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8.223370 - GERMAN: Piano Works

Edward German (1862 -1936) Piano Music

Edward German (1862-1936)

Piano Music


Like his great friend and contemporary Edward Elgar, Edward German was a Victorian born British composer whose music achieved its initial success in the Edwardian era, the first decade of the 20th century. But unlike Elgar, whose well-deserved international reputation has flowered enormously in latter years, Edward German is remembered today by just a few works, his fame more or less confined to his native land.


It was in the Victorian period that there flourished in Britain a cultivation of the 'antique' in the arts. Architecture and furniture exhibited the neo-Gothic taste; painting and decorative styles were dominated by the pre-Raphaelites and by William Morris, who championed a return to the ideals of hand-crafted, pre-industrial traditions. So in music did Edward German devise his own old English country-dance style, and it proved enormously influential. One thinks of the Percy Grainger transcriptions of folksongs and Elizabethan tunes; of the film-scores of William Walton for Olivier's Shakespeare, and of the Masque dances in Vaughan Williams' Job.


The greater public, together with certain music critics like George Bernard Shaw, first recognized Edward German's particular talents in his music for some Shakespearian productions. The first commission was for a revival of Richard III in March 1889 at the Globe Theatre, where German was conductor. Henry Irving next required, for January 1891 at the Lyceum, some music for Henry Vill. From this score the selection of Three Dances, during the second of which the king danced spellbound with Anne Boleyn, together with a further dance-set from Nell Gwynn (1900) became German's most popular and familiar pieces, and were part of the repertoire of every promenade and salon orchestra in the country.


There is nothing self-conscious about German's personal idiom. But his most recent biographer, Brian Rees, tells us that German used to inveigh against ¡§foreign influences exercising domination of English music and gave frequent vent to a favourite maxim: 'Never ape another's style.'¡¨ Probably he was particularly conscious of the German accents of Brahms and Wagner which were quite audible in the music of some other British contemporaries.


Although he had been a favoured pupil at the Royal Academy of Music, German had no strong champions in the profession like Stanford, who as conductor recommended his own student's works. Nor did he, like Parry, have the private means to give him the leisure to compose. German was a craftsman who needed commissions. But his sense of humour was too strong to draw him to set those heavy festival cantatas so plentiful at this time. And though his letters provide ample evidence of his love of English landscape and Welsh seascape (he was born in Whitchurch, a Shropshire market-town lying to the north of Shrewsbury and close to the Welsh border), as Rees remarks 'he had no sense of the numinous which guided Elgar towards his greatest works.'


What German¡¦s idiomatic skills and command of orchestral colour could produce in pieces like the Welsh Rhapsody (1904) - a miniature symphony played without a break using Welsh folk-tunes as its thematic basis - could raise a Cardiff audience to heights of tumultuous fervour. The dramatic sense was powerful. Had he been Iucky enough to find the equivalent of a Gilbert, German would have succeeded in developing the tradition of English comic opera established by Sullivan. His best-known theatre-piece. Merrie England (Savoy 1902) has music which is English to the core. There is poignancy as weIl as patriotism. In Tom Jones (Manchester 1907) he captured the essence of Fielding.s sense of humour as well as the languorous atmosphere of an English summer.


Much of Edward German's solo piano music was collected in two volumes and published in 1910 and 1913 when the composer was at the height of his popularity. But the majority of the pieces date from the period before his best-known music was composed. Even so, they already reveal that easy grace and melodic charm, those characteristic modulations and the ready command of the various contrasted dance rhythms. The Valses are particularly felicitous. In the tradition of Gounod they anticipate the later dazzling waltz songs, e.g. in Tom Jones. In other piano works occasional tinges of such Romantic favourites as Mendelssohn, Chopin and Grieg may be heard.


We know little of the original circumstances in which the piano music was produced, other than that it shows the early efforts of a young aspiring composer working in the most readily saleable medium. In the summer vacation of 1883 the composer took a group of Academy friends to help raise cricket club funds by giving a concert in Whitchurch. We know that one of them, a brilliant 15-year old pianist called Septimus Webbe played the Tarantella which is included on the present disc. It was included in the Suite which German published in 1889, along with the Valse-Caprice, Impromptu, Mazurka and Elegy. The Impromptu's second subject had a former existence in a Piano Sonata in 1884. The Elegy was played at the composer's funeral at Whitchurch in 1936.


All the other pieces appeared separately over the years from 1890 to 1913. The Humoresque seems to be the latest work for piano to be published. Its teasing music-hall gait looks forward to the style of certain novelty numbers of the 1920s.


Alan Cuckston


Alan Cuckston was born in England and now lives in Yorkshire, the county of his birth. He studied music at King's College, Cambridge and took a B Mus. in Performance and Palaeography. As a pupil of the late Thurston Dart, Mr. Cuckston developed his enthusiasm for early English music. He is now a well-known harpsichordist and pianist and has made many recordings for RCA, Swinsty Records and Naxos.

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