C1000. David Lloyd-Jones Cond. English Northern Phil.: Victorian Concert Overtures, incl. Macfarren, Pierson, Sullivan, Corder, Elgar, Parry & Mackenzie. (England) Hyperion CDA 66515, recorded 1991. - 034571165158
“The musical heritage of Great Britain is as long established as that of any European country and has enjoyed several golden eras. The composer of the first of the overtures on this CD is a case in point. Despite his Scottish name, Sir George Macfarren (1813–1887) was of English descent and born in London. At the age of sixteen he entered the newly opened RAM where Sterndale Bennett was a fellow pupil, and he went on to become not only a prolific composer in all forms (his cantata May Day and opera Robin Hood achieving notable success) but also a pillar of the British musical establishment.
The overture Chevy Chace dates from 1836, and although its origins were theatrical it quickly became accepted as a concert overture in its own right and was frequently performed during the composer’s lifetime. It had been commissioned by an impresario when a prelude to a melodrama of the same name by James Planché (librettist of Weber’s Oberon) was required in a hurry. Chevy Chace was a popular old ballad recounting a feud between the families of Percy and Douglas over hunting rights on the Scottish border, and was sung to three different tunes. Macfarren’s choice is wistfully announced on divided violins in the slow section that follows the opening ‘Allegro vivace’. The scoring and rhythm of the all-pervading dotted hunting motif show that the Philharmonic Society’s performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony had left their mark on at least one listener. The Chevy Chace tune is later skilfully worked into the main section of the overture which is scored with a surprisingly resourceful use of percussion. In the event, the overture was not used in the play’s production but was first performed in its own right in 1837. Six years later Mendelssohn conducted it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and wrote a letter to Macfarren describing its enthusiastic reception.
The overture—and more specifically the concert overture as developed by Beethoven, Weber and Mendelssohn—from now on became the most favoured form for British composers to use when venturing into the field of orchestral music. Shorter, less demanding than the symphony and allowing the possible further stimulus of a dramatic or pictorial programme, the term ‘overture’ in the mid-nineteenth century had come to be used for almost any one-movement orchestral piece with a more or less descriptive title. Even Liszt’s earliest orchestral works had been conceived as concert overtures until on publication they established a new vogue term ‘symphonic poem’. In England, Macfarren’s colleague, Sterndale Bennett, produced three examples in the Mendelssohnian mould which were to set a pattern, if not a standard, for several years to come.
One figure who stood apart from the new generation of composers emerging from the RAM was Hugh Pearson, who spent most of his adult life in Germany where he altered his name to the more teutonically acceptable Hugo Pierson (1815–1873). The concert overture Romeo and Juliet, probably composed in the mid-1860s, was published in Leipzig a year after his death and first heard in Britain at a Crystal Palace Saturday Concert. Stately tutti sections give a flavour of Verona’s rich festivities, and Romeo’s wooing of Juliet is also to be recognised in the many question-and-answer phrases. All this is expressed in short, pregnant musical ideas which follow one another at an almost disconcertingly kaleidoscopic speed. Pierson’s rhythmic variety and piquant use of the orchestra have sometimes been compared with that of Berlioz, and his music certainly exhibits a fresh, unfettered imagination that has earned him the reputation of one of the few avant-garde British composers of this period.
Although originally written at the same time as the incidental music to Irving’s 1888 production of the play, the fine Macbeth overture by Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) is a concert overture in all but name, and was doubtless revised before its publication six years later, as the Lyceum pit can hardly have contained so large an orchestra, complete with tuba and harp. Composed at a time when Sullivan was at the height of his powers—between The Yeomen of the Guard (1887) and The Gondoliers (1890)—the overture aims at a closely knit musical structure rather than the loosely assembled string of melodies that he usually provides. All this is expertly conceived with Sullivan’s usual technical mastery and command of orchestration.
Frederick Corder (1852–1932), who studied at the RAM and later with Ferdinand Hiller in Cologne, became an energetic and respected figure of the late Victorian musical scene. As professor and curator at the RAM he also became the teacher of a later generation of composers including Bantock, Holbrooke and Bax. The concert overture Prospero, published in the year of Sullivan’s Macbeth, shows a welcome change of direction in the continental influences that were gradually beginning to fertilize British orchestral thinking. During Corder’s lifetime the overture was frequently performed, notably by Sir Henry Wood.
In a letter dated 1 January 1890, Edward Elgar (1857–1934) was invited to write an orchestral work for that year’s Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. This had undoubtedly been provoked by the rapidly growing local reputation he was gaining as player, composer and conductor, yet even so it was a bold choice. Elgar decided on the form of a descriptive overture (Cockaigne and In the South were to follow) and, fired by references in Scott’s Old Mortality to the medieval chronicler Froissart. The arresting opening of Froissart has the unmistakable imprint of Elgar, but the jaunty, dotted ‘knightly’ figure that pervades much of the overture’s thematic material can be traced back directly to the music with which Walther von Stolzing is introduced to the assembled mastersingers.
Froissart was well received by public and press. Nevertheless Elgar was not asked to to provide a new work for the next Worcester Festival in 1893; that honour went to the established composer of four symphonies and innumerable choral works, Hubert Parry (1848-1918). Parry had not only studied at the RAM with Sterndale Bennett and Macfarren, but had spent one of his Cambridge long vacations in Stuttgart taking lessons from Pierson. He produced an Overture in A, ‘to an Unwritten Tragedy’, and at its first performance Elgar was obliged to earn his livelihood among the first violins.
Trained at the RAM, Mackenzie had started life as an accomplished professional violinist but went on to become one of the most prolific and influential musicians in British musical life. It was possibly the orchestral connection that instilled in Elgar a lifelong affection and admiration for the older composer. Mackenzie succeeded Macfarren as Principal of the RAM in 1881 and composed his ‘nautical overture’ Britannia for the festivities connected with the seventieth anniversary of that institution in 1894. It was given its first public London performance in May of the same year under Richter and soon became a regular feature of the Henry Wood Proms. The whole piece is put together with the professional assurance so admired by Elgar and seems to look forward to the salty tang of Walton’s Portsmouth Point. It is the very epitome of the robust good health in which British orchestral music at last found itself in the final decade of Queen Victoria’s reign."
- Hugh Priory