It is perhaps not too surprising that an island nation should feature the sea in the compositions of its native composers. Examples of these – from well known and some less well known composers – featured in the last meeting of the Society on 27 January 2020.
Society member Ed Tinline kicked of the second half of the season with a wide selection of pieces composed by British composers, all with the sea as their inspiration.
We started with part of Vaughan William’s Symphony No 1, A Sea Symphony composed in 1909. Inspiration for the symphony came in part from Walt Whitman. It was premiered when he was 38 and established him as a leading composer.
Brighton born Frank Bridge was next with his Symphonic Suite: The Sea composed in 1910. Then a piece by Judith Weir with her Lament, Over the Sea from her The Bagpiper’s String Trio first performed in 1989. Judith was the first woman to be appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.
Next – another woman – Ethyl Smyth with her Overture: The Wreckers from 1906. I wrote ‘jaunty’ at one point with some interesting orchestral colours. Dame Ethel Mary Smyth attained prominence as one of the most accomplished female composers in a male dominated environment, and as one of the main representatives of the suffragette movement. Tchaikovsky said of her ‘[she] one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation’. Source: British Library.
The first half ended with Arnold Bax’s On the Sea-shore And Elgar’s Sea Pictures.
The second half started with the unfamiliar Mass of the Sea composed by Paul Patterson composed in 1983. Next was By the Sleepy Lagoon written at Selsey by Eric Coates – who like Frank Bridge, was born in Brighton – looking across the bay and is used as the theme for Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.
The Kent coast inspired David Matthew’s Overture: From Sea to Sky composed quite recently in 1992. The Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes are very familiar. Interestingly, Britten was taught composition by Frank Bridge.
The penultimate piece was The Needles by Matthew Taylor commissioned by the LSE Music Society in 2000. Finally we returned to Elgar and another of his Sea Pictures composed at the end of the nineteenth century.
A fascinating evening and a wide range of music based on this one idea.
Next month’s meeting is Berlioz’s vocal music and is on Monday 10 February.
The second half of the season kicks off on Monday 27 January with an evening devoted to the music of Vaughan Williams and other British composers . Ed Tinline will present the evening entitled Behold the sea.
It starts at 7:30 and where to find us is on one of the tabs at the top of the site. There is free parking outside and access is reasonable for those with disabilities (a small step). £3 for non-members. We look forward to seeing you.
Simon Coombs, the Chair of the Vaughan Williams Society, gave an extremely interesting and informative talk on the music of Vaughan Williams to a packed room at the last Society meeting on Monday. Regarded as one of Britain’s great composers, he produced a wide range of music, including songs, symphonies, choral works, chamber music and works with a religious theme. He was what one might call a ‘late developer’ not finding his voice until his ’30s (reminiscent of Bruckner).
Simon took us through his history starting with his childhood in Down Ampney and his later life in Dorking (Surrey) and Chelsea. He showed promise at school, composing a short piece called ‘The Robin’ aged 6. Later he went on to study under Parry and Max Bruch. He spent time in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel who said of him ‘he was the only one of my students who doesn’t try to write my music’.
He was keenly interested in folk music and started to collect these in 1903. He was not the first composer to be
influenced by the folk song tradition (one thinks of Bartok) and much of his early work was founded on this tradition. He was friendly with George Butterworth who shared his passion for English folk songs and who offered advice to VW in his early days including suggesting that he write a symphony. It is a surprising fact but there are no performed symphonies by a British composer before VW and Elgar. The suggestion by Butterworth is therefore something of a revolutionary suggestion. Butterworth died tragically young in the Great War. VW was keen to contribute to the war and served as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer. Like many who served in the trenches, the War made a lasting impression including the loss of friends.
He was keen to popularise his music and started the Leith Hill Music Festival (near Dorking) in 1905 and which still thrives. He had a huge output which included 9 symphonies.
Simon played a mixture of his works, some familiar, others less often heard. These included the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; an extract from the Sea Symphony (1909); a song from 5 Mystical Songs; parts of the London Symphony (1913) and the Pastoral Symphony (1921) and from number 4 (1934).
Perhaps the work most recognisably as his is the Lark Ascending strongly influenced by his love of folk songs (1914). Other pieces included an extract from the English Folk Song Suite (1923), Serenade to Music (1938) and from one of his operas Hugh the Drover. He was approached by Muir Mathieson to compose the music for the film Thirty Ninth Parallel which he composed in a matter of weeks.
This was a brilliant start to the second half of the season.