About this Recording
8.223695 - GERMAN: Richard III / Theme and Six Diversions / The Seasons
English 

Edward German (1862-1936)

Edward German (1862 - 1936)

Orchestral Works Volume 1

Richard III

Theme and Six Diversions

The Seasons

 

The achievements of Sir Edward German, particularly within the context of contemporary British music, were considerable. He was exceptional in rising to prominence in England during the last decade of the nineteenth century as a composer of orchestral music. Jettisoning the support of teaching and conducting appointments early in his career, he was able to work solely as a professional composer, fulfilling prestigious commissions from festivals and theatrical producers. Unlike Elgar, he was not compelled to set aside his orchestral ambitions to compose choral works for which there was a much more ready festival market: German never wrote a single festival choral 'novelty' - a rare escape for an ambitious British composer of his generation; neither did he commit any offspring to the graveyard of English Grand Opera.

 

Born in the Shropshire market town of Whitchurch, and christened German Edward Jones (the G being pronounced hard in an anglicisation of the Welsh name Garmon - a mark of his Welsh ancestry), German's youthful musical talents took him to the Royal Academy of Music in 1880. (It was there that he adopted his professional name, seemingly to avoid being confused with another Edward Jones.) Organ soon gave way to violin as his principal study but, increasingly, his interest was drawn towards composition which he studied under Ebenezer Prout (sharing tutorial sessions with his friend Henry Wood). Many of his student works were played at Academy concerts. Often these were somewhat slight miniatures which only hint at their composer's creative potential. His more extended early productions, however, were to prove more prophetic. A setting of the Te Deum won the coveted Lucas Medal in 1885, but far more significant in relation to German's future career were the operetta The Two Poets, produced at the Academy in 1886 and given a one night stand at St. George's Hall, and the symphony in E Minor, performed by the Academy's orchestra under Joseph Barnby in 1887.

 

German's appointment as Musical Director at the Globe Theatre and the resultant composition of music for Shakespeare’s Richard III (1889) brought his name before a wider public. With the music he wrote subsequently for Henry Irving's production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1892) his reputation was firmly established. German's career in the theatre and concert hall -to where his theatre music was successfully transferred -burgeoned with commissions from leading impressarios and festivals. A second symphony written for the 1893 Norwich Festival was generally well received but an element of negative reaction rankled. For George Bernard Shaw the work, like German's first symphony, was beset by what he regarded as the composer's inability to write absolute music without indulgence in a theatricality out of place in the symphonic context. Thereafter German played safe by casting his large-scale four movement works -The Leeds Suite (1895) and The seasons (1899) - as symphonic suites. A return to a more traditionally abstract form was planned for the 1901 Leeds Festival, but the violin concerto which he began was set aside in favour of a pressing and prestigious operatic commission.

 

Alongside his concert music, German continued to compose for the theatre. As well as further shakespearean scores - Romeo and Juliet (1895), As You Like It (1896) and Much Ado About Nothing (1898) - he provided music for plays by contemporary dramatists such as Henry Arthur Jones (The Tempter (1893)) and Anthony Hope (English Nell (1900)).

 

In the opening decade of the twentieth century German, along with Elgar, was one of the few British orchestral composers of substance to be consistently favoured by concert promoters. Much of this popularity was gained through his lighter music. such works as the Three Dances from Henry VIII and the Nell Gwyn Dances (written for English Nell) often exploit a distinctive - if limited - 'Olde English' style (a species of musical mock Tudor) with which German came to be particularly associated. German, however, disliked being described as a composer of light music. For him the fundamental divide was between good music and bad music. He wished to be thought of not as a composer of "good light music" but as a composer of "Iight good music".

 

In many respects Sullivan represented an ideal to German, belying the notion that a composer need categorise himself as a creator either of light music or of serious music. For his part, Sullivan recognised a kindred spirit in German and is recorded as having told the dramatist Comyns Carr, "There is only one man to follow me who has genius, and he is Edward German" - and follow Sullivan he did. When, on the older composer's death in 1900, The Emerald Isle lay uncompleted, it was German who was asked to finish it. Abandoning his violin concerto to take up the challenge, his work met with such great success that a new career as a composer of operetta was opened up to him.

 

During the Edwardian decade operetta became the main focus of German's creative energies and few works were written in other genres. The composer's two most celebrated pieces, Merrie England (1902) and Tom Jones (1907), were largely designed as vehicles for his popular 'Olde English' manner. Neither achieved quite the success of the greatest Gilbert and Sullivan works. In truth, in extending the Savoy tradition as they did, German's operettas were allied to a style of theatre piece for which the public taste was dwindling. Nonetheless, as reinforcements of the myth of England's merriness in days of yore - a once potent element of English self perception - Merrie England, and to a lesser extent Tom Jones, retained a special place in the affections of native audiences - at least until the myth itself had faded. Indeed, amateur productions of Merrie England have been so numerous that it quite probably holds the record for the greatest number of performances of any British opera or operetta written in the twentieth century.

 

For his last operetta, Fallen Fairies (1909), German collaborated with W. S. Gilbert. The project was not an entirely happy one, personally or artistically, and this may well have influenced him to withdraw from composition. Certainly German wrote very little subsequently. His two last orchestral works, the Theme and Six Diversions and The Willow Song, were completed in 1919 and 1922 respectively. Thereafter the trickle virtually dried up. When asked in latter years why he no longer composed, German is said to have replied, "To tell the truth, I'm afraid to write anymore, they would only laugh at me now."

 

Although his compositional output diminished, German remained active as a conductor of his own music until poor health and eyesight forced his retirement in the late 1920's. Much respected as a conductor (Stanford tried, without success, to persuade him to conduct the first American production of shamus O'Brien), he gave up performing works by others to specialise in directing his own music. The first of a distinguished line of British composers to be invited by Dan Godfrey to conduct their own music at Bournemouth, German was much in demand for personal appearances at concerts and festivals. Programmes given over wholly or substantially to his works became a popular attraction. Meticulous in rehearsal, fascinating testimony to his standards of precision can be found in the impressive gramophone recordings - mainly acoustic - made under his baton.

 

Knighted in 1928, awarded the Philharmonic Society's Gold medal in 1934, and admitted as an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1936, German came to be regarded as one of the doyens of British music, a respected founder of the flourishing school of native light orchestral music whose leadership had passed to such younger men as Eric Coates, Haydn Wood and Albert Ketèlbey. A vigorous champion of the composers' right to a fair financial return from their creative efforts, he was a leading figure in the early history of the Performing Rights Society. While honours and acclaim lauded his past achievements, German, in his old age, also witnessed the beginning of a decline in the popularity of his music. In particular, his more substantial orchestral works came to be less and less frequently performed. A brief note found amidst his papers reads poignantly, "I die a disappointed man because my serious orchestral works have not been recognised".

 

In his lifetime German's music earned both general popularity and the high regard and affection of his fellow British musicians. Thomas Dunhill, recalling his personal association with Elgar, believed that German, of alI British composers, was Elgar's "firm favourite". Sir John Barbirolli, too, was a great admirer of German's music which, he told Lady Barbirolli, gave him "more pleasure than most". Nevertheless, the fading popularity of his music which German had begun to experience was to lead to the almost inevitable reaction against it in the years after his death. The 'Olde English' style was derided for a lack of musicological authenticity -a fatuous measure of artistry which, if generally applied, would devalue vast quantities of fine music -and the mistaken notion too readily accepted that it represented the entire range of German's musical art. His best known essays in the style have never, however, completely disappeared from the orchestral light music repertoire. His operettas Merrie England and Tom Jones, too, still display their appeal in occasional productions, albeit usually by amateur companies. Of German's more ambitious orchestral music -the music which demonstrates his broader range -little has been played in recent years. From time to time a welcome broadcast by the B.B.C. has fed the tiny flickering flame of his reputation in this area, but otherwise there has been little opportunity to hear the music. Indeed, none of the works included on this disc has previously been available in a modem recording.

 

Listening to the concert music one is aware of stylistic affinities which are not typical of contemporary British composers. French, rather than Germanic, sympathies predominate and there are moments which, unexpectedly, call to mind the Russian romantics - Tchaikovsky among them. Paradoxically, though, German, like Elgar, was a stylistic cosmopolitan who wrote music which, in its totality , is quintessentially English, interestingly, more than one commentator has noted the similarity of musical dialect shared by many passages of early German and early Elgar -but it is with Sullivan's name that German's is most commonly linked. Given that German is widely regarded as Sullivan's musical heir in the field of operetta and light music, it is remarkable how dissimilar are their musical styles. To some extent, German's reputation has suffered under the shadow of Sullivan. His operettas, in particular, sometimes attract unfavourable comparison by being evaluated on Sullivan's terms rather than their own. After all, he extended - in more than temporal terms -the Savoy tradition; he did not set out to preserve it immutably. It is important to a proper appreciation of German - musically and historically - to bring him out from under the older composer's shadow. Greater access to his orchestral music will help to do this, for - his years in operetta notwithstanding - orchestraI composition was central to his creative life, whereas for Sullivan it was not.

 

German's orchestral music certainly does not deserve the neglect it has suffered, for it still has much to offer modern audiences. Beautifully crafted, colourful and vital, its pleasing and distinctive personality is still capable of inspiring the kind of affectionate regard it once so readily kindled in Elgar, Barbirolli and so many others.

 

 

OVERTURE : RICHARD III

 

It was at a chance meeting on the steps of the Royal Academy of Music, late in 1888, that the conductor Alberto Randegger put the unexpected question to German, "Can you conduct?" He explained that Richard Mansfield, the celebrated American actor/manager, had taken the Globe Theatre and needed a musical director. "Will you go?", he asked. German accepted the position and soon established a reputation for his excellent performances in the pit. Taking their lead from Henry Irving, impresarios were showing an increased awareness of the artistic advantages of having good quality original music written for their productions. Mansfield wanted something special for his 1889 presentation of Shakespeare's Richard III and put his faith in his young musical director. The extensive music German wrote for the production was very well received and launched his career as a leading composer for the English stage.

 

German adopted the favoured technique of allotting characteristic themes to the play's protagonists and used two of his leitmotifs as the basis for the Overture. The Richard Theme, heard at the outset of the slow introduction, forms the basis for the first subject material in the ensuing sonata section; the Princes' Theme identifies its second subject. Owing something to Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas overture, the skilfully worked out movement was soon receiving independent concert performances, further enhancing its composer's reputation. It was after a performance during the 1892 Leeds Festival that Sullivan, much impressed, came forward on stage and warmly shook German's hand. Even the carping Como di Bassetto (Shaw) came to admit the work was much better than he had originally thought. (Shaw, on principle, disliked the confinement of essentially dramatic musical ideas within absolute forms: "the 'fugato' is flat nonsense unless Mr. German wished to suggest a troop of little Richards springing up from traps and chasing one another round the stage".)

 

For concert performance German expanded the orchestra from one trombone to three and added an ad libitum contra-bassoon. In this form the work was published, the only part of the extensive Richard III score to be issued for orchestra. German retained a special affection for this music, requesting in his will that its entr'actes should be published. Sadly, his wish was never fulfilled.

 

 

SYMPHONIC SUITE: THE SEASONS

1. Spring

2. Summer (Harvest Dance)

3. Autumn

4. Winter (Christmastide)

 

German owed more to Randegger than his introduction to Richard Mansfield. As conductor of the Norwich Festival, Randegger was responsible for promoting the young composer's music in his concerts, first by performing the Richard III Overture and later with two major commissions, the second (Norwich) symphony and The Seasons. Composed for the 1899 Festival, the latter is a substantial and ambitious work, programmatic in inspiration yet of genuinely symphonic caste.

 

Spring is dominated by a compact syncopated motif in 9/8 time suggestive of, in the composer's words, "the feeling of Hope and New Life". By extending this motif in different ways and clothing it in ever changing orchestral colours, German brilliantly evokes a sense of burgeoning nature. Centred in the subdominant minor key, the movement's central section, with its evocation of bird song, introduces a broader, lyrical love theme. (German quotes Tennyson in his own analytical notes: "In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love".) Then, ushered in by the principal motif in fanfare guise over a dominant pedal, the tonic key returns for the tumultuous recapitulation.

 

Summer is among German's most attractive essays in his 'Olde English' rustic dance style. Beautifully wrought orchestral textures enliven this rondo movement which, for all its gaiety, is touched by poignant nostalgia - especially in the second episode with its gentle minor key reminiscence of the principal theme.

 

Autumn mists descend over the opening of the third movement, through which fading strains of Summer's dance are heard before a plaintive, chromatically descending, theme is introduced by the cor anglais and strings. This leads through to a second thematic idea, its rising contour and accented appoggiaturas conveying a sense of nostalgic yearning. (Those who hear Mahlerian overtones in the introduction may also hear them here.) These two themes form the basis of the whole movement -the first powered by varying levels of passionate intensity, the second always gent I y wistful. There is a brief reference to Spring before the movement builds to a powerful climax with the first theme tightly stretched over a counterpoint of rising chromatic lines. (The pre-echo of 'The City of Dreadful Night' passages from the slow movement of Elgar's second symphony struck the present writer from the first.) This remarkable movement finally fades into silence as, around the lone cor anglais, the mists close in once more.

 

The finale is in two sections. The first, dwelling upon the gloom and darkness of the Winter landscape, opens with a jagged introduction before intoning a solemn, chorale-like dirge. The second is a playful tarantella (one of German's favourite dance styles) which evokes the indoor festivities at Christmastide. After being fully worked out in sonata pattern the dance figures continue into the coda where they are brilliantly combined with the return of the opening choral-like melody.

 

German revised The Seasons for a performance at Bournemouth in 1914 but the revisions seem to have gone no further than introducing a cut into the last movement and possibly a few minor adjustments to the orchestration. The present recording follows the original published text to present the fullest version of a masterly piece of large scale "Iight good music". It is difficult to think of another British work from the period which succeeds so brilliantly on comparable terms.

 

 

THEME AND SIX DIVERSIONS

 

It was the conductor Landon Ronald who persuaded German to break his orchestral silence -he had written no major work for the medium since the Welsh Rhapsody of 1904- to compose a work for the Philharmonic Society. The Theme and Six Diversions which resulted -and which was duly given its première at a Philharmonic concert under Ronald's baton short I y after its completion on New Year's Day, 1919- owed its inspiration, however, to German's friend and admirer, Edward Elgar. Both composers were returning from the 1905 Norwich festival when Elgar suggested that his companion should write an orchestral work based on an incident from King Canute's life at Ely related in, Greene's A Short History of England:

"His love for the monks broke out in the song he composed as he listened to their chaunt at Ely... across the vast fen waters that surrounded their Abbey."

Six years later Elgar returned to his idea in a letter to German:

"I wish you would write that Canute for me. Why not for the Philharmonic?"

 

German was proud to acknowledge Eigar's formative suggestion but did not intend the work to have any particular programmatic associations. Undoubtedly, however, the Theme has a metrical flexibility and modal inflection which recalls the ancient plainsong chants, and its first full presentation, softly scored following the stark octaves of the introduction, readily suggests a distant perspective. When asked whether or not the theme was original, German replied, "Yes, very!" A descendant of the pseudo- chorales which open the finales of The Seasons and the Norwich Symphony, it nonetheless strikes a new note of post-war leanness - also discernible in the later Willow Song - which marks a degree of allegiance to the music of the younger generation of British composers.

 

The Theme (in D minor) is built up from cells within its first eight notes: the opening six-note figure -encompassing a scalic three note rising pattern and its retrograde -and a falling third. The inventive economy is remarkable. Note, for example, how picking up the opening phrase at its second note (first at the point where the horn joins the melody) subtly changes its melodic nuance to create - with the aid of harmonic/tonal colour - an answering strain. The Diversions - German insisted that they were "not variations in the strict sense" -are either presentations of the full Theme in different orchestral settings or take the form of lively dances motivically linked to it.

 

The First Diversion states the Theme boldy in the wind against vigorous counterpoint in the upper strings. In the second, the Theme's opening six-note pattern becomes the seed for a scherzando movement -reminiscent of German's 'Olde English' country dances -into whose central section the answering strain is contrapuntally woven. This leads into the Third Diversion, sub-titled 'Gipsy Dance' -another favourite dance style. Again the beginning of the Theme furnishes the melodic intervals and the general contour of the opening gambit, and the answering strain is recalled in the phrase with which the brass first enter. A contrasting idea is introduced in the movement's central section -first on clarinet, bassoon, horn and violas -and this, too, derives from the Theme's opening intervals. The brilliant dance is dramatically interrupted to give way to the tranquillo Fourth Diversion. Scored for divisi muted strings, harp and timpani, this presents a complete statement of the theme in the major over a tonic pedal. The strings give way to wood-wind as the codetta becomes a transition into the next section.

 

The Fifth Diversion is a sparkling concert waltz which brings to mind German's celebrated waltz - songs in Merrie England and Tom Jones as well as the 'Valse Gracieuse' from The Leeds Suite. This movement ranks among the finest characteristically quick English concert waltzes, setting a standard which its other celebrated exponent, Eric Coates, was to emulate but never surpass. The links with the Theme are most apparent in the duet for two clarinets, which begins the central minor-key section, and at the closing piu vivo, where the brass pick up the rising three-note pattern (the ensuing falling sequence recalling the Theme's codetta). Having become increasingly fast and furious the waltz breaks off and the thrashing octaves of the work's introduction are again heard.

 

The final Diversion is a full statement of the Theme beginning tranquillo much in the manner of its original presentation but with the addition of the faintly ominous footfalls of a pizzicato counterpoint in cellos and double basses (this, too, drawing heavily upon the germinal motifs of the Theme). Following a grandioso repetition of the later part of this, the brillante coda takes flight and, after a passing reference to the introduction -now harmonised -the work is brought to a triumphant close.

 

In the decade or so following its première, performances of the Theme and Six Diversions - and there were many - did much to keep German's reputation to the fore. A fine acoustic recording was made under the composer's baton and, with several radio broadcasts, helped to spread the work's popularity. Although often cited as one of German's finest concert works, it has been performed only rarely in recent years.

 

David Russell Hulme

 

 


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