A gallop through English myth

John Gardner, 1917-2011

The Ballad of the White Horse by John Gardner. Hilary Davan Wetton conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, City of London Choir and Paulina Voices, with Ashley Riches, baritone. EMR CD057

STUART MILLSON relishes a forgotten folkish treat

In the late 1950s, the English composer, John Gardner (1917-2011) – one of many forgotten or neglected figures of 20th-century English music – was introduced to G.K. Chesterton’s epic-verse, The Ballad of the White Horse. The poem tells the story of the Bronze Age chalk symbol etched into the Wessex downland at Uffington; and in folklore, forever associated with King Alfred, his Danish adversaries, and the fate or permanence of England itself. Disaster, if ever the horse should fade and disappear over the seasons and centuries into the grass and weeds of the hills…

Gardner’s English legend (first performed in Bournemouth) was completed in 1959 – the same year in which Britten’s St. Edmundsbury Fanfare was performed at a Magna Carta pageant in the county town of Suffolk. Clearly in post-war England – a land of municipal planning, still affected by the austerity of the war years, not to mention the national crisis in self-confidence following the Suez debacle – composers were subconsciously, perhaps, drawn to ancient tales of heroism and mystery. John Gardner was, indeed, attracted to an alternative vision of society: a ruralist circle, based in Dorset, presided over by a rustic magus – Rolf Gardiner, who proclaimed his belief that England could only revive through a pure, ancestral way of living “from the herb to the hymn”. His group, the Springhead Ring, had drawn together an array of people, determined to return to archaic agricultural methods and to restore the folk-traditions, the very music of England – and Gardner, for a time, assumed the role of composer-in-chief.

The White Horse at Uffington

At that time (almost like a mediaeval association), a Dorset Guild of Singers had come into being, uniting many different local choral groups, from the Isle of Purbeck to Corfe Mullen; and they seemed to provide a bridge between the communal retreat of Springhead and the wider cultural world – the Guild performing alongside the nationally-renowned Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor in those days was Charles (later, Sir Charles) Groves, a much-loved recording artist for EMI through the 1960s and ‘70s. John Gardner, therefore, had a ready-made choral and orchestral institution at his disposal, and he wasted no time in writing his Chestertonian ballad – ensuring that the choral writing would be ‘simple’ enough for non-professional choirs to rehearse and perform, but deep enough to appeal to a musical audience.

Charles Groves and his musicians liked the work and it was performed to some acclaim, but official tastes were changing in Britain’s arts and music establishment (particularly at the BBC). Continental modernism was in the ascendant – dancing on the village green was out. So it was a remarkable find, when the English Music Festival’s recording arm, EM Records, re-excavated John Gardner’s White Horse from the weeds and from obscurity – setting down a fine and thoughtful performance on CD, with the City of London Choir and the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of English music specialist, Hilary Davan Wetton.

Mr. Davan Wetton has already proved himself as a rescuer of lost scores, taking rare ballads by Gustav Holst to the Hyperion record label, with the Philharmonia Orchestra – and there is some stylistic similarity between the Holst pieces and Gardner’s ballad. And yet the latter composer’s work seems to escape definite comparisons with the work of others – the Dorset revivalist eschewing the tankard-in-hand style of a typical throaty ballad and taking the listener, instead, to a lost world of downland mists: of harp and wind instruments setting a long-ago atmosphere – of brass summoning men to arms at Ethandune – and at the end – after the defeat and baptism of the Dane, Guthrum – an uncertain, dark prophecy for England. In the low registers and fading of the music, there is a feeling of dark clouds gathering, far, far away over the ridges and trackways – but gathering, nonetheless.

The performers on this superb EM Records issue cannot be faulted: the BBC Concert Orchestra, clearly relishing the progress of Alfred and his men, and enjoying the many interesting harmonies, dramas and shadows in this surprising score. There is a plain beauty, too, especially in the fifth section, entitled, The Harp of Alfred – the sort of touching, nostalgic tune in which English composers, led by Elgar and Vaughan Williams, excel. The City of London Choir (and Paulina Voices, from the St. Paul’s School, where Holst once taught) – and baritone, Ashley Riches – sing superbly well throughout this epic work, which runs just short of 50 minutes.

The CD also gives us a wider insight into John Gardner’s work, with the inclusion of his English Ballad of 1969 – a work which, in its concluding climax, romps and roars along; gaining extra acceleration from the unexpected leaping-in of an electric guitar player. Just like fellow-composer, Malcolm Arnold – who in 1969 championed the uniting of classical music and rock in Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra – Gardner showed an equal commitment to music in which different genres and worlds could mingle.