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Community Concert: Notes on the Program

PERCY GRAINGER The Lads of Wamphrey and Lincolnshire Posy  He contained multitudes, many of them (self) contradictory but all feeding into the musical encyclopedia that went by the name of George Percy Grainger. A contemporary standpoint that looks with anger rather than amused bewilderment on his obsession with ‘blue-eyed English’, and the attendant quest for a dictionary purged of words derived from Latin and Greek, might choose to ignore the fact, for instance, that a progressive New York programme he curated in 1925 included handing over the baton to black Canadian composer Nathaniel Dett for a performance of his Negro Folk Song Derivatives alongside works by Hindemith, Schreker and ethnomusicologist-composer Natalie Davis (Memories of New Mexico). The music featured here touches on Grainger’s native Australia, Scotland, Norway, America, Nepal (via the Himalayas rather than the whips included in his collection for the special matrimonial flagellation about which he was so open), France and Germany. The melodies are both others’ – from folk to Bach – and Grainger’s own, often as catchy as the ones he dressed up in unlikely clothing. A lively starting-point in that respect, syncopations and all, is the wind-band version of The Lads of Wamphrey. The title is Walter Scott’s, a piece of unfinished juvenilia from the 1802 collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border about the “noted feud” between the Johnstone and Maxwell families. Grainger’s original setting was for double men’s chorus and orchestra; there has been a lively attempt at a performing version by econstructing it with full choir and soloists by Chalon L. Ragsdale. The March was played for the first time in 1905 by the Band of the Coldstream Guards, and Grieg enthused over it when Grainger played it through to him at his home in Troldhaugen, not long before the Norwegian composer’s death, in 1907. Nearly three decades later, Grainger made another version of it for the annual Grand Concert and Convention of the American Band Masters’ Association in Milwaukee, writing out all the band parts himself. Why the Scottish subject, though? Possibly because of a three-day walking trip the 18-year old Grainger took in West Argyllshire on a holiday from the rigours of Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatorium (a preciociously brilliant pianist who went on to become one of the world’s best, Grainger’s Melbourne recital two days short of his 13th birthday funded the travel and the study). Certainly he described the discovery of Scottish landscape, people and bagpipes as the most important single experience of his life – though this may have been typical hyperbole – and raised his impressions to the highest form of musical art in his two Hill Songs (where he was careful to bring in the influence of Himalayan ‘hill-men’ too). The format of The Lads of Wamphrey March reflects the changing moods of the ballad and is typical for Grainger, a mix of rondo form with contrasting episodes and variations, ever more harmonically adventurous, on the main theme. In the title of Grainger’s most original folk-song collection, Lincolnshire Posy, he was perhaps recalling the garden he cultivated of weeds as a youth in Melbourne. He dedicated this ‘bunch of wildflowers’ to ‘the singers who sang so sweetly to me’ around Lincolnshire in 1905-6 – the recordings he made are lodged in the National Sound Archive, some released on CD – and in a long introductory note to the score which amounts to an essay, lavished attention on the ‘acquaintances pictured within’ (for each number, he wrote, is a kind of portrait). As character-studies or simple folk-song variations, these are surprisingly complex pieces, several of them beyond the abilities of the players at that same 1937 American Band Convention for which he tailored The Lads of Wamphrey; they were, Grainger wryly noted, ‘keener on their beer than on their music’. ‘Dublin Bay (Lisbon)’ was sung for him by Mr Deane of the workhouse in Brigg, who broke down at first but was encouraged to continue when Grainger returned with recordings of other versions. Starting brightly in triads, it neatly counterpoints in one of the variations ‘The Duke of Marlborough’s Fanfare’. ‘Horkstow Grange’, originally delivered by Mr George Gouldsthorpe of Goxhill, starts nobly with horn-tones but becomes increasingly more dissonant and elegiac, reflecting the ballad which was originally subtitled ‘The Miser and his Man – a local Tragedy’. Most original in terms of sonorities is ‘Rufford Park Poachers’, perhaps to reflect the singular character of Joseph Taylor, celebrated for the rendition of ‘Brigg Fair’ which inspired not only Grainger but also Butterworth and Delius. ‘The Brisk Young Sailor’ is more straightforward until its surprise conclusion; one Mrs Thompson originally sang it to Grainger in Barrow-on-Humber. Rhythmically the most complex, harking back to the constant metre-changes of the Hill Songs – composed some years before The Rite of Spring, which Grainger claimed not to have heard live until a Bernstein concert in 1958 – is ‘Lord Melbourne’; it starts in ‘free time’ (ie no barlines) and then reverts to changing bar-signatures. Grainger was grateful for venturing into a Brigg pub, ‘a smelly, evil place’ to hear Mr George Wray sing it on 28 July 1906. A regular lilting waltz for buoyant conclusion is ‘The Lost Lady Found’. Though he recorded Mr Fred Atkinson of Redbourne singing it in 1905. Grainger preferred to dedicate it to Lucy E Broadwood. The editor at one point of the Folk Song Society Journal, which published a selection of Grainger’s 77-strong folk-song collection, Ms Broadwood remembered her Lincolnshire nurse singing it to her.
– David Nice, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra
ANTON BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, ‘Romantic’
The title ‘Romantic’ hasn’t always been included in concert programmes, but it was Bruckner’s own choice, emblazoned on the title page of the manuscript in his finest calligraphy. The music does have an extraordinary power to evoke moods or mental pictures. The opening – solo horn calls sounding through quietly shimmering string tremolandos – is one of the most magical beginnings to a symphony in the entire repertoire. As the high woodwind take up this theme there are echoes of the once hugely popular Ave Maria by Gounod-Bach, which the devoutly Roman Catholic Bruckner would almost certainly have known and possibly accompanied on the organ. (He was an outstanding organist.) From the horn theme, through the long crescendo to the arrival of the second main theme on massed brass, the music flows forward like a great river – the sense of confidence is even stronger in this version than in the original 1874 score. Bruckner may allow himself pauses for breath or reflection, but the steady momentum continues. The horn theme returns twice in its original form: once with a touchingly simple countermelody on flute, and again at the very end of the movement, where it sounds out thrillingly on all four horns in unison – another improvement on the original, where this is lacking. Unlike many of Bruckner’s slow movements, the Andante, quasi Allegretto has something of the character of a sombre processional, perhaps a funeral march. Yet this is played out against a very different kind of background. It might help to think of a huge, spacious Central European forest. This feeling of immense shadowy space is enhanced by the second theme: violas singing long, calm phrases through quiet pizzicato (plucked) string chords. There are moments of mesmerising stillness, with woodwind and horns calling to each other like birdsong. Eventually this movement builds to a magnificent climax, but the splendour fades, and we are left with the march rhythm on timpani, with lamenting phrases on horn, viola and clarinet. The rapid Scherzo is an unmistakable hunting scene, with thrilling horn and trumpet calls, though there’s something almost cosmic about this music, as though the horses were careering across the skies rather than pounding the earth. Maximum contrast is offered by the central Trio section: a lazily contented Ländler (the country cousin of the sophisticated Viennese waltz) introduced by oboe and clarinet. In his younger days, before he moved to Vienna, Bruckner had augmented his meagre teacher’s income by playing in village bands, and the experience left a deep imprint on his symphonic music. Now begins the longest and most exploratory of the four movements, the Finale. Bruckner told how the main theme came to him in a dream, played by a friend, the conductor Ignaz Dorn: ‘Dorn appeared to me … and said, ‘The first three movements of the Romantic (Fourth) Symphony are ready, and we’ll soon find the theme for the fourth. Go to the piano and play it for me. I was so excited I woke up, leaped out of bed and wrote the theme down, just as I’d heard it from him.’ This must be the elemental unison theme for full orchestra that enters at the height of the first crescendo. Strikingly, this is one of the few things that remains unchanged in the two major revisions Bruckner made of this movement – clearly Dorn’s gift had to be respected. Arriving at the final form of the Finale caused Bruckner a lot of trouble, and there is evidence that he wasn’t satisfied even after he’d completed this second full revision. It isn’t easy to grasp on one hearing, but unlike some other editors, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs has maintained absolute faith in Bruckner’s written instructions. The final long crescendo, beginning in mysterious minor-key darkness, is one of Bruckner’s most thrilling symphonic summations, as though the finale’s riddles and enigmas had finally been explained. – Stephen Johnson, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra

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