ENDNOTES, 5th June 2017
In a Summer Garden: new discoveries and romantic masterpieces at this year’s English Music Festival
“Roses, lilies and a thousand sweet-scented flowers. Bright butterflies flitting from petal to petal, and gold-brown bees murmuring in the warm, quivering summer air. Beneath the shade of the old trees flows a quiet river with water lilies. In a boat, almost hidden, two people. A thrush is singing – in the distance.”
So wrote composer, Frederick Delius – describing his 1908 work, In a Summer Garden, a sensuous piece of nature-evocation and a memorable inclusion in the opening concert of this year’s English Music Festival. Performed in the Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval abbey at Dorchester-on-Thames (the home of the annual festival, founded and directed by Em Marshall-Luck), the Delius gave the visiting BBC Concert Orchestra a chance to demonstrate that a smaller orchestra (they are approximately 50 in number – half the size of the flagship BBC Symphony Orchestra) is every bit as capable of realising a lush, heavy, late-romantic score. Under the baton of English specialist, Martin Yates, In a Summer Garden took on an even more personal meaning for the festival-goers – many of whom had spent the early part of the evening before the concert enjoying the abundant May greenery of Dorchester Manor House’s garden, not to mention the delicious Champagne provided by our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Broadbent, owners of this enchanting spot. This was a perfect setting for the works and composers of the English musical renascence, the period between about 1880 and 1930. The programme included four world premieres, two by Vaughan Williams, one from Stanford and a completely unknown symphony by the obscure figure of Montague Phillips, who died in 1969.
Vaughan Williams’s musical career spanned the Edwardian, inter-war, wartime and atomic ages. Yet despite living through these transformations, his output encompassed ancient church music, pastoral and heavenly visions, and the last remnants of traditional folk-song. Delving into Vaughan Williams archive, conductor Martin Yates recently discovered a mid-1930s’ piano score of jaunty morris-dance and maritime tunes, intended for a folk-pageant at the Royal Albert Hall. The result: A Little March Suite – stepping out at its lively opening with an almost Irish-sounding reel (“The blue-eyed stranger”) and then, with a change of tempo, a tune most listeners recognised from its use in the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, the salty, confident “Onboard a ninety-eight” – a song about Nelson’s navy which Vaughan Williams had first heard at Kings Lynn, some 30 years earlier.
Shakespeare’s “noblest English” and the spirit of bowmen, squires and knights soared into the far reaches and resounding acoustic of Dorchester Abbey in the Henry V Overture – Vaughan Williams’ equivalent of Elgar’s chivalric Froissart or King Arthur incidental music. Dating again from the mid-1930s, the ten-minute-long orchestral journey to Agincourt showed ‘RVW’ at his most patriotic. The English Music Festival might consider performing an arguably more thrilling, call-to-arms version of the story, Walter Leigh’s overture* – now available on a splendid Chandos recording.
Stanford’s Concert Overture in A Minor, dating from 1870, is a worthy piece of Mendelssohn-like Victoriana – again, allowing the BBC Concert Orchestra to display its sparkling, consistently mood-matching playing. Holst’s Walt Whitman setting – The Mystic Trumpeter – signalled a significant change of mood in the programme, with Ilona Domnich (soprano) taking us into a near-Wagnerian intensity, but with Whitman’s words of ecstasy and universal joy transcending all:
“O glad, exulting, culminating song!
A vigor more than earth’s is in they notes!
Marches of victory – man disenthrall’d – the conqueror at last!
Hymns to the universal God, from universal Man – all joy!”
Both Delius and Vaughan Williams were also intoxicated by Whitman’s poetry. Holst’s Mystic Trumpeter is a highly-charged “scena”: mysterious, disturbing and almost operatic. The composer sails forth across oceans of space and time, proclaiming a creed of the individual, able to break free and fly into new dimensions.
The opening night of the English Music Festival concluded with what we assume is the only symphony by Montague Phillips – a composer once famous, now largely unknown. Phillips – a Londoner – produced a work of Elgarian length and Tchaikovsky-like stature, but woven together with the silken threads of light music. Alongside the dramatic moments of the great score, which ended with an emphatic organ section thundering out “behind” and above the orchestral surge, there were sections of palm-court nostalgia and tenderness – a sense, perhaps, of Eric Coates before his time.
The Quarterly Review also attended the Saturday morning concert of English church music – Britten’s intricate, modern-sounding Jubilate Deo in C minor from 1961 rubbing shoulders with the late-19th-century provincial Roman Catholicism of Elgar’s thoughtful and intimate O Salutaris Hostia and Ave Verum. Thomas Tallis – a voice from the England of the first Elizabeth – was also performed (the singers, the Worcester College Chapel Choir); and a piece by York Minster organist, Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) – Save us, O Lord. The mix of eras shows the scale of vision and ambition of the Festival’s Director.
Talks and outreach events also form part of the fabric of this unique festival, now in its 11th year. But one symposium stood out for its somewhat out-of-place political theme: the “problem” of performing British music in post-Brexit Britain. The speaker was evidently nervous about celebrating our music, at a time when departure from the European Union is seen by its opponents as an expression of narrow nationalism. Let us remember, however, that far from being insular, English music – whether it be Vaughan Williams studying with Ravel, or Elgar’s First Symphony which was performed one hundred times internationally within its first year of life – has always been our contribution to world culture. The English Music Festival was founded to honour that ideal; and to provide a showcase of our composers, whether the pacifist, Benjamin Britten, or the ardent imperialist, Edward Elgar. May the EMF long continue.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of QR
*Walter Leigh, English composer who studied with Hindemith in Germany, and wrote incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a Harpsichord Concerto. Leigh served in the Second World War and was killed in action at Tobruk