constant Lambert's recording of the Symphonic Studies were issued, I saved up my pocket money to buy it, and since my piano teacher, Gordon Green (with whom I studied for many years) was one of Alan's oldest friends it was inevitable that, with my interest in his music, I should first meet him about 1949 or 1950. From later years, I still treasure the LP of Clifford Curzon's performance of the 2nd Piano Concerto, very kindly autographed by Alan, and many occasions on which I had the privilege of playing his music in his presence and promoting the art of a composer whose music retains for me the strong attraction I felt even from the start.
Quite what makes one respond so much to any composer is always a bit of a mystery. In Alan's case, the fastidious workmanship and the highly individual nature of the style are surely part of it - his music is especially personal in idiom, not everybody's cup of tea perhaps but certainly mine. Perhaps one of its greatest fascinations is the sense of profound undercurrents of emotion disguised by the elegant surface of the music, bursting out into forceful expressions on occasions but more often only properly appreciated by the listener prepared to do a little work to meet the composer half way. And the underlying melancholy has its own attraction, too - he was capable of exuberant high spirits, even a little cheerful vulgarity (he said once he felt people expected this of his music occasionally), the heart of his work is to be found in such things as the delicately poised slow movement of the lst Piano Concerto, the most direct and subtle expression of a sensitive and compassionate musician.
I mentioned the Symphonic Studies, and for me this still represents possibly his finest achievement. There are other contenders for this title - the two piano concertos, the 3rd Symphony, the Cello Concerto, the Violin Sonata, and "Carmen Vitale" spring to mind immediately. But in the Symphonic Studies there is a particular freshness to the ideas, and though his style developed and changed somewhat over the years, this work sums up the essential points of his music "in the round". Passion and elegance are in perfect balance, the orchestration is masterly, and there is an exceptional formal skill which shows itself both in the motivic development (of which one of his favourite composers, Haydn, would have been proud) and in the structural balance and weighting of the different sections.
The imposing introduction outlines the essential motivic centre of the work's main theme, which is announced at the start of the first of the five main sections in a jaunty version for strings. The tune itself is highly chromatic so much so that it closely resembles a twelve- note row, but it contains within itself Rawsthorne's typical love of shifting tonalities, switching from A major almost immediately to F major-ish, and side-stepping still further from that point. I've always thought it one of his very best tunes - there were times in later works when the continually changing tonal centres of his melodies became rather a mannerism, a device enabling him to keep the music moving, but here, as with the best of his other works, it is fresh and engaging. The mood of the music, too, is engagingly quick-silver - it changes from moment to moment with a flick of the wrist, and there is plenty of rhythmic excitement and drama in this opening section.
The use of the word Studies in the title may, in the long run, have done a disservice to the piece - it has all the weight and thematic power of a symphony, and the emotional range. Robert Simpson, in the two-volume Pelican book on "The Symphony", states the main elements in the make-up of a true symphony. In Volume 1, he says there are three essential ingredients: "the fusion of diverse elements into an organic whole..... The continuous control of pace .... The reserves of strength necessary to achieve (the first two)". In Volume 2, he sums it up by saying the symphony must "travel". In all these respects, Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies succeed admirably.
The first movement demonstrates clearly within itself the fusion of the thematic/motivic material with the ebb and flow of events in what is emphatically an organic whole, while it fits perfectly as the first movement of a work of, at least, symphonic weight. The third movement acts as a kind of scherzo, relieving the tensions of the powerful slower movements either side of it while clearly reliving the implications of the work's main theme, only slightly metamorphosed. The two slow movements, both dramatic and expressive, are perfectly judged so that the greater emotional weight is laid on the later of them. To set this well in overall context, the finale is the lengthiest movement, beginning with deceptive amiability and naturally growing into a ferocious fugue (owing something perhaps to Vaughan Williams's 4th Symphony of a few years earlier) and resolving into a final, triumphant B major chord.
As I hope these remarks imply, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts - if each movement is a satisfying entity, it is made more significant by its place in the whole, and the judgement of structural balance is impeccable. The placing of the emotional peaks is equally precise, and their power is remarkable. There are few orchestral works by Rawsthorne which achieve such direct and overt expression (the Sarabande of the 3rd Symphony, written 25 years later, is one of them). And the music certainly "travels" - when the majestic opening returns just before the close, it is transformed by what has happened to the material in the intervening sections so that the final flourish is exactly right and not merely imposed.
If I were a conductor, and I appear to be the only person in the musical world who has no such ambition, I would like to conduct the Symphonic Studies - it is a fine display-piece for the orchestra, gives splendid opportunities for an interpreter to display both structural grasp and the ability to shape and convey the emotional depths of a varied work, and, now that this style is no longer so "modern", is by no means difficult for an audience to come to terms with, provided the performance is thoroughly committed. What a pity it is so seldom heard. I know this is a phrase one uses about most music, since only a handful of works are heard with real frequency, but it applies to this masterly piece more than most, and one hopes that one day a really fine modern performance, in a really fine modern recording, will gain a new, lasting audience for it.
Taken from THE CREEL, journal of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne and Rawsthorne Trust, Vol.1 No.3 Autumn 1990
John McCabe is currently writing a book on Alan Rawsthorne, commissioned by the Rawsthorne Trust, which is due for publication in 1998.