Monday, 8 October 2012

Herbert Howells - 1912-1983

Herbert Howells was in born in Lydney, Goucestershire, on 17 October 1892. He was the youngest of eight children and his father, Oliver, owned a building and decorating business – and he played the organ at the Baptist Chapel. It was not a particularly musical family but Howells's parents were sensitive and intelligent people who encouraged their children. By the time he started school, Howells was requesting leave to go home to write music. However, the family had severe financial problems through their father's bankruptcy. Young Herbert had already acquired a reputation locally as a promising musician, and the local squire, Charles Bathurst, arranged for him to have lessons with Herbert Brewer, organist of Gloucester Cathedral. Brewer later accepted Howells as an articled pupil which ensured a thorough grounding in keyboard playing and accompaniment, harmony and counterpoint, and composition.
In 1912 Howells won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music where his teachers included Charles Stanford and Charles Wood. Within a short time Howells had written his 'Mass in the Dorian Mode' which became the first of his works to receive a public performance – at Westminster Cathedral under Richard Terry. The following year his first orchestral work, the Piano Concerto in C minor, was performed under Stanford. Howells was an outstanding student, winning most of the available prizes and being highly regarded by his teachers and his fellow pupils, who included Arthur Benjamin, Arthur Bliss and Ivor Gurney. Other works written while Howells was a student include 'The B's' – an orchestral suite celebrating his RCM friends, 3 Dances for violin and orchestra, 'Lady Audrey's Suite' for string quartet, the Phantasy String Quartet and the Piano Quartet in A minor – the first work to be published by the Carnegie Trust. Howells rarely seemed to stop working and this affected his health to such an extent that when, on leaving the RCM, he was appointed as assistant to W.G. Alcock at Salisbury Cathedral, he was compelled to resign after a few months and rejoin his family in Gloucestershire to recuperate – and to compose. With an improvement in his health, Howells was appointed to teach composition at the RCM, a position he was to hold for nearly sixty years. He was married in 1920 and in addition to teaching and composing, he was very busy as an examiner and as a highly popular adjudicator. New works were heard in London (including the 'Pastoral Rhapsody' for orchestra) and at the Three Choirs Festival ('Sine Nomine' for soloists, chorus and orchestra) and he continued to compose many solo songs and part-songs. In 1931 Howells became the first recipient of the John Collard Fellowship. An Organ Sontata (no.2) and 'A Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song' for soloists, chorus and orchestra appeared in the early 1930s, though the latter was not performed until 1953. In 1935 Howells suffered a personal tragedy through the sudden death of his nine-year-old son, Michael. For many months Howells felt unable to compose but the following year he began work on what was to become his masterpiece, 'Hymnus Paradisi' for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Incorporating some material from a 'Requiem' written in 1932, this was completed in 1938 – in memory of Michael – and first performed at Gloucester in 1950, conducted by the composer. While Howells mourned Michael for the rest of his life, he now composed continually until well into his eighties. Key works include the 'Concerto for String Orchestra' (1938), 'Missa Sabrinensis' (1954), 'An English Mass' (1955) and the 'Stabat Mater' of 1963. Howells wrote church music throughout his life. He set Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis no fewer than twenty times and these settings represent the most significant contribution to the Anglican repertoire of the 20th century. Particularly memorable are the settings for King's College, Cambridge, Gloucester and St Paul's. Howells succeeded Holst as Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School (1936-62) and was King Edward VII Professor of Music in the University of London (1950-64). He stood in for Robin Orr as Organist of St John's College, Cambridge from 1941-1945. He was appointed CBE in 1953 and a Companion of Honour in 1972. Herbert Howells died in London on 23 February 1983.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Serenade to music

I don't normally associate Leonard Bernstein with Vaughan Williams but here he is in a wonderful performance of it. It features Adele Addison, Lucine Amara, Eileen Farrell, sopranos; Lili Chookasian, Jennie Tourel, Shirley Verrett, mezzo-sopranos; Charles Bressler, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers, tenors; and George London, Ezio Flagello, Donald Bell, bass-baritones. Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in a 'live' recording made in 1962.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Michael Tippett 1905 - 1998

Tippett spent his childhood in Wetherden, a small village in Suffolk where his parents moved shortly after he was born. At the age of 13, he won a scholarship to Fettes College in Edinburgh. However, he disliked Fettes, and in 1920 transferred to Stamford Grammar School in Lincolnshire. Aside from piano lessons, Tippett received no musical training in his childhood. Despite this, after leaving Stamford, he expressed an interest in becoming a composer. At first, he decided to train as a professional pianist, staying on at Stamford so that he could continue to study with Frances Tinkler. However, in the summer of 1923 he left to begin study at London's Royal College of Music. While at the RCM, he studied composition with Charles Wood and C.H. Kitson, as well as piano with Aubin Raymar and conducting with Sargent and Boult.

When he left the RCM in 1928, Tippett settled in Oxted, Surrey. In 1929, he asked to teach French part-time at the local preparatory school. Thus began a series of occupations, which gave him money to live on, as well as some freedom to compose. In 1930, he gave a concert of his own works, which he felt highlighted the relative immaturity of his technique. With this in mind, Tippett began to study counterpoint and free composition with R.O. Morris. Soon after completing his lessons with Morris, in July 1932, Tippett was asked to run the music at an annual work camp in north Yorkshire. Musically, these experiences were positive; however, for Tippett, a political leftist, the miserable conditions encountered at the work-camps inspired an even more radical commitment. Eventually, Tippett came to espouse a strictly pacifist viewpoint. He centered his activities for the unemployed in London at Morley College, where in 1933 he was asked to conduct what later became the South London Orchestra, a group formed specifically to give unemployed musicians the opportunity to continue playing. A year later he also began conducting two choirs which were run by the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society. In the summer of 1940 the South London Orchestra was disbanded. In October, after Morley College was almost destroyed in an air raid and the director of music was evacuated from London, Tippett was asked to become director of music. In November 1940, Tippett joined the Peace Pledge Union. After he received his call-up papers he registered as a conscientious objector. His case was heard in 1942, and he was ordered to non-combatant military duties. Tippett refused to comply, believing that he could best serve his country as a musician. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment, but qualified for a one-third remission.

In 1951 Tippett resigned from Morley College. Aside from working as a broadcaster at the BBC, he devoted himself entirely to composition. Tippett was knighted in 1966, and in 1979 he was made a Companion of Honour. He died peacefully at home on January 8, 1998.

Tippett: Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage

Monday, 20 December 2010

Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto 3 Part 2

Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto 3 Part 1

Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto 2

Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto 1

Benjamin Britten: Cello Symphony IV

Benjamin Britten: Cello Symphony III

Benjamin Britten: Cello Symphony II

Benjamin Britten: Cello Symphony 1 part 2

Benjamin Britten: Cello Symphony 1 part 1

A time there was

Benjamin Britten 1913-1976

Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on 22 November 1913. Although he was already composing prolifically from the age of seven, in 1928 lessons were arranged for him with the composer Frank Bridge; two years later he went to the Royal College of Music in London, studying with Arthur Benjamin, Harold Samuel and John Ireland. While still a student, he wrote his ‘official’ Op. 1, the Sinfonietta for chamber ensemble, and the Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio, and in 1936 he composed Our Hunting Fathers, an ambitious song-cycle for soprano and orchestra, which confirmed his virtuosic vocal and instrumental technique. He was already earning his living as a composer, having joined the GPO (Post Office) Film Unit the previous year; the collaboration he began there with the poet W. H. Auden was to prove an important one for several years. In 1937, he first met the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he entered into the lifelong personal and creative partnership that was to become a major inspiration for his music.

Five months before the outbreak of World War Two, Britten and Pears travelled to the United States and stayed there for three years, returning to Britain in 1942. In America Britten wrote a number of important works, among them the Violin Concerto, the song-cycle Les Illuminations for high voice and strings, and the orchestral Sinfonia da Requiem. With the operetta Paul Bunyan he also made his first essay in a genre that would be particularly important to him. Back in England, where as conscientious objectors both men were excused military service, Britten began work on the opera that would establish him as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation – Peter Grimes, premiered to an ecstatic audience reaction on 7 June 1945 with Pears in the title role.

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell – a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire – was first performed in the following year. Britten now composed one major work after another, contributing significantly to symphonic, chamber and choral music but in particular to opera, through The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953), The Turn of the Screw (1954), Noye’s Fludde (1957), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (1970–71) to Death in Venice (1971–73), an operatic swansong summing up the conflict of innocence and corruption that obsessed him all his life. It is dedicated to Pears, who created the role of Aschenbach.

The importance of Britten and Pears in post-War British cultural life was enhanced by their involvement in the founding of the English Opera Group in 1946 and the Aldeburgh Festival two years later. Britten’s career as a composer was matched by his outstanding ability as a performer: he was a refined accompanist, especially in his partnership with Pears, and a fluent and authoritative conductor – his interpretations of Mozart were particularly highly esteemed.

All his life Britten suffered bouts of ill health and in 1973 he underwent open-heart surgery from which he never fully recovered. He died on 4 December 1976, at the age of 63, a few months after being created a life peer – the first composer ever to receive that honour.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Songs from the Shropshire Lad 1

George Butterworth 1885-1916

George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in London on July 12th, 1885 to a well-to-do family.  His father, Sir Alexander Butterworth was a solicitor and later General Manager of the North Eastern Railway, headquartered in York, where George grew up before going to school at Eton. His musical talent as a composer was already apparent while at Eton.  In 1904 he went up to Trinity College, Oxford to read Greats but found that music became more and more important to him, especially after meeting up with Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  After Oxford, he taught for a year at Radley, then studied for a short time at the Royal College of Music, then concentrated more or less full time on collecting folk songs, sometimes with Vaughan Williams.

On the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914, he quickly joined the Durham Light Infantry as a Lieutenant in the 13th Battalion.  During his year in the trenches, he was "mentioned in dispatches" for outstanding courage, won the Military Cross for his defence of a trench that was subsequently named for him, and led a raid during the Battle of the Somme.  The raid was successful but Butterworth was killed by a sniper's bullet.  It was August 5th, 1916.  His memorial is at Thiepval.

His music is of the very highest quality and at the same time extremely simple and sparing.  His own standards were so exacting that he destroyed those of his scores which he deemed unworthy before setting out for France. His teachers included Thomas Dunhill (while at Eton), Christian Padel in York, and Hubert Parry who was director of the Royal College of Music while Butterworth was there.

Although just about every English composer of the time attempted some settings of the poems of A. E. Housman (1859-1936), none caught the essence of the poetry like Butterworth – and no other composer is quite so associated with these poems, especially A Shropshire Lad (published in 1896).  As well as having a recurrent death wish theme, many of Housman's poems return to the senselessness of war and the arbitrariness of who would return and who would not.  Although it was the Boer war that was the main subject of such poems, WWI brought new force to the agony of these lines.  It is with almost fatalistic irony (only too common in the world of the arts – for example Pushkin foretelling his own death in Eugene Onegin) that we note that Housman would long outlive these young men, particularly his greatest musical interpreter: Butterworth.  It is no exaggeration to say that the Somme robbed us of the most promising composer of his generation.

The Banks of the Green Willow