Apocalypse Discs – John Kersey


Historian, musician and educationalist


As a musician, I face the prospect of having to save a limited number of works from certain apocalypse with a certain degree of trepidation. The difficulty is always that any selection is by nature impermanent, since music is perhaps the most responsive of the arts to one’s emotional state, and thus any change in personal equilibrium is likely to prompt a need for fresh aural inspiration. Nevertheless, the choice I make at present is of key works that have lived with me to the extent that I feel they have become a part of my way of seeing the world, and thus they can at least form something of a personal credo as far as those values – both musical and in a wider context – I would wish to see promulgated are concerned.

The chief object of art is, to my mind, a search for the expression of truth and beauty, and this theme runs through the selection I have made. There is some emphasis upon those composers who espoused a Traditionalist vision and set themselves against prevailing fashions in music, often at great personal cost. Their work is united by this artistic honesty and integrity, and perhaps their example also presents us with a microcosm of the resistance their art made to the apocalypse that came to dominate the avant-garde of their time, which sought to divorce itself from the dialectic of tonality. Although some works will doubtless be unfamiliar, there is no search for deliberate obscurity here, but rather a conscious immersion in a particular compositional thread that is effectively that of Romanticism and its extensions, and the quest for its most distinctive exponents, some of whose music deserves wider currency than it has hitherto enjoyed. JK, 25th March 2013

Lyra Angelica, William Alwyn (1905-85)

Alwyn was a polyglot, poet, artist, composer and sometime flautist with the London Symphony Orchestra. His compositions include many film scores, five symphonies (of which the last is entitled Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial) and this extraordinary harp concerto, which in my view is undoubtedly the greatest music written for the instrument. The first half of his working life was spent in London, teaching and serving on committees and boards. The second was spent in Suffolk, overlooking the Blyth estuary and writing music, poems and painting. One of his poems, Daphne, expresses his artistic credo,

Beauty is my reason for existence,

My day, my night, my all-in-all.

Faithless, I should cease to write.


Concerto for solo piano, Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88)

Alkan was one of the greatest pianists of his stellar generation and a highly original and accomplished composer. In his early career, he was a friend of Liszt and Chopin, but in 1848 he was passed over for the position of head of piano at the Paris Conservatoire in favour of one of his pupils, and he seems never to have recovered from this blow, retreating into isolation. His concerto for solo piano, though a highly substantial work, is in fact part of one that is still larger, his twelve studies in all the minor keys, op. 39. Here it is given an outstanding performance by supervirtuoso Marc-Andre Hamelin.


Arnold Bax

Spring Fire, Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Bax was the most Celtic of composers, encapsulating in his style the Ireland of myth and legend and evoking a distant past that also drew extensively upon Norse influences. As part of the Rathgar Circle that developed around the poet, artist and mystic AE (G.W. Russell) he adopted the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne and published a number of poems and short stories that reflected an increasing involvement with Irish nationalism. Spring Fire is a relatively early work, inspired by Swinburne. Its extreme technical difficulty prevented any performance in Bax’s lifetime. For several years the only surviving score was believed to have been lost in a fire in 1964, but later another was discovered. The world it evokes is pagan and fantastic, and he wrote of it, “It is as though the whole of nature participated in the careless and restless riot of youth and sunlight.”


Geirr Tveitt

Sun God Symphony, Geirr Tveitt (1908-81)

An Odinist and Traditionalist, Tveitt was part of the circle of Hans S. Jacobsen in Oslo in the 1930s, but he remained aloof from political action and did not join the Nasjional Samling. The ballet Baldur’s Dreams is the apex of his Neo-Heathen worldview, being first performed in 1938 to great acclaim. After the war, his beliefs led to his complete ostracism from the Norwegian arts establishment, and the problems were compounded when, in 1970, his house burned to the ground, taking with it about 80% of his compositions, and leaving his last years bereft and embittered. The Sun God Symphony is therefore a posthumous reconstruction of three pictures from Baldur’s Dreams, and shows the extraordinary power and energy of Tveitt’s compositional imagination.


Piano Concerto, op. 39, Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924)

In its intellectual and humane distinction, subtle innovation and adherence to the Apollonian ideal, Busoni’s music is unparalleled. A master pianist, his Piano Concerto – in five movements, and with a male chorus singing a setting of Oehlenschlaeger’s Aladdin in the last – is an extraordinary achievement. This live performance by Peter Donohoe at the Proms remains one of the finest accounts of the work.


Cello Concerto, Gerald Finzi (1901-56)

This work, the composer’s last, sums up his compositional achievement. It has become commonplace to say that Finzi’s music “sounds English” in that it evokes a particular combination of landscape and character. Certainly it is that, but its distinction is much greater, in that this is music of nobility, imagination, integrity and drama, suffused with a melancholic yet lyrical temperament.


Symphony no. 1 “Gothic”, Havergal Brian (1876-1972)

A monumental work from an extraordinary man from whom music poured in torrents even when there was no-one interested in performing or listening to it. Brian did not “fit in” with the musical establishment; working-class, self-taught, and entirely dedicated to his own artistic standards. The more I come to know him and his output, the more I admire him. This work is huge, uncompromising and intellectually of the highest order. Richard Strauss described it as “magnificent”.


Trio in Three Movements, York Bowen (1884-1961)

Although widely respected as a pianist during his lifetime, and once described by Saint-Saens as “the finest of English composers”, Bowen’s works lay largely unpublished and unperformed until after his death. His individual style is felt at its best in this ambitious and effective piano trio.


Hymnus paradisi, Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

This work was written in response to the death of the composer’s son from polio, aged nine, and requires no commentary. It is quite simply among the finest works of the English choral tradition.



Rued Langgard

Som Lynet er Kristi Genkomst (As Lightning Cometh Christ Again)

Rued Langgaard (1893-1952)

It is perhaps appropriate that one should close a selection of Apocalypse Discs with one of the very few depictions of the Second Coming in music. Rued Langgaard, a reactionary genius, composed in a style that ensured his treatment with utter disdain by the prevailing Danish musical establishment; his resulting isolation gave rise to a series of extraordinary compositions that is only now coming to be heard and appreciated. His music ranges from the visionary and prophetic to the bizarre and aphoristic. This short organ work develops in the manner of a ritual, fixating eventually upon its opening phrase, before rising in ecstasy amid the repeated gestures. A short pause leads to an increasing sense of expectation and the cataclysmic final chord that marks the moment of apparition.


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