Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Comment," Unedited

I have a "comment" in today's NY Times Arts & Leisure section, about Charles McGrath's mostly-very-good article on Wesley Stace and Stace's new novel. Apparently there are no letters to the editor in A&L these days.

Here's the unedited letter I sent last week, two minutes after I finished the article:

To the Editor:
In his otherwise excellent article on novelist/musician Wesley Stace and his new book ("Musical Whodunit From a Musician Most Literary," http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/books/20stace.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Charles%20Jessold&st=cse, Feb. 20, 2011) Charles McGrath twice uses the term "cowpat" to refer to some English composers of the era from about 1900 to World War II. I object to this: it's a pat term to haul out, lumping together quite different composers while simultaneously dismissing them as worth consideration as individuals. The specific composers he lists, Vaughn Williams, Warlock, and Bantock, had rather different career trajectories and musical styles. Bantock, in particular, was influenced as much by Wagner and other German Romantic music as by English folk songs. The RVW of the symphonies is more musically complex and interesting than his most popular music might indicate.
Mr. McGrath must surely be aware, also, that Warlock and Bantock might be "half-forgotten" in the United States, but that's not the case in Great Britain. I, for one, would love to hear live performances of just about any of Bantock's works, especially his lengthy oratorio, Omar Khhayam, which could easily be staged as an opera.

10 comments:

Henry Holland said...

Tsk tsk, Lisa, haven't you gotten the memo from The People Who Decide These Things that in the period between Purcell's death and the successful premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945 composition was officially dead in England? Seriously, I've seen that tired cliche more than a few times....

Bantock wrote a lot of music, any suggestions besides Omar Khhayam on where to start?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I wish I knew more of his music! There's a piece called "Sappho" - song settings - that is worth hearing. I have one of Bantock's symphonies around but haven't heard it in a long time.

calimac said...

Bantock isn't the only one with continental associations. Even Vaughan Williams's most pastoral music, viewed through the right prism, is startlingly close to Debussy, even more than Delius is.

"Cowpat" was a dismissive term applied to composers who dared not to adopt the latest post-WW1 advanced modernistic fashions. It should be embraced with defiance, as "queer" and other intended epithets have been by their targets. And VW is the only one of the three to whom it remotely applies. Bantock, because of Celtic nationalism? Warlock, because he wrote the Capriol Suite? Why?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I am not a big fan of RVW's pastoral-style music, I must admit, but I'd like to hear more about the Debussy prism.

Why? Because the author of the Times article preferred a throwaway line to stopping to thinking about what he was writing? I'm reasonably certain he's the same author who had a big article in the Times magazine a couple of years back in which he gushed all over some current opera singers because they can act, as if it were something completely new, which it's not.

calimac said...

The Debussy prism is just my ears. With the popular "English squire" image of VW in your mind as the starting point, listen to The Lark Ascending next to Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, or the Pastoral Symphony (the whole thing!) next to La Mer, and decide whether you agree that they're - not interchangeable, by any means - but a lot more alike than the VW stereotype would admit.

Matthew said...

For lovers of art song--at least English art song--Peter Warlock is not forgotten. But unfortunately we're a rare and dying breed. Incidentally, Warlock's "The Curlew" is one of those hidden masterworks that is too little known and almost never performed.

Lisa, you're right on that too many people (including some who should know better) dismiss a whole set of English composers (I would add my beloved Gerald Finzi to your list) as boring "pastoralists", when their music is much more complex and interesting and varied than the label implies. But correcting the misimpression would require the bother of actually listening to their music. Much easier to dismiss it and say it's like looking at a cow, like Copland supposedly did with RWV's fabulous Fifth Symphony.

I'm intrigued by Bantock's "Sappho". I'll have to give it a listen, if I can find a recording.

Oh, one thing more. I think Callimac is onto something with the RVW and Debussy connection. He spend a year in Paris studying with Ravel after all, so it shouldn't surprise if there is a residue of Impressionism in his music.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Check Hyperion and Chandos for recordings of Bantock. "Omar Khayyam" is quite splendid and there's an excellent Vernon Hadley recording with Toby Spence and can't remember who else.

I'd like an enterprising conductor at one of the great American symphonies to do an RVW symphony cycle. I've heard the 4th in performance twice (an okay performance with Bostein/ASO and a really super performance with Tortelier/SFS); I'm DYING to hear A Sea Symphony live, ditto the Antarctic Symphony...well, you know. Bring 'em on.

There's a recording of "Sappho," which I know because I have it, care of a friend who dubbed it for me, but I can't remember anything about who is on it, the label, etc.

Eva Turner recorded about half of one of Bantock's songs in maybe 1939; it was only released in this century on the Pearl complete recordings set.

calimac said...

If I'd known, I'd have alerted you when the Sea Symphony was played down here a couple years ago. Amateur performance, execrable acoustics (it wasn't SSV), and I'd already heard it live myself once in London ... but I went anyway, and was glad I did.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Now you know. :)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Henry - Berkshire Record Outlet has a 6-CD box of Bantock right now, Vernon Handley & the RPO. It includes Omar Khayyam, three symphonies, and a bunch of other things. $30, which I think is what I paid for my stand-alone copy of Omar.