ENDNOTES: May 2019

Sir Adrian Boult, painting by Ishibashi Kazunori (Royal College of Music)

Endnotes: May 2019

From Meadow to Mayfair – Stuart Millson pays tribute to the English light music tradition

The great tone-poems of English music need little introduction: Bax’s epic evocation of Cornish myth and landscape, Tintagel, and Holst’s mysterious Dorset fantasy, Egdon Heath, are just two examples of this native genre. We might add to the list depictions of urban Britain – John Ireland’s wistful A London Overture, Vaughan Williams’s darker, A London Symphony, or even the ‘Nottingham’ Symphony by, Alan Bush. But there is also a body of work within our musical tradition which, whilst not having the introspection, or stature, or timescale of the works just listed, nevertheless presents us with a faithful representation of the places and character of our country: the orchestral tradition, as developed by composers such as Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Ernest Tomlinson and Ronald Binge – skilled miniaturists, capable of producing pen-portraits of scenes as diverse as Oxford Street, Knightsbridge, or a sleepy Arcadian stream flowing somewhere through the heart of the shires.

Often referred to as “the uncrowned king of light music”, Northamptonshire-born Eric Coates (1886-1957) is undergoing something of a revival, thanks in great part to the work of conductors such as John Wilson, Rumon Gamba and Gavin Sutherland – all of whom have produced well-engineered recordings of his music, which have succeeded in showing a greater depth and strength to a style often considered dated.

The composer was championed in the 1960s and 70s by Sir Adrian Boult. In 1975, Sir Adrian, usually at the helm of the London Philharmonic or BBC Symphony orchestras, conducted the much smaller BBC Concert Orchestra in a studio recording of Coates classics, such as the overture The Merrymakers, the stirring Three Elizabeths Suite, with its first movement depicting 16th-century seafarers, and a song, the elegiac Green Hills o’ Somerset– sung so touchingly in that programme by the fondly-remembered bass-baritone, Ian Wallace. Boult also conducted and recorded Coates’s beautifully-crafted suite, From Meadow to Mayfair, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra – although the disc no longer figures in the catalogue.

Another composer vying for the Coates crown of light music was Haydn Wood (1882-1959). His suite, London Landmarks, concludes with an elegant march, The Horseguards, Whitehall, which found fame on BBC Radio 4’s famous series of vignettes of local life, Down Your Way. Nowhere on record has Horseguards been better served than in Vernon Handley’s splendid and, in the final few moments, powerfully symphonic reading with the BBC Concert Orchestra – the work forming part of a collection of light-music gems, generally from the inter-war era. Wood, however, was not simply a writer of five-minute confections and popular tunes: in 1928 he also composed a Violin Concerto, whose Delius-like feel can be enjoyed on a recent recording by the ever-enterprising Dutton and Chandos labels. An ambitious tone-poem, celebrating Manx culture and island views, Mannin Veen, found a champion in Naxos CDs – although, once again, the recording has disappeared from their current listings. As with so many English composers, we have hardly begun to scratch the surface of their legacies.

To Vernon Handley’s disc of English classics, once again, for our final pair of light English impressions – Ernest Tomlinson (b. 1924) and Ronald Binge (1910-1979). Tomlinson shared something of Vaughan Williams’s and Holst’s passion for folk-song and for weaving old country tunes into a well-crafted orchestral tapestry, as in his outdoor-spirited Concert Jig. Older listeners may remember a vividly-recorded Decca record, with Sir Vivian Dunn conducting the Light Music Society Orchestra in Tomlinson’s Suite of English Folk Dances– not to mention Grainger’s Country Gardens and Shepherd’s Hey, with works by Balfour Gardiner and Armstrong Gibbs added for further rustic flavour.

The music of Ronald Binge plays us out: his Sailing By beckons us into a world of lapping waves and West Country coves, whilst his poignant English idyll, The Watermill (every note as well-crafted as Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow) brings us to a nostalgic conclusion – inspiring the listener to envisage an England which may never have existed, but whose image and meaning haunts us in these uncertain times.

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

CD details:

Sir Adrian Boult conducts Coates, BBCRD 9106.
Vernon Handley conducts British light classics, Sony label, 88697707372.
Haydn Wood, Violin Concerto(Dutton label,CDLX7245 – and on Chandos, with number  CHAN 10879).

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