HELY-HUTCHINSON: Carol Symphony / STANDFORD / KELLY (Classic Christmas) (City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra/ Gavin Sutherland/ Philip Lane) (Naxos: 8.557099)
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Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47)
A Carol Symphony
Of all the festivals in the Christian calendar Christmas has always attracted the most musical contributions from composers, albeit, in the main, vocal and choral. The exceptions have been seasonal seventeenth and eighteenth century concerti grossi, most notably that of Corelli, and the pastoral symphonies in Handels Messiah and Bachs Christmas Oratorio. The subsequent century, despite Charles Dickenss virtual reinvention of the institution, bore little fruit other than the Santa Claus Symphony, by the American composer, William Henry Fry (Naxos 8.559057).
With the rise of public Christmas concerts, a useful source of finance for symphony orchestras throughout the world, have come sleigh-rides and pot-pourris of all shades and varieties. The first substantial work based on Christmas carols came in the mid-1920s in the form of A Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchinson. He was born in Cape Town, in South Africa, the youngest child of the last Governor of Cape Colony, and an infant prodigy. Sent to school in England, he studied composition with Sir Donald Tovey from the age of eight. At the end of each lesson, they would improvise together at two pianos, the foundation of a remarkable technique. His later career took him to Eton, the Royal College of Music in London, Oxford, the South African Broadcasting Company, and finally the BBC, where he became Director of Music in 1944. Overwork and undernourishment due to stringent wartime rationing made him particularly vulnerable to infection (not helped by his own self-imposed rationed heating) and he died in March 1947 at the age of 45.
The symphony is cast in the traditional four movements of the classical model with the Scherzo placed second. The whole work is designed to be played without a break - in fact the only actual rests come between the first two movements. Each movement is based on a single carol, although the second and last do have subsidiary ones, and they are all true carols, that is, words and music that have grown from traditional roots, as opposed to the likes of Away in a manger and Christians awake, heard in a later work, which are, strictly speaking, Christmas hymns, the work of named composers, mostly in the nineteenth century. The present recording was attended by one of the composers sons, Christopher, and his wife, who gave great support and encouragement to the players and studio team.
Like Hely-Hutchinson, Bryan Kelly studied at the Royal College of Music in London, and later with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Spells of teaching in London, Italy, and more recently, Cairo, have accompanied a prolific composing career encompassing most genres. Improvisations on Christmas Carols was first performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra in a Radio 3 broadcast soon after its composition. The first movement takes its carol through the hoops, with segments of the melody explored in canon, and treated to major/minor tonality shifts. The second is characterized by a strong counter-subject announced in the second oboe but more clearly heard later on the harp. The composer first heard Past three oclock, one of his favourites, as a young boy in his native Oxford, at the citys Lord Mayors Carol concert, an event he would later conduct himself. The sea is not far away in the fourth movement, for obvious reasons. Even though the fifth uses two carols for the first time in the piece, there is even a third towards the end as Past three oclock is heard again, hammered out in the bass line like a peal of bells.
The output of the composer Peter Warlock, the nom de guerre of the musicologist Philip Heseltine, consists of a few modest orchestral works, including the ubiquitous Capriol Suite, and largely vocal items. Amongst these are several carols that have become firmly established in the seasonal repertoire of singers and choirs; none more so than Bethlehem Down. The idea for the piece was conceived by the writer of the words, Bruce Blunt, on a pub crawl with Warlock between The Plough at Bishops Sutton and The Anchor at Ropley, in the southern county of Hampshire, in late 1927. Blunt sent the words to Warlock, who set them to music in a couple of days, and thence to The Daily Telegraph newspaper which published the carol from Warlocks manuscript in the Christmas Eve edition. The proceeds of this enterprise were consumed over the subsequent holiday. My version for strings stretches the original four verses to five and seeks to make the piece as effective for strings as the original is for choirs. No harmonic changes have been made although the voicing has naturally been varied for textural reasons. It might be hoped that the perennial version for strings of John Irelands The Holy Boy has at last found a companion.
Wassail Dances is amongst my earliest orchestral works and was written for the Gloucestershire Youth Orchestra and their conductor Tony Hewitt-Jones, a very gifted composer in his own right. It is based on three traditional Wassails or drinking-songs prevalent at Christmas time in the English counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire in the south-west and Yorkshire in the north. All three movements take their theme and stretch it to its rhythmic and harmonic limits, within given parameters. While the outer ones maintain the bucolic nature of the original tune, the central one, based on one of at least two from that county, is more restrained, but rather than cosily pastoral throughout, has a deliberate and decided edge to the scoring that reflects the harsher landscape of its northern origins.
It was in Yorkshire that Patric Standford was born. After completing his studies at the Guildhall School of Music with Edmund Rubbra, he worked for a time for a London publisher and as an arranger for theatres and television. He joined the staff of the Guildhall and devoted more time to larger scale compositions, several, such as the third symphony and his masque, The Prayer of St Francis, winning international prizes in Switzerland and Hungary respectively. His Christmas Carol Symphony grew out of a pot-pourri of seasonal tunes played to entertain his children in the framework of an eighteenth century symphony. It was first given on Christmas Eve 1979 by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence in a Radio 3 broadcast. The composer is grateful to Sir Ernest Hall, whose interest in the work has resulted in his contributing substantially to its recording.