II The establishment
of a tradition
The commonest criticism made today of Walton’s music
is that its style has remained consistently conservative, and has not
‘advanced’; that those works on which his reputation most securely rests,
whose mastery is not in dispute, were written before the war, and that
his compositions after 1945 represent a re-tilling of old ground, rather
than a staking out of new.
If there is one who retains his head, when most of
those around him are losing theirs, this may well be disconcerting for
his colleagues and contemporaries; and certainly Walton has shown a
marked disinclination to be swayed by the dictates of the ‘new music’
of the 50s, when serialism became all the rage. He refused to ‘develop’,
as some would have had him do; he refused to be swayed by fashion; and
this placed him beyond the critical pale of some journalists.
But the criticism is both slick and specious; its logic
is apparent, not real. It is just as illogical to condemn a work because
its composer does not move with the times as it is to praise it because
he does. It implies that a composer’s style should ‘develop’ without
specifying for what purpose, or in which direction, or on what grounds
such a fundamental aesthetic assumption is made. In this case it fails
to take into account the profound and many-sided nature of Walton’s
style. It is indeed one of the most striking instances in contemporary
journalism of the extent to which criticism has moved away from a reasoned
aesthetic foundation, in favour of unreasoned, dogmatic assumptions.
There is no law of aesthetics which lays it down that
the merit of an artist’s work is to be measured in ratio to his acceptance
of current fashions and contemporary trends. If anything, the reverse
is the case, the acceptance of current fashions will almost inevitably
ensure that his work contains a considerable proportion that is of ephemeral
interest only, which will become outmoded when one fashion gives way
to the next. Anything more lasting calls for a less shifting foundation
than fashions or trends can supply.
Strangely, however, just such a canon has been adopted
by several writers and critics, and made to apply to a wide range of
composers, chief among whom is Walton. This has resulted in a considerable
distortion of artistic judgement, since what is of primary importance
is not so much chat a composer should adopt this or that particular
idiom or technique, but what use he makes of it.
But an aesthetic principle of greater seriousness,
and wider importance, is raised by this criticism. To lay down general
rules from a particular case can, where art is concerned, cause the
severest distortion of view, because it may mean a work is considered
from the wrong point of view; that is to say a view other than the artist’s
intention. Perhaps one of the greatest victims of the musical law-givers
has been opera; so Walton was to discover with Troilus and Cressida.
Its composite, artificial form makes it particularly open to theories,
rules, and regulations, and those who have defined the function of opera-what
it must do, and what it must not do-range from the French Encyclopaedists
to Michael Tippett; from Busoni to Boulez.
It is an essential part of a composer’s work that he
should define and regulate the purpose of his own work. But this is
a very different matter from our taking his working principles as general
rules and applying them indiscriminately to other composers. The principles
of opera composition that Tippett, for instance, arrives at in Moving
Into Aquarius are of the greatest relevance, and give us a deep insight
into Tippett’s operas. But to apply them as absolute rules, which are
to be obeyed by all opera composers, is a very different matter; and
a more than doubtful critical procedure.
Yet one that is frequently followed; and not just in
opera. Many indeed are those critics who take it on themselves to lay
down what music should or should not do, and then proceed to condemn,
or ignore, a composer because he fails to pass through their own hoop.
On the contrary, each composer’s work can only be adequately considered
on its own terms. It is not a question of whether it should do this,
or should not do that; such assumptions have nothing to do with aesthetics.
Indeed, if a composer only adopts a particular idiom or style because
he thinks he ought to, then his integrity is to that extent impaired.
What matters is not so much what idiom a composer adopts, as whether
it is a suitable vehicle for the full range of his artistic vision.
Walton’s idiom has always been tonal. He has worked,
generally speaking, slowly and deliberately, with the result that his
many-sided imagination was progressively stretched with each succeeding
work; and the characteristics of his style, already latent since Facade,
became gradually more marked. They extended in several directions.
The underlying and strongest feature of his musical
thought is its sheer bigness, whether of his original conceptions, or
of the overall breadth of phrase, or of his finished structure. The
size of his musical ideas not only encompasses a wide range of human
emotion, but also inevitably necessitates a large orchestra. Far the
greatest part of his output is conceived on grand symphonic lines, and
uses the full orchestral resources.
As the table shows, only in nine works does he reduce
to double woodwind; only in five works out of twenty-four does he dispense
with the tuba, and of these one is a chamber opera and two are ballets
for which a reduced orchestra might reasonably be assumed. And even
Facade was enlarged from a divertissement for chamber ensemble, which
it was originally, to an orchestral work. Walton’s style is large; the
range of his ideas is big.
Smaller pieces include songs and chamber music, which
taken as a whole form but occasional moments-in-passing between the
large works, and represent only one aspect of his style. The songs are
‘A song for the Lord Mayor’s table’, for soprano and piano [these songs
were later (1970) orchestrated, and benefited considerably from the
fuller accompaniment.]; ‘Anon in love’ for tenor and guitar; and three
songs with words by Edith Sitwell.
The chamber music works, each of substantial size,
are the String Quartet (1947), and the Violin Sonata (1950). The first
of these was written, he says, ‘more as an exercise in purification’
after the film scores
of the war years. Not that these were entirely ephemeral;
the Shakespeare films with Laurence Olivier, such as Henry V(1943) and
Hamlet (1947)? are unique in combining symphonic technique with the
requirements of a film sound-track.
SCORING OF SYMPHONIC WORKS
(in addition to strings)
Year of completion / Woodwind / Brass (Horns-Trumpets-Trombones-Tuba)
1925 Portsmouth Point / Triple / 4-3-3-1 / Timp. Perc.
1928 Sinfonia Concertante / Double (+piccolo, Cor Anglais)
/ 4-2-3-1 / Timp. Perc. (2) Piano
1929 Viola Concerto / Triple (orig.) 4-3-3-I Double
(rev.) 4-2-3-0 / Timp. Timp.Harp
1931 Belshazzar’s Feast Triple (+alto saxophone) 4-3-3-I
(+2 brass bands: 0-3-3-I)) / Timp. Perc. (4) 2 Harps Piano Organ
1935 Symphony No. 1 Double 4-3-3-I 2 Timp. 2 Perc.
1937 In honour of the City of London Double 4-3-3-I
(+ piccolo) Timp. Perc. Harp
1937 Crown Imperial Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. Perc. (2)
1940 Violin Concerto Double 4-2-3-0 Timp. Perc. (2)
1940 TheWise Virgins (Ballet) Double 4-2-3-0 Timp.
1941 Scapino Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. Perc. (3) Harp
1941 Music for Children Double 4-2-3-1 Timp. Perc.
1941 The Quest (Ballet) Double 4-2-3-0 Timp. Perc.
(2) Harp Celesta Glockenspiel
1953 Orb and Sceptre Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. Perc. (4)
1953 Coronation Te Deum Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. (optional:
Perc. 4 trumpet, 3 trombone, 4 S.D.) - Harp Organ
1954 Troilus and Cressida (Opera) Triple 4-3-3-1 (+
1 horn, 4 t’t tenor D, S.D.).(Timp 2 Harps Celesta Perc. (5)
1956 Johannesburg Festival Overture Triple 4-3-3-1
Timp. Harp Perc. (3)
1956 Cello Concerto Double 4-2-3-1 Timp. Perc. (3)
1958 Partita Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. Perc. (4) Celesta
1960 Symphony No. 2 Triple 4-3-3-1 Piano Celesta 2
Harps Timp. Perc. (4)
1961 Gloria Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. Perc. Harp. Organ
1963 Variations on a Theme by Hindemith Triple 4-3-3-1
Timp. Perc. (3) Harp
1967 The Bear (Chamber Opera) Single 1-1-1-0 Timp.
1968 Capriccio Burlesco Triple 4-3-3-1 Piano Timp.
Perc. (3) Harp
1970 Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten
Triple 4-3-3-1 Timp. Perc. (3) Harp
Numbers in brackets denote number of percussion players
Active tradition is his mainspring. He inclined more
by both instinct and environment to the tradition of Elgar than to that
of Vaughan Williams; not only do some of his occasional pieces such
as the two Coronation Marches: Crown Imperial (1937) and Orb and Sceptre
(1953), sound directly with the same Elgarian ceremony and swagger,
but the sequential nature of his thematic construction is also highly
similar to that of the elder composer. Moreover, the output of the two
is strikingly similar; like Elgar, Walton wrote an outstanding work
in each of the larger categories, such as the concerto or overture,
or orchestral variations; two symphonies; no piano pieces worth mentioning,
and a handful of songs; a small amount of chamber music, an orchestral
suite for children. Like Elgar, Walton is almost entirely self-taught.
He is, moreover, like his friend Constant Lambert, quite uninterested
Just as Walton’s idiom is wide, so is his appeal.
His music is the sort of music that the broad mass
of English people expect an English composer to write; its appeal is
therefore deep, instinctive, unwitting; and this partly explains the
heartfelt disenchantment with which some of the more esoteric latter-day
critics have turned on him; or, which amounts to the same thing, turned
away from him. They know that his music represents so much of the many-sided
aspects of the English genius that they feel such a sense of disappointment,
amounting almost to outrage, that he should show such a regrettable
lack of interest in competing in today’s avant-garde stakes, whose foremost
runners, they maintain, are alone worth their serious consideration.
Two primary factors colour Walton’s innate romanticism,
curb it, and so prevent it from running riot with the music. The first
is a toughness of fibre, which may be evident either in the form of
that rhythmical tautness which is such an instantly noticeable feature
of his style, or in a strictness of control of even the most apparently
loose and lyrical phrase; the long sentence for the soloist, with which
each of the three string concertos opens, is an example.
The second factor is a sense of fun and wit; the jazz-inspired
parody of Façade; the pungent malizia, the vivid scherzando,
that occurs at many points in his mature works. There was nothing particularly
remarkable about the frivolous and disrespectful antics of the 20s;
everyone was doing it; indeed you were expected to, if you did not wish
to be considered hopelessly academic and out of touch. Walton’s wit,
however, is something altogether deeper, and matches his strongly lyrical
But there is a wider range to his style than can be
seen from either its chief outward characteristics or his assimilation
of external influences. He is a predominantly orchestral composer; he
thinks in terms of the instruments, and he makes the orchestra speak
with greater fluency, and more compelling urgency, than most other symphonists
of his generation. The trombone music at the opening of Belshazzar’s
Feast is an example of sheer physical urgency. He relies on nothing
outside the music; the process of thematic development is his second
nature (in this respect he is at the opposite pole to Britten, whose
music is a reaction to an external stimulus), and it gives the finished
work its virility and urgency, both in the minutest details of nuance
and colour, and in the overall design of a movement or of a whole work.
Phrase answers phrase in a logical sequence. They grow like branches
of a tree. There is a bigness, a spaciousness and a depth about his
symphonic design which is by definition denied to the composer who adopts
the more fragmented methods of serialism, or the more experimental,
emotionally shallower, styles of the avant-garde. Walton’s style is
emotionally involved, at many different levels, which makes it open
to varying interpretation by different conductors, all equally valid:
the lyricism peculiar to the English, the rhythm of the 20s, following
Stravinsky’s works after The Rite of Spring, the incisiveness of Bartok,
the nobility of Elgar; a mastery of symphonic form, and an orchestral
virtuosity second to none among contemporary British composers.
William Walton was born in 1902 at Oldham in Lancashire;
in 1912 he went as a chorister to the Choir School of Christ Church,
Oxford, and in the following years began his first tentative efforts
in composition. His precocious talent was brought to early fruition
in the atmosphere of the English Cathedral tradition, and his early
works included a Piano Quartet. He did not, however, proceed to become
a Bachelor of Music [another composer who was a somewhat reluctant student
at Christ Church, Oxford, at about this time, and who left after only
one year, on the outbreak of war in August, 1914, was Philip Heseltine/Peter
Warlock; he was Walton’s senior by eight years. For an account of Warlock’s
year at Oxford by his student-contemporary Robert Nichols, see Cecil
Gray, Peter Warlock, pp. 61-92.], as he was sent down from the university
for not passing Responsions, before he submitted an exercise. So, leaving
Oxford, he went instead to Chelsea, where he was given a room in the
house of the Sitwells; he had met Sacheverell Sitwell at Oxford. Thus
began a remarkably productive association.
Following the extraordinary early success of Facade
[Osbert Sitwell fully describes the events surrounding its first performance
in Laughter in the Next Room, pp. 168-198.], which was the first-fruits
of his association with the Sitwells, Walton’s early works were played
at I.S.C.M. concerts; an early String Quartet(1923)??? the overture
Portsmouth Point (1926), Through his close association at this time
with Constant Lambert, who wrote a ballet for Diaghilev’s company, Walton
explored the possibility of himself doing likewise, particularly as
Diaghilev had attended a performance of Facade. But nothing came of
this, and the Sinfonia Concertante, originally intended as a ballet
score for piano duet, became an orchestral piece, with piano obbligato.
But it was with the Viola Concerto o (1929) that the
series of masterworks begins, each developing from the previous one,
each a unique composition, forging its own fresh tradition as it went.
Belshazzar’s Feast followed in 1931, whose sheer physical energy dealt
a mortal blow to the old traditional English oratorio, and opened the
way for the replacing of it by the more vital tradition of opera, particularly
since 1945. Walton himself benefited from this development, and contributed
two important works in this category, one grand opera in the traditional
manner, Troilus and Cressida (1954), and a one-act chamber opera, in
the Aldeburgh manner, The Bear (1967).
The First Symphony [first performed, including the
finale, on 6 November 1935.] occupied his attention for four years (1932-35),
and broke new ground on practically every count, except in its four
movement structure. The first movement, sustained, intense, proliferating
with detail and rhythmically complex, is the testimonial of his tonal
idiom. Walton accepted tonality because his music was to be broadly
based, and capable of the widest range of romantic expression. He did
not extend tonality, as Bartok did, and (later) Alan Rawsthorne; rather
his work is an individual application of existing tonality, whose implications
he accepted. These implications were chiefly that notes should be related
according to their function in the tonal scale (tonic, dominant and
so on), that movements should be constructed on the principle of thematic
and harmonic contrast, and that the logical movement of the music should
be decided mainly by the harmony, and the answering of phrase with phrase.
The contrast in the symphony’s first movement is extreme:
between the steadily moving minim metre, and a highly detailed, finely
calculated pattern of rhythmically articulated small notes; between
changing chromaticism in the upper parts, and an unchanging, anchor-like
bass line, largely built round pedal points. There is no key signature.
Both in this symphony and in other major works, Walton
reflects the influence of those two composers whose work was chiefly
respected by the leading musical thinkers of the 30s, namely Sibelius
and Berlioz [2. Cecil Gray wrote a biography of Sibelius, and visited
the composer in order to do this task adequately. His admiration for
Berlioz is frequently attested in his other writings. Ernest Newman
also wrote a study of Berlioz, in spite of his ardent Wagnerian bias].
The terse, episodic nature of the thematic construction of Walton’s
first symphony, as well as its prevailingly sombre mood, derive from
Sibelius. The use of brass bands in Belshazzar’s Feast is derived from
the Berlioz of the Requiem.
Straight away the opening indicates something on a
big scale, like the beginning of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. The interval
that pervades the movement, as indeed the whole symphony, is that of
the seventh, or its inversion the second. This decides not only the
shape of the principal themes, and the sombre light they cast on the
twin prevailing moods of melancholy and savagery, but also the tonal
relationship between the main sections, namely B flat minor and C. The
opening oboe theme concentrates a wealth of expression into a handful
of notes; it is balanced melodically, rhythmically and harmonically
in a way that Walton never surpassed; it germinates the later parts
of the symphony [It has been copied, whether consciously or unconsciously,
by many another composer. For instance Herbert Howells uses it in his
Saraband for the Morning of Easter, bar 47 following; Francis Chagrin
uses it in the first movement of his symphony.]. Themes there are in
plenty; or rather an abundance of thematic ideas, which the thirty-year-old
composer develops with a bewildering profusion of contrasts. Walton
has never exceeded the first movement of this symphony for music of
a concentrated, dramatic intensity. It is highly instructive to notice
the impressions of two musicians [Frank Howes, The Music of William
Walton (pp. 23-40). Bernard Shore, Sixteen, Symphonies (pp. 372-387).],
which are so different, and so largely contradictory, as to cause doubt
whether they refer to the same work. Even allowing for the fact that
Mr. Howes writes as a somewhat didactic critic, while Mr. Shore writes
as a heavily-involved orchestral player, the truth perhaps may be deduced
from these two accounts, that the music is so varied, and so detailed,
that it presents a different aspect from differing viewpoints. Both
accounts are valid, and not so much contradictory as complementary.
If the first movement is a conflict of moods, of which
the themes are a reflection, the second scherzo movement is a conflict
of rhythm, in a tonality (E) a tritone away from that of the first movement.
The unison theme at  is a distorted, maniacal version of the original
oboe theme at the opening of the first movement; this, and the brilliant
frenzy of the orchestration, recall Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
The melancholy that was implicit in the opening is
next made explicit in the slow movement. The extreme agitation and incisive
frenzy of the scherzo are now replaced by a melody with a slow rate
of harmonic change, over a static pedal-point bass note (C sharp), and
an accompaniment of open fifths or sevenths, as in the first movement.
The development is more contrapuntal than the preceding scherzo, while
the mood remains one of resignation, melancholy, highly expressive of
Hardly, however, a suitable ending for a work on this
scale, even in the ‘devil’s decade’ of the 30s. The finale, as is well
known, was not finished until nearly a year after the first three movements
had been publicly performed [in December 1934, under Hamilton Harty].
It was sketched out as far as the fugal section, when the composer allowed
himself to be persuaded, by Hamilton Harty and Hubert Foss, into letting
the three movements be performed, when it became obvious that the finale
was not going to be finished in time for the announced date. Walton
now considers that this was a mistake.
In deciding on a fugal structure, Walton used the other
main device of the classical composers, not already used in this symphony.
The subject is taken from the B flat minor oboe theme at the opening,
but varied into the major, and introduced with a bolder, fanfare-like
upbeat in fourths. The climax inherent in fugal writing is preceded
and followed by a maestoso prologue and epilogue, which bring the work
to a grand, ceremonious close.
It was twenty-five years before Walton wrote his next
symphony, which was first heard at the Edinburgh Festival on 2nd September
1960. Meanwhile the musical scene had changed radically. This was the
time when serialism was the fashion in this country, and general critical
opinion was coloured by that fact. Expectedly, therefore, the new symphony
was greeted with less fulsome enthusiasm than it would have enjoyed
even ten years earlier; the general comments were that this work was
characteristic of its composer, but that he had unfortunately failed
to ‘advance’ in his style. It was then brilliantly recorded by an American
orchestra [2. The Cleveland (Ohio) Orchestra, conducted by George Szell.];
the same orchestra which had commissioned the Partita two years earlier,
and first played it on 30th January 1958; the same orchestra, also,
which premiered the violin Concerto with Heifetz as soloist, and Arthur
Rodzinski conducting, on 7th December 1939. Then it was realised that
this symphony was in fact a feat of orchestral virtuosity which few,
if any, British composers could equal. The texture is lighter than that
of the first symphony, yet no lessening of brilliance or tension ensues;
on the contrary, Walton’s style has now mellowed. The savage incisiveness
is very much still there; and something else besides. The work is a
most decided advance on the first symphony-but not in the way that some
were expecting. It is more refined technically and structurally, more
thematically integrated, and more fluid harmonically; this partly is
due to there being fewer pedal-points, which occur only occasionally
[3. For instance I, bars 317-323; II bars 129-152; or III bars 225-244].
The G minor tonality of the first movement is coloured
with C sharp, and the totally chromatic first subject uses, in the course
of its exposition, all twelve notes, distributed over a gradual episodic
build-up of short phrases, marked sospirando, and echoed between wind
and strings; the interval chiefly used is the major seventh. After a
climax (bars 51-59), worked out of the last few notes of this composite
theme, the texture is gradually reduced to a single line, to make way
for the second subject, whose melody is shared between violas and clarinet,
with a lighter, more sustained accompaniment. The melody is confined
to six notes (B flat-A-F sharp-G-E flat-D) which are the first six of
the l2-note passacaglia theme that is to come later; and this gives
the music greater repose, in contrast with the first subject. Thus Walton
makes The twelve-note scale subservient to the expressive requirements
of the music; his tonal idiom is broadly enough based to admit this
chromatic element. A trivial little accompaniment figure, which leads
into this subject is contracted rhythmically into a characteristic ostinato
at bar 95. This propels the music forwards through forty bars of agitato
(bars 92-133) into the all-important development section which follows.
Here the first and second subject material is combined and built up
from a quiet contrapuntal beginning (bar 139) into a highly characteristic
and brilliant climax (bar 201). This figure, which contains the central
germ of both themes, as well as the ostinato rhythm of bar 95, is treated
sequentially; orchestral virtuosity is an integral part of Walton’s
technique, and the climax sections are less complex, less laboured than
in the first symphony.
At bar 217 the first theme is recapitulated, but shorter
than before, a fifth higher, though with similar texture. Once again
an orchestral climax is followed by reduction to a single line (bar
249), to introduce the second subject. This appears a major sixth higher
than in the exposition, and allotted to the first violins, instead of
the more sombre violas. The agitato section follows once more (bar 276),
and the ostinato rhythm leads the music forward, this time to a short,
brilliant section, such as only Walton could have written. The original
tonality (G minor) returns for a coda (bar 338) [not really bar 330,
as Mr. Howes suggests.], with the first phrase of the first subject
recalled several times.
Walton dispenses with a scherzo as such, and goes straight
to the slow movement. Notes 7-12 of the passacaglia theme of the finale
direct the tonality of the second movement towards B major, which thus
complements the second subject of the first movement. This slow movement
rests on two themes (starting at bar 7 and bar 42), which occur twice,
and are followed through, rather than developed. As in the first movement,
the interval of the seventh is much in evidence, for instance in the
slow violin theme at bar 19; set against this is the series of fourths,
with which the movement opens, and which, in spite of its strong B major
tonality, give the harmony a certain neutral colour.
The final passacaglia returns to G minor; and since
the two halves of its 12-note theme have already been referred to in
the previous movements, a thematic continuity is thus automatically
established. Moreover, the shortening of the symphony from four movements
to three enables Walton to embody some of the missing scherzo into the
finale, which consists of three sections, Passacaglia (theme and variations),
fugato, and Coda (scherzando).
The composer has his tongue resolutely in his cheek
as the full orchestra struts its way, in a solemn and pompous unison,
through the 12-note theme. Trills add to the mock-serious nature of
the occasion. The first five variations are straightforward, with the
theme set, like some mediaeval cantus firmus, against curving counter-subjects
in different sections of the orchestra. In the sixth variation it is
shared between the brass instruments, while in the seventh Walton subjects
it to the serial technique of retrograde inversion. He is as capable
as the next man of musical carpentry. The speed has meanwhile gradually
quickened, but the tension is relaxed in the eighth, the pace slackened
in the ninth, while the theme undergoes more transformation; it returns
in its original form in the tenth variation, which acts as a brilliant
lead-in to the fugato section of the movement.
The fugal subject, which consists of the notes of the
passacaglia theme reset, is highly characteristic of Walton, and contains
many points of resemblance with the equivalent fugue in the first symphony.
But its working out is much less elaborate.
The fugato section is quite short (166-227), and in
the Coda that follows the pace quickens up to presto (bar 257). As in
the first symphony, there is a ceremonious broadening out as the work
nears its end. It concludes with twelve bars of reiterated chords of
Walton’s next orchestral work, which followed the Second
Symphony, is the Variations on a theme by Hindemith [First heard conducted
by the composer at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert on its 150th
anniversary, 8 March 1963]. Here he draws attention to, and publicly
acknowledges, the obligation of friendship that existed between the
two composers, ever since they met in August 1923 in Salzburg, when
Walton’s early quartet was played. Later, in 1929, when the English
violist Lionel Tertis had turned down the Viola Concerto, it was to
Hindemith that Walton turned; and turned successfully. The Concerto
was performed [On 3 October 1929, at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert.]
with Hindemith as soloist, Walton conducting. Now Walton repays the
debt; and includes Gertrud Hindemith in the dedication, which both recipients
found deeply touching. Hindemith particularly respected Walton’s workmanship
in this piece. The theme is from the beginning of the second movement
of Hindemith’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1940):
The principle of deriving a tonality from the notes
of a series, which Walton had developed in the Second symphony is carried
one stage further in this work, in which each of the nine variations
takes its tonal direction and destination from the successive notes
of Hindemith’s theme.
The customary fugal finale finishes on E major, the
original starting-point. Thus the scheme of the work is as follows:
Theme Andante con moto, E tonality (36 bars)
Var I Vivace, G sharp tonality
Var II Allegramente, F sharp tonality
Var III Larghetto, B tonality
Var IV Moto perpetuo, C sharp tonality
Var V Andante con moto, D tonality
Var. VI Scherzando, A tonality
Var. VII Lento molto, C tonality
Var. VIII Vivacissimo, B flat tonality
Var. IX Maestoso, F tonality
Finale Allegro molto, E tonality
Variation VII also includes, at a climax moment towards
the end, a quotation from Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler [1. Page
221 of the piano score, at  -4.], which bears a striking similarity
to the theme of this work, bars 29-32. The essence of the passage is
a pattern of descending triads (E-C-A flat-E), each a major third apart.
This colours the end of Walton’s work, if not the whole of it, which
is thus somewhat more harmonically inhibited than the symphonies, though
written with no less brilliance of orchestration.
Among Walton’s four concertos, the least characteristic,
also the earliest, is the Sinfonia Concertante. But the other three,
for viola, violin and cello respectively, all occupy a unique place
in the international repertoire, comparable with the concertos of Elgar.
In each of these three works Walton has been fortunate in his soloists;
the most recent concerto, that for cello, was written in 1956 for Gregor
Piatigorsky, who first played it in Boston, U.S.A. [On 25 January 1957.]
Like the Viola Concerto and the Violin Concerto, it
opens with a long, lyrical sentence for the soloist. The orchestral
accompaniment to this melody is built round a chord which Walton used
again at the beginning of the Second Symphony, written three years later;
moreover the texture and layout of the two are remarkably similar.
As a whole the work is restrained, lyrical, elegiac,
like Elgar’s cello concerto. It contains little of the vivo of the Viola
Concerto, or the presto capriccioso of the Violin Concerto; and the
virtuoso solo writing of the second movement, or of the two cadenzas
in the third, is overcast by that dark colour proper to the cello, and
by the chromatic, prevailingly minor tonality. The same basic material
is used in all three movements, and its main features are the contrast
between fourths and triads; the scoring is generally speaking light.
So in many ways the work is unique in comparison with Walton’s other
The first movement is one continuous cantabile, made
up of seven lyrical sentences for the cellist, each separated by two
or three bars of orchestral accompaniment. The sixth sentence is a recapitulation
of the first, a tritone higher.
The second movement is the most concertante of the
three; an integrated conversation between soloist and orchestra, with
brilliant solo writing, including harmonics and throwing-bow technique,
at a fast speed (allegro appassionato).
Each section of the third movement is derived, however
remotely, from the opening 10-bar cello solo, to which the movement
as a whole thus stands in the distant relationship of an improvisation
to its parent theme. The opening is slow, and the central section of
the movement is supported by two cadenzas. The first (‘Brioso’) heralds
the only brilliant ff section in the entire work, an outburst for orchestra
alone, which however is short, and soon gives way to the soloist's second
cadenza (’Rapsodicamente’). To conclude the work Walton recalls the
opening of the first movement.
Of his three concert overtures, the first two, Portsmouth
Point (1925) and Scapino (1941), are tone-poems, based on pictures;
the third, Johanneshurg Festival Overture (1956), is not.
Portsmouth Point is a light-hearted musical illustration
of a print by the eighteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson; this
depicts a variety of activities, reputable and not-so-reputable, taking
place on the quay of Portsmouth harbour. Walton’s score uses rhythmic
devices inherited from Stravinsky, much as Facade had been an English
adaptation of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire; and the overture is a high-spirited
parody by the twenty-three-year-old composer of all things solemn, bourgeois
and stuffily English.
Scapino makes a fitting partner to it. This comedy
overture was commissioned in 1940 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
for its fiftieth anniversary. Its model was an etching by the seventeenth-century
French engraver Jacques Callot, in Balli di Sfessania (1622). Scapino
is one of the less familiar characters of the Commedia dell’Arte; the
hero of Moliere’s Les Fourberies de Scapin, who may figure in the complicated
ancestry of Figaro. From him we derive the word ‘escapade’, which accurately
describes his function; he was the servant who planned his master’s
escapades, especially those of an amorous nature. This aspect of his
work is strongly suggested by the more legato cello theme, starting
at bar 132, which forms the central section of the piece, preceded and
followed by a highly characteristic Waltonian vivace.
The Johannesburg Festival Overture is more of a symphonic
composition in its own right, and is cast in the form of a rondo. Also
unlike the other two overtures it contains no metrical intricacies of
any kind, and the quickness of the opening (presto capriccioso) is maintained
unchecked throughout. Very much in the same high-spirited vein as the
three concert overtures is the 7-minute Capriccio Burlesco, written
in 1968 for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic.
If the overtures, particularly the first two, are of
primarily rhythmical interest, the two operas are primarily lyrical.
They are entirely contrasted, the one being directed at the large-scale,
international tradition of grand opera; the other at the newly established
English chamber opera, associated with Britten’s English Opera Group.
Troilus and Cressida was first produced at Covent Garden
on 3rd December 1954. It is a romantic opera, true to most of the traditions
of romantic opera; a love story in the grand manner; Christopher Hassall’s
libretto presented the composer with considerable scope for broad strokes
of character study as the strands of the plot interlock. Troilus, son
of Priam, King of Troy, is enamoured of Cressida, daughter of Calkas,
the Trojan High Priest, who deserts to the Greeks. Meanwhile his brother
Pandarus provides comic relief, as he arranges for the lovers to meet.
The folds of the plot thicken, however, when Cressida is handed over
to the Greeks in return for Antenor, a young Trojan officer captured
in battle. While in captivity, a Greek prince Diomede wins her over.
Troilus then gets through the lines during a truce, and the ensuing
confrontation leads the opera to its tragic climax.
The central theme is thus a love story; the Trojan
war provides the military background against which the action takes
place. Walton’s opera thus differs radically from Tippett’s King Priam,
which also deals with the Trojan war. Walton has provided a singer’s
opera, in broad melodic lines, with very little orchestral development;
the entr’acte between the two scenes of the second act is the only example
[-], and this serves the double purpose of representing the
passage of time between the two scenes, and of showing the fulfilment
of those amorous emotions just expressed in the love-duet.
But in writing lyrically Walton was dependent on the
words for both mood and shape of the melodic line. He does not hesitate
to use melisma or word repetition if the musical organization requires
it. In the wider context, whereas the structural climax of the orchestral
works is thematic, and the composer’s symphonic imagination is given
full play, in Troilus and Cressida the working out is dramatic; the
composer’s thematic invention is directed towards pointing an already
existing mood or character; the climax is built into the libretto, and
thus the composer’s characteristic symphonic style is not called fully
into play. There was no room in such a lyrical work for that ferocity,
that physical dynamism with which for instance Belshazzar’s Feast had
broken apart the bonds of conventional oratorio. The idiom of Troilus
and Cressida is no less advanced than Belshazzar’s Feast; but the composer’s
aim is different
With The Bear Walton entered still fresher territory.
This one-act ‘Extravaganza’ was first heard at Aldeburgh on 3rd June
1967, performed by the English Opera Group. The librettist was Paul
Dehn [Who was also Lennox Berkeley’s librettist for The Castaway and
A Dinner Engagement.], who wrote rhyming lyrics, and adapted Anton Chekhov’s
‘vaudeville’ in collaboration with the composer. Chekhov’s original
play The Bear (1888) was sub-titled ‘A jest in one act’; and so both
composer and librettist went about their task with a high-spirited enthusiasm
that shows on every page of the brilliant score. The clue to the work,
its mainspring, is parody, which was not unfamiliar to the composer
of Facade l and caricature, which was inherent in Chekhov’s comedy.
Walton has defined caricature as ‘so accurate an exaggeration
of the real thing as to be funny’. It is also good-natured, because
parody is affectionate; this distinguishes it from satire, which is
aggressive. And so Walton’s musical parodies match Chekhov’s character
The comedy is one of manners, not of plot Indeed the
story round which it is built is threadbare and (in the true sense)
farcical, and can be stated in one sentence: Popova, a pretty widow,
and faithful to the memory of her late and unfaithful husband, is confronted
by one of his more persistent creditors, Smirnov; but when after a quarrel
they point pistols at each other, they are unable to fire as they have
meanwhile fallen irretrievably in love. A third character, the servant
Luka, completes the cast. The comedy consists in the comparison of their
apparent with their real natures. Popova is outwardly genteel, inwardly
passionate; Smirnov is outwardly boorish, inwardly sentimental; Luka
is outwardly servile, inwardly resentful. Walton’s score makes explicit
all these facets that are implicit in the text. It thus differs radically
from Troilus and Cressida.
There is one other side to Walton’s work which is not
so much to do with his style as with the function he has been called
on to fulfil; this is the provision of music suitable for official celebrations.
Two choral works were commissioned for ceremonial occasions; the Te
Deum for the Coronation on 2nd June 1953; the Gloria for the 125th anniversary
of the Huddersfield Choral Society. In each work, certainly in the first,
Walton was required to be the spokesman for an already exciting mood
of official pomp and splendour. Both works cover a big expanse of sound,
and use the breadth that comes from the antiphonal use of two choirs;
both works use the characteristic tonality based on the seventh. The
Te Deum is the simpler, less dissonant, of the two, but it stands out
as riches indeed in comparison with most of the other music sung on
the famous occasion of its premiere.
Two other smaller sacred works are no less characteristic,
though their range is more confined; first, the anthem The Twelve, to
words by W. H. Auden, which Walton wrote in 1965 for his old Oxford
College, Christ Church; second, the Missa Brevis, written for Coventry
Cathedral. Thus in addition to the wide range over which Walton’s music
extends, he does not lose sight of the cathedral choral tradition, which
was his starting point.
2 Alan Rawsthorne
Though he was born in the same year as Tippett, Rawsthorne’s
music shows markedly different characteristics of style, reflecting
their difference of artistic personality. Rawsthorne’s style is less
complex, less visionary; his idiom has been forged from instrumental
and symphonic compositions, which make up by far the greater part of
his large output. Works for voices form but a small proportion; he has
not been drawn to opera as Tippett has, and he has been more prolific
than the other composer, who may well spend several years’ concentrated
work on one project, such as an opera.
Not until his early twenties did Rawsthorne decide
to pursue composition seriously and permanently. He studied at Manchester,
and later on the continent, where he specialised in the piano, under
Busoni’s most renowned disciple, Egon Petri. Writing for the piano is
a central part of Rawsthorne’s work, whether he uses it as a solo instrument,
as part of a chamber ensemble, or as a concerto instrument. A fondness
for and an understanding of the piano is rare among contemporary composers.
It is not surprising that he has written several pieces specifically
for that most virtuoso of contemporary pianists, John Ogdon; such works
include the Ballade, and the Concerto for two pianos (with Brenda Lucas,
The first works to bring Rawsthorne’s name before the
public were the Theme and Variations for two violins (1937), the Bagatelle
for piano (1938), and more especially the Symphonic Studies (1938),
which were first heard in Warsaw in 1939
The Symphonic Studies (1938), dedicated to John Ireland,
is a continuous twenty-minute movement, whose sections are built up
from one thematic motto, given out at the opening. This motto is not
so much varied as presented in different guises, whether harmonic, contrapuntal
or textural. The sections are: Introduction-Maestoso; (i) Allegro di
bravura; (ii) Allegretto; (iii} Allegro di bravura; (iv) Lento; (v)
Allegro piacevole. Section (iii) is largely a repetition of section
(i), and the opening Maestoso is used again at the end of the 1st and
The importance of the work is threefold; first, the
use of orchestral sonorities; second, the treatment of the somewhat
angular theme; third, the highly individual exploitation of tonality.
As the title implies, the piece is a study in orchestral
sonority. In the first Allegro, wind and strings are used antiphonally;
the next section contains much colourful contrast, with bars for full
orchestra alternating with bars for quiet strings and harp. The cor
anglais melody (at  + 7) is highly characteristic of that instrument,
while for the brass there is a fugue in the final section (starting
at ), against a colourful background of tremolo strings and percussion.
The thematic motto is stated at the opening. Simple
variants of it are obtained by altering the note order, and, by transposition.
The first simple variant is used freely in the oboe part at , at
+3 in the bass part, and in numerous other places throughout; the
second appears at [II]+5/6 in the bass part. Chromatic variants are
obtained by altering the inflection of one of the notes.
The first chromatic variant appears in many places;
it forms the fugue subject at ; it appears with the notes in reverse
order at [II]; it is used chordally at ; the note order is altered
at [II]+7. The second chromatic variant occurs, among other places at
; the third at +4.
Rawsthorne’s highly individual idiom is the result
of his exploitation of tonality. He makes use not so much of the somewhat
obvious device of the simultaneous sounding of conflicting keys, or
bitonality, as of the suggestion of various tonal centres. Two examples
will illustrate this. The opening motto is stated boldly. Clearly the
note B natural is tonally important; indeed the work ends with a B major
chord. Yet the tonality of B is by no means unambiguous, and several
tonal centres are suggested in the opening bars. At [II]+7 the solo
clearly indicates E minor, of which B would be the dominant, as the
tonality of the Allegretto section. The A flat/C sharp is due, as we
have seen, to the fact that the notes of the melody are a chromatic
variant of the motto. But apart from this, numerous shifting tonalities
are suggested by the highly colourful harmonic movement of the flute
part against the static, continuo-like chord of the horns and bassoons.
Rawthorne’s orchestral output continued with the first
of his two piano concertos, which originally appeared in 1939, then
in its final form in 1942. Its deliberate intention was to be accessible
to a wide general public. The Second Piano Concerto which is better
known, was written for Clifford Curzon for the Festival of Britain celebrations
in 1951, and immediately gained considerable popularity. It is more
virtuoso a work, less concertante than the first. It has frequently
been performed, and twice recorded. Outwardly romantic, after the manner
of the traditional piano concerto, it nevertheless combines virtuoso
piano writing with an important part for percussion.
His orchestral overtures include Street Corner (1944)
Corteges (1945), Hallé (1958) and Overture for Farnham (1967).
The last two, as their names imply, were written with specific occasions
in mind; the second, which the composer describes as a Fantasy Overture,
is the most elaborate, and the most effective, of his pieces in this
The chamber orchestra and string orchestra have by
no means been ignored by Rawsthorne. The early concertos for clarinet
and strings (1936) and oboe and strings (1947) led to the Concerto for
string orchestra (1949) and the Concerto Pastorale (1951) for flute,
horn and strings. Later works in this vein include the Divertimento
for chamber orchestra (1962), and the Elegiac Rhapsody for strings (1964).
But for the apex of Rawsthorne’s orchestral music we
must turn to the symphonies; and in particular the third symphony, which
is more of an integrated symphonic structure than the first two.
The First Symphony was written for the Royal Philharmonic
Society in 1950; the Second (Pastoral) was commissioned by the John
Feeney Charitable Trust, and first heard in Birmingham in 1959. The
first uses the customary four movements, as well as conventional formal
structures; the second also uses four movements, but is in many ways
unconventional, even unsymphonic, and relies on folk-like material.
The third movement is a scherzo in the form of a country dance, while
the short finale is a setting of a poem by the sixteenth century Henry
Howard, Earl of Surrey, in praise of summer. The whole conception of
the symphony is slight; too slight indeed for what it carries.
Very different in both conception and execution is
the Third Symphony, which was first heard on 8th July 1964 at a Cheltenham
Festival concert. In no work is the composer’s highly individual idiom
put to a severer test than in this; and in no work does it prove more
equal to the demands made of it.
Using the standard large orchestra, Rawsthorne has
no recourse to tricks or gimmicks to build up a large-scale symphonic
structure. The music lives solely through the vigour and variety of
the musical utterance. He looks on the instrumental groups as contrasted
tone-blocks, which he deploys with mastery, each section of the orchestra
being fully exploited both in chorus and in solo use. Winding, sinuous
passages of imitative woodwind, chords for full brass, often with a
brilliant rhythmical articulation, and great variety in the use of the
strings, are just some of Rawsthorne’s hallmarks.
The symphony is based on an E tonality, and is built
not so much on contrasting themes or subjects, as the classical procedure
was, as on the varied presentation of a tonal idea. As with the Symphonic
Studies, this idea is contained in embryonic form in the motto with
which the work opens.
Very quietly, in quick semiquavers, the suggestive
figure is introduced in a 12-note series assigned to the low woodwind
and ‘cellos. Melodically it contains a certain tonal ambiguity, set
up between E and E flat, which appears in different guises throughout
the first movement, and forms the central core of the whole work; the
pearl in the oyster. It is hammered out by the strings in octaves (+9),
echoed by the brass (+6); it gives rise to more lyrical counterpoint
(16]+4), and a somewhat nostalgic comment, after the tumult has temporarily
died away, by a solo violin (+7).
The harmonic-chromatic scale implied in the motto is
made explicit by the harp (after ), and by the horns (just before
[II]). Finally, all the tonal implications of the motto are brought
together in a resounding climax-chord, fff (at ).
Based on this structure of tonal contrast and variety,
the music moves logically. After the initial semiquaver movement has
spent itself and run its course, a gentler rhythm of crochets and minims
takes over. This leads to a lyrical counterpoint between cellos and
violas which, out of all his music, contains the very essence of Rawsthorne’s
The middle section of the movement, corresponding to
the development section in Sonata form, changes the metre to 318, and
the shorter phrases lead to the culminating climax (at [I 5]) already
mentioned. In the ensuing long-drawn-out calm, we wait for the semiquaver
movement of the opening to recur. But Rawsthorne does little more than
suggest this before allowing the music to die away. The underlying tonal
ambiguity remains unresolved.
The slow movement is a ternary structure, the first
and third sections consisting of melodic variants of the motto, over
a pedal E. The movement takes up where the previous one left off; indeed
it begins with exactly the same chord. The middle section, beginning
at , uses more rapid string passages, and more brilliant brass writing.
At the beginning of the third section the principal theme recurs, again
over a pedal E, but this time in canon between oboe and clarinet.
The scherzo is a brilliant display of orchestral virtuosity.
Lightly scored, and at a low dynamic level, the whole movement is all
of a piece, homogeneous; there is no trio section. The melodic content
is slight; what there is, is derived from the first movement; and the
rhythm of the opening bars is ambiguous up to . The strings move
together, largely in thirds and sixths, which tends to reduce the tonal
ambiguity. In all respects this movement is the perfect foil for the
rest of the work. Scurrying semiquavers for the strings and woodwind;
occasional chords and snatches of rhythmic figures elsewhere in the
orchestra. But there is still no suggestion of a resolving of that tension
that has been created since the beginning of the work. The composer
is concerned, as he says, ‘more with hints than statements’; it is as
if we are holding our breath for the finale.
This, when it comes, consists of violent orchestral
outbursts, which give way to a more tranquil mood in a contrasting tonality.
An ordinary enough principle, to be sure; yet Rawsthorne uses his material
in a fresh and anything-but-ordinary way. Brilliance is achieved by
the quick 3-in-a-bar metre, by the wide, strutting figuration of the
string writing ('obstreporous, emphatic and a little vulgar’ are the
composer’s words), by the strings being used largely in unison or octaves,
by the more obvious use of sequences.
The first quiet section, starting with the woodwind
at , is over a D pedal; the second one, at , is built up from
the same material, and given to a solo string quartet. The last outburst,
starting at +4, leads to the final brilliant resolution of that
E/E flat tension that has haunted the whole symphony. Now at last the
E tonality is allowed to reach its fulfilment as E major.
But still Rawsthorne adds a coda (-end). It is
as if he wishes to glance back at the journey covered since the opening.
Now echoes of E flat are heard, and the metre reverts to a duple one,
as it was originally; but once the major tonality has been firmly established,
the effect of such nostalgic echoes is to make us even more aware of
it. The work dies away on a note of secure and confident serenity.
Rawsthorne’s interpretation of those two chief and
related concerns of the contemporary composer, tonality and serialism,
is made explicit in this symphony. Composition for him is a conditioned
instinct, and tonality is inherently part of that conditioning. Why
seek to avoid it? Why should one write negatively, to avoid? Tonality
is the source of one of the most basic of all musical sensations, namely
preparation-tension-relaxation. Musical structures have their origin
in this sensation, which is indispensable.
Serialism, on the other hand, provides not so much
a set of rules as a set of principles. The idea of serialism is important
for Rawsthorne rather than its mechanics. The strict observance of serial
procedures limits the composer’s scope rather than enlarges his expressive
range. Yet there are several instances in his works, of which the opening
of the Third Symphony is one, where he makes use of serial devices in
order to achieve effects which would not be possible by simply tonal
means. Another instance is the Quintet for piano and wind, in which
the scherzo is serial [apart from the piano scales.]. But the total
and committed adoption of serialism would, Rawsthorne considers, limit
the expressive range of his music.
Rawsthorne has always had a strong predilection for
the violin, the traditionally lyrical yet at the same time most versatile
of instruments. The first of his two violin concertos was dedicated
to Walton, and was heard at Cheltenham in 1948. Its two movements are
played without a break. The first is marked by an intense lyricism,
and an impassioned orchestral tutti forms the centre of the movement.
Gradually the pace slackens, and after a cadenza the opening mood is
recaptured. The second movement contains considerable orchestral development,
which is somewhat at variance with the solo nature of a concerto. But
in the words of one critic [The Times, 2 July 1948], ‘the new work made
an immediate and deep impression on the audience’; it was to be followed
by a much more successful second concerto eight years later.
The Second Violin Concerto is more characteristic of
its composer than the first. In the opening bars, a tonal spell is cast
over the music. As in the case of the Third Symphony, E is juxtaposed
with E flat. In this case it is the solo violin that spells out the
simple melodic material of the work in two long phrases, of which the
second is an inversion of the first. The tonality of the concerto is
E, and its style is richly lyrical, with a dramatic and declamatory
slow movement centred round an A tonality. The theme of the finale,
which is in the form of a Theme and Variations, is set against an accompaniment
made up of material from the slow movement. This finale was enlarged
formally after the first performance, and another variation added.
Particularly noteworthy among the lighter works for
chamber orchestra is Improvisations on a Theme of Constant Lambert,
which was written for the Northern Sinfonia, and first played by them
on 11 January 1961. The theme is from Lambert’s ballet Tiresias, which
was heard at Covent Garden in 1951, the year of his death, and after
the theme the six improvisations follow continuously, to finish very
quietly and expressively. The work is dedicated to Rawsthorne’s wife,
Isabel, who was Lambert’s widow.
Rawsthorne’s idiom is instrumentally derived, tonally
chromatic, personal and subtle. It is thus perfectly suited to the intimate
medium of chamber music. Not surprisingly, he has written numerous works
in this category for different combinations of instruments; two piano
quintets, one for wind, one for strings; sonatas for all three stringed
instruments, among which that for violin and piano, written for Szigeti,
is a particularly clear example of a unified structure built up by the
most simple means from a motivating tonal idea-in this case the adjacent
triads of D and E flat minor. The extreme difficulty of the toccata
movement probably limits its performances. Other works include an oboe
quartet; a clarinet quartet; a piano trio; a sonatina for flute, oboe
and piano; and, to crown his endeavours in this field, three string
quartets. These aptly summarise the various phases of his development.
The first (1939) is a theme and six variations, which vary in pace,
texture and diffuseness of harmony. The Second Quartet (1954) demonstrates
Rawsthorne’s personal use of the established large-scale structures.
One of his favourite devices is the shortening of a theme at its recapitulation;
another is his fondness for the variation principle, which he uses in
the last of this quartet’s four movements.
The Third Quartet (1965) followed the third symphony,
and stands in the same relationship to his chamber music as that work
does to his orchestral music. It represents a culminating point of achievement.
This work was commissioned by the Harlow Arts Council,
and first played at that town on 18 July 1965. It is in four continuous
sections, preceded as usual by an introductory motto of six bars (allegro
deciso), in which the material, with its various possibilities of development,
is first stated; rising fourths a semitone apart, stated melodically
by the second violin, as bold intervals by the first; also the thematic
use of the major seventh and minor second. The first movement, which
uses 6/8 metre, develops the melodic potential of the material; the
second, in common time, combines its tonal and rhythmic potential; the
third opens with eleven bars of quiet, chordal introduction before the
viola gives out the seven-bar chaconne theme, which is derived, needless
to say, from the opening. The theme switches to the cello, and the music
grows to an impassioned climax before the chordal passage ends the movement
as it began. The finale is a brilliant gigue, in which juxtaposed fourths,
spelt out staccato, pp, make a glittering texture of multiple tonalities.
As a whole, the quartet is proof of the many-sidedness of Rawsthorne’s
idiom, and its capability in many different directions.
Vocal and choral music forms but a small part of Rawsthorne’s
output, which is predominantly instrumental. Indeed most of his vocal
compositions use instrumental accompaniment of some kind. Songs for
voice and piano are practically non-existent; the French nursery songs,
for instance, are early (1938) and un-typical.
His first vocal piece was late (1952) - A Canticle
of Man for baritone and choir, accompanied by lute and strings. This
was an occasional piece, written for a summer school. Various small
choral works followed; the Canzonet (1953) was Rawsthorne’s contribution
to that official collection of part-songs, A Garland for the Queen,
which was a somewhat self-conscious, entirely unspontaneous attempt
to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II - much as the famous
Triumphs of Oriana had celebrated her Tudor forebear.
Pieces for the conventional mixed choir include Four
Seasonal Songs (1956), Lament for a Sparrow, after Catullus (1962),
A Rose for Lidice, and the short carol, to words by Hardy, The Oxen.
Pieces requiring larger resources include the Mediaeval
Diptych for baritone and orchestra (1962); Tankas of the Four Seasons
for tenor and instrumental quintet (1965); The God in the Cave for chorus
and orchestra (1967). But the most substantial choral work is the Carmen
Vitale, or ‘Song of Life’, for soprano, chorus and orchestra. First
heard in London on 16 October 1963, it is an oratorio in two parts to
words by anonymous mediaeval poets. Its theme is life, starting from
Christ's nativity. Two arias for solo soprano, and two pieces for the
orchestra (fugue and chaconne), are offset by the choral sections, some
of which use plainsong to Latin words. The composer’s purpose was more
to capture the mood of the text than to set the words. But certain inconsistencies
deprive this work of that sureness of touch which is so essential to
a large-scale structure. Not only is Rawsthorne’s idiom instrumentally
conceived-which tends to make the orchestral writing more interesting
than the choral-but the modalism of the plainchant with which the work
opens, and which is quoted elsewhere in it, is at variance with the
More fundamentally, the place of oratorio had been
for a long time open to question, particularly since 1945. The old-style
oratorio, which had been for many years the staple fare of many a festival
or choral society since the nineteenth century, had already begun to
show signs of change in the 1920s; it suffered a mortal blow in 1931,
with Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Audiences asked for colour, movement,
drama; the attention of composers accordingly switched to opera.
This is not to say that the oratorio tradition died
overnight; but although works continued to be written in the former
mould-such as Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi, or Ferguson’s The Dream of the
Rood - the medium had ceased to have that artistic vitality which an
art-form must have if it is to make an impact on an audience. The stuffing
had gone out of it. Indeed, the meaning of religion, and of Christianity,
was in the process of acquiring a new kind of relevance; the mysticism
of a Cardinal Newman, which had so inspired Elgar, was being replaced
by a more realistic theology, such as is shown by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
or Pope John XXIII.
Therefore, if a post-war composer was to write an oratorio,
he would need a particularly urgent message, which could not be communicated
in any other way, such as by means of opera. He would find audiences
particularly critical of this genre; it might have a distinguished,
if perhaps slightly academic, past; it was highly doubtful after 1945
whether it would have a future. Indeed the post-war scene is plentifully
strewn with the numerous wrecks of not-quite-successful oratorios: Goehr’s
Sutter’s Gold; Reizenstein’s Voices of Night, Crosse’s Changes, and
many more. All these works, while in no way perpetuating the old tradition,
lacked that urgency which would inspire a contemporary audience.
Exceptional works prove this general principle. Tippett’s
A Child of our Time lives through the composer’s concern and compassion
for the underprivileged. Milner’s The Water and the Fire is a unique
expression of the meaning of Christianity today, and the work lives
as a result. More ephemerally, Britten’s War Requiem exactly caught
the widespread anti-war feeling of the time (1962).
Seen against this background of an evolving form, Rawsthorne’s
work seems to be poised midway between the old and the new, and it lacks
that driving urgency which is suggested by his theme. While the urgency
of his orchestral and chamber music is derived mainly from his technique
and idiom, which is instrumentally conceived, in an oratorio this urgency
can only come through the words; the instrumental writing is, to some
extent, secondary. In the case of Carmen Vitale the words are not sufficiently
telling to impress an audience.
In considering his work as a whole, Rawsthorne does
not immediately impress the listener with striking thematic ideas; nor
does he indulge in outrageous experiments. The listener is invited to
seek for himself, to pay the closest attention. Rawsthorne’s art is
an intimate one, but his idiom is richly varied, and suitable for all
occasions of instrumental music, whether a full-length symphonic work,
or a smaller chamber piece. Though forged from traditional materials,
it is anything but derivative. Practically alone of his generation,
he has followed through the implications of a developed form of tonality
in the basic types of instrumental music, and has successfully solved
the many problems of form and style that confronted him. He is concerned
with artistic achievement, not with trends and fashions, which have
nothing to do with art.
He sees several distinct streams of musical development
in the contemporary situation, all of which are as valid as they are
independent; one is the 12-note/serialist/avant-garde stream; which
leaves him, on the whole, unimpressed. Another is the Liszt/Busoni/Bartok
stream, to which he has a much closer affinity. Indeed if there is one
composer who has exercised more influence over Rawsthorne than any other,
that composer is Bartok. Bartok’s evolution of tonality, particularly
in the works written during the middle years of his life, may be aptly
compared with Rawsthorne’s. And though Rawsthorne did not consciously
model his string quartets on those of Bartok, those of the elder composer
were present at the back of his mind, as part of his general experience.
Many are the works of Bartok that Rawsthorne admires, and occasionally
he models his own on a particular one; the Divertimento is a case in
The road of music has many different paths. As far
as British music is concerned, Rawsthorne stands in the direct line
of Elgar, Walton, Constant Lambert (who was a close friend in early
life), and Tippett. There is no doubt that his influence on later composers
will prove immense.
3 William Alwyn
William Alwyn, who was born in 1905, is an unashamed,
if unfashionable romantic. Not for him the new, the experimental or
the untried; he has sought to make his music live with the traditional
means of the symphony orchestra, and with recourse to nothing apart
from the sheer quality of his craft. For him the key of C major has
not yet been fully exploited, and there is a great deal still waiting
to be said with the ordinary orchestra as we know it.
His extremely full professional life started on the
bandstand on the sea-front at Broadstairs. From there it took him as
a flautist to the London Symphony Orchestra in 1927, when he played
under Elgar and Vaughan Williams during the heyday of the Three Choirs
Festival. He has appeared as conductor, not merely of his own works,
though opportunities for this have been infrequent. He has been unstinting
in carrying out those more menial tasks that sometimes befall musicians;
from 1926 to 1956 he taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London;
he has also undertaken more than his fair share of advisory panels and
committees. There is no contradiction in this. The busy practicalities
of everyday life are the necessary checks and balances against which
the concentrated work of composition is done. This is Alwyn’s personal
solution to the question that every composer has to answer, today more
than ever-the extent to which he must commute between the ivory tower
and the market place; both are equally important, and yet neither by
itself is sufficient.
Not until he was forty-four did he undertake his first
symphony; but it was by no means his first composition. As a student,
when he was under Sir John McEwen at the Royal Academy of Music, he
had written a piano concerto, which his student-contemporary Clifford
Curzon played at a concert in Bournemouth, under the composer’s direction.
Several early manuscripts were discarded, including a second piano concerto,
and a violin concerto; and as early as 1927, when he was only twenty-two,
Henry Wood had introduced his Five Preludes for Orchestra
at a Promenade Concert. From his student days onwards, Alwyn retained
the greatest respect for Wood, whom he described as ‘the focus of my
musical life’. Then again, in 1940, his Divertimento for solo flute
had been played at an I.S.C.M. Festival in New York.
He is chiefly known, like his colleague Malcolm Arnold,
as a composer of film music; yet to let it go at that, with the implied
disapproval that the words ‘film composer’ usually call forth, would
be both unfair and inadequate. Certainly the film studio represents
a lucrative economic haven for the composer, which makes it immediately
suspect to those who consider commerce and art to be irreconcilable.
Certainly the film composer is required to work as a member of a team,
and therefore to accept a role of artistic dependence to some extent
on the wishes of others, such as the director of the film; this again
causes raised eyebrows among those musicians to whom entire independence
and personal choice are an article of faith.
Yet there can be more to it than that. No composer
has done more than Alwyn to explore the serious possibilities of the
use of composed music by established composers in films, which led to
such notable successes as Walton’s score for Henry V, and Vaughan Williams’
score for Scott of the Antarctic. Alwyn’s most notable films were Odd
Man Out and The Fallen Idol, which he made for Carol Reed. His treatment
of music in these and his many other film scores was as something dramatic
rather than as something merely programmatic or descriptive; and this
sharpening of his dramatic sense in the film studio led directly later
on to his writing his opera The Libertine. Moreover, the film composer
can occasionally find scope and outlet for orchestral experiment of
the sort that Busoni used to imagine; and this was particularly the
case with the documentary films made in the 30s.
Among his smaller compositions, greater scope is given
to his characteristic style by the shorter tone-poems, whose central
feature is instrumental colour, rather than by those more conventional
chamber-music works, whose main structural prop is traditional counterpoint,
which does not appeal to him. Examples in the first category, which
belong in the tradition of Delius or Arnold Bax, are The Magic Island
(1952) for orchestra, and Autumn Legend(1956) for cor anglais and strings.
Examples in the second category are the String Quartet (1954) in D minor,
and the String Trio (1963), the last of which, however, the composer
values highly. A characteristic occasional work is the Concerto Grosso
No. 3, written in 1964, after the fourth symphony, to ‘the ever-living
memory of Henry Wood’, and played at a Promenade Concert on the twentieth
anniversary of Wood’s death. The three movements use brass, woodwind
and strings respectively, and the third movement is an elegy.
But the core of his output consists of four symphonies.
The first, in D, was completed in July 1949, and played by the Hallé
Orchestra under Barbirolli at a Cheltenham Festival concert the following
year. It is conventional in more ways than one; a symphony in the grand
manner, which proclaims its composer's allegiance without qualification,
and stands in direct line with the tradition of Tchaikowsky or Richard
Strauss. This romanticism strongly appealed to Barbirolli. In thus displaying
his orchestral prowess, Alwyn displays a remarkable craftsmanship. Though
the symphony is diffuse in its material, it shows already certain features,
such as pedal-points and brass writing, which are permanent characteristics
of his style. The themes are firmly diatonic, the texture luxuriant;
there is also a suggestion of the cyclic technique, which he was to
develop later. But taken as a whole the work sums up the past, as Alwyn
had experienced it, rather than points to the future.
The Second Symphony marks a turning point. It was completed
in April 1953, and followed the highly colourful symphonic prelude ‘The
Magic Island (1952). The symphony is in two parts, as against the customary
four; the first part is slow, elegiac, eharacterised by falling, ehromatic
intervals, particularly the augmented second. The material of this part
has close affinities with The Magic Island.
The second part is entirely contrasted; quick, impetuous,
brilliant, with spacious phrasing. The material is the same as that
of the first part, but it is differently applied, and the scherzando
momentum of the opening bars is never lost sight of; even in the slow,
trio-like middle section, the main pace is felt to be present, though
beneath the surface of the music. Moreover, the structure of the movement
is clearly delineated and genuinely symphonic; those parts that are
thematic are differentiated from those that are merely subsidiary, or
links. The point towards which the music moves is a transformation into
D major of the D/D minor material from the opening of the first part.
The work closes with a coda, recalling the mood of the first part.
The introduction of more chromatic progressions, the
evolution of a thematic pattern over a held pedalnote, or repeated pedal-point,
the distribution of homogeneous thematic material over the symphony
as a whole, are all features which indicate the direction in which Alwyn’s
symphonic thought was developing, and which anticipate his individual
contribution to this genre, which was to become fully apparent in his
This was written in 1955/6, and played by the BBC Orchestra
under Beecham on October 10th 1956. Barbirolli, who was to have conducted
the work, was taken ill some time before. The year spent in writing
this symphony has been described by the composer in his diary Ariel
to Miranda [Published in Adam, International Review, Nos. 316-317-18
(1967).], which is not only the self-portrait of an artist at fifty,
but is also the record of his work on the symphony, interspersed as
it was with the innumerable distractions of a working musician in London;
his thoughts, his observations about his colleagues, about his art generally,
and indeed about humanity at large.
Several smaller works separate the second from the
third symphony; the D minor Spring Quartet, the highly characteristic
and colourful Fantasy-Waltzes for piano, the concerto for harp and strings
Lyra Angelica, and a little piece for solo harp, Crepuscule. The last
piece was a deliberate and highly productive exercise in self-discipline
and limitation of material-a device that was to be applied again in
the middle movement of the third symphony, as well as elsewhere. Alwyn
himself says [Ariel to Miranda, 3 November], ‘My new system of founding
the harmonies on a short scale pattern consisting of a few selected
notes and working within these limits is proving as stimulating here
as it does in the symphony. The discipline is neither restrictive nor
irksome; on the contrary it seems to ease the mental process, and by
limiting the palette, paradoxically suggests new colours.’
The rough sketch of the Third Symphony [Published by
Alfred Lengnick & Co.], which the composer saw, with justification,
as ‘a fresh chapter in my symphonic output’, was completed by 29 September
1955, and played through to the conductor John Hollingsworth. Two weeks
later, it was commissioned by the BBC, and is therefore dedicated to
its then head of music Richard Howgill. Work on various film scores
(Safari, Black Tent) interrupted work on the symphony, as well as a
book on film music [The Technique of Film Music (Focal Press, 1957)].
Orchestration began in March 1956. The first movement was finished by
8th May; the slow movement by 14th May; the whole work by 11th June.
The symphonic principle first developed by Alwyn in
this work was the division of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale
into two groups, of eight notes and four notes respectively, which would
be so contrasted that their melodic and harmonic content would provide
the forces of conflicting tonality from which the whole symphony would
spring. This was a personal adaptation of the 12-note style into the
tonal structure of a large-scale work. The first group includes the
tonality round which the symphony is chiefly centred, E flat; the second
group contains the contrasting, conflicting elements, centred above
and below the note F. Of the three movements of the symphony, the first
is built from the notes of the first group, the second is built from
just the four notes of the second group, while the third is built from
a bringing together, and a consequent working-out, of the two groups.
A rhythmic ostinato, with which the symphony opens, is associated with
the first group, and thus occurs, in varying guises, in the first and
third movements; but in fact, the themes and rhythms of each movement
are closely related.
The first movement consists of the presentation of
various thematic patterns and fragments formed from the notes of the
first group; these are fitted into a freely modified sonata-form structure.
The second movement consists of the exploitation of the melodic and
harmonic possibilities contained in the four notes of the second group.
Thus the chord of the tritone pervades the movement, and the tonality
veers between D minor and F minor. ‘The closing bars,’ says the composer,
‘should sound strangely remote.’ The acceptance of the self-imposed
limitation in this movement is highly suggestive, partly because of
the contrast with the first movement-extreme slowness compared with
extreme speed; the insistence on one chord compared with frequent directional
changes of harmony-partly also because of the sense of foreboding that
the listener feels, subconsciously; a sense that the calm of this movement
is not to be permanent; that it is the calm before the storm of the
Which breaks abruptly. The conflicting tonalities of
the two groups are juxtaposed and worked out. By [Q] the second group
is in the ascendant; a powerful figure of rising quavers, given to trumpets
and trombones, marks the apex of the development of this movement; the
same figure is to appear again, at the very end of the symphony, to
mark its exciting fulfilment, when the E flat tonality of the first
group finally triumphs. This conclusion is forecast at [W], when the
note linking the two groups, B flat, is at last established. From this
moment onwards the end is inevitable, since B flat, the dominant of
E flat, attracts the music irresistibly towards that tonality. But first
Alwyn recalls the corresponding moment just towards the end of the first
movement (after [Z]), with a quiet violin theme in E flat.
Once more in this symphony, the characteristics of
Alwyn’s orchestral style are amply represented: plentiful writing for
the brass; fondness for ostinato phrases, and expressive use of orchestral
colour; the conception of music as a succession of contrasting episodes,
marked by bursts of climax, and based on the primary musical elements,
such as loud contrasted with soft, strings contrasted with wind, con
tutta forza contrasted with molto calmato, and so on. But the symphonic
principle of the conflict and working out of tonalities derived from
two complementary parts of the 12-note scale, is both a highly individual
technique, and recognisably a valid development of traditional symphonic
The same principle is carried one stage further in
the next symphony, the fourth [Published by Alfred Lengnick & Co.],
which was first heard played by the Halle Orchestra under Barbirolli
at a Promenade Concert in 1959. It is more subdued a work than the third,
which is illustrated by the fact that the composer dispenses with the
percussion that he has hitherto used in the first three symphonies,
and uses only timpani. The twelve notes are again divided into two groups,
of eight and four notes respectively.
The first group is scalic, centring round F sharp;
the tonality encompassed is therefore that of D major, or F sharp minor.
The second group is intervallic, chiefly consisting of fourths and fifths,
and centring on the tonalities of B flat and E flat. The tonal contrast
and connect between the groups is thus very marked, and the composer
proceeds to exploit this in the course of the symphony. Generally speaking,
the first group is used to create rhythmic movement and thematic life
at the opening of phrases, and at the beginning of sections of the symphony,
and to project the music forwards; the second group provides the converse
of this, and is used to mark the cadences at the end of phrases, to
conclude sections, and indeed to provide the end of the symphony as
a whole, which is on B flat.
After an introduction in which the two groups are carefully
spelt out, the one by the woodwind, the other by the cellos and basses,
the first theme, consisting of the first group, is given to strings
and woodwind together. An afterthought to it is allotted to a solo cello,
over a pedal F sharp, which is the note in common to both tonalities
of the first group.
The conflicting tonality of the second group is immediately
juxtaposed, by horns and bassoons, which makes also for contrast of
timbre, and the resulting clash leads to the first moment of climax,
in D major, propelled forward by a rhythmic ostinato, derived from the
first theme. Again the music comes to rest on F sharp, high up this
time in the violins. A gradual quickening leads into the next Allegro,
and the ostinato forms the link with the following section. The tonalities
combine for the second subject, which first appears in the muted brass,
but is soon exploited and developed by the strings. The strings maintain
a restless assertion of the first group, and just when the music is
moving towards this, the horns in unison (con tutta forza) proclaim
their dissent, and succeed in veering the music towards the B flat tonality
of the second group. The bass instruments however remain loyal to the
first group, and are not won over until the next, and last, moment of
climax (at [S]). Once this has happened, a B flat pedal-point is maintained
until the end of the movement, while the timpani sustain the rhythmic
The brilliant second movement follows the conventional
symphonic form of scherzo and trio. After the scherzo rhythm (3+3+2)
has been established, on the single note D (after the manner of the
opening of the third symphony), the scale-notes of the first group are
used as a thematic pattern on which the movement is built. The notes
of the second group are used either melodically or chordally to offset
the tonality of the first Group. They are interjected, first by the
trumpet, later by the brass generally. Inevitably the first passage
comes to rest on F sharp, and soon the first-group scale appears in
that tonality, sung out by a solo oboe, while muted trombones interject
the second-group notes as a chord. At the repeat of the scherzo, this
solo is allotted to a violin, with the indication ‘roughly’. It is just
the sort of country-fiddle theme that Aaron Copland might have written.
When the strings and woodwind change, at [N], from
the bright tonality and swinging rhythm of the first-group theme, and
assume the more ponderous gait of the second, we know that the end of
the first scherzo section is not far off. The slower middle section
combines the notes of both groups in a theme given first to violins
alone, then to two bassoons in canon. All the tension and excitement
of the scherzo is released, and the thematic pattern is given a free
rein for it to move to a full, romantic climax for the whole orchestra
in unison (at [W]). After the repeat of the scherzo, the music comes
to rest on F natural (at [LL]), and the first-group scale is then transposed,
inverted and developed, with the two theme-groups jostling for supremacy.
The slow movement, with which the symphony ends, is
in the form of a free passacaglia. It takes up where the second movement
left off, with both theme-groups side by side, and the music making
use of the characteristics of each; the phrases begin with those of
the first group, and end with those of the second. There are two points
of climax; the first, built round a passage of Elgarian luxuriance,
leads up to [N], where a quickening of the pace recalls the rhythm (3+3+2)
of the scherzo, and the brass once again blare out the second-group
tonality in an attempt to pull the rest of the orchestra away from that
of the first group. The attempt this time is unsuccessful, and the music
flickers away and reverts to the mood and pace of the opening.
The second climax maintains the pace of the opening,
but builds a gradual crescendo, while the violins start the theme in
E flat minor, an augmented second lower than the first time, at [S].
The intensity increases, but when all the strings change to the second-group
tonality, after an allargando at [U], the conclusion of the symphony
is felt to be inevitable.
Alwyn’s four symphonies form a musical unity. The first
represents the introduction, the second the development, the third the
climax, and the fourth the finale. They epitomise what might be called
the romantic principle of composition; ideas are conceived, and freely
followed through, in terms of the instruments for which they are written.
Orchestral climaxes, often of shattering proportions, are the result
of an increase of nervous and emotional tension, and are usually marked
by a variation of speed and dynamics. As the composer’s style is both
tonal and thematic, the listener's attention cannot but focus on to
the themes themselves, which carry most of the weight of the musical
argument; and Alwyn is entirely unafraid of the big line, the broad
sequence, the grandiose gesture. That such a style is in danger of becoming
cliche-ridden is obvious.
The most positive feature of Alwyn’s style is his mastery
of the orchestra. His study of orchestration, both as conductor, performer
and composer, has been wide-ranging, his most recent being an analysis
of Berg’s Wozzeck. His acquaintance with the symphonic and operatic
repertoire is very wide. He is preoccupied with orchestral technique,
the layout of instruments, the distribution of an orchestral climax.
Three parts, he feels, give a clearer effect than four. Each must be
heard effectively, each instrument so placed as to make its best contribution
to the orchestral tutti. Alwyn’s brass climaxes sound louder and more
brilliant than in other composers’ scores not because he uses more instruments,
nor because the players blow harder, but because the layout of the chords
is such that each instrument is heard to contribute in the most telling
way to the overall effect, like the upper harmonics of an organ mixture-stop.
Another not-so-positive feature is the general lack
of counterpoint. This results in a high proportion of writing that is
filling-in, repetitive, or purely accompanimental. There is an absence
of that dynamic, inner growth that only comes from contrapuntal writing,
and for which mere loudness is no substitute. In a sense, the use of
ostinati, or repetition of a figure, coupled with an unwavering ear
for orchestral colour, goes some way to compensating for this, and to
providing the music with that momentum and drive that would otherwise
be obtained by means of counterpoint; but too frequent a use of the
pedal-point, or ostinato pedal, tends to halt the harmonic movement.
A theme which evolves and unfolds over a static bass-note is one of
the commonest features of Alwyn’s style. But for him symphonic orchestral
technique is all important; in particular the development of symphonic
structure. This holds his attention more than counterpoint, which he
considers has become gradually less important since Bach’s day.
Analysis and description of a score give, in the case
of most composers, only a partial view of the nature of the music. This
is particularly so with Alwyn, whose artistic personality is compounded
of many parts, and is somewhat enigmatic. What is unusual today, he
holds to a personal ideal of artistic beauty; what is practically unknown
today, he admits to such an ideal. His view is Platonic; beauty exists
as an ideal goal to which art approximates to a greater or lesser extent.
It follows that the two basic requirements of the artist are, first,
that he should express what is in him, and only what is in him; second,
that his technique should be good enough to enable him to communicate
fully and adequately. Integrity is essential, which means that the artist
can give the listener only what he himself has heard and experienced.
Thus he differs from the avant-garde composer, who gives the listener
what is new, or what he thinks he (the composer) ought to be experiencing.
Moreover, the artist must aim at the complete expression of his ideas,
and this for Alwyn is not possible with musical means alone. Literature
and the visual arts can express and describe in a way that music cannot.
Alwyn’s artistry is versatile. He is acquainted with many fields of
writing, particularly French poetry and novels, such as the work of
Nathalie Sarraute, and different schools of painting. He is himself
a painter; he has also selected and translated an anthology of 20th
century French poetry [Published by Chatto & Windus (1969)].
His literary bent and his composition have combined
with his dramatic sense in his biggest venture yet, his only opera The
Libertine, which so far has taken four years to write, and is only awaiting
the chance of performance for its final completion. Alwyn has never
set poems to music; his fondness for poetry may have something to do
with his reluctance to add another dimension to a poem, which, if it
is a good poem, is an already-complete artwork. But word-setting is
something he enjoys; he had already written a radio opera Farewell Companions;
it was a logical continuation to write a full-length work for the theatre.
Two great figures of literature, which almost amount
to archetypal images, have always dominated his imagination; one is
Don Juan, the other is St. Joan. He is well-read on each, and in selecting
the first as the subject of his opera, his reason was that Don Juan
was a theme about which he felt he could write an individual interpretation,
which would be relevant for today, yet which had an age-long connection
with both the theatre, and literature generally-to say nothing of opera
itself. St. Joan, on the other hand, had been the subject of powerful
interpretations by Bernard Shaw and Jean Anouilh.
So he decided to use the Don Juan story, and set about
writing his three-act opera The Libertine. The libretto, which took
him a year to write, is in verse, some of it rhyming, and is based on
James Elroy Flecker’s play Don Juan, as well as on Byron, Baudelaire,
Moliere, Shaw and Nietzsche. The plot, in the true operatic tradition,
is more than slightly ridiculous, and is set in ‘the not too distant
future’. What is implied is just as important as what is said. Don Juan
returns from hell to this country, where he pursues his ideal life of
happiness and pleasure, and proceeds to kill the prime minister, who
was contemplating a war. The prime minister had two daughters, Anna
and Isobel, both of whom, needless to say, are the recipients of Don
Juan’s attention, and both of whom he also eventually murders. A statue
of the prime minister had been put up by an admiring and grateful nation,
much to the convenience of the story, and as an integral part of the
Don Juan legend; and this not unexpectedly comes in to pronounce judgement.
Don Juan is then banished for ever whence he came.
The opening caused the composer much thought. Originally
he visualised a Prologue depicting a storm at sea, and shipwreck; this
idea then evolved into an orchestral Prologue of storm-music; but finally
both these possibilities were discarded in favour of a much more direct
and simple beginning; the curtain rises to the grey of a spring dawn
over the sea. A very short introduction leads to a climax, in bar IO,
which contains the ‘magic’ chord of the opera (Eb and A major combined),
to depict Juan’s ability to cast spells over people.
The first scene [The first act was completed in April
1968] is set on the rocky coast of Cornwall. Haidie, a young girl, comes
down the cliff and stands naked, ready for her morning swim, when she
sees two bodies washed ashore on the beach, after the storm of the previous
night. They are Juan and his servant Owen Jones. This first scene is
one of innocent, idyllic love, simple and dreamlike; a background experience;
Byron tells [Don Juan (Canto 2)] how Juan recalls his meeting with Haidie
as something far-off, ideal, visionary. Over an ostinato figure, Alwyn
gives Haidie a simple folk-like tune, while the music leads forward
to the climax of the ‘magic’ chord. A romantic duet, lyrical and simple,
marks the innocence of this idyll; then, as the sea comes in, Haidie
and Owen carry Juan’s body up the cliff.
The next scene takes place a month later, in early
summer. The love affair of Juan and Haidie has flourished as it should,
but selfishness has asserted itself. Simplicity proved boring, and a
note of bravado is soon to spoil it. The dream motif recurs in Haidie’s
music, but the first discordant note is struck when workmen rush in
who are on strike, and in pursuit of one of their workmates, whom they
call a ‘traitor’ and ‘blackleg’. The violins have a 12-note theme at
the word ‘traitor’, and the more chromatic writing, over a ground, breaks
into and destroys the love-idyll. The men want to kill Lord Framlingham,
the President of the English Republic, for political reasons. But the
carefree Juan was a close friend of Framlingham, and so he turns the
workmen’s argument on to himself, and allows the blackleg to escape.
‘What of the poets?’, he asks; ‘what of our dreams?’ The ‘magic’ chord
recalls us to the beginning-point once more.
A swaggering line accompanies his words ‘blow up parliament’,
and a hint of a fugal section works up to a climax, with shouts of ‘blackleg’.
This gradually dies away as the crowd disperses, and we see Juan left
pointing his revolver not at the crowd but at his own father, Don Pedro,
the Spanish Ambassador in London, who suddenly appears. The ‘father’
theme dominates the music of this next section. Juan meanwhile has forgotten
Haidie-but then he remembers her. His father, however, urges him to
leave Haidie and go to London. This he decides to do; he is driven,
as we know, by a force stronger than his own will. The only explanation
he can give Haidie is that, however much he values her love, he values
his own freedom more. So he chooses to leave the dreamlike innocence
of the love-idyll for the selfish course which is to lead to his own
The second act takes place in late July two months
later, in Juan’s London flat. Framlingham is planning to declare war,
to general popular acclamation; and this necessitates intervention by
the individual, if disaster is to be averted. A dance is in progress;
we hear a tango off-stage, but the dance band is interrupted by orchestral
interjections. Juan and Framlingham’s younger daughter Isobel dance
to a quick, scherzando waltz, symbolising their passionate relationship.
Inevitably the music culminates in a love duet. Anna, the other daughter,
enters to a slow waltz. As the windows shut, the dance band is shut
out, just as the political action of this scene shuts out the background
of Juan’s amorous activities. Anna, we learn, beneath a cold and passionless
exterior is in fact on fire with love and jealousy for Juan. After Juan
and Isobel go out there is a moment of repose-that dramatically essential
calm before the next stormy moments of action.
Framlingham enters with the other guests, and announces
war; whereupon Juan entreats him against this course, in a biting dialogue:
‘In war no man is free’. When Framlingham is deaf to all arguments,
Juan plans to murder him; and so he arranges to meet him ‘by the cool
of the river, by Cleopatra’s Needle’. The scene closes; meanwhile, as
before he had forgotten Haidie, so now Juan forgets Isobel. But Anna
is told that Juan has gone out, and thinking, not entirely unreasonably,
that he has made yet another amorous assignation, follows him angrily.
At this point in the opera Alwyn had originally inserted
another scene, as Juan shoots Framlingham by the river. This however
was discarded because he felt it would be too melodramatic, ‘too operatic’,
and not really necessary for the understanding of the story.
The third act [The scoring of the third act is incomplete]
takes place a year later. Once again it starts with the dawn, and the
‘magic’ chord marks Juan’s soliloquy. The rising sun evokes memories
of Haidie and a lost innocence. When Owen enters, their dialogue hints
at mystery, and the murder of Framlingham. Owen, the strange servant,
alias Leporello, tries to hypnotise Juan, who gradually comes under
the spell. ‘Who was your mother? Who are you?’ asks Owen (quoting Byron).
The climax is reached with the words ‘I am Don Juan’, and Haidie’s first
folk-song theme is heard through the haze, like the voice of Juan’s
conscience. Suddenly the sun is blotted out, and, as if from the past,
Haidie appeal; but her voice is dull, meek; all joy has gone out of
her; and the retrospective scene recalls earlier phrases. Their duet
moves to a climax of intensity, and as Owen leads Haidie away, the scene
closes with Owen’s strange promise about ‘the night of the falling stars’.
Thereupon the sun reappears, as the curtain falls.
A short intermezzo takes us back to the purity of Haidie’s
love scene, before the final scene. The statue is an integral part of
the legend; it occurs in both Da Ponte and Moliere; Alwyn gives a fresh
twist to the tradition by making the statue that of the hero, Juan’s
friend. A chromatic orchestral figure represents the crowd and after
the opening dialogue between Don Pedro and Juan there is a knock at
the door which reduces Don Pedro to terror. We expect the statue-but
instead Anna comes in. Her theme returns, and the ensuing duet becomes
gradually more passionate and retrospective. Juan is shown to evolve
in the course of the opera, as his power, which is his undoing, gradually
increases. The climax of this duet occurs with a swaggering tune for
his words ‘Then I am God’, which prove too much for Anna, who succumbs
to him-as she had all along intended to do.
Enter Isobel, to a nagging, persistent accompaniment
theme. The love theme of Juan and Isobel dominates the next section
as Juan denies Anna, until, at the very point of climax, when Juan says,
somewhat unconvincingly, ‘I have always been loyal’, Anna breaks in,
to reveal what she saw that night a year before, at Cleopatra’s Needle.
Mad with jealousy, she puts on Juan’s cloak-the one he wore for the
murder-and dances round to a macabre, distorted waltz. At the climax
of her narrative, with the words ‘I was there’, pistol shots sound in
the orchestra. So Isobel realizes that Juan has murdered her father.
There follows the only explanatory part of the opera, as Juan tells
why he killed Framlingham. This is spoken, for the uniquely special
effect, after the climax of the previous section.
Now Anna has nothing to live for; but too afraid to
kill herself, she asks Juan to do it for her. Having murdered once,
it is easier for him to murder twice; and he shoots Anna.
What now of Isobel’s love? Eventually, even in spite
of the two murders, her passion proves stronger than her reason. The
music now becomes more lyrical, and they eventually kiss and embrace.
Can guilty love endure if innocent love was rejected? ‘Put out the light,
then we can see the stars.’ The room is now in darkness, with only a
glimmer of light from the window. ‘What care we for the stars?’ they
say. ‘Are they falling? Let them fall-they cannot destroy our love.’
Gradually, inevitably, strange music; footsteps; a knocking at the door-three
times, unrhythmic. Then at last the statue of Framlingham does enter,
eerie and luminous. Juan shoots-but kills Isobel instead. There follows
a duet in fugue, based on Framlingham’s theme, as the statue pronounces
judgement and punishment, and Juan attempts to explain himself. Juan
goes out, to a rain of fire. A pedal D in the orchestra sustains a violently
clashing and imitative passage, based on the Framlingham theme. Then
the door closes, and the statue disappears. Only the starlight remains-’the
night of the falling stars’-as Don Pedro nervously comes in, turns on
the light. Just one chord sounds, as he whispers to himself in horror,
Alwyn’s opera is conceived in line with the grand operatic
tradition of Debussy and Puccini, just as his symphonies continued the
romantic orchestral tradition. His romanticism knows no half measures;
in this lies its strength. Moreover, his stagecraft is calculated down
to the finest points of action and movement. Details of production are
as important as the music. Film work was the best possible training
in this respect. But the impact of this work is due to two main factors;
first, the inevitability of the plot’s development and growth; second,
the use of an archetypal image, which the composer has originally and
successfully realised in contemporary terms. The Don Juan theme is not
only one of the most basic of all stories; it is also highly relevant
to the present day, in the hands of an understanding interpreter. Thus
Tippett interpreted Paris in King Priam, and Berg interpreted Lulu.
As far as English opera is concerned, the opera nearest in mood to Alwyn’s,
though their idiom differs widely, is Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet.
Both operas introduce symbolism; in both the business of the world is
contrasted with the function of the individual, dreams with reality,
innocence with self interest. In both the place of the individual is
shown to be supremely important; in both there is a certain carefree
quality, as the lovers journey to where human corruption cannot touch
them in their spiritual exile; their goal is the same, whether it be
‘towards the setting sun-the Paradise Garden’ of Delius’s imagination,
or ‘beyond heaven and hell’, as Isobel says in The Libertine.
Alwyn’s instinct not to portray the murder of Framlingham
on the stage is a true one; also to leave out the storm at the beginning
of the opera. It would have been inconsistent to introduce such realism.
Operatic action is suggestive and symbolic, not realistic and representative,
as numerous composers have pointed out [For instance, Peter Warlock
in Delius, and Busoni in Entwurf einer neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst.].
The libretto of The Libertine never explains events; but opera as Alwyn
sees it is closely akin to drama, and so he avoids melisma or word repetition,
and aims instead to achieve a flow of words as if they were spoken,
while the orchestra supplies the lyricism.
But you cannot avoid convention in opera, particularly
in romantic opera. If you do not, to some extent at least, accept the
conventions, you should not write an opera. Alwyn’s work is more in
the line of Berg and Tippett than of Britten. The Libertine is a complex,
composite work, uniting many facets of the composer’s many-sided romantic
personality. His imaginative experience is a collective and traditional
one, in the sense that the material of a Greek tragedy was collective
and traditional; he is keenly aware of contemporary drama and literature,
and so his development of the Don Juan theme is markedly original. All
of which suggest that, although the work is still not completely scored,
when it is eventually produced it will make a remarkable impact in the
4 Edmund Rubbra
There are two main kinds of progressive, whether in
music or in other fields of human activity. The first are those who
are entirely disenchanted with the continued relevance of established
methods and past traditions; they therefore seek to do away with them,
and to replace them with something else; something fresh, untraditional.
The second are those who do not discard past traditions, but seek instead
to reinterpret them, and to apply them in a fresh context as they see
The first kind, who may be described as the ideological
iconoclasts, are far more readily noticeable than the second. It is
indeed one of the prime requisites, if you are going to put forward
new methods and fresh styles, that your gestures should be both strikingly
novel, if possible outrageous, and immediately recognisable. Thus the
avant-garde aesthetic is a simple one. But the severe risk run by those
who subscribe to it is twofold; partly that means may be mistaken for
ends-the striking of a fresh posture, the adoption of an untried process,
may be mistaken in itself for an art-work, which it is not; and partly
that, by thus shifting the scale of values, the concept of permanent
validity in the finished work becomes relative. Your novelty one week
may well be made redundant by someone else’s more radical novelty the
next, if you have no other yardstick by which to measure it than the
fact of its ‘progressiveness’.
The second kind of progressives run risks as well,
though of a different, more subtle, nature. They may be overlooked as
merely ‘traditional’, and their work not understood for what it is.
Because they do not sever all links with the past, as the other kind
do, but on the contrary accept the past and try to relate it to the
present, their relevance for the present may be questioned. In the eyes
of the first kind they will probably appear as ‘blacklegs’, who have,
by compromising with tradition, forfeited any right to be called ‘progressive’
And yet the self-styled revolutionaries, of whom several
adorn the history of music-much as heretics adorn the history of the
Christian Church-rarely reach beyond the ephemeral stage. At most they
succeed in focusing attention on to a particular idea, which others
may then pursue and develop. Art reaches a more than ephemeral validity
only when its creator takes a wider view of tradition than the narrowly
But both kinds of composers, the revolutionary progressive
and the traditional progressive, have the same means at their disposal
as their starting-point; the same orchestral or choral resources; in
the long run, the same public. One of the first questions therefore
that each kind of composer has to solve is his use of, and attitude
to, the contemporary musical resources. Is he, for instance, to take
the symphony orchestra as we know it today, which is a highly sophisticated
musical tool and develop it or modify it according to his taste; or
accept it as it is, and fit his ideas within this existing mould.
One composer who has accepted and worked within the
scope of the existing musical means is Edmund Rubbra, who was born in
Northampton in 1901. His is just the sort of musicianship that, because
of its traditional, even ordinary, appearance, may well pass unnoticed.
He does not discover new sounds; he does not extend the aural frontiers
in breadth; instead he exploits the existing ones in greater depth.
He has worked, broadly speaking, within the established traditions.
If that were all, there would indeed be scant grounds for going further.
But his claim to be considered progressive rests on two grounds: a personal,
mystical interpretation of Christianity, which is rare among contemporary
composers (only Anthony Milner invites comparison), and a reasoned,
consistent and refined attitude to tonality. Both factors combine to
give some of his choral work a mediaeval timeless flavour, which for
its very simplicity is practically unique in contemporary British music.
He is a traditionalist-yet in twentieth century terms.
He sees the confusion of the present scene as a rift between on the
one hand those who accept the traditional concept of music as a gradual
development over the centuries, and on the other hand those who destroy
existing traditions for ideological reasons. He has aligned himself
without any qualification on the side of the first; and once he found
his path, he has been quite uninfluenced by external pressures, and
the swing of fashion away from him. The groundwork of his thought is
concerned with harmony, and in this he shares the company of Debussy,
Schoenberg, Scriabin, and some of the English composers of the early
twentieth century, such as Cyril Scott; but his solution was not to
reject tonality so much as to view it in a different way.
He had happened to pick up in Paris in the 20s, at
a second-hand bookstall, a treatise on harmony by none other than Ezra
Pound [Antheil and The Treatise on Harmony (Three Mountains Press, Paris
1924)]. Set in the form of a somewhat flippant dialogue between master
and pupil, it nevertheless managed to make some searching comments.
For instance, it pointed out that what happens between sounds had been
neglected by composers. This was putting, in somewhat non-musicianly
language, what was generally being questioned by musicians at this time.
Debussy, for instance, found out for himself the possibilities inherent
in various scale-formations; and this in turn led to many fruitful developments
by later French composers, particularly Messiaen.
Rubbra’s approach was the same in principle. He sees
the composer’s art as the use of common, ordinarily accepted sounds
in an uncommon, poetic way. This is analogous to a poet’s use of words;
Henry Vaughan for instance puts together common words in an uncommon
way to describe a sunrise: ‘The unthrift sun shot vital gold. Similarly
Rubbra’s use of one very ordinary chord [Another use of this chord,
and Rubbra’s fondness for it in the Fourth Symphony, is noticed by W.
Mellers in Studies in Contemporary Music], the dominant seventh, in
an unexpected context, is shown in this example from the first Tenebrae
setting, Op. 72 no. 1.
So the composer, according to Rubbra, must objectify
the sounds, and thus explore the frontiers of aural experience in depth.
He builds bridges between chords, sets up relationships between tonalities,
and thus by a logical unfolding of the music, in time, he creates form.
Music for Rubbra is the tonal art. He has consistently eschewed anything
resembling radicalism, sensationalism or novelty.
By such stressing of the overriding importance of harmony
and tonality, this kind of creative thinking tends to leave out of account
other primary elements, such as rhythm, and thematic development. But
Rubbra built up gradually on experiences gained during his formative
years. He was first a private pupil of Cyril Scott; later, at Reading
University and at the Royal College of Music, he was under Gustav Holst.
Both these were diatonic composers, both showed an exotic, Eastern influence,
but Scott was freer in his use of chromaticism. Another highly fruitful
study for Rubbra was that of Elizabethan counterpoint under the scholar-musician,
R. O. Morris. [His Contrapuntal Technique in the 16th Century (1922)
and Observations on Practical Harmony and Counterpoint (1925) are standard].
There is no composer today who makes more direct application of the
techniques of sixteenth century counterpoint than Rubbra; he also shares
something of the romantic spirit, and the theological fervour of the
His output is large; over a hundred and thirty works
with Opus numbers. One of the earliest (1925) was the little carol Dormi
Jesu [Oxford Book of Carols No. 175.]. Its style is the modal one of
the period, established by Vaughan Williams and Holst, and it is very
similar to Holst’s cradle-song Lullay my Liking, written a few years
In the early 30s Rubbra moved gradually out of his
formative stage into a more personal harmonic style, with such a work
as the First Violin Sonata, Op. 31. The foundation of this work is a
harmonic one, though it contains some counterpoint. Thereafter the balance
became tilted towards counterpoint, starting with the next work, the
Four Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, Op. 32, for baritone and string orchestra.
The instrumental works that followed were the First
String Quartet, Op. 35, and the Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 38, for piano
and orchestra. This latter was written in 1934, just after Holst died,
and was taken from a discarded piano concerto; both works contain traces
of an earlier exoticism, which was partly innate, partly inherited from
Holst and Cyril Scott. The saltarello in the Sinfonia Concertante is
an example of this.
Thus Rubbra gradually enlarged the range and size of
his structures, with each work slightly larger than the one before.
The logical result was the First Symphony (1935) [1935 was something
of an annus mirabilis of British symphonies; Bax’s third, Walton’s first,
Vaughan Williams’ fourth], which built up a symphonic design of forceful,
extrovert intensity. He followed this almost immediately with the Second
Symphony, which was more austere, primarily contrapuntal. The Third
Symphony (1938) developed the lyrical content, while the Fourth Symphony
(1941) was more concerned with harmony, less with counterpoint. Thus
in his symphonic works up to the war an evolution can be traced. Each
succeeding symphony shows a contrast of reaction to the previous one,
as the composer feels his way towards that structure which is logical
for his idiom. Of these four symphonies it is the third, first heard
at a Halle concert in Manchester in December 1940, which chiefly clarifies
Rubbra’s symphonic technique up to the war. The concern of the composer
to write long, melodic lines, with plentiful use of sequence, canon
and ostinato, and a Brahmsian breadth of phrase, makes for a somewhat
static quality in the harmony, which is mainly triadic. The material
of each movement is homogeneous, and the scherzo theme was unconsciously
derived from the rhythm of the first movement.
As far as rhythm is concerned, this is derived from
the crossing of contrapuntal parts; it is the rhythm that results from
the absence of a bar-line, and it is thus not immediately obvious.
The outbreak of war interrupted Rubbra’s composition
and he served in the army. However, the war years were not entirely
without music for him, as he was able to form a trio with himself as
pianist, William Pleeth (cello) and Joshua Glazier (violin) [Later Glazier’s
place was taken first by Norbert Brainin, then by Erich Gruenberg.],
and to tour camps giving concerts. Their repertoire was largely classical;
Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven This work started in 1942. Rubbra has always
been a highly accomplished pianist, though, unlike Reizenstein, his
playing took second place to his composition. He was active in the 30s
as a pianist, and played a wide range of music, some of it unfamiliar,
and largely for radio recitals. His trio achieved such success with
the wartime concerts that it continued afterwards, and not until 1956
did pressure of other engagements compel Rubbra to give it up. Immediately
after the war another opportunity came his way when the first Professor
of the newly-formed Music Faculty at Oxford, J. A. Westrup, invited
him to join the academic staff of that university. He remained a member
of it from 1947 until 1968, and thereafter he continued teaching at
the Guildhall School of Music in London, which he had first joined in
Immediately after the war Rubbra picked up the broken
thread of his composition, with a Mass for Canterbury Cathedral, the
Missa Cantuariensis, Op. 59; also the G minor Cello Sonata, Op. 60,
written for William Pleeth, for whom he had already composed the Soliloquy
for 'Cello and Strings, Op. 57. The Sonata continues where the Third
Symphony had left off; it is an intensely lyrical work, and, like the
symphony, finishes with a Theme and Variations, and Fugue. But in the
meantime he had worked extensively with his trio, and the beneficial
effects of this chamber music experience resulted in several improvements;
much greater lightness of texture, and greater thematic and rhythmic
variety. Moreover, the reduction from four movements to three leads
to greater tautness; and it is far less harmonically static. This process
continues with the Fifth Symphony (1949), which differs from its predecessors
chiefly in its chamber music texture. This was followed the next year
by the only work written for his trio, the Trio in one movement, Op.
Two symphonies and two concertos mark his orchestral
works of the 50s; the Sixth Symphony (1954) and the Seventh Symphony
(1957) [of which Panufnik conducted the first performance at a Birmingham
concert on 1st October, 1957 (See p. 291).]; the Viola Concerto (1954),
and the Piano Concerto (1956), The Viola Concerto is an elegiac work,
written for William Primrose; it is sometimes known as the ‘musical
necklace’ (collana musicale) after the composer’s title of the third
movement; and by the time he came to write the Sixth Symphony the following
year, Rubbra had worked out the chamber music influence. The symphony
is unusual in that the movement which he wrote first, finished with
such finally that it could only be placed at the end; so the composer
had to work backwards. He took the first four notes of the Cor Anglais
solo (E-F-A-B), with which the movement begins, and used them as a motivic
germ for the other three movements; thus E-F-A open the first movement,
E-A (an open fifth on the horns) open the slow (canto) second movement,
and E-F begin the scherzo. In the next symphony, the seventh, Rubbra
developed greater freedom and more proliferation of ideas.
Other instrumental works include three Violin Sonatas,
three String Quartets, and various smaller pieces; some with solo voice,
such as the Three Psalms for contralto and piano (1947), or Jade Mountain
for high voice and harp (1963). In these five songs from the Chinese,
Rubbra achieved a miniature structure, and a highly characteristic intimacy
of expression. The harp attracted him, and the Pezzo Ostinato for solo
harp (1959) was an essay in an Eastern mode of thought; the music revolves,
with ametrical rhythms, round Raga-like material, like an Indian improvisation.
The pedals, once fixed, remain unaltered throughout the piece.
Apart from a few folk-song settings, far the greater
part of Rubbra’s choral output is of a religious nature. This, and the
modal style, coupled with the instinct for polyphonic growth, give it
a mediaeval flavour. He also has a marked preference for minor tonalities,
even in short part-songs, such as Christopher Hassall’s Salutation,
Op. 82 [Included in A Garland for the Queen, to mark the Coronation
of 1953.], or the Elizabethan-derived Madrigals, Op. 51 and 52.
His religious choral music includes motets, anthems,
cantatas, and ranges from show pieces of an exuberant and extrovert
nature, such as the Festival Te Deum, written for the Festival of Britain,
or Festival Gloria, Op. 94, to works of a practical, liturgical nature,
such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A flat, or the 3-part Mass,
Op. 138; or works for various specific functions, often of not great
difficulty, such as the Three Motets, Op. 76, or the two Studies for
voices and orchestra, Op. 122 and 129.
The same pattern of evolution is shown in the choral
as in the symphonic works. The early ones are shorter, confined to one
idea; the later ones are more expansive. An outstanding example of a
symphonic structure applied to an unaccompanied choral work is the motet
for soprano and baritone soli and double choir, Lauda Sion, Op. 110
(1960/61). The Latin text is a hymn of praise by St. Thomas Aquinas,
and a rondo structure gives the work strength and cohesion. Rubbra has
never surpassed this, which was his largest a capella work up to that
point, and whose merits can be viewed from many different angles: it
is a major work of grandeur and dignity; the mood of the text, which
is an all-embracing poem of great power, is entirely integrated with
the thematic material; and the growth and development of each run parallel.
The polyphonic writing is masterly, and considerably more original than
the use of a triadic idiom sometimes implies. The counterpoint is in
places a chordal counterpoint; for instance, at the words ‘Sub utraque
specie’ [pp. 27-28 Lengnick Edition] the canon between two 3-part chords
results in a harmonic saturation, which is a unique characteristic of
Rubbra’s style. This recalls the opening of The Song of the Soul, where
a similar effect is achieved orchestrally, by juxtaposed triads. The
harmony arises naturally and majestically from the counterpoint in a
way that has few parallels in contemporary music. He followed this in
1962 with another large festive (as distinct from liturgical) piece
for unaccompanied 8-part choir, the Te Deum, Op. 115, which continues
the same development as Lauda Sion. But the motet marks a summit of
achievement; its successor will probably not come until the 9th Symphony.
[see p. 79].
Meanwhile his next choral works were suites with orchestral
accompaniment. He had already written the highly characteristic Song
of the Soul, Op. 77, which is a slow but short setting of words by St.
John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell, ‘Oh Flamma de amor viva’:
the full title is ‘Song of the Soul in intimate communication and union
with the love of God’. And just before Lauda Sion he had written the
Cantata da Camera, Op. 111 (Crucifixus pro nobis), whose strange instrumentation
was stipulated by the New York Church for which it was written. [for
Paul Steinitz and the London Bach Society, in 1953.]
The first choral suite, Inscape, Op. 122, is a setting
of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and falls into four sections with a ‘Gloria’
epilogue. The second suite, In die et nocte canticum, Op. 129, is a
Latin setting of early Christian texts, and falls into three sections,
with an orchestral prologue ('Aubade’) and epilogue (‘Nocturne’).
But it is in works for unaccompanied choir that Rubbra
achieves his most characteristic results; the religious fervour, the
free movement of modal tonality, the growth of harmony from the contrapuntal
lines, the full development of his polyphonic style. Lauda Sion is his
most characteristic major a capella work; the equivalent smaller works
are the nine short ‘Tenebrae' settings, Op. 72, which are a masterly
concentration of the style. The parts move mainly homophonically in
block chords, in a way which is reminiscent of the sombre chord-spacing
of Monteverdi, as this, Rubbra feels, is most aptly suited to the solemnity
of Holy Week. The first three Tenebrae settings, which constitute the
First Nocturne, Op. 72, nos. 1-3, were written in 1954; the remaining
six, the Second and Third Nocturnes, Op. 72, nos. 4-9, followed later,
in 1963, after Lauda Sion, and about the same time as the Te Deum. Again,
the use of chordal canon occurs, in no. 4 (amicus meus). There is little
independent contrapuntal movement. Rubbra has provided a striking contemporary
illustration of a traditional theme.
His idiom is a tonal one, and has always been consistently
so. Though he has never consciously tried to imitate other composers,
he was in his formative years immersed in the piano works of Debussy,
which he played; so he had a thorough insight into Debussy’s individual
harmonic style. Debussy had been the first composer of undisputed stature
to differentiate between key and tonality. He could use the chord of
C major without necessarily involving the key of C major; but he also
derived strength and colour from the forces at work in the French artistic
tradition as a whole, which defined, and gave direction to, his activity.
Although Rubbra worked within a different tradition,
with different forces at work, and although his solution is different,
nevertheless the same harmonic principles may be seen in the work of
both composers. Rubbra works from a tonal centre, which differs from
a key-centre in that it does not imply or include all the other notes
of the key; he develops instead a harmonic fluidity, which may develop
greater or less saturation according to the number of notes specifically
sounding round any given tonal centre. Nowhere does he reach greater
mastery of this extremely elusive technique than in the Eight Symphony,
Op. 132, which is the culminating point of his instrumental works, corresponding
to Lauda Sion among the choral works.
The work was written in 1966-67 [MS dated 28th December
1967], ten years after the Seventh Symphony, and in it the goals that
he has set of breadth of phrase, melodic continuity, harmonic fluidity
and structural strength, are achieved to a greater extent than in any
previous symphony. The sequences are less exact, the sonorities are
more original, while the expansive eloquence of the slow third movement
is unsurpassed. In it Rubbra adopts a new approach to texture, in that
intervals are made the decisive protagonists in the themes throughout
the work. He dispenses with key signatures for the first time. The first
subject, at the opening of the first movement, is made of interlocking
fourths, while the second subject is made up of thirds. Both come together
at -6 where the characteristic 2-part chordal counterpoint leads
to harmonic fluidity round the tonal centre of B.
The material of the scherzo second movement is made
up of thirds, and it gathers up themes as it goes along, like a snowball.
The slow third movement is the finale, and is built round the second
and sixth combined. The symphony thus includes all the intervals, as
these two (the second and the sixth) together make the seventh, as the
opening of the finale shows. Here Rubbra achieves that poise between
harmony and counterpoint that had sometimes eluded him in earlier works.
One instance of this among many is the violin figure at [56L which is
a retrograde version, in diminution, of the viola and cello part in
the previous three bars. This little figure reappears as a flute solo
at the very end of the symphony.
Thus both his symphonic and his choral output have
reached their respective culminating points. The composer’s intention
is now to unite them, and write a symphony with voices: his projected
Ninth Symphony, which is still only at the imagined stage, is visualised
as a choral symphony, a Sinfonia Sacra on the theme of the Resurrection.
In such a concept, Rubbra’s symphonic and choral styles, coupled with
his strong Christian convictions, will have come full circle.
5 Arnold Cooke
Arnold Cooke is a contemporary of Rawsthorne and Tippett;
yet both his music and his career have taken a very different path from
either of these two. His music lacks the complexity, to say nothing
of the mythological fervour, of Tippett; nor does it exploit the possibilities
of extended tonality, as Rawsthorne’s does; instead, a simple approach
to tonality, inherited from a conventional English background, is overlaid
with a certain piquancy, and an unfailing craftsmanship derived from
his teacher Hindemith. Cooke is not a stylistic originator; indeed his
style is the result of his following where others have led-which would
appear to make him, in the opinion of one writer, a bad artist [Hans
Keller, writing in Music Survey Autumn 1949 (Vol II No. 2), produces
this characteristic aphorism: ‘The bad artist is created by his time.
The mediocre creates for his time. The better artist creates for posterity.
The great creates posterity.’]; and certainly, if style were everything,
then Cooke would probably have to give place to more original minds
than his. But if style is one aspect of creativity, artistic purpose
is another, equally important. To whom does the composer direct his
music? Cooke’s lack of executive ability (though he played the cello
at an early age) denies to his music that virtuoso quality which characterises
the work of his master Hindemith, or his fellow student, Reizenstein;
the music is, generally speaking, simple, easy to play, accessible;
in a word, Gebrauchsmusik.
In an article [Music Survey 1949, Vol II No. 1] Cooke
has described the underlying intentions behind Hindemith’s conception
of Gebrauchsmusik. If we read between the lines, he is describing his
own intention as a composer. The literal translation, ‘Utility Music’,
gives a very misleading impression. Hindemith originally intended the
term to apply to music written for a specific purpose, particularly
music for amateurs and schools. He first suggested the term in a discussion
at a festival in the late 20s, and immediately the word was taken up;
it became a Schlagwort, a slogan. Everybody was suddenly writing Gebrauchsmusik;
school and amateur music became the fashion, and the word, mutatis mutandis,
was attached to Hindemith as if it applied to all his music. In one
sense, everything written clearly has some purpose in mind; and though
Cooke reserves the term Gebrauchsmusik for those works written for special
purposes-not only music for schools and amateurs, but music for theatre,
films, radio, and other occasional music-he considers that all his scores
should meet the fundamental requirement of being serviceable to musicians
With the growth of complexity and abstruseness in composition,
a large amount of contemporary music is beyond the scope of the musician
of average ability, whether in the school, the home or the church; a
cleavage has developed between music which is capable of being rehearsed
and played by reasonably talented amateurs, and music which was conceived
to be rehearsed and performed by professionals on the concert platform.
What school orchestral society would, or could consider Schoenberg’s
Violin Concerto for its end-of-term concert? What local festival would
invite its young competitors to compete in playing one of Stockhausen’s
Klavierstucke? Or what local operatic society would attempt Berg’s Wozzeck?
It is highly probable that an absence of any clear
thought on this dichotomy of interest in contemporary music has lain
at the root of a considerable number of still-born developments, certainly
in the contemporary English musical tradition, and probably in others
as well. The English genius for compromise, in a misguided attempt to
please everybody, is particularly obvious in the larger and more official
festivals. If you attempt without discrimination to mix the professional
and the amateur, you satisfy neither; new wine has a way of bursting
So, far from Gebrauchsmusik being in some way inferior
to concert music, it is in reality complementary and essential to it.
The clear recognition and acceptance of a limitation, whether musical
or social, is the breath of life to the true artist, and his work depends
for its validity on a complete absence of pretence on each side. The
purpose of Gcbrauchsmusik is not that the composer should ‘write down’
for the benefit of less-gifted performers. On the contrary, if his idiom
has integrity it should not need to be changed-merely simplified. By
the same token, the function and achievement of Gebrauchsmusik is different
from concert music-neither better nor worse, but simply different. Music
that invites participation by musicians of not more than moderate ability
has a different purpose, and therefore its result will be different,
from music which presupposes expert or virtuoso performance.
The provision of Gebrauchsmusik has been the concern
of many British composers. Anyone who has ever written an oratorio or
cantata for performance by an amateur choir has experienced something
of what it means. He treats the technical or emotional limitations of
his performers in just the same positive, artistic way as he deals with
the limitations of range and timbre of the orchestral instruments. The
best-known example today is that of Britten, whose numerous works written
for children and less experienced performers form such a large proportion
of his output. [See p. 213]
Cooke’s desire for ‘serviceable’ music is largely the
product of the Cambridge environment from which he set out. He has always
intended that his musical ideas should be easily and readily accessible,
whether to the listener or to the performer. These ideas are almost
invariably tonal, often diatonic; only once has he written a serial
work, Op. 65 Theme and Variations for recorder solo. Most of his eighty-odd
compositions were written with specific performers in mind, which undoubtedly
accounts for his unfailing sense of what is possible.
He was born near Bradford in Yorkshire in 1906, and
after a conventional public school education (Repton), he went to Cambridge
to study music (1925-1929). The musical environment of Cambridge at
this time was mainly choral and operatic; instrumental music was more
amateur and secondary. Boris Ord at King’s College was re-discovering
the great wealth of Tudor polyphony, and in his hands the King’s Chapel
choir reached a state of professional excellence, apt for sixteenth
century polyphony; it became the equivalent, for choral a capella singing,
of an orchestra for the symphonic repertoire. This was something quite
new in English music, and was to have far-reaching results later [See
pp 13/14]; Ord’s successor in 1954 was David Willcocks.
The rediscovery of opera at Cambridge was due mainly
to Dennis Arundell [Handel’s Semele and Purcell’s King Arthur were two
of his many productions], and the Professor of Music, Edward J. Dent,
who in addition to being a fine scholar [his translations of Mozart’s
operas are standard] had a wider, more international outlook than most
other musicians in the country at the time. As President of the I.S.C.M.
he travelled widely in Europe, and was both attentive and sympathetic
to events taking place there. He regularly introduced the new works
of the day, such as Honegger’s King David or Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus.
The more academic and local aspect of Cambridge music was in the hands
of Cyril Rootham, while invaluable practical experience of performing
and hearing music, largely chamber music, was provided by the Thursday
Club. [This club was originally the Informal Music Club, started in
about 1920 by Mrs. Hackforth, whose husband was a classics don at Selwyn
College. Informal concerts were held on Wednesdays at the Masonic Hall
during the inter-war period. After the war they have been held fortnightly
on Thursdays at the University Music School in Downing Place, with occasional
larger concerts in the Guildhall. The 1969/70 season was the 50th anniversary.]
Thus Cooke found plenty of opportunity for music-making
in numerous chamber music ensembles. Meanwhile, the effective, officially
approved background of English music, against which all this activity
took place, was provided by Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius.
It was due to Dent that Cooke went to study at the
Berlin Hochschule under Hindemith. Another Cambridge musician, Walter
Leigh (also a pupil of Dent), had recently done the same, though English
pupils were a rarity in Hindemith’s class [The Australian Stanley Bate
was another FR - Bate was in fact born in Plymouth, Devon. RB]. While
in Berlin (1929-1932) Cooke met a fellow-pupil, Franz Reizenstein, who
was later to perform several of his works.
The international flavour of Berlin during the years
of the Weimar Republic ensured for Cooke’s music a fresh dimension,
in total contrast to the academic and provincial English environment
from which he had sprung, and to which he was shortly to return.
One of Hindemith’s earliest and most fundamental lessons
was the importance of 2-part writing. He would take a song of Brahms,
and show how just the melodic line and the bass line fitted in 2-part
counterpoint; no amount of detail in the inner parts could disguise
or conceal the inadequacy that resulted if these fundamental parts were
not well constructed. Hindemith’s exercises in counterpoint, which were
freely chromatic, not strict in the old academic sense, started in two
parts, then progressed to three, then more. This strictness of training
and cleanness of line, particularly in 2-part writing [Described by
Hindemith in The Craft of Music Composition.], is one of the chief characteristics
of Cooke’s style.
Also, certain of his harmonic and melodic progressions,
as well as theories of structure, were directly inherited from Hindemith,
particularly in his early works; for instance in Op. 1 (1931), which
was originally an octet for four wind and four stringed instruments.
The only other work that survives from his student days in Berlin is
the Harp Quintet, Op. 2, which was played at the London Contemporary
Music Centre in November 1932 by Maria Korchinska.
Returning to Cambridge in 1932, Cooke worked for a
short time at the Cambridge Festival Theatre, where he succeeded Walter
Leigh. The following year he was appointed, on Dent’s recommendation,
to the staff of the Manchester College of Music, and he taught at that
institution until 1938, when he moved to London. [His successor was
Richard Hall. See p. 230.] After a period of naval service in the war,
he joined the staff of Trinity College of Music in London, where he
has remained ever since.
His compositions up to the war show a gradual development
of style. Early pieces, such as the First String Quartet, are clearly
influenced by Hindemith; after the war a more mature style appears,
notably in the First Symphony. The first piece of substance which achieved
success was the Sonata for two pianos, Op. 8. This work, though influenced
by the composer’s hearing Stravinsky’s Concerto for two pianos, is nevertheless
quite individual and has a mature sureness of touch as well as contrapuntal
mastery. The piece was suggested by Adolph Hallis, a South African pianist
who was active in promoting contemporary music concerts in London before
the war, largely at the Wigmore Hall. The two players of Cooke’s sonata
were Hallis himself and Franz Reizenstein. [Hallis concert, March 1937,
Hallis also suggested that Cooke should compose a piano
concerto, and this was duly written in 1940 (Op. 11); though not played
until 1943, when Hallis was no longer active in London, and the soloist
was Louis Kentner. This was his largest work up to that moment.
Opportunities for the performance of new works by British
composers were hard to come by for an ‘outsider’ in the years before
the war; and the years immediately following 1945 were by no means easy.
It is only since about 1960 that some of the obstacles facing the composer
have been at least partially removed. [See p. 21 (footnote).]
Of Cooke’s seventy-six main compositions, fifty-seven
are for chamber groups (whether instrumental or vocal) or solo instruments;
sixteen are orchestral; the remaining three are essays in the accepted
extended forms, and consist of one opera, Mary Barton, Op. 27, which
has not yet been performed; one ballet, Jabez and the Devil, Op. so,
which was commissioned by the Royal Ballet on the suggestion of Cooke’s
friend Denis ApIvor, and performed at Covent Garden on 15th September
1961; its success, however, was only a qualified one; and one oratorio,
Pope’s Ode of St. Cecilia’s Day, Op. 57, which was performed by Cambridge
students on 20th February 1968.
Cooke’s style shows most of the positive features of
good chamber music writing; clean contrapuntal lines, a sense of thematic
symmetry and balance. He has never experimented rhythmically, and his
metres are invariably regular and constant. His acceptance of tonality
has meant that he has not been beset by those formal, structural problems
which automatically face the atonal, serial or avant-garde composer.
His chamber-music works cover most of the orchestral
instruments, of which all Hindemith pupils were obliged to have at least
a working knowledge. He has also written for the guitar and the recorder,
while his keyboard compositions, apart from the piano, include the harpsichord
and the organ. His composing for the organ places him in a minority
among composers: apart from amateur or student works, this is not an
instrument that has attracted British composers. And while his lesser
organ pieces, such as Prelude, Aria and Finale and Fugal Adventures,
were requested by publishers, and fall into the category of easy Gebrauchsmusik,
his larger works, such as the Fantasia, Op. 60, or the Toccata and Aria,
Op. 70, were commissioned by his pupa Peter Marr, and are more substantial.
The Fantasia was written for the opening, in September 1964, of a two-manual
organ, built on classical principles, at Shinfield, Berks. The built-up
chords of the introduction are used in arpeggio form in the first main
section, and triplets are used over long pedal notes. The middle section
develops a new theme by imitation and augmentation, and allotting it
to the pedals leaves the manuals free for increasingly intensified chord
patterns, trio treatment, and stretto. After a return to the material
of the first section, the work ends with a coda, which starts with a
flourish derived from the middle section.
The Toccata and Aria was written for a recital at the
church of St. Giles, Reading. [See The Organ, January 1967]. The Toccata
uses recurring material, like a rondo, while the Aria is in three sections,
of which the middle one develops into an arioso before the recapitulation;
the third section is a coloured version of the first.
The positive features of his style, which make these
works an important addition to the almost non-existent school of contemporary
British organ music, are an ability to write contrapuntally, an ability
to colour the melodic structures with a considered use of harmonic dissonance,
and a feeling for the nature of the organ as it has developed in recent
years in Europe and North America.
His style is based on an acceptance of classical practices,
though it is not ‘neo-classical’ in the sense in which that term is
used to describe Stravinsky or the French school of the inter-war years;
that is to say Cooke does not simply take the classical formulae of
harmony, melody or cadence and apply them in a new context. Two works
which most fully illustrate his acceptance of classical influences are
the Sinfonietta for Eleven Instruments, Op. 31, and the Concerto for
Small Orchestra, Op. 48. The first of these, written in 1954 and played
at a Macnaghten Concert the following year, makes use of the conventional
four movements (Allegro-Scherzo, vivace-Lento-Allegro), and is scored
for woodwind quartet, string quartet, trumpet and horn. Its tonality
is Bb, with the inner movements in related keys.
The second work was commissioned for the Bath Festival
1960, and played on 20th May that year. The tonality is E flat and the
three movements, appropriate for such a concerto, are Allegro vivace-Andante-Molto
Allegro. The writing for each group of instruments brings out its characteristics
in a work whose mood is light and straightforward; it is competent,
If Cooke’s work does not call for the deepest emotional
response, or excite the profoundest involvement by the listener, it
rarely, if ever, falls below a serviceable level of competence. As with
all thematic styles, the listener's attention can hardly avoid focusing
on the themes themselves, since they sustain the weight of the musical
argument. Cooke’s themes are similar to those of many other composers
who have pursued a traditional ideal, whether neo-classical or not;
in his case it was an ideal handed down from Hindemith. Moreover, Cooke
has never felt the necessity for changing or modifying his idiom; his
ideas are in the main melodic, diatonic, and have always been consistently
so. He seeks no other means of expression.
His natural medium is instrumental music, whether chamber
or orchestral. Far the majority of his works, seventy-three out of seventy-six,
are for standard groupings of instrumental or choral forces. Of the
remaining three works-one ballet, one oratorio, one opera-the largest
and most ambitious by far is the opera Mary Barton, op. 27.
He began it as a result of a competition sponsored
by the Arts Council in 1949; and though Cooke was unsuccessful in obtaining
an award, he went on to write the opera over a period of five years
(1949-54), a longer time than he spent on any other of his compositions.
The libretto is by W. A. Rathkey, from the novel by
Mrs. Gaskell, and the scene is set in Manchester in 1840; the industrial
North at the time of the Chartist movement, before the establishment
of Trade Unions. The plot concerns the effects of oppressive working
conditions, labour unrest, managerial complacency.
Carson, a mill-owner, has lost his mill in a fire,
which the workpeople suspect was his own doing. As a result fifty men
lose their jobs, and the ensuing unrest focuses round their spokesman
John Barton, a Chartist leader. His daughter Mary, who looks after him,
considers marriage to Harry Carson, the mill-owner’s son, as this will
enable her to provide for her father and his friends. Jem Wilson, a
foreman mechanic, proposes to her unsuccessfully; though we soon learn
that Mary’s love really rests on him rather than on Harry Carson, whom
The idle leisure of the Carson family is shown in stark
contrast to the wretchedness of the work-people. Harry Carson is then
confronted by Jem Wilson, who strikes him to the ground.
This personal conflict is pursued in a wider context
when the Masters meet the Men in Oddfellow’s Hall. When the work-people’s
demands are entirely rejected, and the employers leave angrily, the
men draw lots to decide who shall strike a violent blow against the
employers, particularly Harry Carson, who insulted the men during the
meeting by drawing a sketch showing them in rags. They swear the Chartist
oath of secrecy, and the scene closes with the result of the ballot
The light-hearted triviality of the Carson girls at
home is interrupted by the news that their brother Harry has been shot.
Carson himself immediately swears revenge. Jem Wilson is arrested for
the murder, and Mary Barton in distress assumes that he killed Harry
Carson for her sake. However evidence is soon produced which shows her
that it was her father who committed the crime. Her dilemma is then
very acute; her father is a murderer, and the man she loves is likely
to be hanged for it. Jem Wilson, however, is tried and acquitted at
Liverpool Assizes, and returns to Mary. John Barton is oppressed with
guilt for his crime, and describes to Mary and Jem what led him to do
it. He is ready to face trial, though Carson enters, still seeking vengeance.
John Barton then dies and Mary and Jem decide to emigrate to Canada
to start a new life. The off-stage Chartists’ chorus closes the opera.
This is an opera of contrasts, simply, sometimes naively,
presented; good versus bad; the idle frivolities of the rich versus
the agonised struggle of the poor. The plot unfolds melodramatically,
so that the issues of good and bad are personified, and somewhat simplified,
into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, and the dramatic conclusion is so manipulated
that personal involvement by the audience is superfluous. One needs
only to observe the events happening; the author has fixed them all;
one in particular, the death of John Barton, though no doubt convenient,
is dramatically feeble, and releases most of the carefully prepared
tension. But this is by no means more ridiculous or irrational a plot
than that of many other operas, and certainly Cooke’s libretto develops
genuine dramatic momentum. The subject is topical today, and concerned
with everyday matters. If we are to accept Dent’s classification of
opera into mythical, heroic and comic, this opera aspires to the second
category. It is certainly neither mythical nor comic.
It is romantic in that Cooke provides at all times
a prominent vocal line. He conceives opera as primarily something to
be sung; the singers lead, not the orchestra, as Dent had advised, and
his highly organised scenes are divided on classical principle into
arias, ensembles, choruses and orchestral interludes. The musical contrasts
between the characters are dearly defined, and folk-song material is
added occasionally for particular purposes; for instance, Mary’s nostalgic
song in Act I includes the nursery rhyme ‘Polly put the Kettle on’,
to recall an un-recallable childhood before her mother died; also the
Chartists’ hymn, ‘May the Rose of England never blow’. Moreover, the
mill fire with which the opera opens was suggested by memories of such
an event which the composer saw as a boy near Batley in Yorkshire. Cooke’s
particular tonal style is capable of great flexibility. It has a directness,
a simplicity which admirably matches the clear line of the story. The
opera has not yet been performed.