(Review of the Recital with Eric McElroy, Piano and Joe Chu-Yu Yang, Violin on Friday, 7 October 2022 in the Residence of the British Ambassador.)
By Wolfgang Geissler
Eric McElroy is no stranger to us. Four years ago, on 19th March 2018, we enjoyed a Piano Recital at the British Embassy entitled “The Slaughter of the Times: English Piano Music and the First World War”, which was thus introduced to us:
In the early twentieth century, England witnessed a proliferation of musical composition, which established a distinctly English style and repertoire for the first time since the Renaissance. The proverbial “Land ohne Musik” (“Country without Music”) suddenly became home to a bevvy of composers.
This was Eric’s first visit back to Vienna he had lived in for three years. He brought with him the magnificent violinist Joe Chu-Yu Yang.
In his introduction, Eric told us that the English, for various reasons, are not as proud of their musical heritage as they should be. He is passionate about remedying this. Ironically neither Eric nor Joe is British. Eric is American, and Joe is Taiwanese. Still, where else but in front of the members of our society should these pieces of English music be performed to a society that stands for cultural exchange?
What an evening it was! Listening and watching the breathtaking virtuosity of Eric McElroy on the piano and Joe Chu-Yu Yang on the violin.
Gustav Holst (21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934)
“I have something within me that prompts me to write quite light music now and then. For instance my […] Two Songs Without Words for small orchestra. […] The question of their ultimate value rests with the critic – with you. But they are not pot-boilers and I shall continue to do this sort of thing.” Thus Gustav Theodore von Holst (to quote his baptismal name but dropped the offending “von” during World War I), the English composer of Russo-Swedish extraction, wrote to his friend Edwin Evans in 1911. We can be thankful that he indulged his lifetime fondness for the less demanding whisperings of his Muse, for it bequeathed us the light but rewarding works, of which these two were written explicitly for the training of school musicians.
The Two Songs without Words, op. 20, were composed in 1906, shortly after Holst had discovered the richness and emotional depth of English folk song. But rather than using existing folk songs as compositional material, as in the precisely contemporary Somerset Rhapsody, he created two original folk-like tunes: a “Country Song” and a “Marching Song.”
Ivor Bertie Gurney (28th August 1890 – 26th December 1937) was an English poet and composer, mainly of songs. Gurney was believed to be an English Schubert! He was born and raised in Gloucester. He suffered from manic depression throughout his life and spent his last 15 years in psychiatric hospitals. Critical evaluation of Gurney has been complicated by this and also by the need to assess both his poetry and his music. Gurney himself thought of music as his true vocation: “The brighter visions brought music; the fainter verse”.
Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss CH KCVO (2nd August 1891 – 27th March 1975) was an English composer and conductor.
Bliss’s musical training was cut short by the First World War, during which he served with distinction in the army. He quickly became known as an unconventional and modernist composer in the post-war years. Still, he began to display a more traditional and romantic side in his music within the decade. In the 1920s and 1930s, he composed extensively not only for the concert hall but also for films and ballet.
The Sonata is a single-movement work (the given title is Bliss’s own) dating, it seems, from about 1916 and has existed only in manuscript form. This manuscript is in the care of Cambridge University Library, and it appears that the work was played privately, probably several times: the pages show considerable wear at the edges and are ‘dog-eared’, presumably to facilitate page-turns. Perhaps as a result of these private playings, Bliss seemed dissatisfied with several passages, crossing them through in pencil. It stopped after one movement, but we do not know why. He had fallen out of fashion in certain circles. This is the first performance tonight in Austria! There is, however, a true connection between Bliss and Austria.
He performed regularly in Austria and conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, and his piano concerto was performed multiple times with the Vienna Philharmonic and various soloists. He was a regular attendee at the Salzburg Festival.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad (born in 1980) began composing at the age of eight while studying cello and piano at the Yehudi Menuhin School. She graduated from Gonville and Caius College (Cambridge University) with a Double 1st in 2001 and an MPhil (with distinction) in composition, also at Cambridge. Her commissions include works for the BBC, the Surrey Philharmonic, the Manchester International Cello Festival, the Chard Festival of Women in Music, the Bass Club, Bass Fest and the Almeida Festival. She has had two ballets choreographed by Lynn Seymour and Geoffrey Cauley; the second was performed by Scottish ballet in the Britten Theatre, London.
Eric met her a year and a half ago. He describes her as a highly prolific composer. “Bloom” was written during the Corona crisis lockdown. She explains: “Taking inspiration watching the blossoms of the local fruit tree that I have watched blooming in past weeks on the green, where I live, on the outskirts of Bedford.” The meditating effect it had on her comes across in that piece. She says: “when writing I simply had a slowly opening bud in my mind.” First performed in Austria: 7th October 2022, British Embassy, Vienna, Austria!
Gerald Raphael Finzi (14th July 1901 – 27th September 1956) was a British composer. Finzi is best known as a choral composer but also wrote in other genres. Large-scale compositions by Finzi include the cantata Dies Natalis for solo voice and string orchestra and his concertos for cello and clarinet.
Gerald Finzi was born in London, the son of John Abraham (Jack) Finzi and Eliza Emma (Lizzie) Leverson. Finzi became one of his generation’s most characteristically “English” composers. Despite being an agnostic of Jewish descent, several of his choral works incorporate Christian texts.
Finzi found in Farrar, a former pupil of Stanford, a sympathetic teacher, and Farrar’s death at the Western Front affected him deeply. During those formative years, Finzi also suffered the loss of all three of his brothers, adversities that contributed to Finzi’s bleak outlook on life. He found solace in the poetry of Thomas Traherne and his favourite, Thomas Hardy, whose poems, as well as those by Christina Rossetti, he began to set to music. In the poetry of Hardy, Traherne, and later William Wordsworth, Finzi was attracted by the recurrent motif of the innocence of childhood corrupted by adult experience. From the very beginning, most of his music was elegiac in tone.
Finzi was once a vegetarian but gave it up and favoured eggs, fish and sometimes bacon or chicken.
Ian Venables, a contemporary composer, was born in Liverpool in 1955 and was educated at Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School. He studied music with Richard Arnell at the Trinity College of Music and later with Andrew Downes, John Mayer, and John Joubert at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
His compositions encompass many genres; in particular, he has added significantly to the canon of English art songs. (An art song is a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment, and usually in the classical art music tradition)
He is President of the Arthur Bliss Society, a Vice-president of the Gloucester Music Society, and Chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society.
“Sonata” is a piece of Pastoral English music composed in 1986 and revised in 2017. This, too, is the first performance in Austria.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, OM (12th October 1872 – 26th August 1958) was an English composer. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century. His works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces, orchestral compositions, and nine symphonies written over sixty years.
Vaughan Williams was born to a well-to-do family with strong moral views and a progressive social life. Throughout his life, he sought to be of service to his fellow citizens and believed in making music as available as possible to everybody. He wrote many works for amateur and student performance. He was musically a late developer, not finding his true voice until his late thirties; his studies in 1907–1908 with the French composer Maurice Ravel helped him clarify the textures of his music and free it from Teutonic influences.
Two episodes made notably deep impressions on Vaughan Williams’s personal life. The First World War, in which he served in the army, had a lasting emotional effect. Twenty years later, though in his sixties and devotedly married, he was reinvigorated by a love affair with a much younger woman, who later became his second wife. He went on composing through his seventies and eighties, producing his last symphony months before his death at the age of eighty-five. His works have continued to be a staple of the British concert repertoire, and all his major compositions and many of the minor ones have been recorded.
The Lark Ascending is a short, single-movement work inspired by the 1881 poem of the same name by the English writer George Meredith. It was originally for violin and piano (the way it was performed last night!) and completed in 1914, but not performed until 1920. The composer reworked it for solo violin and orchestra after the First World War. This version, in which the work is chiefly known, was first performed in 1921. It is subtitled “A Romance”, a term Vaughan Williams favoured for slow, contemplative music.
The work has gained considerable popularity in Britain and elsewhere and has often been recorded between 1928 and the present day.
The Lark Ascending
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
The evening continued in a very happy mood, which I hope I have captured accurately in my photo series. There was a good solid reason for that. We had not only been presented with an outstanding performance by two highly gifted artists but also enjoyed first-class service from the staff at the Embassy.
President Prof Dr Kurt Tiroch wrote in his note to the Embassy: “I would like to thank you again for the wonderful event yesterday! Everything was well organized and the drinks and food were the best. We have often had the privilege of organizing an event at the Embassy over the past 12 years and it has always been a special event – but yesterday was quite extraordinary. Please also pass on my admiration and gratitude to all the staff who were responsible for the service and the kitchen. All of our guests enjoyed your hospitality very much and never ceased telling me about it.”
Indeed, it was an extraordinary event. Such an event only the Austro-British Society can offer its members! I pity those who did not attend last night!