GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934) St Paul’s Suite, op 29 (1912)

i.  Jig
ii.  Ostinato
iii.  Intermezzo
iv.  Finale (The Dargason)

Holst was born into a musical family of German origin in Cheltenham and his father saw to it that he had every musical advantage; he began composing at an early age, citing Richard Wagner and Arthur Sullivan as surprisingly disparate influences. Stud) at the Royal College came at the right time for Holst, for the Germanic influences which Vaughan Williams found in his training with Stanford were now beginning to be diluted, as the two main pillars of musical establishment, Stanford and Parry, began increasingly to value British musical tradition. Holst met Vaughan Williams in 1895 and the two became the greatest of friends, even appraising each other’s compositions — indeed RVW professed that Holst was a great influence on his own work. Whilst Holst was never quite as passionate about the folk tradition as RVW was, he too valued the work of the father of the English folksong revival, Cecil Sharp (1859-
1924), who had travelled the country collecting folksongs, and it was Sharp who was to inspire Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody.

Holst’s talents ran wide; he spent some time as a professional trombonist, playing under Richard Strauss and Hans Richter, but also taught music for nearly thirty years at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. His interest in astrology inspired the composition of his most famous work, The Planets (1918), a work of the highest quality. The St Paul’s Suite, one of a number of works written for the girls of the school, immediately found its place in the timeline of great 20th century British works for strings, which began with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and continued later with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Holst’s work is in four movements, each strongly influenced by the folk tradition.

The opening movement is a pair of jigs, at first full-blooded but later pared down to give each section the limelight, and towards the end heralding a quickening of the tempo with a glorious upward scale sequence.

The second movement, Ostinato (a repeating accompaniment figure), sees second violins sharing the ongoing rippling figure which accompanies a folk-like melody initially introduced by a solo violin.

The Intermezzo begins desolately, introducing a melancholy, folk-based violin solo which leads into a cry of desperation in the whole orchestra. The violin solo continues, echoed by a solo viola. A rhythmic faster section dispels the gloom, but the movement eventually ends once again in sadness with a solo string quartet.

The finale is arranged from the last movement of Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band and is based on two dances from Playford’s manual of folk-dance from 1651. The main theme is known as The Dargason, an exciting jig, which is suddenly juxtaposed cleverly with Greensleeves. Eventually the texture fragments and the soloviolin ushers in the final chord.

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EDVARD GRIEG (1843 – 1907) Peer Gynt: Suite No 1, op 46 (1875/1888)

i.  Morning Mood
ii.  The Death of Ase
iii.  Anitra’s dance
iv.  In the Hall of the Mountain King

Strange as it may seem, Grieg was descended from a Scotsman, Alexander Greig (pronounced ‘Gregg’ of course), who settled in Bergen in the mid-18th century. He ran a fishing fleet and became well-known, but found it necessary to change the spelling to Grieg to make it easier for the Norwegians to pronounce. His great-grandson Edvard was taught by his mother and made such rapid progress that he was packed off to study in Leipzig, which he found dull and pedantic. He returned to Scandinavia to study in Copenhagen with Niels Gade, a disciple of Mendelssohn, which he found far more rewarding. Also at this time he met Rikard Nordrak, composer of the hNorwegian National anthem, who infected Grieg with his passion for Scandinavian folk music — this was to infuse Grieg’s compositions for the remainder of his career.

Grieg mostly composed on a small scale; he was generally at his best composing suites in which each movement knows its own span, such as the two Peer Gynt Suites and the Holberg Suite (first for piano, then arranged for strings), although he also tried his hand at a symphony, a set of Symphonic Variations and three exquisite violin
sonatas. With the Piano Concerto, however, he rose above his natural inclinations and intuitively produced his only undisputed larger-scale masterpiece.

In 1867 the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, based on legend, in which the hero leaves Norway to spend many years in search of romance and adventure all over the world, including the African desert and Egypt. With a new production in prospect in 1875 Ibsen decided to invite Grieg to write extensive incidental music, and the composer wrote no less than 26 pieces, from which he later extracted two suites, No 1 in 1888 and No 2 in 1891. The suites present eight of the most attractive movements, but not in chronological order.

Suite No 1, marginally the more popular of the two, begins with one of Grieg’s most well-known short movements, usually known as Morning, but originally entitled Morning Mood, a wonderful representation of a sunrise only marginally tarnished by the knowledge that Peer is in the Moroccan desert and the stage direction runs:
Dawn. Acacias and palm trees. Peer is sitting in a tree using a wrenched-off branch to defend himself against a group of monkeys.

The Death of Åse (pronounced ‘Awsa’ apparently), describes the heartbreaking death of his mother at the end of Act 3 of the 5, before Peer leaves for more adventures. Anitra’s Dance is voluptuous and exotic, performed as Peer tries to seduce a Bedouin girl in the Moroccan desert; with this dance however, she outsmarts him, stealing his money and disappearing.

In the Hall of the Mountain King from Act 2 sees Peer in the Norwegian mountain home of the Troll King, who says that Peer may marry his daughter on condition that he become a troll himself. Luckily Peer manages to escape and his increasingly desperate flight is chronicled in this final movement of Suite 1.

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GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875) Suite No 1: Carmen (1875)

i.   Prélude – Aragonaise
ii.   Intermezzo
iii.  Séguedille
iv.  Les Dragons d’AlcaIa
v.  Les Toréadors

It is surely one of the greater musical tragedies that Bizet died thinking that his great work Carmen was destined to be a failure. Having been commissioned in 1872 to write an opera for the Opera-Comique to follow up other operatic ventures such as La Jolie Fille du Perth and Les Pecheurs du Perles (The Pearl Fishers), none of which had been greatly successful, Bizet chose to adapt a somewhat controversial 1846 novel by Prosper Mérimée about Carmen, a free spirit whose outrageous dalliances result in her murder by Don Jose, soldier turned smuggler. Bizet was assisted with the libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, whose adaptation attempted to make Carmen’s fickleness a little more acceptable to the at-that-time somewhat reserved French public by making her unmarried, and added a foil for Carmen’s behaviour with the character of the virginal Micaela.

The opera was completed late in 1874, but the first performance, on 3 March 1875, was little short of a disaster, the subject matter perceived as worthy only of the gutter. Despite an initial run of 48 performances critical reaction was hostile, and Bizet descended into depression, dying from a heart attack exactly three months after the premiere at the age of 36. If he had only lived another year he would have seen Carmen circulate round Europe and at last find popularity in France. Brahms, who wrote nothing operatic himself, was transfixed by it and saw some twenty performances, while Tchaikovsky predicted that it would become the world’s most popular opera, and even Wagner admitted to being impressed. Bizet’s music was well-researched and offers a convincingly Spanish experience; it provides layer after layer of psychological character-development, from the teasing seductiveness of Carmen herself through the arrogance of Escamillo, the bullfighter, to the pained passion of Don Jose, who in Shakespearian terms ‘loves not wisely but too well’, via the innocence of Micaela. Two orchestral suites were drawn from the opera immediately after Bizet’s death.

The brief Prélude presents the Fate motif which recurs in the opera at crucial moments, then the Aragonaise, based on a dance from the Aragon region of Spain, paints a picture of the colourful street outside the bullfight. The Intermezzo, one of the orchestral flute’s great moments, appears before the penultimate act to describe what at long last seems to be a stable relationship between Carmen and Don Jose. The Séguedille (Seguedilla) is in the opera sung by Carmen to seduce Don Jose into releasing her from prison at the end of Act l. The Dragoons of Alcala is a mock-military march with bassoons prominent painting the shadowy mugglers’ hideout to which Don Jose has defected at the start of Act 11. Finally The Toréadors portrays the strutting arrogance of Escamillo and the other Toreadors on their way to the bullfight. It is Carmen’s desertion of the sincere but weak Don Jose for the shallow glitter of Escamillo which precipates her murder at the hands of Jose as the bullfight proceeds in the background.

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Peter WARLOCK (1894 – 1930) Capriol Suite (1926)

i. Basse Danse iv. bransles
ii. Pavane v. Pieds-en-l’air
iii. Tourdion vi. Mattachins

Born in London of Anglo-Welsh parents the composer of the Capriol Suite left his home in Wales to study at Eton College and, for a short while, at Christ Church Oxford before becoming a music critic under his real name, Philip Heseltine. He was largely self-taught as a musician, his studies inspiring him with a particular admiration for the music of Delius, whom he visited at his home in Grez-sur-Loing near Paris, and of whom he became the first biographer. Indeed he co-organised the inaugural Delius festival in 1929 with the greatest champion of Delius, Thomas Beecham.

His life was somewhat dissolute, but his magnetism was such that he became the model for a number of such characters in literary works by luminaries of the time such as Aldous Huxley, Osbert Sitwell and, notoriously, D.H.Lawrence, who used him as the model for Julius Halliday in Women in Love, few which the author was successfully sued.  Always unstable, Heseltine died of gas poisoning in December 1930, probably by his own hand – he made sure that his cat was put first,

When Heseltine came to submit his own compositions for publication he met universal rejection, presumably because of his tough reputation as a music critic, only achieving acceptance under the pseudonym of Peter Warlock. His initial published works, submitted in 1919, comprised a group of songs, which were taken up at once by eminent singers of the day, upon which he admitted the deception. Apart from Delius, his compositional style was also influenced by Bartok, most notably in perhaps his finest work of all, the song cycle The Curlew. He also composed a number of carols which are still popular today, including Adam Lay Ybounden and Bethlehem Down.

Undoubtedly his most  well-known work, however, is the Capriol Suite, one ‘particular fruit of his deep interest in 16th century music, others being a myriad of transcriptions of Tudor and Stuart lute songs. The suite itself has been transcribed for almost every imaginable instrumental combination but is most popular in this version for string orchestra. Based upon a French treatise on dance, Orchesographie (1589), compiled by Thoinot Arbeau (yet another pseudonym!}, the Capriol Suite comprises six short movements, the relatively simple melodic lines given a stimulating early-twentieth-century harmonic astringency in all except the well-known Pavone, which still has its 16th century complexion.  As for the title of the suite, it arises from the fact that Arbeau’s treatise was written in the form of a fictional dialogue between himself and a lawyer, capriol, who wishes to learn to dance.

Basse Danse is appareently a dance for older folk, in which the dancers’ feet for the most part slide along the floor. Pavone is the familiar stately dance. Tordion is a brief, delicate movement in 6/4 time, dying away to nothing at the end. Bransles (pronounced ‘brawl’) is the most substantial movement. Originally this was a fast country dance – not a fight! – in duple time pressing on at ever­ increasing speed, and still danced in the 1660s at the court of Charles II. Pieds­ en-l’air is an exquisitely serene dance in 9/4 time, the dancers’ feet moving so gently that they barely touch the floor, hence the title. Mattachins is a sword dance,   danced   by   four   men   in   pretend   combat   and   climaxing   in violent dissonance .

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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

  1. Castillane
  2. Andalouse
  3. Aragonaise
  4. Aubade
  5. Catalane
  6. Madrilene
  7. Navarraise

Jules Massenet was a prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire aged just 11, eventually studying opera composition under Ambroise Thomas, the Director of the Conservatoire and composer of the opera Mignon; Massenet would become a teacher himself at the Conservatoire in 1878, and still later take over from Thomas as Director, numbering amongst his pupils Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson and Reynaldo Hahn.

In 1863 Massenet won the Prix de Rome, the most coveted European composition prize — which Berlioz had finally won in 1830 at his fourth attempt – with a jolly little cantata on the bloody and controversial murder in 1566 of Mary Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio, and went on to write over two dozen operas, several of which remain in the repertoire, including Manon, Werther and the Egypt-set Thais (from which comes the well-known Meditation for violin and orchestra). He was distinctly prolific in many genres, including ballet, cantata, works for orchestra and song. His opera Le Cid (The Lord), was based on the legend of the 11th century Castillian nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who heroically rid Castile of the marauding Moors with the support of his wife Chimene (in French Rodrigue and Chimene). It is a story also immortalised in Anthony Mann’s film El Cid (1961), which starred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

Massenet was inspired by a popular play by Corneille, as were both Bizet and Debussy, but Massenet was the only one of the three to complete his opera, which remained very popular throughout Europe for its first thirty-five years but then fell into disuse. Luckily Massenet was able to extract a ballet suite from the opera as a concert item in its own right, comprising seven movements, almost all characteristic Spanish regional dances.

The opening Castillane, from Castile, Rodrigue’s home province, is a mixture of elegance and full-blooded heroic Spanish dance.

The Andalouse, from Andalucia, is lazy and reflective, with cellos providing an atmospheric accompaniment to flute, then violins. The Aragonaise, from Aragon, is one of the most flamboyant dances in the set.

The Aubade, (Morning Piece) has bubbling flutes to the fore again with pizzicato strings.

The Catalane is again boldly Spanish, with triplet and duplet rhythms and the cellos to the fore in a smouldering dance which only bursts into flame at the end.

The Madrilene begins atmospherically, then becomes a rollicking dance which involves ricochet bowing in the strings.

Finally the Navarraise sets off with percussive accompaniment to a rather arrogant main theme before the Aragonaise returns to user in a bacchanalian finish.

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MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Ravel’s Bolero – three examples of works whose popularity became a source of some regret to their composers, who became tired of being asked to repeat the work over and over again . Indeed Ravel, whose Bolero itself repeats its material many times in perhaps the longest crescendo in music, said of it: ‘I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.’

Whilst Bolero is indeed something of a ‘Marmite piece’, Ravel’s modesty in terms of masterpieces is unequivocally misplaced – few, if any, twentieth century composers created more magic than Ravel, who, with Debussy, led the cause of musical Impressionism in the same way that artists such as Monet and Renoir inspired Impressionism with the paintbrush.

Ravel was born in the Basque region of southern France, which accounts for his affinity with Spain and the Spanish flavour of a number of his works. He began learning the piano aged seven and showed a natural but not outstanding ability, giving his first recital aged fourteen alongside another young pianist destined for a glittering career, Alfred Cortot. Ravel’s competent piano-playing enabled him to begin composing for the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire but although he won a prize or two he was merely an average student, and was even expelled in 1895. During this time, however, he was collecting influences, amongst which was the music of Wagner, and he was also much taken with the virtuoso orchestrating skills of Rimsky­ Korsakov. In 1897 he was readmitted to the Conservatoire and began composition lessons with the great Gabriel Faure.

His first guarded success as a composer came in 1899 with the composition Pavane for a Dead Infanta for piano, which he would orchestrate in 1910, but generally his initial compositions were not well received . He gravitated towards other composers who were also struggling for understanding, including Debussy (twelve years his elder), Stravinsky and Erik Satie, each full of admiration for the others. Although he worked painstakingly slowly, his list of compositions grew, including a superb string quartet and more piano works, a number of which he began orchestrating; these included Mother Goose (Ma Mere l’Oye, 1908-10, orchestrated 1911) and, in Spanish style, Rapsodie espagnole, based on Habanera (two pianos, 1895 and orchestrated in 1907-8) and Albarado def Gracioso (1905, orchestrated 1918).

He began gaining international respect as an orchestrator, and although he didn’t teach a great deal he did enjoy working with Ralph Vaughan Williams, who visited him in 1907-8 for ‘a bit of French polish’. He was also to be asked for lessons in the 1920s by George Gershwin, but Ravel refused, saying: ‘Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?’ Ravel would, however, begin to infuse his music with jazz influences.

Among his great masterpieces were the magical ballet Daphnis and Chloe (1912), La Valse, a ‘choreographic poem’ (1920), his bitter evocation of fin-de-siecle, which gradually disintegrates from a ghostly memory of the Waltz Age into the chaos brought by War, and two piano concertos, the G major jazz-influenced and the other for the Left Hand alone – written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost an arm during the War. His work as an orchestrator is also known in the most-played of the many orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Le Tombeau de Couperin – in other words, a work written as a memorial in the style of the composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733) – began life as a suite of six piano pieces written between 1914 and 1917, each also dedicated to a friend who had fallen in World War 1. In 1919 he chose four, each with Couperin-style titles, to orchestrate in his own unique style, which magically find a contemporary slant on Couperin’s baroque figurations. Despite its apparent simplicity, the suite presents each section of the orchestra with extreme technical challenges, with a virtuosic role for first oboe, noticeable right from the start in the Prelude. The work was premiered in February 1920.

The Prelude is dedicated to First Lt Jacques Charlot, and begins with delicate tracery first for solo oboe, then for upper strings in partnership with each other, which continues with only hints of a more strident nature.

The For/one, based on a somewhat quirky Italian dance, is in memory of Second Lt Jean Cruppi, and begins and ends with quietly angular dotted figures with slanting harmonies. The middle section is more lyrical.

The Menuet, fifth in the original piano suite, is in memory of Jean Dreyfus, a close friend of Ravel. Its atmosphere is wistful but suave, once again the oboe leading the way.

Finally the Rigaudon (somewhat similar in style to a sailors’ hornpipe), and originally fourth in the piano suite, although outwardly light-hearted in its outer sections, is dedicated to two brothers, Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who were childhood friends of Ravel, but tragically both killed in November 1914 by the same shell. The middle section is pastoral and reflective.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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