STUART MILLSON enjoys some neglected gems of British music
Why does the spiritual toll of the Great War seem to have been harsher for Britain than for any of the other European combatants, asks organist, scholar, music-writer Robert James Stove, in commentary for a booklet which accompanies a new CD on the Australian Ars Organi label. His answer is clear and convincing: ‘… the innate stability of British political institutions meant a lack of opportunities for citizens to work off their war-neuroses by revolutionary activism, as agitators did on the Continent.’ Only in a marginal way did iconoclasm and an avant-garde spirit affect Britain, post-Passchendaele: for every Vorticist there was a Vaughan Williams offering benediction, although few realised that the composer’s Pastoral Symphony of 1922 was inspired by his own experiences of service on the Western Front. (Listen more closely to the ghostly, wordless voice in the unsettling final movement…)
The new recording, a superb audio curation of British music made in the magnificent acoustic of Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell, Victoria, Australia, assembles less-well-known names from the canon of Albion’s musical renascence. Alongside John Ireland and Vaughan Williams, for example, are Thomas F. Dunhill (excerpts from his Three Chiddingfold Pieces), Sir Walter Galpin Alcock (Westminster Abbey organist at three coronations during the high-tide of Empire) and Alan Gray (successor to Stanford in the organ loft at Trinity College, Cambridge).
All works and composers chosen by the Ars Organi Recordings for this collection have in common a profound attachment to English tonality (although Norman Fulton, at CD track 11, is a Scot). It is as if the music of our islands is a mirror-image of the (physical and psychological) architecture of the very institutions that have long-governed us. The slow-breathing, hushed voices of churchgoers, a ray of wintry light, piercing through a cathedral window like a gimlet; a sense of eyes being drawn toward the pinnacle of a Norman arch – these are some of the feelings and imaginings inspired by many of the works, some of which are ethereally-enhanced by the participation of singers Elizabeth Barrow (soprano), Brigette De Poi and Emily Tam (mezzo-sopranos), Leighton Triplow (tenor) and bass, James Emerson.
John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and a George Herbert setting (The Call) from Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs are probably the best-known pieces in the entire collection. Peter Warlock’s old English carol, Adam lay Ybounden, also finds an occasional place in concerts and Radio 3 schedules. But who knows the music of the composer, whose work concludes the CD: Geoffrey Turton Shaw? A near-contemporary of Vaughan Williams, he served as a school inspector and was himself schooled by that master of church music, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Setting Milton, Ring out, ye crystal spheres/Once bless our human ears… Turton Shaw embodies all the virtues of his genre and world, confirming the past, present and future solidity of English music.
The music of a Welshman, Daniel Jones (1912-1993) makes up another important collection of lesser-known music from our shores, in a well-presented four-disc set from Lyrita Recorded Edition. Many will remember the remarkable ground-breaking Lyrita vinyls of old: symphonies by Bax and Rubbra, John Ireland songs, The Magic Island by William Alwyn, and a record that particularly caught my eye when I first came across it in the record department of Foyles, some 40 years ago – Ireland’s Forgotten Rite, Legend, Mai–Dun and Satyricon – with its strange, haunting cover-artwork; a picture which hinted at the form of a landscape, with dotted colours and distances just out of reach. In fact, if I were to try to find a simple, neat description of Daniel Jones’s music, it would come close to those suggestions inspired by the Ireland graphics – although this enigmatic composer (a code-breaker during World War Two) never really embraced, at least self-consciously, folklore and the symbolism of place. He tended to think of himself as a composer who happened to come from Wales, rather than an artist who had a civic responsibility to proclaim a culture – although he did write a major choral-orchestral piece, The Country Beyond the Stars, which – post-Festival of Britain – seemed to have an ambience of dreamy peninsular coasts, beacons and Black Mountains.
Perhaps the nearest he came to a home-spirit, an imprint of Welshness, was in his Dance Fantasy, performed at the 1982 Proms by the (then) BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Bryden Thomson – although the work still seemed somewhat set apart from Welsh dances and Celtic legends by fellow-countrymen Hoddinott, Mathias and Arwel Hughes. And it was at this concert that I briefly met the musician… As I walked around the hall at the end of the evening, making my way back to the tube station and suburbia, I spied the bespectacled composer (this one-time friend of Dylan Thomas) at the Royal Albert Hall Artists’ Entrance. Venturing over, I asked for an autograph, which was cheerfully forthcoming and written in a neat, methodical hand, with a fountain pen. An avuncular, slightly diminutive figure, Daniel Jones seemed very pleased by the performance of his own music at the Proms. (It has to be said, the Proms Planning Department has been less than generous to the composers of Wales.)
Lyrita’s new CD collection puts the music of Jones and Cambria very much on the map. Pianist Martin Jones has spent many hours in the National Library of Wales, painstakingly uncovering an almost Bach-like progression, cycle, abundance of piano works, from a neatly-crafted Capriccio of 1934, to the much more ambitious (“big stride”, was the composer’s own description) Theme, Variations and Fugue in C-sharp minor, dated 1945 – the year of Britten’s Peter Grimes and the advent of the Attlee era. Tonal, but sometimes wandering away from those clear lines; meditative, but never obscurely introverted, Daniel Jones created, it seems, pure music, for its own sake. Rigorous, never arduous, and always making the listener wonder what the next piece will bring.
A great deal of the composer’s character is also suggested by some of the photographic portraits featured in Lyrita’s CD booklet, not least the final black-and-white plate: Dan Jones, with benevolent eyes and a grin, partly concealed by the pint of bitter he is bringing to his lips. A good Welsh brew, no doubt.
Undertones of War, British Organ and Vocal Music After 1918. Robert James Stove, organ. Ars Organi, AOR004
Daniel Jones, Rediscovered Piano Works, Martin Jones, piano. Lyrita, SRCD.2396
STUART MILLSON is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. After more than two decades living in a Kent village, he crossed the River Severn and the Black Mountains, and now writes from West Wales.