MOERAN: Symphony in G minor / Sinfonietta
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Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950)
Symphony in G minor Sinfonietta
The 1920s and 1930s saw in England a remarkable flowering of symphonies by the then leading younger composers. After the war, Bax, Bliss and Vaughan Williams soon all emerged as composers of symphonies which have lasted, reaching a full flowering in the 1930s. Briefly Bax was considered as the leading British composer of symphonies, but his position was soon challenged by Walton and Vaughan Williamss angry Fourth, both immediately recorded. In the English-speaking world at this time the example of Sibelius, was all embracing and commanded a wide audience. It was in this climate that E. J. Moeran long grappled with writing a symphony.
Ernest John Moeran had been born in Isleworth, Middlesex, the son of an Irish protestant clergyman, but he spent his impressionable early years on the Norfolk coast, where his father became Rector of the remote village of Bacton. Moerans was a middle-class background, even if it was not a wealthy one. After prep school in Cromer he went to Uppingham, where the music master was Robert Sterndale Bennett, grandson of the composer William Sterndale Bennett, under whose influence Moeran played the violin and composed. In 1913 Moeran went to the Royal College of Music and became a composition student of Stanford, but on the outbreak of war he became an army motor cycle despatch rider and was later commissioned. In 1917 he suffered a head wound, when shrapnel became lodged too near the brain for its removal, an injury that, until his death, had the unfortunate effect of making him appear drunk after even very small quantities of alcohol. He was demobilised and soon after met the composer Arnold Bax who later recalled him as as charming and good looking a young officer as one could hope to meet.
Moeran was one of the last mainstream British composers to be influenced by folk-song. An early hearing of Vaughan Williamss Norfolk Rhapsody came with the force of a revelation. During his early years in the army, when posted to Norfolk, Moeran began collecting such songs, and continued in the 1920s. Their flavour permeates his music.
In his twenties he was prolific, and although initially still studying, now with the composer John Ireland, he produced three orchestral quasi-folk-song rhapsodies, emulating Vaughan Williamss example. In In the Mountain Country, and the first two numbered rhapsodies, Moeran invented the folk-songs used. All three were heard in 1924. In the Mountain Country was dedicated to and conducted by Hamilton Harty, who, himself also the composer of an Irish Symphony, commissioned a symphony from Moeran. Although Moeran several times reported himself working on it, he found it difficult to complete and fourteen years passed before it was heard.
Always the countryman, Moeran was long-associated with Norfolk, later with Herefordshire, and for the last thirty years of his life with rural Ireland, living at Kenmare, County Kerry. In 1926 he had set up house with Philip Heseltine (the composer Peter Warlock) at Eynsford in Kent, then more rural than now. Up to this time Moeran, though always a meticulous worker, had been remarkably fertile, but after experiencing the hard-drinking but brilliant company at Eynsford, where Warlock kept open house to bohemian friends, he seemed to lose his way. His war wound meant that he never really resolved what others saw as a chronic alcoholism.
Eventually Moeran finished the Symphony in G minor and it was first performed under the baton of Leslie Heward at Londons Queens Hall on 13th January 1938, its contemporary importance underlined when the British Council chose it as the first of their wartime recordings of recent works by British composers. The symphony, in four movements, is dated in the printed score 23rd January 1937. In his own notes for this work Moeran stressed that there is no story or sequence of events attached to it, adding moreover, it adheres strictly to its form. Yet he admitted it was written in County Kerry and the slow movement in Norfolk, suggesting evocations of specific landscapes, his friend Arnold Bax referring to the unworldly Western-Irish lights that seemed to glimmer down upon the pages of . . . [the] symphony and the delicately distilled suggestions of native folk-idiom heard [there].
The first movement of the symphony is lyrical and outgoing, with brief figures that generate later working. Moeran treating the orchestra as blocks of colour, and the notably lyrical impulse of the music is underlined by the wide-spanning second subject. His friend the Cambridge composer Patrick Hadley, also influenced by folk-music and, like Moeran, a railway enthusiast, claimed to hear in the symphonys more strenuous episodes sounds of the Great Eastern expresses, with the striving ecstatic early climax a musical reminiscence of a crack locomotive straining up Brentwood Bank, an image which once accepted seems constantly to recur in the music. Other commentators, however, have, equally persuasively, heard this as sea music.
The slow movement is more sombre, evoking a landscape remembered in dream, based on four brief ideas heard at the beginning. This development of a succession of musical cells, a technique used again in the later movements, shows the influence of Sibelius. The opening soft timpani roll quickly coloured by horns, providing a canvas over which woodwind call evocatively, is strikingly Sibelian. Eventually the second motif first heard low on flutes and bassoons, evolves into a plangent melody. This misty world was conceived around the sand-dunes and marshes of East Norfolk, with the vividness of Moerans childhood landscape recalled.
The autumnal mood is dispelled in the scherzo, where, Moeran tells us, the sunlight is let in, and there is a spring-like contrast to the wintry proceedings of the slow movement, perhaps an evocation of spring in Kenmare, among the mountains and seaboard of Co Kerry. Again Moeran takes his opening texture, dancing strings over which the oboe sings a bucolic song while horns softly add colour, from Sibelius, with memories of the third and fourth symphonies. The music ends suddenly, as Moeran remarked snuffed out, as it were, by a passing cloud. The tragic intent of the symphony is brought home to us in the finale, with a brooding slow introduction in which the downward leap from the opening of the first movement is heard again. Eventually a long-held timpani roll introduces the headlong Allegro molto and the strings dancing 9/8, the rhythm of a triple jig, which makes a persistent reappearance later. Now the ultimately bitter character of the symphony is never in doubt, and in a central storm, or perhaps battle, a passage which Bax (to Moerans consternation) thought reminiscent of Sibeliuss Tapiola, the well-being of the scherzo is forgotten. The home key of the symphony avoided during the finale briefly returns at the end, but it is no triumphant homecoming and the music ends on a bitter note, the six final tutti chords of dismissal signalling an uncertain world in 1938. Geoffrey Self has suggested that the symphony was perhaps Moerans private requiem for the lost of the Great War, identifying elements in Moerans themes from the folk-song The shooting of his dear. Even without the folk-song the music would support such a reading, but Moeran himself left us no overt clues.
Moerans Sinfonietta, really his Second Symphony, was commissioned for the BBC, presumably by Arthur Bliss while Director of Music, to whom it is dedicated.