(Malcolm ARNOLD - William BYRD)

(Cage - Elgar)      contents
A member of the "lost generation" of modern British composers -- essentially, a conservative group that began their careers around the end of World War II and that did not employ serial technique. Alwyn composed mainly symphonies, each different from the other. As he put it, he wanted to find different paths to the problem of writing symphonies. They are masterful works. convincing and assured. Richard Hickox has recorded the set for Chandos, as well as other works like "Lyra angelica," a beautiful harp concerto.

Guitar Concerto. For once, a guitar concerto that doesn't rip off Spanish idioms. Lively, with a great sense of forward motion. A classic recording by Julian Bream. A new CD by Eduardo Fernandez.

Music for strings, trumpet, and percussion. Rowicki conducted this on LP. A substantial work, obviously (to me) influenced by Bartók, and right up there with the best of the century.

The cantatas, despite their importance, are not all that well known, probably because of their sheer numbers. The ones that send goosebumps up my arm are nos. 1, 4, 10, 21, 50, and 106. We can also say the same thing for the motets. To me, the best recordings of these are by John Eliot Gardiner. I have the LP set, but I don't know if they released the performances on CD. English Suite No. 2 in a -- a powerful piece, one of my all-time favorite solo keyboard works. I prefer it on piano or at least I've preferred the pianists to the harpsichordists I've heard. My first choice is by Gianoli, if you can find it. Other good performances are by de Larrocha and Schiff.

The piano concerto, especially if you can get Browning conducted by Szell. Barber at his most advanced. I've heard this piece disparaged, but the reasons seem specious. A high level of melodic inspiration, even in a dissonant idiom, a striving, heroic first movement. The second movement is one of those things so beautiful that I have to remind myself to breathe. A headlong rush of a third movement. 3 Reincarnations to poems by James Stephens. The poems aren't much and to me demonstrate that great settings don't need great lyrics. The writing for a cappella chorus is impeccable, the harmonies powerful, the final melody again heart-stoppingly beautiful. Finally, the intermezzo to Act IV of his opera Vanessa -- a melody that just goes on and on gorgeously.

Cantata profana. I just bought the CD. Exciting work for chorus and orchestra. In many ways, the vocal equivalent of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.

Bax considered himself, quite rightly, a Romantic. Writing music was for him an expression of states of feeling. In his early career, he became entranced with the Celtic Twilight, to the extent of writing in an Irish vein under the nom de plume Dermot O'Brynne. His early tone poems (and his most popular works) Tintagel and The Garden of Fand are based on Celtic subjects. I find them well-written, but uninteresting. However, in the Twenties, Bax began a fine series of symphonies -- cogently argued with great craft and in a more modern idiom. His concerti (for piano, cello, and violin) also bear a look. None of these works are that well-known, although they keep attracting champions and recordings, which at least hints at their power.

Settings of Irish folk songs for violin, cello, piano, and voice. Jewels from a composer whose solo vocal output has been mostly deservedly neglected. The Elegiac Song, Op. 118 for chorus and string quartet. The choral equivalent of the slow movement to the Ninth. Noble, profound.

A British modernist, slightly older than Walton, Arthur Benjamin has dropped almost completely out of the Schwann/Opus catalogue. He is best known for the orchestral bonbon Jamaican Rumba. However, he has substance as well. Be on the lookout for the Concerto quasi una fantasia for piano and orchestra, the piano concertino, and the Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola, and orchestra. Heifetz and Primrose recorded the last in the early stereo era. "Romantic" describes it well.

Violin concerto. An American composer whose work doesn't get all that much play. Absolutely individual in idiom, although conservative--it really doesn't sound like anyone else. Though somewhat dissonant, lyrical.

Lennox, not to be confused with his son Michael. A British student of Nadia Boulanger (who numbered among her pupils Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Jean Françaix, and many, many others), and thus a rarity. Boulanger's impact was far greater in the United States than in Britain, which tended to teach its own. Berkeley begins, not surprisingly, in an attractive Stravinskian, neo-classic vein and later moves to something at once less distinctive and more personal. Highpoints of his output include 4 Ronsard Sonnets for tenor and small orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante, Divertimento in B-flat, Mass for 5 Voices, Partita, Serenade for Strings, and a Sinfonietta. His best-known work is ironically a collaboration with Benjamin Britten called Mont Juic, on Spanish themes. He also wrote three symphonies, which show his career at various stages--all well-written, but not particularly memorable.

Folk Songs. No, not the Berio you love to hate. A very early work written for Cathy Berberian. Tonal. Beautiful instrumentation. In very artful settings, he manages to remind you that these songs come from people without pretence or artistic ambition. He doesn't violate the essential simplicity of these songs.

Les Nuits d'Été. Not all that obscure, except by the shopping mall criterion. Exquisite is the word that comes to mind.

A genuine British eccentric, Berners allied himself with Surrealism between the wars. His ballet The Triumph of Neptune featured a baritone in his bath warbling "The Last Rose of Summer." In musical style, he comes closest to the American Virgil Thomson, possibly because they both share the influence of Satie. Most of Berners's works have a loopy wit. His Fantaisie espagnole sends up the Franco-Iberian school of Debussy, Ravel, and Falla. His Fugue for Orchestra quickly runs down to non-fugue, after an impressive beginning. However, he could play it reasonably straight as well. His music for the British film Nicholas Nickleby has great charm.

Lenny? Obscure? How he would have hated that. Nevertheless, outside of his theater pieces, how many people know at least his first two symphonies? Very original thinking. You'll hear adumbrations of later show tunes in them too. Also, I highly recommend Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, a piece for jazz ensemble. To me, the most successful marriage of jazz and the symphonic idiom. It ends with an incredibly exciting "written-out" jam session -- a contradiction in terms, but under the composer's baton, thoroughly convincing and overwhelming. Choruses from "The Lark." The music was written for Lillian Hellman's translation of the Jean Anouilh play. More or less a cappella, with a very discreet dose of bells and drums. A departure from the "New York" Lenny. If he had been willing to starve, I'm convinced he would have been as good as we've ever had.

A colonial American composer who wrote in the "Fuguing" tradition of New England. A lot of his stuff turns up in the shape-note collections of choral church music. Rough, vigorous, and wonderful. Gregg Smith released a magnificent LP. If you find any Billings, grab it. Then tell me.

In the 1920s, Bliss was a Great Hope of British music, but he was soon eclipsed (as was practically everyone else) by Vaughan Williams in his modernist phase, Walton, and especially the young Britten. His early compositions show an original turn of thought: a Colour Symphony, the oratorio Morning Heroes, with extended sections for percussion and speaker, and a concerto for tenor, percussion, and chamber ensemble. It soon became clear, however, that Bliss would break no new ground. Indeed, he became Master of the Queen's Music (replacing Arnold Bax) and was knighted. Beyond Morning Heroes, I can't find an outstanding work in his catalogue, but there are several nice ones, including a virtuoso piano concerto, a rhythmically vital Melée fantasque, and a lovely Meditations on a Theme of John Blow.

The Cradle Will Rock. A '30s opera about strike-breaking and union organizing. Obviously influenced by Weill and Brecht, Blitzstein nevertheless created an idiom that successfully married Weill with American pop. It's his own. Wonderful lyrics, a sharp satiric sense. If, however, left-wing agit-prop distresses you (as opposed to right-wing agit-prop), save your money.

Absolutely underrated. At his best, one of the greatest ever. Here's someone who knows how to take deep breaths and control epic notions with a technique of steel. These days, almost everything but Schelomo is obscure. I recommend the string quartets (which Sessions ranked with Beethoven's), the piano quintets, the Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh, the Bernstein recording is the only one worth bothering with), the violin concerto (strong, powerful), the concerti grossi, the violin sonatas, the Sinfonia Breve, the Suite Hébraïque for violin and orchestra.

Symphony #2 in b. Sort of the symphony equivalent of the Grieg piano concerto. Smashing tunes.

The a cappella motets. The greatest in the genre since Bach. Also, if you can find it, the Geistliches Lied for chorus and organ. It sounds like a Mendelssohn Song without Words, then you realize it's a double canon at the ninth (as I recall).

A major British symphonist. However, Havergal Brian's music is in danger of being overwhelmed by the story of his career. Born working-class, he somehow learned enough music to become a fully-professional composer. Unfortunately, he had few contacts, and his music, particularly the "Gothic" Symphony (No. 1), scared off impresarios by the immense forces it demanded (a complete Te Deum is just one of its movements). Brian deserved this reputation far less than Mahler or Strauss. He was willing and able to write pieces of "normal" length for modest forces. For most of his career, he was a "composer's composer," taken up by, among others, Vaughan Williams. Still, he remained very little known to the general public until the 1970s, almost at the end of his life, when the symphonist Robert Simpson began to successfully proselytize in articles and arrange for concerts and recordings, mainly of the symphonies. Brian has a large catalogue yet to be heard, including over thirty symphonies (at least twenty written after he reached 70), operas, and other orchestral pieces. Aside from powerful music, listeners discovered a fascinating "what if." Brian, like Mahler, creates his own galaxy of musical imagery, but he is isolated in his influence due to the fact that his music simply wasn't played enough. The "Gothic" Symphony is a major work, but so are all his symphonies. Of those I've heard, I'm particularly drawn to Nos. 6, 21, and 22 ("Sinfonia Breve"), a heady musical concentrate in which much happens in a short time. I keep alert for announcements of première recordings.

A cruel joke runs, "Bridge's best work is Benjamin Britten." Britten himself considered Bridge his principal teacher and worked hard to promote his music, not entirely out of sentiment, for the music is quite fine. I view Bridge's career in two phases. The first, strongly influenced by Debussy, resulted in pretty pictures like the tone poems Enter Spring, The Sea, and Summer. However, in the Twenties, Bridge became attracted to the music of Schoenberg. This toughened his own music and made his ideas more incisive, especially in his third and fourth string quartets and in Phantasm for piano and orchestra, a rare example of Expressionism in British music.

The choral music. Rejoice in the Lamb, a masterpiece to an incredible poem by the mad 18th-century poet Christopher Smart. The poem tells of how all creation praises God, including a mouse and the poet's cat Geoffry. Britten captures every quirky move in music of such beauty that the quirks disappear. It's amazing how atheist artists seem to capture true religious feeling like few others. Cantata academica, which starts off with absolutely blazing fanfares IN STRETTO -- other than knowing the occasion of the piece (the founding of the University of Basle), I have no idea what the text means without looking at the score (it's in university Latin), but an alive bit of business. Noye's Fludde, based on the Chester miracle play: Les Noces comes to England, except it's a lot warmer than Stravinsky. Innovative orchestration mixes professionals and amateurs. As usual Britten writes non-patronizingly and imaginatively for children. Tremendously effective use of traditional hymn tunes. Also the Courtly Dances and Choral Dances from Gloriana. This is probably the least-performed Britten opera. I was lucky to see a live performance at Sadler's Wells in the 70s. If you know nothing about Elizabethan music, the drama alone will catch you. If Morley, Wilbye, Weelkes, Tallis, and Byrd are your meat, you will marvel at the unique evocation of this period --in a way quite different from Vaughan Williams, Rubbra, Tippett, or Holst. The opera has never been recorded. These nuggets will have to do. Finally, Ceremony of Carols. It seems to make an appearance only at Christmas, but hands down my favorite Britten work. Not only imaginatively and idiomatically written for chorus, but the way he handles a harp is unusual and finally haunting. Melodically, I don't believe he ever equalled this work.

A hope of British music, killed in World War I. He left too little behind to speculate on potential, but that little reveals a composer with a genuine lyric gift. He never quite freed himself from the influence of Vaughan Williams and that composer's In the Fen Country vein. He left behind short orchestral pieces and songs. My favorites include the cycles Bredon Hill and Six Songs from "A Shropshire Lad", both to Housman texts, and the sweetly-singing Banks of Green Willow and Two English Idylls.

One of the high points of music. Since the choral tradition is in general so little known and recorded, almost everything he wrote is obscure. Beautiful, expressive counterpoint marks all of his work. Look especially at Mass for 4 voices, Mass for 5 voices, the Cantiones Sacrae (Tallis masterpieces are also in this collection), and any motet. A little throwaway, once recorded by the Deller Consort, is "Non nobis Domine." Incredibly beautiful and a 3-part canon with subsequent entries at the 5th and octave. Another wow.

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