Granville Bantock, Prelude to ‘The Bacchanals’

By Lewis Foreman

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The British composer Granville Bantock succeeded Elgar as Richard Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University in 1908 and remained there for more than twenty years while simultaneously the Principal of the Midland Institute School of Music. This effectively created Birmingham as a significant alternative to the London conservatoires. In 1951, the choral conductor Charles Kennedy Scott remembered, ”From the first Bantock was regarded by his young contemporaries as a musical leader; the critic Ernest Newman reporting how, ’Those of us who were then ”young” and “modern” regarded Bantock as of much more importance than Elgar. . . Bantock was definitely “contemporary.” Indeed it was Elgar himself who referred to Bantock as “having the most fertile musical brain of our time.”’”

Bantock came to artistic maturity during the decade before the First World War, and between 1900 and 1914 he produced a succession of epic scores, tone-poems, orchestral song cycles, and enormous choral settings whose revival and appearance on CD—championed by the conductor, the late Vernon Handley—have ensured Bantock’s re-valuation today.

Bantock successively responded to five contrasted literary influences, at first with romantic poetry, especially Southey’s The Curse of Kehama and Moore’s Lalla Rookh. There followed works derived from the Bible, Persian and Arabic poetry in Victorian translations, Greek plays and mythology, and Scottish and Hebridean story and folksong.

Bantock synthesised a remarkable personal language from the influences of the time, which he used to set quasi-philosophical texts often taken from Victorian English translations of middle-Eastern verse, including Hafiz, Omar Khayyám, and Browning’s imagined verses of the Persian historian Ferishtah. When he turned to Sappho, Helen Bantock, the composer’s wife, produced her own version of the then known fragments of Sappho from the recent English edition by H. T. Wharton. Bantock’s most celebrated choral work is his setting of Fitzgerald’s English text of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. After the First World War, the language of music had significantly changed and Bantock’s music began to seem not as newly minted as once it had, and became increasingly forgotten. After the Second World War—he died in 1946—he seemed a figure from another world. Yet in 2007, during the Chandos recording sessions for Omar Khayyám, orchestral players crowded into the control room to hear the playbacks, clearly enthusiastic. One remarked to me, “Why haven’t we heard of him before? It’s like Hollywood before its time.”

Bantock was a self-taught linguist and he owned books in Greek, Persian and Arabic. His interest in classical Greek imagery and literature started with Sappho, but soon embraced writing incidental music for Greek plays with, in 1908, Hippolytus by Euripides, translated by Gilbert Murray.

Bantock’s contemporaries wrote music for the Greek plays, given in Greek at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. These included Vaughan Williams’ very well-known music for Aristophanes’ The Wasps, Parry’s music for several plays including The Frogs and The Birds,and Armstrong Gibbs’ 1920 score for the Oresteia of Aeschylus (“Agammemnon,” “The Choephori,” and “The Eumenides”). Bantock was outside this circle, but wrote music for productions by London’s Bedford College in 1909 for Sophocles’ Electra, seen at the Court Theatre on December 16, 1909 and at the Scala Theatre in 1914.

In 1910, Bantock produced five choral songs and dances for The Bacchae in the translation by Gilbert Murray, then recently-appointed Regis Professor at Oxford. This must have been for a now forgotten stage production, but the music then disappeared and was not published for over twenty years.

Bantock’s best-known orchestral work derived from a Greek play is the Overture to a Greek Tragedy, in fact Oedipus Coloneus by Sophocles, which dates from 1911 and was first heard at the Three Choirs Festival in September that year. In such works he attempts a programmatic symphonic paraphrase of the action of the play.

During the First World War and after, Bantock was obsessed by Hebridean folksong, first heard in the Hebridean Symphony, generally agreed one of his finest works, and the chamber opera The Seal Woman. We find him returning to Greek plays when he sketched the Prelude to ”The Bacchanals” (Bantock’s word) by Euripides in piano score, dated August 17, 1934, using motifs from his earlier choruses. He subsequently produced the Comedy Overture The Frogs (of Aristophanes). Dated August 27, 1935, it was written for the 1936 season of Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts, and enjoyed a brief popularity, was recorded, and was even arranged for brass band. Bantock returned to The Bacchae soon after war broke out in 1939, and the orchestral full score of the Prelude is dated December 26, 1939. Although semi-retired, Bantock was not done with Greek drama, and he produced three more orchestral overtures, really miniature tone poems: the ”symphonic overture” Agamemnon (Aeschylus) (1940); Overture to a Greek Comedy (“The Women’s Festival—Thesmophoriazuesae”) (1941); and his last work the comedy overture, The Birds by Aristophanes (1946).

In Bantock’s last years, his friend Cyril Neil, joint-owner of the music publisher Paxton, issued a long series of 78rpm discs of Bantock’s music as a means of providing the impecunious old composer with an income. These recordings included The Frogs, The Birds, and The Women’s Festival, but not The Bacchanals, for the composer died before it could be recorded, presumably the reason why it is almost certain that we enjoy a world premiere performance in our concert this afternoon.