BAINTON: Symphony No. 3 in c minor. BOUGHTON: Symphony No.
Roderick Williams (baritone)*; BBC Concert Orchestra/ Vernon Handley.
Dutton CDLX 7185 (F) (DDD) TT: 79:26
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The number of Twentieth-Century British composers who keep coming up through
the cracks astonishes me. You have, of course, the Mighty Five -- Elgar,
Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett -- and a very deep bench.
You can't really call most of the also-rans the second string, based on
quality alone. Not even Elgar wrote a choral work any better than Parry's
Blest Pair of Sirens. Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold have nothing to
apologize for as symphonists. And then you find treasures among the really obscure: Arnold Cooke, Franz Reizenstein, Matyas Seiber, Elizabeth Lutyens,
John Hawkins, John Foulds, John Gardner, Richard Arnell, Cecil Armstrong
Gibbs, Nicola LeFanu, and even Madeline Dring.
A pupil of Stanford, Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) began as a composing prodigy,
becoming a professor of composition at twenty-one. I knew his choral music,
written in an expert Edwardian style, much like the slightly older Edward
Bairstow, with a keen sense of vocal color and the ability to write long
musical paragraphs, not always easy to do in choral music. I had no idea
he wrote instrumental music or music outside the church, but it doesn't
really surprise me, since the choral music tends to move symphonically.
The Third Symphony, begun in 1952, doesn't sound all that much different
from Stanford. Where those like Holst and Vaughan Williams felt the need
to get away from Stanford in order to find their own voices and in the
process became two prominent shapers of British Modernism, Bainton pretty
much accepted Stanford's post-Brahms idiom. A few dissonances that might
have upset his teacher get through in this symphony, but the musical bones
are pure Nineteenth Century.
Nevertheless, you would make a mistake dismissing Bainton as merely derivative.
He has stuff of his own to say, but he can express himself in a received
language. The third symphony sings with adult psychology and presents unusual
architectural features as well.
The first movement begins with what sounds like the standard classical
slow introduction followed by an allegro. As it proceeds, however,
one realizes that these two things in reality comprise sort of a "first
subject" group. Yet, the drama is what's really interesting. The
slow part drags the music into a funk when it appears, while the quick
tries to rouse itself. About half-way through the movement, a serene
pentatonic tune appears. Indeed, it emerges at various points throughout
symphony like a gold thread in a tapestry. Here, it serves as a fulcrum
between the previous Sturm und Drang and a scherzo, which, by the way,
incorporates the tune as part of its material. Thus, the composer splits
the movement in half, and you wonder why. The scherzo comes across
as more sardonic than jolly. Emotionally, it connects more to the first
the movement than to the transition.
The second movement is a Brahmsian allegretto, but without the pastoral
qualities of Brahms in that genre. It's uneasy in its tone, and the brief
appearance of the pentatonic tune does little to dispel the gloom.
Bainton had written the first two movements and had started the third when
his wife died. Too depressed to go on, he laid the work aside for a long
time. Eventually, friends and family kept badgering him to finish, and
one friend actually announced in a journal that Bainton would have the
symphony ready for performance. This got the composer going again.
The slow third movement, my favorite in the symphony, became a threnody
to the composer's wife. Terrifically understated, the main theme shares
certain musical topoi with the funeral march without necessarily becoming
one, although it temporarily morphs in and out. Regret and private (not
public) grief more than anything else, dominate the movement, as if the
composer ruminated on the loss of a beautiful life. Bainton works so quietly
here that any rise in dynamic becomes significant all out of proportion
to its actual volume. About three minutes before the end, the pentatonic
theme slips in, and the music radiantly transforms so that movement ends
with great tenderness.
The third movement begins pentatonically, with affinities to Bax in the
Twenties, and indeed seems to subject earlier ideas to a pentatonic template,
as if to calm the emotional disturbances the composer has raised. It certainly
solves the problem of what to do after the slow movement. It's no cheat.
Bainton has found a musical metaphor for resolution, in the symphony's
own terms, no small accomplishment.
Rutland Boughton (1878-1960), an altogether more flamboyant personality
than Bainton, also studied with Stanford, but he mainly took Stanford's
opera route. He established a festival at Glastonbury in the early
part of the Twentieth Century, modeled after Bayreuth and based largely
Boughton's cycle of operas on the Arthurian legends, at a time when
was in a fairly parlous state. Indeed, one could argue that opera didn't
become really viable in England until the Forties, after the war. Nevertheless,
Boughton attracted significant support, including Elgar, Beecham, Holst,
and Shaw, who wrote rave pieces praising the composer as the English
Wagner. Ironically, the composer's greatest operatic success, Bethlehem (1915),
caused the festival's collapse. Boughton put on a London production
it in support of the General Strike of the Twenties, with Jesus born
a miner's shack and Herod as a plutocrat. It became a hit and so frightened
away the necessary money to continue Glastonbury. The composer's reputation
went into eclipse thereafter (his sympathies toward Communism didn't
although he continued to compose in all genres. He continued to have
his champions, notably Holst and Vaughan Williams. The latter remarked
that "In any other country, such a work as The Immortal Hour would
have been in the repertoire years ago."
Fired by Shaw, I sought out The Immortal Hour, Bethlehem, and a bunch of
chamber works. Only Bethlehem really stuck with me. Something rather old-fashioned
about Boughton's sensibility -- a bit like Granville Bantock and the minor
writers of the Celtic Twilight -- kept me away.
Inspired by Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, Boughton's
First Symphony (1905) shows the effects of post-Wagnerian thought on
the symphony. Under Boughton, the symphony becomes a dramatic vehicle,
without a specific program, in five movements: a character study; Cromwell's
letter to his wife, after the Battle of Dunbar; march of the Puritans;
death scene. Boughton goes through the motions in the first movement
of sonata-allegro, but it's really more of a series of riffs mainly
on a "motto-theme" representing
Cromwell himself. Boughton breaks up the theme and goes to town on the
pieces. One thought suggests another and there is, as well, some padding,
although not too much. Boughton's motto has such a distinctive shape that
it can pull the music together when the composer needs to get back on track,
and fortunately he knows when. Filled with lovely, individual chromatic
harmonies, the slow second movement proceeds, again, more with dramatic
than with musical logic. At times, it reminded me of a Korngold score for
Warner Brothers. That is, I could imagine a scene it would accompany and
can see Brenda Marshall on the screen. The Cromwell motto appears at least
twice, variously transformed. For me, its best feature is its imaginative
scoring, particularly toward the end, when violin and cello soloists duet
against flutes and strings. As far as I care, Boughton could have left
out the third movement, the Puritan march, altogether. He seems on automatic
here. One gets nothing of the invention and depth of Elgar's "Pomp
and Circumstance" marches, for example, from roughly the same
Nevertheless, what I think of as Boughton at his most authentic follows
in the last movement, a setting of Cromwell's last prayer. In some
ways, it suffers from late-Romantic notions of melody -- what Vaughan
called "village curate improvising" -- and it tends to sprawl.
Boughton tries to inject structure into it with several fugato passages,
but the counterpoint is a bit jejeune. Still, Boughton brings off wonderful
passages for the baritone soloist, getting to the meat of Cromwell's words.
However, the frame for the baritone strikes me as too conventional and
not at all felt. Ironically, the "conventional gentleman" Bainton
gives you something stronger than the rebel Boughton.
Both scores receive a strong reading from Vernon Handley. Roderick Williams
sings poetically in the Boughton, with gorgeous, long phrases and with
insight into the text. They make the best case for both composers. If I'm
less enchanted with the Boughton, that may well be my fault.
Dutton has produced a wonderful series dedicated to neglected British music
-- Bowen, Bainton, Arnell, Alan Bush, Cyril Scott, and so on. I also enjoy
the cover art, based on British transport posters. All in all, a project
that shows a lot of care.
S.G.S. (December 2007)