Concerto for piano and orchestra in B-flat major (1939)

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Arthur Bliss once opined that “composition is self-expression: it is an attempt to record in musical notation the jumble of feelings and experiences, of impressions and stimulations, of passions and prejudices accumulated by the I . . . as personal a thing as one’s hair.” Bliss, whose father was a Yankee from Massachusetts, is one of the most expansive figures in twentieth-century British music: a composer who excelled in all genres; an engaging prose stylist; and an administrator who capped his career with both knighthood and the post of Master of the Queen’s Music. But Bliss was far more than an extrovert with a taste for orchestral timbre—a predilection confirmed by the title of his ebullient Colour Symphony. He strove to come to grips in his music with the troubling events of his era, as for example in his harrowing political ballet, Checkmate. Dating from 1937, Checkmate is the composer’s trenchant comment on the deadly diplomatic maneuverings of that fateful year. Bliss had been an officer in the First World War, wounded repeatedly, and had lost his brother Kennard in the trenches. Despite the optimism that radiates from his autobiography, Bliss was less conventional than his bluff public persona might suggest. He was haunted by his wartime experience, aspects of which are reflected in several of his large “abstract” scores, including the Piano Concerto of 1939.

Bliss had been a judge for the 1938 Ysaÿe International Competition for pianists. He later wrote that hearing “so much brilliant piano playing made me wish to write an extended work for the instrument itself.” Bliss did not wait long for his wish to be fulfilled, as shortly thereafter the British Council commissioned him to compose a piano concerto for performance at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Written for the stupendous English pianist Solomon, the Concerto was dedicated both to the soloist and to “the people of the United States.” A coruscating score of the utmost difficulty for the pianist, the Concerto betrays an uneasy undercurrent distinctly reminiscent of Checkmate. Bliss’s memories of combat underlay this music. The bravura is punctuated by flashes of tensile anxiety, expressed clearly in the eruptions of distorted fanfares that haunt both outer movements and driving the ferocious virtuosity of the piano part.

The Gathering Storm

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The history of English music since the emigration of Georg Friedrich Händel in 1712, is connected to the remarkable economic and political prominence that England enjoyed well into the twentieth century. By the time of Franz Joseph Haydn’s visit to London in the 1790s, England had fully developed a large-scale musical life, which often valued European continental composers even more than the continent did. The English engagement with music was cultivated and enthusiastic, reflecting the rapid growth of an educated and affluent middle class and a burgeoning group of musical organizations including numerous choral societies. These hosted historic music festivals in the nineteenth century, which led to the creation of some of the most important works for chorus and orchestra, including Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846) and Dvořák’s Requiem (1891), both of which premiered in Birmingham.

It was part of Händel’s legacy, and of the Hanoverians generally, that the wealth and vitality of English musical life were engulfed by German influences. Liszt’s final major public appearances took place during his triumphant visit to England shortly before his death in 1886. The famed conductor of Bayreuth and Vienna, Hans Richter, left the continent and took up residence in England at the end of the nineteenth century and left a lasting impact on his adopted British home. Max Bruch, Joseph Joachim, and Johannes Brahms were favorite figures and recipients of many English honors. There were of course leading names in English composition who sought, before the turn of the last century, a voice that was distinctive from the overwhelming models that emanated from Germany. Edward Elgar struggled with this issue, despite both his admiration for Strauss and Brahms, and Richter’s devoted patronage. Similar concern was also felt by Elgar’s contemporary, Charles Villiers Stanford. But for other English composers, Germany was a focus and a haven. Dame Ethel Smythe’s first ventures into opera were produced and performed in Germany. Frederick Delius’s major operatic venture, A Village Romeo and Juliet (1901), was based on a Gottfried Keller story and first known to audiences in its German version.

The symbiosis of English and German music continued through the years of tacit but growing political rivalry that marked the reign of Wilhelm II of Germany, who had an ambition for Germany to compete with England as a naval power. But when that rivalry erupted into the First World War, and the House of Hanover discreetly changed its name to Windsor, the desire to develop a distinctly British musical style accelerated rapidly.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose ancestors include Josiah Wedgwood and Charles Darwin, belonged to the group of composers that wanted to distinguish themselves as something other than German disciples, even before the War. Arthur Bliss came partly from an American family and lived for a short while in Santa Barbara. Although initially inspired by French and Russian influences, during the early part of the century he rediscovered his Englishness in large measure through the example of Elgar. Frank Bridge, the least known of the three composers on tonight’s program, was primarily a composer of chamber music. He was determined in the last decade and a half of his life to find a style that would set him apart from the French and Austrian composers who had influenced his earlier work. The indication of his success may be found both in his own music from the 1930s, and in his influence on his great pupil, Benjamin Britten.

The First World War was a traumatic event, particularly for England. Although victorious, Britain’s imperial pride was permanently damaged by the War’s carnage. The longstanding decline of England’s economic and political importance was also exposed, for it took the American entry in 1917 to break the stalemate and secure the victory. The years following 1918 were marked by a depth and variety of intellectual and artistic stimulation. It was an era of renewed interest in both religion and an equally fanatical equivalent among the English: pacifism. English foreign policy had been defined by a reluctance to become enmeshed in the instabilities of continental Europe since the fall of Napoleon, and its echoes lived on after the First World War. But by 1930, just when Bridge was completing the single-movement Elegiac Concerto on tonight’s program, there was pressing reason for the English to be concerned regarding the direction of continental European politics. The few democracies on the continent were weak, and fascism had made its initial successful appearance. 1929 marked the end of the superficial prosperity of the age. John Maynard Keynes had warned, following the First World War, against a vindictive victor’s peace. He turned out to be prophetic, as Weimar Germany reeled from one crisis to the next. The League of Nations was evidently a failure. The specter of future conflicts was not hard to imagine.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the prospect for peace and prosperity, let alone freedom and democracy, faded rapidly. Bridge’s Concerto spans those few years when the English political landscape changed forever. Composed in 1930, the year after the market collapse, it was not performed until 1936, during some of the darkest hours of twentieth-century history. Just a short while earlier, in April 1935, Sir Adrian Boult premiered the Fourth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is a work of intensity, angularity, and darkness, and it led immediately to the assumption that the composer had written music in response to the grim events abroad. But Vaughan Williams angrily denied any spiritual or programmatic basis for this view of the Fourth Symphony. He claimed that the only object of music was beauty, and even though he confessed several years after the Symphony had been written that he was not sure it was beautiful, he was certain that at the time of its composition, he wrote it solely out of a conviction of its merit simply as music. The Symphony shows many debts to the rhythmic and thematic fire of Beethoven’s symphonic writing. Despite Vaughan William’s disclaimer, the Fourth Symphony has never shaken its association with the sense of impending doom that began to descend on the British during the mid-1930s, and that was clearly understood and perceived by British intellectuals (except for those who were sympathetic to Hitler).

Arthur Bliss’s Concerto is dedicated to the American people and was premiered in June 1939, a few months before the outbreak of the War in September. The music, like much of Bliss’s output, is sprawling and varied. The work had been written for the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, and its premiere featured Solomon, the great English pianist. The influences of French modernism are audible, but equally evident, notably in the work’s closing moments, is the distinctly English voice that Bliss borrowed from Elgar with its anthem-like character.

All three of these works represent an interesting and complicated facet of pre-war Britain. As many will recognize, the title of this concert derives from Winston Churchill’s famous account of the years leading up to the War. In spite of the more than ominous events of Europe, the predominant sentiment in England was that of denial and appeasement, much to Churchill’s dismay. It was a stroke of unexpected good luck that the fascist sympathizer Edward VIII fell in love with an American divorcée and abdicated. Bliss’s dedication to America would become all the more poignant as President Roosevelt, against the wishes of the majority of Americans, helped an unprepared England survive during the more than two years of World War II before Pearl Harbor, when England stood alone.

Three composers, akin in their traumatic reaction to the First World War and their subsequently pacifist hopes, created works that marked turning points in their styles and careers. Frank Bridge produced a dark musical Oration, imitative in structure of a funeral elegy replete with evocations of war and death. Bliss, a master of illustration and sentimentality who reveled in writing virtuosic fireworks, wrote a massive Concerto that ranges wildly from the intimate to the sentimental, and from the nostalgia to the triumphantly proud. Vaughan Williams’s seemingly contained notion of beauty took a strange and provocative turn in the direction of the Fourth Symphony after 1933. Despite claims for aesthetic autonomy, did Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries tap into the undercurrent of the moment, creating works that not only intimated the anxiety of the times but through that very anxiety forged a distinctly British musical sensibility? Perhaps these composers, like many visual artists as well, were driven even indirectly by the clouds gathering over them to reevaluate their influences and ambitions. The events surrounding their activities as composers may have sparked a transfigured act of self-reflection and opened up new paths, thereby generating novel foundations of twentieth-century British music.

Oration (Concerto Elegiaco) for solo cello and orchestra (1930)

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Frank Bridge was emotionally scarred by the carnage of the First World War. His firmly held pacifism prevented him from enlisting, as did his colleagues Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but the social disruption caused by the War and its aftermath affected him deeply. At this time, Bridge’s style underwent a profound aesthetic and technical transformation that bewildered his English contemporaries. Until 1914, Bridge had composed fluently in a suave but expressive idiom that owed an equal debt to Brahms and Fauré; after 1920, he became fascinated with progressive trends and with the music of the German expressionists, especially Alban Berg. Certain British colleagues went so far as to accuse Bridge of distorting his style in an obeisance to fashion dictated by his American patron, the redoubtable Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Such assertions were both inaccurate and unfair. Bridge paid a heavy price for his stylistic experimentation after the war, as his music fell rapidly out of favor. In a recent study of BBC broadcasts of “ultra-modern” music during the 1930s, Jenny Doctor has documented the growth of a healthy English audience for Berg and his contemporaries in England. Such listeners should also have acclaimed Bridge, but both official and popular acceptance eluded him. Bridge’s travails were doubtless due in part to his difficult character: he was heartily disliked by most of his fellow composers, as well as by orchestral players for his tactlessness and arrogance. Thus Bridge’s later work had to wait decades to be granted a measure of posthumous respect, even though his name had been kept alive through the persistence of his most famous pupil, Benjamin Britten.

Bridge’s Oration for cello and orchestra, which the composer subtitled “Concerto elegaico,” is unquestionably his finest achievement in his late style. This expressionist Concerto in one movement, which alternates ghostly funeral marches with outbursts of terror and indignation, is both an elegy for the fallen of the First World War, and, in as much as Bridge anxiously followed political developments during the late 1920s, an anguished warning. Bridge’s writing for the soloist is uncanny: the cellist sounds at times like a declaiming speaker, and at others as if muttering a train of thought arising from deep within the unconscious. Bridge died suddenly in January of 1941, just at his country’s darkest moment in the Second World War.

Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934)

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In her study of post-traumatic stress disorder, Trauma and Recovery, psychologist Judith Lewis Herman notes that it may take veterans many years to process the horror they have witnessed in combat. The returning veteran initially seeks peace and regularity, as the natural response of violent indignation is put off as being too painful. In the case of Ralph Vaughan Williams, his searing experiences as a middle-aged stretcher-bearer and later as an artillery officer in the trenches of the First World War cast a shadow over his life thereafter. In the first years after his demobilization in 1919, he composed a series of scores—the “Pastoral” Symphony, the Mass in G minor and the one-act opera Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains—beneath whose deceptively placid surfaces lies muted but excruciating grief. Only in the1930s, when it seemed as if no one recalled the bitter lessons of the First World War, did Vaughan Williams explode with the controlled fury of his galvanic Fourth Symphony.

The genesis of the Symphony was deceptively nonchalant: one day in 1931 over breakfast, Vaughan Williams read a critic’s description of a typically “modern” symphony. Some details of the critic’s review ignited a spark in his imagination. (The review’s subject may well have been the Second Symphony of Vladimir Dukelsky, who under the pseudonym “Vernon Duke” would later write the song “April in Paris.”) Whatever the initial inspiration, the modernist aesthetic of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony arises from an ambivalent dialogue with the symphonic tradition of Beethoven.

Vaughan Williams testified that he derived the “opening of my F-minor Symphony deliberately from the finale of [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony.” With this seemingly casual remark, the composer inadvertently points up the work’s nihilistic despair. As Oliver Neighbour has observed, “whereas Beethoven is able to dismiss his cacophony and turn to a vision of the brotherhood of man, Vaughan Williams’s own Symphony ends where it began.” Furthermore, the spectral transition between the scherzo and finale is indebted to a similar transition passage in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but with a devastating difference: out of the darkness, Beethoven’s transition leads to triumph; Vaughan Williams’s transition leads to a minatory parody of a triumphal march.

Like the music of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional composer in Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony is a negation of the optimistic humanism proclaimed in the triumphant symphonic narratives of Beethoven and his successors. Vaughan Williams would later discourage speculation by critics who, gifted with the clarity of hindsight, asserted that this work was a prophecy of the Second World War; sensible composers rarely cast themselves as seers. But the Fourth Symphony is surely a rebuke to anyone who, in 1931, sought to ignore the dark forces unleashed by the First World War. Answering those who criticized him for the uncompromisingly defiant message of this Symphony, Vaughan Williams said simply, “I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.”