Gustav Holst (1874–1934) was a petite maître with a strong streak of mysticism. He could set words, often from medieval poetry, with the beauty of a jeweler. His most famous work, The Planets, was the musical Star Wars of its time, and continues to be so popular that it has eclipsed the rest ofHolst’s substantial oeuvre. He was justifiably irked at the neglect of his other works, most ofwhich do not approach the sonic spectacle and opulent orchestral effects of The Planets. Anyone disposed to dismiss Holst as a brilliant but shallow showman should explore his moving settings ofmedieval religious love poetry. His Four Songs for Voice and Violin, op. 35, and the part-song for unaccompanied voices, This Have I Done For My True Love, op. 34, deal in a simple and unadorned way with deep and passionate Christian experiences and truths. The antithesis of the sonic blockbuster, these gentle songs have a heartrending beauty.
This Have I Done is the title composition in a wonderful Hyperion collection of Holst part-songs that includes other gems such as Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; Terly Terlow; and Lullay My Liking. The text to the title song has Christ speaking to us in the first person of his coming crucifixion: ‘‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.’’ Christ refers to each of his sufferings as attempts ‘‘to call my true love [man] to the dance’’. I defy anyone to read this text, much less hear it sung in Holst’s incomparable setting, and not be moved to tears by it. A second Hyperion CD features Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, more part-songs and the 2109 Six Choruses, op. 53 (which includes Good Friday).
One of my most cherished Holst LPs has finally been reissued on CD by Decca Eloquence (480 2328). It contains: Four Songs for Voice and Violin; This have I done for my true love; Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; Two Carols; a short chamber music piece; and several choral works. These exquisitely set, intimate love poems to either Christ or Mary are like medieval ivory miniatures in sound. Disarmingly simple, the songs are ineffably moving. The Four Songs—‘‘Jesu Sweet, now will I sing’’; ‘‘My soul has nought but fire and ice’’; ‘‘I sing of a maiden’’; and ‘‘My Leman is so true’’—are given definitive performances by Sir Peter Pears and violinist Norbert Brainin.
I have often wondered what sort of music one would dare to play at the foot of the Cross or at the empty tomb. Holst gave his answer in his heartrending part-song, ‘‘This have I done for my true love’’. The words, spoken by Christ, by themselves are enough to pierce the heart. Here’s a sample:
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.
I would my true love did so chance.
To see the legend ofmy play
To call my true love to the dance.
Refrain: Sing oh my love, oh my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.
When on the cross hanged I was,
When a spear to my heart did glance,
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to the dance.
These words, combined with Holst’s early 20th-century music, make for one of the finest expressions of Christian culture that I have ever encountered. I cannot imagine a more moving performance than this one by The Purcell Singers, under the composer’s daughter, Imogen Holst.
On a larger scale, Holst matches his religious ardor with full orchestral resources ofThe Planets in The Hymn to Jesus. Even when he goes full bore, Holst never loses his sense of delicacy, but he uses everything to reach for the transcendent in this stunning music. It is marvelously matched on Chandos with The Cloud Messenger, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under Richard Hickox (Chandos 8901).
What are you doing after age 80? Probably planning to slow down
a bit? Havergal Brian (1876–1972) didn’t; he proceeded to write 21
symphonies (out of a total of 32) in a great octa- and nonagenarian outburst
of creative energy. His influence cannot be counted in any wave
of the English musical Renaissance because he was usually overlooked
by his contemporaries. For example, his mammoth, almost two-hour
long Gothic Symphony, written in 1919, had to wait until 1961 for its
first performance, though it has now received what is considered its
definitive recording on the Hyperion label, with the London Symphony
Chorus, Brighton Festival Chorus, and Huddersfield Choral Society,
under conductor Martyn Brabbins (67971). A four-hour choral work
based on an epic by Shelley was simply lost. Undeterred by neglect and
indifference, this largely self-taught composer and former carpenter’s
apprentice must be accounted as one of the great English eccentrics. I
shall forever love this man for having told a Gramophone interviewer,
who had gently inquired into the issue of mortality after Brian had
turned 90, ‘‘I can’t die. I just bought a new pair of trousers.’’
Brian began by composingmonumental orchestral canvases, but over
the years. His works became increasingly compressed, concise, volcanic:
fewer words to say more. Always tonal, his work nevertheless
has a wildness and originality. It is all the more startling because of its
traditional syntax: it is the true strangeness of the familiar. Far into the
20th century, Brian was mixing new, sometimes violently contrasted
sounds from an orchestral palette that most others had abandoned as
exhausted. He proved it was as unexhausted as his own spirit.
For instance, his Symphony no. 4 (1933) is a choral Symphony titled
Das Siegeslied (Psalm ofVictory, Psalm 67 in the Douay Bible) and
its shares in the expansive nature of his earlier works. English critic
Harold Truscott has opined ‘‘that it is one of the greatest choral works
in the whole English choral tradition, I have no doubt. It has an astounding
variety of expression, and it is as masterly in the delicacy of
its writing as in the massive treatment of the full resources.’’ The ‘‘full
resources’’ of this Symphony, are such that one’s house would require
reinforcement if the digital recording of it were played at full force.
The Symphony begins with what sounds like pomp and circumstance
music for a royal celebration, but quickly goes its own eruptive way
The majority of Brian’s symphonies are now available, mostly from
Marco Polo and Naxos, including a more than respectable version of
the Gothic Symphony, at budget price (Naxos 8557418-19). So
the intrepid Toccata Classics label is bringing out a series of Brian’s
orchestral music, the first two volumes of which are now available
in excellent performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra,
under conductor Gary Walker. Volume 1 contains a very substantial
Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903), written partially in
response to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and in the works. Volume 2, titled
Orchestral Music from the Operas, has substantial excerpts from four
of Brian’s five operas, all of them yet to be staged. What can one say
of this music other than that it is completely unique combination of
the archaic and the radical, which is what makes it so interesting and
intriguing? Brian employed traditional means in nontraditional ways.
If that seems enigmatic, it’s supposed to. The music can sound more or
less normal for some stretches and then, all of a sudden, arrest you with
a startling abruptness or an eruptive outburst of power that leave you
wondering what just happened. With concentrated power, the music
occasionally congeals into giant exclamation points. The element of
surprise is part of the great fun in listening to Brian. I can’t think of a
better place to start than this Toccata Classics series.
William Alwyn (1905–1985) was one of the ambidextrous British composers
of the 20th century who could write both excellent concert music
and splendid film scores. Think Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, and
Vaughn Williams. On the concert side, the Naxos label issued three
CDs containing Alwyn’s five symphonies, plus his Harp Concerto and
Sinfonietta, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra, under
David Lloyd-Jones. His first two symphonies are a bit discursive, but
demonstrate Alwyn’s bold, rambunctious, romantic style. These are
works of real sprit and passionate drama. The last three symphonies
are superb. The Third draws heavily on Gustav Holst in its riveting intensity
and telegraphic urgency (Naxos 8.557648, coupled with Symphony
- 1). It is very close in stature to William Walton’s great
Symphony no 1. The Harp Concerto, subtitled Lyra Angelica (Angel’s
Song), is about as lovely as harp music gets, and ranks with William
Mathias’ Harp Concerto as one ofthe finest ofthe 20th century (Naxos
8.557647, coupled with Symphonies nos. 2 and 5). All of this music is
directly communicative in what Alwyn called his ‘‘steadfast adherence
to the basic essentials of tonality and melody’’. There is competition
in this repertory from the fine recordings on the Chandos label, but
they cost almost twice as much.
Alwyn was also a great film composer (for some 200 movies, the
most recent ofwhich I have seen is Carve Her Name with Pride, which
has a magnificent score),whose music is rich, lyrical, and colorful. The
Chandos label released three volumes ofAlwyn film scores, which offer
substantial tracks from, among others, I Accuse, Odd Man Out, The
Rocking Horse Winner, A Night to Remember, The Crimson Pirate, Desert
Victory, and The Fallen Idol (Chandos, 9243, 9959, 10349). That some
of these are great films is in no small part due to Alwyn’s contribution
After having recorded his complete symphonies and a good deal of
his chamber music, Naxos also gives us Alwyn’s early Violin Concerto,
which, for some mysterious reason, was rejected for performance by
the BBC. It was never performed in his lifetime. But it is never too late,
as you will hear in this gloriously rhapsodic piece, beautifully played
by violinist Lorraine McAslan with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Orchestra, under David Lloyd-Jones (8.570705). It is accompanied by
an attractive suite from the Alwyn opera, Miss Julie.
Another Naxos Alwyn CD (8.572425) contains six chamber works,
composed between 1934 and 1962, including sonatas for clarinet, oboe,
and viola. This is all expertly made music in a variety of styles, from
the highly lyrical to the slightly astringent. I think they are all gems.
This is a mandatory purchase for anyone who has been followed the
outstanding Naxos Alwyn series.
So, too, are the the String Quartets nos. 1–3, with the Maggini
Quartet (Naxos 8.570560). This is, at times, very touching music. Try
the exquisite delicacy of the adagio in the First Quartet for a sample
of the quality. Again, one can only be astounded that music this good
has been overlooked for so long. The Maggini Quartet has done a
number of English string quartet recordings for Naxos, and they are
all first-rate. This is one of the best of them.
Toccata Press has published Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his
Art, which lets us hear directly from the composer on what he thought
he was doing and how he did it so well. It contains an autobiographical
essay, diary entries, and perceptive essays on other composers and on
I was completely blown away by the Violin Concerto by Lionel Sainsbury
(b. 1958), on a Dutton CD (CDLX7245), with violinist Lorraine
McAslan and the BBC Concert Orchestra, under Barry Wordsworth.
After listening some six times, completely addicted to the main theme,
I finally looked at the CD jacket cover and was shocked to discover
that this melodic, syncopated charmer was written in 1989—and not
in the 1930s or 1940s where I had placed it. It sounds like William
Walton at his most rhapsodic. If you want your spirits lifted and your
heart warmed, here is the work to do it. Anyone who loves British
music will find in this piece a reason to fall in love with it all over
again. Gorgeous playing by all concerned.
A Google alert brought my review of the Violin Concerto to Sainsbury’s
attention and he sent a note thanking me. I then told him I
would be in London and, voila, we met! Sainsbury told me that he,
too, had gone through a period of writing modern-style music that was
not his, but then he encountered the melodic warmth of Samuel Barber
and William Walton and found his own voice. He also remarked,
‘‘Sibelius is a huge influence on me.’’ Of his general orientation, he
said, ‘‘It’s about emotion. I’d rather not write anything at all than write
something without feeling.’’
If that sounds appealing, you will be anxious to listen to the Dutton
release of Sainsbury’s Cello Concerto, with cellist Rafael Wallfisch and
the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates. I wondered
if it would meet the high standards of the violin work. The verdict is
in: it does. This is another open-hearted, totally accessible, and immensely
appealing composition. Few composers anchor what they do
so completely in gorgeous melody. Sainsbury sets up an exclamatory,
endearing theme and then discourses upon it in a way that does not
tire. The results, animated by an energetic rhythmic pulse, are exhilarating.
There is something unabashed about this music in its emotional
directness—a kind of joyful innocence, a generosity of spirit. The final
allegro dances off in a spirited jig. Wallfisch digs in, partnered by the
Royal Scottish forces. It is no small attraction that the Sainsbury work
is accompanied by the John Foulds Cello Concerto (CDLX 7284). If
you wish to dispel gloom, to be stirred in your heart, to move to music
—even if you are sitting in your chair—try the Sainsbury concertos.